AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Police Department is facing a federal lawsuit filed Thursday alleging a white police officer unnecessarily used a Taser on a black teenager.
Edwards Law is representing Latasha Alexander, the mother of a 17-year-old boy who was shot with a stun gun by Austin Police Officer Joel Kuchenski, who has been with the department since 2012. Attorney Jeff Edwards said the incident shows “shocking disregard for human dignity.”
Latasha Alexander allegedly called police for help with her son, and started recording right before Officer Kuchenski used a Taser on him. According to the cellphone video, the officer was standing approximately a few feet away from the teenager when he fired the stun gun. Video shows the moment after, in which the boy runs down the hallway before crumbling to the ground.
The boy can be heard screaming in pain and his mother can be heard crying out, “Oh my God!”
In the video, Kuchenski said to the teen “Stay down, do not move” as the teen lies on the ground. By the end of the nearly 40 second video, Kuchenski says to the teen, “I told you, man, if you did what I said we wouldn’t have any issues.”
“I look at a lot of videos, my attorneys look at a lot of videos, this is as bad as it gets,” said Edwards, noting he believes racism played a role in Kuchenski’s actions. Edwards, who is white, noted that he didn’t believe this type of violence would happen to his kids or his neighbors’ kids in Tarrytown.
“What you see is a boy with his hands down getting tasered, there’s no command to stop, there’s no, ‘put your hands up,'” Edwards said.
“The door of every police car in Austin says to protect and to serve,” Edwards said. “This is not how we protect our community. This is not how we serve our community.”
Edwards noted that there had been a divorce situation in Alexander’s home which had impacted the teen. He said the boy’s mother called APD to her home for help in transporting her son for a mental health evaluation. According to Edwards’ account, the boy and the officer had minimal interaction — five to 10 seconds before the boy left the apartment and the video started.
After the stun gun was used, Edwards said the teen was escorted to Georgetown Behavioral Health Institute by a supervisor of Kuchenski’s, the teen stayed there for around a week.
Austin police explained that after the interaction between Kuchenski and the boy, APD started a review of the case. His actions are currently being reviewed by the officer’s chain of command.
A city of Austin spokesperson issued the following statement: “We learned of the lawsuit through a media release. Once we have been served we will review it and take appropriate action to defend the city.”
The District Attorney’s Office said it does not have an open investigation on the officer’s actions, at this time.
“There was a time period before the tasing that was not on video that the department has on audio, and it would be inappropriate for me to comment on that until I can see the whole picture,” said Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association
“I frankly don’t care what the boy was doing in his own home beforehand, it doesn’t matter, the evidence, that will come out was that he was doing nothing wrong,” Edwards said of what occurred before the video started.
Jim Harrington, founder and director emeritus of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said that during trial the context of the video will matter.
“What will be important is not just exactly what’s on the video but what happened in the minute before we see that taser come out,” Harrington said, adding that it doesn’t appear to have been much going on before the tasing in the video.
Harrington has been filing these types of cases for decades. Earlier on in his career, he said that he would take police brutality cases “left and right” because “the law was more favorable.” But over the last 15 years, he said it became more difficult for plaintiffs to prove excessive force on behalf of police officers.
Harrington explained that plaintiffs have to prove that no reasonable officer would use that same level of excessive force in a given situation.
“Getting to the top of that mountain is very very difficult,” Harrington said.
Harrington added that this will be more complicated because it likely involves elements of behavioral or social calls. Harrington has dealt with many cases where law enforcement mishandled what he referred to as “social work” calls.
The language in the lawsuit focuses heavily on problems with Austin law enforcement behavior. Edwards said that in his work as a civil rights attorney, excessive and brutal force “just so happen to be disproportionately inflicted on minorities.”
“It’s a troubling pattern at the Austin Police Department,” he said.
Edwards also represented the family of David Joseph, a black teen shot and killed by an Austin police officer. The city of Austin agreed to a $3.25 million settlement in that case and officer Geoffrey Freeman, who shot him, was fired
Edwards noted that the boy who was stunned is receiving counseling, is in school and is working currently.
“The incident has caused him a significant amount of pain, fear, and a lack of trust in police,” Edwards said. “This isn’t something that’s going to destroy his life, this is something that’s always gonna be with him in a way that’s not fair.”