The Rice University police department is making changes in the way officers are trained to handle combative suspects following the controversial arrest of a bike thief first exposed by Local 2 Investigates. Rice University police officers are also being given a new tool in light of this incident.
Two Rice University police officers became the focus of a Harris County grand jury investigation after Local 2 aired a portion of a video showing Ivan Joe Waller being struck several times with a baton during his arrest for stealing a "bait" bicycle from campus in August. On Wednesday, the grand jury declined to indict the officers.
"On the one hand it's an unfortunate incident, but it did identify some opportunities for us to improve what we do," said Rice University Police Chief Johnny Whitehead.
Whitehead said an internal review of the incident determined the officers' actions were justified, but he determined his officers needed more training in how to handle combative suspects. Whitehead also released the entire video of Waller's arrest.
Prior to the grand jury opening an investigation, Rice University declined all of Local 2's request to view the video.
The dashboard camera video shows two officers pushing Waller to the ground after he refuses initial orders to get down. The video shows two more officers arriving before all four try to handcuff Waller, but he keeps one hand pinned under his stomach.
After about a minute of struggling to get Waller's hand from underneath his stomach, one officer pulls out his baton and gives Waller several quick jabs with the end of his baton.
"They don't know him at all," Whitehead said, explaining his officers' actions. "They don't know if he's armed, if he's wanted by another police department; is that why he's resisting?"
The video shows officers continuing to struggle to get Waller's hand out from under his stomach for another five minutes. At that point the video shows two officers begin to hit Waller in the legs and buttocks with their batons. The officers are seen striking Waller 31 times with their batons in less than a minute. The officers struggled with Waller for more than 8 total minutes before they are able to handcuff him and place him in the back of a Rice police vehicle. Waller was not armed with a weapon.
"My officers did the best they could with the equipment they had and the situation," said Whitehead.
Whitehead said following this incident all of his officers will now be required to undergo training in defensive tactics a minimum of two times a year. Whitehead said the department is also increasing the number of defensive tactics instructors from one to three. Following Waller's arrest Whithead also decided to his officers needed to carry pepper spray as an extra tool when dealing with combative suspects. Prior to Waller's arrest Rice University police officers only carried a gun and a baton.
Following the grand jury's decision not to indict the officers, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson issued a statement.
"It has been a long-standing policy of this office to vigorously investigate allegations of criminal wrongdoing by police officers and to present all of the evidence we gather to a grand jury for their independent and objective review," said Anderson. "Today's no-bill should not be taken as this office's or the grand jury's endorsement or approval of the officers' actions. Although some of the tactics shown on the video are very disturbing, the ultimate question for the grand jury was whether the officers' conduct rose to the level of a crime. They concluded that it did not."
State Senator John Whitmire said he will also be pushing to change the law so that police departments run by private universities are subject to the Texas Public Information Act.
Initially, Rice University officials declined Local 2's request to review the video of Waller's arrest or any documents regarding the incident. Rice officials cited that since the police department was part of a private institution it was not required under the law to respond to the public's request for information.