9/11/2013 | Houston Forward Times | By Jeffrey L. Boney
“You have the right to remain silent!”
This is the beginning phrase from the warning a criminal suspect usually hears when they are being read their Miranda rights from a member of law enforcement, and prior to them saying anything that could harm them in any way and lead to a self-incriminating result.
For many current and former Houston Police Department (HPD) officers, many believe that they have had to work in an environment where they have been the victim of a work environment built upon a foundation of retaliation and an unwritten “code of silence” that has proven problematic for them.
HPD RETALIATION RULING For the second time in one year, a federal jury has determined that the Houston Police Department (HPD) retaliated against one of their own.
After more than three weeks of testimony and jury deliberation, HPD Officer Christopher Zamora was awarded $150,000 for compensatory damages which include emotional distress and damage to his professional reputation and standing in the law enforcement community. On December 2012, another federal jury also ruled in favor of Officer Zamora against HPD for the same allegations, but a U.S. Supreme Court ruling necessitated a new trial.
Officer Zamora is the son of a retired HPD Lieutenant who, along with 23 other Hispanic police officers, filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination within HPD against Hispanics in the promotions process.
According to the jury ruling, Officer Chris Zamora, who was not involved in the original case, was subjected to a hostile work environment and labeled “UNTRUTHFUL” by the HPD Internal Affairs Division and HPD command staff. Meanwhile, during the five-year pendency of the federal lawsuit against HPD, Officer Chris Zamora received the 2008 South Patrol Officer of the Year Award within HPD and was also named Officer of the Year by “The 100 Club,” a popular non-profit organization that supports families of officers killed in the line of duty.
“I am proud that Officer Chris Zamora’s name has finally been cleared,” said Kim Ogg, Zamora’s attorney. “Chris Zamora was wrongfully branded a ‘liar’ when his father and he broke the “code of silence” by speaking out against must change and the ‘good old boy’ system of turning a blind eye to wrongdoing within must stop now.”
BLUE CODE OF SILENCE The Blue Code of Silence is an unwritten rule among police officers in the U.S. not to report on the errors, misconducts or crimes of one of their fellow officers. According to the unwritten code, if an officer is questioned about an incident of misconduct involving another officer, the officer being questioned will claim to be unaware of another officer’s wrongdoing.
The term “whistleblower” comes to mind, when being used to describe someone who breaks the unwritten blue code, similar to a referee blowing their whistle to indicate an illegal or foul play. Federal laws strongly prohibit officer misconduct, including officers who follow the blue code by neglecting to report any officer who is participating in corruption. If an officer is in violation of any of the officer misconduct federal laws, only the federal government can issue a suit. The police department is only responsible for preventing corruption among officers.
If an officer is convicted, they may be forced to pay high fines or be imprisoned. To be convicted, however, the plaintiffs must prove that the officer was following the blue code or was participating in negligent and unlawful conduct. It is often hard to convict an officer of following the blue code or other forms of corruption because officers are protected by defense of immunity, which is an exemption from penalties and burdens that the law generally places on regular citizens.
Many officers fail to challenge the blue code, because doing so could mean they are challenging long-standing traditions and feelings of brotherhood within the law enforcement family. “They are blackballing good police officers to cover up discrimination,” said long-time community activist Johnny Mata. “Instead of addressing claims of discrimination by police officers fairly, HPD retaliates and we have noticed a pattern of Internal Affairs Division sham investigations ultimately used to compromise the complaining officers’ credibility.”
One of the other primary reasons that officers choose to follow the blue code and keep their mouths shut, is because they fear facing the consequences that come as a result of it; such as being shunned, losing friends, losing back-up, receiving threats, having one’s own misconduct exposed and more importantly, being terminated.
Being shunned, receiving threats and being terminated are attributes of breaking the blue code of silence that former HPD Officer Katherine Swilley knows all too well.
KATHERINE SWILLEY Katherine Swilley was a well-respected and dedicated HPD officer, who served the City of Houston for over 20+ years. Swilley received numerous “Outstanding” performance ratings and commendations from the public, her superiors and from two City of Houston Mayors. Her star was definitely on the rise.
Swilley was also an outstanding public citizen and public servant. Swilley started a nonprofit organization in 2000 called “Texas Cops & Kids”-Cops Giving Kids Quality Time…Not Jail Time. Using most of her own funds to support the program, Swilley started the juvenile delinquency prevention program based on the concerns she had with the lack of options that disadvantaged youth had in some of Houston’s poorest neighborhoods.
Swilley’s community service work led to City of Houston Mayor Bill White awarding her with the City of Houston’s prestigious Bravo Award in September 2005. Upon receipt of this prestigious award, she was both publicly and privately praised by her supervisors.
As a matter of fact, the City of Houston’s Bravo Award website still lists her accomplishment, as well as lists statements from her supervisors stating that “she is an incredible person with a true passion and mission in life.” In addition, the Mayor’s office extended a public “thank you” to Swilley “for being another example of what makes Houston Police Officers so special.”
After receiving the Bravo Award, Police Chief Harold Hurtt reassigned Swilley to the Public Affairs Division on special assignment in May 2006 to initiate his “Kids at Hope Program.” This is when Swilley says everything changed and went downhill for her at HPD.
SWILLEY’S STORY In 2008, Swilley’s problems began when she reported what she believed was discrimination within the Houston Police Department’s Public Affairs Division, due to her supervisors’ lack of support for the inner city delinquency prevention program that served at risk youth. Swilley filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and she states that as soon as that happened, HPD opened up a criminal investigation on her for misappropriating funds with her non-profit; none of which was ever proven.
Swilley states that she was unlawfully retaliated against and terminated in March 2008, in direct connection to her filing an EEOC complaint, and after she revoked her willingness to be bound by a “Last-Chance” Compromise Waiver Agreement that required her to vacate and relinquish the rights guaranteed to her by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was unlawful retaliation.
Swilley states that officers who report police misconduct find themselves being investigated by HPD’s Internal Affairs Division on unsubstantiated allegations and trumped-up charges of untruthfulness and/or insubordination, and required to take some sort of deal in order to save their jobs.
She states that these deals include taking mental fitness tests and/ or program for officers with discipline problems, forced medical retirements and/ or sign “Last Chance” compromise waiver agreements to accept a lesser discipline and drop any and all discrimination complaints they may have filed with EEOC. “I did nothing wrong, so there was no need for me to sign anything” says Swilley. “Officers who refuse to accept these deals are terminated and removed from their careers in law enforcement followed by erroneous dishonorable discharges based on bogus charges, ending their law enforcement careers.”
Swilley states that she never would have imagined in a million years being framed on a baseless criminal investigation, as well as being bullied and forced out of a police career that she loved and was committed to for over 20 years. According to HPD Internal Affairs documents received by the Houston Forward Times, Swilley is shown to have been terminated based on the initial charges of “UNTRUTHFULNESS,” which is the same thing that prompted the lawsuit from Officer Christopher Zamora. Other documents reveal irrefutable evidence that the ‘UNTRUTFULNESS” charges related to Swilley’s termination letter were proven untrue and that Swilley received an improper dishonorable discharge. There are affidavits and documents from HPD Internal Affairs investigators that clearly state that they have no evidence or proof that Swilley committed any crime or deserved to be terminated.
FEAR OF HER LIFE Swilley admits that she has been in fear for her life and simply wants HPD to do the right thing.
“For two years, I was under a protective order and ordered not to discuss my case, while atrocious lies were spread throughout the police department and the community about me,” says Swilley. “I have had my integrity and credibility attacked and I have even been threatened with dead animals on my yard and phone calls.”
Swilley says that she has been subjected to the harassment of having officers show up at her home, claiming that they were responding to alarm calls or calls for help at her home. She says that suspicious vehicles have been parked in front of her home; dead animals have been found in her yard, including a dead possum in front of her home with its throat cut; her computer has been hacked; and random vehicles have driven by and fired shots in front of her home.
She goes further to say that since she filed complaints, the threats have escalated, with someone ringing her doorbell in the middle of the night and someone writing the words “F@#$ Y@%” with the “F” shaped as a Swastika sign on the sidewalk in front of her home.
SEEKING VINDICATION Like Officer Zamora, Swilley is simply seeking redemption and restitution. Since her termination and fight for redemption, she lost her husband to cancer and has spent well over $100k in legal fees in order to clear her husband’s name. “Swilley is my married name and my husband fought bravely for this country in the military,” said Swilley. “My husband has a good name and before he died, I promised him that I would continue to fight to clear the Swilley name from these lies. I will not rest until his name is cleared and my reputation is restored.”
Swilley states that she has spoken before Houston City Council and has not gotten any help or assistance with her case.
“I am innocent and the facts show I am innocent, says Swilley. “I have all the proof and all the evidence to clear my name, I just need someone at City Hall to help me.”
Swilley is requesting that HPD:
Clear her name of “UNTRUTHFULNESS” charges
Reinstate her with back pay
Replace funds in her retirement account
Remove all false charges in her personnel file related to her complaints of discrimination, including remove the dishonorable discharge from her police file
Perform an investigation of all officers who have been terminated and received dishonorable discharges, after reporting discrimination
Immediately halt the use of any and all “Last Chance” compromise waiver agreements requiring protected classes of victims, namely African Americans and Mexican and Latin Americans officers or any officers involved in any Title VII investigations to drop any and all complaints they may have with EEOC in order to save their jobs.
The Houston Forward Times will continue to follow this story and update our readers on Katherine Swilley’s fight to clear her name.
This story is the second in a two-part investigation into lack of accountability in the Houston Police Department. Read part one, “Crimes Unpunished,” originally published in the July issue of the Observer.
Sebastian Prevot watched helplessly as three police officers advanced on his wife. Prevot was handcuffed and bleeding in the back of a cop car. Half of his left ear dangled where it had been torn from his head. The Houston Police Department doesn’t deny that its officers gave Prevot these injuries during a late-night arrest in January 2012. The only dispute is whether he earned them.
Prevot had been returning home from a night out with a friend. He was two miles from his house when he stopped just past the white line at a four-way stop sign. Two officers in a patrol car tried to pull him over, but he kept driving. Prevot says he didn’t want to pull over and continued home—“going the speed limit, stopping at every stop sign”—because he knew he was about to be detained and have his car impounded.
“My kids had to go to school in the morning,” he told me. “My wife had to go to work.”
Prevot sits across from me in a noisy McDonald’s at dusk. He’s 30, married, with three little boys. In 2009 Prevot was one semester away from getting his bachelor’s degree in marketing when his wife, Annika Lewis, was promoted at her job with AT&T, and the family moved to Houston from Lafayette, Louisiana. Now he takes care of his sons, ages 7, 5, and 4, coaches youth sports and looks for work. His left ear still bears a crosshatching of paler brown where an emergency room doctor stitched it up on January 27, 2012, the night he should have stopped.
I ask Prevot why he anticipated trouble if all he’d done was roll past the line at a stop sign. He looks at me like I’m crazy.
“Obviously, it’s three in the morning,” he says, “so they’re gonna find something. Besides, the inspection sticker on my car was bad.”
Prevot didn’t say he expected to be arrested because he is black, but racial profiling is common. In 2012, almost half the Houstonians arrested during traffic stops were African-Americans, though they make up less than a quarter of the city’s population. Houston Police Department statistics show that white drivers are more likely than black drivers to be carrying contraband, but according to HPD’s annual report on racial profiling—which concludes, “The analysis provides no evidence that officers of the Houston Police Department engage in racial profiling”—officers performed “consent searches” on black drivers in 2012 more than four times as often as on white drivers. A consent search is specifically one made without probable cause.
“When they put those lights on,” Prevot says, “I automatically knew I was going to jail.”
Prevot also kept driving because he was scared. “I mean, I saw the cops,” he says. “I’m from Louisiana, and it was two white boys in the car in a dark area. I wasn’t about to stop nowhere close to there.”
“What were you afraid of?” I ask.
“Getting beat up,” he says. “The same thing that happened.”
As Prevot drove, more police cruisers joined the slow pursuit. By the time he arrived at his house, he estimates 10 cars had him surrounded.
“When I pulled in right in front of my driveway, I got out, hands in the air,” Prevot says. “They already had guns drawn on me. Then they put those up and attacked. From there, they was just beatin’ the bricks off me.”
What Prevot describes isn’t rare in Houston. According to citizens, community activists, a veteran Houston police officer and even the president of the local police union, the scenario of multiple officers beating an unarmed suspect happens nearly every day.
What’s rare is for the Houston Police Department to punish its officers for excessive force. An eight-month Texas Observer investigation found that during the past six years, Houston civilians reported officers for “use of force”—the department’s term for police brutality—588 times. The Internal Affairs division investigated each complaint and dismissed all but four.
More surprisingly, HPD rarely believes even its own officers when they claim to have witnessed unjustified violence against citizens. In the same period, Houston cops reported other officers for excessive force 118 times. Internal Affairs dismissed all but 11.
In total, Internal Affairs sustained just 15—or 2 percent—of the 706 police abuse complaints the past six years, according to department records the Observer obtained through public information requests.
In at least 10 of the 15 sustained complaints, the incident was videotaped. Many say—and internal documents suggest—that videotaped beatings have prompted Houston cops to aggressively prevent citizens from recording their behavior.
But beatings take time. They make noise. Witnesses can gather and start filming. Shootings, on the other hand, are fast. They’re usually over as quickly as they begin, which may be one reason why, in the past six years, not a single Houston police officer has been disciplined for shooting someone.
Between 2007 and 2012, HPD officers were involved in 550 incidents in which either a citizen or animal was injured or killed by a police officer’s bullet, according to agency records.
Internal Affairs investigated each incident and determined that every single shooting was justified.
Some of these civilians were armed. Others weren’t. Mark Ames, 23, was unarmed and fleeing when he was shot and injured. Yoanis Vera, 26, was also unarmed when he was wounded. Kenneth Releford was unarmed, but HPD says he charged at an officer while keeping one hand behind his back. Releford, 38, was killed. All of those cases are from 2012.
Another citizen killed by HPD in 2012 was a wheelchair-bound man. Brian Claunch was mentally ill and had only one arm and one leg. Claunch was shot because he allegedly threatened an officer with a ballpoint pen.
Out of 706 complaints about excessive force, HPD disciplined only 15 officers. For 550 shootings, HPD disciplined none. The message is clear: Either Houston police almost never abuse their power, or they abuse it with impunity.
Prevot says after he surrendered, one officer “tackled me into my [car] door and threw me to the ground in the middle of the street. From there, all of them rushed me and started coming to beat me. Hit me with a stick, twisting my ankle in back. While the rest of them were beating me, there’s one in the back twisting my ankle the whole time. Tore tendons and everything. I still go to the doctor for that.“One will get a lick in and another will get a lick in. It was many, many, many licks. Like, two officers tried to kick me—” his hand hovers over the table and he looks embarrassed—“in the gonads. And I’m out there yelling loud. I guess my wife finally heard me. She came outside with her camera phone. The whole time, they’re yelling, ‘Put your hands behind your back! Put your hands behind your back!’ But they’re standing on my hands. I’m trying to get them to the back like they’re telling me to, but they’re not allowing me. So meanwhile, they continue to whup the shit out of me.”
Jimmy reads the transcript of my conversation with Prevot quietly. Jimmy—not his real name—is a white man, has been an officer with the Houston Police Department for more than 10 years, and doesn’t want to disclose any more than that. He’s disturbed by what he describes as a culture of brutality and racism at HPD but says it’s not safe to criticize the department openly.
Jimmy reads as far as the beating and looks up. “Sounds about right,” he says. “Adrenaline dump, everybody’s chasing him, they all come piling after him. They tackle him, everybody gets their licks in and they put handcuffs on him. That makes sense. Whupping somebody that just ran, that’s like an everyday occurrence. Hell, I’d be surprised if they didn’t.”
I ask Jimmy if it’s plausible that cops would prevent a suspect from complying and putting his hands behind his back. “Yeah,” he says. “I don’t know that it’s normal, and I don’t even know that it’s necessarily deliberate. Could be bad communication. But it’s not exactly innocent either. Cops are starting to learn to perform for the camera. So they know that, like, maybe you can’t see all the details of exactly what’s going on in the scuffle, but if they’re yelling out things like, ‘Give me your hands,’ then it sure looks better after the fact.”
Handcuffing, Jimmy says, “may or may not bring it to a stop. Generally speaking, that’s the sort of limit, when you put the handcuffs on. But even then, it’s not…”
Jimmy trails off. Although we’ve talked many times over several months, he still occasionally seems surprised at what he is about to say. “It’s just, not everybody is necessarily done just because you’ve got the handcuffs on. People will typically stop at that point, but I have heard officers running up to a fight yelling, ‘Don’t put the handcuffs on yet!’ They want to get their licks in.”
“My wife caught all this on camera,” Prevot says. “So by that time, the guy twisting my ankle gave it a final twist.” Prevot mimes wrenching. “And he dropped my foot. The other guys kinda laid off. Then they were like, ‘Get up! Get up!’ And I told them, ‘I can’t get up!’ You know, I’m crying. So they picked me up. They got me in the cuffs now. They put me in the back of this car, and they go over to see what’s going on with my wife. In the back of this car, I could see everything that’s going on.
“Well, I’m looking at them going at my wife. She’s still got her phone. She’s in her own yard. She’s not nowhere near the streets. She’s not interfering or anything, she’s just recording what’s going on. I guess when they seen she was recording them, those three guys, they came behind her and they attacked her. One of them tried to grab the phone out of her hand. She wouldn’t let go, so they twisted her arm behind her and punched her a couple of times. They did her pretty bad. And she’s real short, real petite, like 4 [foot] 11, and at that time maybe 101 or 98 [pounds].
“They got the phone from her, cuffed her up, and put her in a car. They took the phone and took it all the way apart. She had an HTC Evo, and it’s not easy to get the memory card out of the back. They were there for about 10, 15 minutes trying to get it open. Took them a good while.”
Less than two weeks after Prevot’s arrest, the Houston Police Department distributed a memo reminding officers that “citizens have a right to photograph, record, or videotape officers while officers are doing their job. … Officers are further reminded not to initiate an investigative detention or ask for identification merely because a citizen is photographing or recording an officer.”
The memo adds, “If an officer believes a videotape or photograph may contain evidence of a crime, the officer shall consult with the District Attorney’s office to determine if a search warrant is needed to either seize the video or view the contents on the device in question.”
Jimmy says the last bit—don’t take someone’s phone without permission and a reason—is in response to a new tactic cops are using to fight citizen surveillance.
“Are you familiar with the drunk lawyer phenomenon?” Jimmy asks. “Like when you’re at the bar and your friend is giving you crazy legal advice about how to avoid DWI, and it has nothing to do with real law? Well, cops play that game, too, except it’s new ways to prevent people from recording us. Like now they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s evidence’ and confiscate the phone and tag it into the property room for 18 months.” Jimmy says even if a phone does contain evidence of a crime, the department has equipment that can quickly copy its contents. “There’s no need to sit on it for a year and a half,” he says. “It’s purely punitive.”
But that depends on how you define “need.” The officers who arrested Prevot might have needed to take Annika’s phone to keep their jobs.
In 2011, local news station ABC-13 KTRK aired security camera footage of a dozen HPD officers punching and kicking an unarmed 15-year-old burglary suspect named Chad Holley. The video sparked outrage. National news outlets aired it and community organizers rallied around it as proof that Houston police officers abuse their power. Even the chief of police, Charles McClelland, said publicly that the video “made me sick to my stomach because it was an egregious use of force.”
Twelve officers were disciplined for the Chad Holley beating, seven of whom were fired. Three of those later got their jobs back through arbitration. (For more on HPD’s flawed discipline system, see “Crimes Unpunished,” in the Observer’s July issue.) Four of the fired officers were also indicted for misdemeanor official oppression. One was found not guilty—an all-white jury decided in May 2012 that Andrew Blomberg was not stomping on Holley’s hands but was trying to lift them with the back of his foot—one was found guilty and the other two pleaded no contest. All three received probation.
To Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, those former cops are the real victims. “If Chad Holley had been in school and not burglarizing a house,” he told me, “those officers would still be in this department.”
I asked Hunt how often the Chad Holley scenario—one suspect, multiple officers and “a question about force”—happens.
Hunt, who was a Houston patrol officer for 18 years, replied, “That happens a lot. And I can tell you—myself, two paramedics, my old partner and another police officer were in a similar type thing with a 78-year-old woman on a scene one time. And if that had been videotaped, I can only imagine what people would have thought we were doing to this person. All’s we were trying to do was make sure that her knife was gone and she was handcuffed. … But yeah, a lot of times, when you’ve got a citizen that’s fighting with officers, it may take seven, eight, nine officers to subdue that person. The adrenaline’s going, and it can be bad.”
I asked, “Was the only difference between the Chad Holley scene and scenes that go on all the time that there just happened to be video?”
“Um, I think video is a lot,” Hunt said. Then he seemed to hear himself. “Let me clarify something. I would not say that you’ve got scenes going on all the time that you’ve got persons who are kicking or hitting suspects. I will say you’ve got situations a lot of times out there where you’ve got six or seven officers trying to handcuff a suspect. … Is it ever appropriate to kick or strike a suspect? Absolutely. … Is it ever appropriate to kick or hit a suspect who’s handcuffed and not resisting? Absolutely not.”
Hunt continued, “So then the question is, on Chad Holley’s situation, was he resisting or not? Is it resisting to say, ‘Put your hands behind your back’ and he has them here?” Hunt placed his hands above his head, as Holley did when he was face-down in the grass on the video. “He thinks he’s complying. The officer doesn’t think he’s complying.”
The Houston Police Department’s general orders governing use of force specify, “The circumstances justifying the initial use of force may change during the course of an event. It is the duty of all employees to constantly assess the situation and adjust the use of force accordingly.” But that’s exactly what Hunt says doesn’t happen during an event like Holley’s arrest.
“When that first person runs in,” Hunt says, “it’s very difficult for an officer to stand back and go, ‘Well, hang on, let me think of the penal code…’ You automatically assumed that that person was justified in going in whenever you go in and follow.”
Jimmy agrees. “You’ve got that groupthink going on. All it takes is for one officer to break ranks and go running up there and everybody else is like, ‘Well, I’m not gonna let him run up there by himself.’ There’s a lot of trusting each other’s judgment calls on that sort of stuff and the net result is a lot of piling on. One guy makes a bad call and everybody just goes for it.”
Hunt says this piling on isn’t just automatic—it’s obligatory. Of Holley’s arrest, Hunt said, “If anybody was standing there on the scene when you’re trying to get a felon into custody, I would question that person’s integrity to be a police officer.”
Hunt added, “I want to make sure I’m not quoted as saying we have situations all the time where we’ve got a situation exactly like Chad Holley where he’s being struck both with hands and being kicked. But I’m saying that a lot of times, you’ve got multiple officers trying to subdue a suspect.”
Video, as Ray Hunt said, is a lot. In many cases, the presence of video appears to determine whether a use-of-force complaint is sustained or dismissed.
One jail attendant, Roy Ferrer, had four complaints about use of force dismissed before cameras caught him seizing a handcuffed prisoner by the throat, forcing him to the ground, and kneeing him in the kidneys. That complaint was sustained. Ferrer received a 15-day suspension, according to department records.
Adam Anweiler received two excessive force complaints within a year of each other shortly after joining the Houston Police Department as a jailer; both were dismissed. Then a surveillance camera recorded Anweiler striking a prisoner in the groin, slamming the man’s face into the concrete, and twisting his arm until his shoulder dislocated and his arm broke. Anweiler was fired.
His supervisor, Captain Douglas Perry Jr., was also disciplined. After an employee reported Anweiler’s assault, Perry sent a letter to his superiors stating, “I have completed a thorough review of this incident that included reviewing all relevant documents and watching the video…” and “I’m confident that all Jail Policies were followed and no further actions [sic] is needed.”
Internal Affairs disagreed. When investigators asked Perry why he hadn’t reported the abuse, he claimed the lieutenant with whom he watched the video had “somehow skipped over the portions” that included the beating, according to HPD records. He was suspended seven days.
Officer Angela Horton was simply unlucky. Unaware that she was being filmed by a news helicopter, Horton sucker-punched a handcuffed teenager in the face as another officer led him away. In her official statement, Horton claimed she did not punch the teen but merely pushed his face. “Because the suspect was sweating profusely from trying to elude us,” she wrote, “…my hand slid off of his face.” Horton lost her job.
Through open records requests, the Observer obtained documentation on 11 of the 15 complaints about use of force sustained in the last six years. All but one of those incidents were recorded.
Jimmy, the HPD officer, says this isn’t a coincidence. Without video, he says, excessive force complaints go nowhere. “I’m having a hard time conceiving of any situation in which witness testimony would outweigh the testimony of officers on the scene,” he says. “You could almost have a busload of nuns come by and watch the whole thing, and Internal Affairs could still figure out a way to make it not sustained. They would say, ‘Oh, we don’t really know for sure. You know, the position they were sitting in, the distance they were away, they didn’t really see the full context of what happened.’”
Perhaps the most distressing part is not how many complaints about excessive force the Houston Police Department receives or how few it sustains, but what happens to all the ones they dismiss.
If a complaint is not sustained, it disappears. The complaint, and its investigation, can’t be reviewed by anyone outside HPD or another qualified government agency. Even with all identifying information redacted, members of the public can’t read what a complainant, witness, or officer said about an incident.
That’s because Texas’ Local Government Code allows Houston and other large cities to withhold information about a “charge of misconduct … not supported by sufficient evidence.” Because Internal Affairs decides what constitutes sufficient evidence, Jimmy says, the department has total latitude in cases that don’t involve, for example, publicly broadcast video of an incident.
With full control, Jimmy says, “If you want something to come out a particular way, you can contort the evidence to make an argument for that.”
One of the ways HPD justifies keeping all un-sustained complaints secret is by pointing to the Independent Police Oversight Board. The board comprises four panels of citizens who review every serious or criminal complaint against Houston officers and every allegation of citizen mistreatment. After an investigation is complete, HPD makes the file available to one of the four oversight board panels, which meets to discuss the case. If the panel finds something lacking in the investigation or disagrees with the conclusion, it sends the case back to Internal Affairs, which is required to issue a response.
But that’s the end of it. The Independent Police Oversight Board doesn’t review cases a second time to see if its concerns were addressed, and Internal Affairs isn’t obligated to do anything the board asks. “They’re not in the chain of command,” explains Executive Assistant Chief Michael Dirden, HPD’s liaison to the board. “It’s not a civilian review board with subpoena power and investigative power or anything like that.”
If an oversight board member feels a case is being mishandled, the board’s charter says he or she should report the case to the city’s inspector general. But the inspector general, whose office is responsible for investigating city employee misconduct, has no jurisdiction over HPD. Firefighters, yes, the mayor, yes, but Houston police are explicitly exempt. The inspector general can’t investigate alleged wrongdoing. He or she can only urge the police to do so.
“Under the City of Houston system,” Dirden says, “no one—neither the [oversight board] nor the inspector general or anybody—can tell the chief of police, ‘You know, we don’t like this and you’re going to change it.’ No one has that authority.”
From the police car, Prevot watched HPD officers release Annika. “All the guys are still out there,” he says, “all out laughing and smiling and so forth. Like it’s a big game or whatever.” After Annika went inside the house, “That’s when the guys came back to the car. They looked at me like, ‘Man, your ear’s hanging off!’ They were laughing and playing with it. My hands are cuffed. Everything was swolled up. I couldn’t feel a thing. I couldn’t even feel that. I don’t even know what’s going on, I just know blood’s everywhere. But they were playing with it, making jokes, like ‘Man, they’re gonna have to glue that back together or something!’ It was just a big fun time for them.
“So they drove off, took me straight to the jailhouse. When you’re booked at the jailhouse, there’s a doctor who checks everybody in. Doctor told them, ‘No, you can’t bring him in here. You gotta bring him to the hospital.’ So the officers said, ‘Oh man, you gotta be shittin’ me.’ And the doctor said, ‘No, you gotta take him to the hospital for that ear and everything else that’s going on.’ So they brought me to Ben Taub [General Hospital].
“These guys, they’re waiting on the physician to come and see me. We’re sitting in this room, and they came and took a picture with me. All beat up, handcuffed, ear hanging. … Like I was a freaking trophy head or something. This guy’s got his arm around my shoulder, taking a picture with me. We were waiting there for a while. They were talking noise … saying things like, ‘You were hollering like a bitch!’”
Jimmy reads this part of the Prevot interview and sighs. As a cop, he says, “you’re knee-deep in enough car wrecks, and you see enough bodies torn apart, and you’re around all this horror-show stuff enough times and, like, it just stops being so horrible after a while. You’re around a lot of people who are in horrific, awful, horrible pain and suffering, caused by other people, caused by you, caused by a lot of different stuff and…” He sighs again. “The human heart only has a certain capacity, right? You hit a limit in there somewhere, and it just shuts down. It quits working.
“I’m not going to say that’s not sick and twisted,” he adds. “But it’s a necessary response to the job. It’s a coping mechanism, especially for the guys in patrol. They’re up close and personal with the horror every day.”
In December 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it would review six incidents in which Houston police officers used force against unarmed citizens. Prevot’s arrest was one; Holley’s beating was another; Angela Horton’s face-push was a third. Fourth was Anthony Childress, who says a group of officers stopped him while he was riding his bike and beat him so severely that he lost six teeth and needed 56 stitches. Childress filed an excessive force complaint that was dismissed.
In the other two cases, HPD officers killed people.
When Officer J. McGowan arrived at a reported assault in progress in July 2012, she didn’t know that Rufino Lara was the victim. The officer saw him walking away and followed him, ordering him to stop and show his hands. Witnesses say Lara, 54, turned around with his hands already in the air. McGowan says one hand was tucked into Lara’s waistband. Wherever Lara’s hands were, McGowan shot him dead. In his waistband, she found a beer.
Brian Claunch made violent threats against the officers who came to his home in September 2012 on a disturbance call. Claunch, 45, lived in a residence for disabled men with mental illness. He suffered from schizophrenia and was confined to a wheelchair because he had only one arm and one leg. Yet according to HPD, Claunch backed an able-bodied officer into a corner and jabbed at her with a shiny object. Officer Matthew Marin came to his partner’s aid and killed Claunch with one shot. The object in Claunch’s hand turned out to be a pen. HPD says the case is still under investigation, but a grand jury has already cleared Marin of any wrongdoing.
HPD records consider Brian Claunch to have been armed. The department counts his pen as a weapon. But 49 of the people Houston officers fired on during the past six years were unarmed, even by HPD standards. That’s one in five.
In most cases, the reason the department gave for officers firing on unarmed citizens was “posturing.” The news releases that accompany each HPD shooting use a specific vocabulary to justify the ones in which a suspect is unarmed. The officer “saw several suspicious males” in an area “known for narcotics activity.” The officer saw someone who “matched the description of a suspect” wanted elsewhere. The suspect “made furtive motions,” or “aggressively confronted the officer with one hand behind his back as if he was holding a weapon.” Most often, though, the suspect “appeared to place his hands down the front of his pants” or “began to make movements around his waistband” or “reached into his waistband, as if he was retrieving a weapon.” Why so many unarmed men would rummage in their pants at a moment of crisis is never addressed.
In one case, an off-duty officer saw a man walking up his driveway and suspected him a car thief. The officer says he grabbed his service weapon and ordered the man to show his hands but the man “instead began running at” him with his hands “concealed in his pockets.” The officer fired several shots. Because the suspect escaped, he must have charged the officer, hands in pockets, despite seeing the gun and hearing commands, then made a U-turn after the officer fired and dashed away.
No matter the reason an officer gives for firing, it’s always enough for Internal Affairs and the Homicide Division, which investigate every discharge of a service weapon. In the past six years, HPD officers killed citizens in 109 shooting incidents and killed animals in 225 incidents. In 112 shootings, officers wounded citizens; in another 104, they wounded animals. Of 550 shooting incidents with some kind of casualty, not one was found unjustified.
Hunt says the investigative process that finds all shootings justified is extremely thorough and fair. “When we shoot someone, [Internal Affairs] comes out, [District Attorney]’s office comes out, Homicide [Division], and our attorney comes out, and we agree to do a walk-through of the case,” Hunt says. “We oppose videotaping that walk-through and the reason is, all the facts out there show that two, three days [later], things will be recalled that the officer realizes took place that he didn’t realize that second when his adrenaline is sky-high and he just shot or killed somebody. … We don’t think it’s fair, then, for an officer who—and this routinely happens—two, three days later [to] say, ‘You know what? I forgot to tell y’all, something did happen out there. I remember this.’ … If the defense attorney shows a videotape of [the walk-through], saying ‘Well he didn’t say it here!’ you can’t convince all those jurors that people recall things later.”
But internal documents show that if a recording of an officer’s initial statement about a serious incident differs from a later statement, HPD trusts the earlier version.
Officer Paul Nguyen was off-duty when he got into a fight with a driver he thought was acting unsafely. According to HPD records, Nguyen grabbed the driver, Mr. Melchor, by the shirt, dragged him from the car and held him up by the throat. Then Nguyen calmed down and went home. Melchor called 9-1-1. Because this happened outside of HPD’s jurisdiction, a Harris County deputy constable responded.
In Nguyen’s official account, made well after the incident, he claimed that during the argument, “he saw Mr. Melchor’s hand drop to the right side of his body—which was more concealed—and led Officer Nguyen to believe Mr. Melchor was reaching for a weapon,” according to HPD’s report.
But the Harris County deputy constable who spoke to Nguyen right after the incident was wearing a body microphone. It recorded Nguyen saying he “was aware he had overreacted” and had, in his words, done a “stupid thing,” according to HPD’s report. “Further,” the records state, “Officer Nguyen did not mention or recount at any point his concern that Mr. Melchor was reaching for a weapon…”
Melchor’s excessive force complaint was one of the 15 that Internal Affairs sustained.
After the hospital, Prevot spent the night in jail. The next day, he filed an excessive force complaint against the arresting officers. Some months later, he got a letter in the mail saying his complaint had been dismissed. Prevot’s injuries were apparently a justified consequence of trying to escape. “They said I tried to run when I got out of the car,” Prevot says. “That’s ridiculous. There was no reason for me to run. My whole thing was to try to get back to that house.”
Prevot’s excessive force complaint was one of 691 the Houston Police Department dismissed in the past six years. By now, Prevot has stopped thinking that telling his story is of any use. He believed that when he filed a complaint about use of force, the officers responsible would be punished. But they weren’t. He believed that when the Justice Department said it would review his case, something might happen, but the investigation has already closed without explanation. At this point, Prevot is almost finished serving the two years’ probation he got for evading arrest. He wants to put that night behind him. But he can’t, because now his record bears a felony.
“It’s so hard,” he says. “I just had a great job with Samsung. Great job. They sent me to Dallas for training and everything. … I come back here and three days later, they email me. … They say, ‘We can’t hire you because your background check didn’t go through.’ And that killed me, you know, man? That just killed my little spirit. This happened just three weeks ago, four weeks ago. Now I’m back out there, looking for a job.”
I ask Prevot what he wants to happen. He says, “Can you get my car back? Because they took my car anyway, from in front of my house.” He hangs his head. “You know, it makes me want to cry just saying that because it defeats the whole fucking purpose. [The police] took my car, and I never got it back.”
While Internal Affairs ultimately found the officers’ behavior justified, the men themselves—if only for a moment—might know better.
Prevot says during their hours in the hospital together, the officers’ demeanor changed. “You’re looking at this guy you’ve been with all night long,” he says. “They listened to me talk. They know I’m not a bad guy. I don’t have a record. I didn’t have no weapons. … They knew the type of person that they were dealing with, versus the criminals.”
Prevot had been asking for a cigarette for hours. “By the time we was going to the jail, it was like seven, eight in the morning,” Prevot says. “The guys stopped at the Shell station on the way to the jailhouse and bought me a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. And neither one of them smoked. They were like, ‘Hey man, smoke ’em in the back of the squad car. Usually, you know, we’re not supposed to smoke in here, but we’ll let you do it. You know, whatever.’”
I ask, “Do you think they felt bad?”
“I know they did,” he says. “I mean, they didn’t act like they felt bad. But anybody would.”
8/6/2013 | HOUSTON (CBS Houston) | By CICELY MITCHELL — Houston police are investigating an incident in which two HPD officers discharged their duty weapons at an armed suspect on Monday.
“The male suspect was pronounced dead at the scene,” added HPD. “His identity is pending verification by the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences.”The two officers who discharged their weapons were not injured during the shooting. They were identified as HPD Officer M. Alanis who was sworn in as an officer in September, 2009 and Officer E. Newman who was sworn in as an officer in May, 1992. HPD Homicide Division officials provided additional details of the incident: “HPD patrol officers responded to a discharge of firearms call at 5800 Fondren involving a Hispanic male in a green SUV. Upon arrival, the officers observed a suspect matching the listed description and attempted to detain him. The suspect then fled on foot. During the ensuing foot pursuit, the suspect produced a pistol and fired shots at the officers. Officer Alanis, fearing for her safety and that of her fellow officer, then returned fire, missing the suspect. The suspect then fled behind a nearby strip center where he hid. Officer Newman responded to the scene and, with the assistance of his K-9, located the suspect. When the K-9 made contact with the suspect, he first attempted to shoot the dog. However, upon seeing Officer Newman, the suspect then pointed his gun at him. Officer Newman, fearing for his life, then discharged his duty weapon, striking the suspect. Houston Fire Department paramedics responded to the scene and pronounced him dead. Investigators recovered the suspect’s weapon at the scene.”HPD authorities also stated that the case is being investigated by the HPD Homicide and Internal Affairs Divisions and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office as it is customary procedure.
This story is the first in a two-part investigation into lack of accountability within the Houston Police Department.Part two will appear in the September issue of the Observer.
7/10/2013 | the Observer | By Emily DePrang — At the Houston Police Department, a lax discipline system keeps negligent cops on the streets.
On the morning of June 2, 2011, a man broke into Indira Paz’s house in southeast Houston, bound her with zip ties and raped her in front of her 4-year-old daughter. Then he loaded her car with electronics, jewelry and cash, and drove away.
Paz never got to testify against her attacker because he was never caught. But nearly eight months later, she was asked to testify about the behavior of Houston police officer Alan Sweatt, who responded to the call that day.
Sweatt was the officer in charge, one of three officers at the Paz residence. When Sweatt arrived on the scene, another officer had already relayed a description of the vehicle and suspect to a dispatcher. Sweatt says he walked through the house looking for evidence and then interviewed Paz for several minutes as they sat together on a sofa.
Meanwhile, the third officer requested a team of investigators from Robbery Division. He was told no robbery investigators were immediately available and that someone should secure the scene until they could arrive. A few minutes later, one officer was called to help with a nearby car accident. Sweatt told the other officer to go along.
“Officer Sweatt again confirmed that he had the crime scene under control and released” both officers, according to the police department’s official account. “Officer Sweatt then left the scene.”
As soon as no other officers were present, Sweatt left Paz. He left her 4-year-old daughter-made-witness, left the cousin who’d found and untied Paz, left the dresser drawers her rapist had emptied, the window he broke, the plastic ties he used to restrain her, the clothes she wore before and after the attack, a sliver of wrapper from his condom, and a crumpled tissue he used to clean himself afterward. Sweatt did so believing that no other officer or investigative team was coming to collect evidence or to notice his absence.
Sweatt left the Paz residence and went to a convenience store. There, he wrote a report stating that no evidence existed at the crime scene.
Sweatt’s departure wouldn’t have been discovered if Sergeant Charles King, a robbery investigator, hadn’t become frustrated that he couldn’t get any officers at the Paz house to answer their phones. King went to the scene himself. He found the family alone, cleaning up their ransacked home and potentially destroying valuable evidence.
Appalled, King had a dispatcher page Sweatt immediately. “Officer Sweatt explained to Sgt. King that he had left the scene because he was under the impression that no investigators were coming and that he needed to complete his report by the end of the shift because no paid overtime was available,” according to a department report on the incident.
Sweatt was fired for negligence and disregard for a victim. But, like many disciplined officers, he appealed. At an arbitration hearing, Paz was brought in, questioned and sent out. She testified before the arbitrator that Sweatt was at the scene only briefly, didn’t seem to care about her or her family and spent most of his time talking and joking with a neighbor. She never heard his defense.
The Houston Police Officers’ Union represented Sweatt at his appeal. “Perhaps the Appellant should have removed all of the clothing and other items from the floor to search for possible evidence,” reads a summary of the union’s argument, “but his failure to do so does not amount to gross negligence.”
The union contended Paz hadn’t been mistreated but only thought she had. “Mrs. Paz simply was not a credible witness,” the union officials argued to the arbitrator. “Her testimony should be discounted, as it is clear that her perception of what occurred was inaccurate. On the other hand, the [officer’s] description of his interaction with Mrs. Paz was corroborated by Officer Carter, who observed much of it.”
One of the details the union used to prove Sweatt did his job appropriately was that Sweatt sat with Paz on the sofa and interviewed her “for some time.”
When I showed Paz a summary of Sweatt’s hearing, she flipped through it absently. “Is this it?” she said, pushing her glasses up her nose. Now 27, Paz has moved into an apartment with her husband and daughter and started nursing school. She said she’s put the attack behind her, and she seemed uninterested in reading the official details. But when she got to Sweatt’s testimony, she laughed.
“Interviewed me?” Paz said. “You’re joking. He walked in and said, ‘You okay?’ That was it. Like you would to a dog. ‘You okay? Let’s go.’ In the movies, they’re always like this …” She mimed scribbling in a notebook. “But if he had anything to write with, I don’t remember it.”
“So he didn’t sit and interview you for several minutes?” I asked. “On the sofa?”
Paz laughed again. “We didn’t have a sofa.”
She paused. “It made [the attack] worse, in a way. When something like that happens, it would be better to have nobody come than somebody who doesn’t care about you.”
Officer Sweatt was a senior officer in the department, a 21-year veteran who had been disciplined 21 times, including two suspensions for untruthfulness and one for writing an incomplete report, according to department records. Incomplete reports aren’t just bad paperwork. Missed or omitted evidence can lead to a failure to convict a guilty person or failure to exonerate an innocent one, which Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland pointed out when explaining why he fired Sweatt. A sustained charge of “untruthfulness,” let alone two, makes an officer useless as a trial witness, because any good defense lawyer will easily discredit the officer.
Sweatt’s poor discipline record is a main reason everyone in the department who reviewed his case voted to fire him. The city’s argument noted, “…even the Union representative [voted] for an indefinite suspension.”
Yet Sweatt got his job back. The arbitrator who heard Sweatt’s appeal decided that, minus a 90-day suspension, he should remain a Houston police officer, and receive back pay and benefits for the months he spent fired.
Paz put down the hearing documents after a few minutes. “It’s like I told my family,” she said. “Why did we even call the police?”
The Houston Police Department (HPD) is the largest law-enforcement agency in Texas and the fifth-largest police department in the nation, with 5,400 sworn officers. Some of them, like Alan Sweatt, have been allowed back on the job despite committing serious infractions and, in a few cases, violating the law.
A six-month Texas Observer investigation has found that HPD rarely disciplines its officers, and those who are sanctioned often end up with suspensions of just a few days before resuming their duties.
The Observer compiled HPD disciplinary records from 2007 to 2012. During that span, HPD received an average of 1,200 complaints per year, less than a third of which ended in any kind of discipline. More than half of those punishments were written reprimands, which have little effect on an officer’s record and no effect on his or her paycheck.
Only 7 percent of all complaints against Houston officers ended in serious discipline, meaning a three-day suspension or more, according to an Observer analysis. Officers who left crime scenes, failed to secure evidence, lied to superiors, falsified forms and, in one case, allegedly pocketed drugs continue to police the streets of Houston.
The department’s discipline process, having evolved over decades of negotiations between the city and police union, now functions like a modern version of the notorious “code of silence” by which police officers hide one another’s misdeeds. This new, institutional code of silence is built less like a black box and more like a maze. Legitimate complaints against misbehaving officers can dead-end at any one of a dozen junctures, dismissed because of tiny procedural technicalities or judgment calls in an officer’s favor. Even if a legitimate complaint makes it through the labyrinth of regulations governing Internal Affairs investigations, the resulting discipline is often overturned by an independent arbitrator with only one or two days’ familiarity with the case.
The lack of severe punishment isn’t because Houston citizens are filing scores of illegitimate complaints, according to the Observer’s analysis of department records. Of the 1,200 or so complaints HPD receives each year, only about 300 come from citizens. The other 900—fully three-quarters of all complaints—originate with police officers and their supervisors.
The department and police union claim this proves that the “code of silence” is a myth. But the same statistic raises a different question. If officers are willing to report one another’s misconduct, why isn’t the department willing to punish it?
In some of the most serious discipline cases, HPD tries to punish its officers but can’t.
The department and police union have an agreement called “Meet and Confer” that specifies every detail of officer management, from hiring quotas to benefits. It also dictates discipline procedures. Per “Meet and Confer,” all officers who receive suspensions of three days or more—including indefinite suspensions, the department’s parlance for firings—can appeal their case to an outside arbitrator who has the final say. That means the chief of police has the power to dispense punishment unilaterally, but not to make sure it’s enforced.
This fact came to public attention last year, when Chief McClelland tried unsuccessfully to fire several officers for their part in beating Chad Holley, an unarmed 15-year-old burglary suspect who fled before surrendering. The security camera at a nearby storage facility filmed 12 officers kicking, stomping and punching Holley as he lay on his stomach with his hands beside his head. Video of the arrest became public only because the owner of the storage facility was angry that the city wouldn’t pay to fix a gate officers broke while chasing Holley. He gave the video to an activist, who leaked it to a local news station. After the video aired, McClelland fired seven of the officers involved, but three got their jobs back through arbitration. In one case, the arbitrator didn’t hear any arguments but restored the officer’s job because the Internal Affairs investigation had missed a deadline. The officers who lost their appeals were later indicted by grand juries.
Video showing numerous HPD officers kicking and punching Chad Holley after he had apparently surrendered to police.
This supports a comment made by a veteran HPD officer who provided background for this story but requested anonymity. He noted that while many officers feel their jobs are in constant jeopardy from Internal Affairs, the reality is, “I’d pretty much have to commit a felony to get fired.”
Because only a quarter of sustained complaints end in serious discipline, you might expect that arbitrators, who hear only appeals of three-day suspensions or more, would find those suspensions justified most of the time. They don’t. In two-thirds of the cases they hear, arbitrators reduce an officer’s discipline or overturn it.
But statistics are only suggestive. The low rate of serious penalties could mean HPD fails to take misconduct seriously, or it could mean officers commit few major infractions, and the department punishes even minor violations, albeit with appropriately minor punishment. The high proportion of dismissed complaints could mean that legitimate misconduct is going unpunished or that officers are overzealous in reporting it.
The department itself offers no explanation. The HPD media relations office and Chief McClelland refused numerous requests for an interview, despite receiving a detailed summary of this story more than three weeks before the press deadline.
HPD keeps investigations of its officers largely hidden from the public. Materials related to any complaint that Internal Affairs dismisses aren’t subject to state open records laws. So no outside party can evaluate the 850 or so complaints a year that don’t end in discipline. With only numbers and final results, it’s hard to know what goes unpunished and why.
But there is a loophole. Public records of arbitration hearings like Officer Sweatt’s include a detailed narrative of the event, the arguments made by the city and union, and the arbitrator’s rationale for his or her decision. Through open records requests, the Observer obtained more than 80 such records from the last six years. They provide a deep look into the subjective side of HPD’s discipline system, revealing what the department, union and arbitrators consider serious or petty, offensive, criminal, or just a bad day at the office.
The records of these closed-door conversations show a discipline system with serious flaws. Discipline for any one violation can vary wildly. Offenses against citizens, like refusing to help a victim, are usually punished less severely than intradepartmental offenses like failing to get permission before working an extra job. Officers testifying in their own defense are given the benefit of the doubt to a sometimes-ludicrous degree, while citizen testimony is often disregarded by default, even when the citizen has no reason to lie and the officer does. Arbitrators sometimes even disbelieve the testimony of superior officers when it conflicts with an accused officer’s defense.
The result is an ineffective, inefficient discipline system that tolerates misbehavior, protects officers better than citizens and retains officers that no one should have to rely on in an hour of need.
Ray Hunt doesn’t see it that way. Hunt, the president and public face of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, believes that HPD officers are excessively investigated and that citizen complaints get more credence than they should.
Asked why departmental issues seem to receive stronger punishment than mistreatment of citizens, Hunt took a clipping off the bulletin board beside his desk. “Quanell X and I rarely agree on things…” he began. Quanell X is a longtime Houston activist who often rallies public support for victims of racism and who is vocally critical of HPD.
Hunt read from a local news story in which Quanell X justified having the people he spoke for sign a contract: “The activist also said, ‘It’s common for people to be less than truthful when claiming racial injustice,’” and the contract is to protect him legally. “‘At least 60 percent of the time, the people are not telling the truth,’ said Quanell X.”
“This is where a lot of our complaints [come from],” Hunt said. “A lot of our complaints are people who believe if they make a complaint, it makes their case stronger when they go to court. … That’s troublesome to us.”
Hunt feels the discipline process unfairly favors citizens because they are rarely charged with perjury for making false complaints. He also wishes Internal Affairs (IAD) were more judicious about which complaints it investigates.
“Complaints get accepted over there for things I would never accept IAD complaints for,” Hunt said. “Every single complaint gets investigated. Thoroughly investigated! I make a joke when I go over there. They have those stacks of boxes of paper coming in for six months’ [supply] and I go, ‘What’s that, IAD’s paper for the day?’ Because they will kill trees on someone who says, ‘He was rude to me at a traffic stop.’
“We have more IAD investigators than we have homicide investigators,” Hunt says. “What does that tell you?” This isn’t actually true—Internal Affairs currently has 30 investigators and homicide has at least 48. But it probably feels true to Hunt. Internal Affairs investigations can take up to six months, and any complaint more serious than an administrative error is reviewed by multiple officers at different ranks, sometimes including the chief himself. Allegations of criminal activity or excessive force get additional scrutiny.
Still, the most common finding of an Internal Affairs investigation is “not sustained,” meaning the available evidence is inconclusive.
Complaints can be resolved one of four ways: unfounded (event didn’t happen); exonerated (event happened, but was in line with policy); sustained (event happened and violated policy); or not sustained (IAD can’t tell what happened).
“Not sustained” indicates neither guilt nor innocence. It closes the case without resolution but precludes any further action. It results in no discipline and leaves no public trace because “not sustained” complaints and their investigations are shielded from external review the same as “unfounded” and “exonerated” ones are.
If Internal Affairs investigations were done by the book, few complaints would be “not sustained,” because the burden of proof in IAD cases is supposed to be “the preponderance of evidence.” That means whichever side has a stronger case should prevail, even if it’s only slightly stronger. It’s a much easier standard to meet than the one used in criminal courts, “beyond a reasonable doubt.” If “preponderance of evidence” were really the standard used, “not sustained” cases would occur only when the evidence supporting each side was perfectly equal.
Hunt says most cases are like this. “You can’t come in here and say I called you a bitch,” Hunt explained. “You can’t say, ‘He called me a bitch on a traffic stop’ and the officer says, ‘I didn’t call her a bitch on a traffic stop.’ Whose word is being taken greater than the other? It ain’t the officer’s because it comes back as not sustained. It doesn’t come back as exonerated.”
Even so, complaints not sustained have the same net result as exonerated ones.
Arbitration records suggest most cases are not as simple as bitch versus not-bitch. Where there is a shred of doubt about an officer’s guilt, complaints are often “not sustained.”
Early on the morning of April 9, 2011, officers Amanda Lollar and Drew Johnson responded to a call at an apartment complex in northwest Houston. A pair of security guards had detained a man carrying what they said was marijuana.
It wasn’t much of a sting operation. Two men were dropped off by a car that reeked of weed. The apartment complex’s guards asked if they had any marijuana, and one of the suspects, Allen Fisher, handed over six small, clear baggies of what Fisher, his friend, and both guards said was marijuana: green, leafy and pungent. The guards handcuffed Fisher, put the baggies on a table in the guard shack, and called HPD.
When officers Lollar and Johnson showed up, they weren’t pleased. Johnson yelled at the guards that they had “fucked up [HPD’s] investigation” by illegally searching and detaining Fisher, according to HPD records. They found that Fisher had two outstanding traffic warrants in Humble, Texas, but released him and cleared the call as “information,” meaning there was nothing to report. Then they clocked out and went to a taqueria.
One of the guards later testified that Officer Johnson pocketed the baggies on his way out the door.
The security guards complained to HPD, which dispatched Sergeant Lewis to check it out. Lewis, according to HPD records, interviewed the guards, and tracked down Johnson and Lollar in the taqueria parking lot. He scolded Johnson for swearing at the guards. Then he asked, “Where’s the dope?”
“What dope?” Johnson said.
Lewis said the security guards claimed he had pocketed the weed. Johnson said the guards were lying.
“So you didn’t see any marijuana?” Lewis asked.
“No,” Johnson said.
Lewis turned to Lollar. “Was there any dope out there?”
She said, “No.”
Lewis said, “I want to believe you.”
The officers laughed. “Yeah, we’re gonna sell it,” they joked. “We’re out here every night taking marijuana from people.”
Johnson later explained, “I laughed at the absurdity of the accusation being brought against me, and the fact that a sergeant obviously believed the statements of security guards … over his own trained officers.”
Lollar and Johnson continued to maintain there were no baggies in the guard shed until two months later, when they wrote their administrative statements.
Administrative statements after an officer’s sworn testimony about an event being investigated. Per “Meet and Confer,” officers can’t be interrogated or asked to write their administrative statements until they’ve been given a complete copy of Internal Affairs’ findings, and had 48 hours to review it and consult a lawyer.
After seeing the evidence against them, both officers changed their stories. They wrote in their administrative statements that there had been six baggies on the table, but that they contained “herbal incense or synthetic marijuana,” which was legal at the time. They said they left it with the security guards.
Chief McClelland didn’t buy it. He fired Johnson and Lollar for several offenses: swearing at the security guards, failing to write an incident report, releasing a suspect with outstanding warrants, insubordination and, worst, lying by failing to mention the baggies when originally asked, according to HPD records.
Lollar and Johnson appealed. Their arbitration hearings were held separately.
Johnson’s arbitrator decided that the “two jaded security guards” had vindictively fabricated the weed-pocketing incident to punish Johnson for “usurping [their] authority.”
She also blamed Sergeant Lewis for Johnson’s alleged untruthfulness. “Sergeant Lewis asked confusing questions framed within a biased viewpoint,” the arbitrator wrote. “If Sergeant Lewis had made a discrete [sic] and professional inquiry into the matter instead of using accusatory questions in a caustic and clumsy encounter, then maybe this Arbitrator would have placed more credence in the charge of untruthfulness.”
Johnson’s arbitrator reduced his firing to a five-day suspension.
Lollar’s arbitrator agreed: “…there is no basis to trust the security guards [sic] judgment over that of the two police officers as to what the baggies contained.”
As for the untruthfulness charge, Lollar’s arbitrator described Lollar as “between Scylla and Charybdis” in the parking lot of the taqueria. Lollar should have mentioned the synthetic marijuana, the arbitrator ruled, but probably didn’t want to contradict her partner.
HPD had characterized this as lying by omission, but Lollar’s arbitrator said that doesn’t exist.
He wrote: “The most commonly accepted definition of a lie is that it is an assertion, the content of which the speaker knows to be or believes to be false, which is made with the intention of deceiving the hearer with respect to that content. Thus, within that definition, a lie or an ‘untruth’ could not exist by omission.”
Lollar wasn’t accused of using profanity or pocketing anything. She was fired only for denying that Johnson swore at the guards and for failing to mention the maybe-marijuana.
The final punishments were not only lenient but arbitrary. Johnson got his firing reduced to a five-day suspension. Lollar ended up with a 30-day suspension. Both resumed their duties.
The disparity between Lollar and Johnson’s final punishments isn’t a fluke.
Because the discipline process is so circuitous, officers can receive very different suspensions for the same offense. At an arbitration hearing that ended in 2007, the city and union both tried to use this in their favor. An officer appealed his nine-day suspension for working an extra job without a permit. He’d received a one-day suspension for the same offense just months earlier. At the hearing, the union argued that nine days was excessive because other officers had received written reprimands for the same offense. The city said nine days was appropriate because other officers had received nine-day suspensions for that offense without having committed it before. The suspension was upheld.
Officers can also get the same punishment for offenses of very different gravities.
Last year, officer Eddy Powell Jr. received a five-day suspension for lying about leaving the scene of a sexual assault to visit a traffic stop where his partner’s cousin was about to be arrested. Powell said he and his partner couldn’t locate the assault victim and forgot to tell the dispatcher they were leaving the scene.
HPD’s account reads, “The reportee on the sexual assault call stepped out and found that no officers were at the location.” She called HPD again to ask for help. “Some level of confusion ensued when the dispatcher informed the reportee that the officers were at the location when the reportee was insisting that there were no officers there.”
When the dispatcher located Powell, he lied and said a sergeant had given him permission to leave, according to HPD records. By the time Powell returned to the sexual assault scene, the victim had given up and gone to a police station to file a report.
Powell appealed his five-day suspension. Records from the hearing show that no one had a problem with Powell and his partner abandoning a sexual assault call to “stop by” a relative’s arrest. Even failing to tell a dispatcher he’d changed locations, the arbitrator wrote, “may have been inadvertent or not overtly intentional”—a fantastic euphemism for “deceptive.” The arbitrator upheld Powell’s five-day suspension, but not for leaving. Just for lying about having permission to leave.
Senior Police Officer Jeffrey Whitehead also received a five-day suspension, in 2007. His suspension was for telling a superior officer to quiet down because Whitehead couldn’t hear the television. Whitehead was originally suspended for 10 days, but an arbitrator reduced it to five.
Another officer who got a five-day suspension was Sergeant Anthony Jammer, in 2009. Jammer had heard that another officer, M. Gratz, admitted to having sex with a woman during the follow-up investigation of a robbery at her home. Jammer was also told that the woman claimed it was rape, according to HPD records.
Jammer called Gratz to his desk. Gratz swore the sex was consensual. But even consensual sex with a complainant while on duty is a serious offense. Rather than reporting the incident to Internal Affairs, Jammer doctored Gratz’ time card to make it look like the three hours in which the incident happened were personal time, not on-duty, according to HPD records.
Jammer appealed his five-day suspension. The union argued that since Jammer heard about the event from another officer, rather than a “complainant,” it wasn’t a complaint and thus Jammer wasn’t obligated to report it. In changing Gratz’ time card, the union said, Jammer was using his supervisory discretion.
The arbitrator reduced Jammer’s five-day suspension to one day. As for Gratz, who allegedly had sex with a crime victim while on duty, HPD records obtained by the Observer show no disciplinary action.
Individual infractions and their disparate punishments are troubling, but worse are officers like Alan Sweatt who accumulate a laundry list of sustained complaints, yet keep their jobs.
According to HPD records, officer John Woods racked up 14 sustained complaints in 15 years without getting fired. Woods received a four-day suspension for failing to notify a supervisor of another employee’s criminal act; a one-day suspension for taking pictures of his ex-wife’s car at her workplace; a 10-day suspension for failing to renew his car’s registration despite a direct order to do so; a three-day suspension for giving his attorney an unfinished report of a major traffic accident that he’d been in while on duty; a one-day suspension for accidentally firing a Taser at a suspect he was handcuffing; and a six-day suspension for allowing a confrontation between two citizens to escalate until one had to be arrested, then lying about it. His longest suspension (as of June 2009, the date of his arbitration records) was 15 days. Woods received that punishment for using HPD computers to research a wanted suspect, then trying to collect a Crime Stoppers reward by feeding the information to investigators while posing as a citizen and “confidential informant.”
Officer Joseph Brashier already had 13 sustained complaints, including untruthfulness, when he violated his estranged wife’s restraining order seven times in less than three months. In lieu of firing Brashier, the department gave him a 90-day suspension and a “Last Chance Agreement,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Yet when Chief McClelland later tried to fire Brashier for an apparent illegal towing scheme, an arbitrator reduced his punishment to a 10-day suspension.
Officer Jaime Vera also signed a Last Chance Agreement after a domestic-violence incident that earned him a 60-day suspension. Yet three months later, when Vera was disciplined for sexually harassing a female officer, he received a 15-day suspension instead of being fired, because the sexual harassment occurred before Vera signed the Last Chance Agreement. Vera was eventually fired, but only after bribing a mechanic to help his car pass inspection, getting reported, removing the sticker and bribing a second mechanic on the same day. In this case, his arbitrator wrote, “his poor judgment transcended the realm of ‘unsound’ into the realm of ‘what in the world was he thinking.’”
This is apparently the real burden of proof in HPD discipline cases.
Officers have nothing to lose by going to arbitration. Arbitrators can’t impose harsher discipline; they can only reduce, overturn, or uphold the original punishment. Per “Meet and Confer,” the city has to split the cost of arbitration—usually between $2,000 and $5,000—with the police union, no matter the outcome.
The union has a policy of appealing any eligible discipline case an officer wants, no matter how weak the officer’s position. That’s how the city of Houston spent $1,103 in 2007 defending its decision to give three days suspension to an officer who refused to change out of his bike uniform for a non-bike shift, then went home claiming to be sick. (His three days were reduced to a written reprimand.)
Individual arbitration results may seem, well, arbitrary, but their outcomes are consistent. Between 2007 and 2012, arbitrators upheld exactly one-third of all appealed HPD cases. They reduced officer punishment in half of all cases and overturned it completely in about one out of six.
The fact that arbitrators overturn or reduce Internal Affairs’ decisions two-thirds of the time suggests a problem with HPD’s discipline system, the arbitration system, or both. Fortunately, peer-reviewed research on this phenomenon already exists.
In 2002, the journal Police Quarterly published a study on a city where, during a five-year span, arbitrators reduced the total number of officer suspension days by almost half. The author, Mark Iris, noted that at this department, “Any decision to take disciplinary action against an officer is made only after an internal investigation has passed through a multistage review process. Disciplinary measures are deliberated and considered carefully.”
When so many cases are reduced or overturned, Iris wrote, “the message to all those with a stake in the disciplinary process—the accused officer, the complainant (whether it is a citizen or the officer’s supervisor), interested media observers, the Internal Affairs investigators, police chief and management, and so forth—is that their efforts may be for naught.”
6/25/2013 | The Journel | By: Kristi Nix — A Pearland police officer fatally shot a Louisiana man arrested on felony theft charges who allegedly tried to escape custody Sunday (June 23). The shooting happened around 8:15 p.m. outside Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital at 11800 Astoria, said Jodi Silva, Houston Police Department spokesperson.
A Louisiana man arrested on felony theft charges was fatally shot during an attempt to escape police custody outside Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital Sunday (June 23).
Shortly before nightfall, Noah Burford Silva, 24, managed to break free from a handcuff restraining him to a hospital bed and fled through an emergency room side door according to Houston Police Spokesperson Jodi Silva.
A Pearland Police officer assigned to stand guard chased after him into the parking lot and yelled for Burford Silva to stop. However, the suspect kept running; crossing through a wooded area outside the hospital and then started swimming across a large duck pond.
“The officer continued to give commands for the suspect to stop,” Jordi Silva said when contacted by The Journal. “The officer then went in the water after the suspect.”
Burford Silva continued his escape attempt by swimming through approximately 30-feet of water with the officer following close behind.
When Burford Silva got to the embankment and gained a vantage point on the other side, he stopped running and allegedly turned to confront the officer who was still in the water.
“The suspect then took an aggressive stance,” Jordi Silva said. “Fearing for his life, the officer discharged his weapon at least once and struck the suspect.”
Harris County Constables arriving on the scene assisted with the suspect and took him back to the emergency room where he was pronounced dead.
The officer-involved shooting is now under investigation by the Houston Police Department Homicide Division, the Harris County District Attorney’s office, the Harris County Constables Office and the Pearland Police Department Internal Affairs Department.
The events leading up to shooting were triggered when loss prevention specialists at a Pearland Home Depot called to report spotting a possible shoplifter around 3:30 p.m. According to Pearland Police Department Spokesman Lt. Onesimo Lopez, witnesses said Burford Silva was seen loading up a shopping tote with more than $1,800 in power tools, which he allegedly hid on top of a fence at the edge of the garden area.
“The suspect then reportedly walked out of the store and circled around to retrieve the stolen goods,” Lopez said. “When he reached up for the tote, the loss prevention specialists reportedly ran up and tried to stop him. But, Silva broke free and fled.”
When Pearland Police arrived they took a suspect description and officers tracked him to a nearby Wal-Mart located at 10505 W. Broadway St. Police officers then established a perimeter and called for additional units, Lopez said.
Inside the store, Burford Silva was reportedly chased through the store into automotive department.
He then allegedly ran out the back exit by the Tire Department and tried to escape through the parking lot where he was tackled. Police said he was taken into custody after a brief struggle.
On the way to the jail, Burford Silva complained he had hurt his wrist during the arrest and he was taken to Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital located at 11800 Astoria near the intersection of Beamer.
Pearland Police officials said Burford Silva was charged with felony theft charges over $1,500 and evading arrest. He was also wanted on multiple felony warrants from Bossier City Police Department in Louisiana for car theft and misdemeanor theft charges.
According to court records obtained by The Journal, Silva was wanted by the Kaufman County Sheriff’s Department for probation violations related to a 2011 conviction for Injury to a Child.
The Pearland Police officer stationed at the hospital was a four-year veteran of the Pearland Police Department. He was not injured during the incident. At the time, he was assigned to the Night Shift Patrol.
Police officials said the officer has been placed on administrative duty and relieved of patrol duties pending the outcome of the investigation.
3/1/2013 | CBS Houston | By: Cicely Mitchell — Houston police are investigating an incident in which a Houston police officer fatally shot an armed suspect.
According to officials with HPD, the incident happened on Dumfries
Drive at about 3:50 p.m. on Thursday.
“The identity of the deceased male suspect is pending verification by the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences”, added officials with HPD.
Officer D.A. Rivera, who discharged his duty weapon, was not injured in the incident. HPD indicates that Rivera is assigned to the Southwest Patrol Division and was sworn in as an officer in September 2010, according to authorities.
HPD Homicide Division authorities provided details surrounding the officer-related shooting: “A female was unloading her vehicle and left the tailgate open.The female then saw an unknown male suspect grab a bag from the vehicle and flee the scene on a bicycle. An off-duty HPD officer, working an approved extra job in the neighborhood, was flagged down by witnesses and told of the incident.The officer then pursued the suspect who dropped his bicycle at the intersection of South Post Oak and West Bellfort and continued to flee on foot. The officer then broadcast a description of the suspect over the police radio. Other HPD officers responded and searched the area for the suspect.”
“A witness walking his dog a few blocks away saw the suspect, with scissors in his hand, walk between two houses. The witness then flagged down Officer Rivera, who was on-duty and searching the area, and pointed out where the suspect was last seen. Officer Rivera drove in the direction the witness indicated and found the suspect crouched beside a residence in the 4900 block of Dumfries. Officer Rivera approached the suspect, who was digging in his backpack, and gave repeated verbal commands to the suspect to show his hands. The suspect ignored the commands and quickly stood up. The suspect threw his jacket at Officer Rivera and then charged at him with a pair of scissors. Fearing for his life, Officer Rivera discharged his duty weapon and fatally struck the suspect,” added HPD.
According to HPD , when an officer-involved shooting incident arises, the case is investigated by the HPD Homicide and Internal Affairs Divisions, in collaboration with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.
2/13/20123 | HOUSTON (CBS Houston) | By Cicely Mitchell — Officials with the Houston Police Department are investigating an incident where an officer shot a suspect and wounded that suspect.
The suspect, identified as 33-year-old Jan Michael Vincent, has been charged with possession of a controlled substance. As a result of the officer discharging his duty weapon, Vincent suffered non life-threatening wounds and was transported to Ben Taub General Hospital.
HPD Homicide Division Officers also offered the following details of the incident: “HPD patrol officers were conducting an investigation at the above address, which is a known area for narcotics activity. Officers saw suspect Vincent, approached and gave him verbal commands to identify himself. Vincent ignored the officers’ commands, quickly got into his vehicle and began to rummage in the center console and the back seat. Officers gave repeated verbal commands to Vincent to exit the vehicle, which he ignored and continued to rummage through the vehicle. Officers then attempted unsuccessfully to physically pull Vincent from the vehicle, however he continued to ignore commands, became combative and continued to rummage through the vehicle. Believing he was searching for a weapon and fearing for his and his partner’s safety, Officer Morelli discharged his duty weapon at Vincent, wounding him. Vincent was then taken into custody and transported to the hospital.”
As a customary measure during a Houston Police Department officer-involved shooting the incident is being investigated by the HPD Homicide and Internal Affairs Divisions, as well as the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.
12/7/2012 | Houston Chronicle | By James Pinkerton — He alleged he was mistreated after his policeman dad’s HPD complaints.
Christopher Zamora, 29, was a rising star at HPD.
A federal jury Friday awarded a patrolman $378,000 after finding Houston Police Department commanders retaliated against him after his father and other Hispanic HPD officers filed a discrimination lawsuit, his attorney said.
Christopher Zamora, 29, was transferred from the elite Crime Reduction Unit to night shift patrol after his father and about 30 other Hispanic officers filed a federal discrimination suit.
“It’s been a tough road. It’s been hard on myself and my family,” Zamora said when contacted after the verdict. “I’ve been waiting four and half years for this day. Today the truth prevailed.”
The lawsuit is the latest court victory by an HPD officer claiming to have suffered retaliation or sexual or racial discrimination at work, said Kimbra Ogg, Zamora’s attorney.
In 2007 an appeals court ordered a $915,000 payment to former homicide detective Beth Kruezer, who was sexually harassed after becoming HPD’s first female motorcycle officer.
“The city seems to refuse to learn from their past mistakes, and they are taking taxpayers down a dead end by defending lawsuits that are blatantly wrong, blatantly unfair,” Ogg said.
“I was proud to represent this officer, and I was ashamed of the actions of the Police Department and city administration for punishing him for the actions of his father, which were lawful.”
City to appeal
City Attorney David Feldman said the city will challenge the jury’s decision.
“We are disappointed in the verdict and do not believe it is supported by the evidence. We will ask the trial court for relief, and failing that, take it up on appeal,” Feldman said in a statement. “I am confident that the city will ultimately prevail.”
Civil rights activist Johnny Mata, chairman of the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice, applauded the verdict and contends it is further evidence HPD retaliates against officers for complaining about workplace discrimination.
“When a minority police officer files a complaint of discrimination, especially with the EEOC, they receive retribution, retaliation and at the end they are terminated for untruthfulness,” said Mata, referring to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Mata said his organization has sent U.S. Justice Department investigators details on nearly 100 cases involving HPD officers who suffered retaliation after complaining about their treatment.
The patrol officer’s father, Lt. Manuel F. Zamora, retired from HPD on Friday after more than 30 years on the job. He was among several dozen HPD officers of Hispanic descent who filed a lawsuit against HPD in December 2007, contending minority officers did not enjoy the same working conditions and had larger case loads than others.
The case was dismissed after a number of officers could not afford to pay attorneys to keep the litigation moving, Ogg said.
A rising star
Christopher Zamora was a rising star in the department and had been cited by a state law enforcement licensing agency for his service, his attorney said.
Ogg said the jury verdict was the first since a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing a claim when one family member works at the same place with another and is retaliated against because of their family member’s actions.
“This is the first father-son case I know of, and it’s important because HPD has many, many police families,” Ogg said.
Christopher Zamora said he plans to continue his career at HPD.
“What I’m hoping for is that the mistreatment of employees stops, and other officers who may have gone through similar circumstances that I have will step forward and hopefully they won’t be as scared to speak out against wrongdoing,” Christopher Zamora said.
6/20/2012 | HOUSTON (KHOU) — An investigation is under way after a business owner said he used his cell phone to catch an off-duty officer fighting with his neighbor.
The man said the officer took his phone and, months later, police still have the phone.
The Houston Police Department confirmed that it received a complaint last Friday and said its internal affairs department began investigating Wednesday.
Frank Herzik, 61, said in November he heard arguing across the street from his office.
Workers at Sai’s Auto Service didn’t want to go on camera but said an angry customer, an off-duty Houston police officer was berating their mechanic over service.
Worried about that mechanic’s safety, Herzik said he recording everything on his cell phone until the officer ran his way yelling.
“Give me the phone! Give me the phone! Give me the phone! — And he’s fighting me like that and he’s fighting me trying to get it, and he’s pulling, so eventually we end up over there and eventually, like I say, I dropped the phone, he grabs the phone and runs,” Herzik said.
He said the officer ran off yelling, “code 1, officer down.”
Surveillance footage shows the off-duty officer leading on-duty officers into Herzik’s business. Later a second wave of officers came looking for Herzik, who said he left in fear.
Then, he said, came six months of frustration.
“Internal affairs would tell me they could not investigate it because it was an on-going investigation,” he said.
A Houston Police Department spokesman disputed that. Off camera he said Herzik just signed and filed his complaint last Friday. It’s now an internal affairs investigation, so police said they cannot discuss details or even confirm that this officer is the focus.
With that said Herzik said his demands are simple.
“I would like my phone back. I would like for the officer to be disciplined,” Herzik said.
Joe Fleming, 39, is charged with burglary with intent to commit a felony after the alleged confrontation, which happened about 5:40 p.m. at the woman’s apartment in the 14600 block of Philippine, according to Assistant Chief Deputy Mark Herman of the Harris County Constable’s Office Precinct 4.
5/14/2012 | Houston Chronicle | By Dale Lezon — A Houston police officer was arrested after he allegedly kicked in his ex-girlfriend’s apartment door and then pointed a gun at her head.
Joe Fleming, 39, is charged with burglary with intent to commit a felony after the confrontation in the 14600 block of Philippine, according to Assistant Chief Deputy Mark Herman of the Harris County Constable’s Office Precinct 4.
Herman said Fleming was being held in the Harris County jail without bond.
He has been relieved of duty pending the outcome of the investigation into the case, said Victor Senties, a spokesman for the Houston Police Department.
Herman said deputy constables were dispatched to the apartment about 5:40 p.m. Sunday on an emergency call about a domestic dispute. Fleming, who was off-duty at the time, had gone to the apartment and allegedly kicked in the door, Herman said. He allegedly pushed his ex-girlfriend to the floor and pointed a pistol at her. When the woman was pushed to the floor, her lip was cut, Herman said. Fleming was taken into custody at the scene.
Senties said Fleming was sworn in as an HPD officer in July 2005. He was assigned to Special Operations.
Harris County Constable’s Office Precinct 4 and the HPD Internal Affairs Division are investigating the case.