Lawsuit claims pattern of violence against Houston City Jail inmates

You may have seen the video of a man in handcuffs being punched by inside a Houston city jail. The man in that video has filed a lawsuit against the City of Houston. A news conference that took place just outside the Houston Police Department headquarters building delivered a very specific message to Chief Art Acevedo inside.

"We’re asking the Department of Justice and Chief Acevedo to do something about this pattern of violence at the city jail," says attorney Randall Kallinen. "Injuring people in handcuffs -- it's unconstitutional.”

Surveillance video showed the City of Houston jailer punching a handcuffed inmate. The federal lawsuit was filed against the city and the former jailer, Lasswon Shannon, who has been fired and pleaded guilty to assault charges. 

"This is not a drunken fight at some bar where you might expect people to behave in this manner,” adds Kallinen.

Akrem Azzam claims the jailer also attacked him off camera after Azzam was arrested on a weapons charge. 

"He said, 'I’m going to beat you, do you understand?' I said, 'No, I don’t understand' and he was sitting on my back," says Azzam. "That time I was facing the ground. He lift me up from my cuffs all the way up to my feet.” 

"He was assaulted outside of one cell, a cell, by the way, where there is no camera in the hallway, a blind spot, a beat up spot,” describes Kallinen.

“He did open my lip from the inside, made bruises around my eyes and bruises around the cuffs because he lift me from the cuffs and dislocated my shoulders,” explains Azzam. According to Azzam, the assault started when the jailer arrived to walk him to a different jail cell after he spilled water onto the floor from the sink in the cell.

”I didn’t have anything else to do so I said, 'Let me just wash my face and wash my body," says Azzam. "So I dropped some water on the ground because the sink was broken. I did not mean to drop some water on the ground.”  

"You look at that video, Akrem is thrown into the cell for some reason," says Kallinen. "You can see the anger already. He just wasn’t led into the cell, he was thrown into the cell.”  

Kallinen is also representing Reuben Williams, a handcuffed inmate in yet another video. Williams was arrested for driving while intoxicated. 

“And on that video, it shows Reuben Williams' head being bashed into the side of a jail cell at the city jail and he got ten stitches,” explains Kallinen. That jailer is still on the job and says Williams tried to spit on him, so he was pushing him away, although Williams denies spitting at the jail employee.

Kallinen is not suing for a specific dollar amount. He says he hopes the lawsuit will draw attention to what he calls a pattern of bad behavior by jailers at 61 Riesner, the Houston City Jail.

"We want to see de-escalation training, which is a way for officers to be trained not to let their anger get the better of them,” says Kallinen.  

"There appears to be a pattern of excessive force at the Houston jail," says activist Johnny Mata from the Greater Houston Coalition For Justice. "The public is tired of these abuses."       

The incidents involving both Azzam and Williams were caught by surveillance cameras in 2015. Kallinen says he has uncovered thirty cases of Houston city jailers using excessive force on inmates from 2009 until 2012. The City of Houston says because of the pending lawsuit, officials are not allowed to comment.

"There is no independent outside review of these incidents of excessive force," says Kallinen. "For example, HPD in the last 13 years has shot over 250, about 60 unarmed, with no sustained IAD complaint for excessive force. Despite changes occurring nationwide Houston has chosen to remain in the Dark Ages when it comes to curtailing excessive force and police misconduct transparency."