This weekend the Houston Chronicle reported on the 2012 shooting death of Kenny Releford, an unarmed mentally ill person, at the hands of a Houston police officer.
Thanks to a lawsuit brought by the victim’s father, records and witness testimonies have recently been made available. The lawsuit challenges HPD’s internal review process and alleges department official condone using lethal force through their rulings.
After lawyers further investigation of the documents, a few questions linger: is the system used to investigate shootings by the HPD rigged? Does the department condone the use of lethal force, no matter the circumstances?
Lise Olsen is one of the authors of this weekend’s story. She says the most shocking finding in her investigation was that HPD has virtually never found that an officer-involved shooting was not justified.
“This is the shooting that really didn’t attract a lot of attention,” Olsen says. “But it happened two weeks after another man was shot dead by police officers.”
The first man was also unarmed and in a wheelchair when he was shot by officers in the same HPD patrol area, which became a national story.
“Releford’s dad went to investigators and lawyers about his son’s shooting,” Olsen says. “They had that question – What happened here? Why did two people within two weeks get shot who were both unarmed mentally ill (people)?”
Lawyers requested records and got them for five different controversial cases, all three years before Releford’s shooting.
Olsen says information from those internal reviews, as well as statistics gathered by the department itself, made the argument that HPD has never sound an officer-involved shooting anything but either an “accident” or completely justified.
“Even when the officer was drunk,” Olsen says. “Even when the officer shot an unarmed mentally ill man. Even when the officer was out of uniform and didn’t have a permit for an extra job and shot someone in the back.”
The data showed HPD has had more than 150 shootings since 2010, with many deemed justified. From 2009 to 2012, all of the officer-involved shootings were deemed justified.
In fact, Olsen says, bad HPD shootings aren’t ever unjustified, they’re instead deemed accidental. Releford’s case in unprecedented in scope. It’s one of the most serious challenges to the whole system of reviews of shootings by HPD, Olsen says.
The case is pending before a federal judge, which could decide to dismiss the city out of the suit and say they’re immune from lawsuits, which Olsen says has happened in other officer-involved shooting cases.