Details that have emerged more than two months after a Texas police officer killed an unarmed man during a traffic stop still leave the unanswered question: Why did he pull the trigger?
Temple Officer Carmen DeCruz, 52, was charged with manslaughter Monday in the fatal shooting of Michael Dean, a black 28-year-old, in the city of 76,000 people about 70 miles (112 kilometers) northeast of Austin. Before then, Temple police had released little information about the Dec. 2 shooting.
An arrest affidavit released Monday details what can be seen on DeCruz’s vehicle and body cameras, though the footage hasn’t been released to the public.
The affidavit says video shows DeCruz approaching the vehicle with his handgun drawn. DeCruz, who is listed in jail records as American Indian, approaches Dean’s vehicle from the passenger side, ordering Dean to turn off the vehicle and give him the keys. The video shows DeCruz pull the keys with his left hand while his right hand, with his finger on the trigger, pulls backward. The gun fires, striking Dean in the head.
The Texas Rangers submitted the findings that led to the charge. The affidavit says Dean didn’t “stop immediately” when DeCruz tried to pull him over for speeding.
Interim Temple police Chief Jim Tobin said it “would not be the normal protocol” for an officer approaching someone pulled over for speeding to have a finger on the trigger of his gun.
Authorities have not said whether they interviewed DeCruz or what he might have told them. DeCruz remained jailed Wednesday on $500,000 bond. Court records don’t list an attorney for him.
However, Lee Merritt, an attorney representing Dean’s family, said Bell County District Attorney Henry Garza told him that he believes the shooting was accidental, based on the Texas Rangers’ investigation, and that’s why DeCruz is charged with manslaughter instead of murder.
“We get that that’s (DeCruz’s) defense,” Merritt said. “We don’t appreciate that the DA has accepted that defense in his charging decision. That’s just his defense.”
Garza would not answer questions Wednesday on the charging decision, saying in an email that since it’s an active investigation he’s limiting public comment.
Merritt said he and Dean’s family believe DeCruz should be charged with murder.
“The difference is intent: whether Carmen DeCruz intended to cause the death of Mr. Dean or not,” said Merritt, who has not seen video of the shooting.
In the weeks following the shooting, police had said that DeCruz shot Dean but did not explain the circumstances, including how the two men came into contact.
The lack of information led people to “fill that gap with what they think happened,” said Doree Collins, executive director of the youth-focused Un-Included Club and the education and children’s pastor at Impact Temple church.
Two reports Temple police filed Dec. 30 with the Texas attorney general’s office and made available on its website offered some details. One of the reports revealed that the shooting occurred during a traffic stop, and that Dean did not have a weapon. The other report said the pair had “an altercation of some sort.”
Asked about the use of the word “altercation,” Tobin said the reports were done early in the investigation. He did not explain why that word was used but indicated it would be revised.
Tobin said the Temple Police Department didn’t realize that the reports would be available to the public “as quick as they were doing it,” calling media coverage “a surprise.”
Collins said she’s been disappointed that police haven’t reached out more to allay fears and anxiety in the community. She said she doesn’t feel that police have given the community a clear message that such aggression by an officer “is not allowed here.”
“There is still work to be done to come to some resolve and some type of reconciliation because it’s not present yet,” Collins said.
Mayor Tim Davis said the city had feared putting out information that turned out to be untrue, but acknowledged that with the void of information, rumors spread.
“I would say that the city has learned that the more information that we can put out, the faster the better,” he said.
DeCruz, who was placed on administrative leave after the shooting, could face two to 20 years in prison if convicted of the manslaughter charge.