Bell County releases Temple PD dashcam video in Grisham arrest (TX)

A day after sentencing in the C.J. Grisham case, Bell County has released the police dashcam video of Grisham’s March 16 arrest by Temple Police Officer Steve Ermis.

This move also comes 23 days after the Texas Attorney General’s Office issued what appeared as a ruling that Bell County release both the police dashcam video and non-emergency audio recording of the initial citizen call to police. Tom Kelley, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s office, now says, however, the dashcam video was still to be exempted despite seemingly conflicting statements within the letter.

The video starts as the police car driven by Ermis approaches Grisham and his 15-year-old son while on a 10-mile hike near Airport Road, an area on the outskirts of Temple. Grisham, a well-known military blogger, captured a large portion of the exchange on cellphone video which quickly went viral.

His initial resisting arrest charge was downgraded twice before the office of Bell County Attorney Jim Nichols settled on an interfering with a peace officer while performing a duty charge, a Class B misdemeanor punishable by a fine not to exceed $2,000, confinement in jail for a term not to exceed 180 days or both fine and confinement.

Upon his arrest, Grisham was carrying a pistol for which he had a Texas Concealed Handgun License and a rifle. Texas has no state law against carrying a long gun in public.

Misdemeanor trials are infrequent, but the county’s vigorous pursuit of this case generated two trials. After a mid-October four-day trial ended as a mistrial due to a hung jury, a two-day retrial took place earlier this week. Grisham was found guilty In both trials the judge appears to have instructed the jury with charges leaving little to no room for discretion, mitigating circumstances or self-defense. The second jury deliberated for about an hour before finding Grisham guilty. He was sentenced Thursday to a $2,000 fine. No jail time was assessed.

The dashcam video was played in open court both during a late July pre-trial hearing and during the October and November trials. During courtroom exhibitions of the video, county prosecutors were diligent in efforts to restrict court spectators’ (i.e., the public’s) view of the video instead working to ensure visibility as needed only to designated court personnel, witnesses and/or the jury.

Today’s release offers the public its first opportunity to see the video. Though Grisham’s widely-viewed video documents much of the encounter, opening seconds of the Temple police dashcam video establish the initial demeanor and actions of both Ermis and Grisham while also providing context for what’s seen in the Grisham video.

As the case gained national attention, the police dashcam video – generally considered public information and routinely released in high-profile, ongoing cases – was requested from the city of Temple by numerous media concerns and interested parties. City officials sought and received from the attorney general’s office a ruling to withhold the video.

The city seemed especially resistant to the idea of citizen and other online journalists’ information requests. City of Temple Deputy City Attorney Nan Rodriguez told one blogger it is “the public which is precisely who is not to have access to that information – precisely.” In further emphasizing the point, she said, “you are the reason that the thing is not public – you are the reason – you and every one of your ilk.”

In the months immediately following Grisham’s arrest, the Bell County Attorney’s Office was also withholding the video from Grisham’s defense team despite the law, specifically Brady v. Maryland, requiring release of such evidence. The county attorney’s refusal prompted a mid-May hearing which generated expense for taxpayers and for GrishamVisiting Harris County retired Judge Neel Richardson ordered the Bell County Attorney’s Office to release two police videos and an audio recording of the call which initially brought Temple police officers in contact with Grisham. However the release, the judge ruled, was only for use by Grisham’s defense team specifically noting it not for dissemination to the press or the public.

Ermis was a key witness in both trials. At this week’s trial Ermis discussed how as a police officer, he deals with a wide variety of people and is trained to establish a “command presence.” He noted that Grisham didn’t appear agitated over the situation until Ermis attempted to take his weapon. That the pair’s placement on the road was a traffic offense and gave him the right to stop and question their presence.

Another series of questions revealed what can aptly be called the Ermis Doctrine, an interesting view of resisting arrest and use of force concepts. Ermis testified that a suspect never has the opportunity to resist arrest, that it’s appropriate to use the force necessary to affect an arrest. When asked if a defendant has the right to resist the use of unreasonable force, Ermis replied no, that the court system is “where things are to be hashed out.”

The city of Temple has supported Ermis’ actions throughout the eight month period since the arrest took place. The county’s vigorous pursuit of Grisham’s case signals additional support of the doctrine.

The Ermis Doctrine provides important insight as to how the city of Temple and Bell County define the area’s approach to law enforcement. After Tuesday’s verdict, Grisham told KXXV-TV, “Their verdict told the citizens of Bell County that police officers can take firearms and personal property from individuals without having to have any reason for doing so.”

Prosecutors discussed accountability throughout Grisham’s trials with points of how authority is a part of our society, we always have someone telling us what to do, how to behave. They told how police officers have been given a job to protect and serve our communities, laws must protect police and tell citizens you are not to fight back if an arrest is being made. The jury was encouraged to “come down on the side of officer safety.”

No argument that law enforcement has one of the many tough jobs our society offers and to which people voluntarily commit. No doubt an officer has a right to disarm a citizen before interviewing them, but what happens if law enforcement oversteps the bounds of reasonability?

Prosecutors identified themselves as “big believers in accountability” and asked the jury to help protect officers in the community who uphold the laws. Fine, but is this a one-way street whereby citizens are only to protect law enforcement? Who protects citizens when law enforcement crosses bounds of reasonability?

Per the Ermis Doctrine, citizens with complaints should use the court system “where things are to be hashed out.” Would Steve Ermis have been willing to personally fund the tab it’s cost to pursue the Grisham case? Doubtful. Instead, taxpayers were left with that expense.

And do all citizens have the intellectual wherewithal to even know how to initiate such an action? Do they have the financial means by which to support a long-term, expensive, often agonizing and questionably-motivated process overseen by government officials who frequently exhibit strong protectionist sensitivities toward other governmental agency peers. People who think pursuing a legal action is an easy task likely haven’t been through the experience.

As many people couldn’t or wouldn’t have the means to take on such an effort, the Ermis Doctrine seems to promote a two-tiered legal system in which those who can fight can at least mount what’s often a handicapped effort while others without means are at the mercy of governmental entities and the authority – good or bad – exercised.

The Ermis Doctrine also creates increased risk to taxpayers for instances when authority abuse or unreasonable force is exercised against those with the means to launch civil actions. And again with the Grisham case, Steve Ermis won’t personally be paying for any subsequent civil lawsuits filed – taxpayers will.

The Grisham case may have first gained attention as a case about gun rights, but for residents of Temple and Bell County, it’s most enduring impact may be exposure of the Ermis Doctrine and what that means for those living under such a belief system.

The Ermis Doctrine’s “submit even to bad and then seek a legal remedy” creepily reminds of the rape and weather comparison and “if it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it” remark that destroyed the 1990 Texas gubernatorial aspirations of candidate Clayton Williams.

That attitude was hardly acceptable then. Is it acceptable now?

Lou Ann Anderson is an information activist and the editor of Watchdog Wire – Texas. As a Policy Analyst with Americans for Prosperity – Texas, she writes and speaks on a variety of public policy topics. Lou Ann is the Creator and Online Producer at Estate of Denial®, a website that addresses probate abuse via wills, trusts, guardianships and powers of attorney as well as other taxpayer advocacy issues.

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