Wrong Answers to Tough Questions
Chambers County, host of the troubled drug task force profiled in T.O. last fall (“The Numbers Game,” October 26, 2001), made national news last month for employing a creative method of stretching their criminal justice budget. As originally reported in the Baytown Sun, and later on National Public Radio, Sheriff Monroe Kreuzer has allowed his deputies to take armed citizens along with them on patrol. The citizens are not licensed peace officers, but they do each have concealed handgun permits, according to Kreuzer. In justifying his actions, the sheriff invoked the seldom heard and even less often understood Posse Comitatus doctrine, a term which did originally refer to the power of the county to round up citizens for law enforcement purposes (‘Get a Posse!’), but more recently (say, around Reconstruction) became more commonly associated with the federal law prohibiting the use of the armed forces as peace officers. (Ours being a living language, the term is now frequently associated with backwoods-do-it-yourself militias. Depending on how things go in Kreuzer’s outfit, it may one day refer to the likelihood of being shot by an unlicensed sheriff’s deputy in some swamp east of Houston.)
Kreuzer’s interpretation of Ameri-can common law was not popular with the county commissioner’s court. (And neither is Kreuzer, for that matter.) “It’s putting the county in a great liability,” Chambers County Judge Jimmy Sylvia told the Sun. Liability seems to be a pressing concern when it comes to Kreuzer. Shortly after his election, he responded personally to a call about a stray horse on the highway. Moving fast on a foggy morning, Kreuzer ran over the horse with his brand new county SUV (the one that reads “Paid For With Seized Drug Funds” on the side), doing considerable damage to machine and animal. (Kreuzer was okay.) The sheriff also raised some eyebrows with his choice of deputies, including Chief Deputy Dearl Hardy, the former task force commander who, as we reported last fall, left the drug squad under a cloud of suspicion. (Word around the courthouse has it that Hardy is now on the way out of this job, too.)
In fact nobody seems too crazy about citizen cops. Will Harrell of the Texas ACLU likened the idea to the notorious vigilante civilian patrols in Central America. Charley Wilkison, political director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), used a fire-fighting metaphor: “There’s a reason we all run from a burning building and the firefighters go rushing in,” he said. “It’s called training.” Just before press time, the sheriff announced he was ending the citizen ride-along practice immediately.
SPIKED BY CLEAT
The Austin Police Association (APA) has ratcheted up the rhetoric in its jihad against the ACLU with the publication of the April issue of its monthly membership magazine, The Police Line. The issue is almost entirely dedicated to bashing the civil liberties group. APA President Michael Sheffield sets the tone in his column, “Remove the U from ACLU” in which he asserts that the advocacy group should drop the “union” because they are “nothing more than radical union bashers.” (It’s worth noting that the ACLU currently represents a police officer in San Antonio and that the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) helped sponsor the ACLU’s recent John Henry Faulk Award Dinner.)
Sheffield then writes in his column: “They hate us and they are paid to make other people hate us. We need to remind the citizens who support us that belonging to the Austin ACL_ [sic] is like belonging to the Klan. It has become nothing more than a hate group out of control.”
Reached by cell phone, Sheffield is willing to concede only that his remarks might have cast too wide a net. “I don’t know about the whole ACLU, but the group in Austin has a cop-bashing agenda,” he insists.
The APA and CLEAT are particularly incensed by a failed ACLU campaign to have the Austin city council appoint a new independent police monitor after the police negotiated into their contract a provision to have the city manager select one. The two groups also object to the ACLU’s efforts to make public some complaint files against officers.
“The characters involved had been butting heads for years over this,” says Texas ACLU Executive Director Will Harrell. “Everybody’s credibility was on the line. This was a career maker or breaker for Mike Sheffield and I think that is why he took it so personally.”
CLEAT’s Charley Wilkison believes the ACLU has tried to turn Austin against the police. “They are a bunch of arrogant liberals that don’t get it,” he complains. “They don’t know what it is to put on a protective vest, leave your family, and get in a marked target, and start patrolling.”
In a bizarre twist of fate, into all this discord came a little bit of harmony. CLEAT and the ACLU actually found something to agree upon recently–the issue of armed citizens accompanying police patrols. Both sides oppose it. In fact, their positions are so similar, the Baytown Sun, in an article on Chambers County Sheriff Monroe Kreuzer’s practice of deputizing armed civilians, attributed a quote by Harrell to Larry Watts, chief of staff of CLEAT.
Wilkison promises that this rare instance of unanimity between the two organizations does not indicate a rapprochement. “It’s a fluke,” he says. “Don’t let it bother you.”
Harrell is more conciliatory, noting that the two groups have reached agreement on issues in the past. “I know Charley Wilkison and Mike Sheffield and I like them personally and admire their commitment,” he says. “But we shouldn’t have to both slug it out and expend limited resources every time we have a disagreement. There has to be some common ground, but as long as there are ad hominem attacks going back and forth it will be difficult.”
CLEAT seems to revel in a reputation for crotchety independence, simultaneously playing victim or bully when the need suits. Recently it endorsed Rick Perry for governor, despite the fact CLEAT is an affiliate of the Communication Workers of America, which has endorsed Tony Sanchez.
“They have always followed their own course when it comes to endorsements,” explains John Burpo, director of the National Coalition of Public Safety Officers/Communica-tion Workers of America. “Some-times people in the CWA get a little mad about it, but that’s what they do.”
If the mother union is bothered by CLEAT endorsements, Wilkison doesn’t care. “They are lucky we pay them dues,” he says. “I think labor organizations, as part of a national trend, are moving toward more independence.”
Wilkison notes CLEAT has endorsed Democrats like John Sharp for lieutenant governor and Kirk Watson for attorney general recently. “The Republicans were happy with us for about seven days, and the Democrats were mad,” he notes. “Now they are both pissed off, and that’s the way we like it.”
In September, Harrell and Sheffield will get to take their Texas dog-and-cat show on the road. The CWA is hosting a seminar on police associations and community conflict in San Diego, relates Burpo. Both have been invited to speak on a panel on civilian review of the police.
As the Observer goes to press, the Harris County Grand Jury has asked for a third day of testimony on the Luis Torres case. The jurors had heard evidence from police, medical workers, and the Torres family. Presumably they had also watched the police video that over a span of a few minutes vividly depicts Baytown police officers killing Torres. (See, “Are You Experienced?”, March 29.) Since Grand Jury proceedings are secret, the full scope of the testimony is unclear.
What jurors did not hear is the Harris County District Attorney’s Office ask for an indictment against the officers. Assistant District Attorney Vic Wisner is already on record saying he would not give the jury any direction. During an April 23 LULAC-sponsored conference in Houston devoted to the case, panelists charged the Harris County DA with maintaining an unwritten policy never to seek indictments against police officers for in-custody deaths.
“We have reason to believe that the Harris County District Attorney’s Office historically has never recommended charges against police officers,” says Torres family attorney Michael Solar. “We know that the district attorney’s office can indict and convict children, try them as adults, and sentence them to death. We know that mentally ill people can be indicted, tried, and convicted; and the district attorney’s office will ask for death in that instance. But we have never seen that happen in the case of a police officer being cited for causing serious harm or death to a Mexican national such as Mr. Torres.”
The grand jurors are not the only ones scrutinizing the Torres case. In recent weeks several Spanish-language media outlets have devoted space to the killing. Mexico’s La Jornada began their story, “Once again a Mexican family searching for the ‘American dream’ north of the Rio Grande found a nightmare instead.” U.S.-based Univision.com and La Opinion also gave the story lengthy treatments. According to Solar, the governor of Torres’ home state of Michoacán has taken an interest in the case, as has the Mexican consulate in Houston.
U.S Attorney for the Southern District of Texas Michael Shelby, informed the consulate that a lawyer from the civil rights division would monitor the case. The FBI also is conducting an investigation. If the Grand Jury refuses to charge the officers, the Justice Department could get involved. More importantly, Hispanic activists vow to remember Torres when it comes time for the reelection of Harris County DA Chuck Rosenthal.