By Jeffrey L. Boney
Special to the NNPA News Wire from Houston Forward Times
“Houston Police Department Officer Juventino Castro shot and killed Jordan Baker without any lawful justification.”
This is the first sentence that appears in a federal lawsuit filed in The United States District Court Southern District Of Texas against Houston Police Department (HPD) Officer Juventino Castro, the City of Houston, and RPI Management Company, LLC, who are the defendants in a case, by Janet Baker, the mother of Jordan Baker, an unarmed 26-year old Black man who was fatally shot by Officer Castro in January 2014.
The Houston Forward Times (HFT) has been covering the case of Jordan Baker since the very beginning and has been highlighting the concerns and requests of his mother, Janet Baker, who has called on the city of Houston to release video footage from the night of the incident for months. This past Wednesday, December 2nd, after protestors and activists called for the release of the video on that Monday, and on the day that Janet Baker and her attorneys filed the federal lawsuit, the city of Houston and HPD finally released the long-awaited 2014 video.
The Monday protests came on the heels of the arrest of a police officer in Chicago who has been charged with the first-degree murder of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old African American man who had been shot to death 13 months earlier. After two independent journalists and an attorney requested the video be released and sued to gain access to the video, a judge ordered the dashcam video be released, which subsequently contradicted the official account given by officers as to what happened on the night McDonald was shot. The released video shows McDonald walking away from officers and shows Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting McDonald 16 times, including several times after McDonald was already on the ground and posed no threat. In their official reports, officers claimed that even after McDonald had been shot by Van Dyke, that he tried to lift himself off the ground with a knife pointed toward the officers, and though he had been mortally wounded, still presented a threat.
In December 2014, the department officially recorded the shooting as a justifiable homicide, and nothing was done to hold anyone accountable for the death of McDonald until the video was released. Janet Baker and several community activists are hoping the release of the video and the lawsuit shed light on what truly happened to Jordan that night – and gets him justice.
“I had to move forward with this lawsuit in order to get justice for my son Jordan,” said Janet Baker. “My son had every right to be where he was. My son was unarmed and did not deserve to die. Jordan was racially profiled and considered a criminal. I believe that justice delayed is not justice denied. This is just another step in fighting for justice for Jordan.”
The federal lawsuit, filed on behalf of Jordan Baker, is being handled by Loevy & Loevy, a Chicago-based law firm, which has made police misconduct one of its primary specialty practice areas.
Although the video does not show footage of the actual shooting of Jordan, Loevy & Loevy attorney David Owens said that the video is crucial evidence in this case.
“It is important for us to understand why this confrontation happened in the first place,” said Owens during the Wednesday press conference outside the federal courthouse where the lawsuit was filed earlier that day. “Having this video gives us a glimpse as to some of the things that occurred that fateful night and we plan to review all videos to gain a better understanding.”
On January 16, 2014, Jordan Baker was riding his bike through the Northwest Houston strip mall where Officer Castro mistakenly identifying Jordan as a suspect. Officer Castro told investigators Jordan lunged at him and charged towards him, prompting him to discharge his weapon, firing the one shot that killed Jordan. Officer Castro, who was the only witness to the shooting death, was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation, and in December 2014, a Harris County grand jury decided not to indict Officer Castro.
Since the grand jury decision, Janet Baker has looked for answers to what happened to her son, while the city of Houston and HPD held on to the video footage for two years.
Many in the community found it coincidental that the city of Houston and HPD decided to release the video on the day the lawsuit was filed.
Community activist Deric Muhammad states that after the Monday protest, the city and HPD indicated that they would not release the video because they were bound by state law.
“Police officers may lie, but cameras don’t lie. The release of the police tapes in Chicago and Houston prove that the Code of Silence exists in every police department across America,” said Muhammad. “Why does it have to take protests, lawsuits and begging for the city of Houston and HPD to just do the right thing? Officer Castro has not been indicted and we needed for HPD to release the video so the public could see what really happened.”
Muhammad had warned that if the city of Houston and HPD refused to release the video immediately, that similar protests that took place on Michigan Ave in Chicago, regarding Laquan McDonald, would have happened right here in Houston.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker said the decision to release the footage was not related to the lawsuit and that she and her staff were not even aware of the lawsuit. Parker explained that her decision to release the video footage came after discussion among her staff, HPD and the city legal department, once HPD had completed its internal investigation.
“It has been the legal department’s position that because there is pending litigation we shouldn’t release it,” Parker said. “And I respect the legal department but I don’t always agree with them.”
Both Parker and HPD Charles McClelland described the decision to release the video as an effort toward “transparency” and Parker indicated the city needed to have a uniform policy on releasing any type of HPD-related video, especially there has been a lot of community concern and pushback concerning the recent vote by Houston City Council to purchase body-cameras, without having an effective policy in place that both the community and HPD agree upon.
The initial introduction of the federal lawsuit gives the community insight as to how Loevy & Loevy plan to tackle this case.
The Introduction reads:
1. Houston Police Department Officer Juventino Castro shot and killed Jordan Baker without any lawful justification. Before Defendant Castro shot Jordan Baker—a 26-year-old father and college student—he been simply riding his bike through a strip mall near his home. Baker had been committing no crimes at all. Nonetheless, Defendant Castro chose to confront Jordan Baker because he was an African American man wearing a hooded sweatshirt. That confrontation ended with Jordan Baker being murdered by Defendant Castro.
2. Because of his status as a police officer, Defendant Castro has not been held accountable for his actions. No criminal charges were ever filed, and he has not even been removed from the Houston police force.
3. Tragically, the shooting of an unarmed citizen by a member of the Houston Police Department was not an isolated incident. Instead, the City of Houston has experienced a rash of such police-involved shootings of unarmed individuals, and particularly African-Americans, in such a manner that they are de- facto City policy. Nonetheless, the City of Houston has not done anything to address the pervasive shooting of unarmed individuals by its officers. And, like Defendant Castro, the City has not been held accountable for its actions (and inactions) concerning the shooting of unarmed individuals by its officers.
4. This action, brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, seeks justice—and accountability—for the wrongful, unjustified killing of Jordan Baker and seeks to deter the wrongful, unjustified shootings of others at the hands of the Houston Police Department.
The Houston Forward Times will keep its readers up-to-date on the details surrounding this major development in the case we continue to cover, involving Jordan Baker.