Slain HPD Officer's Wife Sues Over One-Cop-Per-Car Policy

A Houston Police Department sergeant -- the wife of an officer who was murdered in the line of duty -- is suing the City of Houston in hopes of changing the practice of only allowing one cop per police car while on patrol.

Two years ago, it made national headlines when illegal immigrant Juan Quintero-Perez murdered HPD officer Rodney Johnson during a traffic stop. Johnson, who was riding in his police car alone, searched Perez and the three other passengers he’d pulled over for speeding, but missed a gun on Perez, who then shot Johnson four times in the head.

A jury convicted Perez in May, sentencing him to life in prison without parole. Now Johnson’s wife, HPD Sgt. Joslyn Johnson, wants to make sure this type of senseless killing does not happen again.

Johnson argues in the lawsuit that having a second officer in the police car could prevent future harm to officers.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Harris County District Court, accuses the city and the police department of having “subjective awareness of the risk involved, but nevertheless proceeded in conscious indifference to the rights, safety, and welfare of others.”

Johnson’s attorney, Ben Dominguez, tells Hair Balls that Johnson has reached out to City Council members, who “were very sympathetic to her,” and has tried to get an audience with Chief Harold Hurtt, but “he did not have the politeness to talk to her about it.”

Since Johnson’s lobbying efforts have had little effect, says Dominguez, the lawsuit was filed.

Mark Clark, Executive Director of the Houston Police Officers Union, says there’s no fixed policy requiring officers to go it alone, “but it’s been the practice of the department over the years.” He says the union is forcefully behind the idea of pairing officers up in patrol cars. “You have a lot of calls that are potentially violent situations or are violent situations,” says Clark, “and you have an officer answering them with no backup. That’s extremely ill-advised to do that, but the department puts officers in that position on a daily basis.”

The reason for the practice of one officer per car, says Dominguez, is because HPD does not pay competitively compared to other police and sheriff’s offices and is therefore having trouble recruiting and does not have a sufficient number of cops to cover the entire city.

Clark agrees.

“Because of staff issues,” he says, “the department puts officers one to a car because they think they can respond better to the volume of calls. I think the mayor and the department are sensitive to this, but they’re having trouble fulfilling their hiring goals and the demands for service continue to increase, so they’re in a Catch-22 as well. If the chief would publicly advocate it, it’d be a big help, but he’s been lukewarm about saying much of anything.”

Hair Balls contacted the HPD public-affairs office, but were told that due to the pending lawsuit they may not be able to respond. No one from HPD called Hair Balls with a comment before publication. (Update: They called back; they said they couldn't comment on pending litigation.)

Sgt. Johnson is suing the city for monetary damages, but states in her lawsuit that she will forgo any money if the city and HPD will agree “to change its policies so that a ‘two officer per car’ policy is instituted and implemented for the safety of the Houston Police Officers.”

-- Chris Vogel

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