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Concerns raised after recent fatal Houston police shootings

May 15, 2020 GMT

HOUSTON (AP) — Some community activists in Houston called Friday for greater transparency from the city’s police department after four fatal shootings by officers within the last month.

“We are very concerned. We need answers,” said Johnny Mata, a longtime activist with the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice, an umbrella organization of more than two dozen civil rights groups in the Houston area.

But Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo pushed back, saying that his department values transparency and having a relationship with the community it patrols that is guided by trust.

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“This is not an us versus them police department,” Acevedo said at a news conference Friday. “This is a police department that tries to be appropriate ... But we’re also a police department that wants to be as transparent as possible and a police department that is proud of our relationship with this community.”

The first deadly shooting in the recent spike took place on April 21 when police say 27-year-old Nicolas Chavez was killed after he refused officers’ commands and continued to lunge with a piece of metal in his hands at officers even after being shot with a taser gun and wounded by bullets. Chavez’s family has told reporters he suffered from mental illness. Video taken by a witness appeared to show Chavez on his knees before he was shot. Acevedo has said while the video raises questions, it was only one moment of a long confrontation.

On April 27, 28-year-old Christopher Aguirre was fatally shot after police say he was firing a gun in front of a home and then later pointed his weapon at officers.

On May 8, 48-year old Adrian Medearis was fatally shot after police say he became involved in a “violent struggle” with an officer while being arrested for driving while intoxicated.

On Thursday evening, a 30-year-old man was killed after police say he ignored repeated requests from an officer, forcing the officer to retreat and later fire his weapon when the suspect reached for a gun in his waistband. Police later determined the weapon was a BB gun, but Acevedo said it was a replica of a 9mm handgun that anybody would think was a real gun. In a 911 call played for reporters Friday, a woman can be heard telling an operator that “the officer didn’t have a choice.”

After Thursday’s shooting, Acevedo credited the training officers undergo as one of the reasons for a drop in such incidents. In recent years, officer involved shootings in Houston had climbed to 49 in 2009. They fell to 15 in 2017 before slightly increasing to 21 last year.

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So far this year, there have been 11 officer-involved shootings, but none had been deadly until the start of this recent spike on April 21.

“At the end of the day, it’s not the number of shootings that we look at. It is the objective reasonableness, the evidence and the appropriateness of the use of force,” Acevedo said. “We will investigate this thoroughly like we always do.”

Mata said the recent deadly shootings have prompted his organization to again call for the creation of an independent police review board with subpoena powers. Currently all police shootings are reviewed by the department and prosecutors. The police department was scrutinized last year after a couple was killed during a drug raid. One of the ex-officers involved was later indicted for murder in the couple’s deaths.

“What we’re talking about is creating more transparency. We’re not anti-police,” Mata said.

Mata called on the release of all body camera footage from these shootings.

Acevedo has touted his department’s use of body cameras as a way to “bring transparency to this process.” Acevedo has said the footage from the shootings will be released as soon as the investigations are complete.

“We know police officers have stressful jobs. But we need to look at the whole picture and make sure that we don’t have continuing spikes or deaths,” Mata said.

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Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70