Texas liquor cops 'rarely disciplined' for misconduct
By Danny Robbins
DALLAS — The Texas policing agency that's under fire for its raid at a gay bar rarely disciplines its officers for misconduct, and records show many investigations into those allegations are headed by the officers' supervisors, which experts say increases the likelihood of flawed inquiries.
An Associated Press review of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission's internal affairs logs found that all but 39 of the 234 allegations of excessive force or unprofessional conduct lodged against agents since 2004 have been closed without disciplinary action. Moreover, in nearly every excessive force case reviewed by the AP, the accused agents' bosses were the ones who conducted the investigations.
The allegations ranged from officers improperly tackling, punching and using pepper spray on people. The agency has long had a reputation for heavy-handedness and garnered national attention in 2006 when state legislators forced it to cancel a program that aggressively sought to curb public drunkenness through stings that arrested people - even some bartenders- in bars.
The commission has recently drawn scrutiny because of a June raid at a Fort Worth gay bar, the Rainbow Lounge, that put a patron in the hospital for a week. Two agents and their supervisor were fired for violating agency policy, and an investigation is ongoing.
Several experts in police practices said it isn't unusual for internal affairs cases to be closed without disciplinary action because they often involve one person's word against another's and can't be proven.
But allowing officers' supervisors to investigate allegations of excessive force isn't typical for large or mid-size organizations, experts say. Conducting a probe like that "seriously calls into question the integrity of the investigation," said Jon Shane, an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
The TABC's internal affairs policy is similar to those of other state agencies with law enforcement authority, including the Texas Department of Public Safety, said Alan Steen, who has served as the commission's administrator since 2003.
Steen acknowledged that there were problems early in his tenure with the thoroughness of some investigations into misconduct allegations, but that the process has improved considerably since new officers were hired to run the internal affairs unit. He said he's still comfortable with letting supervisors who oversee the accused agents investigate the claims as long as there's adequate training and oversight.
The commission's 275 agents enforce the laws regulating the sale, possession and consumption of alcoholic beverages. They also have the authority to make arrests for other offenses.
Thirty-four other states have liquor control boards with agents who are peace officers. How much authority each agency has varies, but Texas has been one of the most aggressive, said Ted Mahony, president of the National Liquor Law Enforcement Association and chief investigator for Massachusetts' state commission.
The AP found that 46 allegations of excessive force were made against 36 TABC agents since 2004. Nearly half came in 2005, the height of the agency's crackdown on public drunkenness. All but five of the 46 were dismissed without disciplinary action. In two instances, agents received counseling for lesser offenses. Three allegations are shown as pending.
In compiling its own data, the TABC tracks excessive force by the number of complaints received instead of the number of officers accused. Using that measure, the agency's data shows 36 complaints since 2004. TABC spokeswoman Carolyn Beck said the number is minuscule compared to the more than 108,000 citations its officers issued during that period.
The AP tabulated its figures by counting each time an allegation was made against an officer.
The AP's findings indicate that TABC agents have faced allegations of excessive force at about the same rate as the Austin Police Department.
Sam Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said he would expect agents working for state liquor boards to be accused of excessive force at a far lower rate than city cops.
"It's just common sense that there would be fewer (cases) in that kind of enforcement situation than on the street in high-crime neighborhoods," he said.
However, Mahony said agents face situations in which force is required more often than some might think because officers have to handle people who are drunk and frequently don't cooperate.
One recent incident examined by the AP underscores the questions surrounding the process within the TABC.
It involved a Victoria-based agent shown on a security video appearing to tackle a bar patron violently from behind as the patron walks to the door of the club. Based on the video, an assistant district attorney in Victoria County declined to prosecute the patron for resisting arrest, but the TABC has decided that the agent didn't do anything wrong.
Andy Pena, the TABC officer in charge of internal affairs, said the agent, Jeff Rendon, appropriately subdued a man who earlier tried to avoid getting arrested in a part of the club that did not have security cameras.
The patron, Eric Arriaga, has filed a federal lawsuit against Rendon and another agent claiming that his civil rights were violated and that he received numerous injuries, including a broken ankle.
It's the third excessive-force allegation against Rendon, 37, since he joined the agency in 2004, the most of any agent in that time period. One was ruled unfounded after Rendon's supervisor investigated. The other was closed as justified even though TABC officials never contacted the person who allegedly was roughed up.
Beck said Rendon is on administrative leave for a matter unrelated to the use of force. He did not respond to phone messages from the AP.