DO THE CRAWFISH
There is a new dance craze sweeping the Baytown police department. It’s called the Crawfish and it involves plenty of wiggling backsteps. To demonstrate how it’s done, acting police chief Byron Jones, along with City Manager Monte Mercer, sat down with the editors of the Baytown Sun at the end of March. The meeting came on the heels of several important “clarifications” by Jones.
The interim chief had raised the ire of many in the Greater Houston area by insisting for months that his officers had acted according to established policy in the in-custody death of Mexican-American Luis Torres (a posture that could expose the city to liability). The Torres killing was captured in hideous detail by a police camera mounted on a patrol car. (See “Are You Experienced?”, March 29.) At the time of his death, Torres was physically ill to the point of disorientation, unarmed, and without any illegal drugs or alcohol in his system. The tape shows officers tripping Torres, who had up until that point offered no resistance other than backing away. The officers then proceed to use pepper spray, savagely beat him, and one appears to lean with his full body weight on Torres’s neck for almost two minutes. The coroner determined the cause of death to be “mechanical asphyxiation with blunt impact trauma.”
Now, in an abrupt about-face, when asked again whether the three policemen, Bert Dillow, Micah Aldred, and Sgt. Rodney Evans had “followed proper procedures,” Jones declined to comment and stated instead that it is “up to the grand jury to decide.”
And indeed, the results of a Baytown police investigation have been forwarded to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, which expects to present the case to a grand jury sometime in April. The FBI is also investigating the incident.
For Jones, it’s just one equivocation of many. As reported in the Baytown Sun, after the killing, the chief had insisted the department would review its use-of-force policy. Subsequently, Jones admitted the department didn’t actually have such a policy. Nor are Baytown police currently trained on how to deal with the mentally or physically ill. (Chief Jones says that officers are scheduled to receive such training in Houston in the near future.)
Jones also let slip, more than a month after the fact, that on February 20, the same day he placed Evans and Aldred on desk duty, and Dillow on administrative leave with pay, he had added a fourth officer to the list, Chad Billeaud. When queried why he waited until the end of March to mention that Billeaud had also been sent to a desk over the incident, Jones explained to the Sun that “no one had ever asked him.” In his sit-down with the paper’s editors, Jones admitted that this answer and several of his other statements were mistakes.
The Torres family lawyer, Michael Solar, is not convinced Jones has learned much from his recent stab at contrition and truthfulness. He points to another statement the chief made to the Sun in the course of his meeting with the editors. Jones fretted that his officers were worried about the upcoming grand jury process. The paper quoted the chief as saying “Imagine being in their place, living with that uncertainty from day to day, for who knows how long it will take.”
Jones seems to have no such compassion for an innocent man beaten and strangled by his officers; no words for the wife, children, and grandchildren he left behind. “It is really horrific that this man can feel sorry for himself, the department, the city, his police officers without any effort to express condolences for the family of Luis Torres,” Solar says.
It now appears Gloria Swidriski might receive justice in the death of her son Marc Kajs. In 1998 Kajs, who was gay, was gunned down by his ex-lover Ilhan Yilmaz, who then shot himself. The event occurred in the parking lot of Houston’s Tony Urbana restaurant, where Kajs worked Sunday brunch as a waiter. Yilmaz had stalked Kajs for seven months. Although the 28-year-old Kajs had repeatedly begged Houston police for protection–including on the morning of his death–they had ignored him.
Although Kajs had not obtained a court protective order against his stalker, Texas law does not require such an order for police to provide protection. About the same time as the Kajs incident, Swidriski’s attorney Robert Rosenberg pointed out, Houston police had arrested a man for stalking and making terroristic threats against his wife, without her having obtained a restraining order. Rosenberg filed suit against the police department, alleging that they failed to help Kajs because he was gay, a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The City of Houston filed a motion asking U.S. District Court Judge Melinda Harmon to dismiss the case, on the theory that the Fourteenth Amendment does not grant special protection to gays and lesbians. Harmon agreed with the city and dismissed the case.
Lawyer Rosenberg, with the help of the ACLU, appealed Harmon’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and the appellate court reversed the Houston judge last December, opening the way for a lawsuit. “The Fourteenth Amend-ment guarantees that states treat similarly situated individuals alike,” explained the court. “Simply because a state has not historically treated certain persons differently than others does not mean it can discriminate without at least offering a rational basis for its actions.”
Judge Harmon’s misreading of the Constitution might not come as a surprise, considering some of her past rulings. In 2000, Harmon suggested that a cocaine-addled lawyer’s habit of sleeping through much of a racketeering trial may have been “harmless” to his client. Last year she sent Houston writer Vanessa Leggett to jail for contempt of court for failing to give a federal grand jury her notes and tapes of interviews with confidential sources. Leggett was jailed for five and a half months. Currently Harmon is presiding over a grand jury investigation of Arthur Andersen, where she is busy quashing government subpoenas.
Pentagon spending in the Republican budget plan would increase by $46 billion over last year, to a total of $348 billion. With that much bacon in the frying pan, there’s a little grease for everyone. Texas A&M has gotten in line with their proposal to create the Integrative Center for Homeland Security, which would offer training for law enforcement and firemen, support research on bioterrorism, and develop expertise in border security, the Daily Texan reported. Do you smell an industry in the offing? U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady (R-College Station) has requested $120 million in funding for the center, for which A&M officials have recently been seen lobbying in Washington. University officials have also proposed a second sop, uh, center, to be called the Center for Information Assurance and Security, for which they are seeking funding from the National Security Agency.
Why not bring the NSA to campus? The place is already crawling with spooks, as the Daily Texan also reported in early March. Texas A&M is one of many schools across the country that participates in the CIA’s officer-in-residence program, in which an agent acts as a visiting professor, teaching courses on foreign policy while still drawing his agency salary. (What’s next, a seminar by Jeff Skilling on business ethics?) Former CIA agent Jim Olson, now a full-time professor at A&M’s George Bush School of Government and Public Service, started out as an officer-in-residence at the school. Such officers don’t recruit students (they have university recruiters to do that), but they do have the intended effect. “Me being here has certainly raised the consciousness,” Olson told the Texan. “I’ve talked to a lot of different groups about careers in intelligence. I hope that it’s had a positive impact.”
CHE NO MORE
Say, who was that barbudo (guy with a beard)? In the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t appearance at last month’s Monterrey Summit (see “Roast Goats and Sacrificial Lambs,” page 8), the Mexican press has been chock full of what are known as “dímes y diretes,” (that’s a technical term for “you tell me and I’ll tell you”–verbal attacks and counter-attacks), all centered on Foreign Relations Minister Jorge Castañeda. Critics accuse the former political science professor and prolific author of radically changing the traditionally friendly tone of Mexican-Cuban relations and making a 180-degree turn that points toward Washington. Writing in the Mexico City daily La Jornada, political analyst Soledad Loaeza accused Castañeda of abandoning that most fundamental principle of Mexican hospitality–mi casa es su casa. During a presidential visit to Cuba in February, Castañeda was quoted as describing the trip as “the end of our relationship with the Cuban revolution and the beginning our relationship with the Cuban republic.”
Later that month a group of asylum seekers hijacked a city bus and crashed into the front door of the Mexican embassy, apparently taking the Foreign Minister at his word and seeking a little mi casa es su casa themselves. (Just days before, at the opening of a new Mexican Cultural Institute in Miami Castañeda had announced that “our doors are always open to all Cubans.” ) “What was I supposed to say?” he insisted to reporter John Ross in a brief exchange at the Monterrey Summit. “This was an opening for Chrissakes!” After the Summit, the official Cuban newspaper Granma raised the ante by publishing a photo of a very dashing, gun-toting young Castañeda dressed in military fatigues during a visit to Cuba decades ago, accusing the Foreign Ministry of having been a bit of a revolutionary-in-training in his youth. Castañeda says the photos were taken during a state visit to the island years ago when he accompanied his father. (At the time his father–also named Jorge Casta-ñeda–was serving as Mexico’s Foreign Relations Minister.) Well, ni modo, as they say. As the author of a myth-busting biography claiming that Castro essentially abandoned the legendary Che Guevara, leading to his death in Bolivia (Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara), Castañeda was bound to make waves. Stay tuned.