Criminal justice advocates say that the Austin Police Department has once again demonstrated that it can’t provide oversight of its own officers.
On Jan. 26, Police Chief Joe Chacon announced that officers Gabriel Gutierrez and Luis Serrato will face no discipline for the 2021 shooting death of Alex Gonzales and the wounding of his partner, Jessica Arellano.
Alex Gonzales’ killing was one of the most dramatic and troubling uses of deadly force by Austin police in recent years and Chacon’s decision sharply contrasts with recommendations from the Community Police Review Commission and the Office of Police Oversight, a pair of groups that review uses of force by police and make suggestions on discipline to the chief. The CPRC recommended firing both officers; OPO recommended the firing of Gutierrez. A statement from APD said the officers will soon resume their full time roles with the department.
The family and supporters of Alex Gonzales have demanded that Chacon fire Gutierrez and Serrato. They are dismayed and furious. “As Alex Gonzales’ mother, I demand to know all of the information that was used to make this decision and how anyone can see what I saw, see what this whole city saw, and say that that was ok,” Liz Gonzales said. “These people will never know the pain that I feel, that my whole family feels, from losing Alex. They’ll never know the pain of having to hear people say that killing my son was ok, and that the people that did it can go on with their lives and jobs like before. We can never go on like before and that’s wrong!”
Gonzales’ killing began as a road rage incident with either Gonzales or Gutierrez – accounts differ – swerving his car in front of the other driver. Gutierrez told investigators that as the cars came side-by-side Gonzales pointed a gun at him and he fired his own in response. The officer emptied his clip, firing eight shots and hitting Gonzales in the side of the head and Arrelano in the back, neck, and lungs–all while their three-month-old son sat in the backseat.
The two drivers then parked. Gutierrez called 9-1-1, describing Arrelano as lying on the ground outside the passenger door and Gonzales as standing next to the driver’s door with blood on his face. Officers Serrato and Brian Nenno arrived, pointed their guns, and shouted orders. Dash camera video shows Gonzales walking around the back of his car, unarmed, to check on his baby. Serrato yells, “Don’t reach!” repeatedly. Gonzales pushes his head into the back passenger side door and Serrato fires ten times into his side and back, killing him and sending bullets flying within three feet of his baby.
APD’s statement excuses Gutierrez’s conduct by saying that he acted in self-defense, something for which there is little publicly available corroboration. It says that Serrato followed department policy, though the video shows that he did not try to deescalate the situation. A Travis County grand jury chose not to indict the officers in late December, in contrast to other high-profile police killings like those involving Mike Ramos, Javier Ambler, and Mauris DeSilva.
The seven members of the CPRC voted 6-1 for Serrato’s firing and 7-0 for Gutierrez’s, saying the officers used unreasonable force, among other things. They cast doubt on the truthfulness of Gutierrez’s account of the incident, saying that a witness heard an indistinct verbal exchange between the officer and Gonzales in the moments before the shooting – something that Gutierrez has not mentioned and that could provide support for Liz Gonzales’s suspicion that the two men knew one another.
OPO recommended that Serrato be provided counseling but not be fired, saying that it was reasonable for him to believe that Gonzales was trying to retrieve a gun when he reached into the backseat. They did recommend Gutierrez’s firing, questioning his honesty over the reported verbal exchange and in his commands to “put the gun down” during his 9-1-1 call, when they say that Gutierrez did not actually see a gun in Gonzales’ hand.
Attorney Scott Hendler represents Gonzales’ parents, who have filed a civil lawsuit against the officers and the city which is expected to demand tens of millions of dollars in damages. He said Chacon’s decision shows he doesn’t have the character required to lead the department; he is calling on the city to fire the chief. He also asks that District Attorney José Garza resubmit the case to a new grand jury, something that is legal but rarely happens.
Austin Justice Coalition Policy Director Chris Harris points out that had one of the officers’ bullets hit Gonzales’ baby boy, the outcome of the case would be different. “If any one of the 18 bullets police fired had struck Alex’s baby, we all know those officers would be fired, if not facing prison time,” Harris said. “It is by pure luck that Alex’s baby was unharmed.”
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