AUSTIN, Texas — A five-year veteran of the Austin Police Department was wrong to shoot at a man who got out of his car during a traffic stop earlier this year, Chief Art Acevedo said Friday while explaining his decision to fire Officer Justin Boehm.
Boehm was driving behind James Barton when the Austin resident ran a red light at the intersection of East 12th Street and Airport Boulevard around 7:50 a.m. on May 8.
Boehm promptly pulled him over, and several seconds later, Barton got out of his truck.
Footage from the dashboard camera in Boehm's patrol car shows Barton walking toward Boehm and pulling a dark object from his pocket — his wallet — after the officer twice told him to "stay in the car." Boehm then shoots at Barton, missing, and starts yelling for him to stay in the car.
After jumping at the gunshot, Barton drops his wallet and gets into his truck. He was unarmed.
Pointing his gun at Barton, Boehm next orders him to get back out of the truck and lie facedown on the ground, where he remains until sirens wail and more officers arrive, handcuffing the 55-year-old and taking him away.
Barton, who is suing Boehm and the city of Austin in federal court, said he thinks Acevedo was smart to fire the officer.
"Austin is probably safer," he said. "The man almost killed me for what?"
Speaking to reporters last month, Barton said he got out of his car because he was taught to do so in driver's ed, to show the officer he wasn't dangerous. During an interview with detectives from the Police Department's special investigations unit after the shooting, he said he thought he was being pulled over for using his cellphone while driving.
"Is that officer off the street right now?" he then asked them. "'Cause he definitely has some issues."
Boehm's chain of command unanimously decided that the officer's use of deadly force against Barton was unreasonable, Acevedo said Friday, hours after Boehm's disciplinary hearing. What was "really disturbing," he said, was how Boehm acted even after he saw Barton had dropped a wallet, not a firearm.
The officer's conduct was not consistent with what the department expects, the chief said. "This is a profession where you don't get a bad day when it relates to deadly force."
Boehm will not face criminal charges.
Sgt. Wayne Vincent, president of the Austin Police Association, said that he agrees the shooting was a mistake but that he thinks firing Boehm was not the appropriate response.
"We believe this officer could have been re-trained, rehabilitated and we should have kept him," he said.
Boehm could appeal Acevedo's decision but Vincent said he's still weighing his options.
Both Police Monitor Margo Frasier and the city's citizen review panel recommended that Acevedo fire Boehm. In a memo to the chief, Frasier said Boehm's account of what happened doesn't correspond to what was captured on video, saying he has either made up a story to defend his use of force or that his statements to investigators actually reflect what he thinks happened.
"Officer Boehm does not possess the mental ability to successfully and effectively assess situations or circumstances and draw sound conclusions as required to safely carry out his duties," she said.
According to the city's civil service office, Acevedo last fired an officer involved in a shooting about a year ago. Christopher Allen lost his job in October 2012 after the officer ran after a car fleeing down a South Austin street while shooting at it. Allen's firing came a month after a Travis County grand jury declined to indict him on criminal charges.
Similarly, Acevedo's decision to fire Boehm came a week after a the district attorney announced that a grand jury had declined to indict him.
"Our department holds officers to standards that are higher than the law requires of them," Acevedo said. "This is a burden that we all take because it's a responsibility that we have to the community to ensure that when we use deadly force, it's done so consistent with our training, consistent with our policies."