The fatal shooting of Larry Jackson Jr. by Austin police Detective Charles Kleinert raised disturbing questions from the moment news of it broke two weeks ago. Those questions, along with growing community concerns about other police shootings in the past two years, left City Manager Marc Ott with little choice but to ask the U.S. Department of Justice to review the policies and practices of the Austin Police Department.
There have been six officer-involved shootings so far this year alone. Three of them have been fatal. Each of the fatal shootings comes with its own set of questions, but the questions surrounding the July 26 shooting of Jackson, including whether the shooting was avoidable, are particularly troubling.
Ott is asking the Justice Department to revisit a police department it investigated between 2007 and 2011. That four-year investigation followed complaints that emerged, in part, from a 2004 series of American-Statesman reports which found that Austin police were much more likely to use force against minorities than against whites. All but one of the 11 people killed by police officers from 1998 to 2003 were minorities.
While the Justice Department’s investigation found no reason to believe Austin police had “engaged in a pattern, or practice that violated the Constitution or laws of the United States,” it nonetheless recommended 165 changes to police policies, almost all of which the Austin Police Department implemented.
One of the Justice Department’s recommendations was that all Austin police officers be trained in how to defuse confrontations. Officers must know when to back off. A key question that must be explored in Jackson’s shooting is whether Kleinert, an experienced detective said to have a stellar record, escalated a situation that began without threat to himself or the public into one that ended tragically.
Kleinert was investigating a robbery that occurred hours earlier at the Benchmark Bank on West 35th Street near Shoal Creek when Jackson tried to open the bank’s locked door. Jackson walked away but soon returned and tried to open the door again.
After speaking with Jackson, a bank manager told Kleinert that Jackson had attempted to use the name of a regular bank customer, police have said. Kleinert talked to Jackson for a few minutes. Jackson ran, Kleinert pursued. Jackson quickly eluded him. The detective then demanded that a nearby motorist help him continue the chase, according to news reports.
Reports say Kleinert saw Jackson walking on a bridge at Shoal Creek and West 34th Street. He gave chase again and the two men struggled under the bridge. As sources told the American-Statesman’s Tony Plohetski and Ciara O’Rourke last week, Kleinert told internal affairs investigators he drew his gun to try to subdue Jackson, lost his balance and accidentally shot Jackson in the back of the neck.
Police think Jackson, who had a 2003 forgery charge in Williamson County and reportedly was found with at least one form of identification that did not belong to him, intended to commit fraud by withdrawing money from another person’s account. Perhaps fraud was his intent, but if so, it was an act he did not commit.
There remains much we don’t know about the shooting. What we know from previous reporting is Jackson was unarmed. Kleinert apparently never called for backup, as department policy requires. And his enlistment of a civilian motorist to help him search for and chase Jackson demands explanation.
A custodial death report filed July 30 by Austin police with the Texas attorney general’s office listed Jackson’s “apparent manner of death” as “justifiable homicide.” Police Cmdr. Mark Spangler told the Statesman’s O’Rourke that the assessment — unnecessarily provocative, given the sensitivity of the case — was updated Wednesday to say “pending investigation,” as it should have said from the start.
Law enforcement agencies must file custodial death reports with the attorney general’s office within 30 days of a fatal officer-involved shooting. The Austin report was filed — erroneously, police said — only four days after the July 26 shooting of Jackson. The report’s deadline was still more than three weeks away.
The March 1 shooting death of 70-year-old John Schaefer also has raised questions about whether police actions escalated a tense encounter to the point of using lethal force. Schaefer had called 911 to report he had shot and killed a pit bull that had attacked him. Schaefer refused to put his gun away and pulled it when officer Jonathan Whitted reportedly tried to handcuff him. Whitted responded by fatally shooting Schaefer twice in the chest.
In his letter requesting the Justice Department’s review, Ott writes of “community concerns about APD actions that we fear may be eroding the trust of the community.” We take no issue with a broad review of police policies, but we agree with Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and others that the Jackson shooting needs to be looked at specifically. If any recent police shooting demands “an objective set of eyes,” to borrow a phrase in Ott’s letter, it is Jackson’s shooting.