On Thursday, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo was joined by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner to unveil body cam footage from the fatal police shooting of Nicolas Chavez, 27, on April 21. Acevedo announced that he had fired four of the HPD officers who were involved in Chavez’s killing, calling their actions "inexplicable."
The fired officers — Benjamin LeBlanc, Omar Tapia, Patrick Rubio and Luis Alvarado — were among 28 officers called to the scene of a man said to be behaving erratically. In all, 24 shots were fired by police during a roughly 14-minute encounter with Chavez, the last 21 of which came in a swift barrage once Chavez was already wounded.
Thursday’s officer firings and body cam footage release came after months of requests from local police reform advocates to make available the recordings that captured Chavez’s shooting, as well as the footage from multiple other officer-involved shootings in 2020 that HPD has yet to release to the public. Those demands to release police body cam footage were amplified by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in June and the nationwide movement for greater police accountability that followed.
After news of the firings leaked earlier Thursday but before footage of the shooting had been released, the Houston Police Officer’s Union called the officers’ dismissals “unjust and deplorable” via Twitter. During a Thursday press conference, HPOU president Joe Gamaldi defended the officers involved in Chavez’s killing by describing the incident as “a suicide by cop scenario,” and union vice president Doug Griffith said Acevedo’s decision to fire the four officers “just breaks the morale of this department.”
On April 21, HPD officers responded to five 911 calls about Chavez, who was running in and out of traffic, appeared to be armed with a sharp object and looked to be mentally unstable. During their confrontation with Chavez, he stabbed himself multiple times with a piece of rebar. An autopsy later revealed that Chavez had methamphetamine, amphetamine and ethanol in his system, Acevedo said.
After playing a video of the incident for the media — which was lightly edited but contained the moments directly before and after each use of police force — Acevedo explained that he considered the first three shots HPD officers fired at Chavez early on to be “objectively reasonable.”
But a flurry of 21 gunshots from LeBlanc, Tapia, Rubio and Alvarado after Chavez was already wounded and on the ground were what led Acevedo to fire those four officers.
“At the time when we discharged those 21 rounds, Mr. Chavez was at his greatest level of incapacitation,” Acevedo said, explaining that at that point, Chavez had been shot with Tasers several times and with 10 nonlethal bean bag rounds.
“We have concluded that the last barrage of rounds, 21 rounds, are not objectively reasonable based on the totality of the circumstances in this case,” Acevedo continued.
Although Chavez can be seen reaching toward a Taser on the ground before the final round of gunfire — which turned out to be empty, although the officers said they did not realize it at the time— Acevedo said due to the large number of officers on site, that didn’t rise to the standard of an imminent threat to the lives of the officers involved.
“No one should conclude that the dismissal of these officers is an indictment on HPD or their 5,300 police officers,” Turner said, clearly overcome with emotion, “but when you are wrong, there are consequences. And for the good of every police officer who serves, for the good of everyone that follows the rules to protect this city, it is important for us to call a ball a ball and a strike a strike.”
U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee was present during Thursday’s press event, during which she spoke to the duty for public servants like herself, Turner and Acevedo to both heal the pain of people like the Chavez family and “to do the right thing, and to do it without bias against law enforcement, and to do it without bias against the victims.”
“I pray for the community, the city of Houston and beyond, and I ask for calm and peace,” she continued.
Before HPD released the body cam footage on Thursday, the only publicly available video of Chavez’s killing was a low-quality cell phone video recorded by a bystander and posted to social media in April. In June, Acevedo said that one reason why the official body cam footage from Chavez’s shooting hadn’t yet been made public was due to a request from Chavez’s wife that the video not be released out of fear that it may trouble her two young daughters. Acevedo previously said that the footage would be made available by the end of August, a promise that HPD did not make good on.
In a statement released after Thursday’s press conference, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said that the county’s Civil Rights Division “will conduct a thorough, independent review” of all the evidence in the case of Chavez’s death.
“Once we complete our review, we will present the case directly to a grand jury,” Ogg said. “That grand jury will determine whether the Houston police officers who shot Nicolas Chavez were justified or whether they committed a crime.”
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