Two police officers separately accused of using excessive force against teenage students in Texas high schools were cleared of wrongdoing last week.
Last Monday, the Round Rock Police Department announced officer Rigo Valles would not face disciplinary action after he was videotaped in October grabbing 14-year-old Round Rock High School student Gyasi Hughes by the throat and pinning him against the ground, Austin's KXAN reported. And then on Thursday, the Houston Chronicle reported that Harris County grand jurors concluded that Pasadena ISD police officer Michael Y'Barbo's May 2014 baton beating of 16-year-old South Houston High School student Cesar Suquet was not worthy of criminal charges.
Both law enforcement camps relied on the same familiar fall-back standard. Round Rock's internal investigation determined Valles's actions "were reasonable and within policy," while PISD officer Y'Barbo's attorney, Greg Gable, told the Chron that "the school district police reviewed it, an outside expert reviewed it, and no one said it was unreasonable."
A viral cell phone video shows Hughes, slight and spectacled, cornered by two police officers following what Hughes later told KVUE was a cafeteria scuffle over a stolen pair of football goggles. In the video, Hughes appears to be emotional but far from violent or dangerous. Valles moves to grab Hughes's arm, but the student slaps it away. Then Valles places his hands on the young man's throat and hauls him to the floor.
The starting point of Suquet's beating at Pasadena ISD was similarly small — he went to the principal's office to retrieve his cell phone, was told to leave and had to be escorted out by an assistant principal and officer Y'Barbo. According to KPRC, Suquet said to the officer, "Why are you being such an asshole?" Then, Suquet said, Y'Barbo attempted to arrest the student for disorderly conduct, forced him to the ground and beat him repeatedly with his metal baton.
Neither student committed especially cruel or criminal acts — in fact, both incidents were pretty typical of teenage high school students and appeared to fall well within school administrators' disciplinary range. What was it, then, that gave police lawful reason to use a controversial and potentially deadly chokehold on an unarmed 14-year-old and repeatedly beat an unarmed 16-year-old?
It's hard to determine why exactly the officers involved were found to have acted reasonably, especially considering both incidents were caught on video. Hughes's chokehold was recorded on a cell phone camera and released to the public; Suquet's beating was captured on surveillance footage, and while a federal lawsuit barred the video's release, the student's family did provide photos of his purpled and badly bruised upper body.
There is no doubt, then, that the two students were subjected to violent force, whether the officer's actions were legally justified or not. But for these actions to be considered "reasonable," one would think there would be a clear, lawful reason the officers felt they needed to use violent force. However, in each case that reason remains unknown.
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When Suquet's family filed a federal lawsuit against PISD and Y'Barbo, the district responded to the family's complaint alleging excessive use of force with nothing more than a generic denial. PISD said Y'Barbo acted with "proper motives," "just cause" and in "good faith," and the school district argued its officer did not "violate any clearly established law." Y'Barbo's own response was similarly non-specific, claiming that he acted with a "reasonable amount of necessary force...to maintain and control discipline." Both defendants argued Y'Barbo was within his legal right to beat the 16-year-old with his baton, but neither attempted to explain why he felt it was necessary to do that. (The lawsuit was dismissed following a settlement in early November.)
Shortly after the Round Rock video went viral, Round Rock ISD released a statement claiming "officers were forced to detain [Hughes] for his safety and the safety of others." It did not explain why Valles felt a chokehold — a controversial and sometimes deadly move banned by many police departments — was the only way to "detain" the teenager, who was already cornered, outnumbered and out-muscled by police.
Meanwhile, in South Carolina a similar instance of police using excessive force against students has yielded drastically different results. A sheriff's deputy was fired from the department almost immediately after he was seen on video ripping a 16-year-old female student from her desk and dragging her across the classroom floor in late October. Sheriff's department investigators needed just 48 hours to determine that the deputy's actions were "outrageous and unforgivable," and a federal probe is currently investigating whether the deputy violated the student's civil rights.
It is unclear why officer conduct considered "outrageous" in South Carolina is considered simply "reasonable" in Texas.