When and Why Is It OK for APD to Beat Up Trespassers?

Two Austin police officers caught on video beating an unhoused woman have been cleared of wrongdoing

Austin Police Department headquarters Downtown (Photo by John Anderson)

Two Austin police officers caught on video beating an unhoused woman while trying to arrest her for criminal trespass, a class B misdemeanor, have been cleared of any wrongdoing through the department's "response to resistance" review process, an Austin Police Department spokesperson confirmed to the Chronicle.

Simone Griffith, an unhoused woman struggling with mental health issues, was beaten by two Austin police officers during an arrest for suspected criminal trespassing on Oct. 30 in East Austin. Represented by local civil rights attorney Rebecca Webber, Griffith has filed a lawsuit against the two officers – identified as Officer Rodriguez and Officer Escamilla in the complaint – and the city and department.

“Homophobia and antisemitism get you a fist bump. ‘Bitch boy’ gets you punched eight times in the head.” – Attorney Rebecca Webber, representing Simone Griffith

The incident was captured on cellphone video by a bystander; officers can be seen dragging the 26-year-old across the pavement as they try to arrest her. Griffith can be seen squirming away, to which the officers respond by striking Griffith with their fists and knees for about two minutes until placing her in handcuffs. A security guard patrolling the Springdale Shopping Center at U.S. 183 and Manor Road, who called 911 on Griffith, can be seen in the video watching the beating.

According to an arrest affidavit filed by Rodriguez, and recounted in the complaint filed by Webber, Griffith was sleeping on the pavement alongside the Carousel Ped­i­at­rics location in the shopping center. The security guard and later Rodriguez tell Grif­fith she needs to leave the area or face arrest. Griffith shouts obscenities at the two, and her "aggressive verbal behavior" prompted Rodriguez to call for backup, according to the affidavit.

Webber's lawsuit characterizes Griffith's behavior as a defensive response to armed officers who, she says, made no attempt to aid Griffith in finding shelter or connecting with services. (Rodriguez's affidavit does not contradict this.) "It is not reasonable for a highly trained and lethally armed police officer to interpret an unarmed, fearful, cornered, impoverished, mentally ill young woman calling him 'bitch boy' from a prone position on the pavement as an attack," Webber's complaint reads.

Once Escamilla arrived, Griffith continued to refuse the two officers' orders to leave, leading to her arrest and beating. Rod­riguez's affidavit does not mention the blows he and Escamilla dealt to Griffith, but makes repeated mention of Griffith's scratching and flailing at them in their struggle to restrain and cuff her. This incident occurred one week after APD officers had several encounters with a gang of Nazis roaming through the city, including one involving homophobic slurs directed at a gay officer. The police did not use force once during any of those encounters. "Homophobia and antisemitism get you a fist bump," Webber said, referring to widely circulated viral video of an APD encounter with the "Goyim Defense League." "'Bitch boy' gets you punched eight times in the head."

The APD spokesperson explained in a statement that when someone is alleged to be trespassing, the property owner must first ask them to leave, then give verbal or written notice that they will be trespassing if they refuse and thus subject to arrest. If they resist arrest and officers deploy force, APD has what the statement describes as a "robust" review process. "Such a review of the response to resistance utilized during the arrest of Ms. Griffith did occur," the spokesperson said, "and it was determined that the response to resistance complied with the law and with APD policies."

Webber's complaint alludes to prior reports of Austin police cadets being encouraged in their training to deal with those experiencing homelessness like "cockroaches." "Rodriguez and Escamilla were trained to treat unhoused people like vermin ... instructors would punch them in the face if they expressed compassion for vulnerable people like [Griffith]," Webber writes in the complaint.

APD works directly with service agencies and participates in the Homeless Outreach Street Team with care providers, but neither officer made efforts to engage these resources or see if Griffith needed help. The APD spokesperson said that "it is generally not feasible to delay" arrest of an alleged trespasser when a property owner wants them gone, and officers "do not elicit" help from HOST when responding to trespass calls where subjects refuse to comply, even if those subjects could benefit from services.

Griffith was booked into the Travis County Jail on Oct. 30, released two days later on a personal bond, and saw the trespass charge dropped by County Attorney Delia Garza on Nov. 12. Since Griffith's release from jail, volunteers with Stop the Sweeps, a local group that supports Austin's unhoused community, have been helping her replace her ID and benefits cards, which were lost or confiscated at the scene and not returned.

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Austin Police Department, Simone Griffith, Rebecca Webber, homelessness, Homeless Outreach Street Team, Officer Rodriguez, Officer Escamilla

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