The fatal shootings of a shoplifter, an armed homeowner and an apparently suicidal man occurred in different Tarrant County cities, but they have something in common: The officers at the other end of the barrel were never indicted.
In some police shootings, the officer was obviously threatened. That was the case recently when a grand jury declined to indict a Fort Worth officer for killing a man outside a head shop who was charging the officer with a baseball bat in one hand and a screwdriver in the other. The shooting was captured on video.
But other such shootings have prompted protests amid claims that officers used excessive or unnecessary force — that people did not deserve to die.
Such is the case in the fatal shooting of an unarmed Mexican national by Grapevine police officer Robert Clark on Feb. 20 alongside a freeway in Euless. Last week, Euless police investigators turned over their findings to the Tarrant County district attorney’s office.
That shooting, of Rubén García Villalpando, 31, came as national tension rises between police and the people they serve, especially minorities, because of a flurry of officer-involved killings of black men. In two of those deaths — of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York — grand juries declined to indict the officers.
The most recent high-profile incident came last week in South Carolina when a murder charge was brought against a white police officer caught on video fatally shooting a black man who was running away.
“I think police are more aware that people are watching, are asking questions,” said Phillip Lyons, interim dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University. “The power police have in a democratic society such as ours is an awesome power, and we ought to be asking questions when police restrict our liberties, but we aren’t accustomed to that.”
If a Tarrant County grand jury were to indict Clark, it would be extremely rare: No police officers have been indicted in Tarrant County for fatally shooting someone in at least 20 years, according to current and former prosecutors in the district attorney’s office and a search of the Star-Telegram’s archives.
In the past five years in the county’s 10 largest cities, including Fort Worth, Arlington and North Richland Hills, 29 people have been killed by law officers, according to numbers compiled by the Star-Telegram.
García’s brother-in-law, Fernando Romero, said a detective called him last week to say that the case had been turned over to the district attorney and that it might not reach a grand jury for months.
Just like Romero, many know little of the grand jury process, which is closed to the public.
“We haven’t been in this situation before,” Romero said.
The grand jury system
Grand juries are made up of 12 people chosen by a district judge who serve for three months at a time. In Tarrant County, eight judges choose grand juries over the course of a year, according to Jack Strickland, a former lead prosecutor for the district attorney’s office.
Grand juries typically spend 30 hours a week listening to cases, and because of that, many people who serve are retired or have jobs that allow them to spend so much time away, he said.
The panels review cases presented by prosecutors like Strickland to determine whether the cases should proceed to trial.
Grand juries meet behind closed doors. No judges are present, and prosecutors control the proceedings. They can present witnesses, photos, documents and video.
It’s not unusual to allow defense attorneys in, depending on the nature of the case, but they certainly don’t have the presence that prosecutors do, Strickland said.
“On police-shooting cases, I always invited the defense attorney to come in, but the grand juries ultimately run the show,” he said.
If grand jurors don’t want to hear from a witness, they don’t have to.
“Prosecutors should never forget the grand jurors are in charge, not them,” Strickland said.
If grand jurors decide that a case should not go to trial, it stops there. But it is in open court, at a trial, where a victim’s family could tell its side of the story, could see evidence presented. And the trial would be before a jury summoned from the community at large.
In the past 40 years in Tarrant County, all officer-involved killings have been presented to a grand jury, Strickland said.
“Grand jurors are aware of the fact that officers find themselves in dangerous, life-threatening, fatal situations,” he said. “Grand jurors understand that while police officers have special rights, they don’t lose their rights as individuals.”
Dallas attorney Domingo García, who represents the family of Rubén García Villalpando, a father of four, said that by custom, the Texas judicial system allows for preferential treatment of police.
“I don’t think you will find any law or statute that says police officers are to be treated differently, but they are,” he said.
Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said officers should indeed be treated differently: “Standards should be much higher for them.”
Domingo García said the outcome of the Mexican immigrant’s case could depend on how “brave” District Attorney Sharen Wilson, who took office in January, is in pursuing an indictment.
In response, Wilson issued an emailed statement:
“It is our mission to protect the safety and represent the interests of this county’s residents, and cases involving police officers are given every bit as much scrutiny — if not more — than the other cases we investigate. The policy of our office is that every fatality case that involves an officer is presented to the Grand Jury, and it’s the citizens who serve on the Grand Jury who ultimately make the final call whether to indict based on the facts.”
John Fullinwider, co-founder of the Dallas-based coalition Mothers Against Police Brutality, said the lack of accountability in police homicides is “staggering.”
Fullinwider said officers “are not treated like criminal defendants.”
“They are not arraigned. They are not put in jail — they are investigated by their peers,” he said.
Strickland said that in his time as a lead prosecutor, he saw college professors, students, retired businesspeople, waitresses, lawyers, schoolteachers and, yes, ex-police officers serve on grand juries.
“I think it is a disservice to say they are all just there covering up for police,” Strickland said. “I’m sure there are people on there from time to time that have an articulated agenda, but that is the exception to the rule.”
While local, state and national statistics aren’t kept on the number of police officers indicted in fatal shootings, anecdotal evidence suggests that Tarrant County is no different from anywhere else.
Arrests and indictments are rare.
From 2010 to 2014 in South Carolina, officers fired their weapons 209 times at suspects, with 79 suspects and four officers being killed, according to a recent investigation by The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C. Three officers were accused of misuse of force, but none were convicted.
But as video emerges as key evidence, whether from dash cameras, body cameras or bystanders, experts say the cases could become more clear-cut — on both sides.
That’s the case in North Charleston, S.C., where officer Michael Thomas Slager has been charged with murder after he was recorded shooting Walter Scott, a black man, as he ran away during a traffic stop. Slager is in jail without bail and faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted.
And in Charlotte, N.C., officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick is scheduled to go before a jury in July on a voluntary manslaughter charge in the September 2013 killing of Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed black man.
Kerrick became the first Charlotte-Mecklenburg officer arrested for an on-duty shooting in more than 30 years after Police Chief Rodney Monroe watched the footage taken by a camera inside a police cruiser parked at the scene. The dash-cam video remains sealed by court order.
Police video in the Euless shooting is expected to be a crucial piece of evidence.
Video, it seems, is the new DNA.
Burke said that while video evidence is important, it is not an “all-purpose fix.”
She said the ACLU supports the use of body cameras on officers. But just like with dash-cam videos, “they need to be turned on and left on.”
She said that officers have too much discretion when wearing the cameras and that “any officer who turns his body camera off needs to be severely disciplined.”
In instances of videos taken by bystanders, Burke envisions the more they are used, the more the people “will have their characters and backgrounds scrutinized.”
Lyons said he hopes videos “will show that the cops were doing what they are supposed to do, which is what we have been assuming the whole time.”
However, he said, his assumptions might be a bit naive.
“It may very well be that videos will show that police are behaving badly, that the police are using excessive force, and if that’s the case, there will be an impact on indictments,” Lyons said. “The situation in South Carolina is going to erode seriously the presumption that officers have done the right thing. When you see on video that an officer has done wrong, then it’s much easier to entertain that possibility.”
In Grapevine, population 50,000, the death of García is the department’s third officer-involved fatal shooting in three years.
In 2013, Alberto “Willie” Morales, 42, escaped from his two Miami police escorts during a transfer to Nevada when he stabbed a detective with a broken piece of eyeglasses and took off in Grapevine. He was found after five days in woods near Lake Grapevine, where one Grapevine officer and two officers from a U.S. marshals task force fired multiple shots at Morales after he lunged at police with sticks.
In the other Grapevine fatality, James Michael Kubera, 57, was shot by police last April after he called 911 that afternoon and said he was going to kill himself. Police said Kubera exited his house firing a shotgun at officers.
Keller, with 41,000 residents, had its first-ever fatal police shooting in 2012 when an officer killed a shoplifting suspect inside a department store. Mark Anthony Brooks, 42, was fatally shot by officer Johnathan Hicks during a struggle at a Kohl’s on Oct. 25, 2012. Police said Brooks tried to grab Hicks’ gun several times.
Arlington, population 367,000, has had two fatal police shootings in five years.
In Fort Worth, population 800,000, police have been involved in 19 fatal shootings in five years.
One of the most publicized police shootings in Fort Worth was that of Woodhaven homeowner Jerry Waller, 72, who was shot multiple times by an officer who went to the wrong house on a burglary call in May 2013.
Strickland said grand jurors heard five days of testimony before declining to indict officer R.A. “Alex” Hoeppner, who shot Waller — who was armed — inside his garage. Hoeppner remains on the force.
Not long after that shooting, then-Police Chief Jeff Halstead successfully pushed for the purchase of body cameras, saying they would increase transparency.
The Waller family’s attorney, Art Brender of Fort Worth, said relatives haven’t filed a wrongful-death lawsuit — yet.
“I can’t tell you what we are going to do, but we are not going to let this go by,” Brender said.
The García shooting
García’s shooting became international news after the Mexican government complained that its consulate in Dallas was not immediately notified.
Protesters have taken to the streets in Grapevine, carrying signs that read, “Hands up don’t shoot!” and “Are you going to kill me?” — a question that García’s family said he asked Clark on the video moments before he was shot.
Police said the officer stopped García on a southbound service road of Texas 121 in Euless after a brief pursuit from a business in Grapevine where Clark was investigating a burglar alarm.
Once stopped, García continued to walk toward Clark, police said, even though he was repeatedly told to stop. Two shots were fired and García fell to the ground, dying hours later.
García’s brother-in-law said Clark is seen on the video shouting obscenities at the immigrant, the kind of treatment he doubts an Anglo would have received.
“You’re a professional. Why do you have to use those words?” Romero said.
Police confirmed that Clark used foul language.
García’s widow said that regardless of ethnicity or race, all families deserve answers when their loved ones are killed. She insists that her husband was not dangerous or aggressive and that he was just scared of what the officer would do to him.
“I want justice because they took my husband,” Martha Romero said. “They took the father of my kids. So I want there to be justice. If the police killed my husband, he needs to pay for what he has done.”
This report includes material from The Charlotte Observer and the Star-Telegram archives.
Monica S. Nagy, 817-390-7792
Tarrant County indictments
Law officers in Tarrant County have been indicted, but not for fatal shootings.
In June, a Fort Worth officer was indicted for an on-duty wreck that killed a 77-year-old man who was a retired Baptist minister. A Tarrant County grand jury indicted officer Christopher Bolling on a manslaughter charge after he crashed into Billie “Joe” Addington’s car on Aug. 20, 2012, while en route to help in a drunken-driving case. Bolling was going almost 90 mph in a 45-mph zone with no lights or sirens, prosecutors said.
The case has yet to go to trial.
In another case, a Pelican Bay police officer was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and attempted murder. On Jan. 28, 2000, officer Shawn Nance had set up a roadblock with his squad car. After he got out, Donna Butler accelerated toward him. He fired at her four times, striking her in the head and abdomen. The woman survived.
A jury acquitted Nance in November 2003. In the end, prosecutor Stan Hatcher said, it’s hard to persuade a jury to convict a police officer.
Who’s keeping track?
Statistics on deadly police encounters are often hard to obtain.
The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education has data on the number of officers killed in the line of duty, as does the Department of Public Safety — but not the other way around.
“We aren’t mandated to keep records on the number of civilians killed by officers, but maybe we should be,” said Laura Le Blanc, public information officer for the commission.
The DPS has data on the number of “justifiable homicides” involving police, but it does not track cases when the officer was indicted, DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said.
Fatal police shootings
The number of officer-involved fatal shootings in the past five years in Tarrant County’s largest cities. None of the officers were indicted:
Fort Worth: 19
Haltom City: 1
North Richland Hills: 1
Source: Star-Telegram research