Woman repeatedly punched by Austin officers sues city

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A woman who was repeatedly punched and dragged by police officers in Austin during a trespass call that was recorded on cell phone video has sued the city, claiming excessive force.

The 26-year-old, Simone Nicole Griffith, was laying down outside a pediatrician’s office on Oct. 30 at a strip mall on Highway 183 when two officers conducting an urgent trespass call arrived, according to the lawsuit filed on Christmas Eve.

Rebecca Webber, Griffith’s attorney, said in the lawsuit Griffith is “profoundly mentally ill” and was camping on the sidewalk of the strip mall, because she did not have a safe or permanent place to live at the time.

“Simone’s special needs are obvious and extraordinary. She is child-like. Imagine [Austin Independent School District’s] reaction if there was a video of a teacher punching and dragging a special ed student by her hair because she refused to stand up,” said Webber in a statement.

The cell phone footage, released in October by a bystander, starts with two officers on their knees, leaning over Griffith, who is laying down on the sidewalk, and reaching for her arms. The video then shows one of the officers dragging Griffith off the sidewalk by her arm.

The video records as one of the officers commands Griffith to get on her stomach, to which she replied, “I don’t have to listen to you.” It then shows one of the officers repeatedly punching Griffith.

The cell phone recording, as well as body camera footage and in-car video, is being used in an internal review of whether the officers, identified as Officer Rodriguez and Officer Escamilla in the lawsuit, were justified in using force against Griffith, the spokesperson for the City of Austin said in October.  

“Anytime a police officer uses force, the incident deserves to be scrutinized,” the spokesperson said.

In an arrest affidavit Officer Rodriguez said about the incident, he made several commands for Griffith to get up, including after telling her she was being arrested, and she refused. Rodriguez wrote after attempting to place handcuffs on Griffith, she became “defensively resistant” and scratched his face.

“I proceeded to give Nicole several more commands approximately 3 times to get up. Nicole refused to get up after every single command. I again repeated to Nicole to get up and that she was under arrest. Nicole still refused.”

The lawsuit and the release of the footage come months after a statewide ban on homeless encampments went into effect in July. The City of Austin reported in the first weeks of the ban it connected more than 100 people, including veterans, to resources. But the attorney representing Griffith said Officer Rodriguez did not offer to help find a safe place to sleep or any other help during the incident.

The Austin Police Department said in 2019 it would require all officers to be certified mental health officers and provide mental health officer training to all officers employed in the department. APD has not said if it has completed the training for all of its officers.

APD has not said if Officers Rodriguez and Escamilla received the mental health officer training. The department has also not answered whether its Crisis Intervention Team was requested to evaluate Griffith. The officers did not call out the Homeless Outreach Street team during the incident, which includes two behavioral health specialists, according to an APD spokesperson.

APD determined the force seen being used in the video complied with the law and APD policies after a review, said a spokesperson for APD.

“It is generally not feasible to delay enforcement action in situations where a property owner requires a trespasser to be removed from the property owner’s private property,” said APD in an emailed statement Tuesday.

The misdemeanor charge against Griffith for criminal trespass was rejected by the Travis County Attorney’s Office on Nov. 12, court records show.

According to Griffith’s attorney, APD lost her backpack containing Griffith’s personal identification and social security card. APD’s victim services purchased a new backpack, clothes, blanket and pillow for her after not being able to find her backpack, according to an APD spokesperson.

Griffith is “temporarily safe” and is being housed through charitable donations, according to her attorney.

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