The Austin City Council has approved a groundbreaking $3.25 million settlement with the family of David Joseph, the 17-year-old gunned down a year ago by an Austin police officer.
The council unanimously voted in favor of the settlement Thursday, making it the largest payout the city has made to the surviving family of a person killed at the hands of Austin police.
Mayor Steve Adler announced the size of the settlement minutes into Thursday’s City Council meeting with little further commentary. Minutes later the council approved it without comment as a part of a block of items considered not controversial.
“While my family appreciates the professionalism and dignity with which David’s wrongful death claim was handled by the city, the Police Department, and all the lawyers involved, my family wishes to remind everyone that no amount of money could ever make up for what happened,” Joseph’s mother, Ketty Sully, said in a statement.
Adler echoed the sentiment in a statement of his own.
“Nothing we can do will bring David Joseph back,” Adler said in a statement. “I hope what we did will bring some measure of peace to his family and closure to our community. There is lots to learn from this for the city going forward so we don’t end up in this place again.”
Adler didn’t comment on how city officials arrived at the $3.25 million figure. But the amount sends a message that the city does consider itself culpable in Joseph’s death, said Austin police union President Ken Casaday, who said staffing shortages contributed to the shooting.
Council Member Ora Houston, the representative for the Northeast Austin neighborhood where Joseph was shot, said the city “recognizes that this situation was regrettable.”
“It is never easy when we have a violent event like David Joseph’s death occur in our community,” Houston said. “This city has been forever changed by the unfortunate death of this young man. My prayers go out to Ms. Sully and the extended family.”
The City Council in 2014 approved a $1.25 million settlement with the three young children of Larry Jackson Jr. The city also paid $600,000 to Jackson’s parents and widow last year.
Jackson was unarmed when he was shot and killed in July 2013 by former Austin police Detective Charles Kleinert who was investigating a bank robbery. A grand jury indicted Kleinert on a manslaughter charge, but a federal judge later dismissed the case, ruling that Kleinert was acting as a federal agent at the time of the shooting and immune to prosecution.
Local NAACP President Nelson Linder said the Joseph shooting was more clear-cut than some previous shootings in which police killed minority members. As the investigation unfolded, police reviewed video that clearly showed a skinny, naked teenager being shot within seconds of first encountering former Austin police officer Geoffrey Freeman, who was fired over the shooting.
The city later paid Freeman $35,000 to avoid arbitration and eliminate any possibility of his return to the Police Department. The agreement also made Freeman eligible to be hired elsewhere as a law enforcement officer.
Investigators learned that Joseph, in the days leading up to the Feb. 8, 2016, shooting, showed signs of mental health issues. After an autopsy turned up no evidence of drugs related to aggressive behavior, it became apparent that Joseph was suffering from a mental health crisis.
Thursday’s settlement was the first settlement in a fatal police shooting that the council has approved since it moved from at-large seats to a 10-district model.
“I think that definitely had an impact,” Linder said. “They are not being held accountable by other organizations. It gave them more independence.”
The shooting renewed tensions between Austin police and the city’s African-American community, prompting protests and calls for the officer responsible to be prosecuted.
A Travis County grand jury reviewed possible charges against Freeman but declined to indict the former officer.
“It is our sincere hope that the public nature of the settlement will make future police shootings less likely,” Sully said. “David was a wonderful son and a loving brother. He will remain in our hearts forever.”