The city of Austin agreed Friday to pay the fired police officer who shot and killed an unarmed teenager in February $35,000 to avoid an arbitration hearing and eliminate any chance that he might return to work for the Austin Police Department.
The settlement comes just as former Austin police officer Geoffrey Freeman’s arbitration was set to begin Monday. Freeman was battling his March 21 termination from the department that resulted from the Feb. 8 shooting of 17-year-old David Joseph. An internal investigation found the shooting was unjustified.
The settlement also reclassified Freeman’s termination as a “general discharge,” paving the way for Freeman to be possibly hired by another police department in the state.
“There are no good outcomes when our community experiences such pain,” interim City Manager Elaine Hart said in a statement Friday. “My hope is that we can continue the healing process. I believe this settlement is in the best interests of the community and the city.”
The public arbitration process would have held the fatal police shooting in the headlines for several days with hearings throughout next week. It also would have forced Mayor Steve Adler to testify in the hearing after Freeman’s attorney subpoenaed him.
“I think that’s why the city settled to be honest with you,” Austin police union President Ken Casaday said. “We’re happy for officer Freeman in being able to move on with his life even though the city of Austin and the police chief have violated his due process every step of the way.”
The organization representing Freeman, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, said Adler interfered with the arbitration process when he called the Joseph shooting an instance of institutional racism.
“The Travis County Grand Jury cleared Geoffrey Freeman of criminal wrongdoing, but the mayor cannot wait for the process to finish,” CLEAT Executive Director Charley Wilkison said in a statement last month after the subpoena was filed. “He has inserted himself into undoing Officer Freeman’s due process rights. The mayor is clearly seeking to influence the outcome of the arbitration.”
Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder also said the subpoena put political pressure on the city to settle.
“These guys (CLEAT) are a very effective organization,” Linder said. “They play hard ball. So, sure, there was all kinds of pressure there.”
Jason Stanford, a spokesman for the mayor, called the idea that the settlement was the result of political pressure “silly” and a “misreading of the situation.”
The Joseph shooting triggered protests at City Hall as activists learned details that suggested the African-American teenager was suffering from a mental health crisis when he charged at Freeman, who is also black.
Former Police Chief Art Acevedo’s decision to embrace and bring activists’ voices to a press conference days after the shooting exacerbated the rift between the Police Department’s leadership and its union. Morale crashed among the rank-and-file in the aftermath as Acevedo insisted both publicly and privately that if a similar shooting were to happen again, the officer responsible would also be fired.
Interim Police Chief Brian Manley said in a statement that the Police Department respects the decision and would “continue to uphold the highest standards for its officers.”
Joseph was naked in the middle of a neighborhood street in Northeast Austin when Freeman approached in his patrol vehicle. When he exited his vehicle, Joseph charged. Within seconds, Freeman opened fire, fatally wounding the teenager.
In a deposition obtained by the American-Statesman, Freeman said his actions were justified and that he felt his life was threatened. He called his decision to shoot Joseph self-defense, despite having other, less lethal forms of force available to him.
City Council Member Ora Houston, whose District 1 encompasses the neighborhood where the shooting took place, said she supports the decision to settle with Freeman to avoid any chance that he would be reinstated.
“The settlement achieves those goals and provides finality to at least one part of a very unfortunate, difficult and sad situation,” Houston said.
But what Linder found most upsetting about the settlement was that the city was willing to end its legal battle with Freeman while the Joseph family’s wrongful death suit is still ongoing.
“If you are going to pay this cop to not be a cop, why aren’t you settling with the family?” Linder said. “It shows an imbalance within the city of Austin. It makes no sense.”
The attorney representing the Joseph family said the family didn’t want to make a statement about the settlement.