Lawsuit update: Austin woman filmed being punched by officer speaks

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Simone Griffith was lying down on the ground outside a pediatrician’s office in an east Austin strip mall on Oct. 30, 2021 when a police officer approached her.

The officer, according to court records, was responding to a trespass call by the property’s security guard – who had already asked Griffith to leave.

The officer wrote in the arrest affidavit that Griffith cursed at him multiple times and repeatedly refused to leave the property. He said when he and another officer began to arrest her on a trespassing charge, she scratched his face.

What was not included in the arrest affidavit was what a bystander filmed on a cell phone.

The video footage showed two officers dragging Griffith off the curb, and one of the officers repeatedly punching her.

Griffith, who has now moved to a different camping site away from the business, filed a federal lawsuit against the two officers seen in the video and the City of Austin, claiming excessive force.

“I just didn’t understand why I would have to be treated like that,” Griffith said.

Griffith’s attorney, Rebecca Webber, says Griffith is “profoundly mentally ill” and believes the video of her client shows an assault.

“I not only see a human being having her civil rights violated, but I see a crime. I see an assault. I see a brutal assault,” Webber said. She noted her client faced a trespassing charge, which is a Class B misdemeanor. She was also charged with resisting arrest.

Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon would not agree to do an interview with our station, citing the active lawsuit. But he said his administration already determined the force used in the video “complied with the law and with APD policies.”

“I think the City of Austin policies, in regard to unhoused people and mentally ill people, are unconstitutional. If that beating complies with their policies, their policies are unconstitutional and need to be changed,” Webber said.

Did officers have mental health training?

In 2019, the Austin Police Department announced it was working toward putting all officers through 40 hours of Mental Health Officer training – an effort they hoped to complete by the end of this year. The training, which is not required to become a peace officer in Texas, instructs officers on legal applications related to mental health including involuntary commitments.

One of the officers had been with the force for a year at the time of Griffith’s arrest, according to his personal status report with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. The report does not show the officer had taken Mental Health Officer training.

The other officer seen in the video is a 14-year veteran of the department and completed 40 hours of mental health officer training in 2015, according to TCOLE records.

KXAN reached out to APD to confirm the information in TCOLE’s records. APD advised KXAN to put in a records request for the civil service file for the officers, which KXAN did on Jan. 10. KXAN also requested the body-worn camera video of the incident. We will update this story when we receive the records.

In situations where officers believe a person is experiencing a mental health crisis, APD officers are trained to call on their crisis intervention unit – whose officers have already completed the Mental Health Officer training.

A spokesperson for APD said in this situation, officers in that unit were not called to assist, because “it is generally not feasible to delay enforcement action in situations where a property owner requires a trespasser to be removed.”

Webber says she is concerned officers did not call on other resources during the incident with Griffith. Webber is on the City of Austin Public Safety Commission, which in the past has provided recommendations to the city related to mental health and homelessness.

“We’ve been having this community conversation about how to manage property rights versus people’s rights to be treated as human beings. I just can’t believe APD continues to brag about how great it is doing with the HOSTs teams and CIT teams, and Mental Health Officers, and yet where were those services on the day that Simone yelled rude things to an officer who proceeded to punch her?” Webber said.

Griffith was released from jail the day after the video was taken of her arrest, and nearly two weeks later, the county attorney decided not to prosecute the trespass or resisting arrest charges against her.

Griffith’s case has been made more difficult, according to her attorney, because many of her belongings, including her identification, were lost following her overnight stay in jail.

“We don’t have her state-issued IDs, her EBT benefits, her social security supplemental income,” Webber said.

In an emailed statement, APD said it was unable to locate Griffith’s backpack and its victim services unit purchased her a new backpack, as well as clothes, a blanket and a pillow.

For now, Griffith is still without a permanent place to live. Following our interview, she walked back to her tent. Her attorney says Griffith does have advocates who keep in touch with her daily and take her to get her prescriptions, as well as bring her food and warm clothes.  

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