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 Harbeer Sandhu
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Dear Chief

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Photo by Madelyn Keith

According to a six-month investigation by reporter Emily DePrang, who published her findings in the July and September 2013 issues of the Texas Observer, it is extremely rare for HPD officers to get even a slap on the wrist for even the most egregious abuses of authority, even though 75% of complaints against officers come from their own supervisors or from fellow cops. Because of a flawed system of oversight, only 2% of all complaints net any kind of discipline, and that discipline looks more like PTO (paid time off) than anything else (3-5 day paid suspensions). I recommend reading both these articles for more details — they are available for free on the Observer’s website. (1, 2)

DePrang’s two-part series prompted what was billed as an open community forum between HPD reps, community activists, and the academic community at Texas Southern University on October 24. Few people were surprised when HPD steamrolled the event — they effectively silenced the community by talking at them rather than listening to them, evaded tough questions, and turned what was billed as a dialog into a grandstanding public relations monologue. HPD’s PR coup would have been a complete success, if not for the very vocal disgust expressed by many community members as they made loud exits.

The next day, October 25, I sent the following email to the top-ranking HPD representative on the panel, Assistant Chief Mattie Provost:

Dear Chief Provost,

Thank you for taking the time to meet with the community last night.  I write for Free Press Houston, I was there last night, and I will be publishing a short summary of the event.

I would like to follow up on a question that I posed not just to you, but the whole panel, though you are the only panelist who addressed it (and in what I would call a very quick and cursory manner at that).  My questions were/are:

I have seen the memorial to officers fallen in the line of duty in the HPD Museum at HPD headquarters at 1200 Travis.  I also see a large ziggurat called “Houston Police Officers Memorial” each time I drive down Memorial Drive.  Does any such memorial honoring victims of police brutality exist on any HPD property?

You did indeed answer this question, and I thank you for that.  Your answer was “To my knowledge, no such monument exists on any HPD property. Next question.”

There was a follow-up to this question, which was glossed over by you and the other panelists, however.  Would you mind addressing this now, please?

Would HPD consider naming a room in the HPD police academy for José Campos Torres?  If not, why not?

The only logical conclusion I can draw from this, in the absence of a full answer, is that HPD feels that its victims do not deserve commemoration.  If HPD’s mission is indeed “To protect and to serve,” yet we all acknowledge that officers are human and humans make mistakes, then what is the harm in honoring the victims of those mistakes?  And rather than “harm,” a step like this could possibly quell some tension between HPD and its critics. One other possible conclusion is that no such innocent victims of police brutality exist.  Please affirm if either of these is your intended implication.

I was not one of the audience members heckling you.  You asked for a civil dialog, but you did not fully engage with the question that was asked, so I am posing it to you again.

Thanks again for your time.  I look forward to your reply.

Best,

Harbeer Sandhu

José Campos Torres, in case you don’t know, was a 23-year-old Vietnam Veteran who was arrested by HPD for disorderly conduct on May 5, 1977. Torres was drunk and acting a fool and threatening people at a club on the East Side, so he was put under arrest and taken away. Sounds fair so far — it’s cops’ job to take people who can’t behave to jail and present them in court. But that’s not what happened.

Instead of taking Torres to jail, the arresting officers took him to a place they called “the Hole.” “The Hole” was a parking lot behind an abandoned brick building right above Buffalo Bayou where HPD were known to take suspects for a sound beating before booking them in jail. That night, while handcuffed, Torres was beat nearly to death by five officers while a sixth officer watched. He was in such bad shape that the jail would not accept him. Jail officials ordered the arresting officers to take their suspect to Ben Taub General Hospital for treatment before they could book him.

The officers didn’t want to waste their whole night in the emergency room only to get a drunk and disorderly charge, so they took Torres back to “the Hole” and uncuffed him. Then, one of them said, “Let’s see if this wetback can swim,” before shoving Torres into the bayou.

His body was found three days later. Two officers were charged in his murder, but they were convicted only of negligent homicide and given one year’s probation with a $1 fine. This egregious injustice sparked what came to be known as the Moody Park Uprising (or the Moody Park Riot, depending on whom you ask), an investigation by the FBI and federal charges against the officers, and some much-needed reform in HPD.  Gil Scott-Heron even wrote and recorded a poem about Torres, and there is currently an effort underway to install a historical marker in Moody Park to commemorate the Torres case.

So, back to my email following the “town hall” at TSU, eleven days after I emailed her, on November 5, Chief Provost finally replied:

Dear Mr. Sandhu,

First, let me apologize for my delayed response, but I wanted to get back with you on your questions.  Thank you for attending the recent community meeting.  HPD is not considering naming a room in the police academy for José Campos Torres.

Any further questions you have can be directed to a Public Information Officer at HPD at 713-308-3200.  Thank you for your interest in the Houston Police Department.

-Assistant Chief Mattie Provost

I considered this another blow-off and I was too busy to reply, plus she told me to talk to their PR department if I had any further questions, so why in the world would I reply? That’s why was surprised when, almost two weeks later, on November 18, this email from Assistant Chief Provost landed in my inbox:

I never heard back from you, did you receive my response?

I didn’t know how to respond to that, all things considered, and I was traveling, anyway, so it took me a while to reply.  Finally, on December 4, I wrote:

Dear Chief Provost,

Please forgive me-now it is my turn to apologize for my delayed response.  I just came off a cross-country road trip, a caravan of art cars calling for the labeling of genetically modified food products.

I thank you for your response to my email, but, truth be told, it still leaves something to be desired.  It’s not the full and frank response I had hoped for.  That you referred me to the HPD Public Information Officer for any further questions after what I would consider your glib, dismissive, non-answer in your email of 5 November made your follow-up email of 18 November all the more confusing.  It’s like you took a few weeks to brush me off, brushed me off, and then emailed me again to make sure I got your brush-off.

I am willing to chalk this up to the fact that you may have personal feelings which are in conflict with your professional position.  That is understandable.  Regrettable, but understandable.This is how I would recapitulate our exchange thus far:

1.  I posed these questions to you at the Texas Observer / TSU community forum on police brutality on 24 October:

I have seen the memorial to officers fallen in the line of duty in the HPD Museum at HPD headquarters at 1200 Travis.  I also see a large ziggurat called “Houston Police Officers Memorial” each time I drive down Memorial Drive.  Does any such memorial honoring victims of police brutality exist on any HPD property?  Would HPD consider naming a room in the HPD police academy for José Campos Torres?  If not, why not?

You answered, “To my knowledge no such memorial exists on any HPD property.”

2.  I emailed you the next day (25 October) with a reiteration of the questions, with the question about José Campos Torres in bold type, and this language added:

The only logical conclusion I can draw from this, in the absence of a full answer, is that HPD feels that its victims do not deserve commemoration.  If HPD’s mission is indeed “To protect and to serve,” yet we all acknowledge that officers are human and humans make mistakes, then what is the harm in honoring the victims of those mistakes?  And rather than “harm,” a step like this could possibly quell some tension between HPD and its critics. One other possible conclusion is that no such innocent victims of police brutality exist. Please affirm if either of these is your intended implication.

3. On 5 November you answered, “HPD is not considering naming a room in the police academy for José Campos Torres.

Any further questions you have can be directed to a Public Information Officer at HPD at 713-308-3200.”

4. On 18 November, you emailed me to say, “I never heard back from you, did you receive my response?”

Yes, Chief, I received your response, and I thank you for it, in the same spirit that you thanked me for attending the community forum and for emailing you my questions. I would appreciate it if you could clear up whether HPD believes that its officers have never made a mistake and therefore no innocent victims of police brutality exist (a contention which both Ray Hunt’s words, “Nobody wants bad cops punished more than the good cops in the department” and the existence of HPD’s Escobar Rule, named for Eli Eloy Escobar II call into question) or that those victims are not worthy of commemoration by the police force.  (The Escobar Rule was named so through a legal settlement, insisted upon by the victim’s surviving family.)

To reiterate, HPD has one giant ziggurat commemorating officers fallen in the line of duty on Memorial Drive.  There is another memorial for officers fallen in the line of duty at the HPD Museum at 1200 Travis.  I do not know of any other such memorials to fallen officers on other HPD property, but their existence would not surprise me (at local substations, at the police academy, etc).

What message does this send to the public?

Thank you for your time.  I do appreciate that a police officer’s job is a difficult job, that police officers willingly confront the ugliest sides of humanity on a daily basis, and that they, themselves, like you, are human, too.

I would appreciate a candid answer from you, but I understand that you, too, are part of a larger institution which maybe limits your ability to answer fully.  That, itself, might be part of the problem, but who knows?  I am just one man, a humble citizen, with much less education and experience than you and Officer Hunt and the other panelists from that “community forum” more than one ago.

Happy holidays to you and yours, Chief.

Sincerely,

Harbeer Sandhu

I have not heard back from Chief Provost.