Brings New Focus on Police Review: Officer's Suspension
is Waived; Fairness of Self-Investigation is
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
``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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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."
That night the police told a different
version in a news release:
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
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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
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
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
Laylan Copelin, Dave Harmon, Shooting brings new focus on
police review: Officer's suspension is waived; fairness
of self-investigation is questioned.,