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Houston Police Chief Who Called Michael Bennett ‘Morally Corrupt’ is Quiet on Police Brutality

NFL defensive lineman Michael Bennett
Jeffrey Beall / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0

Houston Police Chief Who Called Michael Bennett ‘Morally Corrupt’ is Quiet on Police Brutality

On Sept. 6, 2017, then-Seattle Seahawks player Michael Bennett penned a letter describing, in excruciating detail, how Las Vegas police officers physically assaulted him while investigating shots fired in the area of the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight. According to Bennett, officers ordered him to the ground, placed a gun to his head, threatened to blow it off, and jammed a knee into Bennett’s back. “Las Vegas police officers singled me out and pointed their guns at me for doing nothing more than simply being a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he wrote. Bennett’s letter sparked another massive national conversation about racial profiling and police violence towards people of color.

Shortly thereafter, a Houston detective started investigating a seven-month-old incident purportedly involving Bennett. Police alleged that in February 2017, while trying to get onto the field at NRG Stadium to celebrate his brother’s Super Bowl win, Bennett shoved past two women, including a 66-year-old paraplegic woman in a wheelchair. According to the police, the women tried to stop Bennett from getting on the field, but he forced his way past them while shouting expletives, spraining the 66-year-old’s shoulder.

Police did not start their official investigation that night, or the next night, or even the next. They did not search for or talk to Bennett, even though they could have easily found him taking photos and giving interviews on the field. They did not take pictures of the complainant on the scene. Only in May — four months later and after memories had faded — did the case get assigned to the investigating detective. And only in September, after Bennett went public with his story about the state of policing in America, did the Houston Police Department actually start investigating the case.

Last Friday, over a year after the alleged incident and just before Bennett’s release of his book Things That Make White People Uncomfortable, a Harris County grand jury issued an indictment charging Bennett with “injury to an elderly individual,” a third-degree felony that carries a punishment of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. The basis for this potentially long sentence? “[P]ushing her arm and body with his hands.” Bennett turned himself in on Monday, and after being taken to the Harris County jail, posted a $10,000 bond.

Bennett’s supportersincluding Olympic medalist John Carlos and author Cornel West, have accused the police and District Attorney Kim Ogg of charging Bennett because he is a Black man who speaks his mind and regularly brings attention to issues of police brutality.

“Michael Bennett follows the long history and tradition of athlete activism, from working to transform the justice system to advocating for women’s rights,” Mike de la Rocha, co-founder of Revolve Impact, a social justice group, told The Appeal. “Legendary athletes such as Muhammad Ali and John Carlos were disparaged by many in their day for using their platform to speak out against racism and injustice. Unfortunately, the tactics of the past continue today as Michael is being vilified for speaking out.”

And there are serious reasons — even beyond the timing of the investigation and the indictment — for his supporters’ vocal concern.

For one thing, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo held what critics consideredan outrageous press conference on Friday, during which he called Bennett “morally corrupt” and “morally bankrupt.” The Texas Rules of Professional Responsibility require lawyers to refrain from public attacks on “the character” of a potential defendant — lest their statements poison the public perception and a jury pool — and they also require the DA, where “feasible,” to “make reasonable efforts to discourage [law enforcement] from making statements of that kind.” Either Ogg didn’t follow this rule, or Acevedo ignored her. Either way, critics say, the police chief should know better. Acevedo did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Appeal.

Acevedo also misrepresented the incident during his press conference, claiming that Bennett knocked the 66-year-old woman “on her butt.” That description seemed to surprise reporters. And it was false. Moments later, the detective on the case carefully walked back the claim, explaining that the woman sat in an 800-pound wheelchair that did not, in fact, fall or topple over. Bennett instead “pushed her back and kind of strained her shoulder,” the detective said.

Bennett’s supporters say Acevedo’s characterization of him as “morally bankrupt” is not just unfair, but wrong. Bennett runs free sports camps for underprivileged families, his foundation works to combat child obesity, and, in 2017, he pledged to donate all of his endorsement money to aid programs focused on communities of color and women of color.

Acevedo’s comments were particularly striking given that he has refrained from using such harsh language when describing other serious incidents — notably, those involving police use of force. In Austin, where he previously served as police chief, an eyewitness saw officers forcing a jogger to the ground after stopping her for jaywalking. Video then captured her screaming as they forced her, handcuffed, into the police car. But Acevedo was shockingly dismissive of public scrutiny of his officers: “Cops are actually committing sexual assaults on duty, so I thank God that this is what passes for controversy in Austin, Texas.” (He later apologized.)

Nor did Acevedo publicly lash out after several officers in Austin shoved a Black man to the ground and punched him, and then took another Black manto the ground for, again, jaywalking, an incident captured on video that went viral. Instead, Acevedo, at the recommendation of the Internal Affairs Division, eventually dismissed the complaint lodged against the officers. And when other officers got caught making a joke about rape in their police car, Acevedo suspended them briefly but stated that their “participation in an unprofessional and inappropriate conversation,” which he also characterized as “inappropriate humor,” was not reflective of [their] total work performance or work product.”

Acevedo himself has also come under fire. In 2004, he was accused by a female co-worker with whom he allegedly had an affair of taking naked photos of her and then showing them to his co-workers. The woman sued, and the two settled out of court. (Acevedo has claimed this was a smear campaign.)

Acevedo aside, the district attorney’s behavior in this case has also raised concerns that law enforcement is singling out Bennett. District attorneys have enormous discretion. They can always dismiss a case if they decide it’s a waste of resources and the suspect isn’t dangerous — a label that many say obviously fits Bennett given that no one rushed to arrest him for 14 months. Here, the DA could have easily charged the case as a misdemeanor assault, an offense carrying a penalty of up to one year in jail and no more than a $4,000 fine. But instead, Ogg’s office requested an enhanced charge — injury to the elderly — which would result in a felony conviction and up to a 10-year prison term. Her office did not respond to a request for comment from The Appeal.

There is much about this case that remains uncertain. The public does not have access to the medical records or police report. And critically, the defense is just starting its own investigation — albeit one hampered by the passage of time. But one thing is certain, critics say: This is not a normal case, and like many Black men in the justice system, Michael Bennett is not getting a fair shot.

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