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Debra Alston was a hard worker who didn't believe in excuses, mostly because she didn't need them. Born to an unwed teenager in a rural town near the Oklahoma state line, Alston worked her way through technical school, then earned a degree in nursing from the University of St. Thomas.
She took a job with the Harris County Sheriff's Office in 1989 as a nurse, a 36-year-old divorcée with two young sons, eager to try something different from a hospital. Even 15 years ago the department had a reputation as a good-ol'-boys' club, a place where Bubbas sporting buzz cuts were more comfortable than black women. But Alston, a poised, four-foot-nine powerhouse, was determined to succeed.
For a while, she did. Her personnel file shows a series of great evaluations. Until the day they fired her, she never faced serious discipline; she was written up only three times in 13 years, each time for minor infractions committed by employees under her direction: too much overtime for one, failure to clock out for lunch for another.
She was soon promoted to a head nursing position, then named director of nursing in 2000. That put her in charge of more than 100 nurses working at the county jails.
The day of her promotion, she says simply, "was the greatest day of my life." As the first African-American to hold the position, she says, "I was so proud."
She was fired just two years later, after an incident that seemed to call for minor discipline, at best.
She'd been planning to retire in a few years. Instead she lost her job, her pension and her reputation. When she looks at what happened, she sees no logic and no fairness. She sees only skin color.
"I don't like to use the race card," she says. "It's 2004. When are we going to get over that?" But she can't help but see her situation through the lens of race: "I truly believe they treated me this way because I'm black."
It's the only explanation Alston can offer after 12 years of good evaluations. It's the only way she can explain why, three years before retirement, she's sitting in her lawyer's office, trying not to cry as she explains why she's suing the sheriff's department.
For years, the Harris County Sheriff's Office was a white enclave with a rep for keeping minorities down. Blacks fought their way into the department through lawsuits, and they kept fighting once they arrived. Press reports consistently chronicled the struggle. And while white employees may roll their eyes at their complaints of prejudice, some black employees feel their outsider status keenly.
If anything, the racial divide only makes consistent discipline even more important. After decades of tension, many sheriff's employees are watching each other, weighing their record next to those of their co-workers, trying to figure out where they rank.
And people like Debra Alston see a double standard: They believe the department tolerates almost any behavior from certain white employees.
"There are certain groups of whites that stick together within this department and look out for each other no matter what," says James "Smokie" Phillips, president of the Afro-American Sheriff's Deputy League. "They will bend the disciplinary system, circumvent the criminal justice system and hide criminal conduct."
Meanwhile, Phillips says, black employees who chafe under their supervisors' directives or complain to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission find themselves punished or even terminated. Employees with serious gripes are told to file complaints with the internal affairs division, but some black officers judged to have filed frivolously have found themselves punished even for that.
Other law enforcement agencies, including the Houston Police Department, developed systems years ago to deal with complaints and to apply discipline fairly. But critics say the sheriff isn't interested in such reforms, and that the department seems stuck in a pattern of complaint and retaliation, which only fosters more complaints.
But some black employees have reached a simple, but ugly, conclusion: If you're black, you can't challenge authority or complain about the process. If you're white...well, sometimes you can get away with almost anything.
Charles McRae, a co-worker once wrote, had law enforcement "literally" in his veins. His dad was an HPD cop. When McRae applied to the sheriff's department in 1985, he already knew several officers well enough to list them as references. After he quit to work as a border patrol agent three years later, he came begging the department for his job back in months. A note in his file lists the reasons: "Hates it. Wants to come home." The sheriff took him back.
McRae never managed to stay out of trouble. His personnel file shows he was the focus of at least nine internal affairs investigations from 1993 to 2003. He was charged in justice of the peace court with giving alcohol to minors, reprimanded for cursing at a hapless Romanian immigrant on a traffic stop and accused of carrying on a "personal relationship" with a fellow deputy's wife. In 2001, he was suspended eight days for assaulting a nightclub patron while working his off-duty job.