HOUSTON — The trial to determine whether Galveston police officers abused some members of a wedding party at an island resort in 2008 continued Thursday, as the department’s former chief testified in Houston’s federal court that no excessive force was used, and a groomsman at the wedding said he witnessed former Houston Astros pitcher Brandon Backe lying in a pool of blood after being thrown to the ground by police.
A jury of six men and six women will determine whether Backe and 11 others are entitled to unspecified monetary damages from the city of Galveston for the alleged brutality.
Former Chief Charles Wiley, who took over as head of the police department several months before the incident at the San Luis Resort’s H20 bar in October 2008 and retired in 2011, said he ultimately concluded that no officer used excessive force against members of the wedding party and another man who was arrested that night.
Police were working under “far from ordinary” circumstances when the incident occurred weeks after Hurricane Ike, Wiley said.
Officers were working 12-hour shifts seven days a week after the devastating storm. Many of them had “lost everything” in the hurricane and had personal considerations that could have affected the timeliness of police reports filed after the fracas, which involved more than 30 officers, Wiley said.
Eleven officers were eventually disciplined for “missing, late or inaccurate reporting” of the incident, according to the lawsuit.
An internal affairs investigation by the police department did not lead to any charges of excessive use of force, and a grand jury did not indict any officers after members of the wedding party complained to the Galveston County District Attorney’s Office.
Wiley said he was also aware that the U.S. Department of Justice, through the FBI, found no violations after an investigation.
He said none of the officers named as defendants in the case were among the “handful” of officers who may have had problems compiling reports. Wiley said that public perception at the time that excessive use of force by Galveston police was common did not match reality.
Dennis Byrd, who was a groomsman at the wedding that concluded hours before stun guns and pepper spray were deployed by officers at the H20 bar, said he recorded a short video showing the father of the bride at the wedding being shocked with a stun gun and another man apparently being pepper sprayed because he didn’t approve of officers’ behavior.
Shortly before recording the video, Byrd said he saw Backe, who has alleged police abuse caused injuries that helped end his pitching career, being thrown into a wall by an officer.
“I witnessed a lot going on that I didn’t think should be going on,” Byrd said.
Byrd said Backe, also a groomsman, was a good friend, and said he also knew several of the officers at the H20 bar that night. The owner of a restaurant on the island, Byrd said he hoped his testimony would not alienate any officers who also were customers.
Byrd said confusion in the bar was rampant after Cole O’Balle, the brother of the bride, who was then a minor, was approached by an officer working in the bar.
Officers were called in to assist with detaining O’Balle, who police have said was intoxicated and aggressive toward police.
Byrd said officers gave conflicting orders about whether to exit the bar, and Backe was at the front of a large crowd walking outside.
Backe attempted to back up at the request of an officer but was unable to do so with the crowd behind, raising his open hands and telling the officer, “it’s cool,” Byrd said.
The officer grabbed Backe’s shirt and threw him into a wall before throwing him into a nearby flower bed, where he was surrounded by “four or five officers,” Byrd said.
Byrd then attempted to leave with Backe’s wife, but his truck, parked near the valet port at the resort, was blocked in by police cars, he said.
Byrd said he then recorded video of Gilbert O’Balle, the father of the bride at the wedding, being shocked by a stun gun. Byrd said he did not observe any additional use of force after O’Balle and another man near Byrd’s truck were handcuffed.
After most of the crowd had been cleared out, Byrd said he saw officers exchanging high-fives and celebrating as if it had “been the end of a game.”