Who Guards the Guards? Texas law enforcement agencies are failing to protect

September 1, 2008 by  
Filed under Blogs, Hot Button / Lynn Ashby

It’s a good thing we live in Houston where we are safe from crime, guarded by three—count ’em three—layers of crime fighters, four if you include the feds. Why not count the FBI? They’re counting you. Our first wall of protection from the Huns, garden snakes and the heartbreak of psoriasis is the Houston Police Department, famed throughout the land for being famed throughout the land. All of America has heard about the HPD, unfortunately.

Our streak of luck began when C.O. Bradford was appointed chief of police by then-Mayor Lee (You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie) Brown, himself a former Houston police chief. Apparently both of them kept their eyes on the big crime picture and left the details to others. In this case, details included evidence stored in the HPD property room where handguns kept disappearing after maintenance and handymen passed by.

Then there was the police lab. During Bradford’s reign as our top cop, the department’s crime lab was so flawed that evidence became lost, convictions were overturned, morale was low and tension was high. The first clue something was amiss on Bradford’s watch was when a lab technician asked, “DNA? How do you spell that?” The situation became so terrible the lab officially lost its accreditation, and twice all DNA testing was suspended. The DNA chief, Vanessa Nelson, resigned to avoid getting canned, but she was immediately hired by the Texas Department of Public Safety to lead the DNA division of its McAllen crime lab. This explains a lot about the DPS. City Council members ordered an outside investigation of the lab’s problems. The inquiry and final report cost $5.3 million, but Bradford said he never read it—didn’t need to.

Don’t forget HPD’s famous K-Mart parking lot sweep where 273 mostly young people were arrested for … uh … being young people in the K-Mart parking lot. The city of Houston settled all the lawsuits filed over the false arrests by paying out nearly $1 million. Again, our tax dollars at work.

On another matter, Bradford was indicted and tried on charges of lying under oath. He was cleared. Before leaving office, Bradford was given a hefty pay raise by Mayor Brown. This boost meant the chief’s lifelong pension would jump, too. Some City Council members were so incensed they called an emergency meeting to stop the last-minute end run. Nothing happened. As a final blow to the HPD, a current and a former Houston cop were indicted for stealing between $100,000 and $200,000 from the Houston Police Officers Union.

If the city’s law enforcement agency fails to protect us, there is the county shield: the sheriff and the district attorney. Let’s start with Sheriff Tommy Thomas. His deputies arrested two brothers, Sean and Eric Ibarra, who took pictures from their own property while deputies conducted a drug raid in public view. The deputies confiscated the brothers’ cameras. They were arrested, jailed and put on trial. But jurors found the two not guilty. The county paid $1.7 million to the duo, plus huge legal fees, shortly before another jury, which was hearing the case again, was ready to award them even more.

It gets better, or worse. After the brothers were acquitted, they pursued their own lawsuit against Sheriff Thomas for their ordeal. Deputies were then assigned to spy on the brothers, who might sue over that, too. Thus far, and with several legal matters still to be settled, county taxpayers are out $4.4 million over the deputies’ actions. Incidentally, they are still deputies, and still on our payroll.

Under Sheriff Thomas’ reign we have the case of a truck driver who was shackled and thrown in solitary confinement after being arrested on suspicion of negligent homicide of a deputy in a traffic wreck. This series of events occurred even after discovering the deputy had a blood-alcohol level of at least three times the legal limit, was speeding and was not wearing his seat belt when he slammed into the truck driver’s parked vehicle without leaving skid marks. A department spokesman said the solitary confinement was for the truck driver’s own safety. No doubt there’s another lawsuit in the works.

One more: A day after Channel 13 reporter Wayne Dolcefino filed a Public Information Act request to view some e-mails in the Sheriff’s Department, Thomas ordered 750,000 e-mails erased over seven days: Jan. 12–19. The deletions came shortly after news that then-DA Chuck Rosenthal had ordered many of his own e-mails deleted.

This is the perfect segue to another grid of protection between us and evildoers: the District Attorney’s office. As an offshoot of the two brothers/deputies case, the brothers’ lawyer, the rather colorful Lloyd Kelley, demanded to see e-mails in Rosenthal’s official county computer. What turned up were steamy letters to his secretary who was his former lover, pictures of naked women, racist jokes and campaign plans. But we didn’t get to see everything. The DA personally deleted more than 2,500 e-mails, which had been subpoenaed by a judge. Rosenthal got hit with a perjury conviction and was fined $18,900, which apparently the taxpayers paid. All told, the county spent $227,000 on Rosenthal’s legal expenses. Lastly in the DA’s office, we have the very strange case of the Runaway Jury, which kept insisting State Supreme Court Justice David Medina and his wife, Francisca, be indicted after their house caught fire under mysterious circumstances. Rosenthal dismissed the indictments, causing the foreman and the assistant foreman to scream foul. They, in turn, were threatened with legal action for discussing secret proceedings with the press. The jurors denied revealing any secrets. At one point the jurors sued the DA’s office seeking release of testimony in the case. Later, another grand jury indicted Francisca Medina.

After saying he wouldn’t resign, Rosenthal resigned, leaving the slot open for next fall’s election. Fortunately, we have two stellar candidates for the DA’s job. The Democratic hopeful is none other than the previously mentioned former HPD Chief C.O. Bradford. His reputation precedes him. His Republican opponent, former judge Pat Lykos, is said to have issues with communication, teamwork and professional courtesy.

On June 8 somebody in Austin set fire to the Governor’s Mansion and nearly destroyed it. How could this happen? That 152-year-old gem was protected by gun-toting, badge-wearing, booted state troopers, so what could go wrong?

Texans trusted the DPS to protect our beloved Governor’s Mansion, used by every Texas governor since Sam Houston. To this end we paid lots of money for nothing. Only 13 of 20 security cameras were working when the fire started. The alarm system designed to alert state troopers when intruders entered the grounds was broken, and had been for some time—no one seems to know just when that particular alarm system ceased to work, which in itself is unnerving. The arsonist walked up to the front door of the Mansion, undetected, and apparently lobbed a firebomb. The DPS had only one trooper on guard; he was in a back house and had just worked an eight-hour shift at the Bob Bullock Museum.

Austin, we have a problem—actually a lot of problems—with the DPS. You may remember when then-Rep. Tom DeLay diverted state troopers from their normal pursuit of serial killers to hunt down Democratic legislators who had fled to Oklahoma, New Mexico and elsewhere to break a quorum during DeLay’s Congressional redistricting battle. In 2000, a Travis County grand jury indicted a crime lab analyst on charges of falsifying fingerprint reports and noted there appeared to be extensive management problems at DPS. Does this sound familiar? The next year FBI agents attempted to alert the DPS about a terrorism threat, but could not find their contact. They finally called Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst instead, who has absolutely nothing to do with terrorism.

Taxpayers are spending almost a million dollars ($950,000) for outside consultants to go in, study the chaos at the DPS and recommend strategies to get its act together. We can be sure implementing changes will cost even more, but maybe at least someone will read this report.

Our last great hope for security is our federal government. Certainly Houston’s stone-faced FBI agents and no-nonsense federal judges can protect us. They certainly guarded Houston from the nefarious dealings of Vanessa Leggett, an aspiring writer who was writing a book about a Houston murder case. She refused to hand her research notes over to the FBI and she spent a record (then) 168 days in federal prison. During that time there were three journalists in prison in the Western Hemisphere for doing their jobs. Two were in Cuba. The third was in Houston, Texas.

To be fair to our local feds, ineptitude must be an FBI requirement. Remember, this is the same federal agency that spent weeks, if not months, and no telling how many tax dollars snooping around bookstores in the Georgetown section of Washington investigating Monica Lewinski’s book purchases. At the same time, 9/11 terrorists were leaving clues at flying schools from Minnesota to Florida, and nobody in the FBI picked up on the plot.

It is all a matter of priority, but who guards the guards?

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