A Travis County grand jury on Tuesday declined to indict former Austin police officer Geoffrey Freeman, who fatally shot an unarmed 17-year-old, David Joseph, in a Northeast Austin neighborhood in February.
The case also ignited debate about Police Chief Art Acevedo’s decision to expedite the investigation, which was lauded by some social justice advocates but criticized by the police union. Acevedo later was disciplined for violating orders from City Manager Marc Ott when he spoke about the case with Austin police cadets.
Joseph, a charter school student at Premier High School of North Austin who was known as Pronto to his friends, was on track to graduate this month, his family said. He had played football at Connally High School, liked to rap and wanted to go to college this fall.
Freeman had been responding to reports of a disturbance in the 12000 block of Natures Bend on the morning of Feb. 8 and arrived alone in his patrol vehicle around 10:25 a.m. Video captured from a camera on Freeman’s vehicle shows Joseph, who was naked, standing in the middle of the street.
In the video, Freeman exits the vehicle, and Joseph almost instantly runs toward the officer. Freeman commands Joseph several times to stop and “don’t move” before opening fire. Within seven seconds, Freeman has fired twice, hitting Joseph in the chest, leg and hand.
Freeman told investigators that he had feared for his life.
“He just kept coming towards me and then he — he got probably just right outside arm’s length distance, and he just wouldn’t stop,” he said.
Freeman notified dispatchers that shots had been fired and Joseph was down. He then began talking to the teenager, saying, “Come on man, keep breathing for me, breathe.”
Joseph died after being taken to a hospital.
By March, Acevedo determined that Freeman had committed multiple policy violations, including neglect of duty and mishandling a person showing signs of psychosis, and fired the officer. Freeman, a 10-year veteran on the force, is seeking an appeal.
Jurors decided not to charge Freeman with a crime after reviewing the case and hearing testimony, including from Freeman, for about three weeks.
The attorney for the Joseph family, Jeff Edwards, said the grand jury’s decision was disheartening.
“Failing to secure an indictment when a police officer shoots and kills an unarmed, skinny, naked teenager, who the officer outweighed by over 100 pounds, is a failure of will by the district attorney, and calls into question the entire grand jury process in cases involving police misconduct,” Edwards said.
Joseph’s brother, Fally, mourned his family’s loss.
“Officer Freeman took David away from my family,” he said in a statement. “He will never get to finish high school, go to college, have his own family and take care of my mom like he always planned to.”
Freeman’s attorney said the grand jury’s decision reflected the facts.
“Based upon the totality of the circumstances, (Freeman) did not commit a crime,” said his attorney, Grant Goodwin. “He was defending civilians who were present. He was doing what he was trained to do.”
Under the circumstances, Freeman was left with no choice, Goodwin said.
“If David Joseph had made contact with him and gotten ahold of him, there’s a good chance there would’ve been a protracted fight and he would’ve lost hold of his weapon. … Officer Freeman did not choose to engage David Joseph,” he said. “He stopped a reasonable distance from him to take control of the situation, and David Joseph charged.”
The David Joseph case also brought home the national conversation about the use of deadly force by police against African-Americans.
Nelson Linder, president of the NAACP’s Austin chapter, said he believes the penal code must be amended “to a higher standard” so officers are required to use less lethal force against an unarmed person whenever possible.
The biggest obstacle Freeman has had to face in the course of this investigation is a rush to judgment, Goodwin said. The leader of the Austin Police Association expressed a similar sentiment.
The fact that Acevedo appeared with Black Lives Matter activists and other critics of police after Joseph’s death was “disappointing” and “absolutely unacceptable,” the police union’s president, Ken Casaday, said at the time.
Meme Styles, leader of local activist group Measure Austin who stood with Acevedo at the news conference that Casaday criticized, said Acevedo has made inroads with the African-American community over police use of force.
On Tuesday, Casaday said he agreed with the grand jury’s decision.
“We hope that the community can come together and have a productive dialogue about what could have been done to prevent this tragedy, rather than vilify the officer and the profession of policing,” Casaday said.
Austin police shootings in 2016
Feb. 8: Officer Geoffrey Freeman shot and killed unarmed 17-year-old David Joseph in a Northeast Austin neighborhood after the teenager charged at the officer, police said. Freeman, who told investigators he feared for his life, was fired, but a grand jury declined to indict him on any criminal charges.
March 20: Officer Matthew Michaelson shot and wounded 34-year-old William Elliott Mann, who police said refused to drop the knives he was carrying in both hands when he encountered an officer during a chase.
April 3: Officer Armando Perez shot and killed Darrin Andrew Martin, 25, during a scuffle in the parking lot of Frank & Angie’s Pizzeria. Police said Perez returned fire after Martin shot and wounded Perez.
April 14: During a SWAT raid on a North Austin home, 18-year-old Tyler Michael Harrell shot and wounded officer James Pittman, police said. Another officer, Leighton Radtke, fired back but didn’t hit Harrell, who now faces a charge of attempted capital murder.
April 22: Police said 29-year-old Tyler Hunkin was running toward an officer with knives in his hands in a Southwest Austin supermarket parking lot when he was shot to death by officer Matthew Paredes.