Council OKs rare settlement in fatal shooting by police
Audry Releford, a retired middle school teacher, stood in the middle of Francis Street last year as a Houston Police Department cruiser rolled by. It was the exact spot where his son, Kenny, fell after being fatally shot in front of his own home by another HPD officer in 2012.
The grieving father had taken a strong stand in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in 2014 on behalf of all Houstonians like Kenny, who were unarmed or mentally ill or both when killed by HPD officers.
In more than 150 cases from 2010 to 2015, the department had found all of its shootings to be justified — thereby establishing a custom of condoning lethal use of force against civilians, unarmed or not, his lawsuit alleged.
But on Wednesday the Releford family finally received some justice after the Houston City Council approved a $260,000 settlement following a series of federal court rulings that sided with Releford over
the city of Houston’s attorneys.
It’s by far the largest settlement to be reported in any case involving an unarmed person killed by police in Houston in years. The lawsuit marks a kind of turning point for local civil rights leaders who described it as one of several cases that boosted public awareness about police use-of-force and weaknesses in HPD’s reviews of officer-involved shootings.
“This case was never about money. No amount of money can bring Kenny back or bring Audry the healing he needs,” said Releford’s attorney Joe Melugin.
“This case was intended to bring public attention to real problems with how HPD uses deadly force and its failures to investigate its own. And now it’s up to the city to make changes so that other families don’t have to go through what Kenny’s family went through.”
The city attorney’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the settlement.
James Douglas, president of the Houston NAACP chapter and a law professor at Texas Southern University, said he sees the settlement as part of a sea change in Houston — including a new mayor, police chief, sheriff and district attorney, who all have demonstrated accountability for problematic cases and pushed reforms.
“I am very impressed with the way criminal justice has been handled in the city of Houston today, and I think it’s admirable that we have city leaders who take responsibility for police officers who overstep their authorities,” Douglas said.
On Oct. 11, 2012, Kenny Releford, a 38-year-old U.S. Navy veteran and former Texas Southern University student, was killed before a circle of friends — including Roger Abbs, a neighbor who had called police for help because Kenny, who suffered from schizophrenia, had earlier that night broken into Abbs’ home during a mental health crisis.
But by the time Officer Jason Rosemon confronted him around midnight, Kenny had been standing in the middle of the south Houston street, presented no threat and was clearly unarmed when he was shot and killed, according to affidavits from Abbs and three others.
His neighbors’ statements became a critical part of Releford’s lawsuit, which argued that HPD officials repeatedly improperly cleared officers who’d shot or killed unarmed people — even when the department’s internal affairs investigations revealed violations of training, policies or state laws. The city, in contrast, argued that Rosemon fired twice only because he feared for his life because Kenny Releford had refused to show one of his hands.
The settlement comes after the case survived a vigorous federal court fight. Over the years, most people who have sued Houston over officer-involved shootings have lost quickly. But in this case, Releford’s attorneys successfully poked holes in the city’s legal arguments and in HPD’s internal affairs reviews of Kenny’s case and others.
The attorneys pointed out that some officers had not been punished even when their justifications for shooting unarmed civilians were contradicted by physical evidence or by other witnesses.
Change in leadership
Because of rulings in the case by U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison, HPD was compelled to release previously secret internal reviews of Releford’s shooting as well as of other unarmed Houstonians. Most of the evidence filed as exhibits in the Releford case was never sealed despite efforts by the city of Houston’s attorneys and by HPD’s union to keep shooting probes confidential.
That meant some HPD internal investigative documents became available to the public for the first time — including information that contradicted the officer’s account in the fatal shooting of a mentally ill double amputee named Brian Claunch, who was in a wheelchair when an HPD officer shot and killed him in 2012.
City and county leaders already have changed leadership and reformed procedures since Releford’s death. Mayor Sylvester Turner has hired a new police chief, Art Acevedo, who created a special unit to investigate officerinvolved shootings.
Separately, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg also created a new team to beef up her office’s oversight of officer-involved shooting incidents countywide.
Douglas said he’d still like to see more reforms — including boosting the role of a civilian advisory board that helps oversee HPD’s internal reviews. Turner said he does not anticipate any changes to the board, which critics have described as “cosmetic” and “toothless.”