A slip of the tongue. The F-bomb. Former Houston Community College police officer Heather Perry says it was a honest mistake, that she didn't mean to curse at the guy behind the counter at the EZ TAG store, but she was frustrated her toll pass wasn't working properly and let it fly.
Unfortunately, though she was not on duty, she was wearing her police uniform at the time, and the employee complained. Quickly, she says, that one little word, that sudden outburst, cost Perry her job and turned her life upside down.
"I was upset," she says, "but I never threatened or hurt anybody. I said it, and I know I shouldn't have, but I didn't deserve to be fired for saying it."
Perry is claiming gender discrimination, alleging HCC Police Chief Gregory Cunningham sacked her because she is a woman. She also says that Cunningham followed through on personal threats to ruin her career and violated the college's termination procedures. She joins a chorus of other officers alleging Cunningham is running the police department into the ground with a host of detrimental practices and policies. This is how she tells it:
About a week or so after blowing up at the EZ TAG clerk, when she said, "What the fuck is going on here?" Perry received a letter from the HCC police department telling her there had been a complaint and that there would be an internal inquiry. Perry talked to the investigator and claims he assured her that cursing was not a fireable offense and that he would be recommending no more than a one- or two-day suspension to the chief. She was to go home and wait for a call telling her to return to duty.
No one called. Then, on October 16, 2009, nearly three weeks after the internal investigation began, Perry received a letter in the mail from Cunningham informing her that she had been fired, effective in a week. Cunningham stated the reason was for violating the department's policy regarding the harassment of civilians. Cunningham also said that Perry's termination form, called an F-5, which is submitted to the state law enforcement licensing board and becomes part of an officer's permanent record, would reflect a general discharge and not a dishonorable one.
Perry thought it was a joke. Never in her wildest dreams did she think her loose lips would cost her her job. A few days later, she decided to call Cunningham.
"When I called," claims Perry, "he tore me a new one. He said, 'Listen, little girl, I'm the god around here and only I have the power of the pen to say what happens. I don't have to listen to anyone else. I can put whatever I want on your F-5. If you fight me, you'll regret it.'"
Scared, Perry went to the college system's Human Resources department to appeal her termination. But no one there had any idea what Perry was talking about. Perry claims the Human Resources office had no record of her termination.
Nearly two weeks later, HR finally sent Perry a termination notice, with an effective date one week past the day Cunningham had originally stated. It took another two weeks for Perry to receive a copy of her F-5 form. Cunningham had checked the box for a dishonorable discharge.
Perry began talking to other HCC police officers, who told her that several cops there, all men, had done a lot worse than curse while off-duty and were not fired. Perry claims she discovered that one officer had been charged with DWI and was not seriously reprimanded; that an officer was accused of stealing time from the school, clocking in but not showing up for duty, and had only been verbally warned; and that another officer was accused of sexual harassment and was transferred first, as a warning, before a second sexual harassment accusation finally got him placed on administrative leave.
It appeared, Perry claims, that Cunningham was giving men a break, while he went right to giving her the boot. Perry took that information, along with her assertion that only 10 percent of the force was made up of women and that none had leadership positions, to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. There, she told an EEOC representative about the termination letters, how she believed Cunningham had circumvented proper procedures, the threats he made about her F-5 form and the demeaning way he called her "little girl" on the phone. The representative talked to Cunningham, who denied everything.
Perry then took her case to the college system's Board of Trustees, and made arrangements to speak at its next public meeting on December 10. A few days after announcing this decision to college officials in writing, Perry got a letter in the mail from Cunningham about her F-5 form. The chief stated that her previous F-5 had "erroneously reflected" the reason for her termination as a dishonorable discharge, and had been a "clerical error." Cunningham had resubmitted the form to the licensing board, this time giving Perry a general discharge, instead of a dishonorable one, the exact opposite of the first time around.
When Perry finally addressed the board of trustees, she related the whole odyssey. And, at least at first, it seemed like the trustees listened. The next day Perry received a letter stating that the board had granted her appeal and that HCC Deputy Chancellor Art Tyler would review Perry's termination.
Tyler upheld Cunningham's decision to fire Perry, but by now, other officers were coming forward with additional allegations against their chief. So far, three officers, not counting Perry, have filed complaints with the EEOC alleging varying types of retaliation, including age and racial discrimination.
A former officer also has documents that appear to show that Cunningham may have put misleading information on his initial HCC job application, that he was not a licensed Texas police officer when he was hired and that college system administrators knew about it all and employed him anyway. Cunningham did not reply to an interview request from the Houston Press.
Additionally, current officers have anonymously sent letters to the Board of Trustees, alleging:
• That officers do not know how to perform basic police duties and are not trained adequately.
• That a recently formed, five-member, heavily armed tactical team cannot effectively respond to a crisis given the size of the college system, made up of six campuses and 22 locations spread across more than 600 square miles.
• That the tactical team makes the college less safe, as it not only introduces high-powered weapons to the school, but has taken officers off of patrol duty and left a skeleton crew to police the campuses.
The Board of Trustees is aware of all of these accusations and has authorized several investigations, but trustees are reluctant to talk about the situation and HCC has essentially deferred all questions to the board.
More than six months after Perry first voiced her concerns, little has been done.
It was early November 2009, just a few days after Perry was officially fired by the HCC Human Resources office, when she called Lieutenant Arthur Ellis, a ten-year veteran of the college's police department and former homicide sergeant in Beaumont. Perry had heard that Cunningham had recently axed Ellis as well, and wanted to compare notes.
It turned out that Ellis had a story even more complicated than Perry's, and that he was filing a complaint with the EEOC alleging age discrimination and retaliation. He was 64 when Cunningham let him go. This is how Ellis says it happened:
On the morning of Friday, August 21, 2009, an officer told Ellis he had just signed a petition complaining about a woman officer but that he now wanted his name off of the petition. He hoped Ellis could help.
Later that afternoon, Ellis drove over to the Spring Branch campus to confront the officer who was distributing the petition, which Ellis claims was against a female cop who had filed a sexual harassment claim against another officer.
When Ellis arrived on campus, he says, he heard the officer with the petition report to duty over the police radio, but the man was nowhere to be seen. Ellis then called the officer on his cell phone. Ellis says the officer told him he was eating at a nearby Pappadeaux restaurant.
"The officer told me that he didn't want to be late for work so he reported on-duty," says Ellis.
When the two finally met up, about 15 minutes later, Ellis told him that handing around a petition about a colleague was not the proper avenue to complain, and that the officer could get in trouble. Ellis says he ordered the officer to give him the petition and said that circulating the grievance could lead to some form of discipline, including termination.
When Ellis left the campus, he says, he called his immediate supervisor to report he had been investigating the petition, that the officer might have been stealing time and that he would follow up on it after the weekend.
On Monday night, says Ellis, he drove back over to the Spring Branch campus to talk to the officer about fraudulently reporting to duty. Suddenly, his cell phone rang. It was Cunningham, and Ellis says he was ordered to cease the investigation immediately and go home. The next day, Ellis says, he was ordered into Cunningham's office, where the chief asked if Ellis had threatened the other officer with the loss of his job.
"I told [Cunningham] that I in no way threatened the officer," says Ellis, "and then he makes me write down my complaint about the officer. Then the chief just suspends me. He hands me a pretyped letter placing me on administrative leave with pay. When I ask him what the violations are, he says he'll tell me later and asks for my badge and ID."
Ellis says that two months later he was fired for workplace violence. He claims he is the victim of retaliation by the officer whom he was investigating for stealing time and that he was unfairly let go.
There are a couple of similarities between Ellis's and Perry's cases. Both claim Cunningham did not implement a reasonable punishment, instead firing them, and that Cunningham meddled with their F-5 forms. As opposed to what happened to Perry, however, Cunningham first issued Ellis a general discharge and later changed it to a dishonorable discharge, again citing "clerical error."
Also like Perry, Ellis took his case to the Board of Trustees, who again directed Deputy Chancellor Art Tyler to look into the termination. Once more, Tyler upheld the decision.
Ellis's EEOC complaint is still under investigation, along with two others. One officer, an African American accused of sexual harassment, claims he was let go because he's black, saying a white officer accused of sexual harassment was treated differently and not disciplined as harshly. Another officer, a woman, has also filed an EEOC complaint alleging sex discrimination and retaliation, though her attorney, Dan Krieger, declined to comment.
So far, at least three officers have been fired and a fourth, a captain with more than ten years at the department, has been on paid administrative leave since January.
In response, HCC spokesman Dan Arguijo, the associate vice chancellor of communications, said, "My inkling would be to ask about their backgrounds."
Before joining HCC, Perry worked as a reserve deputy for the Precinct 7 Constable's Office. She did not score high marks there, according to training officer Lieutenant Earnest Byrd.
"She was a nice person," he said, "but a difficult person to work with. She was here for three years...and had problems putting in the hours and grasping the training given to her. This job is not for everyone."
Perry contends that was no reason to fire her for cursing. Byrd agrees, saying he tells deputies that how they act does reflect on their agency, but that swearing off-duty is generally not a reason to terminate an officer.
As for Ellis, Arguijo says the college system and its trustees bent over backwards to grant the aging man's pleas for a few more months on the job before terminating him so he could get his full retirement benefits.
"[The Board] didn't have to do that," he said. "And now I guess [Ellis] has time on his hands, he's been starting this whole campaign with the media."
Ellis disputes this, saying he had already earned his full retirement when he was suspended and later fired.
Moreover, Arguijo says that all of the firings and suspensions of police officers who are now complaining to the EEOC were perfectly legitimate.
Calling them "liabilities," he says that the officers were "without a doubt" disciplined "with cause...and what these individuals have started is a campaign to defame and inflammatory remarks, almost character assassinations, on individuals who all they were trying to do is clean house."
Which is exactly what some current and former officers are hoping the trustees will force the college to do with Chief Cunningham.
Unlike security officers, the roughly 60 HCC police officers are licensed by the state and have full police powers.
A former HCC police officer, who wished to remain anonymous, claims he obtained documents through an open records request that he and other officers believe show Cunningham teetered on the edge of the truth when answering questions on his employment application for the job of police chief. HCC hired him in August 2008. Primarily at issue is where Cunningham stated "Yes" to the question of whether he had a Texas peace officer's license with an advanced certification, or the ability to get one.
At the time, according to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education, Cunningham did not have a Texas police license or an advanced certification. Records show that he had let his license lapse and earned it back roughly five months after HCC hired him.
What has officers up in arms is an HCC "Pre-Employment Background Check" report allegedly prepared on Cunningham that appears to imply that Cunningham was not completely truthful when answering the license question. A former officer claims this report was also obtained through an open records request, and a current high-ranking HCC police officer says the document is an exact copy of the one he saw two years ago when it was supposedly written.
While portions of the report have been redacted and blacked out, its author clearly states that Cunningham "may not meet the listed job qualifications" because his police license was expired. The report also states that Cunningham did not have an advanced certificate, "even though he indicated on his HCC application that" he did. Lastly, the report advises that because Cunningham was not licensed, he could only be hired as a chief administrator with no police powers, until he obtained his license and proper certification.
Several officers believe the report shows that HCC brass knew Cunningham was playing loose with the truth and might not be qualified, but hired him anyway. However, in light of the way the question on the application is phrased, it's hardly a slam dunk.
Cunningham's critics also point to where he stated he had 18 years of "law enforcement" experience in "multi-campus security leadership" positions on his job application. They say this is misleading because the majority of his career had been with consulting firms, hotels and other corporate jobs, and not working at law enforcement agencies. According to his alleged résumé, Cunningham's only experience at an agency was the combined four years he spent working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation identifying fingerprints and at the U.S. Secret Service providing personal protection, all during the 1970s.
A knowledgeable source at the top of the HCC food chain, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, says that the administration is aware of the documents that appear to show Cunningham may have given misleading answers on his application and that he was less experienced than other candidates. However, the source says, the information was ignored.
The most serious allegation being made against Cunningham is that he exercised police powers after taking the job at HCC but before he was properly licensed. A currently employed officer at HCC claims he saw Cunningham carrying a gun in an area near classrooms before the chief received his license in January 2009, which is not allowed except for police officers. If a prosecutor pursued this, and if this were proven true, it could be a misdemeanor offense.
Someone without a police officer's license cannot do "anything that represents yourself as a police officer," says TCLEOSE spokeswoman Laura Le Blanc. "That is, wearing a uniform, demonstrating a badge, carrying a gun...anything that would represent yourself as a police officer in whatever form or fashion so that someone may interpret you as being a police officer."
After speaking to the Press initially, HCC spokesman Arguijo declined to respond to specific questions related to Cunningham or any other allegations concerning the police department.
In addition to the brewing controversy over Cunningham's job application, current officers have been sending a flurry of both signed and anonymous letters to HCC officials and trustees over the past several months complaining about the chief's management decisions and potential safety issues.
Some of the letters have touched upon Cunningham's background primarily as a security consultant and his apparent lack of experience at a law enforcement agency, questioning "if someone held a job as a bank teller 25 years ago, and since then moved around from job to job serving as an adviser at H&R Block and the like, should they be hired as the president of Chase Bank?" Most of the criticism, however, revolves around the general poor training of officers and the police department's recent move to field a heavily armed tactical team.
Arguijo has said that the five officers assigned to the specialized team, which is in place to respond to campus shootings like the one at Virginia Tech in 2007, have been trained properly and that another five are being trained. But critics inside the department are railing against the specialized team and the way it appears to be operating.
"This Tactical team we have drives around playing Taxi and Errand Boys to the command staff," states a letter signed by officer J. Portillo, written to a college administrator. "This should be dismantled and if a Tactical team is needed then we should call HPD SWAT...They would have a better response time and way better trained members..."
Portillo did not respond to the Press's request for an interview.
Another senior officer — call him Bill — who would only talk on condition of anonymity, said, "It's a safety issue. You've got a bunch of yahoos with high-powered rifles on a school campus. I'm not even worried about an active shooter, I'm worried about these guys. Even if they had adequate training, do we really want high-powered rifles on our campuses? It's a bad idea and people can get hurt."
Bill says that the five officers in the squad drive from campus to campus, traversing more than 600 square miles, looking for and waiting to respond to a crisis.
"In reality," he says, "they're not really even doing that. It's the ultimate scam. They're just screwing off."
Paul Hershey, president of the Texas Tactical Police Officers Association and a current Houston Police Department officer, says a tactical team should have no fewer than 17 officers who receive a minimum of 24 hours a month of specialized training, the national standard. He says that when it comes to smaller departments like HCC's, there may be better ideas than creating a small team that cannot be everywhere at once.
"It's the textbook 'put your finger in the hole of the dike' philosophy," he said. "I think a more appropriate response for administrators of smaller agencies or campuses is to make sure their entire police force receives active-shooter training, because you don't know where those five guys are going to be."
He says HPD is in the process of training all of its officers to respond to active shooters.
In addition, Bill and other officers claim that the tactical team members will not assist patrol officers or take routine calls, placing an added strain on a corps of roughly 60 certified peace officers that is already stretched thin. Echoed by former officers such as Perry and Ellis, Bill claims that it is not uncommon for a single officer to be responsible for patrolling an entire campus, or even multiple campuses, by himself for an entire eight-hour shift. Take five or more officers off patrol duty to place on the tactical team, he says, and the problem only worsens.
"There is a security guard officer working at the Katy campus who is working 96 hours a week," states an anonymous letter to the trustees. "And he isn't the only one having to do so, due to the lack of coverage at our campuses."
Portillo and Bill point to other possible shortcomings as well, alleging that officers are only issued a revolver and not given any means of using less force, such as TASERs or mace, so that if a confrontation does ensue, an officer will have no choice but to go straight for his gun. In his letter, Portillo wrote that HCC officers are so poorly trained that they cannot do the simplest of police tasks, such as filing charges against a suspect.
"I showed the command staff how to file charges and how to book a prisoner into the jail," he stated. "Now keep in mind these are the same command staff leading other Officers into battle on a daily basis...I believe the Officers on patrol are not ready for an emergency situation and do not have the necessary tools and training to do their jobs."
Officers claim this even extends to basic life-saving skills, such as CPR. One veteran officer showed the Press his CPR certification card issued by the American Heart Association that expired in 2009.
"We've had no CPR training since Cunningham came on," said Bill. "If we're going to be service-oriented, it only makes sense that we would do this. Again, it's a safety issue."
Perry, Ellis and other officers all admitted they had not attended any CPR training in the last two years, and had not since their days at the police academy many years ago. TCLEOSE spokeswoman Le Blanc says there is no requirement that officers take CPR classes past their basic training, but the American Heart Association recommends that everyone, including police officers, renew their CPR certification every two years.
HCC spokesman Dan Arguijo declined to address specific allegations related to officer training.
Officers acknowledge that anonymous complaints are easy to dismiss, but as Portillo wrote in his letter, "A lot of Officers will tell you the reason they don't do anything and be proactive is because if something ever did go wrong they know the command staff would throw them under the bus to save their own butt."
Instead of coming out of the shadows, officers have been praying that their anonymous notes will compel the administration and the Board of Trustees to act.
There have never been so many anonymous letters sent to administrators and trustees complaining about a police chief, according to a source close to the chancellor's office. So far, this person claims, officials have not done anything but talk.
HCC board Chairman Dr. Michael P. Williams confirms that several investigations are underway looking into the claims of Perry, Ellis and several other officers, but that the inquiries have not been completed yet and therefore he cannot comment on any of the allegations. He says the investigations are being conducted by the HCC General Counsel office, outside attorney Kathy Butler and a third party whom Williams would not identify.
"Once the board has seen the reports," he says, "we will be in a better position to respond."
Particular attention is being paid to the so-called "Kathy Butler Report." Perry says the board directed Butler to investigate Perry's complaints and claims in January, but that Butler covered a lot of additional ground and spoke to many concerned officers. Perry claims Butler completed her report in February and can't understand why every member of the board has not seen it. She believes it is damaging to Cunningham and the police department.
Among the officers who claim to have talked to Butler, there is growing frustration that HCC appears to be trying to keep the report under wraps. Perry says that Butler told her to file an open records request for the report, evidence, Perry claims, that Butler herself thought the report would be subject to open records law. But when Perry did, HCC balked and asked the attorney general for an opinion, seeking to hold onto the investigation results.
In their arguments to the attorney general, HCC lawyers claim that Butler was an attorney hired by the college and therefore her work is confidential under the attorney-client privilege. Perry, Ellis and other officers who spoke with Butler, however, say Butler specifically represented herself as an investigator and not an attorney.
"When Butler first called me in January," says Perry, "I didn't want to talk to her. But she told me she was an investigator hired by the board. She said she was not an HCC attorney and was an outside official. That swayed me to talk to her."
Ellis says the same thing. "She told me she was not acting as an attorney but as an investigator," he claims. "She told me several officers spoke to her" and what they said "was unbelievable."
In the end, though, the AG denied Perry's request to see the report. Butler, through her legal assistant, declined to comment.
It is not clear who among the trustees has seen Butler's report. When asked about it and the full range of allegations being cast about, trustee Neeta Sane said she was waiting to see the information and then referred questions to Williams. Trustees Yolanda Flores and Richard Schechter also declined to comment, forwarding all inquiries to the board chairman. Williams says he has seen a preliminary report, but cannot discuss it until the entire board has viewed the finalized version.
Even if all the trustees have not seen the final report, argues Perry, they must be aware of all of the allegations. There are three newly elected trustees who began serving in January, but the majority have been there since Perry first addressed the board last year. Plus, Perry says, she spoke to the trustees yet again in person at the May 27 board meeting.
"I was treated great by the last board," she says. "They were the ones who hired Butler. But the new board is frigid cold. I passed out copies of my statement and their faces looked like someone hit them with a baseball bat, like this was the first time they had ever heard any of this. For three of them that may be true, but there's lots of holdovers. I'm like, 'Hello. Clean this up.'"
A knowledgeable source close to the administration concedes that the culture and morale at the police department have eroded and that officers are frightened for their jobs and will not speak up. The source has no confidence things will improve anytime soon.
Still, Williams insists that the trustees are on top of the many issues and allegations and that the results of the Butler report and other ongoing investigations will be revealed to the entire board at its meeting on June 24.
"We're looking at it," he said, "so we haven't swept anything under the rug and we haven't ignored the statements that have been made. We have followed the rules in launching this investigation to protect the rights of both the accusers and the accused. That's where we are. We are doing the best we can over here."
Perry hopes that's so.
"I never would have come forward if the board had acted or if all those anonymous letters didn't start coming in claiming people were in danger because of bad policies," she says. "I've given the college so many opportunities to fix all of this. As for me, okay, I cursed, but do I really deserve to have my life and career ruined because of it? Things are not right over at the police department."
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.
- Game Control: Just How Overwhelmed Have The 2015 Houston Texans Been?
- Report: Antiabortion Law Leads to Longer Wait Times at Clinics
- Harden 2.0: How James Harden Became Houston’s Biggest Crossover Sports Celebrity