Back to mobile

Houston Police in Spotlight for Alleged Brutality

by Published on

At 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 27, Sebastian Prevot failed to stop. Well, he stopped at the stop sign three blocks from his house, but he was past the white line. For this, a Houston police patrol car tried to pull him over. Prevot proceeded to his home and there, again, he stopped. He says he got out of the car with his hands up. He wasn’t drunk. He didn’t speed. He just didn’t stop soon enough.

His wife, Annika Lewis, awoke to screaming. When she went outside, she found at least 10 cop cars converged in front of her house, some twenty officers on her lawn, and her husband, Prevot, screaming as he was punched and kicked, and beaten with a baton.

Lewis is 4-foot-11 and weighs 103 pounds. She knew she couldn’t stop the violence against her husband—but she could record it. She says she grabbed her phone and started filming, and that’s when a cop grabbed her hand and twisted it behind her. Another grabbed her hair and forced her to the ground. She says they picked her up, punched her in the face, and put her in the back of a police car. Meanwhile, her phone was confiscated and its memory card removed before it was placed back in her home.

Prevot, who crossed the white line before coming to a stop, was charged with a felony of evading arrest. He had to be treated at Ben Taub hospital for injuries including a torn ear that required stitches.

Prevot and Lewis are black. Lewis says all of the officers present were white.

Let me first say this: It is far too easy to judge the police. They do a necessary, dangerous, and difficult service. They are human; they get scared. Few of us outside the military will ever deal with the particular kind of uncertainty and anxiety that must go with day after day, shift after shift, year upon year of literally looking for trouble. Their good works go unnoticed every day, taken for granted as part of the job.

But cases like this make it hard to keep the faith.

It’s impossible for me to understand 20 cops against one man, even if he was fighting back. Even if he had been armed, which he wasn’t.

And they were. If they were all civilians, what happened Friday morning would be an angry white mob assaulting a black victim. But because the 20 men had guns and batons issued them by the state, it’s not?

HPD has dealt with police brutality and video before. Last year, a 15-year-old burglary suspect, Chad Holley, ran from police. But he was clipped by a police car, fell to the ground, and lay face down with his arms folded in the position of surrender. We know this because video of it exists, video that a court order suppressed but a community activist leaked to the local news, causing outrage. In it, police swarm Holley, kicking, stomping, and punching his head, his hands, his legs and sides. It is almost unwatchable. With half a dozen cops all over the unresisting high school sophomore’s body, another runs up to them at full speed and dives in to help beat him. Twelve officers were disciplined, fired, or charged in the case. All appealed, and two of the three fired officers won their appeal and are back on the job.

What would have happened if there had been no tape?

Earlier the same night as Prevot’s assault, community leaders had held a town hall meeting encouraging citizens to record and report police misconduct. Representatives from HPD and the FBI attended, assuring citizens of the legality of recording police work. Activist Deric Muhammad helped organize the town hall, prompted, he said, by “calls I was receiving about police misconduct, brutality, disrespect, and an all-around abuse of authority, particularly by a Caucasian crew on the night shift of Northeast Houston.”

After Prevot’s arrest, a family member of Lewis’s contacted Muhammad, who organized a press conference with the couple on Jan. 29. After continued media attention, HPD Chief Charles McClelland met Jan. 31 with Muhammad and Prevot’s attorney, Robert Collier. All called the meeting productive, and Tuesday night, Chief McClelland issued a statement saying that HPD encourages citizens to report police misconduct. He added, “I expect the men and women of HPD to respect the rights of the public to photograph, film or record police actions.”

But will they? Muhammad says, “The fact that they would go to the extreme of physically assaulting somebody as small as Annika Lewis says that the camera is very powerful.” And that’s why he says, despite the risks, citizens should still pull out their phones when they see injustice. “They’ve gotta know somebody’s watching.”

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.