On December 6, 2013, Cameron Redus, an unarmed college senior, was shot five times and killed by a University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) campus police officer. For the last five years, Burford Perry has fought to establish the right of Valerie and Mickey Redus to sue the private university at common law for Cameron’s wrongful and tragic death. UIW contended that because a licensed peace officer shot Cameron, rather than a professor or administrator, the family’s claims should be barred by sovereign immunity. If UIW was given immunity, the Reduses would have no way to get justice for Cameron or force UIW to change its police hiring and training practices. As has been widely reported, the officer that killed Cameron had nine jobs with eight law enforcement agencies in seven years before UIW hired him in 2011.
On May 22, 2020, the Texas Supreme Court, in a definitive 8-1 opinion, affirmed that a private university is a private employer subject to common law liability for the acts of its employees. The Court reaffirmed that sovereign immunity is not based on what the defendant was doing, and instead only applies to state governmental agencies or institutions they control. The Redus family, represented by Burford Perry, will now have their day in court.
University of the Incarnate Word Senior Cameron Redus arrived safely arrived at his apartment early on December 6 a few blocks north of campus. He was headed home for the night when he began the short walk to his unit, but he never made it inside. An UIW campus police officer returning from his dinner break followed Cameron home, pulled his cruiser behind Cameron’s parked truck, and ordered Cameron to stop. Cameron first complied with the officer’s orders and then began questioning why the officer was handcuffing and manhandling him. The officer knew Cameron was unarmed and not a threat to anyone. Cameron asked the officer to radio for assistance, but the officer was unable to tell the UIW dispatcher where he was. Instead of de-escalating the confrontation, the officer physically struggled with Cameron for over eight minutes.
Just a few steps from the comfort and safety of his bed, Cameron was shot five times at close range. Cameron’s gunshot wounds indicated that the campus police officer fired at least one of shot at a downward angle, penetrating his eye before exiting his neck. Cameron Redus will never get the opportunity to walk across the graduation stage, and the Redus family will never get the chance to watch Cameron receive the diploma he earned from the University he loved and served as a yell leader and campus newscaster.
While private university police officers are responsible for protecting and serving a university’s students, faculty, and staff, they seldom are equipped and trained to make arrests like the officer made with Cameron. In Cameron’s case, the officer used excessive force when he fatally shot unarmed and defenseless Cameron five times at close range, leaving him lying dead just steps from his apartment.
In the years that followed Cameron Redus’s tragic death, activists have brought renewed focus to the police who use excessive and unnecessary force, causing harm and death to unarmed citizens. A grand jury formed by a now-disgraced district attorney declined to criminally indict the UIW officer in 2015. Burford Perry, even so, was already taking the Redus family’s fight down the long road of justice for their son.
Burford Perry filed a civil lawsuit against the University of the Incarnate Word and the Campus Peace Officer, stating the University “failed to exercise reasonable care in hiring, training, supervising, and retaining, the officer.” A failed UIW administration and a campus police department led by the president’s brother are ultimately responsible for the senseless killing of Cameron Redus. Burford Perry and the Redus family intend for the lawsuit to bring justice for Cameron, and to ensure that UIW take full responsibility for Cameron’s death.
In an attempt to dodge responsibility for the officer’s actions and its own failures, the private university claimed that it should be treated like a government agency and that it should be immune from the civil suit. The trial court quickly denied the plea in March 2015, forcing UIW to begin an appeal process that lasted five years.
The University’s appeal was ultimately unsuccessful, but it still consumed five years and two trips to the Texas Supreme Court. In its May 22 opinion, the Texas Supreme Court declined to extend the doctrine of sovereign immunity to the private university and clearly explained the reasons for denying immunity even when conduct involves law enforcement. The Court heard oral argument in December 2019 before issuing its 8-1 ruling in favor of the Redus family. Because UIW is a private entity and, because the state does not control the actions of UIW’s peace officers, UIW’s Campus Police are not acting as “an arm of the State”. This crucial and groundbreaking decision clearly explains that the intent of sovereign immunity is to preserve and uphold “the separation of government power and protecting the public treasury from lawsuits and judgments.” Going forward, private entities will be unable to credibly invoke sovereign immunity.
The favorable Texas Supreme Court result effectively opened the courthouse doors for the Redus family to get justice for Cameron. The UIW community continues to hold a vigil for Cameron every year on December 6. This may be the year justice finally comes, and Burford Perry will be there as the advocate for the Redus family.