National Police Misconduct Reporting Project

Witnesses Dispute Police Story About a Shooting

From the Houston Chronicle:

A man killed by a Houston police officer had his hands in the air when he was fatally shot, witnesses said, disputing the official account of the incident.

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.

On Tuesday, two people disputed that account.

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.

Lara, who doesn’t speak English, did not stop the first time, Ruvio said. Eventually, he put both hands up against the wall of a vacant store, facing his back to the officers.

“He didn’t have his hands in his pocket or his shirt,” said Ruvio, who remained with Lara throughout the event.

A second witness, 14-year-old Rigoberto Rubio, who was buying water from a machine nearby, said he also saw Lara with both hands against the wall. The teenager said he didn’t know Lara personally.

Suddenly, Lara turned around to face the officers and was shot fatally by McGowan, Ruvio said, his hands still suspended in the air.

Stunned at the scene, Ruvio yelled to McGowan that she had killed an innocent person, and McGowan responded that “he had drawn out a gun.”

McGowan then proceeded to tear Lara’s shirt open and take off his shoes, said Ruvio. No weapon was found.

Ruvio brought out her phone to take a video of the scene, she said, but an officer seized it from her, telling her she was not to record anything.

On Tuesday, Houston police declined to comment about the allegations, citing the HPD internal affairs investigation into the shooting.

HPD chief Charles McClelland released a statement offering his condolences to the family.

“The Houston Police Department places the highest value on the preservation of human life. Police officers have the difficult task of making split-second decisions to keep themselves and others safe on a daily basis,” McClelland said.

He noted that a Harris County grand jury will also hear evidence in the shooting. HPD and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office are also investigating.

“The investigation will be open and transparent, and we ask that the public withhold judgment until all the facts and evidence has been gathered and the investigation is complete,” McClelland said.

Family members, witnesses and community activists attended the news conference arranged by the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice.

“He wasn’t a troublemaker,” said Lara’s nephew, Jose Lara. “This was cold-blooded murder.”

Lara’s criminal record consists of two misdemeanors – trespassing and giving false information to a police officer.

“These officers are never ever called to justice,” said Ovide Duncantell, director of the Black Heritage Society. “We need a police review board … because somebody we paid and trusted to defend us is killing us.”

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