Black and White

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

And then the situation deteriorated -- rapidly.

It started with a jail incident soon after the storm. An inmate fell off his bunk and was knocked unconscious, according to records. He had to be rushed to the clinic on site, where he stopped breathing. He later died in a hospital.

When Alston learned the details, she was shaken. She'd previously asked one of her head nurses, Teresa Courtright, to see that the "emergency crash cart" in Courtright's jail was fully stocked. But at the time of the incident, the cart had only one "intubation blade" -- used to insert tubes into body passages during emergencies -- when it should have had four, according to records. The doctor had used the sole blade in a failed attempt to revive the patient, which convinced Alston that the missing blades could have been a serious problem -- and, she says, potentially a factor in the patient's death.

Former nursing supervisor Alston says she was fired 
for disciplining white workers.
Daniel Kramer
Former nursing supervisor Alston says she was fired for disciplining white workers.
Amboree, fired in 2001, was a vocal critic as president 
of the Afro-American Sheriff's Deputy League.
Daniel Kramer
Amboree, fired in 2001, was a vocal critic as president of the Afro-American Sheriff's Deputy League.

Courtright acknowledged that she'd been asked to deal with the cart but didn't follow up. So Alston gave Courtright a "major incident report," a serious written reprimand.

Courtright appealed to Alston's supervisor, Davis. Davis told Alston she should instead issue "minor incident reports" to all three head nurses at the 701 North San Jacinto jail unit.

Alston disagreed. She wrote another "major incident" report for Courtright, and then issued minor reports for the other two nurses. While they had some responsibilities, she says, she hadn't specifically talked to them about the cart.

Courtright again complained, and Davis intervened a second time. Eventually, under his orders, Alston reduced the discipline to "verbal counseling."

She still was irked, believing her superiors minimized the incident. "A person died," she says. "Could we have done anything to prevent that? I don't know. But we needed to look at our failure."

So she reported Courtright to the state Board of Nurse Examiners. "I wanted to see that she'd get some training for this," Alston says. "When I saw I had no other recourse, I reported her."

Davis knew Alston had made the report. He cited it, along with the fight over verbal counseling, in her February 2002 evaluation, the first to feature "below average" marks. Courtright had previously complained about staffing levels at the jail, a charge that triggered a peer-review session; Davis thought Alston was exacting payback.

But even after she filed the complaint, Alston's job seemed secure. "[O]verall," Davis wrote, "I feel minor day-to-day nursing administration decisions for the most part are made appropriately."

Already, though, Alston's job security was unraveling. Just days after Davis insisted that Alston lessen Courtright's punishment, Courtright and three other nurses gave Davis a two-page memo detailing their complaints about Alston, according to records. The memo accuses Alston of everything from "dishonesty" and "harassment" to "criticism of employees." The nurses gave no details, only helpfully noted that they'd be willing to talk to internal affairs investigators.

One year later, Alston was fired.

The letter terminating her is as vague as the nurses' complaints. Alston had "fostered an atmosphere of distrust and disharmony among the nursing staff," Davis wrote. She was "insubordinate and uncooperative" and showed "no willingness to be a team player." He offered no specific example other than that she'd reported Courtright to the state board -- something he'd known about for more than a year.

And that was that.

Ironically, the county also reported Alston to the state commission over accusations that she let nurse trainees work without close supervision. As in the Courtright case, the commission closed the case without issuing discipline.

Alston sued in federal court, arguing race discrimination. Her attorney, Melvin Houston, says the sheriff wouldn't have fired Alston if she had been white. "She was an excellent employee. All these allegations started because she was trying to discipline a white employee. Would that have happened if that employee were black? I don't think so."

And Alston isn't alone, Houston says. "This is their normal practice there," he says. "This is what they do as an organization."

Statistical evidence supports the lawyer's argument. Including administrators, secretaries and janitors, the sheriff's office has 3,550 employees. The percentage of black officers has risen in recent years, from 23 percent in 1998 to 28 percent today.

But another percentage involving black employees is higher still. In the last six years, the sheriff has fired 64 black employees -- 38 percent of total terminations, well above their level of employment.

An employee with a long history of commendations, Major Carl Borchers, like Alston, faced a serious complaint from a subordinate after years without incident. His case ended much differently.

Borchers is white.

Captain Jay Coons filed an internal affairs complaint against Borchers in September 2001, just one month after Alston's subordinates made their complaint against her. But unlike the nurses' simple, two-page memo, Coons's complaint was mind-numbingly detailed: a 19-page roster of allegations with dates, witnesses and excerpts from the department manual.

The two men had always had a rocky relationship, Coons acknowledged. But Coons argued that their interaction suddenly worsened while Coons was working on his master's thesis at the University of Houston.

Coons, who is white, had chosen to study whether the department's promotional system complied with civil rights laws. The results have been a closely guarded secret. Despite requests from Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and the news media, including the Houston Press, Coons has been unwilling to share his report.

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