Attorneys Say HPD's "Code of Silence" Led to Retaliation Against Harassed Officer

Eight years after 24 Houston police officers first sued HPD and the city for discrimination and retaliation, the case has finally come to a close — ending at the foot of the U.S. Supreme Court's door with one of the original plaintiff's sons.

At a press conference Tuesday, Sergeant Chris Zamora's attorneys said that the verdict in Chris's case sheds light on the “code of silence” that exists within HPD. It's a culture that punishes officers for speaking up about officers' wrongdoing, said Chris's attorney, Kim Ogg, who is also running for Harris County district attorney. And it's exactly what happened to Chris Zamora eight years ago, she says.

Months after Chris's father, Manuel Zamora, and 23 others filed their retaliation class-action suit in 2007, alleging that they were denied promotions based on their race, Manuel says that Chris immediately felt the backlash.  Manuel said Chris began facing daily harassment from his supervisors — one of whom was named in the lawsuit — and he was even removed from the department's Crime Reduction Unit and placed on night-shift patrol. It prompted Chris (who could not comment because he is still working the night shift for HPD) to join his father's lawsuit in September 2008 — which soon amounted to a ten-day suspension, according to court documents.

That's because, even though the Internal Affairs Division investigated Chris's harassment claims, it ended up concluding that Chris had lied to investigators during questioning, an event that became central to Chris's case. As the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ultimately ruled in Chris's favor, noted in its August 2015 filing, “That [suspension] determination was largely based on statements made by Zamora's CRU supervisors that harshly attacked his credibility and baldly contradicted his factual assertions.”

Manuel said that, to ultimately prove his case in court, Chris presented recorded threats that supervisors made to him at the time he was removed from the Crime Reduction Unit. Manuel said they told Chris that, if he left quietly and said it was his own decision, they would not “stab him in the back" or say they forced him out because of bad performance. Instead, Manuel claims, that's exactly what they did.

Since then, two federal juries and the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals have agreed that Chris's supervisors retaliated against him, dating back to December 2012. But because of the city's appeals, it's only now, after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the city's last challenge, that it will be forced to pay damages to Zamora, which have yet to be fully determined. In a statement, City Attorney Ron Lewis said that "the 5th Circuit’s opinion likely will make it much more challenging for employers — both public and private — to insulate themselves against liability" when their employees are "biased" or "untruthful" (or discriminate or retaliate against officers). In other words, the Fifth Circuit ruling means police departments can't be let off the hook when their employees break the law and ruin the careers of others.

Ogg and her co-counsel, attorney Randall Kallinen, said that the city's decision to appeal this case all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court proves just how far it will go to shield itself from liability, in turn perpetuating the "code of silence" that led to retaliation against Chris.

"A government willing to violate its officers' own civil rights is likely to violate the rights of its own citizens, and we have to stand against that," Ogg said.

Manuel is still worried about the effects that this entire case will have on his son's future chances of promotion. In the past eight years, he has since been bumped up to the sergeant rank, but is still working the night shift, and Manuel fears that this case has something to do with that. In fact, during Chris's trial, a former police chief he called as an expert testified that being accused of lying is "a bell that can't be un-rung," and that the actions his supervisors took against him may still affect his future. He, too, testified that HPD appeared to operate under this code of silence — something Manuel said he experienced firsthand.

“It's a culture of its own. There are very tight groups that will label another officer and ostracize that officer and create a harmful environment for him,” Manuel said. “They don't support them when they ask for help. They exclude them from all social activities. It's the same culture you've probably seen in docudramas or movies or even read about in textbooks, and that is that they ostracize an officer who speaks out.”

Manuel was with the Houston Police Department for 31 years before he received an honorable discharge and retired, around the time he withdrew from the lawsuit. He said he felt like it was time. And besides, he said he figured it would be the best thing to do for Chris.

“I was told that, if I left, they'd leave my son alone,” he says.

And if you believe two federal juries and a federal appeals court, then clearly that is not what happened.
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn