Policing Police Misconduct

Magazine cover reading "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards"

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 15 No. 3/4, "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards." Find more from that issue here.

Houston police took so long to investigate some allegations of police misconduct that guilty officers could not be disciplined. Sergeants with questionable backgrounds themselves often investigated their subordinates. Officers with serious psychological or alcohol problems were retained on the force. And in more than 180 cases when the police department concluded its officers committed crimes, it did not tell prosecutors. These and other findings resulted from a four-year campaign by the Houston Post to obtain police department documents through the Texas Open Records Act. City officials admitted they spent as much as $250,000 in legal fees and other expenses to keep Post reporter Ira D. Perry from eventually viewing nearly 10,000 internal investigations and agency files. Perry's articles, beginning on November 23, 1986, also drew on his review of 1,000 federal and state court cases, dozens of interviews and hundreds of civilian complaints. His series is credited with causing a major overhaul in how police misconduct in Houston is monitored and corrected. 


HOUSTON— Two witnesses backed up a 24-year-old convenience store clerk who told police supervisors in 1984 that two Houston policemen beat him because he asked them not to use his store phone without permission, records never before disclosed to the public reveal. 

The Internal Affairs Division (IAD) of the Houston Police Department (HPD) ruled that the incident occurred after interviewing the witnesses, young boys ages 11 and 9. The officers — Avon L. McDaniel and Leonard Chambers — denied the charges. They said the clerk had prompted the incident by grabbing one of them on the arm. 

In this and more than 200 other cases documented in HPD records, IAD took so long to investigate Carl Garrett's complaint that state law prohibited police chief Lee Brown from suspending either officer longer than 15 days without pay. State law requires that an officer be investigated and disciplined within six months of an alleged incident if the officer is to be fired. In this case, IAD took 16 months to question six people. McDaniel and Chambers got 15-day suspensions and are still Houston police officers. 

When then-police chief B.G. "Pappy" Bond announced in 1977 that IAD had been formed to investigate police misconduct, he promised a squeaky-clean force would result. But an investigation into the division's operations shows IAD has been hampered by massive record-keeping problems, a backlog of complaints, a shortage of investigators, and policies biased toward HPD officers. Officers accused of wrongdoing often remain on duty for months, even in cases where substantial evidence indicates they may be guilty of wrongdoing. 

The Post reviewed HPD's previously confidential records of more than 6,771 investigations involving at least 3,268 officers from the IAD's inception on July 1,1977, through December 31, 1984. Those records show that 141 accused officers could not have been fired no matter what misconduct IAD proved they committed because the division took over a year to investigate. IAD staffers took an average of four months to investigate complaints. IAD administrators and Chief Brown took an average of 52 more days to review those probes and discipline the officers involved — ending the process, on average, eight days under the allowable six months. 

In those records HPD divulged after a state district judge ordered them released, the Post also found: 

• The number of complaints against Houston police officers skyrocketed from 583 filed in 1977 to 1,539 filed in 1985 — a 164 percent increase. The number of IAD investigators to handle those complaints went from six in 1977, or one for every 97 complaints filed, to 18 in 1985, or one for every 85 complaints. 

• IAD eventually sustained allegations against officers named in 3,455 complaints, but relieved officers of duty pending investigation in only 70 cases. 

• IAD's system is so disorganized that some complaints alleging misconduct as serious as excessive force were never investigated. Some accusations were probed twice by different investigators unaware of the other's investigation. 

• The index system IAD used to track complaints has no cards on 1,043 officers accused of misconduct. 

• IAD investigators probed only 38 percent of the complaints filed. The remainder were investigated by the accused officers' supervisors, just as complaints had been before Bond promised reform. IAD administrators can not be certain HPD supervisors reported all complaints to the division as required. More than 40 officers were investigated and disciplined — one was fired — without IAD's knowledge because complaints against them were handled entirely by their supervisors. 

• IAD investigators have not attempted, and will not attempt, to detect patterns of misconduct or trends by individual officers toward violence; IAD investigators have routinely checked the criminal backgrounds of Houstonians who registered complaints against policemen in order to obtain evidence of violent behavior or antagonism that might help clear HPD officers. 

• Investigators have required Houstonians to submit sworn affidavits in most cases so perjury charges could be filed if their complaints proved untrue. Officers have not been required to swear to their responses. 

• Investigators have accepted the testimony of people with obvious personal reasons to back an officer as "independent witnesses." 


Overburdened System 

Lee Brown, chief since 1982, denied HPD's system for investigating police abuse has failed or that the department has ignored wrongdoing. "We want to make sure we have a department that is, in perception and in fact, one of the highest degree of integrity," he said. Brown said IAD's system is basically "as good as any system in the country," but he agreed the process takes too long. 

Steve Reiser, IAD administrative sergeant and the department's spokesperson on the Post investigation, conceded, "I don't think there's any justification for it [the delays]. It's caseload, manpower." 

Reiser, who defended the system until interviews with the Post began, has resigned. He said he has come to believe the system is bogged down and is being sidetracked from its original purpose of protecting Houston citizens from police abuse. "We have lost sight of what Internal Affairs was originally assigned to do." 

Reiser and Brown said that IAD has taken steps to speed the process, that it must deal with some factors that cannot be controlled, and that more investigators have been assigned to the division. IAD Lt. Paul Lindsey said the new efforts included implementation of a case-management system, creation of a new unit to investigate cases requiring undercover or unusual investigative techniques, and a reduction in investigators' paperwork. But IAD still cannot investigate all brutality complaints within the six months allowed to get a violent officer fired, he conceded. 

Reiser said IAD has unsuccessfully sought a $65,000 computer system to help speed complaints and to prevent the theft or loss of records such as those missing on 1,043 officers accused of misconduct. IAD's current tracking system is comprised of 3-by-5-inch index cards that contain the complainant's name, the date the complaint was filed, the date the investigation was completed, a two- or three-word description of its nature, the final disposition, and, sometimes, the discipline imposed. 

Reiser could not explain why records on 1,043 officers were missing from that system. Nor could he explain why hundreds of other cards lacked the accused officers' names, the nature of the investigations, or the dispositions, or were so incomplete that investigators could not discover previous complaints against an officer. 

In 1983, for example, Capt. M.C. Simmons told Brown punishment was not warranted partly because an accused officer had no prior complaints against him. The officer had, in fact, been named in two prior investigations. Simmons could not have known about those investigations because IAD's index system did not list them. 


Patterns of Abuse 

Most HPD officers never draw a single complaint However, some Houston officers have been under investigation virtually their entire careers but have been evaluated only to determine what discipline should be imposed and never to see if their behavior could be corrected. 

Officer Mark S. Wilkinson chalked up 25 complaints in seven years and HPD sustained 23 violations of departmental policies alleged in 10 of those complaints. Those 25 complaints put Wilkinson under investigators' watch for one month of 1977, eight months of 1979, every day of 1980, six months of 1981, eight months of 1982, and 10 months and 15 days of 1984. However, HPD records show no indication that the department ever evaluated his overall conduct with an eye toward correction before 1984. The department fired Wilkinson that year, but the city's Civil Service Commission reduced his punishment to 37 days without pay. That is not an isolated case. HPD records show that 117 officers — less than three percent of all HPD officers targeted by complaints — prompted 20 percent of all complaints alleging wrongdoing between July 1977 and December 1984. All but 26 remain in the HPD. Those 117 officers each drew more than 10 complaints. More than 20 complaints were filed against each of five officers, and another seven sparked 17 to 20 complaints. Many of those 117 officers were accused of the same misconduct time after time. 

Reiser admitted IAD cannot spot officers who drew more complaints than others in similar positions, cannot identify officers who drew multiple complaints of a similar nature, or those who began drawing many complaints after an extended period with no complaints. Both Reiser and Brown said HPD will not necessarily take action even if it does determine an officer has a large number of complaints or has been found to have committed misconduct several times in the past. 

HPD records show dozens of cases where statements from nightclub owners and employees — who could face civil liability if they admitted an officer working for them beat a citizen — were used to discount an allegation. Reiser said IAD has stopped that practice and now requires that an independent witness be "a person who does not know or has no ties with any of the parties involved." But he said IAD does not require its officers to swear to the truthfulness of their required written responses, although Assistant District Attorney Don Smyth said he has asked that they do so. Smyth prosecutes police officers accused of misconduct as head of the DA's Civil Rights Division; he has used conflicting sworn statements to bring at least one officer to trial on a perjury charge. 


Psychologists Overruled 

Some police officers are on the force even though HPD psychologists suggested they be fired or kept away from the public, confidential medical records reveal. Psychologists said flatly that several current officers should never have been hired and others should have been dismissed. The psychological profiles described some officers as "maladaptive," "paranoid," or "psycho-social." Some were determined to be suicidal, to have "poor impulse control," or to suffer from severe depression or extreme stress. 

Dr. Michael Cox, who performed many of the psychological evaluations, said he was unaware HPD had not followed his advice. Cox, a psychologist at Baylor College of Medicine, said HPD did not tell him the outcome of disciplinary cases against officers he evaluated. "I thought that they were very responsive to the problems," Cox said. "I don't know that I'm angered," he said of HPD's failure to follow his advice. "I do find that distressing. When I make a statement [that an officer should be fired] . . . I do so very carefully." 

HPD records document several cases in which Cox or other psychologists gave negative evaluations for officers who were not fired or removed from public contact. 

Officer Glenn Yorek told police in 1979 that he no longer would ride with his partner who was acting strangely. "I told Officer . . . I was not going to do everything he said to do. [He] said, 'Yes, you are, and pulled his pistol from his holster and pointed it in my general direction and pulled the hammer back," Yorek said in a written statement to HPD investigators. 

"Then he said something to the effect that he was going to kill me if I didn't. I was quite upset, to say the least" Yorek said his partner threatened to beat a 19-year-old prisoner and acted as if he had a grudge against everyone he met. "He would mention the word 'kill' in just an ordinary conversation we were having — things like, 'I oughta kill you,' or 'He needs to be killed.'" Yorek said the officer would pull his gun "just to play with it and act like he was going to use it." Cox evaluated the officer and noted "well-established maladaptive patterns of behavior such as inadequate modulation of anger, deficient impulse control, poor accommodation to authority, abnormal tendencies toward interpersonal antagonism and a lowered tolerance to frustration suggesting a personality disturbance." His report said the officer might "be quick to anger and tend to act overtly upon his aggressive feelings. . . ." Cox concluded that those characteristics "may compromise this individual's ability to carry out his responsibilities as a patrolman in his current capacity." 

Despite that warning, then-police chief Harry Caldwell suspended the officer for three days and transferred him to the department's Patrol Bureau. He remained an officer until he resigned. 

In a 1982 case, Cox said flatly, "Individuals with similar test profiles are normally eliminated from consideration as potential police officers." In this case, an off-duty officer allegedly had been drinking and had pointed his pistol at an unarmed woman after a car wreck. It was his second drinking-related incident in less than a year. Brown suspended the officer for 30 days without pay. He remains on the force. 

The Administrative Discipline Committee (ADC), made up of assistant chiefs, had another officer evaluated in November 1982, but didn't complete its review until January 1984. "There is a pattern of behavior emerging that needs addressing," the committee evaluation said. The committee concluded the officer suffered from an "adjustment disorder with depressed mood." Cox determined the officer was functioning under "rather severe psycho-social stress" and recommended further counseling. The personnel panel told Brown, "We conclude that Officer . . . poses a liability to the City of Houston Police Department in his present condition. However, if Officer . . . can resolve his marital problems, he could in all probability become an acceptable employee." 

That officer's problems apparently had gone on more than a year while the committee evaluated him. When he agreed to undergo counseling, he was allowed to remain on active duty until his wife said he shot at her. He resigned when Brown questioned whether he was still in counseling. 

Psychologists said one officer was so rigid in his beliefs that he could not deal with blacks and Hispanics. "At this time, Officer . . . cannot deal objectively with any citizen. We feel that this is not due to his personality structure but rather his misconception of his role as a police officer," the personnel committee said. Caldwell suspended that officer for 15 days. He is still a Houston police officer. 


District Attorneys Not Told 

Bartender Neil Mann told police in 1977 that Houston police officers — who are still on the force today — beat him during a vice raid. Police Sgt Sidney L. Serres witnessed that incident and told investigators: "I saw two or three men holding the actor [suspect] with handcuffs on. One of them was yelling something at him and then hit him in the stomach a couple of times. He bent over and groaned. I believe another officer then hit this actor in the stomach." Serres said two or three officers were present, but he could not identify the one who struck Mann "as I was all the way across the room." Mann told IAD investigators that Officer Refugio Vasquez struck him as Officer Richard Nieto held him. Both officers denied any wrongdoing. Department officials upheld allegations of excessive force against Vasquez and suspended him without pay for five days. Nieto was cited for unnecessary force and given a written reprimand. 

Despite that conclusion and despite confirmation by one of HPD's sergeants, IAD investigators never told county prosecutors about the case or asked if it should have been presented to a grand jury. Mann's complaint is one of at least 181 cases since 1977 in which IAD investigators concluded that Houston police officers committed acts that might have warranted misdemeanor or felony charges, but which did not go to a DA to determine if the officers should have been prosecuted. 

Many of the allegations in the 181 cases were relatively minor — shooting fireworks, working another job while on sick leave, being intoxicated off duty, or writing a bad check. However, cases never sent for prosecution included those in which investigators upheld allegations of assault, solicitation of gifts, altering of official reports, oppressive conduct, criminal mischief, theft, and attempted theft. 

Officer Nicola Cappussi had a few too many drinks on New Year's Day, 1982. He showed up drunk at the Stauffer Greenway Plaza Hotel while off duty, pulled a revolver, and threatened to shoot several people in an ordeal that lasted more than two hours. IAD allowed Cappussi's supervisors to investigate that incident. "There did not appear to be a criminal charge," IAD said in its official report explaining why it did not probe that case. Cappussi was allowed to resign from the force "for personal reasons" and was never prosecuted. 

Reiser conceded some criminal and civil-rights cases against police officers may never have been sent to prosecutors. He said IAD does send cases where evidence indicates charges may be warranted. However, assistant DA Smyth in the Civil Rights Division said he was unaware IAD was sending some cases but not others. 

District Attorney John B. Holmes, Jr., admitted IAD's actions might allow officers who should be indicted to go free. He said he had confidence in IAD, but added, "I know of cases where there has been alleged criminal conduct on the part of someone involved in law enforcement that has not been brought to our attention." He cited the case of George Pitts, who was fined $300 and placed on 180 days probation by deferred adjudication — meaning a finding of guilt was postponed until he completed a probationary sentence — for evading arrest after leading officers on a high-speed chase. Police said he had been drinking. That case was brought to Holmes' attention not by HPD, but by a television reporter. 

However, even when the police department did consult the DA's office, prosecutors often decided not to file charges although they had not seen a witness statement, an investigative report, or any evidence against the accused officer. IAD records show prosecutors turned down cases based only on telephone conversations dozens of times. Smyth and Holmes admitted that should not have happened. 

"The only reason I can think of is the officer calls you up, runs everything by you, and you say, 'Based on what you tell me, I think we can probably decline it,' and he never follows it up with his investigative report," Smyth said. 

HPD's records show assistant DAs sometimes agreed not to prosecute officers before IAD investigators even interviewed all possible witnesses. The Post found dozens of cases in which investigators asked prosecutors to decline charges before talking to officers who may have witnessed alleged incidents. HPD records show assistant DAs sometimes declined to prosecute because HPD had disciplined the officer or because the accused had no prior complaints of wrongdoing, had paid restitution, or would not cooperate with investigators otherwise. 

Records show that Officer Roger A. Cantu, for example, refused to take a polygraph test in 1981 after a prisoner claimed Cantu had slapped him eight to ten times while in a jail cell. The prisoner passed a polygraph test. Cantu was ordered to take a polygraph, but records show he refused unless the DA's office promised he would not be prosecuted. Assistant DA Terry Wilson, Smyth's predecessor, issued the promise when told IAD had exhausted its investigative possibilities. Cantu failed the polygraph and was ultimately suspended from duty for three days. He could have been fired for refusing to take the polygraph. 


State Investigates Non-Reporting 

State officials are investigating why they were never told 24 current or former Houston police officers were arrested or charged with crimes since 1977. The officials also want to know whether those officers' state licenses should be suspended or revoked. 

David Boatright, general counsel for the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Education (TCLOSE), confirmed that his office is checking the backgrounds of the 24 officers as a result of the Post investigation. The 24 include several accused of, or found guilty of, felony crimes and whose state licenses should have been, but were not, revoked or suspended while they served probationary sentences. Those officers include some sentenced to prison or on probation for crimes such as rape, sexual abuse of a child, felony theft, and aggravated assault. All 24 remain licensed as police officers in Texas. 

HPD attorney Tim James denied his department failed to inform the agency when it was supposed to do so. James said HPD has notified when an officer was fired or charged with a crime since he became the department's general counsel. Yet HPD records show several officers now in question were arrested and charged since James became the department's attorney. TCLOSE, under state law, is responsible for ensuring law enforcement officers meet state requirements and for revoking licenses of officers who become disqualified. Since 1985 TCLOSE has required individual officers to report their disqualifications to the agency, but there is also no penalty for officers who do not do so. "In practice and in effect, the system is a sieve," said Boatright. 

Fred Toler, executive director of TCLOSE, said the organization's only recourse would be to take action against an individual officer for violating a TCLOSE rule. "And about the most we could do about it would be to take action against his or her license and have a hearing or something like that," he said. 

There may be many more officers with arrest records in other Texas cities. "There is just no mechanism in place for anybody to report to us when an officer screws up. If he's indicted or in trouble, often we read about it in the newspapers," conceded Boatright. 


Investigators Named in Complaints 

Sgt. Harry J. Stubbs has investigated at least nine complaints alleging wrongdoing by HPD officers under his supervision. He has also been named in at least seven complaints of misconduct himself, and investigators have sustained four of the accusations against him. Other HPD front-line supervisors have been allowed to investigate officers accused of misbehavior although the supervisors themselves have records of alleged misconduct. While the department checks the backgrounds of IAD investigators, it allows field sergeants to investigate officers working directly under them without regard for the sergeants' own pasts. Complaints that IAD sent to the field sergeants were generally less-serious violations, such as rudeness or neglect of duty. However, violations including unnecessary physical force and criminal activity also have been investigated by those supervisors. 

Sgt. Bruce R. Baker has been investigated in 22 incidents, and HPD upheld 10 accusations in four of those complaints against him. He continues to investigate other officers. Sgt William L. Brasher was investigating complaints against other officers even after questions were raised about his involvement in the shooting of William Henry Pressey in 1983. Brasher was fired and later found guilty of aggravated perjury for lying about that shooting to a support officer. Four other supervisors — Joe Allen Scott, Ralph L. Swain, Richard D. Williams, and Freddy Guidry — continued investigating officers even after HPD concluded they each had misled the department at least once before. 

Reiser said sergeants' backgrounds pose few problems because IAD monitors their actions and the police chief reviews each investigation. 

Reiser said, "As an investigator, I'm not going to intentionally cover up anything and take a chance on going to jail myself. I think that's the general consensus. That's ludicrous to even think somebody would do that." 

Yet HPD records show that has happened. In November 1980, for example, rookie officer Nicholes Rocha told a sergeant that field training officer Steven G. Shunk had beaten two prisoners they stopped for a traffic violation. Shunk stomped the head of one after he had been handcuffed and subdued, Rocha claimed in a written statement. But the sergeant told Rocha the incident was a "personality conflict," HPD records show. Rocha said the sergeant lectured him for complaining on one of his "finest officers" and threatened to have Rocha fired. Shunk was never questioned. Nothing more occurred until Rocha told another sergeant of the alleged incident almost three months later. Shunk was investigated and subsequently fired for attacking the two prisoners, though he denied any abuse and was never prosecuted. 

In another example, Sgt. Ernest W. Kirschke admitted he told two of his officers not to tell IAD investigators they had fired at a fleeing suspect in violation of department rules in July 1984. He did not admit giving that order until IAD investigators confronted him with witnesses' statements. Brown demoted Kirschke to a rank-and-file officer six months after the incident, but Kirschke appealed to the city's Civil Service Commission. That panel overruled his demotion and ordered Brown to suspend the sergeant for 15 days instead, Reiser said. Kirschke had investigated 14 other incidents. 


The Chief's Role 

Houston police chief Lee Brown has taken steps to better monitor and discipline police officers, but he has refused to fire some that his assistant chiefs recommended be forced out. Officers that Brown refused to fire included some who HPD concluded had retaliated against citizens filing complaints against them. 

Records show: 

• Brown has read investigative reports for every citizen complaint filed against a police officer, reports involving police-related shootings, and reports on police automobile accidents. He is the first chief since Harry Caldwell, who served from 1977 to 1980, to do so routinely. 

• Brown is the first chief to demand that all accidental firearm discharges be evaluated for negligence. HPD records show that one of five shooting incidents involving a Houston police officer from 1977 through 1984 was accidental. None was investigated routinely for officer negligence before Brown issued that directive in 1983, after the Houston Post inquired about shootings involving HPD offficers. 

• Brown is the first chief to demand that IAD investigators, not divisional sergeants, probe all police-related shootings. He issued that order in 1984 and also ordered a panel of assistant chiefs to review all shootings. Field sergeants previously investigated firearms discharges that did not cause injury, and IAD investigators usually only monitored Homicide Division investigations of shootings in which citizens were killed or injured. 

• Early in 1986, Brown launched HPD's "proactive unit," a five-person group within IAD to investigate — through undercover techniques, if necessary — serious offenses by officers. 

However, Brown frequently has refused to go along with his own investigators and assistant chiefs — sometimes in favor of a citizen, but more often in favor of an officer, records show. According to HPD records, Brown's assistants recommended that Frank M. Cantu be fired in 1984. He was seen off duty and in uniform at a bar in violation of department policy, and he admitted he falsified an offense report in an unrelated incident. Brown suspended Cantu for five days without pay. 

Brown's assistant chiefs recommended Bruce D. Williams be fired in 1983 after he was accused of harassing the staff of Winston's Restaurant. Police supervisors told Williams to stay away from the club, but he later asked the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to raid the restaurant and went on the raid. "It is important to this department that persons complaining on the conduct of its employees can feel confident that they may present their claims for review and will suffer no retribution or retaliation," the assistant chiefs said in recommending that Williams be fired. Brown suspended Williams for 15 days without pay. 

Officer Mac A. Moore told investigators he knew nothing of allegations that relatives were involved in theft and fencing activities. Moore was photographed leaving their house minutes before police raided it in 1984. He first denied he entered the house that day but admitted it when told he had been photographed leaving. 

"In addition, he told a witness that he had instructed his [relatives] to get out of the business they were in; however, he would not admit that to the investigators," the disciplinary committee said in recommending Moore be fired. 

Brown suspended him for three days. Brown has not always lowered the recommended punishment. Department supervisors recommended suspending Johnnie Navarro for 30 days in 1983 after he admitted he lied to IAD investigators about firing warning shots at a suspect. The shots, IAD determined, had been intended to wound. IAD investigators found no evidence that the suspect had a weapon, and chemical tests showed he had not handled a weapon before Navarro shot him in the leg. But ADC members said Navarro still may have been in fear of his life and insisted the suspect may have been armed. Brown fired Navarro. 

HPD records show the department was reluctant to fire officers except under extreme circumstances before Brown's arrival. Available department records show that all four chiefs, including Brown, who served from 1977 through 1984 fired at least 97 officers. Brown fired 22 of those officers alone in 1984. 

Brown also frequently has taken issue with officers' casual use of offensive slang, records show. He disciplined officers using derogatory terms for homosexuals, blacks, and other minorities more harshly than recommended in almost every instance from 1982 through 1984. He once sharply criticized an IAD investigator for referring to a citizen complainant as a "mental case" and warned him that policemen are not psychologists. 


A Picture Worth 10,000 Words 

If you wonder how Houston police responded to Ira Perry's investigative series, consider a telephone conversation that he had with Mark Clark, president of the Houston Police Officers Association. Perry called Clark after the series appeared. Here's how the conversation began: 

Clark: "Is this the Ira Perry that 4,500 policemen want a picture of?" 

Perry: "I would imagine. We could probably get you copies. I don't know how much it would cost you." 

Clark: "Tom Kennedy [a Post columnist] guaranteed me a picture so it could be a cutout picture we could put in our next police publication so we could give it to our units out there so they didn't mistake anybody for anybody."