Austin settles last police shooting lawsuits

December 12, 2008 4:28:26 AM PST
The Austin City Council has agreed to a $1 million settlement to resolve lawsuits brought by the family of Daniel Rocha, who was fatally shot by an Austin police officer three years ago, officials said. The settlement reached Thursday by unanimous vote concludes Austin's last unresolved officer shooting, according to Councilmembers Mike Martinez and Sheryl Cole.

"It won't bring my son back," said Daniela Rocha, Daniel's mother, "but at least it gives me some closure," the Austin American-Statesman reported Friday in an online story.

Rocha, 18, was shot on June 9, 2005 by officer Julie Schroeder during a traffic stop. Rocha was a passenger in a vehicle that had just left a house that police had under surveillance because of suspected drug activity.

Schroeder had said that Rocha resisted arrest and she shot him once. She thought he took her Taser stun gun and was going to use it against her or Sgt. Don Doyle, who arrived moments after Schroeder. The Taser was later found on the pavement.

A grand jury declined to indict Schroeder, and a report by the Austin Police Department's internal affairs unit did not sustain the allegation of excessive force. But then-Police Chief Stan Knee fired Schroeder after a disciplinary hearing at police headquarters, saying in a memo that the officer's action showed questionable judgment. Knee suspended Doyle for 28 days without pay for failing to properly use his patrol car video camera during the stop.

Knee noted in the memo that Schroeder did not have a "reasonable belief" that Rocha posed a serious threat to her or Doyle and did not use the minimum level of force necessary to arrest him. Knee also said that not only had Schroeder not properly secured her Taser, but she had an opportunity and an obligation to see whether Rocha had taken it before shooting him.

Schroeder appealed, but an arbitrator upheld Knee's decision.

Current Police Chief Art Acevedo lauded the council's decision Thursday.

"Litigating this matter further would keep a dark chapter in our history open, and slow the healing process," Acevedo wrote in an e-mail.

The Rocha settlement money comes from a reserve the city maintains to deal with liabilities. The settlement will not affect funding for general operations, Councilmember Lee Leffingwell said.

Last month, the council approved a $1 million settlement with the family of Kevin Alexander Brown, who was fatally shot by an officer last year.

The Rev. Sterling Lands, an activist who has been critical of Austin police, said the settlement is evidence that the relationship is improving between city leaders and East Austin.

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