Officials Can’t Remember the Last Time HPD Saw an Unjustified Shooting. Here’s Why.
John Domingues rushed to the corner of Francis and Sampson, in the heart of Houston’s Third Ward, as soon as he heard the call for “shots fired” crackle over his police radio. It was just after midnight when Domingues pulled up near the row of shotgun houses and saw Jason Rosemon, a fellow Houston Police Department officer, standing at the north end of the street. When Domingues stepped out of his cruiser, he could see what Rosemon was staring at: Kenny Releford, 38, was on the ground bleeding from two gunshot wounds.
Domingues thought Rosemon looked shaken. Unlike Domingues, who had been with the department for 25 years, Rosemon was just barely two years out of the training academy. “I’ve got it,” Domingues assured him, according to his deposition testimony. He told Rosemon to go back to his cruiser, where a police union attorney would soon join him.
Neither officer checked on Releford, either to handcuff him or deliver emergency medical aid. Domingues testified in a court deposition that in his quarter-century at the department, he’d had “very little” training in first aid. Once paramedics arrived on scene and put Releford on a gurney, Domingues zip-tied his wrist to the bar.
The Houston Police Department is supposed to be a national leader in training officers to respond to the kind of call Rosemon got on October 11, 2012. It’s unclear why, judging from recently released internal affairs documents that detail Rosemon’s actions that night, documents the city fought to keep private. Those documents, HPD’s own internal reviews for several HPD shootings from 2011 and 2012, show how the department responded to some of the city’s most controversial officer-involved shootings in the past five years.
Robert Armbruster, general counsel for the Houston Police Officers’ Union, when contacted by the Houston Press, declined comment on behalf of the officers’ lawyers.
Neighbors called police after Releford, in an apparently psychotic state, kicked down their door, assaulted some of the people inside and then, in a daze, walked back toward his own house down the block. When Rosemon rolled up to the row of houses, one of those neighbors told the officer where Releford lived. The neighbor also says he told Rosemon that Releford was likely suffering from mental health problems.
Rosemon said in statements to HPD’s internal affairs and homicide divisions that he didn’t know Releford was schizophrenic, nor did he recall seeing the dispatcher’s notes indicating that he was responding to a mental health call that night. Within three minutes of arriving at the corner of Francis and Sampson, Rosemon pulled his car up to Releford’s house and, over his cruiser-mounted P.A. system, ordered him outside. HPD officials say Rosemon had no way of knowing that Releford was unarmed when he started to walk toward the officer.
After the shooting, Rosemon sat inside his cruiser and began to text a fellow brother in blue, Matthew Marin, who also patrolled HPD’s South Central Division. Just three weeks before, Marin had shot and killed Brian Claunch, a homeless, mentally ill wheelchair-bound double amputee whose only weapon was a ballpoint pen. The two would text or call each other a dozen more times over the next 24 hours.
Outside Rosemon’s cruiser, officials slowly started to arrive — homicide detectives, internal affairs investigators, a prosecutor and investigator from the district attorney’s office, among others. Chatter from other cops on patrol started to come in over the department’s internal messaging system. “Hey Bro, can you guys go at least 2 weeks without a shooting” one officer wrote. Officer Gonzalo Lara was with Marin three weeks earlier when he fired a bullet into the left side of Claunch’s head at close range. Lara wrote back: “Thats how we roll at South Central Bra! We too hard!”
Audry Releford says his son’s shooting is an example of what will continue to happen if HPD is left to police itself. Last year, in the wrongful death lawsuit he filed against Rosemon, HPD and the City of Houston, Audry’s attorneys fought to make public documents that reveal how HPD investigated and evaluated several police shootings of unarmed citizens, including that of his son. Those records, they argue, reveal a fundamentally flawed system of police oversight in which conflicting evidence and witness testimony are often ignored and the officer’s word is taken as gospel whenever he or she fires a bullet.
The city has argued in court that those are records the public doesn’t have the right to see — perhaps in part because of the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the Houston Police Officers’ Union, which requires the city to attempt to seal such documents if anyone ever tries to make them public in the course of a lawsuit. The city’s six-page summary explaining why Rosemon did nothing wrong the night he shot Releford is marked “confidential” at the bottom of each page.
Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Keith Ellison denied the city’s request, saying, “It’s hard to think of another category of information, another kind of case, that is more squarely at the top of the nation’s agenda than police use of force.” Last month, Ellison denied the city’s motion to dismiss Audry Releford’s lawsuit, writing in his ruling that information gleaned from HPD’s own internal files “casts some doubt on Officer Rosemon’s credibility.”
In some ways, HPD’s internal affairs investigations into police shootings reflect the difference in how officials and the public view police use of force — a rift underscored in recent years by the unrest in Ferguson, Baltimore and Chicago that followed the deaths of unarmed people, mostly of color, killed at the hands of police. While Harris County prosecutors present every such case to a grand jury, which hasn’t indicted an officer for a police shooting in more than a decade, internal affairs asks whether the officer’s actions were up to department standards.
Top HPD brass met in Washington, D.C., last year with departments from across the country as part of the Police Executive Research Forum’s efforts to brainstorm ways to “overhaul police training, policy, supervision and culture on use of force.” While newly retired HPD chief Charles McClelland has been praised for overseeing a “culture change” at the department, documents filed in court show his department’s internal affairs investigations don’t go beyond the very low bar of determining whether a shooting was “not unconstitutional” and “not criminal.”
The department’s Independent Police Oversight Board is supposed to represent the public’s voice whenever HPD reviews such cases. Critics say it’s toothless, primarily because board members don’t have subpoena power. Documents filed in court indicate board members merely review HPD’s work on a case. Board members’ recommendations, which they don’t often make in such shootings, aren’t binding on the police chief, who, thanks to state law and a local union contract, doesn’t even have final say on who’s disciplined or fired anyway.
At its heart, Audry Releford’s lawsuit argues that without true, independent oversight, HPD will fail to learn from its mistakes. Houston mayor Sylvester Turner hasn’t said much publicly about police oversight and accountability since he was sworn in earlier this year, even as he searches for Houston’s next police chief. Turner declined an interview with the Press, but in a prepared statement said he’s confident in HPD’s current process for evaluating controversial police shootings. “Of course, there is always room to learn new ways to reduce the possibility of an officer-involved shooting,” Turner said in the statement.
Police spokesman John Cannon, who was himself deposed in the Releford lawsuit (he handled media the night of the shooting), told the Press that HPD had no comment because of pending litigation. When asked where to direct written questions, Cannon told us, “The answer would be the same. We can’t comment.”
But HPD’s internal affairs investigations into several shootings, including Releford’s, beg the question: What is HPD doing to better understand and prevent these incidents? In sworn deposition testimony, officers in charge of training on use of force and how to respond to a mental health crisis seemed to know very little about some of the department’s most controversial shooting cases, in part because they were rarely discussed within the department.
Like the drunken off-duty cop who got into a bar fight and fired into a crowd, killing one man and injuring at least one other person. Or the officer who mistook a ballpoint pen for a knife when he fired a bullet at the head of a one-armed, one-legged man.
Or Rosemon, who shot Releford when he wouldn’t stop walking toward him, paused for a full minute, then shot Releford again when he tried to get back up.
The officers came for Joe Campos Torres Jr. just as he was being thrown out of an East End bar, at the rotten end of a 12-hour bender. When the U.S. Army veteran with a drinking problem decided to fight the cops, they took him down to an embankment along Buffalo Bayou and beat him while his hands were cuffed behind his back. According to media reports at the time, a sergeant at the city jail told the officers to take Torres to the emergency room.
Instead, they threw him in the bayou. Torres’s body was found three days later, his death officially ruled a drowning. Several of the officers involved were convicted of negligent homicide and sentenced to one year in prison.
The death of Joe Campos Torres in May 1977 came at the end of a long string of controversies at the Houston Police Department and led to the creation of HPD’s Internal Affairs Division, which now probes officer-involved shootings as well as the most serious allegations of officer misconduct.
Nearly four decades later, cops still don’t particularly like being assigned to internal affairs — most officers land in IAD through an “involuntary transfer.” HPD assistant chief Mattie Provost, who oversaw internal affairs when Rosemon shot and killed Kenny Releford in 2012, said that many officers still bristle at the assignment because of “the stigma attached to going and investigating other police officers.”
As soon as word got out that Rosemon had shot a suspect, two IAD investigators were among those called out to the scene to conduct what everyone involved labels a thorough, independent investigation into the shooting. Also present was Sergeant Steven Murdock with HPD’s homicide division, one of two detectives tasked with determining whether Rosemon broke any laws when he killed Releford. When an officer fires in the middle of the night, it can take a while for all the people required to be on the scene to get there. “Some people are in bed in their pajamas or whatever,” Murdock would later testify. “It takes awhile to call them up…get a cup of coffee down them and get them showered and shaved and out the door.”
Once everyone was there, Rosemon emerged from his cruiser with his union attorney to conduct what officials call a “walk-through” to hear an explanation of how the shooting occurred. At least a dozen law enforcement officials circled around Rosemon as Murdock gave a disclaimer of sorts: Homicide’s in charge, and only homicide asks questions. Nobody on scene could recall Murdock’s asking Rosemon any questions.
After that, Rosemon and his attorney took off for HPD’s downtown headquarters, where he gave a sworn written statement. Back at the corner of Sampson and Francis, Murdock continued to clear the scene and canvas for witnesses. But, as he later testified in a court deposition, Murdock started to feel pretty early on that Rosemon was justified in shooting Releford. In homicide cases, there are always “good guys” and “bad guys,” he said. Within a couple of hours on scene, Murdock figured Rosemon was the good guy.
The lawyers who sued over Releford’s death hired former Dallas police chief William Rathburn to evaluate HPD’s investigation into the shooting. In his 31-page report, Rathburn scolds HPD for how poorly it handled both its criminal and internal affairs investigations of the cases. While HPD maintained that these two investigations were “separate and distinct,” Rathburn says there’s very little difference between the two. Both, he writes, “were severely lacking in accuracy, objectivity and completeness; they included information that appeared to be fabricated.”
The conclusions in both reports rest largely on Rosemon’s version of events, ignoring conflicting witness accounts, Rathburn writes. Neither investigation followed up on witnesses who contradicted Rosemon’s story in the pages of the Houston Chronicle the day after the shooting. It appears nobody even bothered to ask why, according to his radio calls that night, Rosemon waited a full minute to shoot Releford a second time — in HPD’s version of events, Releford just “paused momentarily” before Rosemon had to fire the second bullet.
Rathburn says these look like investigations with a predetermined outcome: If the cop says he was justified in shooting, then he was justified.
Julian Ramirez, who heads the division in charge of investigating all officer-involved shootings under the jurisdiction of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, says his department launches its own “parallel investigation” into cops who shoot and kill people, sending at least one prosecutor and one investigator out to the scene of every shooting.
In Releford’s death, Rosemon wasn’t no-billed by a grand jury until months after HPD finished its internal affairs investigation into the shooting. Ramirez says his office doesn’t decide whether a shooting is justified before presenting all the evidence to a grand jury. But he couldn’t say why this line was included in HPD’s internal affairs summary of the Releford shooting: “As of January 16, 2014, this case has not been presented to a Harris County Grand Jury. However, after consulting with the District Attorney’s Office, there is no intent of seeking an indictment.”
“That’s kind of an odd statement,” Ramirez told the Press. “I don’t have an explanation for it.”
While HPD’s homicide investigation might get folded into the case prosecutors present to a local grand jury, internal affairs is supposed to more closely examine an officer’s use of force to determine whether the cop should be disciplined or even fired. Since 2011, the Independent Police Oversight Board has reviewed all internal investigations into officer-involved shootings.
Of the five internal affairs cases made public, only one provided training recommendations — recommendations the department didn’t implement until three years later.
Critics argue that the oversight board is a failure, in part because of how it was designed. The board’s recommendations are not binding on the department. While board members are allowed to review HPD files in secret, they can’t discuss details of a case with anyone. They don’t have the subpoena power of, say, a grand jury to call witnesses or officials to answer questions. Bill Littlejohn, a retired municipal judge, prosecutor and public defender who sits on the oversight board, stressed the importance of subpoena power. “Until that happens, I don’t think there’s going to be any confidence in these boards.”
Some police oversight board members, however, seem to think that the sheer volume of an internal affairs file — a few hundred pages, depending on the case — means the oversight process is working. “If somebody’s trying to taint something, I tell you what, I think they could have done it [with] a lot less paperwork,” said Thomas Gillis, a real estate agent who sits on the board.
As Rathburn puts it, HPD’s own documents reveal a system of police oversight in which there’s no “meaningful effort to determine what really happened, why it happened and what might be done to prevent similar deadly shootings in the future.”
Audry Releford insists the city of Houston bears some responsibility for his son’s death, saying that when officer Jason Rosemon pulled the trigger, “he’s pulling it for the city, too.”
It was about five minutes after closing time at Sherlock’s Baker Street Pub on West Gray in River Oaks, and the doorman was making the rounds, telling people to drink it or lose it.
William Swick would later tell investigators that every patron was cooperative the night of February 19, 2011, except for a stocky, bald Hispanic guy standing at a table with three or four friends. As the guy continued to drink his beer, he told Swick to call the cops if there was a problem.
Soon, the bald guy and his group made their way up the steps to the porch by the parking lot, with Swick following. Swick was sweeping cigarette butts and chaining the chairs when he heard someone yell that a fight had broken out. When he hopped onto a bench to get a better look, Swick saw a cluster of men in a scuffle. Then the tough-guy customer stepped into the middle of it.
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Swick would later tell investigators that it happened so fast, it took a moment for his brain to put it together: The tough guy produced a gun and shot another Hispanic man walking toward him. Three times, Swick thought. A pause, then another shot.
The people in the parking lot scattered as someone yelled, “Call the police.” That’s when Swick saw the shooter pull a badge out from under his shirt and say that he was the police.
The shooter was officer Jose Coronado, a five-year veteran who had earned 13 commendations and was slated to receive an award for his role in arresting a man who was charged with sexually assaulting a child.
But on that morning, Coronado had shot at least two men. One, Omar Ventura, a father of three, bled to death from a bullet in his abdomen. Omar’s brother, Rolando, took a bullet in his left arm. Both men were unarmed. Investigators recovered two bullets from the brothers, and also found a bloody bullet that couldn’t be linked to either man, making them wonder if a third person had been shot (several witnesses claimed they saw a Hispanic man with a bloody shirt being driven away by friends; the blood and tissue on the bullet do not appear to have been tested).
Coronado said he drank four to six beers and a four-ounce shot of Jameson in four and a half hours. He didn’t believe he was intoxicated. He hadn’t even planned on drinking that shot — he’d bought it for the bartender, who declined. But in a breathalyzer test six hours after the shooting, Coronado blew a 0.067 and 0.074. Another officer pegged his blood-alcohol content at the time of the shooting at 0.11. (Neither the homicide nor the internal affairs files contain a statement from the bartender.)
Coronado said that the Venturas were aggressive even after he displayed his badge and identified himself as a cop. He claims that after he said he had a gun, Omar said he did, too. And when Omar reached for his waistband, Coronado reached for his. Only Omar didn’t have a gun.
Coronado pumped one round from his Ruger .380 into Omar’s chest, and when it looked as if Rolando was about to charge him, Coronado fired another shot, grazing Rolando’s left arm.
Three of the five eyewitnesses said they didn’t see Coronado flash his badge or identify himself as an officer until after the shooting. HPD’s homicide report states, “Only Officer Coronado and his wife claim an unknown person stated the suspect had a gun. The other witnesses did not interpret Omar Ventura’s actions as being threatening.”
Besides being under the influence, Coronado had another problem: He had not qualified with that gun. Departmental policy requires officers to pass a firing range proficiency test annually for any weapon they carry, but Coronado had not been tested on the gun he had that night. He should not have been carrying it.
Still, HPD ruled the shooting to be “justified.” Ultimately, Coronado was suspended for a month for not being qualified on his gun, and for carrying it while under the influence. He was also barred from working an extra job during that time. (Coronado’s suspension was back-dated by two weeks, which cut his time in half.)
Attorneys for Audry Releford say the Coronado case emphasizes how, for HPD’s internal affairs, an officer’s word is gospel even when contradicted by witnesses, and even when the officer in question is drunk.
But even if the department wanted to fire an officer for drunkenly opening fire in a parking lot, it would be extremely difficult, given the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the Houston Police Officers’ Union. Coronado’s one-month suspension was itself an uncommon occurrence, as an investigation of HPD’s disciplinary actions by the Texas Observer uncovered in 2013.
Reporter Emily DePrang found that HPD received an average of 1,200 complaints a year between 2007 and 2012, “less than a third of which ended in any kind of discipline. More than half of those punishments were written reprimands, which have little effect on an officer’s record and no effect on his or her paycheck.” Only 7 percent of all complaints resulted in a suspension of three days or more — and in those cases, arbitrators reduced or overturned punishments two-thirds of the time.
According to HPD internal affairs records, Rosemon wasn’t disciplined or reprimanded for how he responded to Kenny Releford’s behavior the night of October 11, 2012. Rathburn, who reviewed the files for the lawsuit Releford’s family filed against the city, says that’s probably due to HPD’s flimsy review of the shooting.
For instance, the dispatch note that flashed across Rosemon’s screen that night read, “Yes — They have mental issues.” (Rosemon and HPD officials say he must have been confused by the system that every other HPD officer uses every day.)
In its internal investigation, HPD doesn’t explain why Rosemon never subdued and handcuffed Releford after he fired the first shot — or why, after the second shot, neither Rosemon nor the first responding officer on scene tried to give Releford emergency medical attention, an apparent violation of HPD’s general order on weapons discharges.
In the lawsuit against the city, Releford’s attorneys claim that problems with HPD’s use of force go much deeper than just anemic follow-up investigations. In a court deposition earlier this year, officer George Guerrero, who oversees HPD’s use-of-force training, couldn’t remember much about any of the department’s officer-involved shooting cases.
Guerrero says his unit has a “shoot team” that sometimes responds to the scene of a shooting, but it doesn’t review any IAD or homicide files in determining whether a death or injury could have been prevented by better training. Guerrero even bungled the legal standard for when an officer is allowed to use deadly force — if there’s an “objectively reasonable” fear of imminent death. In his deposition, Guerrero said an officer is justified in shooting if he can articulate why he was afraid enough to pull the tigger, even if that fear was unreasonable. “He just needs to be able to explain that fear.”
In one of its court filings, the city argues that while it “cannot guarantee that unnecessary or excessive force will never be used,” HPD has made it clear through training and policies that such misconduct won’t be tolerated. “I think officers are being disciplined if they’re doing something wrong,” Guerrero testified. When asked, he couldn’t recall a single instance of that happening.
Brian Claunch thought he had the devil living in the left side of his body.
So one day in 1990, Claunch, then 23 years old, laid the possessed portion of his body on a railroad track and waited for the train to cut the devil out. It worked. For the last 22 years of his life, Claunch lived without a left arm or leg, confined to a wheelchair.
Diagnosed with schizophrenia, he was living in the Healing Hands group home for the mentally ill, east of downtown, in September 2012. On the afternoon of the 22nd, the home’s caretaker — also a resident — called 911, saying that a double-amputee in a wheelchair, armed with a pen, had threatened to stab him over some allegedly stolen soft drinks. According to investigators, none of this information was relayed to the responding officers.
Officer Matthew Marin was the first to arrive on scene, followed by Gonzalo Lara and a third officer. Marin and Lara went inside, where they encountered an enraged Claunch in a short hallway so dark that Marin couldn’t even tell Claunch was missing a leg. But he could see the glint of something in Claunch’s hand — a screwdriver, maybe, or a knife.
“Fuck that motherfucker!” Claunch yelled, according to Lara’s statement to investigators. “I’m gonna kill you!”
According to the officers’ statements, detailed in the homicide and internal affairs reports, Marin called for a Crisis Intervention Response Team, but none were available, so he and Lara just relied on the de-escalation techniques they’d learned in their own training. They spoke calmly and approached slowly, from about seven or eight feet away, and Claunch seemed to relax for a moment. But then he turned to go into a bedroom, and Marin got close enough to grab the wheelchair and stop Claunch. That’s when the man swung down his arm in a stabbing motion, and Marin recoiled. Claunch, surprisingly swift and agile in his wheelchair, barreled after the officers, who backed out of the hallway and into the bedroom where Claunch had tried to flee.
Marin and Lara moved in opposite directions, and Lara found himself backed against a wall, between two beds, with Claunch coming right at him. Marin told investigators that he saw that his partner was cornered, and he saw that Claunch was swinging his arm in “an overhand slashing motion” while simultaneously “elevating himself out of the wheelchair.”
As Claunch closed in, the officers said, Lara prepared to knock him in the head with his flashlight, but he didn’t have to: Marin, fearing for his partner’s life, got within three feet of Claunch, and put a bullet through his brainstem.
In the resulting investigation, Marin’s and Lara’s stories synched, and they were backed up by the third officer, who remained outside but claimed to see nearly everything through the open front door, despite the supposedly dark hallway.
HPD first embraced so-called crisis intervention training for its officers in 1999. It took until at least 2003 for the department to begin working with local mental health officials to develop more-comprehensive training, and by 2005 the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health was calling HPD’s model the “gold standard” for de-escalating mental health crises. Senior HPD officer Frank Webb, who helped initially develop and implement Houston’s crisis intervention training, says HPD does “more than probably any police department in the nation” when it comes to mental health training.
On HPD’s Mental Health Division website, Webb poses for photographs with police officials from across the state and country who have come to Houston for expert training on the subject.
Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, is very familiar with the Claunch case. The day after Marin shot and killed Claunch, the union put its own private investigator on the case — both to figure out what had happened on scene, and to dig up Claunch’s lengthy history of police encounters. “Obviously, when you have a person who has one arm and one leg and is shot with a pen in their hand, we know that that is going to get the attention of the public, and we want to make sure that all of our T’s are crossed and all of our I’s dotted,” Hunt said.
Webb, however, wasn’t so familiar with Claunch’s death — “Only what I’ve heard through the media, the news at night,” he said in a court deposition. Webb says he didn’t even know that Claunch was schizophrenic. Such cases evidently aren’t reviewed by Webb or his colleagues.
Webb does, however, remember two specific cases, both from 2007. One involved Marnell Villarreal, a 42-year-old schizophrenic woman who kept showing up at HPD headquarters, only to be shooed away. Then one day, Villarreal came down to 1200 Travis with a knife, stabbing herself in the head and telling officers, “Shoot me. Kill me. I want to end this.” After a Taser failed to subdue her, one officer obliged.
In the other case, about three months after Villarreal was killed, officers shot and killed 39-year-old Steven Guillory, who bashed a police cruiser with a lead pipe as his mother looked on, pleading with officers not to shoot her schizophrenic son.
As reporters questioned why Villarreal’s mental health problems were ignored by the department until she brought a knife into police headquarters, HPD started to share more cases with the department’s nascent mental health unit. After Guillory’s death, HPD started making dispatchers ask about the possibility of mental illness.
Neither case really changed how officers in the field are asked to respond to someone exhibiting signs of mental illness. Webb, in his deposition testimony, couldn’t remember one that had. In fact, Webb couldn’t think of any real effort within the department to review mental health calls, even ones in which someone was killed or injured.
Webb says he has “anecdotal” evidence from the officers that the training is working. Yet HPD doesn’t keep track of how many mentally ill people are even shot by police. Webb, in his deposition, actually questioned whether such stats would be helpful, “because every one of our shootings might be justified.”
Still, last summer, a decade after Houston adopted the “gold standard” for crisis intervention training, an off-duty cop shot a naked, unarmed psychiatric patient admitted to the mental health unit at St. Joseph Medical Center.
Alan Pean, who’d been admitted to the hospital’s psychiatric unit two days earlier amid a severe panic attack, was naked and dancing in and out of his room. When the nurse couldn’t get him to stay in his room or put on clothes, she called security. Pean wasn’t aggressive, she told federal investigators later, but it was protocol to call security whenever a patient was noncompliant. She didn’t know “security” meant Reggie Law and Oscar Ortega, two longtime HPD officers moonlighting as security.
The officers entered Pean’s room unannounced and shut the door, according to an investigation by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Not long after, a nurse outside the room heard clanging, screaming and then a pop. Pean’s doctor arrived to see him on the floor, in handcuffs, with a bullet hole in his chest. The bullet hit millimeters away from Pean’s heart. In a brief statement after the shooting, HPD said one officer was hit with something and suffered a cut to the head.
The feds said Pean’s shooting revealed an “immediate threat to the health and safety of patients” at St. Joseph and threatened to pull all Medicare and Medicaid funding from the downtown hospital.
Pean’s doctor told investigators that no fewer than 20 cops were on Pean’s floor by the time he got there. One of them was Sergeant Steven Murdock, who investigated the case for HPD. When Christian Pean flew to Houston the day after the shooting, he called Murdock to see when he could visit his brother in the hospital. “He might as well be in jail,” Murdock told him. Christian also says Murdock told him his brother acted like “a Tasmanian devil.” Pean was charged with two counts of felony assault on a police officer. A grand jury no-billed him earlier this month.
HPD hasn’t yet finished its internal investigation into Pean’s case. An HPD spokesman said the officers were not disciplined.
In the review of Releford’s death, internal investigators hardly even mention Houston’s crisis intervention training. In his report on the case, Rathburn writes, “It’s incomprehensible that everyone involved in the investigative process could simply have failed to consider the program.”
Witnesses say Kenny Releford, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia after a stint in the U.S. Navy, was in the throes of a psychotic episode when officer Jason Rosemon shot and killed him.
Courtesy of the Releford family
The events surrounding Kenny Releford’s shooting death were witnessed by at least seven people. Investigators took statements from two.
Although Releford was only 5’4” tall and weighed only 110 pounds, he appeared more imposing in the homicide and internal affairs reports, which tacked two inches and 40 pounds onto his slight frame. Rosemon stood 5’9” and weighed between 200 and 215 pounds.
The description of Releford’s demeanor seemed altered as well, in the way Rosemon’s account clashed with what witnesses said. The more confrontational Releford was, the more tightly wound, the more investigators could justify Rosemon’s actions.
Although witnesses said Releford didn’t seem threatening, and that he didn’t curse at the officer, Rosemon described him as sinister from the start.
When Rosemon pulled up to Releford’s house, the door was open and the lights were on, but he couldn’t see anyone inside. But next door, in an open, darkened doorway, Rosemon could barely make out a figure, shrouded in shadows, punctuated by the “red glow” of a cigarette.
Still sitting in his car, Rosemon got on his PA system and asked for “Kenny” to come out. The figure moved forward, but Rosemon couldn’t see specific features. Rosemon asked if he was Kenny.
“Who the fuck wants to know?” the man yelled.
“Look, man, I’m not looking for any trouble,” Rosemon said, stepping out of the car, standing behind the driver’s side door and holding up both his hands. “I just want to talk to you.”
At that point, Rosemon saw that the man had a cigarette in his right hand, but his left hand was “concealed” behind his back, causing Rosemon “to believe and fear he had a weapon.”
Releford stepped down from the porch and came toward Rosemon, who saw that Releford’s face, illuminated by the patrol car’s headlights, was contorted in an angry-looking grimace.
From their various perches on Sampson and Francis streets, neighbors could tell that Releford wasn’t armed. Still, Releford wasn’t acting right. He just kept walking toward the officer, ignoring commands to stop and lie down, even after Rosemon drew his weapon. They didn’t hear the officer tell Releford to show his hands.
Rosemon radioed in that he had a suspect at gunpoint and needed backup. A few neighbors began to shout at both men. They pleaded with Releford to listen to the officer, to just stop and get on the ground. They told Rosemon that Releford was mentally ill — please don’t shoot him.
Rosemon claims a .40-caliber slug to the chest didn’t stop Releford, but rather he just “paused momentarily.” Later, he’d claim that Releford never fell to the ground, but rather just stood there hunched over with a cigarette in his right hand and his left hand behind his back. Then Rosemon, 56 seconds after he fired the first shot, yelled into his radio, “He’s standing back up.”
Rosemon says that by the time he fired the second shot, he could hear bystanders telling Releford to stop. It was only after that second bullet, Rosemon says, that he could see both of Releford’s hands.
That’s when he realized they were empty.
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