Former Texas officer indicted in accidental shooting of sleeping man

 

CLUTE, Texas – At first, Reggie Rossow Jr. didn’t realize the “pop” that jarred him from his sleep and nearly rolled him off the bed was a gunshot.

It was the last thing he expected – to be lying in bed, sleeping, and get shot – especially by the officer who lives next-door. Yet that’s exactly what happened on Jan. 30, 2016, in Clute, 57 miles south of Houston, when Freeport police officer Matthew Gregory McInnis accidentally fired his gun through his apartment’s bedroom wall.

McInnis, then a 25-year-old rookie, resigned within days and was quietly indicted six months later for deadly conduct, a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by a fine up to $4,000, up to one year in jail, or both. His trial is set for late October.

It’s rare for officers to be indicted even after for shooting unarmed civilians in Texas or elsewhere in the U.S., and few recent prosecutions have led to convictions. Unlike two recent high-profile arrests and indictments of officers on felony murder charges in the Dallas area, McInnis’s misdemeanor arrest was never trumpeted in a press release nor in headlines.

Basic information on the case – one of Texas’ 330 officer-involved shootings in the past 22 months – was unearthed mainly because of a historic 2015 state law that requires police departments to report certain information on officer-involved shootings for the first time. It calls for the Texas Attorney General to collect and publish online one-page reports that reveal key details in how Texas officers use deadly force.

Fifty-six people – one out of every six people shot – were unarmed. Among unarmed victims of officer-involved shootings, African Americans are more often shot than those of other racial and ethnic groups. Rossow and 22 others – or 41 percent – were African American, while 20 were Anglos and 13 were Hispanic or Latino.

It is often those unarmed cases that most concern experts, law enforcement and advocates alike. Cases highlighted in this series have explored how factors like mental illness, race, loose dogs, protection of property and accidents contributed to fatal and non-fatal shootings statewide.

Even among all of those cases, the circumstances of Rossow’s shooting – at home and in his bed  – stand out.  

Barely awake, Rossow reached around and felt blood, and figured he’d somehow been cut. He was still groggy several minutes later when McInnis knocked on the apartment door and asked Rossow’s wife if something had happened. Then, McInnis identified himself as a Freeport police officer and admitted he’d fired his weapon, Rossow said in an interview.

The bullet McInnis fired tunneled through Rossow’s spleen, which had to be removed, leaving Rossow, then 35, susceptible to infection and inundated with $50,000 in medical bills, he said. It was the only time that Rossow had been shot, although as a hunter he’d been around guns his whole life and had even started teaching his 10-year-old son to hunt. He says the incident scarred him physically and mentally.

For weeks, Rossow recovered at a relative’s house and slept in a recliner. Back at home, he was uncomfortable living in an apartment filled with memories of the shooting, and moved to another unit in the same complex. Even in a new place, sleeping in a bed made him anxious.  

“When I moved apartments, it took me three days to figure out where I was going to put my bed and then I ended up sleeping on an air mattress,” he said in an interview 18 months after the shooting. “I just got a new bed, because every time I’d try to sleep in that bed – I just couldn’t sleep.”

McInnis continued living in the same apartment until he was arrested. Exactly what caused him to shoot through the wall remains a mystery.

The Freeport Police Department and Brazoria County District Attorney’s office have declined comment because of the pending case against McInnis

Clute Police Capt. Diane Turner, who investigated the shooting, said McInnis did undergo a drug and alcohol test, “but neither one was a factor.” She added that the weapon involved was McInnis’ duty weapon.  

McInnis had only been a licensed officer for six weeks when the shooting occurred. According to records from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, McInnis completed the College of the Mainland’s Basic Peace Officer Academy in December 2015 and was sworn into the Freeport Police Department days later.  In photos from a swearing-in ceremony, a fresh-faced McInnis is smiling shyly, flanked by his father Greg McInnis and mother Irma Romero McInnis, a former Galveston County Sheriff’s Department officer.

It was McInnis’ dream to be an officer, his father said during a brief interview outside the family’s home one evening while Matthew McInnis was still at work at a Houston-area waterpark

“My son is a wonderful person, and it’s a terrible thing that happened,” Greg McInnis said. “I pray about it every night.” It’s already been a long wait, as the trial has been delayed twice.

McInnis did not respond to multiple interview requests. But his defense attorney Charles Adams said he rejected a plea deal and doesn’t think McInnis is guilty. “This is different from your typical police shooting,” Adams said.  

UNTOLD STORIES

The charge against McInnis wasn’t headline news, nor was Rossow’s injury. His name was never made public, he said, and coworkers thought he just didn’t shown up to work. He’d been about to start a new job and had let his health insurance lapse.

He was injured through no fault of his own, but has been stuck with the medical bills. A lawyer who looked into his case said there was no one to collect damages from since McInnis was off-duty and the incident would not be covered by city insurance.

“It’s just felt this whole time like nobody really cares,” Rossow said.

The state’s newly-required officer-involved shooting reports featured in this series shed light his case and other previously unknown cases that reveal how and why unarmed people were shot by Texas police officers.

And some of those stories have already contributed to reforms.

In October, readers were introduced to Garrett Steven McKinney, a 21-year-old shot and killed in an altercation with a Texas Department of Public Safety officer outside of a regional hospital. McKinney’s family said he was there to seek mental health treatment, causing some to push for better training for law enforcement

During the Spring legislative session, lawmakers upped the required 16 hours of mental health training for all Texas peace officers to 40 as part of a law named for Sandra Bland, who died in a Waller County jail cell days in another controversial arrest and in-custody death that had received national attention.

Another story in this series revealed that Texas departments had failed to report at least= a dozen additional fatal shootings. That story bolstered arguments to tighten the statewide reporting requirement and lawmakers approved fines for departments that break the law.

Only Texas and California require police departments to file reports when officers get shot or when officers shot civilians on-duty or off-duty.

“Texas has the opportunity to lead the nation in transparency and accountability in policing,” said the law’s author, Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas. “We made great strides by passing a law last session to require officer-involved shootings and peace officer injuries and deaths to be reported, but need to make sure our data is complete.”

PUNISHMENTS

Few officer-involved shootings even of unarmed subjects since September 2015 have resulted in the prosecution or even punishment of an officer, a review of dozens of cases statewide shows.

The reasons vary. Officers, like other citizens, are permitted to use deadly force in self-defense. Peace officers in Texas are also justified in using deadly force if they believe it is immediately necessary to make or assist in making an arrest or search, or to prevent escape if they reasonably believe their life or someone else’s life is in danger.

“The law, in a lot of these cases, tends to maybe favor the officers – it’s tough to overcome a lot of the defenses,” said former Harris County Assistant District Attorney Julian Ramirez, who  oversaw reviews of several dozen officer-involved shootings annually before leaving office  this year “Also, I think most people tend to be sympathetic towards officers and are going to afford their version of events, and their testimony, great weight.”

While district attorneys handle things somewhat differently statewide, in larger counties, officer-involved shooting cases are reviewed by a specialized unit. In Dallas and Harris Counties, all of the cases are then presented to a grand jury, which chooses whether to indict based on any allegations of violations of Texas laws. Travis and Bexar County present only selected cases to grand juries. (see graphic).

Police departments separately conduct internal affairs investigations to decide whether to impose punishments for violations of policies, such as excessive or improper use of force or improper pursuit procedures. Often departments wait to make disciplinary decisions until criminal probes are complete – but not always.

In March 2016, Austin police officer Geoffrey Freeman was fired for violating several department policies when he shot and killed a naked African-American teenager running towards him.

But in May 2016 a grand jury declined to indict him in the shooting of David Joseph, who was unarmed. Freeman appealed his termination and the city settled the dispute in December 2016, paying the officer$35,000 and classifying his termination as a “general discharge,” allowing him to keep his peace officer’s license.

In February, the City of Austin separately paid Joseph’s relatives $3.25 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit.

Art Acevedo’s decision as Austin Police Chief to fire Freeman before the grand jury probe was complete upset the local union and caused a rift between administration and rank-and-file.

Still, Acevedo, who is now Houston Police chief, insists that it was the right thing, and speculates that he would won the dispute over Freeman’s firing had it gone to mediation.

“It is a freaky thing to have a naked guy running at you full speed. But freaking out is not what we want officers to do,” he said in an interview. “Well-trained officers respond appropriately with the level of force that’s appropriate to the totality of the circumstances.”

By requiring all agencies to file shooting reports with the attorney general’s office, Texas continues to stand apart from other states in transparency in officer-involved shootings, though California later adopted a similar law.

Acevedo said the data-collection and other scrutiny of law enforcement behavior is inevitable and should be expected.

“We live in a democracy, and the most serious thing we can do is actually take or try to take the life of a human being as police officers,” he said. “The more we can do to try to make people understand the scrutiny they’re going to be under in the unlikely event that they’re going to be involved in a deadly force situation, the better.”

Philip M. Stinson, a Bowling Green State University associate professor of criminal justice, tracks prosecutions of officers for on-duty fatal shootings nationwide. This year, four officers, including one from Texas, have been charged with murder. A second Texas officer was charged criminally last year in an off-duty shooting. Both prosecutions occurred in Dallas County.

The victims in those cases were unarmed teenagers and were shot by officers while driving or riding in vehicles in Dallas suburbs. Both arrests happened swiftly.

Roy Oliver shot a rifle into a car full of teenagers driving away from a party in early May, killing Jordan Edwards, 15. Within days, the Balch Springs Police officer was fired and arrested on a charge of murder by the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department. In July, a grand jury indicted Oliver for one count of murder and four counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon by a public servant,

Similarly, days after off-duty Farmers Branch police officer Ken Johnson chased and then shot two teenagers in March 2016, killing one and wounding the other, he too was arrested on charges of murder and aggravated assault. Addison police “had probable cause to make the arrest,” for the death of Jose Raul Cruz and injury of Edgar Rodriguez, Chief Paul Spencer said in a statement, and a grand jury indicted him on the charges. Johnson, who was also fired, faces a September trial for the March 2016 shooting, which occurred after Johnson chased the pair in and crashed into them in his personal vehicle. Johnson has said he pursued the pair because he suspected them of breaking into his vehicle. Neither was armed.

There was no immediate arrest in the case involving  McInnis. A half-year passed before the officer was indicted on the misdemeanor charge for shooting his neighbor through the apartment wall. He was arrested, and some time after he was released from jail on a $15,000 bond, he left flowers and an apology note at Rossow’s new apartment door one building over.

Rossow had never previously heard from McInnis or from his former police department. He’s received no compensation from either the ex-officer or the city of Freeport. Like many others wounded by police officers, he’s gotten no compensation as a crime victim either and remains stuck with medical bills.

Upon seeing who the gift was from, Rossow threw it in the trash.

Join Point of Impact’s email list today at www.pointofimpacttx.com, and follow the series on Twitter @POI_TX. This project is sponsored by a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation.  

 



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