The relationship between police and the people they’re tasked with protecting and serving is strained everywhere right now, after grand juries failed to indict the policemen who caused the deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York, and an officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice moments after arriving on scene. The amount of attention being paid to the interactions between officers who use force on people suspected of crimes seems to have reached a new height.
In that climate it is unsurprising that two Texas stories went viral nationally over the weekend.
In Victoria, 23-year-old police officer Nathanial Robinson was placed on administrative duty last Friday after video surfaced of an arrest he made earlier last week. In the video, Robinson stops 76-year-old Pete Vasquez on suspicion of driving with an expired inspection sticker.
In the video, Vasquez appears to argue with Robinson that, because the car he’s driving has dealer plates, he’s not required to have an up-to-date inspection sticker. (Victoria Police Chief J.J. Craig later confirmed to the Victoria Advocate that the law backed up Vasquez’s assertion.) Robinson seems to react poorly to Vasquez’s attitude, and grabs the man’s arm to place him in handcuffs.
There’s a brief struggle in the video, as Vasquez attempts to pull away and, at one point, slaps his free hand in the direction of Robinson’s hand, which was clamped down on Vasquez’s arm. In reaction to this, Robinson slams Vasquez down on the hood of his patrol car, takes him to the ground, and then fires his taser at the 76-year-old while he’s still down.
“He just acted like a pit bull, and that was it,” Vasquez said. “For a while, I thought he was going to pull his gun and shoot me.”
Vasquez was handcuffed, placed in the back of the police cruiser and taken to Citizens Medical Center, where he remained in police custody for two hours.
Craig said the police department’s dash cam footage “raises some concerns.”
Robinson was placed on administrative duty after Craig saw the video, the Advocate reports, and the department subsequently opened an investigation to determine if the officer used excessive force on the unarmed elderly man who was not charged with a crime. And a follow-up story in the paper notes that news of the tasing had received international attention.
In Houston, meanwhile, an encounter with the police turned violent after a routine traffic stop left another unarmed man with multiple gunshot wounds. Mike Walker, 38, was the passenger in a car stopped for an illegal lane change on Friday, and after the car was pulled over, police say that they ordered him to keep his hands visible, but that Walker acted suspiciously, placing his hand under his seat, according to the Houston Chronicle. “At that point, the officer was in fear of his life and that of his partner,” HPD spokesman Victor Senties told the Chronicle. The officer then fired multiple shots into the car. Walker was hit, but got out of the car and walked around the parking lot, according to Houston’s KPRC News:
While the man was walking around in the parking lot, a second officer fired his gun.
“He also feared for his safety and once he was out of the area were people were around him, the officer discharged his weapon as well,” said Senties.
The man who was shot eventually laid down right here in the parking lot. At that point, an ambulance was called and he was taken to the hospital.
At the moment, no dash camera has been released of the incident. (KPRC News has a report that includes cell-phone footage of the scene after Walker left the car.)
Witnesses interviewed by the local TV station, however, dispute the police claim that Walker’s behavior required potentially lethal force. Without video, it’s impossible to know if Walker’s hands were really reaching under the seat, or if what occurred was the sort of “furtive movement” that police refer to provide after-the-fact justification for actions. And the fact that the credibility of police is in doubt in a case like this—that so many people were eager to appear on camera to say that they feel that the police acted excessively in firing multiple shots at the unarmed passenger of a car stopped on suspicion of changing lanes illegally—speaks to the environment of distrust that exists between police and the people they serve.
It’s unclear what the future holds for Robinson in Victoria—where he potentially faces an internal investigation with potential outcomes ranging from a sternly-worded letter to dismissal. (At the moment, criminal charges for the officer don’t appear to be on the table, with the District Attorney telling the Advocate that he hadn’t been contacted by police or seen the video). The officers in Houston, meanwhile, have been placed on three-day administrative leave, per department policy, according to the Houston Chronicle. We’ll see how those investigations unfold, but in the meantime, the public will presumably be watching with a cynical eye for the next unarmed man whose encounter with police turns violent.