Tuesday’s revelation that a naked 17-year-old had no weapon when he was killed Monday by an Austin police officer ignited an outcry about how police responded and left some leaders in the African-American community questioning the officer’s actions before he pulled the trigger.
The slain teenager, David Joseph of Austin and the veteran officer, Geoffrey Freeman, are both African-American.
“How much of a threat could a boy pose to police under those circumstances?” said the attorney for Joseph’s family, Scott Medlock. “His mother wants to know why this happened, why her son would be found in this state and why they would respond by shooting him.”
Austin police didn’t have the answers for those questions Tuesday. Freeman gave only a brief statement to police at the scene and was set to provide a full account to criminal and internal investigators later this week.
In a statement, Joseph’s family said it was “shocked and saddened that he was taken from us in an unexpected and violent way, and are struggling to understand how our child was stolen from us by the police.”
“We want a full and fair investigation into what led Officer Freeman to kill David,” the family said. “David had no weapon. We do not know what lead to his meeting with Officer Freeman, but we know that our David should not have been taken away from us. No family should have to suffer like we are today.”
Freeman was responding Monday to a disturbance at an apartment complex in the 300 block of East Yager Lane at 9:57 a.m., Austin police Chief of Staff Brian Manley said. There, Freeman spoke with several witnesses who said they saw a man chasing another man through the complex.
A short time later, police received another call from neighbors on the 12000 block of Natures Bend. Freeman arrived in his patrol vehicle and saw Joseph naked in the street. Freeman exited his vehicle and approached. Joseph charged at Freeman, and the officer opened fire; the confrontation lasted a matter of seconds, Manley said.
Manley couldn’t say if Freeman attempted to use a stun gun or any nonlethal force.
Medlock said the family is looking for answers from Austin police as it explores legal options.
Joseph, a charter school student at Premier High School known as Pronto to his friends, was on track to graduate this spring, Medlock said. He had played football at Connally High School, liked to rap and once sported a Mohawk that drew teasing from classmates. He wanted to go to college this fall, his family said.
“David is sweet and funny. There’d be no day that went by where you wouldn’t see a smile on his face or him joking around,” said one of Joseph’s close friends, 19-year-old Samone Morales. “I’m always going to remember how he cared for the people close to him.”
The nature of the shooting had several questioning how it was handled, including Council Member Ora Houston, whose district includes the neighborhood where Joseph was shot. Houston said initial details made it appear that Joseph was experiencing a mental or behavioral crisis.
Houston, who has worked in mental health, said the officer should have had backup and tried harder to de-escalate the situation.
“That didn’t happen; I don’t know why that didn’t happen,” Houston said. “Hopefully as we go through the process, we will figure out why didn’t that happen.”
Jim Harrington, longtime director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, called Joseph’s death possibly the worst fatal police shooting in Austin’s history. “My heart sank when I heard that this had happened,” he said.
“When you come on to a scene and you see someone running around naked, you know one of two things: either it’s mental health problems or drugs, so you know that this person is not a threat,” Harrington said. “You’re supposed to de-escalate.”
Joseph’s family lawyer and friends said the teenager had no history of mental health issues.
Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder met with Joseph’s family Tuesday. He said the family is distraught and overwhelmed with grief. Like Harrington and Houston, he also questioned Freeman’s actions in the shooting.
“The bottom line is a young man is dead,” Linder said. “He lost his life based on poor conduct and terrible tactics.”
Members of the Austin Justice Coalition and Black Lives Matter Austin hastily organized an “emergency response meeting” at St. James Missionary Baptist Church in East Austin church Tuesday night to express their anger and discuss ways they can work together to seek answers.
“We are not going to stand back and allow that to happen. Instead we are going to work together and have a proactive response,” said Meme Styles, a board member of Austin Justice Coalition.
The group plans to host another event in the upcoming days, but leaders declined to release more details.
Freeman — who is now on paid administrative leave, which is standard policy in police shootings — has received positive performance evaluations since he joined the Austin Police Department in 2005. His public civil service file had no instances of him being disciplined. It contained numerous commendations for his work on investigations and with a group that provides homes for troubled and abused children.
Whether Freeman’s actions were justified will hinge on several factors, law enforcement experts said, such as whether Joseph was on drugs, such as PCP, that could have made him more dangerous, and his proximity to Freeman when he fired his gun.
“We encourage the community, while grieving, to have patience and allow the process to go forward until all of the facts are known,” the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, who is representing Freeman legally, said in a statement Tuesday.
David Klinger, a top police use-of-force expert and a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said the fact that Joseph was nude makes him think he might have been under the influence of a drug that could have given him “superhuman strength” and made him appear more dangerous.
“When you’ve got somebody who is in an altered mental state, who is attacking you, a police officer is in grave danger, first from simply losing the physical fight and getting severely hurt or even beaten to death,” he said.
Greg Meyer, a retired Los Angeles police captain who specializes in use-of-force issues, said if Freeman thought Joseph was capable of overpowering him, and possibly taking his gun away, the shooting might have been justified, especially if there was little distance between the two. The officer might have feared that using less-lethal options, including a stun gun, might not be effective, he said.
Klinger also questioned whether Freeman could have waited for other officers, but he added, “You can’t let the guy run because he might harm someone.”
The article has been corrected to state that David Joseph was not lying in the street when Austin police officer Geoffrey Freeman first encountered him.
Austin police and body cameras
Austin police said the officer’s patrol car dashboard camera couldn’t entirely capture the fatal shooting of 17-year-old David Joseph. But why don’t Austin police have body cameras?
The city last year approved $3 million for a body camera program that would deploy 500 cameras by this summer. But the cameras will be assigned primarily to officers working downtown and on Sixth Street, not in residential neighborhoods. The department is also in the process of approving a vendor to purchase the equipment.