When Alan Pean drove himself to Houston’s St. Joseph Medical Center in August 2015, he got into a minor car accident. He wasn’t thinking straight—he was trying to check himself in for mental health treatment. He had a history of bipolar disorder and, according to court documents, was seeking help for acute emotional distress—he’d hallucinated that men were trying to invade his apartment. But in the hospital, things would only get worse. The day after he was admitted, Pean was shot in the chest in his room. 

Pean was unarmed and naked at the time of the shooting. He survived after emergency surgery, only to be hit with criminal charges for alleged assault of the armed guards who charged into his hospital room. His lawyers later described that ultimately unsuccessful prosecution effort as a calculated conspiracy to absolve the man who had shot and nearly killed Pean: an off-duty Houston Police officer. In October, the City of Houston agreed to pay out $902,500—one of the highest settlement amounts in the city’s recent history—to Pean, whose father and two brothers are working as or training to be physicians, and who identifies as Black.  

A portrait of a shirtless Black man with medium-short hair, frowning at the camera. The image is in black and white, but a colored red X marks the spot where Alan Pean got shot.
A red X marks the spot where an off-duty Houston police officer shot Alan Pean in the chest, nearly killing him. Courtest of Alan Pean

For Pean’s brother Christian, the seven-year battle for compensation shows how “deliberately slow the wheels of justice turn.” He said the family still struggles to understand the lack of accountability for the officers involved in the case. “We do view the settlement as a modicum of accountability from the City of Houston for the atrocity that took place under their watch,” Christian said. “We continue to grapple through legal proceedings with the hospital system and the security company that put protocols in place that led to a response to a mental health crisis with bullets instead of healthcare. The country still needs a public health approach to mental health and justice reform to improve everyday outcomes for communities and police officers alike.”

Pean and his lawyers filed suit in 2016 naming the City of Houston, the officers involved in the shooting who worked extra jobs as hospital security guards, two others involved in the investigation, the hospital and its parent company, and the security company. The civil case against the hospital is ongoing.

The City of Houston’s payouts for officer-involved shootings tend to be relatively low compared to other major cities. Pean’s is the second-highest in the past seven years, records show. In 2020, the city paid out $1.2 million to the estate of Jordan Baker, who was killed by an off-duty Houston police officer in 2014. Like Pean, Baker was a young, unarmed Black man.

Settlements are far from a perfect metric for determining how often excessive force is used by a police department. A slew of variables—from the public perception of police to the budget to a victim’s willingness to pursue legal action—affect the amount of settlements for police misconduct in any city. An investigation by NPR found that settlements in 2015 were more likely in Democratic counties. Conservative communities that once seemed likely to settle have dialed back in the Black Lives Matter era, which some lawyers see as backlash from recent social upheaval, the investigation found.

Pean has mostly recovered from his injuries—and his brothers have participated in BLM marches as a result of his experience. His family members have also spoken out for more awareness of the fact that no one in America seems immune from police brutality—not even in a hospital.

Houston Police Department records show there have been 371 officer-involved shootings in Houston since 2010. In 120 of those, the suspect was killed. None resulted in an indictment, according to city staff.  

But Houston PD’s system policy of investigating officer-involved shootings was previously found lacking after a civil rights suit against the department was filed by Audry Releford, a Black Houstonian whose unarmed son was killed by a police officer in front of his house in 2012.

“These cases are extremely difficult, because in large part, law enforcement gets the benefit of a doubt.”

A 2020 study in the Michigan Law Review compared Philadelphia and Houston, two large cities with similarly sized police departments, over a period of time and found that Philadelphia had more civil rights suits filed against police officers, and that those suits resulted in 100 times more in settlements and judgments than in Houston. This wasn’t indicative of a pristine policing environment in Houston; in fact, another investigation found Houston officers were more likely to kill people than their Philadelphia counterparts. (They were also more likely to lose their peace officer licenses). 

Larry Taylor Jr., managing partner with the Cochran Firm in Dallas, has worked on police misconduct cases for about a decade. He said it’s difficult in many places for police misconduct suits to result in actual relief for the victim or for a dead victim’s family. “These cases are extremely difficult, because in large part, law enforcement gets the benefit of a doubt,” he said. “The script that is typically used in these cases is the officer was in fear of his life, the assailant was dangerous or is believed to be armed. And those statements alone make these cases extremely, extremely difficult for someone to prosecute, without some survivor or without video.”

City of Houston Attorney Arturo Michel said the city agreed to the relatively high settlement amount for several reasons, including the desire for the “finality and certainty in ending a lawsuit where the incidents preceded the current administration.” There were other hurdles to the city’s defense, including a “loss of key witnesses” and “difficulty in developing evidence to establish an accurate crime scene,” Michel said.

Pean’s attorney Joe Melugin said that, while the settlement wasn’t as large compared to other high-profile personal injury cases, this is a notable amount for Houston. 


“The reason it’s larger than so many other settlements the city has entered into is because unlike those other settlements, [Pean] survived being shot by Houston police,” Melugin said. “The story that Houston was going to tell was not going to hold water. They had significant liability beyond just the officers’ liability … because their de facto policy is essentially a license for Houston police officers to kill.”

The case drew national headlines in 2015 after Houston authorities criminally charged Pean and attempted to justify the off-duty officers’ decision to shoot an unarmed man in his hospital room.

After Pean checked into the hospital that night, he continued behaving erratically. Video available in the Paen case shows that he had been dancing naked in the doorway of his hospital around the time a nurse called security for assistance.

“They had significant liability beyond just the officers’ liability … because their de facto policy is essentially a license for Houston police officers to kill.”

Off-duty Houston Police Department Officers Roggie Law and Oscar Ortega responded. They were working as paid security for the hospital at the time. The officers entered Pean’s hospital room and closed the door. There were no hospital staff members or cameras in the room with them.

According to the lawsuit, the officers then “initiated a physical confrontation with Alan,” who was naked and unarmed and in the midst of a mental health crisis. The officers, unable to subdue Pean, escalated the situation. First, Officer Law used his Taser on Pean. When that failed to defuse the confrontation, Ortega shot Pean in the chest with his service pistol. As Pean lay on the floor bleeding, the officers handcuffed him, the lawsuit says. When they radioed others about the incident, they allegedly failed to mention Pean had been shot. A hospital employee examined Pean and rushed him to the intensive care unit. As he recovered, he remained handcuffed in his hospital room. 

During this time, the lawsuit alleges the hospital and police concocted a plan to “cover up and falsely justify their actions” by slapping Pean with charges of aggravated assault against a public servant and reckless driving. “HPD’s notorious blue wall of silence also operates as a blue wall of sound to protect HPD officers against outside scrutiny,” the lawsuit alleges. 

None of these charges would stick—a Harris County grand jury dismissed the assault charges, and the Harris County Criminal Court nixed the reckless driving charge. But Pean was still forced to post bond. He later had to travel from New York back to Texas to surrender himself when he found out about the reckless driving charge.

The Houston Police Department’s internal affairs division cleared the officers without interviewing the victim or consulting medical records.

An investigation by the Houston Chronicle after the fact showed the Houston Police Department’s internal affairs division reviewed the officers and quietly cleared them—without interviewing the victim or consulting medical records. 

Houston Police Department’s current use of force policy requires officers to take someone’s “mental capacity” into account before using force. Officers are also required to request emergency medical services when they come across someone who is injured (whether or not they’re the cause of the injury). The policy also requires officers to “provide first aid to their level of training without any unreasonable delay” while they await medical personnel. 

Pean’s legal saga is far from over, as he, his family, and his attorneys continue to seek damages from the medical facility for its handling of his crisis. His father and brother, as physicians, have spoken out to medical groups too.

“Alan and our family have continued to share his story in medical education venues to raise awareness about mental health practices and justice reform in the hope that fewer American families find themselves in the horrific circumstances we faced that day,” Christian Pean said in an email to the Texas Observer.


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