A Cousin's Mission To Say All The Things David Joseph Couldn't
Vanessa Bissereth learned of her cousin’s death in the newspaper.
“Of course it made headlines – ‘Teenager Killed’ – but there was no name,” she said. Her aunt had been calling her for five days to tell her what happened, but Vanessa hadn’t answered.
“I know it’s horrible, but these things happen a lot. Police often kill African-American kids and while it’s unfortunate, it’s ingrained in you for some reason, which is even worse that it’s just another day,” she said. “It wasn’t until later when I saw my cousin’s picture in the newspaper.”
Seventeen-year-old David Joseph had been shot and killed in February 2016 by an officer with the Austin Police Department. KUT spent more than a year following Vanessa as she tried to make sense of his death.
At first glance, this is what makes Vanessa stand out: She wears a flannel hunter cap year-round. She longboards instead of drives. And at 27, she ignores the social norms of her generation: When we met four months after David’s death, she didn’t use Facebook or Twitter, and had never owned a cellphone.
Despite her reclusiveness, Vanessa felt an urgency to act.
"My aunt is afraid that people will forget her son,” she said. “And I do not want them to forget.”
On the morning of Feb. 8, 2016, Officer Geoffrey Freeman responded to calls of a young man acting strangely in a North Austin neighborhood. In police documents, witnesses described a naked or partially clothed young black man at times acting “slow and lethargic,” at other times “aggressive.”
When Freeman, who had worked for APD for more than a decade, drove into the neighborhood, David was standing in the middle of the street. Leaving about 30 feet between him and David, Freeman switched on his lights and got out of the car.
David started sprinting toward the squad car. The officer yelled “Don’t move! Don’t move!’ before firing his gun twice. In video recorded of the shooting, David makes no audible sound as Freeman calls for an ambulance and pleads with David: “Breathe for me.”
According to the medical examiner’s report, David had Xanax and marijuana in his body, neither of which explain his behavior that day. Other neighbors reported David acting strangely in the days leading up to his death. They said the 17-year-old was likely experiencing some sort of mental break.
A month later, APD fired Freeman for violating department protocol, including failing to wait for backup.
Vanessa and David are not actually related by blood, but their families are very close; they immigrated from Haiti together when Vanessa was just 4 years old. She considers David a cousin and his mother her aunt.
“I saw a lot of David,” she said in June 2016. David often came to her house to hang out with her younger brother.
“He was always smiling, always kind, always saying ‘hi,’ always telling me what’s going on in his life. He’s open and honest and kind,” she said, slipping up and using the present tense.
Four months after David’s death, Vanessa began reaching out to business owners about getting a mural done in David’s honor. A local artist, Mike Johnston, had agreed to paint the piece.
“He told me if I found a place that he’d be willing to paint on it,” Vanessa said. “But finding a place is insanely difficult, because this incident is riddled in controversy and politics.”
She had a strategy: She would walk around downtown, spot a blank wall and call the business that owned it. Vanessa estimated that she called roughly 40 people. Many said they would call back, but never did. Others said Freeman was just doing his job when he shot David.
One day she and a friend walked into a corporate building at Ninth Street and Congress Avenue in downtown Austin. They were there to pitch David.
“We commissioned an artist to paint a mural of my cousin who was killed on Feb. 8 by a police officer. We saw the blue wall in the parking structure,” said Vanessa pointing to a wall on the side of the building.”I was wondering if this building would let us paint on it?”
The question hung in the air awkwardly. Vanessa was told to talk to the president of the homeowner’s association. She got a name and left.
“It’s odd to me that people rally around [police officers] when they do something like this,” Vanessa said. “That this is where people make their stance. … It’s been really difficult being told ‘no’ or having no response to the question, ‘Hey can we put this kid, this great kid … can we put his face on your building?’”
In fall 2016, Vanessa began pitching something else: police reform. In her spare time, she researched policing practices in other cities and states and wrote policy briefs for elected officials.
She compiled many of her recommendations into an 11-page, heavily cited document. She focused on additional oversight of officers, including mandating the frequent review of body camera footage for officers with previous complaints against them, and expanding the power of Austin’s Citizen Review Panel, a civilian body that reviews use-of-force cases.
Vanessa shopped these policy ideas around. Many officials she met with seemed impressed, even astounded, with the research Vanessa had done. “Well, if this is what you do just off the top of your head, there’s a career for you in public policy,” said then-Police Monitor Margo Frasier.
Vanessa also sat down with Austin City Council Member Greg Casar and Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore. In January, she spoke over the phone with staffers from Texas Sen. Kirk Watson’s office, but they recommended Vanessa reach out to another lawmaker, one who focuses on criminal justice reform.
At that point, Vanessa felt like she was being brushed off.
“I don’t know if it’s just a type of complacency,” she said. “But the people whose jobs it was to care about those things simply did not care. … I feel like you step into these positions to represent a community, a city, a district because you care. You want your constituents to come to you with their concerns. If they’ve been wronged, their injustices. You want to help.”
Rather than appeal his firing, Freeman settled with the city in December 2016 for $35,000. Several months earlier, a Travis County grand jury had chosen not to indict him on criminal charges.
District Attorney Moore told Vanessa that use-of-force laws in the state grant officers a defense against criminal charges.
“If an officer is convincing in his or her description of the decision process -- that the use of force was necessitated by a fear or the perception that without using that force that officer or other people would be in jeopardy – then the law grants a defense,” Moore said.
Vanessa said she would have rather Freeman didn’t get a payout.
“People keep asking me what I want for Christmas,” she said. “It would be to talk to Officer Freeman.”
Vanessa said she has practiced over and over what she would ask him.
“There are so many things,” she said through tears. “Are you able to sleep at night? Do you think about him as much as I do? As much as I know his mom does? I mean, does he realize he was the last person to see David alive. And he had only known him for that instant and how much that means?”
“I don’t understand why a complete stranger was just able to share the last moments of David’s life with him. I don’t think he knows how – I mean it sounds terrible – just how lucky he is, because nobody got to see David past that point. I want to ask him if he said anything. If he looked like he was in pain. Did he realize that he made a mistake? Did he realize that he did something that he could never take back? Was he sorry for it?”
KUT tried several times to reach Freeman through his lawyers by phone and email. A note was also forwarded along by the police union; a cellphone number was left with a family friend; a letter was mailed to his house. He did not respond to requests to talk.
“I also want to tell him to forgive himself,” Vanessa said. “Because if it’s this bad for me, I can’t imagine what it’s like for him.”
In March, David’s mother settled with the City of Austin for $3.25 million. By this time, nearly a year into her work, Vanessa had not gotten a mural painted and her efforts at police reform had gotten nowhere. She said she was tired.
“Do you think it’s possible for real reform to happen?” she said.
Later that month, Vanessa sat on a maroon couch in her parents’ house, where she lives. Water bottles featuring a photo of David in his high school football uniform sat on a mantle near a television. They had been given to his mother as a gift, but she couldn’t bear to have them in the house.
“People say change takes a long time, but how many years do you need to realize that minorities are human beings?” Vanessa said. “I mean you have a whole race, class of people – Caucasians, white people – afraid to become minorities. Why is that? Is it because you treat your minorities poorly? Why wouldn’t you want to be a minority if it’s so great? I hate when people tell me it’s a slow process. I mean, protecting minorities’ lives should not be a slow process. It’s like telling somebody to put out a fire in their house slower.”
The Austin City Council held a hearing in April on the new police contract. The agreement between the local police union and the city is brokered once every several years and dictates pay, discipline and oversight of officers.
Vanessa addressed a letter to council members, but at the last-minute, she decided she couldn’t stand up in front of the audience and present it. Instead, Amanda Lewis, a friend of Casar’s, read the letter.
“To the members of this council and all who are present: My name is Vanessa and I am the cousin of David Joseph,” she began. When she finished, the people seated in council chambers clapped.
“I want to thank Vanessa for being here today and having her letter read by Amanda,” Casar said. “You were heard today. Your voice is very powerful. I’ve had the chance to have some conversations with you this last year and those conversations have shaped me.”
In early December, Vanessa finished classes for the semester at Austin Community College, where she is studying for a degree in social work. She talked about David while sitting in her bedroom. Boxes of papers and kitchen appliances crowded the floor. Nothing had been hung on the walls. It looked as if she was either moving in or moving out.
“His death still affects me the same way it did when it initially happened,” she said. “Any loud sound sounds like a gunshot. Any African-American youth looks like David. Any adult African-American looks like what David could have looked like if he was not stripped of the opportunity to grow up.”
When asked if she’s afraid David will be forgotten, Vanessa said yes.
“I believe he’s already been forgotten,” she said. “I want there to be so many conversations about David. I don’t want it to be just out of convenience when somebody’s trying to prove a point or when they’re on the losing end of an argument, and they’re like, ‘Police won’t reform. What about David Joseph?’”
In the last year, David’s name has been brought up at rallies, political events, and during the recent discussion over the police contract. In an unprecedented move, Austin City Council members rejected that contract last week, sending it back to the negotiating table with questions about finances and additional accountability measures.
At that City Hall hearing, more than 200 people testified about the police contract, including David’s brother Mark. One woman who spoke wore a shirt with a photo of David’s face and the words: “Remember David Joseph.”
Six months after David died, Vanessa got her first cellphone. She still doesn’t use Facebook or Instagram or go out much. But she said talking about David with strangers, however uncomfortable it is, has helped.
“I feel like I got to say all of the things David couldn’t,” she said. “It’s not like we can give him his voice back. But we can speak for him, because he can’t anymore.”
In the dashcam video of David’s death, only Freeman can be heard -- shouting for the teenager to stop, shouting for an ambulance, shouting for David to breathe.
“Even when [David] died, there wasn’t a sound from him,” Vanessa said. “All you could hear was Officer Freeman. I wanted to give his voice back to him.”