A Kosciusko police officer was suspended after violating multiple departmental policies in an incident that occurred last Friday night, May 20, at Jason Niles Park.
According to Kosciusko Police Chief Chris Wray, the incident involved a group of teenagers and adults, and originally began when officers responded to a complaint of loud music.
Wray said the department has received multiple complaints of disturbances involving the group in recent months.
“We have received multiple complaints of disturbing the peace at Jason Niles Park and other businesses here in the city,” said Wray. “We have an issue with people gathering in our parking lots and our parks, playing loud, vulgar music, littering, using public profanity, and so forth.”
He said officers responded to the call at the park, exited their vehicles, and stood for a minute while listening for any type of disturbance.
Officers parked on the north side of the park, while the group of people allegedly disturbing the peace were on the south side.
“(Officers) listened to see if there was any disturbance of the peace, any loud music, or any public profanity, and they did observe public profanity,” said Wray. “This would be disturbing the peace because it is loud and in a residential neighborhood. They observed one individual making comments about a crime and what it would take to commit a crime.”
Wray said officers then discussed which individual in the group made the statement.
“Because of the violence we've had in our community, they took this very seriously. They tried to figure out which individual said it amongst themselves.”
Wray said Officer Braxton Goza observed which individual reportedly spoke of what it would take to set someone up for a crime and attempted to point the individual out to the other officers. However, Goza used a red-beam pointer on his taser to identify the individual.
“There was some confusion because the person he was trying to describe multiple people had the same color shirt on,” said Wray. “(Goza) was trying to point them out from the other side of the park. The officer should not have done this. He made a mistake. They were on the complete other side of the park, but still, you do not point your red dot at people unless you plan on using your taser.”
The chief said Goza then entered his patrol car and drove around the park to confront the group.
“(Goza) pulls up to the group and tells them that they need to leave. Otherwise, they're going to receive a citation for disturbance of the peace and disturbing the neighborhood with profanity. The crowd starts to disperse. Some of them are mildly talking back to the officer. He tells them that they need to go home, not be in the park disturbing the pace, and not to be on the streets cutting up — driving recklessly, speeding — because this is the same group of young men that was notorious for doing that.”
Wray said as the crowd was dispersing, one individual told Goza to “shut up.” Then, Goza allegedly told the individual to “get the [expletive] out of my city.” Wray said the person Goza directed the comment at is not believed to be a Kosciusko resident, but rather from a neighboring community.
“But because he said that to them, of course, you don’t talk to people like that,” said Wray.
After the incident, several teenagers in the involved group contacted their parents and told them that Goza pointed his red dot at them.
That same night, parents of the teenagers went to the Kosciusko Police Department, and Wray went and met with them.
“I got out of bed around midnight and went to the police department that same night. (Parents) addressed their concerns with me, officers told me what happened, and I apologized to the group and told parents that I was very sorry. The officer had made a mistake in pointing his red dot at one of the people in the group and telling people to get the [expletive] out of our city. The following day, I reached back out to the parents again, and I met with just some of the mothers. We met at the police department on Sunday afternoon, the afternoon after the incident, and we discussed it again. Again, I addressed their concerns and told them how sorry I was for that incident.”
After the incident, it was discovered that Officer Goza did not have his body camera turned on, so no known footage currently exists of the confrontation. Other officers involved did not have their body cameras turned on either, but Wray said they never exited their vehicles or confronted the group.
“Officer Goza is the only one that exited his vehicle and spoke to the group,” said Wray.
Wray said Goza stated that his body camera had run out of battery and died prior to the incident.
When asked if he believed the incident was racially motivated, Wray said he feels the officer simply made a mistake due to using poor judgment.
“Law enforcement across the country is extremely short-staffed, underpaid, under extreme scrutiny, and the officers are becoming frustrated. They are deciding to leave the profession, and the good officers are under so much pressure that they make mistakes. I think that Officer Goza is a good officer. He's not a racist. He made a bad decision. He's been in law enforcement less than two years,” said Wray. “I believe he's 24 years old and made a mistake. Because he's such a young officer with only a couple of years in law enforcement, and after hearing all the facts, I don't think that he's a racist. I think he made a poor decision. I don't think that he deserves termination. I think that he is going to learn from this experience and hopefully become a better, more seasoned officer after this experience.”
In a special-called Board of Aldermen meeting last Monday night, May 16, the board voted to suspend Goza without pay for three days.
The following night, many members of the community and parents of the involved teenagers filled the meeting room at city hall and voiced their concerns to the Board of Aldermen while issuing a written statement to the city.
“Around 20 teenagers were hanging out at Jason Niles Park during legal business hours on Friday, May 13, 2022, at approximately 9:24 pm. Suddenly, they noticed red dots were aimed at their chest from a weapon. Shortly it was confirmed the weapon was carried by Officer Braxton Goza who never identified himself as a Kosciusko police officer. This caused the teenagers to become fearful for their lives,” read the statement issued to city leaders. “Afterward, they approached the teenagers in the police cars in the dark without using any lights or body cameras. Officer Braxton Goza ordered the teenagers to ‘get the [expletive] out of my city. If I catch y’all riding my street, you’re going to jail. We are demanding Officer Braxton Goza be immediately terminated based upon conduct unbecoming of a sworn law enforcement officer.”
The Board of Aldermen voted to hold another special meeting on Thursday, May 19, at 2 p.m., which involved an executive session to revisit Goza’s punishment.
“The Board went into executive session to discuss an incident in which Officer Goza was involved in last weekend,” said Kosciusko Mayor Tim Kyle. “The Board had suspended him for three days at a special meeting Monday. After hearing from the officers that were involved, the Board decided to extend the suspension by two days for a total of five days. He also will be put on a performance improvement plan that includes de-escalation training, and evaluation every thirty days for three months. Body cam videos will be randomly reviewed, along with policy training and six-month probation.”
Chief Wray said Goza’s performance will be evaluated every 30 days for the next 90 days. Additionally, Wray said the entire department will be subject to random body camera checks to ensure officers are using their cameras as intended, along with being courteous and professional in their encounters with the public.
“I can't predict the future, but an officer made a mistake and he's being held accountable for his mistakes,” said Wray. “Not every offense is worthy of termination. Officer Goza is receiving what I consider to be a punishment for his conduct, and hopefully this will correct the behavior going forward.”
Additionally, during the Thursday meeting, the Board of Alderman approved the hiring of three new officers: Jarvis Latiker, Matthew Griffin, and Deterron Hardin. Wray said he is grateful for the new hires and believes they will strengthen the department.
“Law enforcement agencies across the country are struggling to recruit people. We are not immune to this. We are actively recruiting. We're asking people in our community if they know people who want to join law enforcement, and their response is ‘no.’ Nobody wants to get into this profession,” said Wray. “Officers are leaving, getting out of law enforcement, and going into the private sector. So, we are thankful for those people that are courageous enough to still put on this uniform and face the dangers that we face every day when we go out on the street.”
The chief said the department is working proactively to gain the community’s trust through community service and wished to address members of the community who feel as though they are unable to trust officers.
“We are doing summer camps with the kids. We're doing donuts with cops with the kids. We have coffee with cops every few months, where we invite people from the community to come and get to know us, so we know each other on a first-name basis,” said Wray. “We respect our community, and we know that we have to treat people with respect to give respect. I ask that you don't let the mistake of one officer making a poor choice make you feel like you cannot trust your police department. Because we're absolutely here to protect and serve our community. We are doing everything that we can to combat crime and chase after our community. We want the community’s support. Sometimes we make mistakes. We have to learn from our mistakes and try and do everything we can to make sure that they don't happen again.”