Austin Police Officer Geoffrey Freeman has been indefinitely suspended – i.e., fired – for the shooting death of 17-year-old David Joseph. In a disciplinary memo issued Monday, March 21, Police Chief Art Acevedo said Freeman violated four department policies:
• Response to Resistance;
• Determining the Objective Reasonableness of Force;
• Substance Induced Excited Delirium (a standard that dictates the ways in which officers are supposed to interact with mentally ill or altered subjects); and
• Neglect of Duty.
Freeman, a 10-year veteran at APD, fatally shot Joseph in broad daylight on Monday, Feb. 8, after responding to a disturbance call in the Edward patrol sector in Northeast Austin. He found Joseph in the 12000 block of Natures Bend a few minutes after 10:30am. At the time, Joseph was in the street naked and unarmed. In a verbal statement issued shortly after the shooting, Freeman said that he stopped his car in front of Joseph and gave him an initial set of commands, but that Joseph did not respond to them. Instead, Freeman said, Joseph charged at him, and he fired his handgun. Freeman's in-car camera failed to capture video footage of the shooting; it did pick up audio footage. Initial reports from APD Chief of Staff Brian Manley indicated that the amount of time between Freeman's issuance of initial commands and his shooting was "a matter of seconds."
Acevedo wrote in his nine-page memo (the public portion of which has been heavily redacted) that Freeman chose to use deadly force on Joseph "even though he knew other officers had yet to arrive but were imminently in route." Acevedo concluded, "no one was under a threat of imminent harm of suffering serious bodily injury or death by Mr. Joseph." He called Freeman's decision to draw his weapon upon exiting his vehicle "unwarranted." He said Freeman waited approximately 6.7 seconds to shoot Joseph, who was struck twice, in the leg and in the chest. Backup was on the scene after one minute and 27 seconds.
At a press conference Monday, Acevedo said, "I urge people to not demonize a person. Officer Freeman is a person who but for this horrible set of circumstances served honorably. But based on this set of circumstances, we do not believe he needs to remain in the department."
Jeff Edwards, the attorney for Joseph's family, called Freeman's firing "a good first step, but just the tip of the iceberg. ... For a long time, there has been something rotten in the Austin Police Department. ... Systemic problems in the department remain because David Joseph wasn't the first young, black man to be killed by the police in this city. He needs to be the last."
A statement from the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT) indicated that Freeman will appeal the ruling. Acevedo said Monday that he is confident an arbitrator will uphold the department's decision.
In the six weeks that have passed since Joseph's death, what happened to the 17-year-old has been taken as a representative example for two causes, somewhat at odds with each other. Police accountability activists and community members have spoken of the killing as being indicative of the black struggle with modern law enforcement: a naked, alone, and unarmed teenager gunned down by a police officer in the middle of the street in broad daylight. The idea has been voiced at demonstrations throughout the city and Downtown at City Hall, where Mayor Steve Adler joined in a peaceful protest to call for policy reform in APD – "both with respect to mental health responses and also with respect to our use of force."
CLEAT and the Austin Police Association have argued that Joseph's death is an unwelcome byproduct of insufficient training – a body lost because of the department's willingness to understaff neighborhood patrol shifts (or because of current troubles recruiting new officers). APA President Ken Casaday told the Chronicle that while continuing education is made available to the officers, the classes are typically difficult to attend because of the staffing constraints on patrol. Grant Goodwin, the CLEAT attorney representing Freeman since the shooting, even said so much at a Feb. 16 press conference put on by the local union. "The outcome will be the same without further staffing and training," he said. Fellow CLEAT attorney Michael Rickman added, "When you are in fear of your life, and that it could be taken, you have the right to use the amount of force necessary to repel the threat."
Edwards also reiterated the need for easier access to continuing education: "David would be alive with his family today if Freeman wasn't the only officer on the scene, and if he'd been trained to use non-lethal force first."
Goodwin doubled down on those February statements last Friday when he delivered a letter to Acevedo informing the chief that Freeman would waive his rights to the disciplinary hearing scheduled for Monday. Addressing Acevedo, Goodwin wrote: "Your statements and conduct prior to the completion of the investigation, including statements made to the media, activists, APD cadets, and officers indicate that you are passing judgment on this case without regard to APD training, policy, or the integrity of the investigation."
To that point, Casaday has concerns that Acevedo has made Joseph's death a political issue. From Acevedo's pledge to complete an Internal Affairs investigation within 30 days of the shooting to his invitation to black activists from the NAACP, Black Lives Matter, the Austin Justice Coalition, and Measure ATX to speak at a Feb. 11 press conference where Acevedo detailed the events of Joseph's shooting, APA's official stance has been that Acevedo was too quick to politicize this incident.
"In a case like this, looking back on it, you can probably get everything done in less than 30, but that just puts undue pressure on your detectives," Casaday said. "We're going to have a shooting one day where it's very complicated, but you won't be able to get everything done in 30 days. The community's going to expect that, and he's either going to have to rush to judgment or tell people to wait."
Casaday also accused the chief of using the shooting as an opportunity to change disciplinary policy on critical incidents.
"We've always depended on two things," he said. "One is the criminal portion: Does it hold up to Graham v. Connor [the case law that dictates the national standard for acceptable use of force]? Two, does it fit policy? Now he's adding a third thing: Do I, as the chief, think it's a moral shooting? There's no basis in law for it. It's a subjective decision. And [he's] the boss and will make that decision. Other than take it to arbitration, there's nothing we can do [to stop that]."
Casaday said that Acevedo hinted at the change to a current cadet class and also told specific officers the same thing. Asked to confirm Casaday's suggestion, Acevedo denied that there were any official changes in policy being made: "What I've said for many years is that what makes cops heroes is their deep respect for the sanctity of life and the fact that throughout a 25- to 30-year career most cops will be involved in many incidents where they meet the legal and policy thresholds for the use of deadly force but choose to pause the extra second or two out of their deep respect for all life. I add that if we deployed deadly force every time we could, legally and authorized by policy, many of us would be in the loony bin.
"Lastly, I've said what makes cops heroes is that we deploy deadly force not because we can under the two required prongs, but instead we usually deploy deadly force because we absolutely have to, in self-defense or defense of others."
It could take a full year before Freeman's appeal goes before an arbitrator. Typically, the introduction of an appeal means that the paperwork from the corresponding Internal Affairs investigation becomes a matter of public record; however, Acevedo said at the press conference Monday that he's currently preparing a motion to withhold the public release of the file while Freeman's case goes to a grand jury. That, too, could take as long as a year to actually happen. A source tells the Chronicle that the District Attorney's office may seek an indictment of criminally negligent homicide, which in Texas carries a maximum state jail sentence of two years.
Copyright © 2022 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.