* This article was originally published by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system, in partnership with NBC News. Sign up for The Marshall Project’s newsletter, or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.
HOUSTON — Two days after Houston police shot and killed his son outside a Mexican restaurant along a freeway on April 21, Joaquín Chavez got a text message that made his heart race. Someone had posted a cellphone video of the shooting online, and now it was spreading on social media.
The grieving father sat down on his patio, and hit play.
Up until that moment, he only knew what police had said in their official statement. They had reported that his son, Nicolas, 27, who had a history of mental illness and drug addiction, had been darting in and out of traffic and holding a sharp piece of rebar, possibly trying to kill himself. After officers arrived that night they said Nicolas, a father of three, repeatedly charged at them, and at one point, got hold of one of their stun guns.
“Fearing for their lives,” the statement said, repeating a phrase used often by police to justify deadly force, “officers discharged their duty weapons.”
Although these moments were captured on dozens of body cameras worn by officers who responded to the scene, those videos were not shared with the public.
Instead, Chavez, 51, was learning the gruesome details from the cellphone video, filmed by a resident from across the street and later posted to YouTube. It appeared to show something different than what police had described, Chavez said. He dropped out of his chair as he watched the 47-second clip. Then he got angry.
“It was an execution,” he said.
The video shows his son on his knees, with several officers standing around him, guns drawn. Having already been shot at least once at that point, according to police, Nicolas appears to grab something near his chest, possibly the probe of one of the stun guns that officers had fired at him. Then, suddenly, a flurry of gunshots ring out.
“They just mowed him down like a dog,” Chavez said Monday, standing at the site of his son’s killing nearly two months later. “That’s what they did, and that’s the part I don’t understand. He was on his knees, already wounded. He wasn’t a threat to anybody at that point.”
The five officers who shot at Nicolas over the course of a 15-minute encounter with him remain on staff with the Houston Police Department pending the outcome of internal and external investigations.
Nicolas’ death attracted no national media attention while many states were in COVID-19 lockdowns. But it has since drawn increased scrutiny from local activists and reporters after George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis last month sparked nationwide protests and calls for sweeping police reforms. The disturbing footage of multiple officers firing on a wounded man— who according to his family was in the midst of a mental health crisis—highlights a broader debate raging in the wake of Floyd’s killing, about whether armed police should even be asked to respond to such calls.
Nicolas’ encounter with the officers, which turned deadly, and the city’s resistance to releasing the bodycam video of it to the public, also highlight what many experts regard as the failed promise of police cameras. In the wake of the Ferguson protests of 2014, following the killing of Michael Brown, a black teen, by a white police officer, officer-worn cameras seemed like a high-tech means of improving police accountability. But even as departments across the country invested in the equipment, many have refused to release videos, which are instead used primarily to help prosecutors build cases against those arrested.
As was the case in Nicolas’ killing, the only way the public ever sees most interactions with police — be it during protests or deadly shootings — is still from a bystander with a cellphone.
“So far, the evidence is not showing any improvement in policing as a result of the widespread presence of body cameras,” said Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College, whose 2017 book “The End of Policing” has become a de-facto manifesto for protesters and advocates of police reform. “Many departments know this and continue to use them primarily for evidence gathering and to protect officers from misconduct allegations—and it’s not clear how any of that is aiding the effort at police accountability.”
"The truth is in the video"
Days after the cellphone video of Nicolas’ killing surfaced, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo announced that he had asked the FBI to investigate. But in the weeks since, despite promises of increased transparency, he has declined to release his officers’ body camera video from the incident. His department has also withheld video from five other deadly police shootings since late April, saying that doing so could jeopardize future legal proceedings or upset victims’ family members.
Acevedo was among several big-city police chiefs who drew national praise for marching with protesters and calling for reforms to improve police accountability after Floyd’s death. But back home in Houston, he’s faced criticism from activists and lawyers who say he has failed to deliver on those promises in his own department.
During one episode this month, angry protesters surrounded Acevedo in a heated confrontation downtown, dumping water on him and demanding to know why his department had refused to release video from deadly police shootings.
“You walk with Minnesota,” one protester shouted. “Will you walk for what happens in Houston?”
A few days later, Acevedo held a press conference, along with Mayor Sylvester Turner, to defend the department’s decision. The chief cited ongoing investigations into each of the recent shootings, and his fear that releasing the evidence could taint a grand jury pool if prosecutors decided to bring charges against any of his officers. But he focused primarily on what he said were the desires of three relatives of recent shooting victims – including Jessica Chavez, Nicolas’ wife, who after reviewing the bodycam video, told police she didn’t want it made public.
Jessica, who had married Nicolas a year earlier, did not respond to messages from reporters. But in an interview last month with KPRC-TV, an NBC affiliate in Houston, she said her husband “wasn’t in his right mind” on the night of the shooting. Although he was lashing out, she said, she does not believe police “should have shot him the way they did.”
She stood alongside Acevedo at the news conference.
“We needed to put a face on this issue,” Acevedo said, draping his arm around her shoulder as she cried. “Once these videos are released, they go on these websites for generations of families to see, these snuff websites.”
But Joaquín Chavez said nobody from the police department asked for his opinion prior to the news conference. He and other members of his family said they believe that all of the bodycam video should be shown to the public.
“The truth is in the video, and it needs to be released,” he said. “Wrong, right or indifferent, that’s my son. He shouldn’t be dead. It doesn’t matter what you did, you should not be killed the way he was.”
On Thursday, weeks after Chavez went public with his concerns, Acevedo agreed to meet privately with him. Afterward, Chavez said he appreciated the chief taking nearly two hours to meet with him and showing him some of the police video, which he still believes should be made public.
“It was hard to watch, but I’m grateful that I did get to see the video and have an ability to converse with the chief,” he said, noting that Acevedo has a difficult job. “He didn’t pull the trigger, but his officers did, and he has to answer for them.”
After reviewing the video, he said it’s clear his son was deeply troubled, but he remains convinced that officers went too far at the end.
In an interview this week, prior to meeting with Chavez, Acevedo said he generally supports the release of body-camera video, but only after investigations are complete. Even then, he said, police agencies should take into account the wishes of grieving family members and find ways to balance transparency with sensitivity for those who have lost a loved one.
He said he hopes the Texas Legislature will establish clear guidelines for how and when departments release video.
“People forget that body-worn camera technology is still relatively new,” Acevedo said. “I look forward to the Legislature actually taking on the issue and coming up with better defined rules of engagement so we all share similar policy across the state.”
Critics point to failed promises
Other cities have been quicker to release videos from deadly encounters with police, especially in the weeks since Floyd’s death. In New York this week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the New York City Police Department will now be required to release videos within 30 days when an officer kills or seriously injures someone.
And in Atlanta, police released bodycam video two days after an officer shot and killed Rayshard Brooks, 27, a Black father of four who’d fallen asleep in his car, outside a Wendy’s restaurant last Friday evening. Brooks had wrested control of an officer’s stun gun—the same justification Houston police gave for shooting Nicolas.
But after videos of Brooks’ death were released, the case unfolded very differently. The Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields resigned, the officer who fired the deadly shots, Garrett Rolfe, was fired, and on Wednesday, a prosecutor charged him with felony murder.
To attorneys and police accountability experts, the idea of relying—as Acevedo did in the Nicolas Chavez case—on the desires of surviving relatives to make decisions about government transparency is fraught. Police might only listen when it’s convenient, and families change their minds. Plus, not all family members always agree.
“The standard for a public police agency is not, when we want to listen to the family we do, when we want to ignore the family we do, too,” said Mike Doyle, a Houston lawyer who represents relatives of a couple killed by police during a botched drug raid last year. “There is no standard. It’s basically, we’re going to respect the family’s wishes when we think that it may be helpful to conceal something, we’re going to reject the family’s wishes when we think it may be hurtful to what our officers did.”
For more than a year, Doyle has clashed with the Houston Police Department and the city over their refusal to release video, 911 tapes and other records from the January 2019 shooting of Navy veteran Dennis Tuttle and his wife, Rhogena Nicholas. Narcotics police raided the couple’s southeast Houston home, setting off a shootout that left five officers wounded and Tuttle and Nicholas dead.
Afterward, an investigation found that case agent Gerald Goines allegedly lied in his request for a search warrant, fabricating an informant to bolster his claims about drug activity at the house. He and his partner later resigned and have since been charged criminally, while the slain couple’s families continue fighting for more details on what happened.
After Acevedo’s news conference with the mayor last week—and after the mayor announced plans to appoint a task force to improve police transparency and accountability—Doyle sent a letter to the city asking once again for the release of body camera video from the officers who were outside Tuttle and Nicholas’ home during and after the raid.
The letter highlighted the recent statements by Turner and Acevedo about transparency. “These include stated acknowledgments that ‘people want us to listen,’ that we need to be ‘as transparent as possible,’” Doyle wrote, “and at least publicly stating the need to respect the wishes of family members impacted by officer-involved shootings in disclosing video and other evidence.”
The chief, Doyle wrote, “made similar promises to our family” regarding transparency “which at this late date appear disappointing at best.”
In that instance, Acevedo said in an interview, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office had asked police not to release the video in order to avoid jeopardizing the criminal case against Goines and his partner. A spokesman for the district attorney’s office said he could not substantiate that, and that releasing bodycam video is the police department’s decision. Acevedo stood by his account.
Union joins calls for transparency
Activists in Houston have an unlikely ally in their fight to get the city to release bodycam footage, at least in the Nicolas Chavez case. The Houston Police Officers’ Union is calling for video of the incident to be released, but for different reasons than those of Nicolas’ family. Union leaders say the full 15-minute interaction between Nicolas and the responding officers paints a fuller picture—one that, they argue, shows a “clear example of ‘suicide by cop.’”
According to their description of the video, Nicolas ignored “dozens” of verbal commands and advanced on police with a piece of sharp rebar. At the end of the encounter, according to the union, Nicolas grabbed a stun gun and pointed it at the officers, prompting the barrage of deadly shots.
NBC News and The Marshall Project have not seen the body camera video.
“None of our officers ever want to be involved in a shooting,” union President Joe Gamaldi wrote in a statement. “In the spirit of transparency and to keep any false narratives from developing, we ask the Houston Police Department to release the video in its entirety.”
Chavez said he doesn’t accept the police union’s argument. By the time his son picked up one of the officers’ stun guns—a weapon routinely used by police to subdue suspects—he was already seriously wounded and on the ground. All the officers had to do, he said, was stay more than 15 feet away from him, out of the stun gun’s range.
“It’s a ridiculous statement,” he said of the union’s defense. “I know my son was no angel, he had his problems, but there was no reason for them to shoot and kill him that way.”
"It didn't have to end here"
Eight weeks after Nicolas’ death, a memorial has been set up at the site of the shooting. Large photos of him and his children are displayed on makeshift sign posts, hanging above a collection of flowers and notes from loved ones on the ground.
“I love Daddy,” his 6-year-old son scrawled in orange marker.
Years earlier, Chavez said his son had been a promising youth soccer player. That was before a motorcycle accident when he was 15 led to a prescription drug addiction and the start of a decade-long series of drug arrests. Nicolas was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder, his father said.
He got married a year ago but had been in and out of prison since then.
Nicolas’ wife, Jessica, told KPRC-TV that, on the night he was killed, her husband had been “acting differently.” Not violent, she said, but it was enough to make her concerned for the safety of her daughter. So she dropped him off at his mother’s house in East Houston—a short walk from the restaurant parking lot where police confronted him.
Around 9 p.m., police responded to a 911 call from someone who said there was a man apparently trying to kill himself by running into traffic.
That moment, according to experts leading the charge for police reform, is when someone other than armed police might have been able to de-escalate the situation and get Nicolas the help he needed. They point to new initiatives in places such as Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Los Angeles, where elected officials have announced plans to send unarmed social workers and other trained professionals in place of officers to respond to certain calls, including mental health crises.
“Between a quarter and a half of all people killed by police in the U.S. are having a mental health crisis,” Vitale, the Brooklyn College sociology professor, said. “We need to develop a crisis management infrastructure that allows us to send people to situations without relying on guns and Tasers.”
Chavez wishes someone other than armed police would have been the ones called to confront his son that night. Just like Floyd’s loved ones, he said he hopes that some good might come from his son’s death. On Friday, activists plan to march through downtown Houston, calling for police reforms in the wake of Nicolas’ killing.
On Monday, Chavez returned to the site of his son’s death and examined the makeshift memorial set up in his honor. He pointed to the ditch that Nicolas had crawled out of after initially being shot. And then to the section of concrete where his son bled to death after being gunned down moments later.
“I wish his life had gone in a different direction,” Chavez said. “But it didn’t have to end here.”