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Rape and the Badge in Harris County

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Photo from the Houston Police Department Facebook page

On Monday afternoon, former Houston Police Department officer Abraham Joseph was sentenced to life in prison for two counts of aggravated sexual assault by a public servant. Joseph, while in uniform and on duty, pulled over a waitress on her way home from work, handcuffed and raped her. Joseph was found guilty on Thursday afternoon after the jury of five women and seven men deliberated for less than eight hours. During the sentencing phase of the trial, three other waitresses testified that Joseph had done the same to them over four months in 2010 and 2011.

Everything about this is sick, of course, but if anything could make it worse, it’s that Joseph knew the waitresses from having stalked them at their workplaces and knew they were undocumented immigrants. According to the prosecution, Joseph counted on their vulnerability to deportation to keep them quiet.

Abuses of sex and power were also revealed at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office last week. On Friday afternoon, Sheriff Adrian Garcia held a press conference to announce the results of an internal affairs investigation that led two deputies and four civilian detention officers to leave or lose their jobs. The probe found sexual misconduct between jail staff and other employees and between jailers and inmates. Garcia declined to give more details about the findings, but said the inmates involved were “numerous” adult women, that the offenses occurred in laundry rooms, and that the fired supervising deputy was aware of but did not stop the behavior.

Garcia didn’t specify that inmates were having sex with jailers in return for favors or contraband, but did say the investigation began in August of last year after an inmate was found with outlawed tennis shoes. “Then the ball of yarn began to unravel,” Garcia said.

A Houston Chronicle review of disciplinary records showed that since 2007, more than 20 Harris County Jail employees have been suspended without pay or fired for sexual misconduct with inmates, providing contraband, or both.

Since taking office in January 2009, Sheriff Garcia has fired, reprimanded or suspended employees at a greater rate than his predecessor, Sheriff Tommy Thomas. Sheriff Garcia told the Texas Observer that this wasn’t due to an increase in wrongdoing but rather an emphasis on discipline. When he took office, Garcia says, “there was a culture that this particular case [the recent firings] pointed to. But we’re dealing with that and we’re making it abundantly clear that this activity is not to be tolerated.”

Sheriff Garcia said that the Harris County District Attorney’s office would determine whether the fired employees would face criminal charges.

Houston Police Department Chief Charles McClelland has also fired slightly more officers during his first three years than his predecessor did in the same time period, 63 versus 58, though he has disciplined roughly the same amount, almost 1,300.

Civil rights activists say it’s not nearly enough. Chief McClelland was on the defensive in September over his decision “not to fire a police sergeant and three traffic officers he recently suspended for unnecessarily listing themselves as witnesses on hundreds of traffic tickets,” per James Pinkerton of the Chronicle. “They did so to get overtime for testifying in municipal court. Payroll records show the four earned $943,000 in overtime since 2008.”

“We certainly will not tolerate any kind of criminal or illegal behavior,” Chief McClelland said at the time. “But I have to weigh, can these officers be productive police officers and members of this organization again?”

At HPD, even those who are fired, suspended, or reprimanded by their superiors usually don’t suffer the full consequences. According to Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, HPD disciplinary actions are overturned or reduced about 60 percent of the time.

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.