Use of Force: How the Courts Judge Police Violence Doesn't Always Lead to Justice
Pam Hobart called her husband, Steve, at the office and asked him to come home as soon as he could. Aaron, their 19-year-old son, was pacing the floor, saying he was done taking his medicine and wouldn’t be going to his psychiatrist appointment the morning of February 18, 2009.
Doctors had thrown labels at Aaron for most of his life. When he was a boy, doctors called it Tourette’s, then later oppositional defiant disorder. By the time Aaron was in high school, doctors said he was somewhere near the Asperger’s end of the autism spectrum. Steve Hobart remembers the way one psychologist who evaluated Aaron in middle school put it: “He’s just wired a bit differently, and he tends to get stuck.”
In recent months, however, Aaron had received another diagnosis: schizoaffective disorder. Pam and Steve discovered how serious it was one night when Aaron stole the car and a highway patrolman clocked him doing 110 in a 65 mph zone near Huntsville. Aaron calmly told the arresting officer about the telepathic messages he’d been receiving. The trooper wrote in his report, “Hobart was making me uneasy with his behavior and did not seem emotionally stable.”
The arrest had been a turning point. Aaron’s parents took him to a hospital, where doctors put him on an antipsychotic to control the hallucinations. After a few months, the Hobarts got the green light to slowly lower Aaron’s dose; he was sick of feeling sedated. Pam called it a “controlled experiment” that seemed to be going well. Aaron seemed less depressed, enrolled in community college and started frequenting a support group.
Aaron’s parents knew it was a red flag as soon as he stopped eating and sleeping, but they had to wait a week before Aaron’s psychiatrist had an opening to see him. Steve rushed to the family’s Stafford home from his job as a senior-level petroleum engineer after Pam told him what the psychiatrist had just told her: Don’t try to drive Aaron to the hospital on your own. He could try to grab the steering wheel. What if he tried to jump out of a moving car?
The doctor called in a prescription for a fast-acting antipsychotic, which took a couple of hours to fill. Steve went back out, got the pills, came home and walked into his son’s room. Aaron was restless, pacing back and forth. Steve put a bottle of water in front of his son, gently resting a pill on the bottle cap. Aaron used his thumb and index finger to flick the little white tab across the room.
The psychiatrist told Pam she could ask for a team of officers trained to respond to mental-health crises. He even sent her a follow-up email with specific instructions. “It is not ideal under any circumstances but the ‘trauma’ of going to a hospital is better than the trauma of someone getting hurt or worse.”
Pam read from parts of that email when she called the 911 dispatcher. “He’s not hurting anyone, but he needs to be in a hospital,” she said. Pam told the dispatcher Aaron was unarmed, hadn’t hurt anyone and wasn’t on drugs or alcohol. But he was delusional. “He needs his medication,” Pam said.
Pam and Steve were expecting an officer trained to deal with people like Aaron who are sick and unstable and need treatment. Instead what they got was Jesus Estrada, a 24-year-old Stafford Police Department rookie. In his short time with the department, Estrada routinely scored pitiful marks in mock field exercises for categories like “common sense and judgment,” “officer safety” and “communication.” His probationary period was extended because he wrecked a police cruiser within his first three months on the job. Years later, even when his actions at the Hobarts’ house had become the center of a court case, Estrada couldn’t recall in any detail his training on deadly force.
Estrada arrived at the Hobart home before his supervisors, and Pam invited him inside when she saw him peeking through the windows. They walked through the open foyer and looked down the hallway toward Aaron’s room.
Steve says the sound of another man’s voice in the house must have spooked Aaron. Steve couldn’t grab him in time, yelling, “Here he comes!” Pam says Aaron’s arms were flailing as he ran about 40 feet down the hallway toward the foyer. Estrada, who caught some blows to the head, later claimed he was so violently attacked that he feared he might lose consciousness.
Pam says Aaron was turning toward the front door when Estrada pulled his gun. The young officer would later testify that he heard the sound of gunfire but couldn’t actually remember pulling the trigger. Smoke from the gunpowder lingered in the foyer for a few seconds. Pam wondered if Estrada had fired blanks to startle Aaron. After everything she’d told the dispatcher, why would anyone think Aaron was dangerous enough to shoot?
Officers arriving at the scene seconds later found Estrada on the floor, curled up in a fetal position, crying and grabbing for his pistol. On the opposite end of the foyer, Aaron had fallen near the door, facedown in a pool of blood. Four of the five bullets struck Aaron from behind. The fatal, and likely final, round entered through the back of Aaron’s neck, severing his spinal cord.
Would another officer have thought it reasonable to fire half a clip at Aaron Hobart? When officers are justified in using deadly force is just one of the questions driving the national conversation on policing in America, triggered in part by the number of recent high-profile cases of unarmed citizens, mostly men of color, killed by police.
The increased attention to seemingly minor police encounters gone awry raises another question: Are officers too quick to use force, escalating benign situations into violent and potentially deadly ones? The nation was appalled when video surfaced this summer of a suburban Dallas cop barrel-rolling through a pool party, pulling a gun on some unarmed black teenagers and slamming one bikini-clad girl to the ground. Sandra Bland, whose apparent suicide on July 13 in a Waller County jail cell is the subject of state and federal investigations, was forced out of her car by a Taser-wielding state trooper because she asked why she had to put out her cigarette. (State police have already said the trooper violated policies and procedures during the arrest.)
What happened to the Hobart family on February 18, 2009, and the six-year court battle that followed, is just one example of how the legal system tasked with evaluating if and when cops take things too far can leave grieving families wanting.
A Fort Bend County grand jury cleared Estrada of any criminal wrongdoing, which is typical for such cases (a 2013 Houston Chronicle investigation showed, for instance, that since 2004, every single Houston Police Department officer who went before a grand jury for shooting a civilian had been cleared). When criminal prosecution fails, families of victims might turn to the civil courts for justice. Thanks to tort reform in Texas, civil lawsuits against police officers, at the state level anyway, are pretty much dead on arrival.
Families can choose to file a federal lawsuit alleging an officer’s use of force was a clear violation of someone’s constitutional rights. But thanks in part to ambiguous case law, the odds are almost always in law enforcement’s favor.
And at some point in this process, an officer or police department will call on a so-called law enforcement expert’s help in court. As former commander of the Texas Department of Public Safety Training Academy, overseeing the instruction, in his estimation, of tens of thousands of state police officers, Albert Rodriguez sat on committees tasked with drafting mandatory state standards on how to train police officers on topics like the use of force.
In one such case several years ago, a Houston federal judge excoriated Rodriguez for lying on the stand and coaching officer testimony in order to justify unjustifiable police behavior. The judge even went so far as to say his analysis in that case revealed “a serious gap in Rodriguez’s thinking between what is legally permissible and what is imagined.”
In June, Rodriguez told a judge and jury that officer Estrada shooting an unarmed, mentally ill teenager five times was reasonable and consistent with established law—enforcement training. He was the last witness called as the trial came to a close. Steve Hobart says his family’s attorney came back “ashen faced” after Rodriguez’s testimony, telling them the case was unwinnable. But the judge in the case had, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, urged the City of Stafford to settle with the Hobarts, and Stafford’s attorneys had come up with a number.
The $150,000 settlement Stafford agreed to pay the Hobarts will go mostly, if not entirely, toward paying legal costs. If there’s anything left over, it won’t be enough to start a trust or do something in Aaron’s name, as the family had wanted. There certainly won’t be enough to offset the bill the Hobarts received for Aaron’s ride to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead shortly after he arrived.
Steve Hobart says he’s come up with a term for cases like Aaron’s.
“Justified but no justice.”
Each day, Pam and Steve Hobart walk through the foyer where officer Jesus Estrada gunned down their son.
The first landmark court case to fundamentally address police use of force didn’t happen in the United States until the 1985 case of Tennessee v. Garner. Not until then were police departments across the country told that shooting and killing a fleeing, nonviolent suspect is an unconstitutional use of deadly force.
About a decade before the case hit the U.S. Supreme Court, Memphis police spotted Edward Garner, a 15-year-old black kid, running through the yard of a house that had just reported a burglary. Officer Elton Hymon yelled for Garner to stop. Hymon knew he’d lose the kid if he managed to clear the six-foot-high chain-link fence up ahead. Hymon put a bullet in the back of Garner’s head.
Garner had stolen ten dollars and a purse.
Unlike civilians, police are empowered and trained to anticipate, prepare for and not retreat from chaotic encounters. Because of that, the courts have acknowledged that judging an officer’s actions in the field can get tricky — a cop doing police work is neither entirely government nor purely individual.
But some lawyers familiar with these cases claim the current way of assessing police violence is deeply impoverished. University of Virginia law professor Rachel Harmon, in a much-cited 2008 article in Northwestern University Law Review, points to case after case in which the high court has punted when confronted with having to strike a balance between civil rights and effective policing.
The result, Harmon argues, is an ambiguous, convoluted framework for evaluating police behavior that offers “indeterminate and sometimes simply misleading guidance to lower courts, police officers, jurors and members of the public.”
At the University of Houston—Downtown, Criminal Justice Training Center Director Rex White oversees the young officers-in-training who roam the halls of the school’s Commerce Street building. The cadets wear empty holsters clipped to their belts to get used to the feel.
Use of force is one of 33 main topics police academies like White’s are required to cover under Texas Commission on Law Enforcement-mandated minimum training standards. Students get at least 24 classroom hours covering everything from case law, to the Texas Penal Code section outlining justifiable police force, to how officers should navigate the so-called “use-of-force continuum” — pressure holds to detain a non-threatening resistant suspect, pepper spray and batons to control resistant suspects who are more threatening, or deadly force if a “resistant suspect will seriously injure or kill the officer or another person if an immediate action is not taken to stop the threat.”
To White it’s important but not complicated material. “I don’t care what case law you look at,” he says, “it’s just common sense.” White thinks the increasingly loud public outcry that follows every grand jury decision not to indict a cop who killed an unarmed citizen is misguided. He’s similarly dismissive of claims that the symbiotic relationship between police and prosecutors can keep questionable police shootings from getting a fair shake in front of a grand jury.
“They (grand jurors) sit in an air-conditioned chamber and have six months to evaluate a decision you had six seconds to make,” White says. “Only the individual officer can answer as to whether or not they actually felt threatened during an incident.”
When cases stall in the criminal courts, citizens who head to federal court claiming an officer violated their constitutional rights first have to overcome something called “qualified immunity,” which basically means cops are presumed to be immune for their official acts unless plaintiffs can allege facts that, if true, violate a “clearly established right.”
To answer that question, courts have relied on a standard that’s quite open to interpretation — whether another police officer might reasonably think he was justified in doing the same thing. If a judge thinks the answer is yes, then the case is automatically dismissed.
It’s a system that many in the law-enforcement community would argue is appropriately weighted in favor of the officer. Police insist they need such latitude to make rapid, spur-of-the-moment decisions, and that forcing cops to constantly second-guess themselves in the field is dangerous for both police and the public.
The U.S. Supreme Court explained the idea this way in a 1989 case: “Not every push or shove, even if it may later seem unnecessary in the peace of a judge’s chambers, violates the Fourth Amendment. The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving — about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.”
And whether something is reasonable is a “pretty broad and malleable question,” says Martin Siegel, a Houston appellate attorney. “Different jurors and judges with different life experiences and views of the world may answer that question very differently.”
After leaving the DPS training academy, Rodriguez established his own private company to train officers on when they can legally use physical or deadly force on suspects. “Officers live with the reality that at any time they may be called on to make a split second decision to use deadly force,” he writes on his website, ForceAnalysis.com. “[W]hen the officer comes face to face with that decision, it is the most important moment of his life.” Rodriguez currently oversees training at the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and “continues to instruct police officers and investigators (including the Texas Rangers) on the concepts of investigating police officer involved shootings,” according to the commission’s website.
Rodriguez was called upon to help defend Bellaire police sergeant Jeffrey Cotton for the December 31, 2008, shooting of Robbie Tolan, an unarmed black man, in his mother’s front yard. A Harris County grand jury indicted Cotton for aggravated assault by a public servant, but the officer was acquitted at trial. After a local judge dismissed Tolan’s civil rights lawsuit against Cotton and the Bellaire Police Department, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals similarly tossed the case in an opinion that hewed closely to Rodriguez’s take on what happened that night.
Bellaire police officer John Edwards says he started following Tolan that night because of an “abrupt turn” the black SUV took into the neighborhood where Tolan’s parents lived. Tolan and his cousin Anthony Cooper had just come back from a late-night run to Jack in the Box.
Edwards punched Tolan’s license plate into his computer as he drove past the car, which Tolan had just parked outside his parents’ home. The license plate number was 695BGK. Edwards typed 696BGK.
An alert sounded inside Edwards’s cruiser, and “possible hit — use caution” flashed across his computer screen. Tolan and his cousin had just exited the car and were walking toward the house.
Edwards testified that he pulled his cruiser in front of Tolan’s car, shone his spotlight on the two men and got out with his gun drawn because he thought he was confronting car thieves. At first, Tolan and Cooper argued with Edwards. “Fuck you, this is bullshit,” Edwards recalled them saying. “This is my car; this car is not stolen…This is our house. Why are you bothering us?”
Tolan’s parents, Marian Tolan and former major league baseball player Bobby Tolan, came out to the yard wearing pajamas when they heard the commotion. Bobby scolded his son and nephew. “Shut the fuck up and listen to the police,” he told them. Cooper immediately obeyed, but Marian had to walk over to Robbie, grab his hands and force him to the ground near the front door.
When Cotton arrived, Edwards had both suspects on the ground at gunpoint, but both men were complying. Meanwhile, Tolan’s parents struggled to explain that it was all a big misunderstanding. “This is our car,” Marian pleaded with Cotton. “There must be some kind of a mistake…we have lived here for 15 years.”
Rodriguez writes in his report that Tolan’s parents escalated a tense situation with their “non-compliance” and “inserted themselves into a law enforcement scene that was dangerous and uncertain.” Edwards’s own deposition testimony, however, paints a much different picture. By his account, Cotton arrived and immediately got into a shouting match with Marian, who was trying to explain that she owned the car that police wrongly called stolen.
Rodriguez says Cotton was right to ignore Marian’s explanation. “[O]fficers cannot afford to take an unknown person’s word alone as to who they are and to their intentions,” he wrote in his report.
Cotton ordered Tolan’s mother back toward the garage. When she didn’t move fast enough, Cotton, according his own testimony, grabbed her right arm, put his left hand on the small of her back and forced her toward the garage door to “gain her compliance.”
The Tolans say Cotton pushed Marian so hard against the garage door that she fell to the ground. Robbie says he rose up and said, “Get your fucking hands off my mother.” Cotton turned, pulled his gun and fired three shots in Tolan’s direction. One bullet hit him in the chest.
Cotton would later claim he saw Tolan rise to his feet, reach for his waistband and begin to charge toward him. Tolan insists he simply rose up to see what was happening, getting one knee, at most, up off the ground.
According to the doctor who treated him, the bullet entered Tolan’s chest just below the right nipple, traveling in a downward trajectory, collapsing his lung before becoming lodged in his liver. Bill Flynn, a police expert hired by Tolan’s lawyers to review the case, wrote in his report that, given the way the bullet traveled through Tolan’s body, “it would have been impossible for Robert Tolan to have been standing in an upright position when he was shot by Sergeant Cotton.” Flynn questioned how Cotton could have perceived Tolan as an imminent threat if he was still on the ground with his hands at his chest.
Rodriguez wrote that Cotton had no other choice but to shoot, describing the critical moment this way:
“Tolan exchanged a verbal challenge to Sergeant Cotton and simultaneously undertook a fast movement of his hand from his waist band area, and Tolan’s then unanticipated actions caused by a compression of time in which a crucial and timely decision was required by Sergeant Cotton based on necessarily incomplete information.”
Rodriguez didn’t respond to numerous calls and emails requesting an interview, so we were unable to ask him exactly what he meant by “compression of time” or “necessarily incomplete information.”
Siegel appealed Tolan’s case to the U.S. Supreme Court when both lower courts ruled it wasn’t even worth considering. The justices unanimously ruled that the lower courts hadn’t adequately considered Tolan’s side of the story before ruling in favor of police.
Rodriguez, however, says that even if you believe everything Robbie Tolan says — that he lifted his torso off the ground when he heard Cotton assaulting his mother and that he, at most, rose up to one knee with his hands at his chest — Cotton had every reason to shoot.
“I believe he (Tolan) stated that he raised up very quickly and that he was angry and that he stated, ‘Get your f’ing hands off my mother’ in an angry way,” Rodriguez testified. “So even if you take that and substitute it for ‘stood up and charging,’ it equates to the same.”
On the ground, on one knee, hands at your chest and telling a cop to stop shoving your mother “in an angry way,” as far as Rodriguez is concerned, is the same thing as standing up and charging at an officer with your hands at your waistband.
Harris County sheriff’s deputies were raiding an apartment at 2911 Shady Park on January 4, 2002, when deputy Preston Foose saw Sean Ibarra out of the corner of his eye. Ibarra was filming as cops pulled children out of the apartment and searched for evidence.
Ibarra ran when Foose told him to stop filming, so Foose and another deputy chased Ibarra down the block to his apartment. Ibarra tossed the camera to a friend when Foose came busting through the door. Ibarra’s brother somehow got the camera and started recording. Ibarra, his brother and one other friend were ultimately handcuffed and charged with evading arrest, resisting arrest and assault on a police officer. The officers seized the camera and deleted the footage.
All three suspects were ultimately acquitted and filed a lawsuit in Houston federal court alleging excessive use of force and wrongful arrest.
That’s when Mary Baker, a lawyer with the Harris County Attorney’s Office, called on Albert Rodriguez. (Baker would later become Rodriguez’s training partner, according to the Force Analysis website.)
Rodriguez insisted the deputies’ actions were justified because they were afraid Ibarra might somehow retaliate against them with the footage. That abstract concern, Rodriguez said, was enough reasonable suspicion and probable cause to chase the men down, put them in handcuffs and destroy footage of the encounter. He testified in a deposition introducing the defense theory two weeks before the officers were scheduled to field questions from lawyers.
Ibarra’s attorney, former Houston city councilman Lloyd Kelley, discovered something curious when he questioned Foose. When first asked if he’d recently met with Rodriguez to discuss the case, Foose testified he hadn’t. The deputy’s attorney immediately called for a recess, and when they got back on the record, Foose changed his answer — Foose had met with Rodriguez just the day before.
From that point on, Foose was like a leaky faucet. First, it was that he met with Rodriguez but that they didn’t talk about the case. Then, Foose admitted Rodriguez gave him his own copy of the deputy’s criminal trial testimony, complete with Rodriguez’s notes, comments and analysis of the case. Then Foose said Rodriguez wanted to make sure the deputy understood the definitions of suspicion, reasonable suspicion and probable cause before testifying.
Kelley filed a motion asking the judge to sanction the officers, county attorneys and Rodriguez, claiming they had colluded to deprive the Ibarras of a fair and impartial trial. After hearing two days of testimony on the matter, federal district court Judge Kenneth Hoyt dropped a bombshell opinion.
Hoyt was relentless in his criticism of how the county handled the officers’ testimony, but he saved some of his most stinging rebukes for Rodriguez.
Hoyt accused Rodriguez of concocting an elaborate, ridiculous story “to cover for his true reasons for coming to Houston — to coach the officers and to make certain that their testimony would conform to the facts that supported his opinion.” As to the trustworthiness of Rodriguez’s testimony, Hoyt had this to say: “It is like the cuttlefish squirting out ink in an effort to escape. Rodriguez’s testimony is just another stream of endless, irrepressible repetition of half-truths.”
The judge even challenged the very theory Rodriguez had spun for the defense. Ibarra, Hoyt wrote, committed no crime by filming officers. The mere possibility that someone might commit a future crime — in this case, retaliation against an officer — does not constitute probable cause. Hoyt wrote that Rodriguez’s analysis of the case “contravenes well settled legal theories” and promotes “lawlessness.”
The 2013 death of Russel Rios, meanwhile, shows what Rodriguez will say to justify a police shooting in which physical evidence directly undermines the officer’s narrative — one of those rare cases in which the officer’s own department accuses him of lying about a shooting death.
Conroe police officer Jason Blackwelder was off-duty and wearing blue jeans, a T-shirt with “Too Tough to Die” emblazoned across the chest and a pistol stuck in his waistband the night of July 31, 2013. Blackwelder, 29, and his wife had just finished shopping at a Conroe Walmart. They were about to pull out of the parking lot when Blackwelder spotted some Walmart workers running out of the store.
Blackwelder pulled his truck next to a loss prevention officer and asked if he was okay. According to a statement Blackwelder later gave police, the employee told Blackwelder he was chasing someone and pointed south. In the distance Blackwelder saw 19-year-old Russel Rios running toward the tree line. Blackwelder, according to his own statement, didn’t even ask store workers why they were chasing Rios.
Blackwelder followed Rios in his truck before getting out to chase him into the woods, gun in hand. Blackwelder says he tackled Rios from behind and, more than once, Rios broke away and kept running. At one point, according to Blackwelder, Rios told him he’d return whatever he stole if the officer just left him alone. Blackwelder told him to put his hands behind his back, even though he wasn’t carrying handcuffs. Rios again tried to bolt.
The next time Blackwelder tackled Rios, however, his gun flew out of his waistband and landed in the dirt. Blackwelder says he grabbed the gun and, exhausted from the encounter, told Rios to run. According to the statement Blackwelder gave investigators, Rios, who had already tried to run away from the officer several times, instead pounced on his back, looped his arm around his neck “and started squeezing, cutting off my airflow.”
Blackwelder says he grabbed his pistol, “pointed it over my head” and “fired one shot in the direction I believed the male was at on my backside.” One minute and 45 seconds had passed between the time Blackwelder ran into the woods and when he exited alone. He was sweaty, with scratches all over and what appeared to be a bite mark on his left arm.
A responding officer handcuffed Rios’s hands behind his back, despite brain matter showing near the bullet hole in the back of his head. Officers say he’d swiped some “iPad accessories” that amounted to less than $50.
Crime scene photographs show long, vertical burns on the back of Rios’s T-shirt, tracking up his spine toward the bullet hole the base of his skull. Montgomery County crime scene investigators couldn’t square Blackwelder’s story with the evidence. They performed reconstructions using a coconut filled with cow blood to mimic the human head.
Prosecutors told the jury that, according to the physical evidence and those reconstructions, Rios had to have been in a semi-prone position on the ground, with Blackwelder hovering over him. Blackwelder, prosecutors said, must have had his gun resting on Rios’s back, with his finger near the trigger. They called it “sympathetic fire,” which occurs when the trigger finger inadvertently twitches because of some movement in the opposite hand.
When Albert Rodriguez took the stand to defend Blackwelder, he assured jurors it wasn’t reckless for a cop to carry a gun in his waistband, without a holster, and chase after an unknown suspect accused of an unknown crime, according to the Montgomery County Police Reporter, which covered Blackwelder’s trial last summer.
Rodriguez further testified that it didn’t matter whether Blackwelder was able to accurately remember exactly what happened when he shot Rios. It’s not uncommon for officers to forget the exact details of an incident, Rodriguez testified, because things happen so quickly. According to Rodriguez, it’s not even unusual for an officer to think he’s fired only one shot when he has actually emptied an entire clip.
Jurors convicted Blackwelder of manslaughter, sentencing him to five years probation. Prosecutors dismissed additional charges of tampering with a government record and making false report to police.
Rios’s family has since filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Blackwelder and the Conroe Police Department.
Former Stafford police officer Jesus Estrada claimed he was so violently beaten by Aaron Hobart that he was nearly knocked unconscious; the Hobarts’ attorneys say photos taken of his injuries after the incident show little more than “razor burn.”
United States District Court, Southern District of Texas
Two Stafford police officers were walking up the driveway to the Hobart house when they heard the call go out for shots fired. One of the bullets went straight through the front door. Had they arrived sooner, they might have had to dodge gunfire from a fellow officer.
When they entered the home with guns drawn, the officers saw Steve Hobart rushing toward his son while Jesus Estrada crouched on the floor at the opposite end of the foyer, sobbing. One of the officers helped Steve roll Aaron onto his back; Steve gave mouth-to-mouth while the officer did chest compressions. The other officer got Estrada on his feet and out of the house.
Pam ran outside yelling, “Who did you send over here?” Stafford police sergeant Patrick Herman arrived and asked Estrada if his microphone was still recording. Herman went into Estrada’s cruiser, grabbed the microphone that was recording the officer’s radio and put it on top of another police car closer to Estrada. “I had no reason to believe any important information would not be captured by the microphone,” Herman later swore in an affidavit.
Estrada talked to investigators eight days after the shooting. The Hobarts, however, were asked to give police statements almost immediately. They later found out that even their ride to the hospital with a Stafford detective was recorded.
When Estrada arrived for his deposition more than a year later, on his hip was the very gun he had used to kill Aaron Hobart. In his testimony, Estrada could not or would not give direct answers to most questions. One of the Hobart attorneys called it “a dog chasing its tail.” Estrada couldn’t even answer basic questions about how he’d been trained.
Estrada testified he felt he was being violently attacked by Aaron Hobart. “I remember him being bigger than me,” he told investigators. “[H]e fucking nailed me, dude…it fucking hurt so much, man.” He said he remembered seeing “black blotches everywhere,” and was afraid he’d be knocked unconscious.
In reality, Hobart was four inches shorter and at least 25 pounds lighter than Estrada.
When the Hobarts’ attorneys saw the photographs taken of Estrada after the incident, they characterized the injuries as nothing more than “razor burn.”
Estrada says Aaron shouted as he ran down the hallway toward him. “Did you hear anything specific? Or was it just like, uh, like a lion’s roar,” the Stafford police detective investigating Estrada asked him.
“Lion’s roar” would become an official part of the police narrative. Estrada’s questioning lasted, from start to finish, 27 minutes.
A grand jury no-billed criminal charges against Estrada, and the Stafford Police Department’s internal affairs review determined there was nothing wrong with Estrada’s behavior.
Damon Fay, a former homicide detective hired to evaluate the case for the Hobarts, however says that regardless of how hard Aaron’s flailing arms hit Estrada, the evidence indicates Aaron had already moved past the officer and was on his way toward the front door.
One of the bullets hit Aaron close enough to leave what’s called stippling, or gunpowder burns, on Aaron’s shirt, indicating he was probably as close as a few feet from Estrada. But that bullet hit Aaron in the left hip and traveled through his back, shearing parts of several vertebrae. The shot, which most likely came first, would have knocked him down to the ground, Fay says. “The threat had passed,” he wrote. “Aaron Hobart was outbound from Estrada when he was shot.”
But Estrada kept firing. Given the way the remaining bullets were obstructed exiting the body, Fay says Aaron must have been “on the ground and facing away” when that final, fatal volley of bullets hit him.
Montgomery County crime scene investigators who performed reconstructions of the shooting using a coconut filled with cow’s blood couldn’t square Blackwelder’s story with the evidence.
Montgomery County District Clerk
There’s a story Rex White tells to people who aren’t in law enforcement to illustrate the near-constant state of what he calls “professional paranoia” that accompanies police work.
It was the early 1970s, and White was just a rookie officer on traffic patrol. It was the scorching heat of August, and his cuff-length uniform was made of cotton. A Good Samaritan rolled down her window and offered White a jumbo-size soda. White promptly thanked the woman, but when she was out of eyesight, he dumped the cool liquid onto the hot pavement.
There had been reports of someone dropping LSD into officers’ drinks without their knowing, White says. Whether true or urban legend, it was enough to scare cops away from drinking free soda on a hot summer day.
“Can’t take any chances in this line of work,” White says. “There’s the stress that every car you stop is a potential death.”
Every day, officers across the country undoubtedly face harrowing, life-threatening situations. But according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, police officer doesn’t even crack the top ten most dangerous jobs in America. Taxi drivers, construction workers, garbage collectors, agricultural workers, roofers and aircraft pilots are all more likely to die at work than cops.
White says what the general public expects of police is a moving target. Cadets, he says, are often shocked by what was once considered reasonable police behavior not that long ago. Thirty years ago, if you spit on a cop, you’d probably get your teeth kicked in. In another 30 years, White tells them, police cadets might be shocked we ever handcuffed certain types of suspects.
“I imagine our concept of what a police officer should be doing changes by generation,” he says.
Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, sees the heightened scrutiny of police force through another lens.
To Lawrence, the general public’s expectations of cops are “becoming more and more unreasonable and impractical.” Sure, high-profile police shooting deaths have brought changes to larger police departments — more less-lethal options; better, more nuanced firearms training systems; more de-escalation training — but many rural and suburban departments scrape by on limited resources, Lawrence says. It’s unfair, he says, to pay cops “starvation wages” and then demand they excel at an increasingly complicated and difficult job.
On a recent trip, Lawrence says, he encountered officers in a small West Texas town being paid $8.50 an hour. “Exactly what kind of individual do you think you’re going to attract for that kind of pay?” he says. “And what do you have a right to expect out of that individual?”
The general public’s expectations of cops also seem to shift as society learns of chronic failings in other areas. Mental health is perhaps the starkest example. Policymakers have only recently begun to pay attention to the tide of mentally ill people sucked into the criminal justice system because of the dearth of treatment options in most communities. That means jails are now our largest mental-health wards, and cops are often on the front lines of mental illness.
One 2013 report by the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs’ Association estimated that at least half of people shot and killed by police each year suffered from mental illness. “Untreated severe mental illness is an increasing factor in officer-involved homicides,” the report states.
The family of Teresa Sheehan sued the city and county of San Francisco along with two officers who in 2008 were called to transport Sheehan, who suffers from schizoaffective disorder, to a hospital during a psychiatric crisis — officers shot her seven times. When the case made it all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices were asked to decide whether the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to the arrest of individuals with psychiatric disabilities.
The court basically punted on the issue. But when the case was argued, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the question of how police respond to people with mental illness is one society has to address, “unless we want a society in which the mentally ill are automatically killed.”
The Hobarts also claimed the City of Stafford violated the ADA by how Jesus Estrada responded to Aaron Hobart on February 18, 2009. The family grudgingly accepted Stafford’s $150,000 settlement offer after federal Judge Keith Ellison ultimately dismissed that and other claims against the city.
In an email, Stafford Police Chief Bonny Krahn declined an interview, saying, “To help the family, the officer and the police department heal from this incident, we will not be issuing any further interviews.” Krahn says Estrada is now with the Memorial Village Police Department, which did not return phone calls from the Press seeking an interview with Estrada or department officials.
Pam and Steve Hobart still live in the house where Aaron died. Piles of clutter have collected in Aaron’s old room. When Steve goes in there, he remembers standing with Aaron near his bed, trying to talk him down. Agitated and hallucinating, Aaron spouted off streams of angry nonsense. Steve hates that those were his son’s last words.
Pam still struggles with guilt. At times, she blames herself for calling police in the first place. Other times, she wonders if there was anything she could have told officers that might have saved Aaron’s life.
Mostly, she remembers standing in the foyer moments before Aaron was shot. Aaron had stopped flailing his arms to turn toward the front door, she says. She started to step between Aaron and the officer. A two- or three-foot gap separated the young men.
On bad days, Pam still can’t forgive herself for stepping out of the way when Estrada reached for his gun.