Texas sheriff worries about 'gypsy cops'

By Richard Abshire
The Dallas Morning News

KAUFMAN COUNTY Kaufman County Sheriff David Byrnes has charged four employees with crimes in his seven years in office, and three of the cases occurred within the last year.

The sheriff, a former Texas Rangers captain, said the three cases are unrelated and an anomaly, not a trend. They are also proof, he said, that he doesn't sweep scandals under the rug.

Sheriff Byrnes said deputies and jailers should get the same treatment as private citizens when they break the law.

"We hold these people to a very high standard," he said. "We have a job because we expect other people to break the law, but we've taken an oath not to do that."

Kaufman County's population has grown to about 100,000 since the 2000 census pegged the number at 70,000, the sheriff said. He oversees 263 employees.

Sheriff Byrnes said too many law enforcement agencies have quietly dismissed problem officers and not prosecuted them for criminal conduct, enabling so-called "gypsy cops" to go from agency to agency, often taking trouble with them.

The sheriff fired jailer Leonard Haralson last September, and Mr. Haralson was indicted in March on a count of violating the civil rights of a prisoner by sexual contact. The charge is a state jail felony punishable by six months to two years behind bars and a fine of up to $10,000.

His case is set for trial Friday in state District Court in Kaufman.

Mr. Haralson, 42, said he signed an incriminating statement under duress after investigators told him that Child Protective Services might be brought into the case, which he took as a threat to his relationship with his 10-year-old daughter.

Since being fired from the Sheriff's Department, he has found work through a temporary employment agency.

"I'm innocent," Mr. Haralson said. "I just want to get on with my life."

Jail supervisor Timothy Robertson, 31, was fired March 7 and also charged with violating the civil rights of a prisoner by sexual contact. The cases are unrelated, Sheriff Byrnes said.

Sheriff's Deputy Michael Johnson, 46, was fired six days after Mr. Robertson and accused of accepting gratuities while performing his duties. He was later charged with theft by a public official, a third-degree felony punishable by two to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

Efforts to reach Mr. Robertson and Mr. Johnson were unsuccessful. The Kaufman County district attorney's office was not immediately able to confirm the status of their cases.

State Rep. Joe Driver, a Garland Republican, wrote bills that became law in the last two legislative sessions that tightened reporting requirements for law enforcement agencies when an officer leaves a department.

Under one of the measures, agencies must clearly show why officers leave on a form known as an F-5. The form is sent to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education, where potential employers can call to check applicants' work histories.

In the past, separation reports were often vague or neutral, even when officers resigned to avoid being fired, as gypsy cops often do. They were then free to find work with other agencies.

"It's usually smaller departments that don't have big budgets for backgrounding applicants that have problems," Mr. Driver said.

The person in charge of credentialing at the Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards was out of the office and unavailable for comment.

Steve Westbrook, executive director of the Sheriffs Association of Texas, said the new law's effect is not yet clear.

"I haven't seen anything pattern-wise," Mr. Westbrook said.

Tom Gaylor, deputy executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, said the impact has been gradual.

"We have seen change trickling down from the metropolitan to urban to suburban agencies," he said. "Now we're seeing it trickle down into the outlying areas."

He said the purpose of the law is to require chief administrators to be candid and specific about why officers leave. Agencies that are considering an officer are required by law to call the Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and ask for the applicant's F-5s from previous employers.

"We're not looking to interfere with an officer's ability to move around," Mr. Gaylor said. "We just want administrators to be honest.

"Texas is a right-to-work state. A chief administrator can dismiss an employee for almost any reason, and sometimes that shouldn't reflect negatively on the officer. We just want the record to show what really happened."

Copyright 2007 Dallas Morning News

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