But experts and civil rights leaders say enough evidence exists to charge him. “His actions show intent to harm and dehumanize,’’ a former prosecutor says.
Dallas police officials have quietly closed their criminal investigation into a sergeant who fired pepper balls into the chest of a Black Lives Matter protester and then arrested the photographer who captured the shooting.
Images of Sgt. Roger Rudloff blasting Jantzen Verastique during mass protests over George Floyd’s murder were disclosed in an August 2020 Dallas Morning News investigation, leading to calls for accountability from city leaders.
Police dropped the high-profile case in March. A police spokesman told The News that investigators concluded there was no evidence to show the officer committed a crime.
More than a year after Dallas District Attorney John Creuzot said his office would independently investigate police’s treatment of Verastique and other protesters, those cases have not been presented to a grand jury.
Creuzot stressed at the time that investigations should be swift. But he told The News in late August that he still intends to take the Rudloff case and others to a grand jury.
“I can assure you that those cases have not been resolved, finished and closed out of this office,’’ Creuzot said.
The lack of action on the pepper-ball shooting is reigniting the same concerns that drove the George Floyd protests: that law enforcers do not effectively police themselves.
Verastique, 33, who filed a formal complaint at the request of police investigators last year, said the authorities never notified her or her attorney of the decision. “This all feels so hopeless, and they seem so quick to hide everything,’’ Verastique said. “What more evidence do they possibly need?’’
She and at least 10 other Black Lives Matter protesters have filed legal claims against the city alleging wrongful injuries or constitutional rights violations.
Shortly after The News’ report last year, supervisors temporarily moved Rudloff to a position that limits his contact with the public. He previously said he fired his weapon at Verastique because she did not follow his instructions.
Rudloff declined to be interviewed for this story. His lawyer, Robert Rogers, said in a statement on Wednesday that Verastique acted aggressively toward him.
“Sgt. Rudloff did not violate DPD policy and he certainly did not violate the Texas Penal Code,’’ Rogers said. “Rudloff used the pepper ball launcher appropriately, within DPD guidelines and according to best practices in response.’’
The case’s dismissal puzzled experts and civil rights activists contacted by The News. Few instances of police aggression in Dallas have been photographed as vividly as the pepper-ball shooting, said John Fullinwider, co-founder of Mothers Against Police Brutality.
“If the police called this justified, it suggests little has changed in terms of police accountability in Dallas,’’ Fullinwider said. “Without letting the judicial process hold officers like him accountable, each aspect of his violence has been a fundamental denial of human rights by police.’’
Herb Tanner, a former Michigan prosecutor and consultant for the National District Attorneys Association, reviewed photographs and witness accounts of the incident for The News. He said Rudloff appears to have veered outside justifiable actions.
“I believe the officer committed a criminal assault on this woman,’’ said Tanner, who acknowledges police may be withholding other evidence supporting Rudloff’s position. “The pictures don’t show what’s inside the officer’s head, but his actions show intent to harm and dehumanize.’’
The department has not released any reports detailing officers’ use of force during the George Floyd protests last year that called for sweeping police reforms and an end to police brutality.
Pepperball gun shooting
Days after George Floyd’s murder, Verastique, the Latina mother of two adopted black children, and her friend Dondi Morse, a gay real-estate developer, were eager to be a part of mass demonstrations because they had faced bigotry.
In May 2020, they joined thousands of people marching in downtown Dallas.
District attorneys across the U.S. issued a five-page media statement demanding reforms to hold police accountable for misconduct. Creuzot was among the 50 signers. The group proposed stronger independent oversight of how police discipline their own.
“We say loudly and unequivocally: Enough,’’ the statement read. “Every episode of police violence against people of color lays bare the unbroken link between slavery and modern racially-biased policing.’’
Just before dusk, police were routing protesters away from downtown businesses, leaving few directions for protesters to march except toward Interstate 35E. Verastique and Morse chose not to walk onto the highway.
When they turned back along a grassy slope, they were alarmed to see officers in riot helmets rushing toward a nearby group of dark-skinned protesters.
Verastique, dressed in workout clothes and holding a purple cellphone, yelled at the officers to stop.
“They didn’t do anything!’’ she remembers telling them.
Rudloff, standing only a few feet away, pointed his pepper-ball gun at her and ordered her not to move, she and Morse said. Verastique recalls raising her hands and telling the officer she was not moving.
Then she felt three pepper balls slam into her breast. A motorist’s video later obtained by The News shows her falling to the ground screaming, “I can’t breathe.’’ Pictures she later took show three round welts on her breast.
Freelance photographer Chris Rusanowsky captured the incident while kneeling in nearby weeds. One picture shows Verastique recoiling from the blast as smoke rolls off her T-shirt, the blur of a pepper ball ricocheting off her chest. In the background, people of color are being zip-tied face down in the grass.
Rusanowsky also photographed another protester, Parker Nevills, who saw Rudloff fire at Verastique and ran toward the officers as he shouted objections. Rusanowsky captured Rudloff grabbing Nevills by the hair, then helping other officers yank him to the ground.
Rudloff called Nevills a “faggot,’’ according to Rusanowsky, Verastique and Nevills.
Rudloff did not summon medical care for Verastique after the pepper-ball shooting, as required by police policy, according to her and others at the scene. Morse said she repeatedly asked Rudloff to get Verastique help, yet he refused.
Such weapons are designed to be fired into the ground to help control crowds. But Dallas police policy allows them to be used on people if they pose a serious physical threat. Rusanowsky, Nevills and Morse said Verastique posed no threat.
A year ago, in response to the allegations, Rudloff told The News that Verastique “wasn’t doing what we told her to,” but did not elaborate. He was not wearing a body camera because the department had not issued him one.
Rudloff and other officers arrested Verastique, Morse, Nevills and Rusanowsky for allegedly participating in a riot or obstructing the highway. Since then, the four were never prosecuted for anything. Their cases and dozens of others were dropped without explanation by police.
Rudloff’s lawyer said that Rudloff used the pepper-ball launcher appropriately and within police department guidelines and best practices.
Rogers also said Rudloff never made any homophobic statements. Remarks Rudloff made toward Nevills were captured on a body camera, he said. Police told The News that they had no evidence to show Rudloff used the slur against Nevills and concluded he did not use inappropriate force. But they did find that he made “discourteous and uncivil comments to Mr. Nevills regarding his attire and hair.’’
Rudloff’s actions show he clashed with state law – particularly in firing the weapon at close range at Verastique and not calling for medical help, said Tanner, the consultant for the National District Attorneys Association. That conduct shows intent to harm, he said.
Police told The News they had reviewed body camera footage from another officer. But they have declined to release it and other evidence tied to the case, citing a Texas law that enables them to withhold evidence if legal action is pending.
When The News asked what evidence police lacked, a spokesman said Rusanowsky’s pictures and other images from the demonstrations did not capture the “actual incident between complainant Verastique and Sergeant Rudloff at the time the Pepper Ball Launcher was deployed.’’
Verastique’s lawyer David Henderson, a former Bexar County prosecutor, said that statement is confusing. The images provide abundant evidence, he said.
“They’re dancing around the obvious,” Henderson said. “Throughout this process, the investigators seemed like they were just going through the motions on an investigation that had been forced upon them.’’
As for Rogers’ comment that Verastique was aggressive toward Rudloff, Henderson said, “There’s a difference between representing your client and being honest about what really happened. The aggressor here was Rudloff.’’
Probable cause exists to charge Rudloff with official oppression or aggravated assault, according to Tanner’s review of the Texas penal code. An official oppression charge also could allow prosecutors to hold Rudloff accountable for wrongful arrests of Verastique and the others, Tanner said.
“The police may accept the officer’s version that Verastique put him in fear, if that’s what Rudloff is saying,’’ Tanner said. “But at some point they’re just winking at reality. I believe 99 out of 100 officers would not have shot her.’’
A police spokesman said the department will eventually publicly address its handling of George Floyd protesters, “once the criminal proceedings and civil litigations are closed.’’
That could take years.
Henderson said he hopes Creuzot finally steps in where police have failed.
“Most of the cases around the U.S., from Ahmaud Arbery to Rayshard Brooks, involved more complicated investigations yet were handled decisively,’’ Henderson said. “Here, the evidence has been dropped in everyone’s lap. When does our DA, who says he prioritizes civil rights, going to act?’’