APD officer suspended for 45 days for SXSW pepper spraying

Austin Police pepper spray incident (Peaceful Streets Youtube Photo)
Austin Police pepper spray incident (Peaceful Streets Youtube Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — An Austin police officer was suspended without pay on Tuesday following a pepper spraying incident during South by Southwest.

Officer Cameron Caldwell’s suspension begins on Aug. 31 and continues through Oct. 14. The department launched an investigation after a video surfaced of the incident.

Peaceful Streets Project, which tracks police activity in Austin, took video of the incident on March 17.

The video shows the officer opening the back of a prisoner transport van and then pepper spraying the handcuffed man in his face.

“What did I tell you about kicking the door?” says Caldwell before spraying him in the video. The man recoils and the officer closes the door. In a memo from Austin Police Chief Acevedo to the director of Civil Service, he says the man was not kicking the door or acting aggressively the moment he was pepper sprayed.

Chief Acevedo said his officer’s use of pepper spray was “not objectively reasonable” and he had “lesser means” of controlling the man. Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday said he believes the suspension is excessive.

Acevedo says the attention the video received both locally and nationally brought discredit on Officer Caldwell, the Austin Police Department and the city of Austin. At a Tuesday afternoon press conference, the chief said Caldwell should have asked other officers to help him immobilize the man’s legs as his first course of action.

During his disciplinary review hearing, Caldwell acknowledged he should have handled the situation differently, “expressing sincere regret and contrition,” the memo continues.

Caldwell also agreed to be evaluated by an Austin police psychologist or other professional designated by the chief. If the psychologist recommends a program of counseling, Caldwell will be required to complete the program and pay for any costs not covered by his insurance plan.

The officer will be on a year’s probation following the suspension and will be expected to take part in cadet training to share his experience. During his probation, any additional violations on his part could lead to him losing his job, without the chance to appeal.

Acevedo says while the department has dealt with a number of incidents that “go viral,” the department makes its disciplinary decisions solely on professional judgment. The chief says the vast majority of disciplinary actions taken are not a result of citizen complaint, noting that the pepper sprayed man never came forward.

Chief Acevedo ended the press conference by addressing the state of East Sixth Street. “We have got to take Sixth Street back… We are going to start holding people accountable,” he said.

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