Prickett: Sometimes An Officer Is Just Wrong

Ed. Note: Greg Prickett is former police officer and supervisor who went to law school, hung out a shingle, and now practices criminal defense and family law in Fort Worth, Texas. While he was a police officer, he was a police firearms instructor, and routinely taught armed tactics to other officers.

There are certain things that police officers can do that will never raise a question about their actions, and certain things that will always cause questions to be asked. One of the latter is shooting someone with a bean bag when they are standing with their hands up, and another is shooting someone in a moving vehicle.

Either of these cause grief for the department and, in most cases, both are prohibited by policy, except for very limited exceptions. The death of Michael Ramos at the hands of Austin Police on April 24, 2020 is already causing the department grief.

Right off the top, I’m going to remind everyone that we don’t have all of the information, that I’m sure that there will be body cam and dash cam video that we won’t get to see right away, but that will assist in the investigation. That being said, I don’t see how this was a “good” shooting[1] from the limited amount of information that we have. There is one good sign already however: the department has stated that the Texas Rangers will be involved in the investigation.

There is normally very little reason to use less-than-lethal force, such as a 12-gauge bean bag round,[2] when the suspect is standing a good distance away with his hands in the air. There are too many other options at that point. The police can wait him out, they can maneuver an officer to his rear, they can try talking him into complying, and so on. It is very rarely necessary to end such a confrontation quickly.

There are, of course, times where you cannot wait. A shooting earlier this year in Denton, Texas, where a University of North Texas student came at officers with both a knife and a frying pan is a such a case. There, a taser did not stop the student, Darius Tarver, who managed to stab one officer before he was shot to death. When a subject is close enough to be able to stab an officer, you don’t have any option, you have to shoot to protect yourself and your partner. But that doesn’t appear to be the case in Austin.

Here, Ramos had his hands up, in apparent compliance, when an officer shot him with the bean bag round. The only thing I can tell from the raw video is that Ramos was denying he was armed, and that he was concerned about the officers pointing their weapons at him. So, when he didn’t immediately follow their instructions, he caught a bean bag round.

Then Ramos got back in his car, waited a few seconds, then slowly pulled out of the parking space, turning right. There were no people in front of his car, and no officers were in danger. But then you hear several shots from a patrol rifle, and Ramos crashed into parked cars.

From what I see here, there is no justification for the shooting. Under Texas law,[3] you can use deadly force to

  • defend yourself or another person;
  • to prevent the actor’s commission or flight after the commission of an arson, burglary, robbery, aggravated robbery, theft during the nighttime, or criminal mischief during the nighttime;
  • stop a fleeing felon where deadly force is immediately necessary to prevent the escape of a person who will cause death or serious bodily injury if not stopped;
  • or for the prevention of escape from custody.

I just don’t see where any of these factors are present. Without that, you have a police officer who just committed murder.

One can certainly understand why Ramos drove off in the car—he had told the officers that he was afraid of their weapons, and asked them to lower the weapons, and instead of trying to talk to Ramos and ease his fears, an officer[4] bounces a bean bag round off of Ramos’s chest. Ramos then does what comes naturally. He flees so he isn’t shot again.

Now the police union[5] will make sure that the officers involved have legal representation, and both the department and the union will make sure that everybody knows that Ramos was suspected of drug activity and reportedly had a gun in the car, that he’s got an extensive arrest record,[6] and so on. The officer who fired the shots, Christopher Taylor,[7] has filed a motion to prevent the video from being released, which is understandable, especially if the video won’t be viewed favorably by the public.

Now we wait. While the local activists can call for the chief’s head on a platter, none of that really matters. What matters is that both the criminal investigation is conducted properly and, if appropriate, criminal charges are filed. My admitted knowledge-limited opinion is that Taylor will be charged with murder. But as I said, we’ll have to wait to find that out.

[1] In police parlance, a “good” shooting is one which is justified, and a bad shooting is one that is not.

[2] The bean bag round is called that because it is literally a small cloth bag filled with shot. It hurts like hell and knocks most people to the ground.

[3] See Texas Penal Code, Chapter 9, Justification Excluding Criminal Responsibility.

[4] Identified as Officer Mitchell Pieper, on the job for 3 months, and likely still in field training.

[5] Disclosure, when I was an officer, I was a member of the same police association (CLEAT) that represents the Austin police officers.

[6] A quick check shows that there are two Michael Ramos’s in Travis County who each have extensive criminal histories. The history, of course, is not relevant to the shooting, but that information is always released if it will paint the deceased in a bad light.

[7] This is the second officer involved shooting that Taylor has been involved in over the past year. Taylor has been on the job for five years.

6 thoughts on “Prickett: Sometimes An Officer Is Just Wrong

  1. Ahaz01

    Another senseless killing by our nation’s law enforcement among the many other senseless and avoidable killings. I now believe the problem with our polices forces is one of entitlement. Police feel they are entitled to use force. Many believe they have the personal right to use force. The personal right to put their hands on citizens they encounter. The personal right to use deadly force no matter the circumstances. Individual officers and unions fight unabashedly to retain and expand this perceived right. Sadly, we’ve codified in our Justice system, in our laws the ability to allow supposedly highly trained police officers to act in irrational ways that endanger the public. We place little responsibility on the officer, after all they have a tough job. In our society, we’ve placed the responsibility on the untrained civilian to extract themselves from potentially dangerous encounters with police. And when a civilian is beaten or shot, the first thing we do as a society is to blame the victim. “All they have to do is comply.” I’ve talked to my state legislators until I’m blue in the face. Their eyes glaze over and rationalize police actions with the same arguments that we hear from the LE community. I ultimately leave with the belief, that the life of any civilian that encounters the police is worth less than the officer. We’re really the land of the free.

  2. PseudonymousKid

    Mr. Prickett, you go into more depth on the follow-up shots than the initial bean bag shot, which makes sense given that the follow-up shots killed Ramos, but can you give a little more detail concerning how the bean bag shot itself violated department/TX law/policy? You seem to indicate as much, but I want to be sure that’s what you’re saying. Thanks for the breakdown and analysis.

  3. Greg Prickett

    The use of force is only authorized to accomplish a lawful purpose, and only by using the minimum amount of force necessary to effect that purpose. At that range a bean bag would have been appropriate if the suspect was holding an contact or impact weapon, such as a club or a knife. Merely not complying with a verbal direction is not grounds to use a bean bag round.

    My rule of thumb was if I wouldn’t be justified in sucker punching the guy in the stomach, don’t use a bean bag round on the guy.

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