City Settles One APD Brutality Case, Hit With Another

Taxpayers’ tally in Eighth Street shooting cases now tops $16 million


Protesters gather outside Austin Police Department Headquarters in May 2020 (Photo by John Anderson)

The city is paying far more than in years past to settle lawsuits brought by people hurt by police. On Oct. 27, City Coun­cil agreed to a $1.75 million settlement for Joe Herrera, a U.S. Army veteran shot in the leg with a lead pellet round during the Black Lives Matter protests at Austin Police Headquarters in May 2020. Herrera continues to suffer from stabbing pain and the exacerbation of the post-traumatic stress disorder he has dealt with since his service in Iraq.

The Herrera settlement raises the amount paid so far by the city to Eighth Street shooting victims to more than $16 million. That figure will surely increase, as there are at least a dozen cases still to be resolved, about half of them handled by Jeff Edwards, the attorney who represented Herrera.

In announcing Herrera's agreement with the city, Edwards repeated what has become something of a mantra for him: "Settlements are not an effective way to solve police brutality. That requires APD's leaders to reevaluate their training and supervision and to discipline officers who use excessive force or who stand by while such force is being utilized. Sadly, that still does not appear to be happening at APD."

This point – that after years of criticism APD still has not stopped its officers' use of excessive force – is made powerfully in Edwards' most recent lawsuit, filed last month on behalf of James Johnson, a young man injured by police during a mental health crisis on Aug. 22, 2021. Edwards gave reporters links to APD body-worn camera video that demonstrates what transpired that evening. As it begins, the video shows an empty hallway with APD Officer Brandon Salter asking Johnson to show his hands. Johnson's hands appear from a doorway and Salter asks him to step outside. Johnson replies repeatedly that he does not want to leave his home. But he eventually steps into the hallway wearing only boxers and socks, with his hands raised to show that he has no weapon. Then he returns inside. A voice, presumably belonging to Officer Katherine Alzola and addressing Salter, says, "Okay, that's all we need to know." Salter ignores the comment and continues to ask Johnson to step out, saying, "I just want to help you. I'm trying to help you."

Johnson responds, "If you want to help me you need to listen to me. I promise you I'm not a threat to anybody." He steps into the hallway once more and Salter orders him to get onto the ground. Instead of doing so, Johnson again retreats to his doorway. Officer Samuel Noble runs up from behind and the three officers push into Johnson's home, surrounding him as he collapses to the floor. Noble tases him and Salter punches him repeatedly in the face, breaking his jaw, as they try to get handcuffs on him.

Edwards' lawsuit makes the point that the officers, who kept their handguns trained on Johnson before rushing him, did not de-escalate the situation, as they're required to do by APD policy. "Salter knew that yelling at Johnson with his gun drawn would make an ordinary person fear for their safety and was particularly inappropriate during a mental health crisis," the lawsuit reads. "Salter knew that his conduct was inappropriate as it escalated, rather than de-escalated, the situation. Alzola also knew Salter's conduct was inappropriate, but did not intercede and continued to brandish her firearm at Johnson. Noble also knew Salter's conduct was inappropriate, but he also did not intercede." The officers ultimately did not arrest Johnson or charge him with any crime.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin City Coun­cil, Joe Herrera, Black Lives Matter, James Johnson

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