Black and White

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

Amboree was fired nine months later. Termination papers gave the reasons: He'd neglected his duties during the hot-pot fight. And he had filed a "frivolous" internal affairs complaint against his supervisors three weeks later, accusing them of discrimination to "deflect" from his screwup with the doors.

Finally, in January 2001, he'd used "loud and threatening language" with a sergeant, and then filed another internal affairs complaint, this one against the sergeant for assault. His supervisor wrote that the complaint was "yet another example of your attempts to deflect attention from your own inexcusable behavior."

Unknown to the department, Amboree had tape-recorded the incident, with the sergeant saying "fuck," a word for which other sheriff's employees have been disciplined. While the department specifically cited his internal affairs complaints, the sheriff's office has no policy against such complaints, even when they prove to be unfounded. The problem, it seemed, was mostly that door -- or, perhaps, Amboree's militancy.

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.

Spokesman Van Pelt declined comment because Amboree is suing the department; in filings and his civil service commission hearing, the county has argued that he was a troublemaker and a lousy employee.

Phillips, who succeeded Amboree as president of the league, notes that nearly every guy who served as the league's president or vice president has been fired, demoted or forced to resign. "Blacks who complain about racism have become targets," he says.

The EEOC thought that was true in Amboree's case. It decided that the hot-pot incident had been too long before and too unimportant to trigger termination. Then-district director H. Joan Ehrlich noted in an EEOC letter to Amboree that the sheriff's department had wrapped up its investigation four months before without issuing discipline. Instead, the EEOC concluded, Amboree's work on behalf of the league "played a major factor in his termination," Ehrlich wrote in July 2001. "[E]vidence establishes a violation of [civil rights law] as it relates to [Amboree's] claims of race and retaliation."

The supervisor who fired Amboree: Major Carl Borchers.

That's the same guy who got so angry about the master's thesis exploring the department's racial policies. The same guy who subordinates claimed liked talking about "niggers."

The last decade was a particularly ugly time for race relations in the sheriff's office. White employees were punished for using racial slurs and bragging of KKK membership. Twice, white officers supposedly commented that black co-workers resembled monkeys. When the league made an issue of the problems, some white deputies briefly formed a "Caucasian-American Police Association" in the spirit of obstruction.

One black sheriff's deputy, who asked that his name not be used, says racial tension in the department is a constant. "It's steadily boiling, and then something will happen where it gets to the point where it boils over."

The biggest problems are often at the jail. Former sheriff Johnny Klevenhagen used to require all applicants to pass a reading test. But civil rights lawyers sued the department in the early '90s, noting that 60 percent of all black applicants had been rejected for poor performance on the test -- despite the fact that reading aptitude is rarely required of, say, county jailers.

The county settled the suit in 1994 by agreeing to drop the test for the jailer position. Klevenhagen was forced to agree to fill 200 openings with black applicants. That opened doors for minorities; today, nearly 40 percent of jailers are black, according to department records.

But forced hiring only worsened jailhouse tension, says the deputy. "People looked at you like you needed help getting here. If you messed up a report, they'd say, 'Wow, that guy's an idiot. Standards have really dropped around here.' You got tired of it."

In May 1999, department investigators rounded up every male black deputy working at the jail and took their photographs, in full view of the inmates they supervised and their co-workers. They said they'd gotten a complaint that a woman visitor had been raped by a black man in a sheriff's uniform.

Andrew Mintz, the lawyer representing the deputies, explains that the deputies ranged in height from five feet five inches to six feet seven inches. (The woman had described her assailant as six feet tall.) Some were dark-skinned, others much lighter. Some weren't even on duty the day of the alleged assault. A total of 16 were photographed before complaints halted the process.

Again, the black deputy says, gossip ran rampant. He heard his co-workers whispering: "They had to have done it, or they wouldn't have lined them up." And then, of course, "If we didn't have these lower standards, they wouldn't be here anyway." He's convinced the entire "complaint" was a smoke screen; no one was ever charged in the "assault."

The black deputies complained to the EEOC. It ruled in 2001 that the department had violated civil rights law. White deputies in similar situations weren't treated that way.

Ten of the 16 deputies are now suing in federal court. Their attorney, Mintz, says he expects to probe the department's history: "Things like this don't just happen out of nowhere," he says. "This was part of a larger problem."

During the time the deputies were rounded up and photographed, the guy in charge at the jail was Major Carl Borchers.

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