The Houston Police Department has fired four officers linked to the deadly April police shooting of Nicolas Chavez, city officials announced Thursday.
Patrick Rubio, on the force for two years; Omar Tapia and Luis Alvarado, on the force for one year; and Benjamin LeBlanc, a sergeant with 11 years experience, were all fired Thursday, after Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo found that 21 shots they fired at the 27-year-old man at the end of a 14-minute altercation were not “objectively reasonable.”
Officers shot and killed Chavez on April 21, after discharging Tasers and firing bean bag shotgun rounds, in what they said was a response to Chavez grabbing a Taser and approaching them.
Acevedo said rather than stand their ground, the officers should have backed off as the man approached to continue deescalating the situation against a man who “was at his greatest level of incapacitation.”
“It’s inexplicable to me, when they had plenty of opportunity to back up to continue doing what they were doing, for them to stay the line and shoot a man 21 times,” Acevedo said. “I can not defend that.”
“If that’s how little you value life, I don’t need you in this department,” Acevedo said.
Acevedo’s comments came during a press conference Thursday afternoon, in which the department released body camera footage from the scene.
Union President Joe Gamaldi called Acevedo’s firing of the unidentified officers an “unjust and deplorable decision,” and said the shooting was the justified conclusion to a “suicide by cop.”
“This truly was a tragedy,” Gamaldi said. “But the chief is now spreading that tragedy to four other families by unujustly firing these officers and using them as political fodder. This has sent a shockwave though our department, that even if you deescalate, even if you retreat, even if you follow policy, training and the law, you will still lose your job as a Houston police officer.”
Others who have seen the body camera footage agree with the firings.
An emotional Mayor Sylvester Turner, joining Acevedo at a Thursday afternoon press conference, at times paused to gather himself as he recounted what he watched in the video.
While reiterating his support for the majority of HPD personnel, Turner said he ultimately agreed with Acevedo in finding the April shooting could not be justified.
“The video is difficult to watch, and I have seen it several times,” Turner said. “It’s difficult to watch without questioning why the shooting happened in the end, and wishing the encounter could have ended differently, and knowing that it should have had a different outcome.”
Houston City Council member Jerry Davis, who acknowledged the officers in the video did act with more restraint than in other shootings he’d seen, nonetheless also agreed with Acevedo’s decision to fire four of the officers involved.
“I don’t know what was going on in the officers’ mind, they could have backed up maybe, but again I was not there,” Davis told Houston Public Media. “I don’t think he should have lost his life for grabbing the Taser gun.”
City Council member Robert Gallegos, who also watched the video, said the shooting underscored the need for better mental health services in Houston.
“We should be sending more mental health professionals to a psychiatric crisis, not just armed law enforcement officers,” read a statement from Gallagos. “The police alone are not the right people to intervene in psychological crises. It is not the right way to enhance public safety and will not lead to good results.”
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg on Thursday said she had met with Chavez’s mother, father and wife, and that her office’s Civil Rights Division was still investigating his death. Her office intended to present the case to a grand jury, which would then determine whether any of the officers involved should be indicted, she said.
Chavez’s family did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Police responded to a call of a suicidal, armed man running through traffic near Gazin Street and the East Freeway frontage road at 9 p.m. April 21. A video presentation released by HPD on Thursday afternoon played 911 calls from that evening, in which people reported a man on the freeway screaming, dodging traffic and throwing himself in front of cars. Other calls reported Chavez on Gazin, bleeding, yelling and jumping over fences, walking across peoples’ front lawns talking about a woman.
Reports later indicated Chavez may have been distraught after separating from his wife.
Officers from HPD’s Northeast Patrol engaged with the man for about 14 minutes, police said. Chavez allegedly approached the officers brandishing a steel reinforced bar, and police fired beanbag-filled shotguns and Tasers, to no avail.
In the man’s final moments, he appears to be on his knees as officers open fire.
In addition to the four people who were fired, one other officer — Kevin Nguyen, on the force for one year — was also identified to be at the scene during the shooting.
The shooting was later reviewed by the city’s Independent Police Oversight Board, which union President Gamaldi said had cleared all five officers of any wrongdoing.
But Acevedo, who said he expected the union to appeal his decision, stood firm, arguing that those proceedings were confidential, but adding that he was the one who made the final call to dismiss the four men.
The chief also criticized the union for its response to the firings, and defended the department’s response.
“They will leave no stone unturned to defend these officers,” he said. “I’m here for the other officers. I’m here for this community. And it’s important for the community to remember that process matters.”