A three-judge panel heard arguments Thursday in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Cameron Redus, a University of the Incarnate Word student who was fatally shot by a campus police officer in 2013.
Attorneys for the university argued before the Texas Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio that UIW should be granted immunity from litigation because it is considered a governmental unit that employs state-licensed and commissioned police officers. Attorneys for the Redus family disputed that claim, arguing that as a private university UIW does not receive public funding.
Panel members – Judges Karen Angelini, Patricia O’Connell Alvarez, and Irene Rios – did not say when they would issue a decision.
Brent Perry, lead attorney for the Redus family, said outside court that a decision could take at least two weeks. Cameron’s parents, Mickey and Valerie Redus, attended the hearing but declined to comment.
The hearing was the latest development in the long-running lawsuit related to the shooting death of Cameron Redus, a 23-year-old senior honors student who was pulled over by campus police officer Christopher Carter in the early hours of Dec. 6, 2013.
Redus had been driving to his off-campus Alamo Heights apartment following a night of celebrating with fellow graduates. Carter was reportedly on duty and had left campus to get food when he saw a car weaving in and out of traffic.
Carter pursued the vehicle and pulled up behind Redus at the student’s apartment complex. Carter did not know Redus was a UIW student. A confrontation and struggle ensued, with Carter firing his weapon six times at point-blank range after he said Redus, who was unarmed, charged him.
Carter was placed on extended administrative leave and eventually resigned from the UIW police force. The shooting sparked protests in the community about the use of deadly force by campus police.
After a Bexar County grand jury declined to indict Carter on criminal charges, the Redus family filed a civil suit against UIW and Carter in May 2014. The university’s attorneys made an unsuccessful attempt to move the case to federal court.
Although toxicology tests showed that Redus’ blood-alcohol content was nearly twice the legal limit to drive, family members have said UIW should be held responsible for their son’s death. Family members also have pointed to discrepancies between an audio recording of the confrontation between Carter and Redus, and statements made by the university.
A Bexar County judge rejected UIW’s motion to be seen as a “governmental unit” in spring of 2015. The Fourth Court of Appeals reaffirmed that ruling later that year. The case went to the Texas Supreme Court in December 2016, and that court then remanded the case back to the lower appellate court.
Attorney Amy Warr of Alexander, Dubose, Jefferson & Townsend argued Thursday on the university’s behalf, claiming that it qualifies as a governmental unit. She argued that if UIW is denied immunity, a lawsuit could proceed and possibly discourage the university from continuing to employ its own 20-officer police force.
Warr argued such a move could result in Alamo Heights and/or San Antonio – and their taxpayers – having to assume responsibility for providing security and law enforcement around campus. UIW’s on-campus enrollment is more than 6,200 students, according to its website.
Judge Alvarez questioned Warr’s assertion. “If you had any evidence on the record about a police force being dismantled because of a lawsuit, then we’d have a different story,” the judge said.
Judge Rios said that she is not convinced of the university’s argument.
“We’re having to make an assumption that [dismantling a police force] will happen and, if it does, it would impact the public treasury,” Rios said.
Warr also argued that licensed and commissioned officers are taught not to act “timidly” in pursuing a suspicious person on or around campus, so UIW is providing a valuable service in employing trained, competent officers to face any situation that may arise.
“The key to this whole case is that the Texas Legislature gave private universities the power to commission [peace] officers,” she said.
Perry argued that UIW must be held accountable for having employed a “poorly trained, poorly equipped” police officer who mishandled the encounter with Redus. Perry added that Carter exercised “independent discretion” outside of his police department training during the encounter.
And because it receives no public funding, UIW should not be considered a political subdivision, such as a city or county government or a public educational institution, Perry told the judges.
“The University of the Incarnate Word is not entitled to immunity in this case,” he said.
Outside court, Perry said that if UIW were to be granted immunity, the Redus family likely would file a lawsuit against Carter in federal court. If the Redus family gets a favorable ruling, Perry said his legal team could finally proceed with pre-trial discovery.
Denise Doyle, former UIW chancellor and advisor to UIW President Thomas Evans, told reporters outside the court that “the costly nature of the litigation” could affect the future of the school’s police force. She added that Incarnate Word currently has incentive, and permission from the state, to commission law enforcement officers to protect the campus.
“I think the word ‘incentive’ is important,” Doyle said. “It’s an incentive for private universities to go along with the legislature and have a private police presence for the good of public safety.”
Perry told reporters that the Redus family has waited long enough for legal proceedings to begin.
“We need a trial in this case, because a private university, the University of the Incarnate Word, failed to train, failed to supervise, and failed to equip its officers properly, and Cameron’s death was the result of that,” Perry said. “We need for the truth to come out.”
After the Thursday arguments, family representative and friend Mark Hall sent the following statement to the Rivard Report:
“The [Reduses] are anxious to have the legal obstacles and delays removed so that they can finally have their day in court and have the facts and evidence of Cameron’s tragic death examined,” Hall wrote. “We hope The University of the Incarnate Word will take steps to adequately train, equip, and oversee its officers so that this senseless tragedy cannot happen again to another student or family. Asking the court to grant them immunity to avoid the consequences of their officer Chris Carter’s deadly actions is a step in the wrong direction.”