A man who was killed by a Houston police officer had his hands raised in the air when he was shot, multiple witnesses claimed. One witness who tried to record a cellphone video of the scene also claims an officer seized her camera.
The Houston Chroniclereports Rufino Lara was shot dead on Monday evening by Officer J. McGowan. The Houston Police Department says McGowan was investigating an assault-in-progress in the area when she came upon Lara and "several males fitting the description" of the assault suspects in the 7000 block of Bissonnet Street.
According to the Department, McGowan commanded Lara to stop in both English and Spanish but he did not obey. When he suddenly turned toward McGowan with one hand tucked under his shirt, she fired one shot, killing him.
But witnesses told a different story. Florida Ruvio, a family friend who saw Lara on his way home from a liquor store, says he told her he was being chased by men armed with a knife. He asked her to call police. Officers responding to the call approached Lara and commanded him to raise his hands-- in English, Ruvio claims.
"They were speaking to him in English only," Ruvio insisted at a news conference organized by the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice.
Ruvio said that Lara did not understand English and that he did not stop the first time officers ordered him to do so. But he then placed both his hands up against the wall of a vacant store with his back facing the officers.
"He didn't have his hands in his pocket or his shirt," Ruvio said at the news conference.
A second witness, 14-year-old Rigoberto Rubio, did not know Lara. He was buying water from a vending machine and said he saw the victim with both of his hands against the wall of the vacant building.
Then, according to Ruvio, Lara suddenly turned to face the officers with both hands still raised in the air when McGowan shot him dead. Ruvio shouted that McGowan had shot an innocent man, to which she allegedly replied, "he had drawn out a gun."
But Lara was unarmed. As McGowan tore open Lara's shirt and removed his shoes, Ruvio tried to record the scene on her cell phone camera. But, she says, another officer seized her phone and told her she couldn't record anything.
Houston police have declined to comment on the allegations, but HPD Chief Charles McClelland released the following statement:
"The Houston Police Department places the highest value on the preservation of human life. Police officers have the difficult task of making split-second decisions to keep themselves and others safe on a daily basis."
HPD and the Harris County District Attorney's Office are investigating the incident.
According to the Houston Chronicle, Lara had no serious criminal record. He had two misdemeanor convictions for trespassing and giving false information to a police officer. His nephew, Jose Lara, called the fatal shooting a case of "cold-blooded murder."
"He wasn't a troublemaker," Lara told the Chronicle. "This was cold-blooded murder."