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Austin’s 10 Most Serious Police Incidents in 2011

Nathan Bernier

The Office of the Austin Police Monitor 2011 annual report is filled with sobering statistics.  

Minorities, particularly blacks and Hispanics, are more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than whites, the report found. Traffic stops resulted in a search one out of eight times for black drivers and one out of ten times for Hispanics, but only one out of 28 times for white Austinites. The report also shows that there was an increase in formal complaints against police, from 316 cases in 2010 to 344 in 2011. 

But separate from the statistics is the OPM's Serious Incident Review, highlighting "the more serious cases" the office addressed in 2011. While ethnicity and incident location are omitted in these write-ups, they include a detailed sequence of events, as well as the cases’ outcomes.

The findings are illuminating: some cases received ample media coverage, while others did not. While the entire 2011 annual report is worth reading, below are excerpts from the OPM's Serious Incident cases last year:

  • May 9, 2011: Officer Steven Pena responded to a 911 call from a woman whose estranged boyfriend was trying to gain entry to her apartment with a handgun:
Officer Pena gave verbal commands to the suspect who then turned in the direction of Officer Pena and fired his weapon. Officer Pena fired fatally striking the suspect. Officer Pena and his backup officer secured the residence without incident.

Outcome: The case was administratively closed.  

  • May 30, 2011: Officers Nathan Wagner and Jeffrey Rodriguez were conducting downtown surveillance to deter a recent slew of vehicle break-ins, when they spotted what they described as  two suspicious-looking males in a vehicle:  

As the officers began to approach the vehicle, the vehicle pulled forward rapidly causing Officers Wagner and Rodriguez to jump out of the way. Officer Wagner heard a cry from Officer Rodriguez. Believing Officer Rodriguez had been struck by the vehicle, Officer Wagner discharged his weapon at the vehicle. Officer Wagner fired several shots wounding the driver and fatally wounding the passenger [Byron Carter Jr.]

Outcome: The case was administratively closed, anda grand jury declined to indict Officer Wagner. 

  • July 24, 2011: Officer Scott Garner responded to a 911 call about a young male passed out at the wheel of a running vehicle:
The male was transported to the hospital.  EMS, AFD, and other APD officers on the scene had a clear indication that the male was probably intoxicated. Officer Garner arrived at the hospital, and after a brief examination the male was released to Officer Garner’s custody where he performed basic field sobriety tests in the parking lot. Officer Garner made the determination to take the male home.  Officer Garner’s chain of command initiated a complaint on the basis that Officer Garner was instructed to arrest the male for DWI or PI and did not have permission to release the male to his parents.

Outcome: Officer Garner was indefinitely suspended for insubordination and dishonesty in his account of the incident. 

  • July 17, 2011: A young male with a handgun wearing a shirt labeled “Police” was arrested outside a fast food restaurant for impersonating an officer:
The suspect was reported to be very respectful and was arrested and transported without incident. Once inside the jail, while the transporting officer was booking the suspect in, he heard a noise coming from behind him and noticed that the suspect was having a seizure. Travis County jail staff, including two nurses, began assisting the suspect. In the meantime, EMS was also called. During the transport to Brackenridge hospital, the suspect went into cardiac arrest. Despite efforts to revive the suspect, he passed away.

Outcome: The case was administratively closed.

  • August 15, 2011: Two APD officers (names not disclosed) responded to an armed robbery of a convenience store and ended up pursing the suspect by a nearby motel:
Both officers exited their patrol units and began running in the direction of the suspect.  Another officer stopped his patrol unit where the sidewalk meets the parking lot of the motel.  When the suspect ran in the direction of that patrol unit, the officer fired six (6) shots at the suspect through his patrol unit’s front passenger window.  The suspect was not struck and continued running.  The officer then got out of his patrol unit and pursued the suspect on foot. … The suspect was apprehended a short while later by other officers without incident.

Outcome: Disciplinary recommendations were made to the police chief regarding the shots fired, but due to civil service laws the recommendations are not disclosed. 

  • Early September 2011: Complaints were made alleging an officer’s use of excessive force during the arrest of suspect Elisa James:
The investigation revealed that Officer Michelle Gish had responded to the scene to assist in securing a female suspect. As the handcuffed suspect was being secured to the EMS gurney, she spit in Officer Gish’s face. Officer Gish struck the suspect in the face at least once.  The investigation also revealed that Officer Gish, Officer [Jose] Robledo, and Corporal Steven Jones had not properly documented the use of force and Sgt. Breckenridge had not conducted a proper response to resistance investigation.  It was further determined that Officers Gish and Robledo had been untruthful during the investigation.  

Outcome: Officers Gish and Robledo were indefinitely suspended; Corporal Jones received a 10-day suspension and Sergeant Mark Breckenridge received a 20-day suspension for failing to adequately investigate the incident. 

The nature of the contract was that officers would be paid to provide around the clock security and surveillance of his daughter as she attended the University of Texas.  In contrast to the initial job description, the only task performed by the officers was sitting in their personal vehicle keeping tabs on the daughter’s residence and her comings and goings. An additional four officers had worked the contract on one or multiple occasions over the course of a few months to a year and were paid several thousands of dollars in cash that was not reported to IRS. 

Outcome: One officer retired in the wake of the investigation; another resigned and was later convicted of income tax evasion and sentenced to one year in federal prison.

  • December 5, 2011: APD responded to a Travis County Sheriffs' Office call requesting help pursuing a subject: 
As officers and deputies were searching for the suspect after he abandoned his vehicle, persons in a nearby residence reported that the suspect was in their home. Shortly thereafter, the garage door opened and the suspect began backing a vehicle out into the driveway. An APD officer fired several rounds at the vehicle striking and wounding the suspect in the wrist. The suspect was able to barricade himself in another building in the area where he subsequently surrendered to law enforcement.

Outcome: This case is currently pending.

  • Early December 2011: A burglary victim complained about Detective Richard Munoz’s handling of her case, saying that despite concerns about her family’s safety, the detective was  inattentive, "rude and condescending:"
An investigation was initiated and it was determined that Detective Munoz’s actions in this and other cases were improper. There was also a determination that Detective Munoz had not been truthful during the investigation.

Outcome: These actions coupled with Detective Munoz’s disciplinary history lead to an indefinite suspension.

  • An ongoing investigation from the 2010 Annual Report: Officer Frank Wilson and another officer observed a vehicle that ran a stop sign in a residential area. The officers pursued the vehicle. The pursuit resulted in a car chase. The suspect then exited his vehicle, and Officer Wilson pursued on foot:    
As Officer Wilson attempted to cuff the suspect, the suspect managed to get free and broke through the yard’s wooden fence. Officer Wilson once again caught up to the suspect and engaged in another physical struggle. As Officer Wilson and the suspect were involved in the struggle, the suspect pulled a knife from Officer Wilson’s duty belt and cut Officer Wilson across the neck. Officer Wilson drew his weapon and fired one round into the suspect. The suspect released his grip from Officer Wilson and staggered off collapsing in the driveway of another residence.

Outcome: The suspect, later revealed to be cleared "Yogurt Shop Murders" suspectMaurice Pierce, died from his wounds. Officer Wilson was cut on his neck but recovered after surgery. The case involving Officer Wilson was administratively closed in July of 2011.

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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