Officer who shot naked, unarmed teen David Joseph: ‘I defended myself’

In his first detailed account of his actions, former Austin police officer Geoffrey Freeman contended he made no errors in shooting a naked, unarmed teen. He gave himself an “A” for his actions that day, and he solely blames the youth for a 10-second chain of events that ended in their deadly clash, documents obtained by the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV show.

Freeman, who had been on the force 11 years and was fired for the Feb. 8 shooting, acknowledged he could have used other weapons — including his hands, a Taser, a baton and pepper spray — to fend off 17-year-old David Joseph, but said he opted to fire his gun because he saw the charging teen as a threat to his life.

He described the shooting as a classic case of self-defense.

“My intent was to get there, hold the scene, hold him there if he stayed there,” Freeman testified as part of a deposition in a federal wrongful death lawsuit filed by the Joseph family. “I tried to wait. … I gave ample distance. He chose to charge at me.”

VIDEO: Dashcam video captures fatal shooting of David Joseph

The shooting led to an immediate firestorm over Freeman’s use of lethal force, which many — including Chief Art Acevedo — saw as a deadly overreaction. It intensified already brewing friction between Acevedo and many officers about how police use force, particularly against minority members, and exposed what some have described as a disconnect between the standards of rank-and-file officers, and those of Acevedo and the chief’s bosses at City Hall.

Acevedo, who angered officers by standing with groups such as Black Lives Matters days after the shooting, fired Freeman for a number of policy violations, including the use of unreasonable force, and flatly declared him unsuitable to work in law enforcement. But the police union continues to vigorously defend Freeman.

RELATED: Acevedo vents about minority policing in secretly taped meeting

The case is one of two highly controversial Austin police use-of-force encounters to receive public scrutiny in recent months at a time of national focus on the issue. The second involved the violent arrest of teacher Breaion King, which remains under an internal and criminal investigation.

The release of a 257-page transcript of Freeman’s deposition and accompanying four-hour video comes at a crucial time in the case: Freeman and the city are preparing for a weeklong arbitration in early December in which he is seeking reinstatement. City lawyers also are weighing whether to resolve the lawsuit against Freeman by possibly taking it to trial next year or settling the case.

The documents also mark the most comprehensive account from Freeman, who provided a more limited statement to detectives immediately after the shooting that prosecutors released in May after a grand jury declined to indict him. The deposition records were provided to the Statesman by the Joseph family attorney, who questioned Freeman under oath in a proceeding that at times grew heated, particularly concerning how Freeman assessed Joseph’s intentions moments before firing.

“You aren’t in my darn shoes,” Freeman shouted at the attorney, Jeff Edwards. “You don’t know me. You have no idea what he was going to do. You don’t know. You weren’t there. I was.”

Freeman’s attorney declined to comment for this story.

Waiting for backup

Previously released law enforcement reports provide a narrative of what happened the morning leading up to the shooting.

Police had received several 911 calls about disturbances in a neighborhood near Interstate 35 and Tech Ridge Boulevard. Callers reported that a man had been chasing residents in the area. At 10:22 a.m., Freeman rolled toward the 12000 block of Natures Bend, responding to a report about a naked man running across the street.

One minute later, he radioed, “Let’s get a couple of other units on this. It sounds like this guy could either be, he’s a 10-96 (subject with mental illness) and losing it or high or something.” Two additional officers radioed that they were on the way.

Freeman, 42, arrived alone in his patrol car at 10:25 a.m. and asked backup officers to hurry. Video captured from a camera in Freeman’s car shows Joseph, who was naked, standing in the middle of the street.

In the video, Freeman exits his car, and Joseph almost instantly sprints toward him, covering about 90 feet in about seven seconds before the gunshots. Freeman commanded Joseph several times to stop and “don’t move” before firing. Freeman shot twice, hitting Joseph in the chest, leg and hand.

The first backup officer arrived one minute and 27 seconds after Freeman requested them.

Under tense questioning from Edwards, Freeman described every step he took in the encounter, beginning with his decision to get out of his police cruiser when he saw Joseph standing in the street instead of waiting for more officers.

“I’m not going to sit in my car with a subject that’s being a threat to the public already,” he said. “I’m going to get out where I can react to whatever he is going to need, whatever he is going to do. Because if I sit in my car, and he runs into somebody’s house, you know, getting out of the car and this and that would have slowed me down. I need to be ready to go do whatever I need to go do.”

He said he was trying not to engage Joseph.

“So the distance I gave was to stay back, watch him, wait for other units to get there,” Freeman said. “When they got there, we would handle it accordingly.”

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At multiple points in the deposition, Edwards questioned Freeman about his decision to draw his gun, drilling him repeatedly about why he thought lethal force was justified.

Freeman testified that he had an array of weaponry on his belt, and acknowledged under questioning from Edwards that all would have been easy for him to use.

“I could have used my hands,” Freeman said. “We could get into a fight. Could everything be OK? Possibly. Could he have still gotten seriously hurt with my hands, by using my hands? Possibly. Could he have gotten killed by my hands? Possibly. Could he have killed me with his hands? Absolutely.”

Freeman said that, based on his experience, he didn’t think his Taser stun gun would be effective on someone in Joseph’s condition. (An autopsy report later concluded that Joseph had Xanax and marijuana in his system at the time of his death, but he tested negative for other drugs such as PCP.)

“It’s all this what-if stuff,” Freeman said. “Of course I could have tried to switch to something like that, but the situation is what it is. What happened is what happened. And you know, could I have switched to Taser? Sure. Or tried to? Sure. Would it have been effective? Maybe, maybe not.”

Freeman said he thought lethal force was appropriate based on the “totality” of the circumstances.

“I can’t defend myself?” Freeman asked Edwards. “So if someone is not of their right mental state and he just decides and wants to rush after me and attack me, I just have to stand there and take it? Not do anything?”

‘You don’t need to be a cop’

In firing Freeman, Acevedo objected to multiple actions the officer took that morning, saying in a memo that “Officer Freeman’s approach to Mr. Joseph was not objectively reasonable. At the time of his approach, no one was under a threat of imminent harm of suffering serious bodily injury or death by Mr. Joseph.”

He added that Freeman had violated policies in his approach of a subject who might be experiencing “excited delirium,” which requires officers to wait for backup.

Acevedo also said Freeman had many other options available, but “chose to immediately respond to this situation with deadly force.”

In a recently secretly recorded meeting with his top commanders — a copy of which was obtained by the Statesman — Acevedo was more blunt: “If you can’t handle a kid in broad daylight, naked, and your first instinct is to come out with your gun, and your next instinct is to shoot the kid dead, you don’t need to be a cop.”

But in his court deposition, Freeman said he thinks he Acevedo’s decision to fire him is based less on his actions and more on a national climate of strained relations between minority communities and police.

“Chief Acevedo had an agenda,” Freeman said. “He decided that in order to meet the political agenda, with the current political status of what is going on right now in the country, he felt that it’s the move that he needed to do, and he fired me based on opinions, because of the heat that was on his back from – from everybody else.”

Freeman said he hasn’t found another job since his firing.

In a moment of emotional reflection in the deposition, Edwards asked Freeman about how the shooting has affected him.

“Has it been horrible for you?” Edwards asked.

“What do you think? I enjoy this?” Freeman responded.

“I imagine it’s going to be with you the rest of your life,” Edwards said.

“Absolutely,” Freeman said. “I wouldn’t wish this on anybody, not even my worst enemy.”

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