Austin cop filmed pepper-spraying handcuffed man suspended 45 days

An Austin police officer filmed pepper-spraying a handcuffed man during his arrest downtown in March was suspended for 45 days on Tuesday, city officials said.

Officer Cameron Caldwell could also face criminal charges for the March 17 incident in which he was caught on camera by a Peaceful Streets Project activist using pepper spray on an arrested man in the back of a police van. On Tuesday, the Travis County district attorney’s office confirmed that a grand jury will review the incident.

The March 17 incident happened in downtown Austin during South by Southwest. The video, which garnered wide media attention, shows Caldwell interacting with Tyrone Wilson, who had been arrested and placed inside an Austin police van near the downtown booking area at Seventh and Neches streets.

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Wilson kicked the door of the van multiple times and continued to do so after Caldwell ordered him several times to stop, Caldwell’s disciplinary memo said. After Wilson disobeyed him again, Caldwell opened the door, sprayed Wilson in the face with pepper spray and shut the door. Wilson was handcuffed and seated at the time.

“In the heat of the moment, when you have a guy kicking and screaming, he made a decision,” Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said during a media briefing Tuesday. “He made the wrong decision.”

During a disciplinary hearing earlier with Acevedo and Caldwell’s chain of command, Caldwell admitted to wrongdoing. Caldwell has no previous history of improper behavior, which Acevedo said contributed to his decision not to fire Caldwell.

The suspension was a negotiated agreement with Acevedo: Caldwell waived his ability to appeal the suspension, and Acevedo agreed to not fire Caldwell.

The suspension places several other conditions on Caldwell, including requiring him to be evaluated by a police psychologist and to have a one-year probationary period. He also could face additional disciplinary action if indicted, the memo says. Failure to meet any of the requirements would result in his termination.

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Despite the reprimand, Acevedo said that Caldwell was right to try to gain compliance from Wilson, noting that Wilson wasn’t being cooperative. Acevedo said Caldwell had other options — such as asking other officers for help to pin him down and restrain his legs — but described him as an officer with no previous disciplinary issues who “but for this incident has done a pretty good job.”

Peaceful Streets founder Antonio Buehler said that Acevedo only suspended Caldwell because of the large amount of attention the viral video garnered. Acevedo denied that Caldwell’s suspension was a result from community or media pressure, saying police officials’ disciplinary decisions aren’t based “on the direction the wind is blowing.”

Acevedo also took the opportunity to defend the tactics of most patrol officers working in an increasingly chaotic and unruly entertainment district, describing Sixth Street as “a problem” and characterizing policing as inherently “ugly.”

Buehler said that Caldwell should be fired and charged with assault.

“We’ve videotaped cops punching people on the ground,” Buehler said. “We’ve videotaped cops hitting people from behind. We’ve videotaped cops running people over with horses. This is the first time we have taped use of force where there has been any discipline or anyone suspended.”

Caldwell’s disciplinary memo states that he violated guidelines on the use of pepper spray and general conduct. He won’t be paid during the suspension and will return to duty Oct. 14. He has been with the Austin police for three years, police said.

Wilson has a court hearing for a charge of resisting arrest scheduled for Nov. 14.

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