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HPD Chief: Officers’ Beating of Unarmed Teen Should Be a Felony

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The Houston Police Department doesn’t have a stellar reputation for behavior toward suspects. Pop quiz: what public figure thinks violent officers in Houston should be punished more severely?

The chief of police.

HPD Chief Charles McClelland testified Tuesday in the trial of former officer Andrew Blomberg, one of six cops caught on video participating in the March 2010 beat-down of an unarmed black 15-year-old suspected of burglary. Blomberg is the first of four officers being tried for official oppression, a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail. Chief McClelland, recapping his testimony for media after the trial that day, said that’s not enough.

“I just think what they did was felony conduct,” he said. “In my opinion, do I want them charged with a higher penalty? Of course.”

A conviction for official oppression requires only that the prosecution prove “mistreatment” of the subject, whereas for a felony, prosecutors would need to demonstrate “serious bodily injury.”

The video certainly looks serious. View for yourself.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdVLMgbQFsI

A less pixilated version appears here, within the context of its original airing by ABC 13 Eyewitness News on KTRK in February 2011.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lvy976QKuS4

The video comes from the surveillance camera of a nearby business. It captures Chad Holley, fleeing, being clipped by a police car, then falling to the ground and lying face-down with his hands behind his head. He is swarmed by officers who appear to stomp, punch and kick his head, legs and back.

Chief McClelland fired six officers in the wake of the beating, although three appealed and two were reinstated by arbitrators.

Arbitrators commonly override the chief’s disciplinary actions. According to KTRK, ‘”For about 15 years, about a third of the cases that actually went to arbitration were overturned in their entirety, about a third were upheld in their entirety and about a third were modified,’ HPD’s lawyer Craig Ferrell said.”

Chief McClelland’s frankness may get him in trouble. On Wednesday, Blomberg’s attorney asked state District Judge Ruben Guerrero to hold Chief McClelland in contempt of court for his Tuesday comments to the media. Judge Guerrero said he would decide the matter Friday.

The arrest was Holley’s first. He was convicted of burglary of a habitation despite no physical evidence linking him to the crime and sentenced to two years’ probation, which he completed in April without incident.

Chief McClelland also spoke out in February about the beating of unarmed black Houstonian Sebastian Prevot, who failed to stop before the white line at a stop sign and continued a few blocks to his home before pulling over. Dateline Houston brought you this story at the time. Prevot was assailed by more than a dozen officers and taken to the hospital for, among other injuries, a torn ear that required stitches. His wife, hearing his screams from the front lawn, said she ran out and started to record the beating with her video phone. But she says an officer assaulted her, took the memory card out of her phone, and arrested her as well.

Chief McClelland met with activists who rallied behind the couple and released a statement assuring the public that recording police activity is legal and reporting police misconduct is encouraged.

Deric Muhammad, one of the activists who met with Chief McClelland, said he felt the chief was sincere, but perhaps out of touch.

“We believe if the police chief spent less time behind his desk and more time on the ground, that he could disturb the culture of corruption that’s on the ground,” Muhammad told KTRK.

In April, a former HPD officer was convicted of taking a bribe to escort narcotic shipments through the Houston area. He was sentenced to more than 15 years in federal prison.

In January, a former HPD officer pled guilty to robbing undocumented immigrants that he stopped while on patrol. He was given two years’ probation and a $500 fine.

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.