Months after top city officials publicly condemned the controversial arrest of an Austin elementary teacher, lawyers hired by the city are launching an aggressive defense and staunchly supporting the officers, according to new documents obtained by the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV.
In the six weeks since Breaion King filed a federal lawsuit, the city has employed a San Antonio attorney at the hourly rate of $175 to represent officer Bryan Richter. They contend it was King’s behavior that fueled the incident.
The lawyers also downplay remarks by officer Patrick Spradlin — who told King that blacks have “violent tendencies” as he drove her to jail in his patrol car — referring to the controversy over Spradlin’s words as “social media exploitation.”
City attorneys are pressing for the suit to be dismissed, a move that is sparking anger among some. Richter’s city-paid lawyer, Charles Frigerio, said his client should be entitled to protective immunity and absolved of any punitive damages.
Richter used “only the reasonable amount of necessary force” during the encounter, Frigerio alleges in a response to King’s lawsuit. “King’s non-compliance was the sole proximate cause of the incident in question.”
That stance is in contrast to the reaction of city officials immediately after the Statesman in July revealed a video showing King’s arrest. At the time, Mayor Steve Adler called the footage “disgusting” and “horrifying” and said the video images “were a window into something that is outrageous, offensive, and counter to the values of our community, and that includes our police force.”
Other council members quickly weighed in.
And Police Chief Art Acevedo, who only learned of the 2015 incident after the Statesman began inquiring about it a year later, responded by urging community leaders to remain calm in the aftermath of the video’s release and launching internal reviews into the how the department evaluated Richter’s use of force. Those inquiries are pending.
On Thursday, city officials said the response was standard for such cases and that, under state law, they have an obligation to provide a legal defense to Richter. Adler spokesman Jason Stanford said the mayor’s office is meeting with community groups to discuss ending “institutional racism” — an effort Adler began after videos of King’s arrest were made public. He said that Adler remains committed to improving race relations in the city, and late Thursday, the mayor’s office confirmed that he has scheduled a meeting with King’s attorneys to discuss the case.
Yet to some, the city’s response indicate a softening in its stance that the officers were wrong.
“I am deeply offended that after publicly apologizing and recognizing that officer Richter’s behavior was terrible, the city filed a motion to dismiss,” King attorney Erica Grigg said. “But whether or not that motion should be considered is the judge’s discretion, not mine.”
In some high-profile cases, the city has worked behind-the-scenes with litigants to settle a matter — sometimes even before a lawsuit is filed — rather than wage a public court fight. The city had 30 days from the filing of the suit to possibly mediate the case.
“I’m livid,” said Nelson Linder, president of the NAACP’s Austin branch. “It shows once again they aren’t committed to eradicating police brutality. If they were, they would not fight a lawsuit that they know is justified. Settle the suit and move forward.”
The incident unfolded after Richter stopped King for speeding along East Riverside Drive. The video shows the traffic stop escalating rapidly in the seven seconds from when Richter, who is white, first gives a command to the 26-year-old King to close her car door to when he forcibly removes her from the driver’s seat, pulls her across a vacant parking space and hurls her to the asphalt.
Minutes later, as King was being taken to jail, Spradlin and King discussed race relations and interactions between police and African-Americans.
The video surfaced at a time of a national debate about how police use force, particularly on minorities, and was shown nationally on network newscasts.
Richter arrested and charged King with resisting arrest, but prosecutors later dismissed the charge against her. This week, KXAN-TV reported that Richter has filed more resisting arrest charges in the past decade than any other Austin police officer.
Court records filed by the city’s attorneys provide a window into how the city plans to fight the case.
Richter’s lawyer said King was “non-compliant and argued with Officer Richter concerning the stop. King handed Officer Richter her driver’s license but refused his command for her to place her legs inside her vehicle. Plaintiff King was extremely agitated, refused the lawful commands of Officer Richter and reached under the passenger seat.”
The response said at that point, Richter decided to extricate King from her car, and that she swung her arm at him. It said King slipped out of the first pair of handcuffs that Richter attempted to use and that he was able to get her to comply with his demands by using a second pair of handcuffs and “hand-control techniques.”
The document also contends that once King was in Richter’s patrol car, she “began violently attempting to kick the windows out of his patrol car,” at which time she was moved to Spradlin’s car.
It added that Richter wasn’t present “during the conversation between Plaintiff King and Officer Spradlin which has become a social media exploitation,” but the document doesn’t elaborate.
In its response concerning the department’s policies, city attorneys similarly contend that King wasn’t compliant in the incident and denies the characterization that “Officer Richter decided to rip her out of the vehicle.”
“She protested his efforts to try to handcuff her, and claimed she was trying to put her hands behind her back,” the city’s response said.
Richter won’t be disciplined in the case because police officials learned about it after a 180-day deadline from the time of an incident had passed to discipline an officer.