By BRAD ROLLINS
A deputy constable campaigning for his retiring boss’s job is having to explain an encounter nearly a year and a half ago when he twice used a Taser on a mentally disturbed 19-year-old man handcuffed and confined in the back seat of a patrol car.
» Chief Deputy Constable Stephen Velasquez’s narrative
Pct. 1 Chief Deputy Constable Stephen Velasquez was not criminally charged or even internally reprimanded for employing the Taser on a restrained Jonathan Gonzales, who was detained Aug. 29, 2006 after flagging down another deputy constable on Old Stagecoach Road and asking for a ride to his San Marcos home. The next day, Gonzales was shot and killed by San Marcos police officer Tracy Frans in front of his Gravel Street house as he threatened to stab his mother with a dinner fork. Frans was not charged either. A Hays County grand jury declined to indict the officer, who police brass said acted appropriately to prevent serious bodily injury to Gonzales’ mother, Rosita Pineda.
But campaigning in heavily Latino precinct 1 where three people have been killed by law enforcement officers in less than two years, Velasquez is selling a version of the Tasing episode that contradict his colleague’s accounts and even differs from his own official statement written within a day of the incident.
“I was just trying to calm him down and took the Taser and held it about an inch from him,” after Gonzales began kicking the inside back door of the constable’s car where he was being held, Velasquez said in an interview on Wednesday. “I told him I would Tase him if he didn’t calm down. He kept fidgeting so I activated the Taser. All they could hear outside [the car] was the electricity buzzing and it sounded like I Tased him, but it didn’t make contact.”
Gonzales stopped thrashing around in the back seat for a moment but when he resumed the ruckus, Velasquez said he returned to the car again.
“He started kicking he back door and also kicking the windows again so I went back and told him to settle down again. I held it about an inch, inch-and-a-half away from him and he pushed into my Taser about the time I pulled the trigger. It kind of brushed up against his shirt but he all he said was ‘ouch’ — just like that. If it had hit him, I guarantee you he would have said more than that,” Velasquez said.
In his written narrative dated Sept. 1, 2006, a day after the incident, Velasquez says he warned Gonzales three times not to kick the patrol car’s door and window. “At that time, Mr Gonzales was dry stunned, Mr Gonzales pushed against my Taser and was dry stunned again, in which both were not more than 1-2 seconds.”
The account is significantly different from that of deputy constable Clemente Verastegui, who came across Gonzales walking near Five Mile Dam park, thought he was acting suspiciously and detained him for identification and questioning. Gonzales started kicking the door shortly after Verastegui arrived on the scene.
“Maybe a two second ride will settle him down,” Velasquez said, according to Verastegui’s three-page written narrative supplement to an incident report.
“I wouldn’t if I were you,” a sheriff’s deputy told Velasquez, Verastegui wrote.
“Chief Deputy Velasquez drew his Taser out of his holster and took the cartridge off, opened the car door and put the Taser up against Jonathan’s chest. I could not make out what Velasquez was telling Jonathan inside the vehicle. I then heard the sound of a Taser burst for approximately one to two seconds. I also heard Jonathan yell ‘owww.’ Deputy [Ray] Helm and I looked over at each other and walked up to the car to see what was going on,” Verastegui wrote.
“I told him I was going to let him have it,” Velasquez said as he closed the car door, Verastegui wrote. “Jonathan began to kick to the inside of the door again. Velasquez opened the door, pulled out his Taser in the same manner as before and Tased Jonathan for one or two seconds. Once again I heard Jonathan yell out, ‘owww'”
Though not as detailed, Helm’s account also states, “The male subject began to kick the inside of the patrol unit. Chief Deputy Velasquez began to taze (sic) the subject twice for compliance.”
Verastegui took Gonzales home after the incident and released him to his mother, Rosita Pineda, who told officers her son was going through “a bad break up with his girlfriend and was having a hard time dealing with it,” Verastegui wrote. She also told officers that she believed her son was possibly schizophrenic and bipolar but was not on medication and had not seen a doctor, the report states.
While proponents of Tasers say the instrument helps police subdue dangerous suspects while avoiding injury to themselves and the suspect, their use has come under scrutiny in recent years as more law enforcement agencies issue them to officers.
The constable’s offices does not have written policies on the use of force on subjects in its officers’ custody but many agencies prohibit the use of Tasers or other “less-lethal” force on people suspected of misdemeanors or people who are not under arrest. (Gonzales was being detained and was not arrested). Other law enforcement agencies prohibit Taser’s use on handcuffed or otherwise restrained suspects.
Other departmental guidelines give officers more discretion. The San Marcos Police Department’s use of force policy, for example, allows officers to use chemical agents or electronic devices like Tasers when “The person may be attempting to physically attack the officer or blatantly refusing to comply with verbal commands.”
But in determining what is reasonable, the policy states, officers “must first consider their own age, size, strength, skill level with department-approved weapons, state of health and the number of officers as opposed to the number of actors. Based on the reasonableness standard, the following considerations contribute to a determination of excessive force: (a) The severity of the crime; (b) the nature and extent of the threat posed by the suspect; (c) the degree to which the suspect resists arrest or detention; and (d) any attempts by the suspect to evade arrest by flight.”
Velasquez is seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for the constable job in the March 4 primary against Hays County Sheriff’s Deputy David Peterson. They are vying to replace Pct. 1 Constable Lupe Cruz, is running for Justice of the Peace, Pct. 1, Place 1 against incumbent Joanne Prado.
Gonzales’ run-in with the constable’s office on Aug. 29 was bracketed by the fatal encounter with San Marcos police the next day and one with Kyle police the day before, on Aug. 28. Kyle police were called to the family home of Gonzales’ girlfriend, Amillia Gomez. Gomez locked herself in the bathroom, she told police, when Gonzales became agitated and threatening, at one point cutting his arm with a knife. In that case, too, police took Gonzales home and advised his mother to seek mental health treatment for the teenager, who was arrested at least nine times starting when he was 12. In 2002, during one of several stays in Texas Youth Commission juvenile centers and mental health facilities, he was diagnosed with attention and personality disorders.
Cruz, who is supporting Velasquez as his replacement, defended his chief deputy during an interview six weeks after the incident. “We do the best we can with the training that we’ve had. …We’re not mental health experts,” Cruz said.