By Joe Johnson
The Athens-Clarke County Commission last week approved a $250,000 settlement of an excessive-use-of force lawsuit in connection with 2019 police shooting.
Salvador Salazar, 29, of Summerfield, N.C., was shot and critically injured by Officer Roger Williams at University Garden Apartments on Baxter Drive.
He remains hospitalized and is “permanently incapacitated” from having been shot, according to the lawsuit that had been filed in Clarke County Superior Court by Athens attorneys D. Jason Slider and John Hollis Baker. The matter was later transferred to U.S. District Court.
“This case involved an issue of ‘qualified immunity’, which is a legal issue outside the control of ACC because it is a federal doctrine. That law sets the bar incredibly high for plaintiffs such as Mr. Salazar to establish liability against officers and counties for injuries that would otherwise be compensable, even if the officer was inarguably "negligent" by ignoring his training and directives,” The attorneys said in a joint statement.
“We feel strongly that qualified immunity tends to discourage compliance with an array of police policies that are in place to protect the public from over-aggressive tactics including, but not limited to, the use of deadly force,” the attorneys said. “This is a law that must be revisited without delay by the Supreme Court or Congress to ensure that officers who violate police policies and directives are held accountable. We hope this case will bring additional attention to the fact that the public, at large, has a vested interest in the protection of their safety and constitutional rights against over-aggressive and unnecessary police tactics.”
The shooting happened the afternoon of Oct. 6, 2019, a few hours after police responded to a complaint from a woman identifying herself as Salazar’s ex-girlfriend who told a 911 dispatcher that she wanted to bar Salazar, who she said might be on probation in North Carolina, had mental health issues and might be in possession of a machete, according to a complaint filed in Clarke County Superior Court.
After a criminal history report “offered no justification for an investigative detention, arrest, or any other interference with Salazar’s rights,” a police officer allowed Salazar to leave the apartment complex, according to the complaint, which noted that Salazar was not barred from the property by either the officer or ex-girlfriend.
The woman called 911 a second time that same afternoon, wanting to have Salazar barred, alleging that Salazar ‘is running from his (probation officer) and has not checked in’ while simultaneously admitting that she was the one who assisted her ‘ex-boyfriend’ to leave North Carolina,” the complaint stated.
“Prior to his arrival on the scene, just like the Officer who responded to an almost identical call about Salazar a few hours prior, Officer Williams had no facts from dispatch of criminal activity by Salazar,” according to the civil complaint.
“Unlike the previous Officer, who applied the simple directives he was required to follow by ACCPD for a homeless and mentally ill person who had committed no crime, the complaint alleged that Officer Williams engaged in actions that “directly contradicted” his department’s directives by approaching Salazar in an “aggressive manner” by asking the man what he was doing and screaming “get your hands out of your pockets while Salazar attempted to leave.”
As Salazar was trying to leave the apartment complex, Officer Williams “detained and arrested Salazar by drawing his firearm and pointing it directly at him,” according to the complaint.
Williams continued to yell for Salazar to stop as he followed with his gun drawn, and when the officer “approached Salazar from behind, Salazar swung a machete behind him in Officer Williams’ direction without making contact and then stumbled backward,” according to the complaint. “While Salazar stumbled backward, Officer Williams shot Salazar in the torso” three times.
The complaint noted, “Prior to his arrival, Williams had expressed he learned in training ‘to always try and deescalate a conflict if safe to do so.’”
The second officer named in the lawsuit, Tori Teets, arrived at the scene after Salazar had already been shot, lying face down, incapacitated and posing “no resistance to arrest or danger” to anyone. Even so, according to the lawsuit, Teets “knelt upon Salazar with her entire body weight forced upon the back of Salazar’s neck,” and as the officer was doing this Salazar “can be heard on video screaming in pain.”
The complaint characterized Teets’s actions as “a gratuitous use of force.”
A review of the incident by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Western Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s officer cleared Williams of any wrongdoing, and an ACCPD internal affairs investigation determined no policies had been violated.
Athrens Mayor Kelly Girtz and county commissioners voted to settle the lawsuit Thursday night.
Representing the county in the lawsuit was Greg Sowell of the Cook & Tolley law firm in Athens.
“Mr. Sowell did a commendable job for ACC by working with the county's insurer and risk managers to put this deal together,” Salazar’s attorneys said in their joint statement. “In doing so, he saved the County tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney's fees while eliminating any possible exposure to additional liability. We also appreciate the Mayor and Commission's ratification of the settlement for our client”.
In February of this year, a Clarke County grand jury indicted Salazar for aggravated assault on a police officer and possession of a knife in the commission of a felony.
He remains under guard at the hospital by the county sheriff’s office.
Athen-Clarke County police officers in 2019 shot six people, killing all but Salazar. All of the shootings were cleared by the GBI and then-District Attorney Ken Mauldin.