APD Officer Indicted in 2020 Shooting of Michael Ramos
Christopher Taylor charged with first-degree murder
A Travis County grand jury has indicted Austin police Officer Christopher Taylor on a charge of first-degree murder for the fatal shooting of Michael Ramos at a Southeast Austin apartment complex on April 24, 2020.
Taylor was arrested and booked into the Travis County Jail late on Wednesday, March 10, wearing a suit and tie, and was released on a $100,000 bond just 22 minutes later. Thursday, after the arrest was made, Travis County District Attorney José Garza said: "Today we have taken a significant step towards justice. ... My heart continues to break for the Ramos family and we still have much work ahead of us, but we know that holding law enforcement accountable when they break the law is critical to restoring the trust of our community and to ensuring its safety."
The police response that led to the fatal shooting began with a 911 caller falsely claiming that Ramos was armed, doing drugs in his vehicle, and threatening a female companion. Cell phone video recorded by bystanders and shared widely in the following days shows Ramos with both hands in the air while the eight officers on scene shout commands at him. Body-cam footage later released by the Austin Police Department appears to show Ramos in a state of confusion. "What the fuck is going on?" he says at one point. Officers make no attempt to de-escalate; eventually, rookie APD Officer Mitchell Pieper follows orders and shoots Ramos with a "less lethal" lead-pellet round – the same munitions that led to traumatic injuries among protesters against police violence later in the summer – after which Ramos enters his car and begins driving away. At that point, Taylor fires at the vehicle, fatally wounding Ramos. The grand jury also considered an assault charge against Pieper, but declined to indict him.
Pieper and Taylor were placed on paid administrative leave following the incident, as is standard procedure, but outgoing APD Chief Brian Manley has thus far declined to discipline either officer, although the Internal Affairs investigation into Taylor has concluded. Taylor is also under criminal investigation and faces potential disciplinary action for his role in the killing of Mauris DeSilva in 2019. APD declined to comment on the lack of a disciplinary hearing concerning either of the two killings.
Now that Taylor has been indicted for murder, his license to operate as a peace officer in Texas can be suspended by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. That is unlikely to happen, because TCOLE typically only suspends an officer's license if the employing agency declines to remove the officer from a field duty that would "constitute an immediate peril to the public health, safety or welfare" of the public while their criminal trial proceeds. TCOLE spokesperson Gretchen Grigsby told the Chronicle that if Taylor were to leave APD and try to find employment at a different Texas law enforcement agency, the commission could place a hold on his license. If Taylor is convicted of murder, or any felony, his license would automatically be revoked.
It is believed that Taylor's indictment is the first murder charge brought against an Austin police officer for on-duty use of force in the city's history. Securing a conviction could be an uphill climb for Garza's office; it is possible that Taylor could also be convicted of lesser charges, such as manslaughter or negligent homicide. This could be sought by either side, to be decided by the trial judge after evidence is presented. Inclusion or exclusion of lesser charges can factor into posttrial appeals.
Taylor's attorneys, Doug O'Connell and Ken Ervin, declined an interview request but issued a statement condemning Garza for offering an "implied promise" to indict Taylor during his campaign for D.A. "Today's indictment is not justice," the attorneys wrote. "It is the fulfillment of a campaign talking point and yet more evidence of anti-police bias." In another statement, Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday also painted the indictment as a "political promise," writing that, "When all the video evidence and eyewitness testimony comes out in court, we are confident that a jury will agree that the force used in this case was legally justified."
In response, Garza noted that it was not he who decided to indict Taylor – it was a panel of grand jurors, made up of members of the Travis County community. “There will always be cynics who attempt to undermine the grand jury for their own self interests,” Garza said in a statement. “However, the grand jury system is an integral part of our justice system. An independent group of members of our Travis County community, after being sworn in to uphold their duties, heard the evidence and law and decided that Mr. Taylor should be charged with murder.” *
The killing of the unarmed Ramos, a Black and Latino man, came just weeks before George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, whose murder trial is now underway. Together, the two killings inspired mass demonstrations against police brutality in Austin throughout the summer of 2020, along with calls for firing Manley; his second-in-command, Troy Gay; and his civilian supervisor, Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano. All three men remain employed by the city, though Manley has announced his retirement at the end of March; Gay may serve as acting or interim chief thereafter.
Former Travis County D.A. Margaret Moore had announced that her office would present the case to a grand jury, but after losing to Garza in the Democratic primary run-off, said she would instead let Garza present the case. The new D.A. ran on a progressive platform committed to police accountability, but cases against officers are notoriously difficult to win – and a murder charge will set the bar even higher.
Brenda Ramos, who has sought justice for her son's death for nearly a year, has found the past week very painful. "Christopher Taylor murdered my son, Mike. It's haunted me every day for 321 days," Ramos told the Chronicle through her attorney, Rebecca Webber. "I get angry, then sad, then angry, then sad over and over again knowing that the Austin Police Department supports my son's killer. I am so grateful to our District Attorney José Garza for his courage to seek justice when our police chief would not."
Editor's note: This story has been updated since publication with comment from D.A. Garza.