Houston Police Kill Unarmed Man, Allegedly Took Witness' Cellphone When She Tried to Record


On July 9, Houston police fatally shot Rufino Lara. Police are asking media and citizens to hold onto their opinions until the investigation is completed, but in the meantime we do know that two witnesses (one of whom, a 14-year-old boy, didn't know Lara) are disputing police officers' account of the confrontation.

According to the Houston Chronicle: 

Houston Police Department officials said Rufino Lara refused officer J. McGowan's commands in Spanish and English to stop when she spotted him walking away while she was investigating an assault Monday afternoon. He kept one of his hands tucked under his shirt, police said. When he turned around suddenly with his hand still under his shirt, McGowan shot him once, killing him, police said.

Florida Ruvio, a family friend, bumped into Lara on his way back from a liquor store near the 7000 block of Bissonnet near Fondren in southwest Houston. Lara told her that some men were chasing him with a knife and asked her to call police.

When two officers arrived to investigate the assault report, they approached Lara, asking him to stop and put his hands up.

"They were speaking to him in English only," Ruvio said at a news conference

In an all-too-familiar detail, there are also reports that a cellphone with which Ruvio attempted to film the aftermath of the shooting was taken from her. Police have not released the video, if it still exists or if it show anything relevant. However, the theft of the phone provoked harsh criticism from the Texas branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Via Carlos Miller's Photography is Not a Crime, the Texas ACLU's official statement included:

"It's a shame we can't see the video the witness reportedly tried to make," ACLU of Texas Executive Director Terri Burke stated in a press release.

"Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland has asked for the public to withhold judgment about the shooting. The right of Texans to record police activity in a manner that does not interfere with police work is an important protection against abuses of power by the government. The behavior of some members of the local police department might be less suspect if officers showed more respect for the Constitution, and, in this instance, the First Amendment."

It's early yet, but the differing accounts are problematic, especially with the accusation that the phone was taken. (The 14-year-old also says he saw Lara with his back against the wall and his hands up).

And in general, it's always particularly disturbing when the person who called for help from police is the one who ends up dead.

A few days ago, a CBS affiliate in Dallas reported that the Texas ACLU is also interested in a SmartPhone app (developed in New Jersey) that helps citizens covertly record police stops, saying it should be be nice and legal in the state, since Texas is a one party-consent state when it comes to recording. (As opposed to, say, Illinois and their two-party consent mandate, which has provoked many a Reason-covered horror story.)

"It appears to be the same basic principle that you can record a conversation in most states in which you're participating," explained [Dallas attorney John] Teakell.

What makes this app different from a simple camera phone is that the app disappears from the screen when activated, so that it can't be switched off by a police officer. The recordings are then stored in an area of the phone that most officers would have trouble finding or deleting. From there, the recordings can be automatically uploaded to a secure ACLU server as a back-up.

Though it's hard to know if this app would have been any use to Rufino Lara or the woman who tried to help document the circumstances of his death, (cops can still break or grab a phone in the middle of recording and such) every little bit of tech helps when one side of has the ability to use legal deadly force. 

Reason on the war on cameras, and ReasonTV on the same, as well as camera and new media in the Kelly Thomas case