HOUSTON (AP) — An ex-Houston police officer told jurors Thursday his use of physical force against a burglary suspect — including striking the back of his head and hitting him repeatedly with his knee — was justified because the teenager was resisting arrest and might have had a gun.
Drew Ryser testified during his Houston trial on a misdemeanor charge of official oppression that he did not abuse, assault or mistreat then-15-year-old Chad Holley and that his actions were not prompted by race. Holley is black; Ryser is white.
"Can you assure us that the blows and strikes inflicted upon Mr. Holley by you were not racially motivated?" special prosecutor Jonathan Munier asked.
"They were never racially motivated," said Ryser, who faces up to a year in jail if convicted.
The March 2010 arrest of Holley was captured on videotape and prompted fierce public criticism of Houston's police department by community activists, who called it an example of police brutality against minorities.
In footage from a security camera, Holley is seen falling to the ground after trying to hurdle a police squad car. He's then surrounded by at least five officers, some of whom appear to kick and hit the teen's head, abdomen and legs. Police said Holley and three others had tried to run away after burglarizing a home.
Ryser, while questioned by one of his attorneys, Lisa Andrews, told jurors Thursday that when he first approached Holley after the teen had been knocked down, he did not kick the suspect as prosecutors have claimed. Using terms from the sport of rugby to explain how he approached Holley, Ryser said that what appears to be a kicking motion on the video was actually him balancing himself as he ran to the teen and then pushed another officer out of the way.
As other officers were screaming at Holley to show them his hands, Ryser said he grabbed the teen's right arm and tried to handcuff him, but the arm slipped from his grasp. Holley then put his arm under his body, the 32-year-old ex-officer said.
"I thought he was reaching for a gun," he said.
Ryser testified he tried to get Holley to move his arm from underneath him by punching the teen in the nose.
"I missed and caught him on the back of his head," he said.
When that didn't work, Ryser — who is 6-foot-2 and weighs 280 pounds — said he used his knee to hit Holley four times on his shoulder, grabbing onto a nearby metal fence to give him leverage.
"I was trying to cause pain so he could comply with the commands the other officers were giving," Ryser said.
But Ryser said the knee strikes didn't work, so he then put his body on top of Holley's shoulders and bent his back upward to expose his arm.
"I heard the clicking of handcuffs and then an officer say, 'He's in custody,'" Ryser said. No weapons were found on Holley.
While questioning Ryser, Munier suggested to jurors that too many officers tried to secure Holley, leading to confusion, a lack of communication and a situation that resulted in excessive force.
"Did you do anything to protect Mr. Holley?" Munier asked.
"No, sir," said Ryser, who earlier had said he enjoyed helping people as a police officer.
The trial, being heard by a six-person jury, began Monday. Testimony was to resume on Friday.
Two other former officers charged in the case pleaded no contest and were sentenced in April to two years of probation. A fourth ex-officer was acquitted in May 2012. All of the fired officers indicted in the case were charged with misdemeanors. Three other officers involved in Holley's arrest were also fired, but two later got their jobs back.
Holley was convicted of burglary in juvenile court in October 2010 and placed on probation. Last year, Holley, now 19, was arrested on another burglary charge, and a judge sentenced him in April to six months in jail.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: www.twitter.com/juanlozano70.