Amarillo, Texas (CBS HOUSTON) — A teen’s mother and others in attendance at a middle school football game say that a police officer used excessive force in arresting a student who refused to cooperate in removing a rosary necklace – a symbol police say is often tied to gangs.
Jacob Herrera, 14, attended Sam Houston Middle School’s football game on Wednesday night and wore a rosary outside of his clothes – an accessory that he was asked by Amarillo Police Cpl. Vern Wilson to remove because of its association with “gang apparel,” KFDA-TV reports. Herrera allegedly declined to remove the rosary after being asked by a school administrator and a liaison officer and the situation escalated quickly.
Marivell Chavez, a witness, claimed that Wilson “hurt him” after slamming the student to the ground and laying on him until Herrera could be heard yelling out, “I can’t breathe.”
“You know he handcuffed him and then crossed him across the street right there and slammed him again and he repeatedly slammed the child on the floor,” says Chavez.
The Amarillo Police Department says the use of rosaries can symbolize association with gangs and that is why they are asked not to wear such accessories in a visible manner while on school property or at school functions. Amarillo ISD dress and grooming guideless don’t specifically address students wearing rosaries, but it does note that students can’t wear what law enforcement agencies have deemed identified as “gang apparel.”
And while witnesses and Herrera’s mother, Lori Martinez, say the officer used excessive force, the Amarillo Police told KFDA that gang-related accessories are a problem, but this was simply a case of Herrera’s refusal to cooperate with law enforcement.
Amarillo ISD released a statement regarding the incident: “Last night at one of our schools, a student was identified as being in violation of the dress code for wearing an item in a manner which is considered to be gang related by local and national law enforcement. A school administrator and liaison officer asked the student to either comply with the dress code rules or leave school property. The student repeatedly refused to comply with either option. At that time, the student was arrested for trespassing.”
“We are not indicating that this is the case in this particular incident but that sometimes our youth are using rosary beads as a sign of gang affiliation or some gang apparel again we are not saying that’s what it is, but we have seen it with others here and throughout the United States,” said Cpl. Jerry Neufeld.
Neufeld added, “He was fighting with the officer, he wouldn’t comply with the commands, he wouldn’t put his arms behind his back. The officer used a couple of different compliance holds to try and get him to put his hands behind his back. He did not deploy his taser, he just tried to get him under control. They rolled around on the ground for several minutes.”
Herrera was still being held in police custody on Friday at the Youth Center of High Plains as parents, students and witnesses of the incident wore rosaries as a symbol for the release of Herrera. Herrera’s mother says that her son wears the rosary for protection and in remembrance of her other son who passed away in 2012.
“I just want justice for my son and for them to let him go,” said Martinez.