‘Culture of impunity’: San Marcos police facing civil rights lawsuits for using Taser on 2 people, including man who is deaf

Federal suits raise questions about department’s use of stun guns

SAN MARCOS, Texas – A pair of lawsuits pending in federal court in Austin accuse San Marcos police of quickly resorting to the use of stun guns to violate the civil rights of two men in separate incidents.

Police used a Taser weapon against John Kelley, who is deaf, in May 2019 while he was walking along a highway frontage road, body-worn camera footage obtained by KSAT Investigates shows.

Through an American Sign Language interpreter, Kelley told KSAT he was walking away from his family’s vehicle near the Interstate 35 access road and Davis Lane after having a disagreement with his wife.

He later learned that someone who saw Kelley and his wife, who is also deaf, signing to each other, called 911 and reported a possible physical disturbance.

Footage obtained by KSAT shows three officers approaching Kelley from either side of him and from behind, repeatedly yelling for him to stop before two officers used their Taser weapons on him.

The video shows Kelley falling to the pavement and rolling onto a grassy area as officers continue to yell for him to put his hands behind his back.

Kelley, who could not hear the commands because he is deaf, was then kicked twice in the side by the third officer, the footage shows.

Kelley told KSAT he temporarily blacked out from being stunned by the Tasers before waking up and attempting to communicate with officers that he is deaf.

The footage shows Kelley with his hands beneath his forehead before he rolls over and is shocked again while attempting to tell officers he is deaf.

At this point, the officers realize that Kelley is deaf and begin to communicate with him using one of the officers’ notepads and then a cellphone.

Kelley confirmed to KSAT that he was never handcuffed and was not criminally charged.

SMPD records show that after officers confirmed no physical assault took place, Kelley was released from the scene.

The footage shows Kelley briefly being treated by paramedics outside of an ambulance, including having Taser probes pulled out of his skin.

A paramedic removes a stun gun probe from John Kelley's back on May 25, 2019. (KSAT)

He confirmed he was later hospitalized for injuries resulting from the incident.

“Shame on that police department for taking that type of action. It was wrong,” said Kelley, who added that the ordeal played out in front of his wife and several of their children.

The officers’ description of what took place contradicts the body-worn camera of two of the officers.

All three officers — Andrew Wisener, Basil Pierce and John Dehkordi, wrote in their incident narratives that Kelley tucked his hands under his torso.

The footage, however, shows Kelley with his hands up by his head both times that he is on his stomach.

Dehkordi demonstrated the arms-tucked-under-torso movement while talking with other officers and a supervisor gathered at the scene after the incident, the footage shows.

The microphones of both officers who recorded footage of Dehkordi tucking his hands under his chest were muted while the conversation took place.

“My hands were not under my chest. I wanted to gesture to the police and show them with my hands that I wanted to write, to communicate. That’s where my hands were, in front of me clearly,” said Kelley.

A federal lawsuit filed in May 2021 accuses the city of San Marcos and the three officers of violating Kelley’s civil rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“No attempt was made by police to communicate with John in a manner in which he could understand, despite him signing that he was deaf. No extra steps or precautions were taken by SMPD before they deployed a taser and kicked John,” the suit states.

The case is scheduled to go to trial in September.

All three officers remain employed by the SMPD, which has a total of 111 commissioned peace officers.

Wisener, Pierce and Dehkordi have all completed a four-hour course on interacting with drivers who are deaf or hard of hearing, Texas Commission on Law Enforcement records show.

Dehkordi’s course, which was offered by the Hays County Sheriff’s Academy, occurred in July 2019, less than two months after he used his Taser on Kelley.

Wisener and Pierce’s courses were completed in 2016 and 2017, respectively, TCOLE records show.

While being deposed on camera in November in connection with the lawsuit, Officer Dehkordi and an attorney for Kelley engaged in the following back and forth:

Attorney: “Tase someone who is elderly?”

Ofc. Dehkordi: “I guess if the circumstances dictated, then yes it would be.”

Attorney: “What about a child?”

Dehkordi: “Yes.”

Attorney: “What about someone who is very frail, like someone who weighs less than a hundred pounds? Is it okay to tase somebody like that?”

Dehkordi: “If the circumstances dictated it, then yes.”

Attorney: “What about a pregnant woman? Is it okay to tase a pregnant woman?”

Dehkordi: “Again, if the circumstances dictated, then yes.”

Attorney: “So, like, under what circumstances would you tase a pregnant woman?”

San Marcos city officials declined to comment on the Kelley lawsuit, citing the pending litigation.

“San Marcos Police Department has a particular problem with accountability. I think there’s this culture of impunity,” said Rebecca Webber, Kelley’s civil rights attorney.

“Come to me now! Come to me now!”

Webber also represents a second man who filed a federal lawsuit accusing the City of San Marcos and multiple current and former officers of violating his civil rights in early 2021.

Albian Leyva was a backseat passenger in a car briefly pursued by officers in connection with the possible theft of phone-charging cords from a convenience store in the 3900 block of Interstate 35 South.

The vehicle’s driver eventually pulled over about three miles away in the 300 block of Wonder World Drive, records show.

Records show that Leyva was compliant, got out of the vehicle and two officers used their Taser weapons on him.

Cellphone camera footage recorded by Leyva shows then-SMPD Sgt. Ryan Hartman walking toward him yelling, “Come to me now! Come to me now!” before firing his department-issued stun gun.

Then-Sgt. Ryan Hartman fires his department issued stun gun at Albian Leyva on January 12, 2021. (KSAT)

A second officer, Jacinto “Rey” Melendrez, also used his stun gun on Leyva, records show.

Body-worn camera footage of the incident viewed by KSAT shows Leyva with raised arms, his ID in one hand and his cellphone in the other hand, when he is struck by the Taser probes.

Leyva’s body stiffens and he slams into the pavement, losing one of his shoes, the footage shows.

Hartman, who was later suspended one week and ordered to go through re-training for de-escalation and officer tactical training following the January 2021 incident, is shown in the footage giving Leyva contradictory commands prior to using his stun gun on him.

The use of force incident happened six weeks after Hartman was returned to duty following a June 2020 fatal wreck in Lockhart that he caused.

Off-duty San Marcos Police Sgt. Ryan Hartman caused a fatal crash in June 2020. (KSAT)

Authorities and Hartman have said the wreck was caused by him being distracted behind the wheel and running a stop sign. Officers found an open beer in the wreckage of the truck Hartman was driving but he was only ever issued a traffic citation and was not investigated by SMPD internal affairs.

Hartman was terminated by SMPD in January 2022 for unrelated rules violations including insubordination and dereliction of duty.

Hartman did not return a message seeking comment for this story.

“What you have here is a complete liability. Like, a risk situation that should be managed. When you have people with this much disciplinary history and you’re still putting them out on the street and you’re not reviewing their arrest records and their use of force, you’re just setting up a situation where someone’s rights are going to be violated,” said Webber.

Leyva’s lawsuit was amended in January to add additional officers, and Webber has asked the court to allow Leyva to add a claim of wrongful arrest.

Officer Melendrez resigned a month after the stun gun incident, citing his desire to pursue a career in entrepreneurship.

A use-of-force report submitted by Melendrez after the Leyva Taser incident was labeled as incomplete by the SMPD supervisor who reviewed it.

San Marcos Police Department Chief Stan Standridge previously told KSAT Investigates that Melendrez’s resignation was not connected to the stun gun incident.

Melendrez did not respond to an email seeking comment for this story.

Officer Jordan Perkins, who was added to the suit in January, was terminated less than two weeks later for what San Marcos officials described as “sustained policy violations.”

Perkins crashed into a car in an apartment complex in November and failed to report the incident, discipline records obtained by KSAT late last week show.

A woman’s car suffered significant damage to its passenger side door and the SMPD vehicle driven by Perkins was also damaged, photo and written records show.

Additionally, Perkins was untruthful when questioned about the crash, his discipline paperwork shows.

SMPD officials issued Perkins and indefinite suspension Jan. 24.

Records show last March Perkins was suspended for two other incidents, including one in which he placed his handgun against the neck and head of a suspect.

A second officer had to tell Perkins to holster his gun, records show.

In the second incident, Perkins struck a handcuffed suspect in the chin, injuring him.

Perkins served a 16-day suspension and had he not agreed to the punishment, would have faced an indefinite suspension, records show.

Perkins did not respond to a call or text message seeking comment for this story.

Discipline records of now former San Marcos Police Department officer Jordan Perkins. (KSAT)

Only one of the four officers named in Leyva’s suit, Luke Begwin, remains employed by SMPD.

A misdemeanor interference-with-public-duties charge filed against Leyva by SMPD was dismissed by Hays County prosecutors last year.

Webber said Leyva being charged with interference should have been an obvious “red flag” to SMPD administration that the incident was not handled properly by officers at the scene.

Leyva, through his attorney, declined a request to be interviewed for this story.

Civil rights attorney Rebecca Webber. (KSAT)

Webber said the arrest was the worst night of her client’s life.

“He started to realize just how messed up the system is. So, I think there’s been a second impact on his life, which is that he doesn’t trust authorities. He no longer sees first responders, law enforcement as heroes,” said Webber, describing Leyva’s reaction after watching the body cam footage of SMPD officers using their Tasers on him.

Standridge, through a city spokesperson, and San Marcos Mayor Jane Hughson, both declined interview requests from KSAT, citing the pending litigation in both federal cases.

About the Authors

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy award-winning photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.

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