Social Distortion

Unarmed, Stopped, Chased and Shot: Why Was Jordan Baker “Suspicious”?

All Janet Baker wanted was to see the grainy security camera footage that showed some of her son's final moments before the off-duty cop chased Jordan Baker from a strip mall parking lot into the alley behind a row of stores, where the officer shot and killed the unarmed, 26-year-old father.

All it took, she says, was numerous pleas to the Harris County District Attorney's Office, the Houston Police Department and City Council; a public scolding from local activists vowing to spark protests if the video wasn't released; and a lawsuit filed by Baker's family before city officials reversed course late Wednesday and released the footage in the January 2014 shooting.

Janet Baker, who filed a federal lawsuit against the city just hours before Mayor Annise Parker announced that officials would release the video (Parker says the decision had nothing to do with the lawsuit), claims the city has forced a mother to take legal action in order to learn basic details about her son's death nearly two years ago. “And to be honest,” Baker says of the video released Wednesday, “it raises a lot more questions than answers for me.”

Police have said Juventino Castro, an off-duty HPD officer working security for a group of stores that had recently reported a string of burglaries, stopped Jordan Baker in a strip mall parking lot off West Little York because Baker looked “suspicious” and matched a description of the robbery suspects. Namely, that's because Baker was wearing a hoodie, giving the case an uneasy resemblance to the death of Trayvon Martin, the black Florida teenager followed, confronted and ultimately shot and killed by a neighborhood watchman who thought Martin looked “suspicious.”

According to prosecutors who presented the case to a Harris County grand jury last year, Castro claimed that Baker was slowly riding his bike through the parking lot, peering into store windows and possibly “casing some of the establishments.”

David B. Owens, a Chicago attorney representing Baker's family in the lawsuit against the city, insists that's not what the footage shows. In the video, which came from an Aio Wireless store in the strip mall (the only one of four security videos released Wednesday that appears to show any part of the encounter between Baker and Castro), Baker rides his bike through the parking lot around 8:40 p.m. on January 16, 2014. He's not particularly close to the stores as he passes by a row of cars parked outside a Little Caesars Pizza joint. Even if he has his head turned to face the store windows (it's difficult to tell from the video), Baker certainly isn't going slow enough for one to call what he's doing “peering.” If you believe Castro's story, does that mean Baker's mere presence — again, a black guy wearing a hoodie riding a bike through a parking lot — was sufficient reason to think he was “casing” the place?

Baker quickly rides in and then out of the frame, only to reappear about 20 seconds later, biking even further away from the stores. A white sedan, presumably Castro, soon starts to follow Baker, who doesn't take long to stop.

From there, all you can really see is brake lights. There's the faint image of Baker walking away from the officer, and then he runs; Castro appears to run back to his car, change his mind and then chase Baker. 
Authorities have said there's no reason to think Baker had anything to do with any burglary at the strip center. According to the lawsuit filed Wednesday, Baker at some point lost his hoodie during the confrontation with Castro; the lawsuit states Baker died handcuffed and shirtless with a bullet in his chest.

This statement, HPD's initial public explanation of the shooting, is about as detailed as police have been willing to get about what they say happened that night: “A brief struggle and foot chase ensued. At some point, Baker stopped fleeing and, while reaching into his waistband, charged at the officer. Officer Castro, fearing for his life, discharged his duty weapon one time, striking Baker.”

Janet Baker says that for nearly a year after her son's shooting, that statement is about all officials would tell her. But a lot can happen in a year. By late 2014, Michael Brown's shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, had come to symbolize the deep rift between police and communities of color and had renewed calls for police accountability. On December 1, 2014, nearly two dozen local law enforcement officials, politicians and community activists held a panel discussion at the Community of Faith Church titled “After Ferguson, Where Do We Go?”; it was the same church that hosted Jordan Baker's funeral service earlier that year.

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson became much more responsive after Janet Baker stood up at that meeting and asked why there's been no movement in her son's case, Baker says. By the end of the month, prosecutors were ready to present the case to a grand jury, as is routine in police shooting cases. At some point the DA's office told Baker about the existence of a videotape, one that they said had no bearing on the case but that did briefly show Baker's son being stopped by the officer. She wanted to see it; they told her she'd have to wait until the grand jury made its decision.

But after the grand jury no-billed Castro the afternoon of December 23, 2014, Baker still couldn't see the video due to, she was told, HPD's internal investigation into the shooting. By late August, eight months after the criminal investigation was closed and more than a year and a half after the shooting itself, HPD was still citing that internal investigation as the reason it couldn't release any more information in the case, including that video. The delay was concerning enough for the Chicago law firm now representing Baker to send the department a letter saying they might have to sue — a move designed to ensure that anything related to the case is preserved. That so-called “preservation letter” also meant authorities could legally refuse to release what would otherwise be public information, even when HPD ultimately wrapped its investigation. (The department said in a statement, “The HPD officer’s action in this matter was determined to be within compliance with departmental policy and state law.” Since HPD won't currently answer any questions about the case, it's unclear when police completed that internal review.)

Last month, as City Council debated and approved a new policy and contract to equip HPD officers with body cameras, Janet Baker stood at the dais and, in a tearful plea, asked that the city release any video of her son. Word eventually got around to local activists — the same ones who kept Baker company as she waited outside the grand jury room for days last December — that some sort of video in the case existed. They held a press conference on Monday, tying the case to the larger question of police transparency raised by Laquan McDonald's shooting in Chicago, and local TV stations started to pay attention.

Parker on Wednesday said she decided to release the video after discussing it with Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland; both described the release as a move toward “transparency,” the Houston Chronicle reports.

Perhaps. But Owens, Janet Baker's attorney, says both his client and the public deserve more information about this shooting than has been provided by authorities. “In the aftermath of a police-involved shooting, in all the shootings I have ever seen, we have the least amount of information on this one,” Owens said.

Maybe during those 20 seconds between when Baker rode out of and back into the frame on that security camera footage, people in the parking lot saw him pull up close to a couple of stores to “peer” inside (and if he did, whether that stretches the bounds of probable cause for an off-duty cop working security to stop, chase and try to detain him is a whole other matter). Perhaps, before you can even see Baker bike into the camera's view, store owners had seen him trolling the parking lot for hours (Baker's family says he was probably just on his way home, which was nearby). 

Authorities have said publicly that there were no witnesses to the end of Castro's confrontation and struggle with Baker. Everyone seems to agree there's no video evidence of the shooting. But a law enforcement official with direct knowledge of the investigation tells the Houston Press there was a guy taking out the trash in the alley when Baker was shot; that same law enforcement official also says that witness didn't see enough to prove or disprove Castro's claim that he feared for his life. There were other witnesses around the shopping center who spoke with police; again, the law enforcement official tells us those witnesses said nothing that contradicted Castro's story.

That same law enforcement official also told us not to expect much from the video the city finally decided to release Wednesday. And, as far as mounting any criminal case against an officer who shot and killed an unarmed man, the video does seem useless.

But the video does underscore a question that Janet Baker says she still can't answer: Why was her son suspicious enough to follow, stop, chase, detain and ultimately kill? 
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Michael Barajas
Contact: Michael Barajas