A grand jury has declined to indict a Houston Police Department officer who shot and killed 26-year-old Alfredo Gonzalez Garza last year during what his family said was a mental health crisis.
The grand jury issued a no-bill last week in the case of Officer Ivan Garcia, meaning the citizen jury did not find probable cause for charges, a Harris County District Attorney’s Office spokesperson confirmed Thursday.
Investigators said Garcia fatally shot Gonzalez Garza on Oct. 25, 2022, while responding to 911 calls describing a man with an American flag stopping traffic and breaking a car windshield with a flagpole in Spring Branch.
Video from a surveillance camera, which HPD released weeks after the shooting, showed grainy footage of Garcia on foot trailing Gonzalez Garza, who was carrying a large flag pole. HPD officials also said Gonzalez Garza was holding a knife, though the surveillance video does not clearly confirm the account and Garcia didn’t turn on his body-worn camera until after the shooting.
As the two walked down a sidewalk, Gonzalez Garza turned around and approached the officer. Within five seconds, Garcia fired his weapon in self-defense, HPD officials said. In radio traffic released by the department, Garcia shouted: “He’s coming right at me. He’s coming right at me. Hey bro, stop coming at me. Drop the knife.”
Body-worn camera footage from another officer who arrived after the shooting showed what appears to be a knife-like object on the sidewalk near Gonzalez Garza.
HPD officials did not respond to requests for comment on the grand jury decision on Thursday. Douglas Griffith, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, which represents Garcia, said Garcia was alone and had no time to call for backup.
“At that juncture, he had to do what he had to do to defend himself,” Griffith said.
However, Gonzalez Garza’s family criticized the city’s police department in November 2022 for the officer’s decision to not attempt other alternatives to violence during the encounter.
“There is no video that justifies, or proves to me why the policeman shot him,” Gonzalez Garza’s mother, Minerva Garza, said at a press conference last year.
Officers are legally justified in using deadly force if they have a reasonable belief that there is an imminent threat of serious harm or death to themselves or others, according to HPD policy and federal legal precedent.
Relatives also lamented the local government’s failure to provide mental health support for Gonzalez Garza, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent time in psychiatric centers. Garza described her son as a beloved church-going man until he developed several mental health issues.
“I looked for help for him, with the county and other places – nobody gave me the hope of help, nobody,” Garza said last year. “… It’s not fair. And I’m not satisfied with what the police have published. I want proof.”
At the time, she said, family members had been actively searching for Gonzalez Garza after he had spent the night with two people he described as friends.
Efforts to reach Gonzalez Garza’s relatives were not successful Thursday afternoon.
Cesar Espinosa, executive director of the Houston immigration advocacy nonprofit FIEL, said Thursday that Gonzalez Garza’s death shows police must respond better to Houstonians experiencing mental health crises. Espinosa’s organization helped Gonzalez Garza’s family speak publicly following the shooting.
Gonzalez Garza’s death, he said, calls for “more training on de-escalation tactics, more resources put towards mental health units or mental health experts.” Espinosa, who was a member of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s task force on police reform, said he fears that politicians’ focus on tough-on-crime policies overshadows the need to help those experiencing mental health crises.
Espinosa added that “we believe that we still don’t know for a fact” that Gonzalez Garza wielded a weapon at the time of the shooting.