On an October night in 2011, Houston Police Department Officer Jason Rosemon pulled into a neighborhood street, responding to a domestic disturbance call, demanding through a megaphone that Kenny Releford come outside. Minutes later, Releford, an unarmed, schizophrenic man, was bleeding to death in the middle of the street. Rosemon shot Releford because, according to the officer, Releford had a hand behind his back and Rosemon feared he had a gun. Rosemon shot him a second time about one minute later, because he saw him try to get up.
Now, after three years of litigation against the City of Houston, City Council finally agreed Wednesday to pay Releford's surviving family $260,000 as part of a settlement agreement, following a slew of federal court opinions in Releford's favor.
The settlement is a rare victory for the family members of unarmed victims of fatal police encounters in a city whose police department, for years, nearly always found a police shooting justified. The officer who killed Releford was not disciplined. But to win a civil rights lawsuit against the city, plaintiffs have to show that more than one of the city's police officers is a problem. They have to show that unchecked excessive force and failure to train or discipline officers are a widespread culture problem within the police department — an extremely high standard to meet.
Attorneys for Releford's family, however, dug up the dirt — findings we wrote about at length in a feature last year, "Officials Can’t Remember the Last Time HPD Saw an Unjustified Shooting. Here’s Why."
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At the time of Releford's death, of the 99 incidents in which people had been killed or injured by Houston police officers since 2009, not a single shooting was found "unjustified" by HPD internal affairs (In years prior, from 2005 to 2009, only two out of 170 shootings were found unjustified.) The apparently "justified" shootings, in the department's lingo, included the death of Brian Claunch, a mentally ill, double-amputee homeless man in a wheelchair whom an officer shot after Clautch wielded a ballpoint pen; and the death of Omar Ventura, who was shot by a drunk off-duty Houston officer who had gotten into a bar fight and thought (wrongly) that Ventura was going to pull a gun.
U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison found in a February 2016 ruling that the detailed documentation of several of the Houston Police Department's investigations of officer-involved shootings — and the bleak statistics about how infrequently officers are held accountable — was reasonable evidence of the department's systematic failure to keep excessive force in check, and he denied the county's motion to dismiss the case. (It entered settlement proceedings roughly one year later.)
Ellison also found that these text messages, exchanged between two officers on the night of Releford's death, contributed to his family's argument that Houston officers are indifferent to the deaths of unarmed civilians:
Officer Peter Buttitta: Hey bro, can you guys go at least 2 weeks without a shooting.
Officer Lara: Thats how we roll at South Central Bra! We too hard!
Officer Buttitta: Hahaha right…is he DOA?
Officer Lara: He was alive when enrt to hosp.
Officer Buttitta: Man bra, you better be careful…the list is shortening of officers who havent gotten into a shooting yet.