Just a few hours after 34-year old Danny Ray Thomas was shot to death by a Harris County Sheriff’s deputy in Houston last Thursday, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez adopted a tone that sounded decidedly similar to other law enforcement leaders in other communities in the wake of another African-American man being killed by an officer under questionable circumstances.
“It appeared that the suspect was acting in an erratic and aggressive manner,” Gonzalez said at a press conference. “The deputy began giving verbal commands, clearly dressed in a police uniform, and the male continued to approach in an aggressive manner.” Gonzalez said the deputy retreated, then took out his pistol and shot Thomas once, fatally wounding him in the middle of a busy Houston intersection in broad daylight.
Gonzalez offered his condolences to Thomas’s family, and promised a “thorough and transparent” investigation by his office in conjunction with the Houston Police Department and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. He then gave a thinly veiled defense of the deputy. “Police situations are always difficult,” he said. “It’s a reminder of how quickly things can escalate in these situations. Our deputies work in a very difficult environment where they have to make split-second decisions to protect their lives as well. […] We’re also getting some reports that this male might be known in the area, possibly even today, we may have gotten some information where he was acting in an aggressive manner on some of the adjacent properties here.” Later that day, a sheriff’s office spokesperson also told the Houston Chronicle that Thomas had “some object” in his hand.
Thomas’s name hadn’t even been released to the public, but by quickly saying he was “acting in an aggressive manner,” had an object in his hand, and didn’t follow police orders, Gonzalez and the sheriff’s office seemed to be planting the seeds of a familiar narrative that Thomas—who video would later show was unarmed, wobbling unsteadily, foaming at the mouth, and had his pants around his ankles when he was killed—was, in some sense, to blame for his own death, much in the same way law enforcement officials had said Eric Garner was illegally selling loose cigarettes, Michael Brown had stolen a cigar, and Tamir Rice was holding a toy gun. Gonzalez’s comments perhaps served as an early indicator of how he and Houston police chief Art Acevedo, two liberal-leaning leaders relatively new to their posts, might be approaching their investigations into an incident that marks the first high-profile test to their promises of progressive reform.
Last week’s shooting was at least the fifth fatality at the hands of law enforcement in Harris County so far this year, and one of at least seven officer-involved shootings in a metro area that has a high rate of police shootings but rarely finds itself in the same national spotlight that has shined upon Ferguson, New York City, Chicago, and, most recently, Sacramento, where Stephon Clark’s killing by police has sparked widespread protests. Houston has been able to avoid the same national scrutiny those other cities have faced largely due to the lack of video evidence of its officer-involved shootings—an issue outlined by the New York Times in a 2016 report. According to the Times, Houston police officers alone shot at more than 460 people and killed 111 from 2005 to 2016. Twenty percent of those shot at were unarmed.
There was no video footage to show exactly what happened in most of those incidents, which has likely contributed to a lack of justice for victims of police shootings. Between 2013 and 2016, separate investigations by the Houston Chronicle, Texas Observer, and Houston Press have found that HPD has not found an officer-involved shooting to be “unjustified” in more than a decade. An HPD officer hasn’t faced charges stemming from an on-duty shooting in fourteen years, while the last time a Harris County sheriff’s deputy faced murder charges for an on-duty shooting was 2004.
Both Gonzalez and Acevedo took over their respective agencies at roughly the same time one and a half years ago, and since then they’ve promised to make significant progressive reforms. When Acevedo left Austin to take the same gig as the head of Houston’s police department in November 2016, he vowed to reform the department’s investigatory process for officer-involved shootings, and, for the most part, he’s followed through, last April forming a new unit tasked with investigating officer-involved shootings. Police shootings have dropped dramatically in Acevedo’s short tenure, according to HPD’s own data: last year, there were half as many police shootings as there were in 2015, and ten fewer than in 2016. Thomas’s death is the first controversial shooting during Acevedo’s tenure that has made national headlines, making this a crucial moment for his ostensibly reformed investigative unit. But the early rhetoric from the special unit detectives tasked with investigating Thomas’s shooting sounds like more of the same—in a statement last week, three detectives from Acevedo’s special unit reported that the deputy who shot the unarmed Thomas was “fearing for his safety,” a phrase commonly used by law enforcement agencies involved in fatal shootings.
Similar to one of Acevedo’s other major reform efforts, Sheriff Gonzalez has made it a priority to expedite the sheriff’s office’s slow-moving body camera rollout. “I think that the biggest challenge is making sure that we operate, manage, and lead as a 21st century police agency,” Gonzalez told the Chronicle as he was campaigning for sheriff, specifically mentioning his goal to equip the department’s deputies with body cameras, which was something the sheriff’s office had not yet done before Gonzalez was elected in November 2016. Since Gonzalez took office, about 400 deputies have been outfitted with body cameras.
But in the shooting of Thomas, Gonzalez’s body camera reform efforts appear to have been too little or come too late. Gonzalez said at a press conference on Monday that Cameron Brewster, the deputy who killed Thomas, had been issued his body camera only a few hours before his fatal interaction with Thomas—even though Brewster, who is African-American, has been on the force for two years—and the device remained in his car during the shooting because the battery was not charged.
The dashboard camera on Brewster’s car was turned on, and that footage was promptly released on Monday. However, the video did not show the actual shooting, only capturing the moments leading up to it—a dazed-looking Thomas with his pants down around his ankles, getting shoved by the driver of another car that had stopped in a busy intersection. When Brewster steps out of his vehicle, Thomas can be seen meandering unstably toward Brewster, who repeatedly shouts at him to get down (Brewster’s voice can be heard, but he is not in the frame). Thomas continues to walk toward Brewster, leaving the frame. Brewster shouts, “I’ll shoot your ass!” Seconds later, a single gunshot can be heard, as well as screams from witnesses. Brewster can be seen attempting to provide first aid on Thomas after the shooting. Thomas was pronounced dead after being transported to the hospital.
In separate footage from a bystander’s cell phone, the exact moment of the shooting was also obscured because a truck drove in front of the camera. “He about to get tased,” the woman who shot the cell phone footage can be heard saying, shortly before Thomas is shot. Then, “He shot that man? Why he shot him! Why he shot him?”
#BREAKING Video obtained by the @HoustonChron shows the death of Danny Ray Thomas after he was shot by a Harris County deputy Thursday. No weapon was recovered at the scene, officials said. #hounews #breakingnews
— Robert Downen (@RobDownenChron) March 24, 2018
Had Brewster’s body camera been fully charged and equipped, it could have provided critically important footage in determining whether Thomas’s death was justified. Or, maybe not. A similar body camera snafu cast doubt on the last high-profile officer-involved shooting in Houston, when Alva Braziel was shot and killed by a Houston police officer in July 2016. Body camera footage of that incident failed to clarify the controversial shooting, because the officer’s camera did not start recording until after Braziel was shot—HPD’s body cam policy states that an officer is not required to flip on his body camera if “it is immediately necessary for the officer to act in order to ensure his safety or the safety of others” (it’s unclear what body camera policies exist for Harris County Sheriff’s deputies). Grainy surveillance footage from a nearby gas station appeared to show Braziel with his hands in the air before he was shot, but the officer’s body camera footage showed the officer removing a revolver from Braziel’s lifeless right hand, and last year a Harris County grand jury declined to charge the two officers involved in Braziel’s death. Given the lack of video evidence showing Thomas’s death, the investigations into Brewster may be headed toward a similar result.
Thomas’s family and community activists have questioned whether lethal force was necessary in the first place, since Thomas was unarmed. “You could have tased him,” Markeeta Thomas, Danny Thomas’ sister, told KPRC last week. “You could have clearly tased him. He wasn’t trying to hit you. He wasn’t trying to shoot you. He wasn’t trying to do anything.” Gonzalez confirmed on Monday that Brewster was equipped with a taser.
In a departure from the comments he made before the public had seen video of Thomas’s shooting, Gonzalez acknowledged Wednesday that he was concerned that Brewster drew his weapon and shot at Thomas instead of using non-lethal force. “It is concerning that Mr. Thomas was unarmed; he was obviously in a state of crisis of some kind,” Gonzalez told the Chronicle in an interview. “There’s a number of things that could be used, ranging from the mere presence of the deputy, to verbal commands, to the use of a Taser, to use of your hands, to ultimately, the use of (lethal) force … To go straight to that, that’s concerning to me, but in fairness, I have to make sure we determine from the deputy what his observations were at the time.”
Thomas’s family said he had been suffering from mental health issues. His two young children died in 2016, after their mother allegedly drowned them in a bathtub. “Whenever he got into that mind frame, thinking about his wife and his kids, he just felt like he was alone,” Markeeta Thomas told KPRC. Once again, it would appear one of Gonzalez’s major reforms fell short in this case. Gonzalez told the Chronicle that since he took office, there has been increased crisis intervention training, which is supposed to help deputies act appropriately in situations when they may encounter someone dealing with mental health issues. According to the Chronicle, Gonzalez has also created a mental health and jail diversion bureau, and has formed a telemedicine program that allows deputies to contact psychiatrists while responding to calls. While Thomas appeared to be suffering from a mental health problem, he was still subjected to lethal force.
“It’s difficult to imagine how this shooting could possibly be justified,” Sharon Watkins-Jones, director of political strategies of the ACLU of Texas, said in a statement last week. “We must demand that our law enforcement agencies, who are sworn to protect our communities, be held accountable whenever deadly force is used unlawfully. But whatever the excuse, another unarmed black man has been killed by law enforcement, in the street and in broad daylight, and the only reason we know about it is because of bystander footage… HCSO must revisit its use of force policies to prioritize the sanctity of human life, to require patience of its officers, and to demand that lethal force only be used as a last resort. Danny Ray Thomas should not have been killed, and with proper training in place, he wouldn’t have been.”
Gonzalez clearly recognizes the magnitude of the fatal shooting of Thomas. He’s held true to his commitment to transparency so far, holding regular press conferences, speaking openly to the media, and releasing the footage from Brewster’s dashboard camera relatively quickly. But whether the outcome of the investigations carried out under Gonzalez and Acevedo will reflect the institutional overhauls made by these two progressive leaders, or will result in yet another “justified” shooting, remains to be seen.