HOUSTON – The U.S. Justice Department is investigating six cases over the last two years in which Houston police officers fatally shot or allegedly used excessive force against unarmed individuals, police officials said Wednesday.
One case involves the September shooting death of Brian Claunch, 45, a mentally ill one-armed, one-legged man in a wheelchair. Officers responding to a disturbance at the group home where Claunch lived said he threatened them with what turned out to be a ballpoint pen.
"I am very confident our training, policies and procedures follow or exceed the best practices in law enforcement. I am extremely proud of the 6,500-plus men and women of this organization who work hard each and every day to keep this city among the safest in the nation," Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland said in a statement.
A Justice Department spokeswoman said she was trying to track down information about the investigation on Wednesday.
Civil rights groups applauded the investigation.
"These charges of misconduct by the Houston police department are no surprise to us," said Dotty Griffith, ACLU of Texas public education director. "We feel the Justice Department is right to investigate why these incidents occur here with disturbing frequency."
The other fatal shooting federal officials are investigating is the July death of 54-year-old Rufino Lara during an assault investigation. Authorities said Lara failed to follow officers' commands in English and Spanish to stop and show his hands and that he tried to pull a concealed object from his waistband that turned out to be a can of beer. Two witnesses have said Lara had his hands in the air when he was shot.
The shootings of Claunch and Lara are still being reviewed by Houston police, said department spokesman Kese Smith.
The other cases being investigated by the Justice Department are:
— The March 2010 beating of Chad Holley during his burglary arrest. The incident was caught on surveillance video. Four officers were fired and later indicted on various misdemeanor charges. The first officer to be tried was acquitted in May.
— The July 2011 punching of a robbery suspect by ex-police officer Angela Horton. A television crew filming from a helicopter captured Horton punching the 16-year-old suspect in the face after he had been arrested and was handcuffed. Horton was later fired.
— The October 2011 arrest of Anthony Childress, who claims he was beaten by several officers while he was out riding his bicycle. Childress was charged with cocaine possession. No officers were disciplined.
— The January arrests of Annika Lewis and her husband, Sebastian Prevot. Lewis claims she was beaten by police as she tried to record with her cellphone what she described as the brutal arrest of her husband in front of their home. Police say Prevot had failed to pull over during a traffic stop. Lewis was not charged, while Prevot was charged with evading arrest. Two officers were disciplined for not using sound judgment, but they were not relieved of duty, Smith said.
Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers' Union, said officer-involved shootings and cases in which officers are accused of using excessive force are thoroughly investigated. Hunt said there is "no cover up situation."
"We are confident that the people in the Justice Department ... are going to look at these cases and realize that we have done everything we have to do," he said.
McClelland said he is conducting a second round of meetings with supervisors to discuss efforts to strengthen customer service, training, discipline, supervision/leadership and civilian workforce initiatives in order to "become the most professional police agency in the country."
"I am very proud and excited our employees understand and embrace these initiatives and challenges," McClelland said.
Griffith did commend McClelland for his efforts to provide better training.
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