By Greg Moses
Speaking for the first time directly to the mother of 18-year-old Daniel Rocha at the beginning of a five-hour community forum Thursday night, Austin police officials said that her son was shot in the back and killed because an officer feared that a taser missing from her vest might be used by the victim to injure another police officer.
“Are you saying that a taser is a lethal weapon?” asked Daniel’s friend Rafael as some of the 300 people in attendance jeered in anger and disbelief. “You have billy clubs, pepper spray, and mace? Why a gun? Why a gun!”
As it turned out, Rocha was not armed, say officials. And when the missing taser was located, it was in pieces.
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“I guess I’m really not clear here,” said one speaker, “Why you would excuse her shooting Daniel because she thought he had a nonlethal weapon.”
Or as another speaker asked who had been in probation classes with white kids: why are they still alive and breathing while Daniel is dead. “Tell me why because I am confused.”
“No, I don’t think you’re confused at all,” said Austin Police Chief Stanley L. Knee.
“What about the videotapes?” asked others. Here’s what the audience was told: although there were three police cars at the scene of the shooting, and although police regulations required each to capture video tape of the late night incident, in fact no videotape was produced. The third car arrived as the gun went off. Only after the incident was over did police make a tape of the scene, claimed officials.
“One officer failed to check out a videotape,” said one official.
“Liar!” shouted someone in the audience.
In the second case, said the official, the officer failed to switch it “all the way on.” And the audience groaned.
“I’ve been arrested just like Daniel and there are always cameras on,” said Anna Gonzales, a friend of Rocha’s.
An ACLU attorney at the meeting, Ann del Llano, said that the first rules of “Videotape 101” demand that officers have nothing to do with handling tapes or operating camera equipment. Tapes are to be loaded and locked by independent personnel. And cameras are supposed to be automatically triggered. From her seat at the back of the room, del Llano expressed horror that officials were admitting that a lethal shot had been fired to prevent a taser attack and that officers were in charge of loading and operating their own cameras. In addition she said officers should be equipped with audio belt recorders.
“Did a police officer suffer a broken leg?” No, the officer (Sgt. Doyle) thought he had fractured it, but on closer inspection it turned out to be a severe bruise. He had fallen backwards. It was Sgt. Doyle that officer Shroeder told investigators she worried about when she shot Rocha in the back. After Rocha was killed Sgt. Doyle drove his car about 200 feet to block off the road, said officials.
“How much did Sgt. Doyle weigh?” shouted a veteran activist. “Because Daniel weighed 118 pounds.” Police officials said they had no idea how much the officer weighed.
“Was there any evidence of struggle?” The initial medical report showing no signs of struggle had been in error, said officials. In fact there were some signs of injury to the victim, said one police official, indicating with a gesture that the injuries were found on Rocha’s upper arm. And officials claimed that since the officer’s taser and knife were not found on her vest after the incident, it must have been stripped away during a struggle.
“What position was he in when he was shot?” Although police said they had videotaped a re-enactment of the incident, they still couldn’t say for sure what position Rocha was in when the shot was fired. Yet when one question asked how Daniel could possibly have been a threat “lying face down on the ground” officials did not dispute the form of the question. Instead they said: “That is up to the Grand Jury to decide.”
“What was the trajectory of the shot? Can you help me visualize it?” asked one questioner as the clock hit midnight. Officials said they would be hiring a crime scene reconstructionist to help them figure that out.
“How can there be a struggle when the man was shot in the back, do you know what I’m saying?” asked another as the audience murmured and shouted in anger and disbelief.
“When the taser was recovered how far away was it from the victim’s body?” Police officials looked at each other and answered that they didn’t know.
“Was the shooting accidental?” No, it was not accidental.
“Did the officer know Daniel?” Yes, she did. She recognized him and knew that he was wanted on a warrant for theft. Later in the evening officials will specify that the officer had investigated Daniel on two previous occasions.
“Why was he stopped?” The two officers who stopped the car were investigating neighborhood complaints of drug dealing and told investigators that they saw the car involved in a drug trade. A third officer (Sgt. Doyle) arrived on the scene after Rocha was already out of the car, they said.
“Were there any drugs in Daniel’s system?” No, the medical exam came up clean, not even a trace of marijuana.
One mother of a student at a neighborhood high school said that according to friends of her daughter, Daniel was pulled from the car. He lifted his shirt to show that he had no weapons. He was pushed to the ground where an officer placed a knee in his back and shot him.
“I’m unarmed! I’m unarmed!” is what witnesses say they heard Daniel saying before he was shot.
Witnesses should come forward, said officials, so that their accounts can be placed on the record. Officials said they were aware that such witnesses might be afraid.
“How many kids are you going to kill before you change your ways?” asked one questioner.
“Anytime you have to use deadly force it is a tragic situation,” said Chief Knee.
“You didn’t have to!” shouted someone in reply.
Time and again police officials said that the Travis County Grand Jury would receive the facts of investigation to determine if any indictments were in order for the officer who fired the shot.
But former Austin School Board member Diana Castaneda told the forum that she had Grand Jury experience and she found it “incestuous.”
Gus Garcia the legendary Austin politician told the crowd that the only reason he got to serve on the Grand Jury was because his son was one of five people authorized to submit names.
“This IS the Grand Jury!” shouted someone. “The PUBLIC!”
Castaneda recalled hearing one case during her term on the grand jury where one officer searched a subject and found nothing. “Oh, you don’t know what you’re doing,” said a more senior officer who then searched the subject and produced evidence of drug possession. “Clearly police set up a situation to take a guy down,” said Castaneda.
In the case of the yogurt shop murders Castaneda said Grand Jurors were not given evidence they requested for review. “Oh it’s just the same as what we showed you,” they were told. “It’s corrupt guys, it’s really corrupt.”
“You want the facts?” asked one speaker. “Here are the facts: Daniel Rocha had just turned 18; he was just a kid. He was shot in the back. Somebody’s baby is not coming home tonight. There were no cameras. Those are the facts!”
Sitting next to Rocha’s mother was the mother of Jesse Owens who was killed by police on June 14, 2003. In the Owens case the officer was disciplined with a 90-day suspension. That fact still smoldered
the memories of Laurie Carrazos and others. In the Rocha case, the community seemed angry that they could only expect more of the same.
“You can call me anytime,” said Chief Knee to Rocha’s mother.
“So he can lie to you!” shouted someone in the audience.
“Is this the first time you have spoken to her directly?” asked another. “Why have you not approached her before today?”
“I am a very objective person,” said Owens’ mother to the chief of police. “I don’t act out. I observe. For the past two years I have been paying attention. I wonder if you can regain the trust of the community because you do not have mine.”
“I visit my child in the grave because that’s where my child lives now. Maybe you don’t get it until you live through it. If you can’t lead, put someone in charge who can.”
Said another woman explaining the mood of pain and anger in the room, “We’re just doing what you would do if you got a call one morning and was told that your son was shot in the back while unarmed.”
Also in attendance was the mother of Sophia King, killed on June 11, 2002. Holding a Bible and a picture of her daughter, she asked: “Are you telling the truth? The God-loving Truth? I want the truth. Anybody can write a report, but I want the truth.”
“Do you know these kids?” asked King’s mother, holding up pictures.
“We know they’re dead!” came a reply from the audience.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” said King’s mother.
“Oooh, I wish we could,” someone said. “I’d like to see APD on the other side.”
“We are a part of life just like West Lake Hills,” said King’s mother.
“Tell it like it is sister,” came the audience reply. “Because we are here to back you up and it’s the only time you can tell it without getting arrested!”
Diana Castaneda said that she was on the school board when Rocha was in school and she had helped with the Girl Scouts when Sophia King was a Girl Scout.
“These people matter to me, and they ought to matter to you,” said Castaneda. “When I call police to report that a kid had a door slammed in his face so hard that he lost teeth, and the officer doesn’t care?”
“Why is it that every year just before Juneteenth someone gets killed by APD?” asked a young woman. As far as the community was concerned, Daniel’s shooting had a lot to do with the color of his skin.
“What should we advise as parents?” asked another mother. “Should we tell our kids to take the abuse from police and get killed like Daniel Rocha or fight for their rights and possibly get killed in the process?” Chief Knee referenced the complaint procedure. “Okay, that’s what I’ll tell them, but when they see what happened to Daniel Rocha, I don’t know if they will take my advice.”
“Y’all say we’re the criminals,” says a young man late in the evening (the hearing lasts until 12:15 am). “And when you try to arrest us we run. Well, we run because you are the criminals. You all have the power and the guns. All we have are hands and feet. What the fukk can we do but run?”
“When I saw the news my stomach turned,” said Yolanda Alvarez who had come to the meeting with her son and signs that said “Murder in the 1st!” Her stomach turned because she knew the killing had something to do with dark skin color and there was her son now growing up. She asked about officer Schroeder’s history of force.
Ten pepper sprays, six soft hand techniques, and two tasers. Officer Schroeder had 18 incidents total said Knee, not an excessive record for someone who worked for two years on Sixth Street. The audience had lots to say about that.
Officer Schroeder is on administrative leave, said Chief Knee.
“With Pay!” called out someone in the audience.
“Austin law enforcement is a cultural issue,” said a speaker who referenced long experience working with the city council. “Good officers killed in bad operations and kids killed. It’s the same cultural issue.”
Gone are the days when you could call police to help get a cat out of a tree said the speaker, “because today if I call the police, somebody is going to jail.”
So jails are overcrowded and drug laws are making convicted felons out of too many black men who are merely guilty of possessing small amounts of crack cocaine. The result is a “war on brown people.” And if you are going to buy tasers, “pull the damn things! Enough gun pulling!”
Add to these ongoing burdens the prospect of soldiers returning from Iraq “with significant challenges” who will be legless and homeless.” Looking toward the two city council reps, he asks: “I call on the rest of you guys at this end of the table to fix it. Can you handle it!”
The Police Monitor’s office has no teeth, complained the speaker. “Give him a little power to do something.”
Councilmember Alvarez said policies and procedures had already been implemented that were “not well received” by the rank and file cops. And Alvarez agreed that the office of Police Monitor “needs to be stronger.”
“Void the contract with the police union,” said the speaker. “Because enough is enough!” Diana Castaneda agreed with this when it was her turn to speak. “There is too much power in the police association,” she said.
Several people shared their own horror stories about police encounters in Austin. Each time the Chief of Police would recommend that people file formal complaints.
“You do it!” suggested someone in the audience. Others told stories about waiting on the phone for a half hour getting nowhere with the complaint process.
One man was followed home from an event by undercover cops and eventually found himself surrounded by seven cops with guns drawn. He asked them: if you thought I was the one you were after, why didn’t you arrest me there at the event in plain sight of witnesses. He turned out to be the wrong guy.
A man in company of his wife and daughter told the table full of officials how his daughter was followed home one night by a SWAT team who shot his son with a taser. When police put his daughter on the ground outside the house and tried to cuff her she broke free and ran into the house with a cuff dangling from one wrist.
“The SWAT team comes into my house!” said that man. “Between 2am and 4am we were all taken in. Why did they hit her in the back!”
Then because he owns a small trucking company he told how he pays about $2,000 per month in inspection tickets issued by Austin police. “I can fix everything on the truck today, tomorrow they’ll find something else. They’ll find anything.”
On the day his son’s license expired, cops pulled over his truck and arrested him at the corner of 38 1/2 Street and the Interstate. “They had handcuffs on him and were taking him to jail.” When the father drove up in his van to get the truck, he complained to one of the officers about police priorities. Then, when he got out of his van to get the truck, the officer said, “You go over there and I’ll put your ass in jail.”
“I can’t get my truck. It costs me $400 dollars to get my truck because of that. I reported it to internal affairs, but nothing ever came of it.”
One mother said she has experienced many stories of harassment during the past two weeks. “Is your narcotics unit so weak you have to resort to these means?”
Another speaker said that “two yesterday” were tasered and put in jail.
“What Austin needs is ethics training!” suggested one speaker. “What is it going to take before we get our rights.” If she goes to Rosewood Park she sees lots of police cars. But if she goes to a park on the West Side, no cops.
Chief Knee explained that cops are distributed according to “calls to service.”
Speakers accused police of exercising poor judgment skills that embarrassed the community.
About that “service need” formula for assigning police to situations asks one speaker, how come there are 50 cops outside? “I want to know if somebody was af
raid? I don’t understand the ‘service need’ for all those cops.”
Chief Knee explained that so many cops were here because “they need to hear too.”
“Then why aren’t they in here listening?”
Chief Knee explained also that there were a number of “issues” in the neighborhood that officers were working on with residents, “and I wanted to make them available.”
From the audience I hear, “what?”
The speaker then wants to know: “If there are a certain race of people that a cop pulls over, do you look at that?”
“Yes,” says Knee, “we collect data and we use it.”
“So do you know if a white cop pulls over lots of people of color, do you know that?”
In that case No, says Knee, we don’t collect that kind of data.
“OK, I just wanted to know. Next question. How long do investigations take? For Daniel, how many times did the officer who killed him investigate him?”
“She investigated him twice before,” said Knee.
“If that’s the case, wouldn’t you call that harassment? I mean if someone kept following me around wouldn’t I be able to call the cops and put a stop to it?”
Knee repeated the explanation that on the night of the killing the officer says she observed a drug transaction involving the car and then after the car was stopped she recognized Rocha as having an warrant.
“Do you see what size I am,” asks the speaker. Not much more than five feet tall. She admits to being a bit hefty, but does she look threatening to anyone?
“The time I was stopped by police, they called a backup,” she says. “Someone called backup for me?”
One activist took the police to task for releasing information about Rocha’s criminal history.
“You want the whole city and the whole world to judge him,” she said. “As if that gives you the right to kill him!”
“He was such a good kid, you didn’t know him,” said another speaker. “Is it ‘kill kids first’ if they’re a different color?”
Said another speaker: “The language you have been putting out disrespects Daniel and this community as if he was someone who had it coming. That is unacceptable. You are charged with protecting and serving all of Austin including this community, but you failed to protect Daniel. You are the ones who display incompetence and lack of capability. Use of deadly force is an ultimate option, it is not a choice. To have someone shot in the back, where was the confrontation?”
Chief Knee said he told the press that Daniel had a warrant for theft, but “nothing else came from the Austin Police Department.”
“This is Racism 2005,” said Daniel Llanes. “It’s still happening. It’s a culture of racism. The police department has its own culture. I used to live in West Austin and I never saw there the attitude about police that I see here. And where are the white council members?” he asked with a gesture to council members Raul Alvarez and Danny Thomas. “Where is the rest of Austin when it comes to caring what happens here?”
“White officers are afraid of dark-skinned kids,” said Llanes, “but they’re not afraid of white kids! This is racism.” Llanes said officer Schroeder was probably afraid of Rocha because he was dark.
“Own that up!” said Llanes. “Everytime this happens, it is a white cop who kills a dark kid.”
Or as another speaker asked: “West of IH 35 were there any 18-year-olds shot in the back? Any white kids shot in the back?”
Chief Knee said that in his seven and a half years of work in Austin he could not recall a single incident to fit the answer. He denied that skin color had any relevance to the situation.
“Once you put on this uniform, you are one color,” he said.
“Bullshit!” came the reply from the audience.
“The police are only a higher form of the KKK,” charged yet another speaker who encouraged council members Alvarez and Thomas to “hold the badge accountable like you hold the people of Austin accountable.”
“Every church in the city should come stand at that corner (8th St. and IH 35) to protest the killing of Daniel Rocha. We’re tired of lies and tired of accusations.” Along with many speakers at the five-hour forum, this speaker drew applause by demanding that Chief Knee be fired.
“I live at Circle C Ranch these days,” said one woman. “There’s drugs at Circle C. The rich kids get the best drugs. But I don’t fear because I make enough money to live on the West Side.” She said she worked with Rocha in youth services. She said she had also filed suit against the director of the DPS. “The DPS is just as redneck as can be. I used to go out with them.”
“To tell you the truth the police are tired of it too,” she said. “I believe in justice here and not in the afterlife, and I think we should listen to Brother Malcolm when he said by any means necessary.”
When she traveled to the East Side one day and had her car stolen, the police officer who came out said she was bound to get her car stolen if she came to the East Side.
“I know a lot of people,” she said. “We live in a police state. Every time you stand and say the pledge of allegiance remember this is not a Democracy but a Republic.” This is a Republic made to serve the interests of people whose families make $100,000 per year or more. “So when you pledge allegiance to the flag and to the Republic for which it stands, just remember who you are pledging allegiance to.”
A young woman who joined an anti-Klan action in Tomball earlier this month said police tasered activists to protect the Klan. At a peace march Jan. 20 a Hispanic youth was tasered twice. “You all are the ones with power! You’re the ones with guns!”
She told a story of being accosted by police and “intimidated” in her NorthEast neighborhood. “What is it about the East Side?” she asked. “People who know their rights and who can call your officers on their shit get messed up.”
“It scared the hell out of me,” she said. When she tried to report the incident by telephone she spent a half hour getting nowhere.
“Here’s my question,” asked another speaker. “Why over here when we call the cops 5 or 6 show up?” She talked about a brother-in-law who had “a family problem” that attracted six police cars and resulted in a taser attack.
“And here’s my next question,” she said. “If there’s so much crime, how come so much shooting comes from cops?”
“Cops should be with the white rich white kids,” said a speaker who said they get the best drugs anyway. “I’m 18 years old and I can’t even stand cops. They’re here to kill us. Put yourself in our shoes, and pretend like you care, because right now you look like you don’t give a damn.”
When Chief Knee replied that “we do care” the speaker replied: “If you do care so much stop sending your officers into our houses and disrespecting us.” The one color for police, she said, was the white color.
“It’s just a badge honey; it’s not going to get you into heaven,” said the speaker to applause. “You know Chief, get into your job!”
“Excessive use of force and profiling is a statewide problem,” said Tara Allison of South Austin. In 1996 she said her Native American husband was shot and killed while unarmed in the presence of six police. No drugs were found in his system. And the Grand Jury found nothing wrong.
“As a result my 15-year-old daughter hates police, but I tell her honey not all of them are bad.” She has had good experiences with Austin police, but she worries about how things change when people cross over to the East side.
One man born and raised in the Dove Springs neighborhood said his mama used to tell him to be be careful out there. “And I used to think it was the homeboys that she was talking about.” Today, he thinks mama was probably more worried about the police. He credits a youth ministry for pulling him off the streets; now he spends time “praying, loving, and crying” with neighborhood youth.”
“If you want help, what can we do to stop being harassed? Where can we s
tand? If you can’t relate to hope, we can!”
While one questioner expressed suspicion that police officers share a “shoot in the torso” policy in order to evade the difficulty of future witnesses, another questioner asked if the department was considering an NAACP-led effort to train officers how to “shoot to disable.” Chief Knee denied the suspicion that police intend to “shoot in the torso” and said that the NAACP initiative to “shoot to disable” was not finding much support among police.
Austin cable access producer Mary Aleshire told a story that began at a softball field in Pleasant Valley. Her son was playing and so was an off-duty cop. After the game the cop started a fight and had someone on the ground. Aleshire’s son pulled a beer bottle out of a trash can to threaten the cop in order to get him to stop fighting. In response the cop went to his car, brought back a gun, and said: “You’re going to do what?”
The father of Mary’s son, Bill Aleshire, was County Judge and a well known pacifist who opposed wars. So on Veteran’s Day a SWAT team came crashing through the front and back doors of her sons’ home. She was speaking to one son on the telephone and heard what was going on. She dialed the office number for Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox who happened to be working the holiday. He dropped everything and was there in 15 minutes. When officers told him he’d have to post bail for the arrest, he said which of my properties do you want? Then he told them to leave my family alone!
From a folded up red t-shirt Aleshire unwrapped a camcorder and held it up as her secret weapon. When police come at you, take this out and point it at them. They will run the other way. She promised to produce a video of the Dove Springs forum and play it over and over and over again.
Near the end of the evening an organizer with the SouthEast Corner Alliance Neighborhood (SCAN) said that the Austin Police Department and the Parks Department were the only two city departments that would help her make improvements in the area. “I support and know every officer in here,” she said. “Thank you Chief Knee and I apologize.”
“Don’t apologize for me!” said someone in the audience softly.
Annie Aguirre stepped up to the podium to talk about how she has been organizing the community for 13 years. “My kids know me,” she said referring to the kids of Dove Springs. She encouraged organizers of the forum to become organizers of the community.
“Get to know the issues in the community,” she said. “Because they have been around.” She challenged the media to report positive stories about Dove Springs “because there are lots of positive stories here.” And she encouraged everyone to vote. “There is hope in every child.”
The capital of Texas should be doing much more to provide recreation and investment in kids, said one speaker to the panel: “What are you going to do?”
“None of you all are taking notes!” charged one speaker as she looked down the long table of officials that had been assembled for the forum. Several hours had passed. Lots of complaints had been expressed, and no one at the table was taking notes? “Pride comes before destruction,” she said.
Another speaker active with Anti Racist Action addressed his question to the audience: “What are YOU going to do?”
It was midnight and the room had grown more empty and subdued when a speaker approached the podium and asked for a moment of silence.
The speaker asked the Chief to solve a puzzle. Suppose two black kids, two Hispanic kids, and two white kids (male-female pairs in each case) were playing after school and an officer approached them because someone had reported drug activity.
Then suppose the black male stepped forward and said, okay I’ll be honest with you, we were smoking weed and when we saw you coming I threw it in the bushes. Then the officer gets the weed and searches the black kid, but finds nothing more.
Another officer comes in for backup and searches the kid again. Suddenly some pills hit the ground and the backup officer says, oh, those belong to you. The black kid is handcuffed and arrested while the others go home unsearched.
“Now I want to ask you Chief Knee, was that the right thing that should have happened?”
“Yes” answered the Chief, because the additional pills would have made the arrest mandatory by law.
“Well I’ll tell you what I think should happen,” said the late night philosopher. “If I were those kids parent I would want the officer to escort those kids home to me.”
“Now I asked for a moment of silence tonight and I want to tell you why. The other night I went to visit my sister and I came out of her house and sat in my car.”
“Do you know what a fatal shot sounds like, because that’s what I heard. A fatal shot. I will always remember that fatal shot.”
“There are lots of single parents in the community and there are lots of problems. When the officers in the story took that one kid to jail, the others went home, and their parents probably never knew they were involved.”
“Where is the knowledge in that? Where is the wisdom?”