Statistics of officer-involved shootings are scarce in Texas. But the investigations team at the Houston Chronicle has been examining the city’s police force to get a handle on the numbers.
“That was the burning question out there,” Olsen says. “We know that police in Houston and elsewhere are often involved in armed conflicts with people who are committing crimes. … When someone who is mentally ill or unarmed or a teenager with no gun or no weapon at all gets shot, it becomes an incident of a little bit more public importance and scrutiny is warranted.”
Olsen found at least 40 cases where a person was shot while unarmed, using a conservative definition of what constitutes a weapon.
In some cases, police officers have deemed a car a weapon or questioned whether a piece of wood in the hands of a person with mental health challenges is dangerous.
Olsen was able to obtain full or partial files of 12 of the 40 cases of officer-involved shootings of unarmed people. Police internal affairs reports are not public in Texas.
Olsen says she looked at how police examined the shootings and she found there wasn’t enough rigor in the internal investigations.
“What we found was of concern to us,” she says. “We had … a number of incidents where the physical evidence contradicted the officer’s account of the shooting. There were incidents where there was inexplicably … no sobriety test conducted of an officer who was drunk when he shot two people.”
That raised questions about how objective the investigations really were, Olsen says.
“Was the analysis done in a way that was really based on fact or did it simply bend over backward to try to confirm what the officer said was true,” she says.
Officers were disciplined in five of the 12 cases Olsen looked at.
“What we were finding in our analysis was that there was just this culture of secrecy [that] had kept the public from knowing some things that they needed to know,” Olsen says. “When mistakes are made they need to be aired so we can all learn from those mistakes.”
Post by Beth Cortez-Neavel.