Black and White

Good ol’ boys prosper at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. Many African-Americans don’t.

In 2003, things really fell apart. That April, McRae and two friends hopped into their pickup after a few drinks. When they spotted a rabbit near Dixie Farm Road, McRae pulled out his gun and started firing.

A Houston police officer making an arrest down the road had to call for backup to talk to McRae and his friends, who seemed drunk. The guys first denied having anything to do with the gunshots, but after the officer spotted shell casings in the truck, they admitted they were lying.

Firing a gun on a public road is against the law, according to an internal affairs memo summarizing the incident. And the police reports make it clear that the cops suspected the guys were drunk. But McRae wasn't charged, only suspended for three days, put on probation for 180 more and transferred to the detention bureau. And, as he had done in previous incidents involving McRae, Major D.V. McKaskle quickly dropped the transfer without explanation.

Andrew Mintz hopes to probe department bias in a 
lawsuit on behalf of black deputies.
Daniel Kramer
Andrew Mintz hopes to probe department bias in a lawsuit on behalf of black deputies.

McRae was still on probation five months later when wrecker driver Chuck Fowler spotted the deputy's personal car parked in the middle of the Gulf Freeway. McRae seemed to be passed out behind the wheel. Then Fowler watched as McRae roused himself and drove his car into the curb.

Following the weaving car, Fowler quickly called the cops, then the constable. McRae ran a red light, then "stumbled out," Fowler reported, and pressed his gun to Fowler's temple, demanding Fowler put his hands up, lest McRae blow off his "fucking head."

McRae later insisted to sheriff's investigators that he wasn't drunk. He couldn't understand why the wrecker driver had been following him. "I pointed my weapon at the driver that at the time I perceived to be a threat," he wrote. "I gave loud clear verbal commands as I have been trained to do when my weapon is drawn and a threat is perceived."

Two days later, McRae wrote his supervisor to say he had a problem with alcohol. He needed help.

Within the week, neighbors called Houston police to McRae's apartment. McRae's girlfriend apparently had arrived to find him sleeping peacefully -- with another woman. (It didn't help that McRae was naked.) In an ensuing fight, McRae lost his gun. When the cops showed up, McRae told them to get out of his house, and was swearing and refusing to cooperate, according to records.

In his internal affairs report on the two incidents, Captain M.H. Tatton listed McRae's long history of disciplinary trouble. "Can we expect our deputies to make just, legal decisions and conduct themselves in a disciplined, honorable manner on duty without expecting a measure of the same off-duty? No. Can this department continue to tolerate Deputy McRae's misconduct without being liable should tragedy strike? I think not."

McRae was fired in January.

Weeks later, without even an appeal by McRae to the civil service commission, Major McKaskle stepped in. Again. He reduced the punishment to a monthlong suspension, ending that day, plus 180 days of probation.

McRae is white.

Spokesman Van Pelt says the probation was McRae's "chance to turn around." "This is a very professional department," he says. "He was disciplined; there was no double standard. But we looked at the totality of circumstances and decided he'd get one more chance to improve his behavior."

It's a chance that many black employees believe they never get.

The first time Debra Alston complained to the EEOC was in 1996.

She'd been head nurse for six years when she learned that her boss was retiring and that the position for director of nursing would be open. As the only head nurse with a bachelor's degree, a requirement for the job, Alston was convinced she was a shoo-in.

But, she says, the department waited to post the opening. And by the time it did, someone else, conveniently, had just earned his degree.

Bobby Davis is white. And he got the job.

(Spokesman Van Pelt declined comment on the case because Alston is suing the department. In court filings, the department disputes her allegations.)

Alston was disappointed, but not surprised. "Nothing at the sheriff's department shocks a person, if you work there long enough," she says.

She filed a complaint soon after, alleging racial bias. After all, she had more management experience and had earned good evaluations; she'd even been Davis's supervisor for a while.

Although the EEOC gave Alston a right-to-sue letter, she dropped the complaint. The lawyers she talked to wanted $20,000 or even $30,000 to handle a suit. "No one has that kind of money," she says.

She got another chance to advance four years later. Davis was promoted to medical administrator, and Alston again applied for the director's position. This time, her only competition was another black female. This time, Alston got the job.

Her first evaluation at the new post shows marks of average and above. Her supervisor, Davis, wrote that she first "appeared to be unsure of her duties as Director of Nursing, but now she appears to have transitioned into her new position more comfortably." Six months later, she earned another mostly positive review, which praised her work during Tropical Storm Allison.

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