Unarmed, asleep and shot: Case raises questions about police shootings

  • Eva Ruth Moravec
  • Special to the American-Statesman
Sept 04, 2017
Reginald Rossow lifts his shirt to show his scars from being shot through the wall of his apartment in Clute, a town south of Houston. His neighbor, an off-duty police officer, had discharged his service weapon, authorities said. MICHAEL CIAGLO/HOUSTON CHRONICLE

At first, Reggie Rossow Jr. didn’t realize the “pop” that jarred him from his sleep and nearly rolled him off the bed was a gunshot.

It was the last thing he expected – to be lying in bed, sleeping, and get shot – especially by the officer who lives next door. Yet that’s exactly what authorities say happened on Jan. 30, 2016, in Clute, 57 miles south of Houston. They say Freeport police officer Matthew Gregory McInnis fired his gun by accident through his apartment’s bedroom wall.

McInnis, then a 25-year-old rookie, resigned within days and was quietly indicted six months later on a charge of deadly conduct, a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by a fine up to $4,000, up to one year in jail or both. His trial is set for late October.

It’s rare for officers to be indicted for shooting unarmed civilians in Texas or elsewhere in the U.S., and few recent prosecutions have led to convictions. Unlike two recent high-profile arrests and indictments of officers on felony murder charges in the Dallas area, McInnis’ misdemeanor arrest was never trumpeted in a news release or in headlines.

Basic information on the case — one of Texas’ 330 officer-involved shootings in the past 22 months — was unearthed mainly because of a 2015 state law that requires police departments to report certain information on officer-involved shootings. It calls for the Texas attorney general to collect and publish online one-page reports that reveal key details about how Texas officers use deadly force.

Fifty-six people —1 of every 6 people shot — were unarmed. Among those unarmed victims, 23 were African-American, 20 were white and 13 were Hispanic or Latino.

ALSO READ: Dying, unarmed black man tells Texas trooper: I didn’t think you’d shoot

It is those unarmed cases that most concern experts, law enforcement and advocates alike. Cases highlighted in this series have explored how factors such as mental illness, race, loose dogs, protection of property and accidents contributed to fatal and nonfatal shootings statewide.

Even among all of those cases, the circumstances of Rossow’s shooting — at home and in his bed — stand out.

Not ‘your typical police shooting’

Barely awake, Rossow reached around and felt blood, and he figured he’d somehow been cut. He was still groggy several minutes later when McInnis knocked on the apartment door and asked Rossow’s wife if something had happened. Then McInnis identified himself as a Freeport police officer and admitted he’d fired his weapon, Rossow said in an interview for this story.

The bullet tunneled through Rossow’s spleen, which had to be removed, leaving Rossow, then 35, susceptible to infection and saddled with $50,000 in medical bills, he said.

For weeks, Rossow recovered at a relative’s house and slept in a recliner. Back at home, he was uncomfortable living in an apartment filled with memories of the shooting. He moved to another unit in the same complex.

“It took me three days to figure out where I was going to put my bed and then I ended up sleeping on an air mattress,” Rossow said 18 months after the shooting. “I just got a new bed, because every time I’d try to sleep in that bed — I just couldn’t sleep.”

McInnis continued living in the same apartment until he was arrested. Exactly what caused him to fire his duty weapon through the wall, according to authorities, remains a mystery.

RELATED: Cases handled differently when off-duty officers shoot someone

The Freeport Police Department and Brazoria County district attorney’s office have declined to comment because of the pending case against McInnis. Clute police Capt. Diane Turner, who investigated the shooting, said McInnis did undergo a drug and alcohol test, “but neither one was a factor.”

McInnis had been a licensed officer for only six weeks when the shooting occurred. According to records from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, McInnis completed the College of the Mainland’s Basic Peace Officer Academy in December 2015 and was sworn in to the Freeport Police Department days later. In photos from a swearing-in ceremony, a fresh-faced McInnis is smiling shyly, flanked by his father, Greg McInnis, and mother, Irma Romero McInnis, a former Galveston County sheriff’s department officer.

It was McInnis’ dream to be an officer, his father said during a brief interview outside the family’s home one evening while Matthew McInnis was still at work at a Houston-area water park.

“My son is a wonderful person, and it’s a terrible thing that happened,” Greg McInnis said. “I pray about it every night.”

Matthew McInnis did not respond to multiple interview requests. He rejected a plea deal, and his defense attorney, Charles Adams, said he doesn’t think McInnis is guilty.

“This is different from your typical police shooting,” Adams said.

Rossow, who had let his health insurance lapse because he was about to start a new job, is stuck with the medical bills. He spoke to lawyers about filing a lawsuit but was advised it would be financially futile. The incident would not be covered by city insurance since McInnis was off duty.

“It’s just felt this whole time like nobody really cares,” Rossow said.

Leading to reforms

The state’s newly required officer-involved shooting reports featured in this series shed light on his case and other previously unknown cases that reveal how and why unarmed people were shot by Texas police officers.

And some of those stories have already contributed to reforms.

In October, readers learned about Garrett Steven McKinney, a 21-year-old from Austin who was shot and killed in an altercation with a Texas Department of Public Safety officer outside of a hospital in Paris, Texas. McKinney’s family said he was there to seek mental health treatment, causing some to push for better training for law enforcement.

HURTING TO DEATH: Police shooting ends man’s battle with mental illness

During the spring legislative session, lawmakers upped the required 16 hours of mental health training for all Texas peace officers to 40 as part of a law named for Sandra Bland, whose controversial arrest and in-custody death received national attention.

Another story in this series revealed that Texas departments had failed to report at least a dozen fatal shootings. That story bolstered arguments to tighten the statewide reporting requirement, and lawmakers approved fines for departments that fail to comply.

Only Texas and California require police departments to file reports when officers get shot or when officers shoot civilians on duty or off duty.

“Texas has the opportunity to lead the nation in transparency and accountability in policing,” said the law’s author, Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas. “We made great strides by passing a law last session to require officer-involved shootings and peace officer injuries and deaths to be reported, but (we) need to make sure our data is complete.”

Punishments are few

Few officer-involved shootings, even of unarmed subjects, since September 2015 have resulted in the prosecution or punishment of an officer, a review of dozens of cases statewide shows.

The reasons vary. Officers, like other citizens, are permitted to use deadly force in self-defense. Peace officers in Texas are also justified in using deadly force if they believe it is immediately necessary to make or assist in making an arrest or search, or to prevent escape if they reasonably believe their life or someone else’s life is in danger.

“The law, in a lot of these cases, tends to maybe favor the officers — it’s tough to overcome a lot of the defenses,” said former Harris County Assistant District Attorney Julian Ramirez, who oversaw reviews of several dozen officer-involved shootings annually before leaving office this year.

“Also, I think most people tend to be sympathetic towards officers and are going to afford their version of events, and their testimony, great weight.”

A QUESTION OF RESTRAINT: How nearly 300 people died while in Texas officers’ custody

While district attorneys handle things somewhat differently statewide, in larger counties, officer-involved shooting cases are reviewed by a specialized unit. In Dallas and Harris counties, all of the cases are then presented to a grand jury, which chooses whether to indict based on any allegations of violations of Texas laws. Travis and Bexar County present only selected cases to grand juries.

“If there’s a case where all the facts indicate that no crime occurred, it did not make sense to use limited grand jury resources where we knew that the only credible outcome is a no-bill,” said Dexter Gilford, director of the civil rights unit at the Travis County district attorney’s office.

Police departments separately conduct internal affairs investigations to decide whether to impose punishments for violations of policies, such as excessive or improper use of force or improper pursuit procedures. Often departments wait to make disciplinary decisions until criminal probes are complete — but not always.

In March 2016, Austin police officer Geoffrey Freeman was fired for violating several department policies in the shooting death of a naked, unarmed teen running toward him.

But in May 2016 a grand jury declined to indict the officer in the shooting of David Joseph. Freeman, who said he shot because he feared being overpowered by the teen, appealed his termination, and the city settled the dispute in December 2016, paying the officer $35,000 and classifying his termination as a “general discharge,” allowing him to keep his peace officer’s license.

In February, the city of Austin separately paid Joseph’s relatives $3.25 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit.

THE TALK: A tough conversation about race and policing in Austin

Art Acevedo’s decision as Austin police chief to fire Freeman before the grand jury probe was complete upset the local union and caused a rift between administration and rank-and-file. Still, Acevedo, who is now Houston police chief, insists it was the right thing.

“It is a freaky thing to have a naked guy running at you full speed. But freaking out is not what we want officers to do,” he said in an interview. “Well-trained officers respond appropriately with the level of force that’s appropriate to the totality of the circumstances.”

Those who are charged

Philip M. Stinson, a Bowling Green State University associate professor of criminal justice, tracks prosecutions of officers for on-duty fatal shootings nationwide. This year, four officers, including one from Texas, have been charged with murder. A second Texas officer was charged criminally last year in an off-duty shooting.

Both Texas prosecutions occurred in Dallas County. The victims in both cases were unarmed teenagers who were shot by officers while driving or riding in vehicles.

Roy Oliver is accused of shooting a rifle into a car full of teenagers driving away from a party in early May, killing Jordan Edwards, 15. Within days, the Balch Springs police officer was fired and arrested on a charge of murder. In July, a grand jury indicted Oliver on one count of murder and four counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon by a public servant.

In March 2016, off-duty Farmers Branch police officer Ken Johnson was accused of chasing and then shooting two teenagers, killing one and wounding the other. He was charged with murder in the death of Jose Raul Cruz and aggravated assault in the injury of Edgar Rodriguez. Johnson has said he pursued the pair because he suspected them of breaking into his vehicle. Neither was armed.

Arrests happened swiftly in those two cases. But in McInnis’ case, a half-year passed before the officer was indicted on the misdemeanor charge in the shooting of his neighbor through the apartment wall. He was arrested, and some time after he was released from jail on a $15,000 bond, he left flowers and an apology note at Rossow’s new apartment door one building over.

Rossow had not previously heard from McInnis or from his former police department. Like many others wounded by police officers, he’s received no compensation as a crime victim and remains stuck with medical bills.

Upon seeing who had left the gift, Rossow threw it in the trash.