Four years ago, Jose Vasquez stood on a front lawn with his hands in the air as a Fort Worth police officer stepped toward him and punched him in the face, breaking his nose. A settlement was reached in the subsequent lawsuit against the officer and the city of Fort Worth at the end of October.
The city of Fort Worth was dismissed as a defendant from the suit, which was filed in May 2018 in the Fort Worth division of U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, in September. The settlement — the terms of which were not publicly available — was officially filed on Oct. 29, about three weeks after Vasquez died from COVID-19. The city paid the undisclosed settlement amount.
Body camera footage obtained by the Star-Telegram shows Officer Justin Landon punch Vasquez in the face as Vasquez stands with his hands up, surrounded by officers. Landon took a photo of Vasquez’s bloody face and showed it to other officers, according to the lawsuit filed by Vasquez.
“Despite the Fort Worth Police Department failing to find Officer Landon at fault for his use of force against Mr. Vasquez,” Vasquez’s attorney James Roberts said of the settlement, “the City’s decision to settle this case demonstrates that they took this matter seriously and wished to avoid the likely outcome at a trial.”
Landon’s attorney, Kenneth East, emphasized in a statement that the settlement does not indicate an admission of wrongdoing.
“We were sorry to learn of Mr. Vasquez’s recent passing,” East said. “Regarding the claims in the lawsuit, Officer Landon denies any wrongdoing. His use of force was approved by his supervisors following a chain-of-command review of the incident. The parties agreed to a settlement without any admission of liability in order to avoid continued costly litigation in this years-old case.”
The incident began on July 16, 2017, when police responded to Vasquez’s home, according to an arrest warrant affidavit provided by the Fort Worth Police Department.
At 12:24 a.m., someone reported to police that a man was standing outside their home and threatening them with a kitchen knife. Six Fort Worth police officers responded to the house, a police report written by Landon said, and officers saw Vasquez standing in the street. Vasquez appeared to throw something away from him and the officers as police walked up.
Body camera footage shows the next few seconds of the altercation. Vasquez, holding a beer in one hand, stands near a truck in a yard. Four officers surround him and an officer tells him to put his hands up. Vasquez does so, still holding the beer can in his hand. Two officers point guns at Vasquez and Landon points a Taser at Vasquez, who is shirtless. Landon, still pointing the Taser, steps forward and punches Vasquez in the face. Vasquez falls backward onto the grass and Landon jumps on top of him. Two officers handcuff Vasquez on the ground.
In his report of Vasquez’s arrest, Landon wrote that “(Vasquez) did not comply” when officers told him to put his hands up, and “proceeded to open a beer that was in his hands.” The video does not show Vasquez opening the can of beer.
Landon wrote that he used an “open hand strike to the face of (Vasquez) in order to distract him so that he could be taken into custody.” In court documents, Landon said he was too close to Vasquez to deploy his Taser.
Landon took a photo of Vasquez’s bloodied face and passed it around to show to other officers, the lawsuit says. The photo shows Vasquez’s nose bent to one side and dried blood coating the bottom half of his face.
Personnel records show no discipline
In the lawsuit, Vasquez and his attorney said Landon used excessive force and violated Vasquez’s civil rights. In response, Landon and his attorneys filed a motion claiming qualified immunity for Landon. Qualified immunity is a defense frequently raised by law enforcement meaning a plaintiff must show an officer violated a right that has already been established in a previous case.
In a court order in February 2020, Judge Mark Pittman denied Landon’s motion. Pittman wrote Vasquez did not try to resist arrest, and it is possible a “reasonable jury” could find that Landon used excessive force against Vasquez.
Pittman notes in the ruling that Landon was responding to a “tense” situation and Landon “felt the urge to detain Vasquez as quickly and effectively as possible.”
According to the lawsuit, the internal affairs unit investigated Landon’s use of force and the inaccurate information written in his report. The other officers on the call told internal affairs that different de-escalation techniques could have been used in the arrest because there were multiple officers on the scene, the suit said.
Fort Worth police denied the Star-Telegram’s records request for the internal affairs investigation into the incident.
Landon’s personnel file does not indicate he was disciplined over Vasquez’s arrest. The Fort Worth Police Department, which is not a defendant in the suit, declined to say whether or not Landon was disciplined.
Two months after Vasquez’s arrest, Landon was evaluated by a supervisor in a routine evaluation. Landon’s supervisor gave him high marks overall, giving Landon four out of five stars in “customer focus.” His accomplishments noted he “consistently conducts himself in a professional manner and remains composed in stressful situations.”
The September 2017 evaluation included sections about actions Landon could improve upon. A supervisor noted the department spoke with Landon “about the varying force options available.”
Vasquez was charged with assault with a deadly weapon and jailed on a $8,000 bond. On Oct. 11, Vasquez died from COVID-19.