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He was tased and his jaw was broken during a mental health crisis. Now he's suing APD.

Bloody floor.png
Courtesy of Edwards Law
A still photo from a police bodycam shows James Johnson on the ground in his apartment. In a lawsuit, Johnson alleges officers used excessive force during the incident a year ago.

It was just after midnight, and James Johnson was having a mental health crisis.

Someone he knew — a loved one, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday — called the Austin Police Department, hoping to get him connected with mental health services.

Minutes later, his jaw was broken.

Johnson filed the lawsuit in federal court against the three APD officers who responded to the August 2021 call, alleging they used excessive force. He also named the city in the suit, arguing its police training promotes a "culture of violence" and that its responses to mental health crises are "deplorable."

The lawsuit identifies the officers as Brandon Salter, Katherine Alzola and Samuel Noble.

James-in-hospital-2.png
Courtesy of Edwards Law
A photo of James Johnson in the hospital after the incident.

APD declined KUT's request for comment for this story.

The City of Austin said Wednesday it hadn't been given formal notice of the lawsuit, but an unidentified spokesperson said it "stand[s] ready to defend the City and its officers in response to this lawsuit.”

APD bodycam video released by Johnson's attorney, Jeff Edwards, shows Johnson in his apartment hallway, hands raised, while two officers have guns drawn. "I am not a threat!" he tells the officers, identified in the lawsuit as Salter and Alzola.

Another officer, ID'd as Noble in the complaint, comes up behind Johnson and shocks him multiple times with a taser. Johnson hits the ground and then, the suit alleges, Salter uses excessive force, hitting him in the head multiple times and, ultimately, breaking his jaw.

Edwards said the incident is indicative of a track record of heavy handedness on the part of the department and that the officers need to be disciplined and retrained.

"Not everyone the police encounter is a criminal. Sometimes, people just need a little help. Breaking a young man’s jaw and tasering him while he is face down on his stomach is not help. It is abuse and should not be tolerated," Edwards said in a statement. "That APD’s leadership does not understand this is disappointing but hardly surprising.”

Johnson is seeking damages for lost wages and medical expenses.

A 2018 audit found APD didn’t consistently train officers to de-escalate during mental health-related calls and that APD had the highest national rate of fatal shootings during these calls.

In 2021, the city added mental health assistance to its 911 services. Shortly after the encounter with Johnson, APD began triaging 911 calls to ask whether callers needed mental health help.

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Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at aweber@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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