Shooting Brings New Focus on Police Review: Officer’s Suspension is Waived; Fairness of Self-Investigation is Questioned

It was after midnight and raining heavily on Oct. 11, 1997, when more than 20 Austin police officers surrounded a North Austin house, prepared to stop what they believed was a robbery in progress. Several victims remained inside and shots had been fired, police were told.

The officers decided to go through the front door. Officer Keith Sheffield, a six-year veteran, watched the back of the house from near a shed in a neighbor’s yard, some 60 feet away. That’s when Gregory Steen jumped out a back window, crashing to the ground.

As he rose, the officer fired twice, according to police. One bullet ripped into Steen’s back. High on crack cocaine, Steen ran away from the officer, clearing two 3-foot chain-link fences before collapsing in a yard two houses away. Although Sheffield has testified he thought Steen had a gun, none was ever found.

Eight months later, Steen remains in jail without bail, awaiting trial on robbery charges and probation violation. “I lost a kidney . Half of my bowels are gone,” said Steen, lifting his jail-issue shirt to expose his wounds. Steen, an African American, said he still wants to know why the white officer shot an unarmed man fleeing the house.

Police Chief Stan Knee disciplined Sheffield, suspending him for one day for violating a policy against firing a weapon at a fleeing person when the individual poses no threat of death or serious physical harm.

That’s what the chief’s memo shows, but Sheffield said the suspension was waived. “I didn’t lose any time or money. I wasn’t punished at all,” he said. Instead, the officer took training at the firing range on when and when not to shoot.

Steen and Sheffield now are the embodiment of a debate about whether the Police Department can investigate and discipline itself fairly.

“He should have been fired,” Louie White, a retired Austin police captain, now co-chairman of the NAACP’s Criminal Justice Committee, said of Sheffield.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union say it’s time for Austin to create a citizens’ board to review complaints against police.

Critics denounce the Police Department’s self-investigations as inadequate. They say the investigations are too secretive and tell the public too little. They remain distrustful of reviews by grand juries, which meet in closed sessions, because typically the jurors rely on information provided by the police. Finally, grand juries only investigate major incidents and not the majority of complaints against the police.

The police defend the internal review system. It makes special demands on officers. They give up their right to refuse to testify to the Police Department’s internal investigators and can be ordered to take a polygraph test. Those statements, however, cannot be used against an officer who is prosecuted for his role in an incident.

Police also argue that an elected official, the Travis County district attorney, can answer to the public for the grand jury’s review of a shooting by an officer.

Confidentiality also makes it more difficult for outsiders to sue the officers and the city for damages and protects an officer’s reputation from unfounded complaints.

Steen, an admitted crack cocaine user who denies the robbery charge, said the police had no right to shoot him. Sheffield contended in pretrial testimony that he thought Steen had a weapon, but Sheffield did not appeal the chief’s decision to suspend him.

Steen’s story

Sheffield, on the advice of his lawyer, declined to talk to reporters about the incident . Steen, from a visiting room at the Travis County Jail, told his version.

Steen, 32, had dropped out of school in 10th grade. He had bounced back and forth between Austin, Las Vegas and New Mexico, working at whatever jobs he could find. He said his occasional crack cocaine use had accelerated into a daily habit a few months before he was shot.

That night, Steen said, he met his drug dealer and they went to 504 San Jose St., a house the police knew well. According to court records, officers had made several arrests, mostly for drugs, at or near the home. In a lawsuit filed early this year, authorities called the house a public nuisance because of the level of drug activity there.

That’s why Steen was there. “I wanted a hit of crack,” he said. “I wanted to get high.” He said eight or nine people were in the house. He said he got high and was in a back room chatting with others when someone told him the police were outside.

Steen had been on probation since early 1997, when he pleaded guilty to possession of crack cocaine. He said he had burglary and assault convictions in other states.

He also had a pending charge of assault on a police officer in Travis County. Police said Steen resisted arrest during a traffic stop a month before the shooting. The police said an officer was injured when she was thrown to the ground, cutting her elbow and finger, as Steen broke free of her grasp. Steen said he didn’t throw the officer to the ground but simply broke free and ran.

Steen said he knew being caught at the house meant a probation violation and possibly prison. That , he said, is why he broke out a back window and jumped. That’s when he said he heard the shots.

“I heard two shots; I kept running; I jumped over the fence. . . . Then I passed out,” he said.

Steen said he’s innocent of the robbery charge. “There was no gun. . . . There was no robbery,” he said. “I was a visitor in the house, just like everybody else.”

Police account

That night the police told a different version in a news release:

Two armed African American men entered the house to rob the people there. Some people escaped and called police.

As officers entered the house, the suspects attempted to flee. “A confrontation occurred, and Officer Sheffield fired his service weapon, ” according to the press release. An investigation was ordered.
Most details of the investigation remain confidential. A grand jury in October declined to indict the officer but wrote the police chief about its concerns. The police, who apparently have the only copy of the grand jury letter, have not released it.

Monica Ross, an employee at the Austin Convention Center and one of the 12 grand jurors, remembers writing the letter. “We thought he (Sheffield) was within his limits, but we urged more caution,” Ross said.

The Police Department has denied the American-Statesman’s request for records from the investigation of the shooting. Typically, police records are made public once a case is closed. Although a grand jury declined to indict Sheffield and he did not appeal the chief’s decision to discipline him, lawyers for the police are arguing that the case is not closed until Steen is prosecuted.

“We’re caught in the middle,” said Knee, citing the possibility of a lawsuit against the police. “I wish we could tell you more.”

As is the department’s practice, the Steen shooting was investigated twice — once by internal affairs and again by homicide detectives. Then it was reviewed by Sheffield’s commanders and finally the chief.

The practice not only allows different officers to investigate the case; it also is an attempt to keep the internal affairs reports confidential as part of an officer’s personnel file. In a state lawsuit, Knee contended he has to disclose only his three-page memo outlining disciplinary action taken against Sheffield , and not the internal affairs investigation. The separate homicide investigation, which does not include all the same information as the internal affairs report, is given to the grand jury. Ultimately, if the police release a report to the public, it will be the report by the homicide detectives.

Jennifer Riggs, an attorney who sometimes represents the newspaper in such cases, argued that police should release the investigation of the shooting now.

“My opinion is, if homicide does a separate investigation, that should be released now that there is a no-bill from the grand jury,” she said.

The police disagree and have appealed the newspaper’s request to the state attorney general.

Hearing this week

Steen’s lawyer, David Frank, said he has met with the same resistance from police and prosecutors. He subpoenaed the chief and Sheffield’ s records for a pretrial hearing this week. The Police Department is likely to fight the subpoena.

Frank said the police have not proved there was a robbery and have not found a weapon. He said Sheffield fired prematurely. “It really does sound to me like they made a really horrible judgment and then tried to clean it up by arresting (Steen) for a crime he had no connection to,” Frank said.

Prosecutors deny that.

As for Sheffield’s punishment, the law allows the police chief to suspend an officer for up to 15 days or fire him. Knee said he rarely discusses personnel issues. In this case, Knee said, “When you have a good officer who made a mistake — taking into consideration everything happening out there — you must ensure he makes sound decisions in the future.”
Thus, Knee waived the one-day suspension, pending completion of the training on when and when not to shoot.

The Police Department’s critics were unaware of that waiver, because the disciplinary actions are filed with the city’s human resources department. The waiver, however, is kept in the Police Department’ s confidential personnel files.

Told that Sheffield’s one-day suspension was waived, the NAACP’s White said: “That’s a shocker. It’s a disgrace.”

It may be months, if ever, before the details of the shooting are disclosed. Ann del Llano, who is doubling as Steen’s co-counsel and as the local ACLU president, said it is time to open up the system.

“The police investigate the police. The police are the only people who get the sworn statements, who can force the cops to talk, and who are the only ones to see what they say,” she said. Last month, the local ACLU board voted to begin lobbying for a change.

White said: “Regardless of Steen’s criminal record, he’s got rights. If the police don’t reprimand their officers, the next time it may be me who gets shot.”

Tom Stribling, the lawyer for the Austin Police Association, the union that represents about 97 percent of the force’s roughly 1,035 officers, defended the system. If the public is unhappy about the grand jury review, it can hold the Travis County district attorney accountable, he said. If the public is concerned about the police investigations or a one-day suspension, it can hold the chief, the city manager and the Austin City Council responsible, he said.

“They have the ability to have their elected and appointed officials account to them,” Stribling said. “The system works.”

The shooting in question

This is what happened at 504 San Jose St. in the early morning hours of Oct. 11, according to interviews and a memo by Austin Police Chief Stan Knee.

Answering an armed robbery call, more than 20 Austin police officers surrounded a North Austin house. Officer Keith Sheffield watched the back of the house from a neighbor’s yard, some 60 feet away. It was dark and raining heavily.

Gregory Steen jumped from the window and fell. As he rose, Officer Keith Sheffield fired twice.

Steen ran away, clearing two short fences before collapsing from a gunshot wound to the back.

Copyright © 1998, The Austin American-Statesman
Laylan Copelin, Dave Harmon, Shooting brings new focus on police review: Officer’s suspension is waived; fairness of self-investigation is questioned., 06-15-1998.

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