"It Was An Execution": Nicolas Chavez Was On His Knees When Police Killed Him. His Father Wants Answers.
The Houston shooting has sparked more questions about use of force and what many experts call the failed promise of police body cameras.
By Keri Blakinger and Mike Hixenbaugh
HOUSTON — Two days after Houston police shot and killed his son outside a Mexican restaurant along a freeway on April 21, Joaquín Chavez got a text message that made his heart race. Someone had posted a cellphone video of the shooting online, and now it was spreading on social media.
This article was published in partnership with NBC News.
The grieving father sat down on his patio, and hit play.
Up until that moment, he only knew what police had said in their official statement. They had reported that his son, Nicolas, 27, who had a history of mental illness and drug addiction, had been darting in and out of traffic and holding a sharp piece of rebar, possibly trying to kill himself. After officers arrived that night they said Nicolas, a father of three, repeatedly charged at them, and at one point, got hold of one of their stun guns.
"Fearing for their lives," the statement said, repeating a phrase used often by police to justify deadly force, "officers discharged their duty weapons."
Although these moments were captured on dozens of body cameras worn by officers who responded to the scene, those videos were not shared with the public.
Instead, Chavez, 51, was learning the gruesome details from the cellphone video, filmed by a resident from across the street and later posted to YouTube. It appeared to show something different than what police had described, Chavez said. He dropped out of his chair as he watched the 47-second clip. Then he got angry.
"It was an execution," he said.
The video shows his son on his knees, with several officers standing around him, guns drawn. Having already been shot at least once at that point, according to police, Nicolas appears to grab something near his chest, possibly the probe of one of the stun guns that officers had fired at him. Then, suddenly, a flurry of gunshots ring out.
"They just mowed him down like a dog," Chavez said Monday, standing at the site of his son's killing nearly two months later. "That's what they did, and that's the part I don't understand. He was on his knees, already wounded. He wasn't a threat to anybody at that point."
The five officers who shot at Nicolas over the course of a 15-minute encounter with him remain on staff with the Houston Police Department pending the outcome of internal and external investigations.
Nicolas' death attracted no national media attention while many states were in COVID-19 lockdowns. But it has since drawn increased scrutiny from local activists and reporters after George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis last month sparked nationwide protests and calls for sweeping police reforms. The disturbing footage of multiple officers firing on a wounded man— who according to his family was in the midst of a mental health crisis—highlights a broader debate raging in the wake of Floyd's killing, about whether armed police should even be asked to respond to such calls.
Nicolas' encounter with the officers, which turned deadly, and the city's resistance to releasing the bodycam video of it to the public, also highlight what many experts regard as the failed promise of police cameras. In the wake of the Ferguson protests of 2014, following the killing of Michael Brown, a Black teen, by a white police officer, officer-worn cameras seemed like a high-tech means of improving police accountability. But even as departments across the country invested in the equipment, many have refused to release videos, which are instead used primarily to help prosecutors build cases against those arrested.
As was the case in Nicolas' killing, the only way the public ever sees most interactions with police—be it during protests or deadly shootings—is still from a bystander with a cellphone.
"So far, the evidence is not showing any improvement in policing as a result of the widespread presence of body cameras," said Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College, whose 2017 book "The End of Policing" has become a de-facto manifesto for protesters and advocates of police reform. "Many departments know this and continue to use them primarily for evidence gathering and to protect officers from misconduct allegations—and it's not clear how any of that is aiding the effort at police accountability."
"The truth is in the video"
Days after the cellphone video of Nicolas' killing surfaced, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo announced that he had asked the FBI to investigate. But in the weeks since, despite promises of increased transparency, he has declined to release his officers' body camera video from the incident. His department has also withheld video from five other deadly police shootings since late April, saying that doing so could jeopardize future legal proceedings or upset victims' family members.
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Acevedo was among several big-city police chiefs who drew national praise for marching with protesters and calling for reforms to improve police accountability after Floyd's death. But back home in Houston, he's faced criticism from activists and lawyers who say he has failed to deliver on those promises in his own department.
During one episode this month, angry protesters surrounded Acevedo in a heated confrontation downtown, dumping water on him and demanding to know why his department had refused to release video from deadly police shootings.
"You walk with Minnesota," one protester shouted. "Will you walk for what happens in Houston?"
A few days later, Acevedo held a press conference, along with Mayor Sylvester Turner, to defend the department's decision. The chief cited ongoing investigations into each of the recent shootings, and his fear that releasing the evidence could taint a grand jury pool if prosecutors decided to bring charges against any of his officers. But he focused primarily on what he said were the desires of three relatives of recent shooting victims – including Jessica Chavez, Nicolas' wife, who after reviewing the bodycam video, told police she didn't want it made public.
Jessica, who had married Nicolas a year earlier, did not respond to messages from reporters. But in an interview last month with KPRC-TV, an NBC affiliate in Houston, she said her husband "wasn't in his right mind" on the night of the shooting. Although he was lashing out, she said, she does not believe police "should have shot him the way they did."
She stood alongside Acevedo at the news conference.
"We needed to put a face on this issue," Acevedo said, draping his arm around her shoulder as she cried. "Once these videos are released, they go on these websites for generations of families to see, these snuff websites."
But Joaquín Chavez said nobody from the police department asked for his opinion prior to the news conference. He and other members of his family said they believe that all of the bodycam video should be shown to the public.
"The truth is in the video, and it needs to be released," he said. "Wrong, right or indifferent, that's my son. He shouldn't be dead. It doesn't matter what you did, you should not be killed the way he was."
On Thursday, weeks after Chavez went public with his concerns, Acevedo agreed to meet privately with him. Afterward, Chavez said he appreciated the chief taking nearly two hours to meet with him and showing him some of the police video, which he still believes should be made public.
"It was hard to watch, but I'm grateful that I did get to see the video and have an ability to converse with the chief," he said, noting that Acevedo has a difficult job. "He didn't pull the trigger, but his officers did, and he has to answer for them."
After reviewing the video, he said it's clear his son was deeply troubled, but he remains convinced that officers went too far at the end.
In an interview this week, prior to meeting with Chavez, Acevedo said he generally supports the release of body-camera video, but only after investigations are complete. Even then, he said, police agencies should take into account the wishes of grieving family members and find ways to balance transparency with sensitivity for those who have lost a loved one.
He said he hopes the Texas Legislature will establish clear guidelines for how and when departments release video.
"People forget that body-worn camera technology is still relatively new," Acevedo said. "I look forward to the Legislature actually taking on the issue and coming up with better defined rules of engagement so we all share similar policy across the state."
Critics point to failed promises
Other cities have been quicker to release videos from deadly encounters with police, especially in the weeks since Floyd's death. In New York this week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the New York City Police Department will now be required to release videos within 30 days when an officer kills or seriously injures someone.
And in Atlanta, police released bodycam video two days after an officer shot and killed Rayshard Brooks, 27, a Black father of four who'd fallen asleep in his car, outside a Wendy's restaurant last Friday evening. Brooks had wrested control of an officer's stun gun—the same justification Houston police gave for shooting Nicolas.
But after videos of Brooks' death were released, the case unfolded very differently. The Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields resigned, the officer who fired the deadly shots, Garrett Rolfe, was fired, and on Wednesday, a prosecutor charged him with felony murder.
To attorneys and police accountability experts, the idea of relying—as Acevedo did in th