Austin police records show an unprecedented trend emerging in 2018: Three of the eight police shootings this year have involved five or more officers. That’s up from zero shootings involving more than four officers from 2008 to 2017.
In the city’s latest police shooting on Aug. 17, which left 21-year-old Aquantis Griffin dead in the bustling downtown entertainment district, eight officers fired lethal rounds and a ninth fired a stun gun. A police spokeswoman confirmed that more officers fired weapons in that incident than in any other on record in Austin.
Earlier in the year, five officers shot and killed Victor Ancira on March 7 while he was holding a pickax in the 4800 block of Tanney Street in East Austin. Three others used less-lethal weapons.
About a month before that, seven officers shot at 23-year-old Thomas Vincent Alvarez, who led police on a chase in Southeast Austin that ended in the 4900 block of Edge Creek Drive, authorities said.
Two officers fired weapons in shootings on March 12 and Aug. 3. A lone officer fired a weapon in each of the remaining three police shootings on Jan. 26, March 25 and June 7.
From 2008 to 2017, 41 of 57 Austin police shootings, or 72 percent of them, involved one officer firing. Eleven shootings involved two officers firing, three incidents involved three officers shooting, and four officers fired in two cases.
“We are aware that his year has been unique,” Police Chief Brian Manley said. “When we look at each of them, they each have some unique factors that I think led up to it.”
More time, more officers
Manley said the shootings of Ancira and Alvarez both happened after a drawn-out encounter allowed more officers to respond.
After negotiating with Ancira, officers fired at him with bean bags and a stun gun. Then, about 25 minutes after the first officers arrived, according to police, officers shot at Ancira as he raised a pickax he was holding and moved toward police.
In Alvarez’s case, he led officers on a chase Feb. 19 that ended at an apartment complex on Edge Creek Drive, according to police. He pulled up to the complex entrance around 6 p.m., and was holding a gun to his head, police said.
Manley said that Alvarez tried to ram the apartment complex gate, but couldn’t get through. Police called in the SWAT team and negotiators, but at 6:42 p.m., after Alvarez pointed a gun at officers twice, police said, officers opened fire.
“Given the amount of time, there was a large number of officers who had responded as the incident developed,” Manley said. “When the suspect took actions that resulted in officers using force, many of them perceived that same threat.”
The death of Griffin, however, had no extended negotiation or SWAT team response. Police working on Sixth Street said they heard gunshots about 1 a.m. coming from behind the Terminal 6 bar.
As officers responded, they saw a man running toward them with a gun, police said. They ordered the man to drop the weapon before they fired, Assistant Police Chief Troy Gay said at the time.
“Sixth Street didn’t manifest over a lengthy period of time,” Manley said. “Officers actually heard shots being fired that drew everybody up to that alleyway. But on Sixth Street we have a larger number of officers working in larger groups.”
In that incident, eight officers fired their guns at Griffin and a ninth used his stun gun, which showed that police were willing to use different levels of force, Manley said.
“If time allows and you have enough officers, you should have officers ready to deploy with various levels of weapon, ranging from less-lethal to firearms,” Manley said. “I think the fact that not every officer had their firearm out means they were bringing other force options into consideration.”
Manley said all three cases remain under investigation, but a week after the Aug. 17 shooting, investigators still had not interviewed the officers.
“We are doing a review of each of these incidents, but we recognize this is a unique set of circumstances,” Manley said. “We are reviewing training we are giving officers to make sure it is still in line with best practices.”
Austin’s Police Monitor Farah Muscadin also is looking into the cases.
Muscadin said it’s still too early to draw conclusions about the shootings, but she could make recommendations to police when investigators finish examining each case.
In the meantime, Muscadin said she or an employee of the civilian oversight office has full access to police records in the cases, and will sit in on interviews with officers and witnesses.
“It is important for the community to know we are there. We are participating in every interview. I personally sit in on every interview. We are engaged. We have access to all the files, videos and reports. We are monitoring it,” she said.
Officer mindset in shootings
But having multiple officers fire at a person does not bring more protection to those who pulled the trigger, said G.M. Cox, who served as a police chief in four Texas cities over 34 years.
Cox, now a Tarleton State University assistant professor directing public administration programs, said the law requires each officer who uses force to formulate his or her own justification for doing so. Even if more than one officer fires, the incident cannot be seen by investigators as a collective action. Each officer has to show that he or she used force because they felt that either they were in danger of serious injury or death, or that a fellow officer or civilian was in peril.
But how officers come to that decision can vary because of such factors as experience, communication skills, personality and fear.
“They are looking at physical clues, body language, presence of a knife or gun,” Cox said. “Each of them are processing that information at different speed. We may not even see the same thing.”
Cox has a theory that he wrote about in a Dallas Morning News op-ed in 2016 about officer mindset and how outfitting police with militaristic equipment and uniforms needs to be addressed.
“We put police officers in harm’s way by creating the mindset that all of this equipment to deliver pain or death is the norm. Over time, officers begin to think it’s alright to use the equipment, or they wouldn’t have it,” Cox wrote. “Put simply, if law enforcement professionals dress and equip themselves as soldiers, they will act like part of a broader military machine, and those they protect — and arrest — will respond in kind.”
Cox said he believes that most officers are honorable men and women who strive to do the best job they can every day, but at the very heart of police shootings is an idea that gets drilled into their heads: An officer’s highest priority is that they go home alive at the end of their shift.
“(The idea that) the most important duty is to go home creates a conflict with reality, with responsibility and with priority of life we should be teaching our cops,” Cox said. “Their most important priority is not that they go home at the end of their shift. It’s that the citizens go home at the end of their day.”
The American-Statesman investigated Austin police training in April, when 10 cadets said their training at the academy was out of step with the progressive reforms being heralded by department brass.
In June, Manley called for a cultural shift at the academy to emphasize the role of police as public servants, rather than strictly enforcers of the law.
Manley said he does not believe that there is a culture within Police Department in which more officers are electing to fire during officer-involved shootings. Manley said every Austin police officer who uses force is trained to make their own independent assessment of the threat they encounter, and each must explain themselves after they take action.
“Any officer-involved shooting is troubling in that we were unable to resolve the situation in a peaceful manner regardless of our attempts to do so, and that’s why again we have invested and continue to invest in training officers in de-escalation techniques, and we’re also looking at improvements to mental health training for officers because often times, critical incidents involve people in mental health crisis,” Manley said.
AUSTIN POLICE SHOOTINGS
2014: Four shootings involving a total of five officers.
2015: Seven shootings, total of eight officers.
2016: Nine shootings, 12 officers.
2017: Nine shootings, 13 officers.
2018: Eight shootings, 27 officers.