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By ReShonda Tate Billingsley
Special to The Key Newsjournal from the Houston Defender
The investigation into alleged police brutality by the Houston Police Department is heating up as community and political leaders call for swift justice, and one congressional leader is going so far as seeking federal intervention. The issue has even garnered the attention of national civil rights leaders.
The Houston Chapter of the NAACP is among those civic and community leaders asking for stiffer penalties for the accused officers, more transparency in the justice system, and a civilian review board to investigate claims of police brutality.
“There is a problem with police brutality and use of excessive force that will no longer be tolerated,” said Rev. D.Z. Cofield, president of the Houston chapter of the NAACP.
Cofield hosted a townhall meeting at his church, Good Hope Baptist, where hundreds of people attended to protest against the videotaped beating of 16-year-old burglary suspect Chad Holley.
Caught on Tape
Authorities said police suspected several young men of breaking and entering, and then fleeing the scene in a pickup truck. After a short chase, police caught Holley, then an Elsik High School sophomore, near a self-storage facility on Cook Road and allegedly handcuffed him on the ground and began hitting and kicking him.
The controversial tape shows several Houston Police Department officers punching and kicking Holley, who was later convicted. The video showed one officer delivering at least seven kicks to Holley while another officer punched Holley five times. Holley is not seen on tape struggling with the officers or resisting arrest.
Defense attorney Dick DeGuerin, who represents one of four officers indicted, said the release of the tape has him considering whether to request a change of venue for the trial. Seven police officers were terminated in connection with the incident. Four officers were also charged in connection with the incident
Former officers Andrew T. Blomberg and Drew Ryser were indicted on official oppression. Former officer Phillip Bryan and Raad M. Hassan were indicted on official oppression and violation of the civil rights of a prisoner.
For months, rumors swirled as to exactly what was on that video, which had been recorded on a surveillance camera at a nearby storage facility. An employee of that facility, Cindy Paxton, gave the video to activist Quanell X. Paxton was later fired.
“You had a right to see that tape,” Quanell X said. Quanell X decided to release the tape after he obtained a copy as part of a defamation lawsuit filed against him by one of the officers.
Initially, Mayor Parker didn’t want the tape released. She, District Attorney Pat Lykos, and Police Chief Charles McClelland said they wanted to keep the tape from airing before the trials of the charged officers to ensure fair trails. A federal judge also banned the tape from being released to the public.
Mayor Parker has since apologized for her initial reaction. “There is no explanation for what in fact, is criminal behavior,” she said.
A community enraged
Since the release of the tape, community leaders have taken their complaints about police brutality to Houston City Hall.
“After the event, not one single officer filed a report of excessive force upon any other officer,” said Randal Kallinen with the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice.
Many of those protesting want the officers involved to face charges of aggravated assault instead of the official oppression charge some have received.
The issue is garnering national attention, with both Rev. Al Sharpton, of the National Action Network, and Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, pledging their support. Locally, political leaders say it is an issue they will definitely address.
U.S. Rep. Al Green has already requested that the U.S. Department of Justice review the incident to ensure fairness and transparency.
“We are shocked and we are dismayed,” Green said. “We are outraged at what occurred. That video speaks for itself, and because it speaks for itself, we want the Justice Department to review it and make a determination as to whether or not charges should be brought. There may be civil rights violations.
Parker said, while she apologized for trying to keep the video from being made public, she does think the city is properly investigating.
“The city acted swiftly and appropriately throughout. We notified the appropriate investigative agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, nine months ago. The FBI is the entity responsible for gathering information related to possible civil rights violations and forwarding that information to the U.S. Department of Justice.”
The FBI is monitoring the state prosecution of the case, but said if they were to launch their own investigation, they wouldn’t do so until the officers were tried in state court. That is standard procedure. District Attorney Lykos says her hands are tied.
“The Police Integrity Division of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office conducted an independent and thorough investigation into the allegations. The investigation included trips to the crime scene, interviews with witnesses (including Chad Holley, his mother and another relative), and careful examination and reviews of surveillance videos and medical records. As part of the investigation, medical records were subpoenaed and obtained from West Houston Medical Center, the Juvenile Justice Center and Ben Taub Hospital,” she said in a statement.
Lykos stated that the investigators and prosecutors conducted a meticulous investigation, including a frame-by-frame analysis of the surveillance video. That evidence was presented to a Harris County Grand Jury to determine which charges, if any, should be filed against the officers. Grand jury proceedings are secret by their very nature, and the law does not allow public discussion of them. However, in order to indict the officers for a felony offense, there would have to be a finding that a deadly weapon was used in the commission of the offense, or that the assault caused serious bodily injury.
It’s that discrepancy that Rep. Reynolds hopes to change. “I strongly believe that the actions of the police officers should be subjected to a review that is equal to what would be expected of every citizen within the state of Texas. I truly believe that this has brought attention to a legislative loop hole that I am committed to change,” said State Rep. Ron Reynolds. “That discrepancy holds our police officers to a lesser standard when it pertains to police brutality. It is a standard that allows police officers to use excessive force and only face misdemeanor charges, but if a civilian strikes an officer it is a felony. The District Attorney’s Office has brought (via indictment) misdemeanor charges against four of the officers shown in the video. The explanation for this is that in order for felony assault charges to be filed, a deadly weapon must be used during the assault and/or the victim must have suffered serious bodily injury,” he said.
On June 23, 2010, the Grand Jury indicted the four officers for Official Oppression. Two of them were also indicted for Violating the Civil Rights of a Prisoner. On each charge, the officers face up to one year in the Harris County Jail and up to a $4,000 fine. Trial is pending in each case.