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Gerardo Carrillo was never a fan of dictators, and when he let this be known in Cuba, he was threatened with beatings and imprisonment. Carrillo decided finally to leave Cuba and to come to a free country. Twenty years later, in October 1998, he was standing on a street corner in north Houston, when he found himself staring into the headlights of a Houston police car.
According to a lawsuit Carrillo later filed, Houston police officer J.A. DeSantos emerged from the car with gun drawn, shouting, "Put that shit down!" Carrillo was carrying a garment bag and a woman's coat. He placed it on the ground beside him. He claims he never tried to hide what he was carrying or to run, and he was still standing there when two more squad cars arrived. More officers jumped out with weapons in hand. Carrillo says officer David Zaharas approached and without asking a question, began swinging a flashlight against Carrillo's elbow, back and shoulder. When Carrillo raised his arms to protect his face, Zaharas grabbed Carrillo by the throat, the immigrant says. Carrillo's air and blood supply were pinched off. He was thrown, face down, to the ground. Two officers knelt on his back while a third handcuffed him. When he was bound, one of the officers picked up Carrillo's head and slammed it twice against the earth.
Carrillo insisted he was simply a clothing salesman who had been waiting for a bus, but the officers ignored him. In the squad car, listening to the radio, Carrillo realized they were looking for a robbery suspect who, like himself, was black. Instead of a robbery charge, however, Officer DeSantos took Carrillo to jail for public intoxication. No tests for intoxication were performed. Carrillo claims he doesn't consume alcohol or illegal drugs. Nonetheless, he was deposited in the drunk tank, where he huddled against the wall for two days before he was told all charges had been dismissed.
In a different country, Carrillo might have started building bombs. In this one, he filed a $750,000 lawsuit against the officers and the city, alleging unlawful arrest and assault. (The City Attorney's Office says the officers did nothing improper.) In addition to suing, Carrillo also began exercising his right to protest.
The activist group he joined, Corpus Justice, displays his case now as an example of police power and of the abuse that can result. Born after the police shooting of Pedro Oregon in 1998, Corpus has marched the streets and appeared before City Council, demanding greater police accountability. The group is small, disorganized and typically shrill, but it makes a credible point: Power tends to corrupt, and the Houston Police Department has little check on its power.
Of the country's four largest cities, only Chicago has a civilian department to investigate claims of police brutality. New York City, Los Angeles and Houston leave such work to internal affairs, allowing the police to investigate the police. LAPD, now coping with another corruption scandal, has no oversight of its internal affairs department. In New York and Houston, the findings of IAD are scrutinized by boards of civilians, though both of these boards are largely ineffectual.
Lieutenant Terry Collman, who runs Houston's Internal Affairs Division, confesses it's tough to be a police officer investigating police officers. The job requires much integrity, he says. "Fortunately everyone up here at IAD has that integrity."
IAD used to be housed apart from the rest of HPD, but about two years ago internal affairs moved downtown onto the 20th floor of police headquarters. As Collman understands it, former chief Sam Nuchia felt this would be "a more central area for people to come and complain." It also meant that filing a brutality complaint with IAD would involve crossing "a field of blue uniforms," as Collman acknowledges. The location would seem to discourage complaints, he admits, and it certainly had that effect on Gerardo Carrillo.
As the process works, IAD conducts its investigation and then refers its findings to the Citizen Review Committee. Just as IAD is housed among those it must investigate, the Citizen Review Committee has its quarters within the Internal Affairs Division. The members of the CRC are generally startled when you call them and will typically refer all questions to Lieutenant Collman. When you call the CRC's main number, it is Collman who answers. "You probably need to talk to me," he says. And according to Collman, it is only proper that IAD oversees the group that oversees IAD, for it allows IAD to ensure that civilians won't run off with the case files.
The committee was established ten years ago, in the wake of the police killings of Byron Gillum and Ida Lee Delaney. At the time, activists such as Jew Don Boney called for a strong review board that would have subpoena and investigative powers. The mayor at the time, Kathy Whitmire, supported such an idea, but the police chief, Lee Brown, did not. City Council sided with Brown. The Citizen Review Committee, as a result, became a body without budget or power. In the committee's current form, its unpaid members are appointed by the mayor (now Lee Brown) and can be reappointed indefinitely. Their weekly meetings are not open to the public. They may offer advice concerning all police investigations of excessive police force and any discipline that follows. Their suggestions are forwarded directly to the chief of police, who has final authority.
Of about 300 brutality cases the CRC reviews a year, Collman says the board "really disagrees" with IAD's conclusions roughly 10 percent of the time. Of these cases, Collman was unaware that Police Chief Clarence Bradford had ever followed any CRC recommendation.
How widely the CRC is known in the community Collman can't guess, but he says there are many police officers who don't understand its function. The best exposure the board received in the Houston Chronicle was a 1993 opinion column, in which member Richard L. Jennings called the CRC "the most effective law enforcement oversight organization in the United States and perhaps even the world."
This would be not far from the view of city officials. Councilwoman Annise Parker says she occasionally felt like "window dressing" as a CRC member, but she seems to be one of the few willing to consider suggestions for improving the board. Jew Don Boney, who has found so little to protest since his election to City Council, says, "I think the system right now is adequate." Chief Bradford maintains the police department is the logical place to complain about a police officer. And Mayor Brown has written Corpus Justice that there is plenty of civilian oversight. "Therefore, I am unable to support your request."
Members of Corpus Justice realize they may die of old age before a stronger review board is impaneled. Through his lawsuit and through Corpus Justice, Gerardo Carrillo goes on fighting. The language of an activist has come quickly to him. "Peacefully," he says, "we can try to do change for the better."
E-mail Randall Patterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.