Deadly force by Houston PD sparks lawsuits

Nov. 3, 2001, 9:15 PM

HPD surviving deadly force suits Area's high rate of police shootings draws criticism, but officers cleared


Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle

For the second time in less than a year, the city faces a federal trial related to the killing of a suspect by a Houston police officer. A jury last month ruled in the city's favor after hearing three days of testimony about the shooting of a mentally ill woman who had called for an ambulance. Two other federal lawsuits against the city involving fatal shootings recently were completed as well.

One case was settled out of court; the other was dismissed by a judge. Grand juries had cleared officers of criminal wrongdoing in all the cases. Some area attorneys and legal experts claim Houston Police Department officers shoot too many suspects but avoid criminal and civil penalties.

Suspects just "get blown away," said Curt Stuckey, attorney for the mother of an apparently suicidal woman gunned down in 1999 after she reportedly pointed a fanny pack at an HPD officer and refused to drop it. "That use of excessive force is terrible down there," said Stuckey, whose office is in Nacogdoches.

In the past five years, HPD officers have shot and killed 54 suspects, according to the Harris County District Attorney's Office. Investigations into seven fatal shootings that occurred this year are pending, but officers in the other cases were cleared. According to data compiled by the Washington Post concerning the nation's 50 largest police departments, HPD ranked second, with 2.76 fatal shootings
by police per 1,000 violent crimes from 1990 to 2000. The Harris County Sheriff's Department ranked No. 1 with 3.47 shootings per 1,000 violent crimes.

In the same 10-year period, Houston ranked fifth overall in the number of fatal shootings by police, with an average of 9.6 per year. Harris County was tied for 23rd with four other agencies with 2.5 fatal shootings per year. Investigations by HPD and the district attorney's office into suspects' shooting deaths in Houston over the past five years showed they were justified. The HPD has "been satisfied with all the findings in the shootings," said Martin DeLeon, HPD spokesman.

Civil libertarians scoff. "It is farcical to expect police departments to investigate themselves or prosecute their own officers," said Scott Henson, director of the Police Accountability Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. The most recent federal lawsuit against the city for an officer-involved shooting is tentatively scheduled for trial in December. Susan Hartnett filed suit in April 2000, claiming poorly trained HPD officers shot and killed her son, Derek Jason Kaeseman, three years ago. The lawsuit asks for more than $48 million in damages. The officers claim they fired because they thought Kaeseman was armed. The department disciplined eight officers and a dispatcher involved in the shooting for not following proper procedures regarding chases, high-risk vehicle approaches and the firing of guns. One officer's discipline subsequently was reversed, according to court records.

Attorney Mark G. Lazarz said Hartnett's case already has beaten the odds. More than 85 percent of wrongful-death cases against police departments involving training procedures are thrown out by judges before they get to trial, he said, because proving that patterns or policies caused a suspect's death is difficult. An even more crucial point in Hartnett's case may be the officers' claim that they feared Kaeseman was armed, Lazarz added. "The case will be won or lost on whether or not Mr. Kaeseman had a shiny metal object in his hand at the time of the shooting," he said.

According to police reports, Kaeseman, 24, was shot after a car chase that began when officers allegedly saw him in a known drug-trafficking area on Oct. 25, 1998. Officers said a passenger climbed into Kaeseman's truck before the chase but later jumped out. Police claim the passenger told them Kaeseman had threatened to shoot him. The chase started near downtown and ended when Kaeseman crashed in Fort Bend County. At one point, Kaeseman rammed a patrol car that attempted to block his path. After the chase, officers rushed the truck. All the officers retreated as Kaeseman reached under the seat. They opened fire as he attempted to crawl out the passenger window while holding something shiny in his hand, according to court records. They fired 59 shots at Kaeseman. He was hit 14 times, three times in the back. Kaeseman reportedly was clutching a can opener.

Hartnett's lawsuit, in part, contends HPD improperly trained its officers to apprehend high-risk suspects, such as those who may be armed or fleeing. The city, however, requested it be removed from the lawsuit, saying its operating procedures established rules for arresting high-risk suspects and that all officers are taught those rules. The request was denied after U.S. Magistrate Nancy K. Johnson cited confusion about officer training. Some involved in the shooting stated they had not received training to approach and apprehend high-risk suspects, she stated, while other officers said they had been trained. "It is apparent to the court ... that there remains a genuine issue of material fact concerning the training received by the officers in the High Risk Vehicle Pursuit policy," Johnson wrote in her decision to deny the city's request. "A reasonable jury could find that the city of Houston did not provide the required training."

Three other lawsuits against the department involving suspects' deaths were considered in federal court during the past 11 months. In October, a federal jury cleared the city and HPD Officer J.G. Lopez in the 1999 shooting death of Sheryl Seymour, 40, a schizophrenic woman who waved a knife at police who showed up at her apartment after Seymour had called for an ambulance. In December 2000, U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes granted summary judgment for the city in a case brought by Juanita Arlene Kelly, mother of Colleen Kelly, who was shot by Officer J.H. Shackett on Aug. 24, 1999. Shackett said he feared Kelly had a weapon in a fanny pack she refused to drop. Juanita Kelly appealed, but the ruling was upheld. She has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.
Also in December 2000, Shontae Darrell Britton and Gloria Pipkins, family members of Darrell Britton, settled their claim with the city for $25,000. HPD Officer Christopher Allen shot and killed the 44-year-old Britton on Sept. 17, 1998, after he allegedly lunged at Allen and grabbed his arm. Allen was off-duty but showed Britton his HPD badge and identified himself as a police officer.

In 1999, after the Seymour incident, Houston police instituted a program to train officers how to peacefully handle cases involving mental problems. Mental health professionals have since called the program a success. Some legal experts claim that winning civil judgments against police officers is nearly impossible. The standard of proof to show officer misconduct is very high.

Police officers, said University of Houston law professor David Dow, also enjoy an unspoken "shield of immunity," in the U.S. legal system. "As long as the officer is credible," Dow said, "it is going to be difficult to break that immunity."