AUSTIN (KXAN) — The case of an Austinite who was shot and killed by police this spring is causing some city council members to question an unofficial agreement between the Austin Police Department and the Travis County District attorney’s office — one that delays administrative actions against APD’s officers.
Austin City Council Member Greg Casar made a call to action on Twitter Tuesday, sharing a photo of a letter he received from Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore explaining that she had asked APD to delay any disciplinary action for officers involved in the death of Mike Ramos until her office had completed a criminal investigation into those officers.
Moore explained that her office makes this request of the police chief in all cases where an officer faces allegations of committing injury or harm during the course of their work.
In Travis County, if an officer faces such allegations, two investigations are launched at the same time: a criminal investigation into the officer’s action by the Travis County District Attorney’s Office and an administrative investigation run by APD’s Internal Affairs department.
In an interview with KXAN Tuesday, Moore clarified that her office’s preference in Ramos’ case is for Austin Police Chief Brian Manley to not take administrative action against the officers who fired at Ramos until a grand jury has heard and made a decision on the case.
APD’s Internal Affairs unit could not speak to what stage the investigation was at, but a spokesperson for the department said that typically there is a 180-day window for the internal affairs investigation to be completed. Texas local government code generally asks police leaders to take disciplinary action within 180 days of the department being aware of the conduct, though there are some exceptions.
On Thursday, Moore told KXAN that her office now knows a grand jury will be empaneled for Ramos’ case on August 11 and that the case will be presented later in the month. “This is within the 180 days, so there is no delay in the administrative proceeding caused by the grand jury proceeding,” Moore said in an email to KXAN.
“The DA’s office has asked APD to delay disciplinary consequences for officers in the shooting of Mike Ramos,” Casar said in a Tweet sharing this letter. He continued, “But I believe our community needs to know now whether or not our Police Chief thinks that officers did something wrong when they shot Mr. Ramos.”
Casar noted that the officers who fired at Ramos have been placed on paid administrative leave while the internal investigation is ongoing (Austin Police Department confirmed Tuesday this is still the case).
“These sorts of delays are common, but what is ‘standard’ must change in policing,” Casar continued in his Twitter thread. “Millions of people across our country are clearly calling for things to be different.”
Austin Police Department told KXAN in a statement Tuesday:
“As in all officer-involved shooting investigations, we work closely with the District Attorney’s Office to ensure any possible administrative actions taken by the Department do not interfere with the criminal investigation.”
KXAN asked APD if Casar’s call for immediate action was something Chief Manley would consider doing.
APD responded saying, “The criminal and internal investigations are ongoing. Chief Manley will make a decision once the investigations are completed.”
DA Margaret Moore’s response
In an interview with KXAN, Moore reiterated that this request is not unique to Ramos’ case.
Rather, she says, it’s a part of a something Moore refers to as a “longstanding practice,” where Austin Police Department has agreed to wait to take administrative actions if doing so might have undue influence on a grand jury.
Moore said this practice is not a policy but a “gentlemen’s agreement” between the District Attorney’s Office and Austin Police. The standard practice, Moore said, is that the police chief waits to take administrative action at least until a grand jury has heard the case.
“The police chief doesn’t work for me and I don’t work for him,” Moore said, speaking of the two simultaneous investigations that happen. “They are two completely different processes here, but they do intersect and they do affect each other.”
She says the practice was followed by administrations prior to hers and that she has had an “understanding in place” with APD since her office created a Civil Rights unit in 2017.
Moore, who was elected in November 2016, said that during her administration, Chief Manley has never deviated from this practice.
Casar, in his Twitter thread, noted that when David Joseph in 2016 was fatally shot by an Austin Police Officer, the department fired the officer before the criminal case had finished. But that firing happened while Chief Art Acevedo was at the helm of the police department and before Moore had taken office.
Moore said that this “longstanding practice” had been “deviated from” by Acevedo.
She said the rationale for this agreement with the police department is that administrative action could prejudice a grand jury or a petit jury who “are supposed to be unbiased fact-finders.”
“There are aspects to these cases where we want to keep these juries as unbiased as possible, and so a decision of a police chief, for instance, might weigh one way or another on the jury if they heard about it.”
“In those cases where we do not take a case to the grand jury — we are able to give the police department an indication much sooner than the ones where we take it to a grand jury,” Moore added. “So they are then able to go on with whatever administrative process they have in place.”
Michael Ramos’ case
Forty-two-year-old Michael Ramos, a Black Hispanic Austin resident, was shot and killed by Austin Police in an incident on the night of April 24.
Ramos’ attorney said he was hanging out with friends that night while in his car in the parking lot of a southeast Austin apartment complex.
Austin police said a 911 call reported that a couple was using drugs in their car in a parking lot and that the man in the car was waving a gun in the air.
APD also said they believed, based on the vehicle description, the car may have been involved in a crime the day before.
Officers approached the car and asked Ramos to step outside.
According to APD’s account, while Ramos initially got out of the car as he was asked to do, he yelled back at the officers and did not continue to comply with the officers’ commands.
Witness video from the scene shows Ramos standing outside of the car with his hands up while an officer is facing him, appearing to hold a weapon. A bang goes off and Ramos gets back in the car and closes the driver side door.
Austin police said Officer Mitchell Pieper, who graduated out of the most recent cadet class and had been with the department for three months in a training phase, fired a bean bag round at Ramos, which appeared not to impact Ramos.
A custodial death report filed by Austin Police to the Office of Texas Attorney General states that Ramos started the vehicle after getting inside the car and that officers commanded him to turn off the vehicle but he did not.
Within nine seconds, the Austin police report to the state says, Ramos drove forward out of the parking spot.
The report said that Officer Christopher Taylor, who had been with the department for five years, feared that Ramos would use the car as a deadly weapon and fired his patrol rifle, striking Ramos.
The car collided with a parked vehicle and came to a stop, the report said, and Ramos was declared dead less than an hour after the initial call.
In May, Austin police confirmed that no firearm was located either in Ramos’ vehicle or in the area where the incident happened. Ramos’ mother maintains that her son “never had a gun, never.”
Rebecca Webber, who is the attorney for Ramos’ mother Brenda Ramos, sent a letter to DA Moore on Tuesday, reminding the DA’s office that it had been 67 days since Ramos was shot and killed and 35 days since Moore announced she would bring Ramos’ case before a grand jury.
“Yet, not only has [Officer] Taylor not been arrested and charged with murder, he continues to be paid fulltime by APD,” Webber wrote. “In my client Brenda Ramos’s view, this is unconscionable.”
Webber added that Officer Taylor was also involved in a deadly shooting in downtown Austin in July 2019.
Referencing the letter that Casar posted to Twitter, Webber added, “Ms. Ramos does not accept your vague ‘concern that the administrative action could prejudice the criminal case’ as a credible or justifiable excuse for further delaying justice for her son.”
Moore told KXAN she had spoken with Ms. Ramos and her legal counsel.
“I understand all of their concerns, we have tried to answer all of their questions and explain to them how our process will take place,” Moore said. “And she [Brenda Ramos] asked me, she passionately asked me, ‘Please, please seek justice for my son,’ and we’re committed to doing that.”
“And I know that on the personnel side of it, that Chief Manley and the internal affairs process is just as committed to doing justice in the context of the personnel process,” Moore said.
When should administrative action be taken?
Moore’s request that APD delay administrative action in Ramos’ case has drawn criticism from criminal justice groups on the forefront of pushing for police reform in Austin, including Austin Justice Coalition, Just Liberty, and Texas Fair Defense Project.
“In no other circumstances would a District Attorney ask an employer to keep somebody on the payroll because it might bias a jury against the person she’s supposed to be prosecuting for murder,” said Emily Gerrick, managing attorney at the Texas Fair Defense Project in the release issued by these groups Tuesday. “The decision of whether or not to fire somebody for violating policy should be completely separate from the decision of whether or not to convict him”.
Moore is currently facing off against José Garza in the Democratic runoff election for the Travis County District Attorney seat on July 14.
- Previous Coverage: Travis Co. DA Margaret Moore, challenger José Garza talk criminal justice ahead of Democratic runoff election
Moore’s opponent in that race, José Garza, also issued a statement criticizing her response.
“In this moment, our District Attorney has demonstrated her instinct to protect the most powerful instead of the most vulnerable,” Garza said in a statement, suggesting he would handle things differently if elected.
“Chief Manley should have the ability, and the moral imperative, to fire those who present a danger to this community, and it is unfathomable that our District Attorney would try to prevent such an action.”