- By Tony Plohetski American-Statesman Staff, KVUE News
Officials are investigating an Austin police officer’s violent arrest of an African-American elementary school teacher who was twice thrown to the ground during a traffic stop for speeding and comments by a second officer who told her police are sometimes wary of blacks because of their “violent tendencies.”
Video from the previously unreported June 2015 incident was obtained by the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV this week. The video shows the traffic stop escalating rapidly in the seven seconds from when officer Bryan Richter, who is white, first gives a command to 26-year-old Breaion 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.
Richter wrote in his report of the incident that he acted quickly because King demonstrated an “uncooperative attitude” and was “reaching for the front passenger side of the vehicle.” He didn’t know whether she had a weapon, he wrote. He said King resisted by pulling away from him and wrapping her hands and arms around the steering wheel.
Police charged King with resisting arrest, but the Travis County attorney dismissed the case after reviewing the police dashcam video.
As King was being driven to jail, a separate police video recorded a conversation between King and officer Patrick Spradlin in which he said whites may be concerned about interacting with blacks because they can appear “intimidating.”
The Austin Police Department issued the lowest level of discipline to Richter — counseling and additional training — after Richter’s supervisors looked into his use of force, but his conduct was never formally investigated by internal affairs. Spradlin was not punished for his comments because the department only learned about them after the Statesman began inquiring.
In an interview this week, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said the department has opened an administrative review into how Richter’s supervisors evaluated his actions and a separate criminal investigation. Officials are also investigating Spradlin’s comments. But Acevedo said that, under state civil service law, he cannot take disciplinary action beyond a written reprimand against the officers for this incident because it happened more than six months ago.
“After reviewing both videos, I and our leadership team were highly disturbed and disappointed in both the way Ms. King was approached and handled and in the mindset that we saw on display in those videos,” Acevedo said. “But there is another piece, which has caused concerns as to our review process and the systems we have in place.”
He said he regrets that he didn’t know about the situation sooner and that he is taking renewed steps to help citizens learn how to respond when they feel mistreated by officers.
“We need to help our community overcome the fear or reluctance, which I understand, to file a complaint,” he said. “This is critical if we are to weed out bad officers and bad behavior.”
Neither officer has previous suspensions with the department.
A year later, public scrutiny
The 2015 case had received no outside scrutiny until prosecutors flagged it in recent weeks.
Travis County Attorney David Escamilla said he ordered a resisting arrest charge against King immediately dropped — King paid a $165 fine and court costs for speeding — once he reviewed the videos earlier this year and sent it to felony prosecutors to review Richter’s actions.
Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said her office viewed the video about two weeks ago and asked the Austin police Special Investigations Unit, which looks into cases of possible officer misconduct, to assist them. Lehmberg said the case likely will be presented to a grand jury.
The emergence of the video comes at an intensely strained time nationally between police and many in the minority community that has played out over the past two years, marked by protests after high-profile controversial police use of lethal force and the recent killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La.
Texas officials are still grappling with the aftermath of the Sandra Bland case last year, which made national headlines after she was wrestled to the ground by a state trooper during a traffic stop. Part of the arrest was caught on dashcam video; Bland later committed suicide in a county jail. The officer was fired.
And in Austin, many are still reeling from the February shooting of David Joseph, a naked, unarmed 17-year-old shot and killed by former Officer Geoffrey Freeman after police said Joseph charged at the officer. Freeman was fired, but a grand jury declined to indict him.
In an interview this week, King said she is contemplating a lawsuit against the officer and the Austin Police Department and has hired attorneys Broadus Spivey and Erica Grigg to represent her.
“When I looked at this video, I was heartbroken because I thought, ‘That would never happen to me because I’m white,’ ” Grigg said.
‘It happened really fast’
King’s account, police reports and dash camera videos help provide a narrative from the incident on the afternoon of June 15, 2015.
King, who grew up in Austin and is finishing a master’s degree at Texas State University, said she was driving on a lunch break. Richter said he clocked her Nissan Versa speeding at 50 mph in a 35 mph zone traveling eastbound on Riverside Drive.
King got out of her car in a Wendy’s parking lot, and Richter is seen approaching her in the dashcam video. What’s being said is not entirely clear on the video, but Richter wrote in his report that King told him she was going inside for lunch and that he suspected she was trying to elude him because she didn’t appear to have a wallet. He asked her return to her car.
King sat in the driver’s seat but kept the door of her car open and her legs and feet outside the car. Richter is heard instructing her to sit fully in the car so that he could close the door.
“I did this so that if she decided to exit the vehicle again, it would give me some sort of reaction time to her doing so, versus her being half way out of the vehicle with the door open giving her an easy escape,” he wrote.
“At this point I was worried her uncooperative attitude would only escalate once I returned to my vehicle (to write the ticket),” Richter said in his report.
At that point, the video shows Richter reaching inside and grabbing King, who told police she weighs 112 pounds, as she begins to scream. The car’s horn is blaring during the struggle, and then, King is heard asking Richter, who had been shouting, “Stop resisting!” to allow her to get out on her own.
The struggle then continued, and Richter is seen throwing King to the ground. He yells for her to put her hands behind her back. King said in an interview that she struggled to do so as the two continued tussling.
The officer is then seen throwing her to the ground again.
King said that she did not think Richter gave her an opportunity to respond to his commands.
“It happened really fast,” said King, who suffered minor scrapes and bruises and saw a doctor the following day. “I wasn’t given enough time.”
In subsequent videos, King is seen distraught and handcuffed in the back of a police car, yelling at other officers to keep Richter away from her and her property. Spradlin’s comments came as he and King neared the jail and engaged in a conversation about race and police.
“Why are so many people afraid of black people,” Spradlin asks King.
She replies, “That’s what I want to figure out because I’m not a bad black person.”
“I can give you a really good idea why it might be that way,” the officer tells her. “Violent tendencies.”
When she asks if he thinks racism still exists, he says, “Let me ask you this. Do you believe it goes both ways?”
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, when you hear about stuff like that, it is the black community that is being violent. That’s why a lot of the white people are afraid, and I don’t blame them. There are some guys I look at, and I know it is my job to deal with them, and I know it might go ugly, but that’s the way it goes.
“But yeah, some of them, because of their appearance and whatnot, some of them are very intimidating,” he says.
Austin police policy requires officers to use the minimum amount of force necessary in dealing with suspects. Departmental policy also requires police to maintain an impartial attitude, saying officers “will not express or otherwise manifest any prejudice concerning race, religion, national origin, age, political affiliation, sex or other personal characteristics in the performance of their duties.”
More than a year later, King said she remains distraught about what happened and that it has forever changed how she views police.
“I’ve become fearful to live my life,” she said. “I would rather stay home. I’ve become afraid of the people who are supposed to protect me and take care of me.”