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A chance to find answers in Jackson shooting

Questions and sharp criticism have followed other police shootings in Austin, but the puzzling sequence of events leading to the fatal shooting of Larry Jackson Jr. by Detective Charles Kleinert last summer seemed to direct it necessarily toward the point it reached Monday: the indictment of Kleinert on a charge of manslaughter.

Kleinert’s innocence or guilt will be determined by the legal process a Travis County grand jury now has set in motion. The public deserves to know definitively whether Kleinert violated Austin Police Department policies and used unnecessary lethal force against Jackson. The answers a trial will provide — assuming there is no plea agreement first — either will justify Kleinert’s actions or lead to his conviction and punishment for “recklessly” causing Jackson’s death, as Monday’s indictment alleges.

Little is publicly known about Kleinert’s shooting of Jackson beyond what was reported in late July and early August by the American-Statesman’s Tony Plohetski and Ciara O’Rourke. Kleinert was investigating a robbery that had occurred the morning of July 26 at the Benchmark Bank on West 35th Street near Shoal Creek. About 4 p.m., Jackson tried to open the bank’s locked door. He walked away but returned a minute later 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. According to police, Kleinert then talked to Jackson. After a few minutes, Jackson ran. Kleinert pursued but Jackson quickly eluded him. The detective then flagged down a nearby driver to help him continue the chase.

Kleinert saw Jackson walking on a bridge over Shoal Creek a short distance from the bank. He gave chase again. The two men struggled under the bridge. According to Plohetski and O’Rourke’s reporting, 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.

Jackson was unarmed and thus was no threat to public safety when he arrived at the bank. He was not a suspect in the bank robbery. He had been charged with fraud in 2003 in Williamson County, and identification that did not belong to him reportedly was found on his body. Police say he intended to commit fraud by withdrawing money from another person’s account.

Kleinert was an experienced detective with glowing annual evaluations. What prompted him to seemingly abandon Police Department policies regarding foot pursuits, backup procedures and the withdrawal of his gun from its holster to try to subdue Jackson, which potentially put his own life in danger, awaits thorough exploration during his criminal trial, and perhaps justification. At issue is whether Kleinert escalated a situation that began without threat to himself or the public into one that ended tragically.

The ride Kleinert demanded from the nearby driver requires explanation. It remains an ill-defined moment in the chain of events that led to Jackson’s death. Presumably, the driver will be a top witness at Kleinert’s trial and the driver’s testimony will help explain or condemn Kleinert’s actions and state of mind at the time of the chase — and help the public learn what pressing need Kleinert felt to continue a chase he had lost rather than summon the help of fellow police officers.

Kleinert retired from the police force in October before an internal affairs investigation into the shooting was complete. His retirement appeared a convenient one both for the detective — he was able to leave the force on his own terms and receive his full pension — and for the department that he served for nearly 20 years. With Kleinert no longer employed to face possible reprimand, suspension or termination, the department was able to close its inquiry into whether Kleinert violated any policies. And with the case closed, state law prohibited the release of any internal files related to the shooting. The Jackson shooting would have remained a case clouded by questions unless a separate criminal investigation ended in indictment.

An indictment arrived Monday. A trial is the community’s chance for details about the case to be publicly revealed and explained — and judged. A trial will provide answers to a police shooting that, on its surface at least, and with the limited information we currently have, seems to defy them.

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