The Austin police officer who shot and killed Michael Ramos last year has been charged with first-degree murder, the Travis County District Attorney's Office announced Thursday morning. It is the first known murder indictment for an Austin police officer in a use of force incident, the office said.
A warrant had been issued Wednesday for the arrest of Christopher Taylor with a bond set for $100,000, TCSO spokesperson Kristen Dark confirmed to the Texas Tribune. Taylor turned himself into the Travis County Jail and was released on bond within about a half hour around midnight, Dark said Thursday. His indictment states he cannot hold employment with access to a firearm, and he cannot possess personal firearms. An Austin Police Department spokesperson said Thursday afternoon Taylor is on unpaid administrative leave and turned in his gun.
"A decision on departmental discipline will not take place until the conclusion of the criminal proceedings," the spokesperson said.
Ramos, a 42-year-old Black and Hispanic man, was unarmed when he was shot by police last April at a southeast Austin apartment complex as he was driving out of a parking space. Months after his death, which spurred anti-police brutality protests in the city, the Austin Police Department released footage of the shooting.
The videos show officers ordering Ramos to exit his vehicle, hold his hands up and lift his shirt. He complied before inching back toward his car door, visibly distressed. He repeatedly yelled, asking what was going on, telling officers he did not have a gun and asking them not to shoot.
Seconds later, Officer Mitchell Pieper fired a lead pellet-filled bag, known as an impact munition, considered “less lethal” by police. Ramos then reentered his car and proceeded to drive. Taylor fired three rounds at the moving vehicle, killing Ramos. The same grand jury that heard Taylor's case opted not to indict Pieper on an aggravated assault charge.
The death became a rallying cry for protesters against police brutality in Texas. And weeks later, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis spurred months of ongoing protests against racial injustice across the country.
Former Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore originally planned to present Ramos’ case to a special grand jury in August, along with Javier Ambler’s — a man who died after being tased by law enforcement officers.
But she decided to allow newly elected District Attorney José Garza, who ran on a platform of police accountability, to present the cases after he defeated her in last year’s Democratic primary.
“Today we have taken a significant step towards justice for the Ramos family and for our community,” Garza said in a statement Thursday morning. “My heart continues to break for the Ramos family and we still have much work ahead of us, but we know that holding law enforcement accountable when they break the law is critical to restoring the trust of our community and to ensuring its safety.”
Taylor's attorneys, Ken Ervin & Doug O’Connell, said in a statement they were "disappointed but sadly not surprised" and accused Garza of making an "implied promise"of an indictment while he was still campaigning for his position. The Austin Police Association also issued a statement Thursday, saying it stood behind Taylor and that there was "overwhelming evidence" to show Taylor's conduct was within the law.
"We would remind Mr. Garza that his sworn duty is not to be an advocate for one party months before knowing the facts. It is to see that justice is done," Taylor's attorneys wrote. "Today’s indictment is not justice; it is the fulfillment of a campaign talking point and yet more evidence of anti-police bias."
It is rare for police officers to face murder charges in shootings or other fatal encounters, but several Texas cases in recent years have resulted in a murder conviction. In Dallas County, former Farmers Branch police officer Ken Johnson was given a 10-year sentence in 2018 for the off-duty shooting of 16-year-old Jose Cruz. Johnson chased Cruz down and shot him after the teen broke into his vehicle. The same year, former officer Roy Oliver was convicted of murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2018 after killing 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, a passenger in a car moving away from police. In 2019, former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger got 10 years in prison after fatally shooting Botham Jean in his own apartment. She said she mistook it for her own.
Hours after Taylor's indictment was announced, state Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, an Austin Democrat, announced her new bill in the Texas Legislature in honor of Ramos. The Mike Ramos Act would allow for more release of body camera footage of fatal police encounters. Under the bill, footage would first go to a local police oversight entity, if one existed in the jurisdiction, then to the officer’s attorneys and the family of the deceased, and then the public.
"Current law creates a presumption that law enforcement can withhold the release [of body camera footage]," Eckhardt said in a virtual press conference. "This language flips that ... The presumption is that it must be released. Law enforcement will then have to argue back from that why they think it should not be."
The bill would also implement a statewide policy and training guidelines on deescalation and allow the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement to more easily revoke officers’ licenses. Fellow Democratic Sens. Royce West and Borris Miles are joint authors on the bill. State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, is carrying a matching bill in the House.
Mike Ramos’ mother, Brenda, said Thursday that Taylor's indictment "is just a start." She said it meant everything to her that the bill would train police to deescalate confrontations.
“I’m his mom but anyone can hear the fear and confusion in his voice [in the body camera footage],” she said through tears.
“They just screamed and screamed with so many guns pointing at him,” she said.
The surge of protests last summer against police brutality against Black Americans also prompted a slew of policing legislation in Congress and states in the name of Floyd. Texas’ George Floyd Act was filed in the Legislature in November and is awaiting a hearing in a House committee. In part, the measure would ban chokeholds, limit when police can use force and require officers to intervene or render aid if another officer is using excessive force while on the job.
The deaths of Ramos and Floyd also prompted Austin City Council members to cut the city’s police department by nearly a third. About 7% of the budget was immediately cut and put into other city services, like emergency response and housing. The rest came from what so far has only been an accounting shift, moving money out from under the police department but funding the same services.
Gov. Greg Abbott and other Republican state leaders denounced the funding cut, making it a key political debate in the November election and in the current Legislature and pushing for lawmakers to "back the blue." The governor has made it a priority to halt budget cuts to police this legislative session, all while largely remaining silent on proposals to reform police behavior or tactics.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/03/10/Austin-police-mike-ramos-murder/.
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