Black and White

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

In the frenzy that followed the mug-shot roundup, change at the sheriff's office became a hot topic. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee announced that the U.S. Justice Department was investigating at her request; she also started a task force, which included Sheriff Tommy Thomas himself, aimed at ending racism in the department. For the first time, even Thomas seemed to acknowledge a problem, although he called it one "blown out of proportion" by the media.

Progress, however, fizzled. The Justice Department joined the EEOC in its probe of the mug-shot incident, but no one seems to know what happened to Congresswoman Lee's promise of a bigger investigation. The feds never released a statement. A Justice Department spokesman failed to return repeated calls for comment; the congresswoman's office also failed to respond to a request for an update. The task force seems to have disappeared without accomplishing much of anything.

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.

Black employees, however, are convinced that problems persist, particularly inequity in discipline. Phillips, the league president, says he believes complaints about racism and unfairness have only grown.

Other law enforcement agencies have found a solution to that problem. The sheriff will have nothing to do with it.

Richard Cobb, a lawyer who frequently represents deputies as they challenge their terminations, says the biggest problem at the sheriff's office is lack of consistency. The determining factor in taking disciplinary action is usually the whim of whatever supervisor is involved. It's not really race, he says. "It's a good-old-boy system. It's all based on who likes who and who doesn't like who."

The Houston Police Department faced similar complaints until the 1990s, when it instituted a standardized system of "progressive discipline," Cobb says. Under the new rules, offenses were categorized and weighted, and the rules -- rather than one supervisor, guided by his feelings -- determined how many times employees could commit minor indiscretions before being punished. HPD also made each disciplinary act subject to review from other officers; officers also have the right to appeal discipline to an independent arbitrator.

"Police officers used to say, 'I know I messed up, but look what he got for the same offense,'" Cobb says. "You don't hear that anymore." Complaints about racial disparity in discipline seem to have decreased as well, he says.

At the sheriff's office, just 13 percent of supervisors are black. The percentage shrinks with each level of promotion: Only one captain is black and one major; typically, majors handle discipline.

The department's own statistics indicate that black employees, despite fewer instances of lower-level discipline, are more likely to get the boot: While blacks get 38 percent of terminations, they are given just 26 percent of all suspensions, according to records. League president Phillips offers one possible explanation: When black employees screw up, their supervisors throw the book at them.

The sheriff's only safeguard is the department's civil service commission, a seven-member panel that hears appeals of disciplinary action.

But lawyers say the panel is hardly impartial. Two members are appointed by the district attorney, two by the county commissioners court...and two by the sheriff. Those six then jointly appoint the final member. (Two of the current commissioners are African-American.)

Several attorneys who spoke with the Press called the commission a "rubber stamp." Records show that over the last ten years, the commission has sided with the sheriff in 77 percent of terminations. Its rate of upholding lesser discipline is 79 percent.

Spokesman Van Pelt says he believes the current system is working -- and racially neutral.

But even when the commission does overrule the sheriff, the employee suffers. The average wait for a termination hearing in the last ten years has been 16 months. Seven applicants have had to wait more than two years, according to records.

One of those who faced a long wait is B.J. Taylor, who is black. He joined the department in 1982 and was quickly promoted to sergeant. His lawyer, Tim Webb, says Taylor's file shows nothing but stellar evaluations and no disciplinary history.

But the sheriff's office found that several deputies under Taylor had been carrying rifles in their patrol cars; at the time, that violated department policy. The deputies received three-day suspensions or reprimands. Taylor was treated more harshly: Along with a three-day suspension, he was put on probation for six months -- and demoted to deputy, an $800 monthly pay cut.

"Is it fair? Absolutely not," Webb says. "Was it racially motivated? Who knows. But the punishment absolutely does not fit the transgression."

Last month, the commission upheld Taylor's discipline. Taylor waited 22 months to find out that his career as an officer was over.

Former deputy Robert Amboree, rejected by the civil service commission, took his case to trial in October in district court. After a week's trial, the jury decided that racial discrimination played a role in his termination. He was awarded nearly $100,000 -- $53,733 in back pay and $46,266 in damages. The county, he says, is appealing.

For Debra Alston, the waiting will continue: for her day in court, for a chance to clear her name.

She's taken a job as a psychiatric nurse, working weekends. "Most places, they ask you what happened at your last job, and you say you were terminated and reported to the state board, you're not going to get hired." But after years in management, working the floor is tough. "I'm not a young chicken," says Alston, who is now 52. Glaucoma makes it difficult to read patient charts; her knees hurt constantly.

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