After one too many episodes of violence by anti-abortion activists, Planned Parenthood of Houston took the advice of federal marshals last year and hired off-duty deputies from the Harris County Sheriff's Department to protect employees and patients at its Mid-Town clinic.
Two weeks ago, Planned Parenthood was taken by surprise when informed by Sheriff Tommy Thomas that he would no longer permit his deputies to work off-duty jobs at the private organization's Fannin clinic -- or, for that matter, at any other clinics in the county that provide abortions.
At the time, Planned Parenthood was not given a definitive reason for the sheriff's abrupt change of policy. Clinic operators suspected it was because Thomas, who is standing for election in the March 12 Republican Party, was trying to ensure the support of Christian conservative voters in the fall general election.
Now, however, they suspect that may have been only part of the answer.
On August 6, 1994, an abortion protester named Ed Colbert was involved in a confrontation with Jerry Wayne Cohn, an off-duty deputy sheriff working security during a protest outside the Women's Medical Center of Northwest Houston. Colbert had noticed that the deputy was jotting down the license plates of cars at the scene. Depending on whose version of the story you believe, Colbert was arrested after simply asking the deputy what he was doing or after trying to position himself between the deputy and the license plates to prevent his copying of the licenses.
In any event, Colbert, who was then the president of the anti-abortion organization Life Advocates, was arrested and charged with interfering with an officer. He spent a night in jail, but the charge was eventually dropped.
Early last year, Colbert filed a federal lawsuit against the owner of the clinic, deputy Cohn, then-sheriff Johnny Klevenhagen and Harris County, accusing them of violating his civil rights. During pretrial pleadings -- a usual step in which the parties try to agree on some issues before trial -- Colbert indicated he would be willing to drop his case, on one condition.
"The plaintiff admits wholeheartedly," states Colbert's pleading, "that settlement or resolution of this suit will hinge upon Harris County's agreement to change its policy of allowing off-duty officers to work at abortion clinics."
A spokesman for Thomas, who became a defendant in the suit after he was appointed to succeed the retiring Klevenhagen, maintains that Colbert's demand had no influence on the sheriff's decision to prohibit his deputies from working extra jobs at the clinics.
Nor did Colbert rush in to accept credit for bringing about the change. Although Colbert did not return phone calls placed by the Press to Life Advocates or his home, his attorney, Elaine Morley, says she and her client were unaware that any policy revision by the sheriff was in the works. She also points out that Colbert's suit is still pending, and says she doubts that it had any bearing on Thomas' decision.
Planned Parenthood officials believe otherwise.
"This is all about pressure from religious political extremists," says spokeswoman Susan Nenney. "They are going too far when they start trying to play politics with the safety of citizens."
And if it wasn't the Colbert case that caused Thomas to change his policy, then it was something similar, the spokeswoman maintains.
"This just didn't come out of thin air," Nenney says.
But according to an official with the sheriff's department, Thomas had been considering changes to the department's extra-job policy since taking over as sheriff last summer. The policy was revised earlier this year and was modeled after the rules governing the off-duty jobs worked by officers with the Houston Police Department.
Indeed, in drafting his new policy, Thomas borrowed -- literally -- a page out of the book of Police Chief Sam Nuchia, who also refuses to allow his officers to work at abortion clinics. Although the regulation was in effect at HPD long before Nuchia became chief, Nuchia, too, is on the March 12 GOP primary ballot in his bid for a state appellate judgeship.
The recently revised section of Chapter 11 of the sheriff's department manual forbids deputies from working extra jobs if, among other things, "the location or nature of the extra employment could be highly controversial E." Identical language, with the omission of the world "highly," is found in HPD's General Order No. 300-14, which governs the off-duty employment of its officers.
Although the off-duty policies of the sheriff's and police departments define where a deputy or an officer may not work, they don't say where they may work. The Press requested from each department a list of all locations where off-duty officers and deputies work extra security jobs, but both refused to furnish the lists.
In denying the request, officials with both departments explained that the publication of the locations could place officers in danger, in the event someone had a vendetta against the lawmen. (The vengeance-seekers apparently are unaware of the fact that a large number of officers can usually be found around jails and police stations.) Secondly, say the officials, the naming of specific sites where officers work after-hours jobs would place businesses without extra security at risk.
Both departments cited a 1987 ruling by then-attorney general Jim Mattox declaring that forms containing information about the businesses that hire off-duty Houston officers are exempt from the Texas Open Records Act. However, according to a spokesman for Attorney General Dan Morales, Mattox's successor, that ruling does not apply to a request for a list of the businesses where officers are allowed to work.
"Whether or not revealing where they are allowed to work," says Ron Dusek, "would somehow jeopardize a police officer's life -- that's another issue that has to be dealt with. They can try to make the argument using that previous opinion. But if there is an Open Records request that is made for information about where officers can or cannot work, then, more than likely, they're going to have to ask us for a new opinion dealing specifically with that issue."
Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood finds itself lumped with topless bars as places deemed too controversial for off-duty work by sheriff's deputies. Planned Parenthood's Nenney dryly notes that the only similarity between her clinic and a topless club is that one provides mammograms, while the other deals in breast implants. She might laugh at her joke if the issue were not so serious. And she worries that other law enforcement agencies in Harris County may follow the lead of the sheriff's department.
For the time being, however, the security breach -- at least at Planned Parenthood's clinic -- is being filled by off-duty deputies from Constable Jack Abercia's office. Abercia, a Democrat, apparently finds nothing controversial about allowing his deputies to work at a legal establishment.
"We know that, with what has happened in our country," says Abercia spokesman J.C. Mosier, "that there is the possibility for violence to occur at these types of locations. And we think they deserve and need protection. The only thing we're looking at is the safety and protection of people on both sides. It's just that simple.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.