Parents sue city after Austin teen’s suicide in patrol car

Investigations
HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lawsuit alleges Austin police missed weapons on suspects 54 times between 2013 and 2017.
  • APD video shows Anam secretly using a cellphone while handcuffed during prior arrest.
  • Austin spokesperson says it stands “ready to defend the City and its officers.”

Zachary Anam is shown here with his family. (Courtesy: Memorial Fund)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Next week marks two years since Sayeed and Cara Anam’s only son shot and killed himself in the back of an Austin police cruiser. But time has done little to ease their pain, clearly outlined in the wrongful death lawsuit they filed Wednesday against the city.

The federal suit alleges Austin police have a “pattern, practice, and custom of performing plainly incompetent and unreasonable searches of pretrial detainees,” including their son’s 2017 patdown.

‘Shots fired inside the car’

That arrest was just the latest for Zachary Anam, 19, who had been charged with several crimes in the preceding year, including burglary and drug possession. Police interviews with those who knew Anam indicated a history of substance abuse and mental health concerns.

  • Anam v. City of Austin lawsuit
  • Austin police responded to a shoplifting call from security personnel at a Macy’s in a southwest Austin mall. According to a police report, store security detained Anam after catching him trying to cut tags off clothing, a watch and a pair of earrings and then walk out of the store.

    Officer Iven Wall found a “crystal-like substance” he believed to be methamphetamine inside a folded-up dollar bill while placing the teen in custody, according to the report.

    But he missed a pistol – a Glock semi-automatic .380 – hidden under Anam’s waistband.

    The lawsuit details a conversation between the officer and Anam that was caught on a dashboard camera inside the patrol car on the way to booking. The footage indicated Wall told the teen he would “spend the rest of (his) life behind bars.”

    The suit also says Wall told Anam “if you’ve got anything shoved up your butt you better come out with it, because when you get to the jail you’re going to be searched anyhow with another felony charge added.”

    A disciplinary memo mentions no such exchange. But, dispatch audio obtained by KXAN reveals Anam told Wall he was “suicidal.”

    Austin Police Department officers respond after 19-year-old Zachary Anam shoots himself while handcuffed in the back of a patrol car in January 2017. (Screenshot of APD surveillance video)

    “He’s got it to his head,” Wall said over his radio, as he parked his patrol car in the middle of a downtown Austin intersection just yards away from a crowd of onlookers at a nearby pub.

    “He’s got a gun, and he’s in the back seat,” Wall said to dispatch, after jumping out of the car.

    Other officers arrived to block off traffic at the intersection of Fifth and Lavaca streets. Barely four minutes passed before a loud pop echoed off the nearby buildings.

    “Shots fired inside the car, inside the car,” one officer radioed.

    “Start EMS,” said another. “I can see in the reflection, we’ve got blood.”

    ‘Disturbing pattern’

    In an audio recording of Wall’s internal affairs interview, the officer admitted he only patted down the suspect instead of conducting a more thorough inspection for weapons.

    “When the officers pulled him out of the car, I saw it…” Wall said in the interview. “I saw an inside-the-waistband holster stuffed down inside his pants.”

    Wall received a 20-day suspension, and the case was never presented to a grand jury. At the time, Anam’s parents said they were “severely disappointed with the minimal discipline” and called on APD to retrain every officer on how to properly frisk suspects.

    “Every time I open the back door of a patrol car, I think about that young man,” Wall said during his disciplinary hearing. “The disciplinary portion that’s looming over me today will be final after today, but I’ll still have to live with that.”

    (Screenshot of surveillance video)

    During the hearing, Wall acknowledges he should have conducted the search differently.

    “I can assure you no one feels worse about what happened in the back of my patrol car than I do,” Wall said. “… I can only imagine how the family must feel. And I’m sorry for that.”

    The family’s suit claims Austin police officers missed weapons 54 times between 2013 and 2017. Those statistics only include weapons found by Travis County jailers after APD brought suspects in for booking. It does not include Anam’s weapon, since he died before reaching the jail.

    “APD’s policymakers, including Chief [Brian] Manley (and his predecessors), were aware of this disturbing pattern, practice, and custom, but took no measures to ensure detainees were immediately searched reasonably to disarm them,” the suit reads, adding that the agency failed to implement “new, different, or additional” training to aid in weapon searches.

    An investigator’s report noted “The family had a lot of questions (about) … what had occurred and how their son had a firearm while in police custody,” adding that Anam’s father “said the last time they had communicated with their son was via text on Christmas Day when he had (texted) ‘Merry Christmas I love you. I’m sorry.’”

    “The Austin Police Department regularly searches people it arrests so incompetently that people arrive at the jail still carrying weapons,” said Jeff Edwards, the family’s attorney. “This is terribly dangerous for all law enforcement officers, the general public, and, as Zach’s death illustrates, the people APD detains.”

    A City of Austin spokesperson said they haven’t been served with the lawsuit, however they “are familiar with this tragic incident and stand ready to defend the City and its officers.”

    Zachary Anam calls his attorney in May 2016 while handcuffed in the back of a patrol car after being arrested on a burglary charge. (Screenshot of APD video)

    Behavior during prior arrest

    The day Anam died wasn’t the first time he was able to maneuver himself while handcuffed in the back of a patrol car. 

    During a May 2016 burglary arrest, video obtained by KXAN shows Anam bypassing handcuffs by twisting his arms so much that he’s able to pull a cellphone out of his pocket.

    Anam is on the phone long enough to call his attorney to let them know he’s been detained, while officers stand outside the patrol car.

    “I just got arrested,” Anam tells his attorney. “I’m literally handcuffed in a cop car right now… Hold on. …The cop is walking back over here, and he doesn’t know I have my phone.”

    It’s unclear if Wall knew Anam was able to reach into his pocket and use a cellphone during that prior arrest or if knowing that information would have prompted the officer to conduct a more thorough search the day he died. An investigator’s report confirms Wall did verify Anam’s identity and check his criminal history before starting to transport him to jail.

    Denied evidence

    Surveillance video of the arrest, dash camera video of the scene and a video recording inside the car captured details that would shed light on what happened in those crucial moments, but Austin police still refuse to release them to the public.

    “You may be a very reputable journalist working for a very reputable news outlet,” Manley said last year when asked about his agency’s denial of KXAN’s request for those items. “But, if we agree to release it to you, we have now lost all ability to withhold it from anybody who makes that request.”

    Manley explained he wanted to protect Anam’s family from having to see such graphic footage of their loved one.

    “Our philosophy is that we should put out all of the information that we can – with a few caveats,” he said. “And this particular issue is one.”

    Zachary Anam

    A family member tells KXAN their attorney has since obtained the dashboard camera recording and a transcript of the audio inside the car. KXAN has once again asked the city to release the video and is awaiting a response.

    Anam’s in-custody death is among more than 50 recent cases KXAN has analyzed.

    In each of those cases, law enforcement agencies have used a loophole in the Texas Public Information Act to withhold information. The measure gives police discretion to deny the public access to details about a suspect who has not been convicted or received deferred adjudication – even if that suspect is dead.

    Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, is using KXAN’s research, as he pushes legislation to close that loophole in the upcoming legislative session. After KXAN showed him our findings, he said it’s clear some agencies might be taking advantage of the loophole to avoid transparency.

    “It does discredit to the vast majority of law enforcement that’s doing a good job and staying within the rules,” Moody said. “If we do our job to hold those few accountable that step outside the line, it is much better for law enforcement as a whole.”

    Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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