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Nicolas Chavez Death: Four Houston Police Officers Fired

The Houston Police Department on Thursday fired four officers involved in the fatal shooting of a 27-year-old man in April and released body camera footage of the confrontation, after months of scrutiny by investigators and calls for transparency from protesters.

The man, Nicolas Chavez, was shot dead by the police on the night of April 21. The next day the department said it was investigating the shooting and gave an account of what happened that was quickly challenged by Mr. Chavez’s family and protesters, especially after cellphone video recorded by a bystander emerged.

Nicolas ChavezCredit…via Jessica Chavez

On Thursday, Chief Art Acevedo of the Houston Police Department announced that four of the five officers who fired a total of 24 rounds during the encounter had been fired. Of those, three shots, fired by two of the officers, were deemed to have been “objectively reasonable,” the chief said.

Those shots were followed by 21 shots fired by four of the officers, Chief Acevedo said at a news conference where he showed the footage from the officers’ body cameras.

“The discharge of those 21 shots by those four members of the Houston Police Department are not objectively reasonable,” Chief Acevedo said. “I don’t consider them objectively reasonable, the chain of command does not consider them objectively reasonable, and I believe that anyone that watches this tape, that sees this, would see that they had a lot of opportunities and a lot of other options readily available to them that we, as long as I’m the police chief in this city, I’ll expect my officers to take.”

Disciplinary memorandums released by the Police Department on Thursday afternoon identified the four officers as Sgt. Benjamin Leblanc and Officers Luis Alvarado, Omar Tapia and Patrick T. Rubio.

The department said in a statement on April 22 that officers had responded to “a suicide in progress call” when they approached a man in southeast Houston. “He charged at them with a pointed object in his hand,” the statement said.

Officers fired stun guns and “deployed several bean bag rounds,” it said, but the man “continued to charge” and one officer shot the man, who fell to the ground. The statement said the man had crawled toward a dropped stun gun and pointed it at officers who, “fearing for their lives,” fired their guns at him.

In the 47-second cellphone video taken from afar by a bystander, a man can be seen near two police cars. Two shots ring out, and the man falls, staggering and crawling on the ground.

“I don’t know what it is that they’re shooting him with,” a bystander can be heard saying. The man on the ground moves his arms toward something nearby, and then the officers fire more than a dozen shots.

“Was that necessary? Wow, he’s dead,” the bystander says. “They killed him.”

The Houston Police Officers’ Union condemned the firings on Thursday, saying the officers had acted responsibly. “They tried to communicate, they tried to de-escalate,” Douglas Griffith, the first vice president of the union, said at a news conference. “The officers acted in the manner in which they were trained and by policy.”

Mr. Griffith described the item in Mr. Chavez’s hand as an “edged weapon” that the officers believed was a knife, and said Mr. Chavez had harmed himself with it.

Joe Gamaldi, the president of the union, said that officers shot Mr. Chavez after he had pulled in the wires of a stun gun and then pointed the device at an officer.

“What happened to Nicolas Chavez was a tragedy,” he said. “These officers did not want to shoot Mr. Chavez, and did everything in their power not to.”

At the news conference on Thursday, Chief Acevedo said that 28 officers were at the scene and that they had plenty of cover and distance when Mr. Chavez was reaching for the Taser.

“That man could have had 100 cartridges in the empty Taser, the maximum effective range is 21 feet,” he said, taking a few steps from the podium. “I’m done. That’s all I got to do. Back up. Do what you’ve been doing.”

Chief Acevedo said that no policy change was warranted as a result of the shooting because this was “a matter of judgment.”

“If you’re that fearful, fearful with 28 officers, of a man that’s been wounded already, I don’t need you as a police officer,” he said. “Do you want me to bring them back so they can do it again to somebody else? I don’t think so.”

A total of 22 slugs and fragments were recovered from Mr. Chavez’s body, Chief Acevedo said, adding that ethanol, methamphetamine and amphetamine had been found in Mr. Chavez’s system. A complete ballistics report is expected at the end of the month, he said.

In a statement, the Harris County district attorney, Kim Ogg, said she had spoken to Mr. Chavez’s parents and widow “to listen to their concerns and personally assure them that our Civil Rights Division prosecutors will conduct a thorough, independent review of all the evidence in his death.”

After the review, Ms. Ogg said, the case will be presented to a grand jury to determine if the police officers who shot Mr. Chavez were justified in doing so or whether they committed a crime.

In April, the Police Department said the shooting would be investigated by its Special Investigations Unit, the Internal Affairs Division and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

Over a month later, as protests spread around the country in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Mayor Sylvester Turner and Chief Acevedo held a news conference to discuss recent shootings by the police. Mr. Chavez’s widow, Jessica Chavez, said at that news conference that she did not want the body camera footage to be released.

She told KPRC-TV in April that her husband’s body had three stab wounds, according to a funeral home. “But I didn’t necessarily believe he was trying to kill himself,” she said. “It was just a scream for help. He probably needed some kind of mental help.”

Mr. Chavez’s father, Joaquín Chavez, had called this summer for the body camera footage to be released. He could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.

He told NBC News and The Marshall Project in June that his son had struggled with prescription drug abuse and received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. He added that he had seen the body camera footage and that he felt officers had acted with excessive force.

“He was on his knees, already wounded. He wasn’t a threat to anybody at that point,” he said. “It was an execution.”

Durrel Douglas, the executive director of the activist group Houston Justice, said Thursday that the officers’ firings demonstrated “common sense and a step in the right direction” for the police.

“When it comes to situations where there are already multiple officers on the scene, and clearly this was an individual who demonstrated some sort of mental illness, there was nothing wrong with waiting this guy out even longer,” Mr. Douglas said. “Common sense tells you if the guy is reaching for a Taser, a Taser is not a lethal weapon, even if that was the case.”

He added, “At minimum, this needs to go before the grand jury.”

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.

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