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Shootings involving combat veterans raise questions of police training

By Ciara O'Rourke and Jeremy Schwartz - American-Statesman Staff

Gene Vela was supposed to graduate in May with a master’s degree in global policy studies. It would have been a milestone for Vela, who was among the first U.S. Marines involved in the initial invasion of Iraq.

Vela, 30, battled post-traumatic stress disorder in the Marines and after leaving the military, and his struggles have included run-ins with Austin policefor driving while intoxicated, among other interactions.

More recently, though, he seemed to be forging a new life. Last year, he was a summer intern in Washington for U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro and he was named Senate Representative of the Year for his work on the Senate of College Councils at the University of Texas, in part for helping create a veteran liaison program there. In September, he spoke at a law enforcement summit on the challenges veterans face when they return from war.

But on Nov. 10, 2013, the night before Veterans Day, Austin police and paramedics were dispatched to Vela’s apartment in Central Austin after a friend concerned about his well-being called police. Within half an hour, police had fired at Vela after they say he aimed a gun at them. Then the graduate student was bound for jail on a charge of aggravated assault against a public servant, with a wound on his shoulder where a bullet grazed him above a tattoo bearing the words “U.S. Marine Corps.”

The incident wasn’t the only time in recent months that a standoff between police and combat veterans in Central Texas has ended in bloodshed.

Between December 2012 and December 2013, there were at least four such shootings in the region, including three in the last six months of 2013. A fifth shooting incident involved a young Army veteran who apparently didn’t deploy to war, according to personnel records.

An American-Statesman analysis of data obtained from nearly two dozen local law enforcement agencies shows that, since 2003, nearly 10 percent of subjects in Central Texas shooting incidents involving police were military veterans or active-duty service members. While actual numbers are low, the outcome is often tragic.

Of the four most recent shootings involving combat veterans who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan, two recently returned Fort Hood soldiers were shot and killed by police in separate incidents; a third – Vela – was wounded; and a fourth was unhurt in a shootout with Fredericksburg police. In at least three of the cases, the shootings were preceded by attempts at police negotiations.

The incidents also turned deadly for police: a Killeen police officer was fatally shot in one of them.

The shootings, experts and advocates say, highlight the need for more specialized law enforcement training in navigating encounters with veterans in crisis.

Few law enforcement agencies in Central Texas provide their officers with such specialized training, which experts say can save lives – both of officers and veterans – and funnel troubled veterans into getting mental health help instead of into jail or prison, where studies show their symptoms often grow worse.

State and local officials are hoping to remedy that with a new training program in the final stages of development and which officials hope will eventually help law enforcement agencies statewide.

The Veterans Tactical Response Program, which is being developed by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Austin Police Department, is built around the idea that law enforcement officers can take specific approaches to defuse life-threatening situations involving combat veterans.

Experts say that combat veterans can respond differently to police interactions than civilians, both because of their military experience and their risk of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, which affects an estimated 20 percent of combat veterans. And, if armed, experts say veterans are often far better trained than civilians in how to use their weapons.

Experts say law enforcement officers might be in a unique position to gain the trust of veterans in crisis.

“By relating to them as equals and as servants of the greater good who might not always be understood and appreciated, police officers and negotiators have a better chance than almost anyone to earn a veteran’s trust and to de-escalate situations that potentially may become dangerous,” FBI researchers said in a recent bulletin.

An increasing number of police officers are military veterans; about 37 percent of Austin police have served in the military.

The Texas program was a response to what officials called a “marked increase” in incidents involving combat veterans, ranging from domestic disturbances to suicides. But hard data on veteran-involved police standoffs is hard to come by, as is even basic information about veteran contacts with law enforcement and the justice system.

In 2011, however, the FBI revealed that between 1995 and 2009, 6 percent of all incidents in its internal database of hostage and barricade incidents involved a veteran or active-duty military member. The agency wouldn’t release more recent information.

Of 106 subjects involved in police-related shootings in Central Texas since 2003 — according to data provided by nearly two dozen local agencies in Travis, Hays, Williamson and Bell counties — nearly 10 percent were identified as veterans or active-duty members by the personnel offices of the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy. The area, sitting between Killeen’s massive Fort Hood and the half-dozen military installations in San Antonio, has one of the highest concentrations of veterans in the state.

The numbers are relatively low, especially before 2013: just six incidents between 2007 and 2012. And initial research suggests that nationwide, Iraq and Afghanistan vets are ending up in jail or prison at lower rates than veterans of previous conflicts.

A 2012 study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that 9 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan era veterans reported having been arrested since returning home, though that rate reached 23 percent among veterans with PTSD and frequent anger symptoms.

Frustrated by the inability to get a clear picture of how many veterans have entered the justice system, the Legislature last year passed a law requiring the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to track the number of inmates who are veterans using state and federal databases. The current system of self-reporting is notoriously unreliable because many veterans fail to identify as such, experts say.

“Without the ability to confirm veteran status, TDCJ is unable to effectively offer PTSD-tailored mental health services to the individuals who would benefit from it,” said Jorge Renaud, policy analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a policy research group advocating for criminal justice reform.

Many who train law enforcement on interacting with veterans in crisis say they walk a fine line between advocating for the training and feeding into stereotypes of combat veterans as ticking time bombs.

Officer Troy Schouest, who heads the Veterans Tactical Response Program for the Austin Police Department, said he opposes tracking violent incidents involving veterans. “I don’t want to create a false stigma, or single any one group out,” he said. “I don’t want people to think veteran is a dirty word.”

Star Lara, who trains California law enforcement agencies for the nonprofit group Swords to Plowshares, said she likewise tries to disabuse officers of that notion. “We never want someone to leave the training thinking that all veterans are (messed) up,” she said. “But oftentimes if it’s a law enforcement interaction … They are going to meet the veteran on a very bad day.”

Gene Vela’s encounters with Austin police began soon after he moved to the city, about three years after he left the military, where he worked as an armored vehicle crewman. In 2005, he received an other than honorable discharge, after nearly four years of service, for underage drinking, breaking curfew and using disrespectful language toward a sergeant, according to his attorney, Skip Davis. The discharge, which Davis said stemmed from untreated PTSD, complicated efforts to get VA treatment and benefits, some close to him say.

In one of his encounters with police, Vela told officers he was “getting his shotgun ready” after they asked him to open his door, according to a prosecutor’s motion to raise bond in a 2009 burglary case.

The next month, officers were dispatched to Vela’s apartment after he called 911 and said he wanted to go to a psychiatric emergency service clinic, according to the motion. When Vela opened the door to speak to police, it says, he threatened to shoot one of the officers. He was convicted of making a terroristic threat against a public servant.

The court document also details multiple instances in which prosecutors suggest Vela should have received an evaluation from a mental health officer or seen someone from the Austin Police Department’s crisis intervention team but didn’t.

In recent years, though, Vela appears to have thrived at the University of Texas, where he was well-known and well-liked at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Davis said that Vela supports his daughter and sends money home to his mother. He was on track to start treatment for PTSD when police went to his apartment in November.

On Nov. 10, police say, Vela didn’t answer the door when officers knocked, but he pointed a laser-equipped handgun at officers through a window. When officer Adrien Chopin shot at Vela from the street, the window broke, and Vela retreated farther back into his apartment, according to police. Officers then heard “the distinct sound of a rifle or pistol being loaded,” according to an arrest affidavit, and then a gunshot. Police have said Vela returned to the window and again pointed a gun at officers, something Davis disputes. Chopin and officer Leo Cardenas fired, hitting Vela.

Davis said Vela was sound asleep when he was “brusquely awakened” by a dispatcher calling and someone banging at his front door. “He was groggy and disoriented,” Davis said. “He had no idea who was at his door.”

During the standoff, according to records, an officer said he heard Vela say, “Come kill me” and “Help me.”

The incident happened just a couple of weeks after some officers on the department’s negotiation and critical incident teams had participated in a trial run of the Veteran Tactical Response program training.

But hostage negotiators didn’t arrive at Vela’s apartment until after he was shot, according to police. A few days after the shooting, the department’s training liaison for the program said he still hadn’t heard about the incident and it’s unclear if any of the officers responding that night had received the training. An Austin police spokeswoman said officials couldn’t answer questions about the incident because of the ongoing investigation.

While Vela’s military and criminal history was known by some officers within the department, the arrest affidavit in connection with the case indicates responding officers didn’t know Vela’s name until after the first shot was fired.

Officer Troy Schouest, Austin’s police liaison for the Veterans Tactical Response program, said the goal is to train everyone in the department so that officers can try to defuse crisis situations until a negotiator arrives. More officers from the department’s critical incident team, as well as officers from Lakeway Police Department, are scheduled to take the class in April, he said. Once the VA finishes vetting the program and officially signs off, “we can finally offer it to everyone on a continuous basis,” Schouest said. “We are going to schedule it as a stand-alone class and as part of a new communication series we have under development.”

Vela’s court case now pits prosecutors, who have said Vela is a threat to the public, against Davis, who says Vela should be receiving in-patient PTSD therapy instead of sitting in jail on $700,000 bail.

Had Vela been given a lower bail, Davis said, “Gene would have finally gotten his ‘war demons’ under control and returned to UT to finish up the one semester he had remaining to graduate.”

While most agencies give their officers crisis intervention training, which includes lessons on how to deal with subjects in the midst of a mental health crisis, experts say veteran-specific training consists of a unique set of approaches that are different than those used with civilians.

“(Combat veterans) must not be put into situations where they will be forced to act in a way that proves their personal courage,” researchers concluded in a 2011 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. “They want to be treated with respect, and they have little tolerance for half-truths and disingenuous talk.”

Training typically includes helping officers identify a subject as a veteran, both by looking for clues such as military-style tattoos or armed forces bumper stickers, and by having dispatchers routinely ask 911 callers about veteran status.

Barking orders, sudden movements or loud noises can all worsen the situation.

“The normal tactical response is flashbangs (grenades), hit the house,” Schouest said. “But if you’re dealing with a veteran in crisis and you start with flashbangs before negotiating, we could escalate the crisis, push them further in.”

The Texas program includes training on military culture and education around issues related to traumatic brain injury, which military leaders have called the signature wound of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Since 2003, nearly 260,000 service members have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, which is caused by concussive blasts, according to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center. Injuries to the frontal lobe, especially, can reduce impulse control and cause outbursts of anger, experts say.

Bettie Beckworth, who is spearheading the Veterans Tactical Response Program for the state Health and Human Services agency, said that a veteran suffering from traumatic brain injury might also have trouble responding quickly to an officer’s questions. “(Police) may think they are resisting, but they need to slow down with their questions,” she said. “They can’t see the injury so people don’t understand why they are acting like that.”

Several police agencies surveyed by the American-Statesman said they would welcome such training, though it’s not clear when it will be widely available. Once the state’s training materials are finalized, officials hope to persuade the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement to adopt it as part of its statewide training.

“We want to make sure it’s available to departments all across the state,” Beckworth said. “The goal at this point is to ensure that not only do we train the special tactical teams, but offer training for patrol officers.”

Training experts in Texas and throughout the country are also eager to introduce the training to law enforcement academies, in hopes that it will become more institutionalized.

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms negotiators have begun to use the strategies after contacting officials with the Texas training program. Peter Bukiri, a violent crime reduction strategist with the bureau, said the Veterans Tactical Response Program has helped negotiators and members of federal SWAT teams execute high-risk warrants.

Bukiri, whose law enforcement career spans 40 years, said he saw similar incidents after the Vietnam War, before such training existed. “We’ve always dealt with it, but it was really shoot-from-the-hip stuff,” he said. “(The Veterans Tactical Response Program) explains it in detail, what you’re dealing with. … I’d like to see the trainings almost become mandatory. This is the future.”

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