Sheree Ford was on her way to pick up her three-year-old son one Sunday evening last July when she had an encounter with neighborhood-oriented policing, Texas City-style.
Ford's son was with his grandmother, who lives in South Acres, a predominantly African-American area of Texas City. It was important that Ford retrieve the boy, since his grandmother had to leave shortly to go to her job providing assistance to a disabled person. But when Ford, who lives in nearby La Marque, attempted to drive into the neighborhood, she was stopped at a roadblock by Texas City police officers, who inspected her driver's license and told her to keep moving.
What happened to Ford also happened to a number of South Acres residents, as well as friends and family members, on several occasions last summer. In an attempt to counter crime that the police say was connected to Sunday evening traffic and revelry at a nearby park, officers cordoned off South Acres with roadblocks and refused to allow motorists, even those who lived in the neighborhood, to enter until later that evening. But this summer the police department will have to employ less intrusive tactics, since the use of roadblocks was recently outlawed by a federal judge in Houston. His ruling, a local civil liberties attorney says, should have implications beyond Texas City, a refinery town about 40 miles south of Houston.
"It was an intrusion on the rights of the residents," says Anthony Gayden, who lives with his mother in South Acres and was himself prevented from returning home by police. "This would not have happened in a predominantly white neighborhood. The people that were most inconvenienced by this blockade weren't the people that the police were actually trying to catch. The victims were the residents of the community who go to work and take care of their business. Just regular citizens. This was overkill."
U.S. District Judge Samuel B. Kent apparently agreed with Gayden, one of the 16 plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against Texas City by the Clark Read Foundation. In his ruling, Kent said police were "going mosquito hunting with an elephant gun" by erecting the roadblocks.
"The court sees no sinister motive behind the plaintiffs' wishes to return to their homes after attending church services or working all day," the judge wrote. "Nor is there anything criminal about a plaintiff's wish to visit elderly parents, or another plaintiff's need to pick up a child after work."
Kent added that the police had violated that First, Fourth, Fifth and 14th Amendments of the Constitution by erecting the roadblocks. He suggested they "tailor methods of law enforcement more narrowly to [meet] the specific problem at hand."
According to Texas City Police Chief Jerry Purdon, the roadblocks were initiated last summer after some residents of South Acres complained of excessive traffic and gang-related crime in the small neighborhood. On Sunday evenings, many of the people who had spent the afternoon at nearby Carbide Park would entertain themselves by driving through South Acres and discharging firearms. The chief says the traffic jams and shootings posed dangers to the public's safety. He denies there was any racism behind the tactic and maintains that most South Acres residents supported the action.
"Everybody came out and patted us on the back and offered us Kool-Aid," says Purdon. "They were proud to see us. How these 16 [plaintiffs] got crossways with us, I don't know."
Although South Acres residents say otherwise, Purdon maintains the roadblocks were only used once last summer.
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"It was fast and efficient," he laughs. "It just wasn't constitutional. But there are other solutions."
Kent's ruling could reverberate beyond Texas City, says Clark Read Foundation attorney David Kahne, because it comes at a time of growing sentiment in some quarters to forgo some constitutional guarantees in the name of public safety.
"One of the things we've seen are these zero tolerance programs," say Kahne, referring to a tactic that has been employed periodically by the Houston Police Department in predominantly minority neighborhoods. "They rigorously enforce every law on the books. If they really did that in every neighborhood, it would probably be legal. But if they are only enforcing it in low-income, minority neighborhoods, it may not be."
"The importance of the decision," Kahne adds, "is much broader than South Acres. These roadblocks would be illegal and unconstitutional anywhere in America.