Karen McGee says she spent three days in jail with an untreated broken arm over a case that was ultimately dropped (Photo by Screenshot via APD Body Cam)
Attorney Rebecca Webber has reviewed eight separate videos of the events leading up to the arrest of Karen McGee, a deaf, 71-year-old Florida resident who is planning a lawsuit against the city of Austin after alleging that a corrections officer at the Travis County Jail broke her arm.
Webber says the videos show that McGee was agitated and possibly rude to Alaskan Airlines ticket agents in the moments before the arrest. But Webber does not believe the arrest was justified.
“No one is saying that Karen wasn’t upset and agitated,” Webber said. “I can see in the video that she’s waving her arms and pointing. She’s clearly upset. But she’s not threatening and there’s no disturbance. Other travelers are walking all around the area, no one pays any attention.”
McGee was flying to Seattle on Delta Airlines, alone, on the morning of Sept. 13, 2022, when she landed in Austin for a layover. With her hearing aids not working properly, she failed to hear the announcement that the departure gate for her connecting flight had changed and missed her plane. After Delta representatives provided her a ticket for an Alaskan Airlines flight leaving in the evening, McGee learned that another plane bound for Seattle was awaiting takeoff at the same gate. She asked agents if she could board that flight.
Airport surveillance video provided to Webber by the city shows McGee speaking with the Alaskan Airlines agents for approximately 12 minutes. During that time, two Transportation Security Agents also speak with her, then amble off. Eventually, McGee seems to give up and sits alone at the gate, looking at her phone. Five Austin Police Department officers then arrive, called by one of the agents.
At this point, Webber believes, the Alaskan Airlines agents have already revoked McGee’s ticket and told her she must go back to the Delta office at the front of the airport to purchase a new one. Police bodycam video shows an airline representative standing over her and announcing that she is trespassing (by law, people must have tickets to be allowed on the secure side of the airport). Three APD officers, one of them certified in American Sign Language, stand above McGee and speak gently to her, asking her to leave. McGee continues to look at her phone, either misunderstanding what is happening or ignoring the officers. They lift her into a wheelchair, push her to the front of the airport, arrest her, and take her to the Travis County Jail.
Webber has no video or other record from authorities at this point. But Webber said that a corrections officer at the jail twisted McGee’s handcuffs after a misunderstanding during the booking process, breaking McGee’s arm. Webber said McGee received no medical attention in three days behind bars. She received surgery on the arm after being released and making it back to Florida.
Media representatives for the airport and the city referred the Chronicle to APD for comment on the arrest. A department spokesperson said it had been thoroughly investigated. “This use of force incident, like all use of force incidents at APD, immediately underwent an internal review process to determine if it was within policy and law,” the spokesperson said. “No issues were noted.” A spokesperson for the Travis County Sheriff’s Office said the sheriff can’t comment on McGee’s allegations about her broken wrist but that the office is prepared to defend itself in court.
Webber said she has been asking officials for over two months for an explanation of how McGee’s arm was broken. “We offered to give Karen’s protected health information and psychiatric records to the city and Travis County so they could understand the extent of her wrist injury and trauma,” Webber said. “In exchange, we just want to understand what happened. The city told us to eff off. We were told that we would get no records, no meeting, no explanation, and ‘eventually’ someone would contact us. Evidently, ‘eventually’ means when the Chronicle story blows up, because last week we heard from them for the first time.”
Webber said she will meet with representatives from the jail on Friday, March 31. She believes that McGee was denied accommodation for her hearing impairment and plans to sue the city and Travis County. She stresses, however, that she will not sue the APD officers who arrested McGee, saying that two of them, in particular, treated her client with kindness and compassion.
“I feel like two of the officers really felt sympathy for Karen and were kinda sick to their stomachs that they had to put their hands on her and scare the crap out of her like they did,” Webber said. “One officer in particular really was kind and he really did try to communicate with her. He just didn’t have the tools and the training. … But you know, three armed police officers standing around a woman, even if they are being nice and patient with her, that could freak anyone out. If two of them had just left and one of them had sat in the seat across from her and just talked to her like a human being instead of standing over her – you know what I’m saying? But they’re not trained to do that.”
Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.