Austin Police

UTPD: Person assaulted and robbed near campus

A person was assaulted and robbed in the Renaissance market area on Guadalupe Street on Thursday evening, according to a UT Safety Alert email.

The victim, who is not affiliated with UT, was able to describe two of the five suspects who left the area, Austin police informed UTPD.

The two suspects were men – one had short blond hair, and the other had brown hair with shoulder-length dreadlocks. Both suspects appeared to be homeless, according to the email.

No arrests have been made.

UTPD urged students, faculty and staff who see anyone matching the suspect descriptions to dial 911 or call 512-471-4441.

Gene Vela, a former public affairs graduate student, listens to testimonies during his trial at the Travis County Courthouse on Friday morning. Vela is facing two charges of aggravated assault on a public servant.
Photo Credit: Michael Baez | Daily Texan Staff

The trial of Gene Vela, a former public affairs graduate student on trial for two charges of aggravated assault on a public servant, continued Friday at the Travis County Courthouse. 

Vela was originally taken into custody in November 2013 after an armed altercation with several Austin police officers. Officers shot Vela after he aimed, but did not shoot, his handgun at two officers from the window of his North Campus apartment. 

During Friday’s trial, Vela’s attorney, Skip Davis, said Vela was not actually pointing his gun at any of the police officers who had responded to the welfare call to Vela’s apartment.

Austin Police Department officer Adrien Chopin fired one of the three shots that hit Vela that night. 

Chopin said Vela was not pointing a gun at him personally, but said he did believe Vela was aiming for another officer who was closer to the apartment. Davis questioned Chopin about recorded comments made after Vela was wounded.

“I believe I said, ‘He was dancing around with a gun in his hand,’ not, ‘That’s what you get for dancing around with a damn gun in your hand,’” Chopin said.

Chopin said he saw a red laser coming from Vela’s apartment and thought it was being used in conjunction with the gun to aim at the officers. Davis said Vela’s pistol was not equipped with a laser.

“The laser did not fit Gene’s pistol,” Davis said. “It fell off the gun when I asked the APD ballistics expert to affix the laser to the gun. It fell off dramatically a second time when I handed the gun back and said ‘try it again.’”

Davis said Vela, a Marine veteran, had a mental breakdown and did not know it was APD who was knocking on his door. He said the recordings of the event never included APD officers announcing themselves when they tried to contact Vela or before shooting at him.

“APD did not announce they were ‘the police, so put the gun down,’ until 30 minutes later, after they had shot Gene three times with AR-15 assault rifles, firing from concealed positions 45 yards away and in total black darkness,” Davis said. “He came out within a minute of being hailed to come outside.”

Vela faces four charges, including two charges of aggravated assault, one charge of unlawfully carrying a weapon and one charge of terroristic threat.

Gene Vela was booked in the Travis County Jail on Nov. 11 after aiming a handgun equipped with a laser at two policemen through his apartment window in North Campus.

Photo Credit: Helen Fernandez | Daily Texan Staff

More than a year after a standoff with Austin police, Gene Vela, a former public affairs graduate student, stood trial this week for two charges of aggravated assault on a public servant.

Vela was taken into custody in November 2013 after an armed confrontation with multiple Austin police officers. His attorney is trying to convince jurors that police did not correctly identify themselves before attempting to contact Vela.

According to the police affidavit, police officers shot Vela after he aimed a handgun equipped with a laser at two policemen through his apartment window in North Campus. Police were originally called to the apartment following a 911 call from a friend of Vela’s.

Responding officers and one medic testified in court Thursday about the circumstances surrounding the shooting. According to a recorded 911 call, Vela was told the individuals outside his home were police, but Vela’s attorney, Edumund Davis, said that because Vela was being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, he was unable to process the information correctly. 

Vela is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq in 2002.

Court records show Vela has had several conflicts with Austin police, including one incident of driving while intoxicated. 

According to the Travis County Criminal Court docket, Vela faces four charges, including one charge of unlawful carrying of a weapon, two charges of aggravated assault against a public servant and one charge of terroristic threat. 

Vela’s trial continues Friday at the Travis County Courthouse. 

Detective Todd Bircher of the Austin Police Department is the founder of the Austin Police Pipe and Drum Corps, an organization of bagpipers and drummers. Bircher started the band in order to play at the funerals of officers killed in the line of duty.
Photo Credit: Carlo Nasisse | Daily Texan Staff

When taking a break from the daily responsibilities of policing, a group of Austin Police officers play drums and bagpipes in funerals, parades, festivals and community events. 

After listening to bagpipes artists at an officer’s funeral, APD Detective Todd Bircher began practicing the instrument on his own. Five years later, he formed the Austin Police Pipe and Drum Corps.

Bircher said the police community did not immediately celebrate the idea of a departmental pipes and drum corps.

“You know, down in Texas and the South, [bagpipes are] not around — that’s northeast stuff,” Bircher said. “It was a little bit of a sell, especially among the more traditional Texas officers.”

Watch: The Emergency Services Pipes and Drum Association, explained.

Once the idea of bagpiping caught on, the group quickly expanded to include firefighters and emergency medical technicians, as well as members of police departments from across the state. All together, the statewide group calls themselves the Emergency Services Pipe and Drum Association. Bircher plays as a pipe major for the APD corps and a bagpiper for the state association.

James Gray, a Fort Worth Police officer and member of the state association, said his interest in playing bagpipes stemmed from a visit to the national police memorial in Washington, D.C., where he watched live performances from other pipes and drums bands. Gray said he purchased a set of bagpipes and began practicing to join the association as soon as he returned to Fort Worth,.

Gray said the performances are about more than just the music — they’re about giving back to the community and making the police force more accessible in general.

“When we’re in our kilts, that’s a time that we’re there for the community … just to give back,” Gray said. “It gives people a chance to come talk to you about music. It gives them an opportunity to see that we’re just people too.”

Performing at the funerals of officers who are killed in the line of duty is the top priority of police pipes and drums corps, according to Bircher.

“I don’t ever want to do that,” Bircher said. “I hope we never do it again, but that’s why we’re here — I’m honored to do that.”

Bircher said the corps serves to honor fallen officers and provide comfort to those officers’ families.

“It helps give clarity and purpose to what would otherwise be a senseless death,” Bircher said. “For a family to see that tribute paid to those officers illustrates the purpose of what they did. They went out and risked their lives to keep the rest of us safe.”

Bircher said the band members have various levels of musical expertise. APD officer Geoff Sumner, who joined the group in summer 2013, said he studied music in college before becoming a police officer. He said mastering the bagpipes is a challenge he enjoys.

“Everybody honors a fallen brother in their own way, but I feel like, as a musician, the best way for me to do it would be to ceremoniously perform for them with the bagpipes,” Sumner said.

The bands also play for civic and holiday events, such as officer graduations, officer promotions and St. Patrick’s Day festivities.

“The most fun is probably St. Patty’s Day because that’s the one day a year we’re kind of rock stars,” Bircher said. “Every other day, we’re just guys wearing skirts, playing bagpipes.”

UT alumna Maytè Salazar protests the Ferguson decision in front of the Texas State Capitol on Tuesday evening. Hundreds of protesters marched from the Austin Police Department headquarters to the Capitol building. 

 

Photo Credit: Marshall Tidrick | Daily Texan Staff

Demonstrators filled the base of the Austin Police Department’s headquarters Tuesday, demanding changes to America’s justice system.   

On Monday, a St. Louis County grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, an African-American teenager, in August. The shooting led to a series of protests and riots in Ferguson, Missouri, where the event occurred.

Before Tuesday night’s protest in Austin, a group of students protested on campus around noon at the Martin Luther King Jr. statue as part of a demonstration hosted by the Black Student Alliance.

The crowd for the city protest gathered on Eighth Street for a chance to hear speakers before marching to the Capitol. Edward Reyes, president of the Dove Springs Neighborhood Association, said he still remembers when an Austin police officer fatally shot teenager Daniel Rocha in 2005. 

“I remember getting off my couch and saying, ‘I’ve had enough,’ saying that I had to do something about it,” Reyes said. “I had to be a part of something bigger. I was tired of sitting back and just hearing the news and hearing who’s next.” 

Reyes, who recently ran for a seat on the Austin City Council, said police were made out to be the enemy in his years growing up in Southeast Austin; whereas, in reality, citizens and police should come together.

“We grew up in the neighborhood, and our parents used to tell us the police were the ones we need to be afraid of,” Reyes said. “Now, I’ve met a lot of nice police officers — I know a lot of them. They need to come together with us and we need to work solutions.”

According to Reyes, part of the problem is that so few young people who make mistakes are given the opportunity to reform their ways and become part of society.

“These men need this opportunity,” Reyes said. “These young men and women need these opportunities because they are just like you and me. We change; we make mistakes, and nobody is perfect.” 

Sherwynn Patton, program executive director of Life Anew, a restorative justice organization, said everyone must focus on stopping the violence.

“Is it reasonable to ask that, if a young man is shot in the streets, that we at least sit down and have a discussion about stopping the violence in our streets where black men, and Latino men and white men are being shot like dogs behind something — oh Lord — that is not real?” Patton said.

Patton said violence will be reduced when communities come together with a plan. 

“We are talking about casting a vision for our community because Austin has its own Michael Browns,” Patton said. “We have our share of what we call unjust murders — so what we’re talking about today is a plan for our communities, a plan for our families and a plan for our schools.” 

Demonstrator Terry Jackson said police must be held accountable for their actions. 

“I’m out here because the police have been killing off too many people, and they have not been disciplined for it, and we want actions now,” Jackson said. “I want the police to make us feel safe instead of threatened by them because I feel like they are supposed to be here to serve and protect.” 

During the protest, APD Chief Art Acevedo tweeted a picture of the protesters and complimented them for handling the demonstration peacefully.

Austin’s current booking facility, the Blackwell-Thurman Justice Center, is located downtown in the Travis County Justice Complex. The Austin Police Department has proposed plans to build a new booking center in North Austin.

Photo Credit: Lauren Ussery | Daily Texan Staff

The Austin Police Department has proposed plans for a new booking facility near Cameron Road that could save the city money and simplify the current booking process.

Brian Manley, Austin Police assistant chief, said citizens arrested in North Austin for minor offenses would go to the center for booking and processing, also known as magistration, and then either post bail or go to jail. Manley said serious offenders would still go to the Travis County Jail for long-term holding. 

“[Magistration] requires that a person arrested by a police officer is brought before a judge for the initial hearing, and it has to be done without delay,” Manley said. “In other words, within 48 hours, you have to either magistrate or release somebody, [so] this is an opportunity for a model that will free up officers’ time.”

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo initially proposed the new booking center at a meeting of the Austin City Council on Aug. 28. At the meeting, Acevedo said his officers spend an average of 58 minutes booking suspects at the Travis County Jail, and APD could eventually achieve a collective gain of 50,000 patrol hours per year by running its own magistration facility.

Acevedo said APD plans to renovate an existing building owned by the city for the new center. According to APD’s estimates, after 11 years of running the center, the city would save about $15 million, helping reduce the amount the city pays for officer overtime and to use the jail.

The facility is expected to cost $5.6 million and take 12-18 months to build. Members of the City Council raised concerns about where funding for the center would come from and whether the facility would fulfill the benefits proposed by APD.

UTPD spokeswoman Cindy Posey said UTPD will follow its usual protocol when students are arrested. The closest booking facility to the University is currently at Travis County Jail.

“We will continue to conduct business as usual unless Travis County requests we do something different,” Posey said.

Manley said the new booking center would help increase efficiency and allow more officers to spend time on patrol.  

“We believe that we will see some budget savings, budgetary savings to the taxpayer and officer morale will be greatly increased,” Manley said. “The sooner that we can book somebody, get them magistrated and book them into a location, the sooner we can get our officers back to responding to the calls for service from people of the city of Austin.”

According to Manley, since APD pays around $6 million per year to use the Travis County Jail, the new facility would help cut down on costs. 

Manley said the city is still exploring sources of funding for the center, although Council Member Mike Martinez suggested using interest from bond sales as one potential source of funding. 

APD plans to collect public input and further study the plan before presenting it to the City Council for a final vote, Manley said.

University and Austin police officers reported an aggravated assault by two armed suspects on Guadalupe Street on Monday evening.

APD officers responded after a call came in at 5:23 p.m. from an individual who was robbed at gunpoint in the 2600 block on Guadalupe.

In a text message alert sent out to the UT community, police described the suspects as two black males with a handgun in their possession, wearing do-rags and grills in their teeth.

“We always ask the community, students, faculty and staff to be very aware of their surroundings,” UTPD spokeswoman Cindy Posey said.

After urging people not to travel alone and to report any sightings of the two suspects immediately to 911, police later sent an all-clear message at 8:34 p.m. saying there was no longer a threat to the UT community because the suspects and the victim knew each other.  

In February, the UT community was collectively outraged when Austin police arrested a young woman after she jaywalked near campus. Amanda Jo Stephen — a petite 24-year-old with blonde pigtails who fits the very “definition of non-threatening,” as Texas Monthly put it — was jogging with earphones in, and couldn’t hear the officers when they yelled at her to stop. An officer then startled Stephen by grabbing her arm, and before long she was pinned to the ground and in handcuffs. Four other officers quickly arrived on the scene, shoved the young woman into the back of a cop car and hauled her off to the Travis County Jail, where she was booked for “failure to identify” and “failure to obey a pedestrian control device.”

The public outcry over Stephen’s arrest was swift and severe, and APD chief Art Acevedo’s response to the controversy was widely criticized. But while many people were surprised and shocked by what happened, I wasn’t.

In many ways, I am Amanda Jo Stephen. I am a 22-year-old UT student with (hopefully) a bright future ahead of me, and no criminal record behind me — that is, until I was arrested last September for “interference with public duties.” And just as in Stephen’s case, I committed no arrestable offense until my interaction with the police. I was at an apartment party in a small Texas college town, celebrating my girlfriend’s 21st birthday, when the cops came knocking at the door to investigate a noise complaint. At the time, I had just finished a summer internship with the ACLU, so I had Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure rights fresh on my mind: I refused to let the cops in without a search warrant. And as you might expect, the officers did not take too kindly to a smug lecture from a pain-in-the-ass wannabe law student. Things quickly escalated into a shouting match, and before I knew it, I too found myself in the back of a cop car and on my way to jail.

All that’s to say, this isn’t just about what happened to Stephen; her arrest for giving the cops a hard time was hardly an isolated incident.

Admittedly, I was a jerk to those cops. I’m not trying to condone disrespecting the police, as it’s clear that Stephen was doing — the video of the Stephen incident showed her kicking, screaming and dropping f-bombs as the officers struggled to place her under arrest. Some people are even suggesting that Stephen deliberately jaywalked in front of the cops in protest of an APD “pedestrian enforcement” sting, and Acevedo claimed that she “did the limp routine” just to be difficult. But while we need to treat police officers with respect — at least I learned a valuable lesson through the ordeal — we should be skeptical of these kinds of arrests. Her story and mine are both poignant instances of young people thrown into the criminal justice system simply because they took an attitude when interacting with a police officer. And as both stories seem to illustrate, if you piss off a cop, you could likely find yourself in jail, facing misdemeanor charges that will follow you for the rest of your life.

Although the media often reports on these types of arrests, there is seldom any coverage of the subsequent process of bonding out of jail, facing prosecution, plea-bargaining, paying fines, being on probation and then dealing with the consequences of having a criminal record — no matter how minor — for life. Local newspapers covered my incident, and despite my case being disposed — and my record soon to be wiped clean — those articles will be online and freely available to any potential employers for all of googleable eternity.

A low-level misdemeanor like “failure to identify” or “interference with public duties” can cost thousands of dollars and take a huge toll on a young person and her family through court costs, fines, attorney fees and lost job opportunities, among the many other disadvantages that come with having a criminal record. Is it right to do this to someone who hasn’t truly committed a crime other than disrespecting an officer?

According to Acevedo, Stephen was arrested and charged not because she jaywalked, but because she refused to identify herself or cooperate with the officer who detained her for crossing the street against the light. And while there is a statue on the books that makes it a crime to refuse to give your name to a cop if you’re under arrest, we need to think long and hard about spending resources on this type of policing. Officers should have — and indeed do have — discretion in making arrests, and they should exercise it to enforce more than just the strict “letter of the law.” Is it necessary to toss young people like Stephen or myself into an arguably broken judicial system that is already fraught with problems? The criminal justice system is entirely overburdened by low-level misdemeanor cases, so we need to be careful with what scarce resources we have; arresting young people for “contempt of cop” hardly constitutes a good use of those resources.

Ultimately, controversies like these only hurt relations between police and the public that officers are sworn to protect. And as Austin continues to grow — according to Forbes, it is the fastest-growing city in America — crime and safety will continue to be a pressing concern. APD needs to focus its efforts in the right places, not on protecting officers’ egos by arresting disrespectful jaywalkers. Police should learn from the public outcry over what happened in February and work to foster a better relationship with the public — which includes exercising the discretion to not arrest young people without due cause.

—30—

Nikolaides started at the Texan in the spring of 2013. He spent two semesters working as an opinion columnist and served this semester as an associate editor.

On Wednesday, two men were shot at a construction site at 1901 Rio Grande Street, according to Austin police. The construction site is marked with the red pin.

Two men were injured in a shooting around 11:45 a.m. at a construction site near the intersection of Rio Grande Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard, according to Austin police. 

UT officials sent a University-wide announcement about the incident via email at 12:38 p.m. According to the statement, no one connected with the University was involved in the incident.

“There is no threat to campus as both the victim and the suspect are in custody,” officials said in the email.

Anna Sabana, APD public information officer, said the department received a disturbance call at 11:43 a.m. and both of the injuries were gunshot wounds. Sabana said no one else was hurt.

Both men were transported to University Medical Center Brackenridge. Hospital officials said they could not give updates on the men’s conditions.

Biology junior Cecilia Vichier-Guerre said she drove by the scene shortly after the shots were fired.

“My mom heard about it first, then we were driving together and we saw all of the cop cars around the area,” Vichier-Guerre said. “There were a lot, maybe like 10 cop cars … they really had it down.”

Vichier-Guerre, who lives at the French House Co-op, about one block away from where the shooting took place, said the incident did not affect her sense of safety.

“It doesn’t make me feel any less safe or anything,” Vichier-Guerre said.

Radio-television-film senior Ivan Ovalle said he was surprised when he received the university email notification about the shooting.

“It sounded like the wild west or something,” Ovalle said. “It’s really bizarre.”  

The shooting occurred at the construction site for the Pointe On Rio, a six-story student housing complex. The contractor, General Contractor Skyline Commercial, Inc. was not available for comment.

Austin police have filed 20 charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon against 21-year old Rashad Charjuan Owens, who is accused of driving his car into a crowd at South by Southwest, an incident which resulted in four deaths.

Though Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said the police would charge Owens with aggravated assault immediately following the March 13 crash, those charges were not filed until Tuesday. Owens was charged with capital murder, defined in Texas as the death of two or more people, hours after the crash.

Each of the 20 aggravated assault charges carry a bond of of $100,000, in addition to Owens’ $3 million bond charge for capital murder.

Owens will appear in court on April 9.