In the dash camera video of the night 18-year-old Graham Dyer sustained fatal injuries while in the backseat of a Mesquite police cruiser, a night-vision lens adds clarity to the images.
To the right of the frame, the hands of an officer grasp the handcuffed teenager’s head and hair. On the left, the arm of another officer holding a Taser moves in and shocks Graham in his genitals while the teen screams. One of the officers can be heard saying in a low but distinct voice, “Mother[expletive], I’m going to kill you.”
In newly released court filings, however, the officer seen shocking Graham in the groin explains that what appears to be occurring in the video isn’t what really happened. And the officer who issued the death threat dismisses it as a “control tactic.”
Earlier this year, the American-Statesman detailed the story of Graham’s parents, Kathy and Robert Dyer, who waged a two-year battle trying to obtain police records of what happened to their son the night of his death. The Paris, Texas, native had been arrested in the middle of the night on Aug. 13, 2013, while in the throes of a bad LSD trip.
During a scuffle with five officers, in which the 110-pound Graham was shocked with a Taser, he’d bitten one on the finger and was arrested for assault. Disoriented from the hallucinogen — he can be heard asking where he is — Graham hurled himself around the back of the police car, slamming his head repeatedly against its walls. The medical examiner determined his death, due to head trauma, was an accident.
Yet when the Dyers requested more information about the events surrounding their youngest son’s death, Mesquite officials refused to release it. They cited a Texas law stating law enforcement agencies aren’t required to release records in cases that don’t result in a conviction. Because Graham had died before his case could be heard, the city reasoned it didn’t have to turn over anything. (State lawmakers this year didn’t pass a bill that would have closed the loophole.)
The Dyers eventually found a back-door route to obtain the disturbing Taser video from the FBI. A second video, showing Graham being unloaded from the cruiser, seemed at odds with the Police Department’s official explanation that he was so out of control that he needed to be placed in a special restraint chair. It shows Graham lying limp on the sally-port floor with officers milling around him.
Kathy and Robert Dyer cited the videos in a federal lawsuit claiming Mesquite police used excessive force on Graham. They also claim police were negligent by allowing him to fatally injure himself while in their care — he was not seat-belted in the cruiser — and by not summoning necessary medical help.
Police-hired expert: Officers acted reasonably
Last week, Mesquite police officers Jack Fyall, Richard Houston, Alan Gafford, Zachary Scott, William Heidelburg and Bill Hedgpeth asked the judge to dismiss the Dyers’ case against them. A city spokesman didn’t return a message seeking comment.
In an affidavit describing his recollection of what occurred that night, Gafford, a 17-year police veteran, stated that no matter what appears to be happening in the video, he didn’t shock Graham in the crotch.
“I attempted to apply (my) Taser in a drive stun mode to stop his violent resistance and ended up tasing him in the upper thigh,” Gafford wrote. “Although the night vision video camera appears to depict this was in the groin area, it was the upper inner thigh.”
Scott, a police officer for 7 years, added that when he said, “I’m going to kill you,” it was only an attempt to control the teenager.
“I used harsh language during that stop out of frustration and also as a control tactic as I have learned that sometimes harsh language will get a person’s attention and achieve some cooperation,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, it did not work with Mr. Dyer.”
The officers also said the video image of Graham lying on the ground motionless after arriving at the Mesquite detention facility was misleading. “I and other officers carried him inside as he continued screaming, kicking and thrashing about,” Gafford wrote. “While we carried him, we could feel him tensing up and attempting to wriggle free.”
Graham was placed in a restraint chair inside a cell. Two hours later, an officer noticed he was unresponsive and called emergency medical responders. Graham was taken to Baylor University Medical Center, where he died.
A use-of-force and police policy expert retained by the Mesquite police, Clint McNear, a former officer from neighboring Garland, said in the filing that the police had acted appropriately under the circumstances. He said seat-belting Graham would not have prevented him from hurting himself: “A person handcuffed and seat belted can still move about a back seat and strike their head on the interior of the vehicle.”
DA found grounds for charges against police
In interviews, experts said that whatever tactics police decide to use, they are obligated to protect their prisoners from harm.
Gary Klugiewicz, a retired sheriff’s captain from Milwaukee, Wis., who consults nationally with law enforcement agencies, pointed to the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Gray’s fatal injuries, sustained in the back of a Baltimore police transport van, were ruled a homicide because officers had not seat-belted him, a violation of the department’s policies. A scathing U.S. Justice Department report found Baltimore police routinely neglected to properly secure prisoners.
Although he acknowledged he was not familiar with Graham’s case specifically, Klugiewicz said police are trained that they must do whatever they can to prevent prisoners from hurting themselves.
“It doesn’t matter whether you are a police officer transporting a prisoner from a street arrest scene, a police officer picking up a prisoner for court, a police officer transporting a sick inmate, a detective taking a prisoner out of lock up to a remote site for an interview, or an airport police officer holding a person for transport, you are now responsible for that prisoner’s ‘care and wellbeing,’” he wrote in a paper on officers’ obligations to those in custody.
“He is a prisoner,” said John Peters, president of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Deaths, a nonprofit organization that promotes best practices, speaking of police custody obligations generally. “He has been seized, and to ignore his medical needs would be deliberate indifference.”
Peters added: “If you can’t bring in someone in a way that’s safe, you bring them to the hospital. It would not be to a jail for someone who’s wildly out of control.”
In the new court filings, the Mesquite officers note medical responders were called to evaluate Graham at the scene of his arrest and found no serious injuries.
Yet “that changed when he started banging his head in the patrol car,” said Jerry Staton, a former Austin police officer who trains police departments in use of force and who is consulting on the Dyers’ behalf. Once they noticed Graham hurting himself, he added, the officers should have pulled over — not to shock him with a Taser and continue to jail, but instead to summon medical help and, if necessary, restrain him on a gurney on the way to the nearest hospital.
Graham’s case was never presented to a grand jury. After the Statesman’s story was published, the Dallas County district attorney’s office announced it would review the case.
Two months later, prosecutors concluded there was enough evidence to charge the Mesquite officers with criminally negligent homicide — but because the statute of limitations had expired, it was too late. The FBI is still reviewing the case to determine if the police violated any federal laws, which have longer limits.
What we reported
The American-Statesman’s investigative team spent six months investigating how Texans died while under restraint in police custody. According to the newspaper’s examination, more than 280 people died in the state under such circumstances from 2005 through 2016. The paper filed dozens of open records requests with agencies across the state in an effort to obtain police reports and after-incident internal investigations. View the project website at apps.statesman.com/question-of-restraint.