A Houston grand jury on Tuesday declined to indict an off-duty police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black man in January. Anticipating protests, authorities set up barricades at the Houston courthouse, where a small group soon showed up shouting, “We ain’t gonna stop till people are free.”
The decision follows similar outcomes in cases where unarmed black men were killed by police in Missouri and New York. In Wisconsin, a prosecutor made the call this week not to charge an officer, though the case was never heard by a grand jury. The recent non-indictments in the police-involved killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner sparked nationwide demonstrations.
Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson said grand jurors failed to find probable cause that a crime was committed when Houston police officer Juventino Castro fatally shot 26-year-old Jordan Baker in January in an alleyway behind a shopping center. Castro was not on duty, but was in his police uniform, working security at a shopping strip where businesses had repeatedly been robbed. (Police officers across the country work off-duty for private security companies, and they retain their police powers while doing so.)
“I want to express my deepest sympathies to Janet Baker and the entire Baker family,” Anderson said in a statement, according to the Houston Chronicle. “I know they are disappointed, but the grand jury’s decision means they found that there was no probable cause to believe a crime was committed. It does not constitute an endorsement of the officer’s actions.”
It was already dark on Jan. 16 when Castro, who is Hispanic, reportedly saw Baker riding his bike through a strip center parking lot, looking into storefront windows, according to police reports. Castro thought Baker, who was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt, matched the description of some robbery suspects, ABC13 reported in January.
The police department said in a statement that Castro tried to stop Baker, which led to a struggle and short chase on foot. Police said Baker then stopped running, reached into waistband and charged at the officer.
Castro told investigators that, out of fear for his life, he pulled his gun and fired one shot, striking Baker. The issue before the grand jury prosecutors said was whether Castro fired in self-defense.
Baker’s mother, Janet Baker, said the crime was that her son was wrongfully profiled as a criminal.
“I intend to seek justice for Jordan,” she told the Houston Chronicle. “We just have a lot of work to do.”
Activists and lawmakers are on it. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) issued a statement, saying the case “may be an incident involving racial profiling and the use of excessive force.” The Baker family’s attorney, Sadiyah Evangelista, said she intends to file a federal complaint. Prosecutors have hired attorneys, reached out to the White House and called for a federal investigation into the case, KHOU-TV reported.
Baker’s mother Janet said he was a student at Houston Community College who had a son of his own. Although her son had gotten into trouble in high school, Janet Baker said it wasn’t bad enough to stain his record.
“He’s not the way they portrayed him,” she told ABC13 in January. “He’s a father. He’s a grandson. He’s a son. And he was just taken away.”
Castro, who had been on the police force for more than 10 years, was put on a three-day administrative duty. An internal investigation followed. Then came the grand jury deliberations. And this week he was cleared of any wrongdoing.
Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland Jr. said in a statement the police department will continue to look at its procedures.
We respect the grand jury’s decision in this case. This is certainly a tragic and unfortunate incident for the officer involved and the family of Jordan Baker. We will continue to evaluate our policies and training in an attempt to prevent these types of incidents in the future. We are in the process of developing a new foot pursuit policy designed to protect officers and the citizens they encounter. We place the highest priority on human life and we encourage anyone that has interactions with police to follow and obey the commands and instructions of officers. There is always a proper place and time to contest your arrest or file a police complaint. I have forwarded this investigation to the local office of the FBI for its review to ensure there are no civil rights violations.