Former nursing supervisor Alston says she was fired 
    for disciplining white workers.
Former nursing supervisor Alston says she was fired for disciplining white workers.
Daniel Kramer

Black and White

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.

Sheriff Tommy Thomas declined an interview. His spokesman, Captain Robert Van Pelt, insists that the department issues discipline without racial bias.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

But he did contact human resources and sheriff's legal counsel in the spring of 1998 to discuss preliminary findings, according to his complaint. As Borchers later wrote in a memo to internal affairs investigators, Coons told him that "the results of his project were quite detrimental to the best interests of the department and would turn it upside down." (Coons's complaint notes that he'd found a strong case that the department was violating Title VII, the law prohibiting employment discrimination.)

Almost immediately, Borchers complained to internal affairs that Coons had used a county employee to prepare the data. Coons acknowledged that he had indeed done so; after he'd briefed the brass about the study and been told they were interested in the data, he assumed it was official business.

Investigators disagreed. Borchers's complaint resulted in a five-day suspension.

After that, Coons wrote, Borchers assigned him to worse shifts, denied his requests to speak to community groups, censored even mundane correspondence and refused to let him drive a county car to his classes at UH like the other captains.

"Major Borchers' actions have been both numerous and methodical over this time period and cannot be considered anything but what they are: knowing and intentional retaliation against me to a certain extent for our strained relationship but largely due to alerting the department to possible violations of the law," Coons wrote.

And Coons's complaint, along with statements from two other officers under Borchers's command, suggests one reason why Borchers was so bothered by the thesis: He didn't like minorities.

Coons detailed several incidents where Borchers seemed insensitive, at best: Borchers suggested that Hispanics "get real drunk and real wild" and are "real emotional people." He'd asked Coons if a woman who'd been injured at the jail was black; when Coons said she was, Borchers allegedly responded, "Well, you know what's coming" -- meaning, Coons surmised, that the woman would sue.

Coons sailed through a polygraph, according to records. Borchers did not return a call for comment; in a letter to the department, he denied targeting Coons. The complaint, he wrote, was simply "an attempt to thwart proper supervision in order to justify his current and past failures." Borchers didn't dispute making any of the comments that Coons reported, but he did argue that they weren't racist.

Affidavits from two white officers, Captain J.G. Brownfield and Lieutenant Robin Konetzke, supported the contentions by Coons: Brownfield said he'd heard Borchers make "racial and/or derogatory remarks toward blacks, women and homosexuals" on numerous occasions. Konetzke wrote that Borchers would mimic black people by using Ebonics and used "nigger" and "queer" in his conversation. He'd also tell "war stories" about beating up homosexuals as a young man. "It became very obvious to me and Captain Brownfield that Major Borchers had some real issues with regard to race and a person's sexuality," Konetzke wrote.

The department closed its investigation in January 2002. But Borchers wasn't disciplined. He wasn't reprimanded.

Instead, he retired with full benefits several months later. Before he stepped down, the county commissioners commended him for his service.

Spokesman Van Pelt declined comment; Borchers, he said, has retired, and there is nothing further to say.

Robert Amboree started working for the sheriff one year before Charles McRae. Like McRae, Amboree has a thick personnel file, but his is significantly less juicy. Over his 20 years with the department, he was given a series of reprimands: tardiness, wearing the wrong shoes, "unsafe and erratic driving" and too much sick time.

Unlike McRae, Amboree is black.

Other than a five-day suspension in 1987 for dozing on the job, Amboree never faced serious discipline. His evaluations weren't always stellar, but they seemed to be steadily improving in the late '90s: average and above average in 1997, a note that he'd "improved tremendously" in 1998, praise for his "positive, friendly and relaxed attitude" in 1999.

And then, as president of the Afro-American Sheriff's Deputy League, he began speaking out. About the way the department treated black deputies. Against Houston's bid to host the Olympics. (The county, he said, should clean up its racist act first.)

In 2001, he was fired. Unlike McRae, there would be no friendly major to step in and let him off the hook.

On the day that signaled the beginning of his end, Amboree was in the jail's floor control center. Just after noon, one inmate slugged another with a small kitchen appliance called a hot pot. The victim started bleeding profusely, and other inmates quickly pushed the doors closed to separate the two.

Amboree called for help and medical attention. Backup deputies arrived while he was still on the phone, but Amboree turned the wrong switch to let them in. The deputies thought the door wasn't working, so someone called maintenance. Eight minutes elapsed from the time of the fight until the deputies got into the cell, although no further blows were exchanged.

The officer who investigated the incident, Sergeant S. Morrow, noted that Amboree didn't intentionally fail to open the door; it was merely "a mistake on his part." However, Morrow wrote that Amboree had been working the floor for five months; he should have known better.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Even worse is the shame in acknowledging that she was fired. She got an alumni questionnaire from St. Thomas, asking for an update on her career. She was too embarrassed to reply. When she sees sheriff's deputies at the store, she ducks. She knows what happened wasn't her fault, but she never gets the chance to explain that, to make people understand.

She wipes away tears when she talks about it. She's tough, but the unfairness of it chafes at her. The stress almost destroyed her marriage; she and her husband, Ray, spent "two days in church," she says, working to repair the damage.

She thinks back to the day of her promotion. "It seemed to show the sheriff's department was moving in the right direction," she says. But after decades of racial strife and a system that seems to show no interest in policing itself, she should have known it couldn't be that easy.


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