AUSTIN (KXAN) — A man police described as wounded, bloody and checking on his injured girlfriend and baby, was shot multiple times and killed in January after a road rage incident with police yelling at him, “Don’t reach! Don’t reach!”
Alex Gonzales, 27, died at 12:38 a.m. on Jan. 5 when responding on-duty Austin police officers fired 10 shots at him, striking him multiple times and shattering the back windshield of his car, as he reached into its backseat.
Just five minutes earlier Gonzales was involved in a “road rage incident” with off-duty Austin police Officer Gabriel Gutierrez. Gutierrez shot Gonzales after saying Gonzales cut him off in traffic and pointed a gun at him. Gutierrez fired multiple shots. Gonzales did not fire a weapon.
Police did later find a gun in Gonzales’ car.
Austin Police released video Wednesday showing what dash cameras and body cameras captured that night. They also released the 911 call that Gutierrez made right after he said he shot Gonzales the first time.
911 Operator: OK, is anybody injured?
Gutierrez: Yes, the – the driver of the other vehicle. He’s shot.
Gutierrez (speaking to Gonzales): Put your gun down. Austin police, put your gun down. Don’t make me shoot you again, man. It’s the police.
Gutierrez told the operator he wasn’t sure if the woman inside Gonzales’ car was injured.
“Okay, the female passenger, she’s lying on the ground. She’s saying, ‘My baby, my baby, my baby,” Gutierrez said, adding that he did not know if she was talking about an actual baby or not.
She was later identified as Gonzales’ girlfriend and the mother of the baby that was in the car’s backseat. She, too, had been shot but survived.
Video ‘heartbreaking and tragic,’ family attorney says
Attorney for Gonzales’ parents, Scott Hendler, first described the video Tuesday to KXAN.
“I think when you see the video, it’s going to be heartbreaking and tragic,” he said. “What happened is unconscionable, in my opinion. There’s no credible defense for it.”
Gonzales’ mom was so overcome with emotion after seeing the video that she canceled a planned news conference Tuesday at Austin City Hall.
Hendler said Gonzales was checking on his 2-month-old baby when the responding officers shot him multiple times, killing him. The baby was lying just below where gunshots shattered the rear windshield.
Why the video doesn’t show perhaps the most important encounter
Since Gutierrez was off-duty and in a personal car at the time of the “road rage incident,” none of this exchange was captured on bodycam or dashcam video.
Video from a nearby apartment complex did show the cars side by side right before Gutierrez shot at Gonzales, but you can’t see what Gonzales was doing.
Gutierrez appears to fire as many as seven shots based on the number of flashes in the video.
Attorney: Gonzales was killed as he reached to check on his baby
“He’s clearly wounded,” Gonzales family attorney Scott Hendler said of Gonzales following Gutierrez shooting at him in traffic. “The officers responding know that he’s bleeding because [Gutierrez] reported to the dispatcher, ‘He’s got blood on his face.’”
“He can be seen walking very unsteadily toward the back of the car using the car to hold him up. You can see him walk behind the car. He has no weapon in his hand. He doesn’t brandish a weapon. He doesn’t have anything in his hand. He doesn’t point anything at the officers.”
APD bodycam and dashcam footage shows officers gave Gonzales multiple commands to stop and not to reach that he did not follow. Eyewitness video from the scene corroborated this. You can see and hear officers telling Gonzales to stop, but he kept walking.
“He walks to the other side of the vehicle where his girlfriend and the mother of his child is lying on the ground, wounded, to check on her,” Hendler said. “She asks him to check on the baby. He then opens the back door to look in and leans in to check on the baby, and that’s when he’s shot.”
The family says Gonzales was shot 10 times. Dashcam video confirms there were 10 gunshots, but police have only said Gonzales was shot multiple times.
Analysis from de-escalation expert
KXAN police beat reporter Jacqulyn Powell watched the video with University of Texas School of Law Wright C. Morrow Professor Jennifer Laurin after it was released Wednesday.
Laurin pointed out areas where de-escalation training might suggest a different approach.
She said while it is important for officers to establish whether a subject like Gonzales is holding a gun and to be firm in their commands, “shouting in a sort of barrage of commands can be confusing to an individual who’s hearing that, particularly an individual that they know has been shot.”
Laurin added what officers are saying to the a subject is also important.
Referring to a part of the video where officers repeatedly yelled “do not reach,” she said, “it’s a good example of kind of police jargon in commands that means something to police officers based on their training, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything, much less what the police officer has in mind, to an individual who’s hearing that command,” Laurin said.
Laurin also explained tactics like keeping a safe distance and standing behind something like the car officers stood behind as they were shouting to Gonzales keep officers safe so things don’t escalate.
However, watching along, Laurin pointed out at a certain point, “the officer on the right has really moved to the side of the initial officer’s vehicle and is quite in the open, directly in front of Mr. Gonzales.”
The officer Laurin was talking about is Luis Serrato. Shortly after, he could be seen firing the fatal shots.
The 911 call included in the video proved the off-duty officer who initially shot into the car and the dispatcher who called for back-up were aware Gonzales’ girlfriend, who’d also been shot, was yelling, “My baby! My baby!”
The video released does not indicate anyone on-scene asked Gonzales or his passenger if he had a baby in the car or where it might be.
“De-escalation training aims to train people to obtain that kind of information so that they can adapt to it in an appropriate way in the situation,” Laurin said, adding in retrospect, officers may have realized he was reaching toward the spot where his newborn was, rather than a weapon.
Officer’s attorneys criticize public release of video
Luis Serrato was the responding on-duty Austin police officer who shot and killed Gonzales. His bodycam footage was among those released on Wednesday.
His attorneys sent an open letter to interim Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon and Travis County District Attorney José Garza Tuesday, asking them not to release the video.
“Releasing video footage under the guise of transparency, in this manner and at this time, is completely counterproductive to the overriding goal of maintaining fairness in our justice system and ensuring public confidence that the system worked properly,” the attorneys wrote.
The Austin Police Association released a statement, saying it hoped Gutierrez and Serrato, who are members of the union, would be treated fairly as the case goes through the justice system.
“The APA and our membership value human life and neither officer who used force in this case woke up that day hoping to be involved in a shooting,” the statement said. “The unfortunate reality of police work is that officers are oftentimes put in situations where they are forced to react to the actions of others and at times, these situations end with terrible outcomes.”
Serrato has been with APD for two years. Gutierrez has been in the department for five years. Both are on administrative leave.
Community gives feedback on APD’s policies
The release of the video came the same day the city’s Office of Police Oversight (OPO) hosted a virtual community forum on Austin Police Department’s use-of-force policies.
The public was able to provide feedback on OPO’s policy review and recommendations to APD.
OPO will host three more virtual feedback sessions on May 12, May 19 and May 26, all starting at 6 p.m. The office said these events will seek input on use-of-force policies, however, the events are also part of a long-term campaign that will last several years, covering many policies.
OPO will gather additional community feedback during the three planned sessions which will be added to a report to city leadership and APD. The office hopes to share the report by June.