FORT WORTH, Texas — Fort Worth police officer Joseph Maldonado carries nine incident reports on his police record, including infractions for sexual harassment, improper handling of evidence, and assault with bodily injury.
Some of Officer Michael Skaggs's write-ups were for theft, filing a false report, and “sexual conduct on duty.”
Sergeant Antoine Williams boasts the distinction of being one of the department’s most cited officers. Five of his 16 incident reports were for theft by a public servant. In 2015, Williams was found not guilty on accusations that he stole four pairs of Nike sneakers and a video game from a drug dealer. He was terminated, then sued the department for racial discrimination, and was summarily rehired in 2017, according to a police spokesperson. Williams dropped the discrimination charges after rejoining the force.
Sexual assault is just one among a catalog of misdeeds on the ledger of Officer James Williams. He made headlines after being suspended without pay for allegedly trying to implicate his supervisor in a prostitution case as retaliation for changes made to his job assignment. Police internal affairs said there was not enough evidence to pursue his claim.
Officer Christopher Ramirez leads the pack with 25 incident reports, including dings for unnecessary force, untruthfulness, and “official oppression.” Ramirez, who was suspended for 16 days and entered a last-chance agreement with then-chief Rhonda Robertson, has friends in high places. His brother is Deputy Chief Charles Ramirez.
All of the 337 officers whose names were included on a 37-page dossier are still employed by the department. The infractions, all of which are a matter of public record, range from benign low-speed accidents and complaints of sleeping on the job to charges that might land civilians in front of a judge, such as sexual assault, theft, and planting evidence. The reports, which the police provided, go back as far as 1989. As a matter of policy, the department does not allow officers to speak to press. Fort Worth Police Department declined further comment for this story.
The disciplinary information was culled from an open records request made by local grassroots activist group, No Sleep ’Til Justice. One of the group’s leaders, Thomas Moore, said he was seeking incident reports and infractions against active FWPD officers when he made the request through the Texas Public Information Act in August. After being hit with a $1,731 bill for the info, the No Sleep folks raised the money from donations.
“I think it's telling of a state government that charges for open records,” Moore said, referring to the fact that government bodies aren’t legally bound to charge for information, though they often do. “I don't think that's good for any population, so we shouldn’t have had to pay.”
The climate of constant protests and civil unrest that has defined much of 2020 has begun to abate, but police here and around the country are still the subject of intense scrutiny. As violent crime numbers rise amid historically low crime numbers overall, cries of “defund the police” and calls for law enforcement reform took center stage during the last election cycle.
Locally, the Fort Worth police force was a hub of controversy and activity over the last year. Voters renewed a half-cent tax — worth more than $80 million annually — to the Crime Control Prevention District. The fund, created in 1995, pays for enhanced police patrols, military-grade equipment, a portion of school officers’ salaries, after-school programs, and more.
Chief Ed Kraus announced that he’d be stepping down at the end of the year, and Fort Worth has been looking for a new top cop ever since. The city recently selected a police oversight monitor in February, but critics of the department like Moore believe the appointee is powerless and more of a token gesture made by city officials to placate detractors.
Moore said the information he obtained underscores the lack of accountability throughout the department. Better training, he added, could reign in some of the bad behavior spelled out in his group’s request.
“One thing I've noticed is there's a trend of a lot of the offenses taking place early on in a police officer's career,” he said. “That tells me that it’s proof that police officers are not getting citizen training in the first place.”
Some of the incident reports, he said, are understandable. Others, he added, illustrate a pattern that the department has done little to address.
“I'm not mad at the person who was late once,” he said. “I'm not even that mad at the person who had an accident with police equipment. That stuff's going to happen. But you have multiple people who have multiple offenses of planting evidence and excessive force, and the bad stuff. It's that kind of stuff that we're kind of trying to put out there.”
Last year, more than 600 Texas law enforcement officers received a dishonorable discharge from their agencies for misconduct. More than a quarter of the ousted cops were later rehired to work as sworn officers.
To qualify for a peace officer license, the Houston Chronicle recently opined, “Texas police need fewer hours of basic training than licensed cosmetologists and less than half the education required of air-conditioning and refrigeration contractors. While the basic training requires officers to spend 48 hours on the firing range, it demands only two hours of ‘civilian interaction' instruction.”
State lawmakers have made the task of purging bad officers from the ranks nearly impossible. The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement is all but toothless, according to a recent scathing report by the Sunset Advisory Commission — a state body that reviews the performance of state agencies every 10 years or so.
The Commission is charged with licensing police, correctional officers, and 911 dispatchers. However, unlike most other state agencies that regulate professions, the TCLE has almost no authority to act against an officer’s license. Oversight of police conduct is determined by each of the state’s 2,700 law enforcement agencies, which set their own policies and standards.
Without a shared definition of professional conduct, many have widely differing rules. For example, “In the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, chokeholds are an acceptable technique west of the 3200 block of Sandy Lane, but are not allowed on the east side of the same street because it crosses two different … jurisdictions,” the Sunset report found.
Texas’ patchwork of uneven oversight has resulted in “a fragmented, outdated system with poor accountability, lack of statewide standards, and inadequate training,” the Sunset report stated.
Daniel Lawrence, Ph.D., a senior researcher at the Urban Institute, a D.C.-based think-tank, called the lack of accountability for police a “crisis.”
“Officers aren't held to accountability standards that they should be, and a lot of that is because of the union protecting officers,” he said.
The unions, he pointed out, always hold the blue line instead of holding officers accountable for their actions, “primarily because the union leadership is voted in by the officers. There's an election, and the person who's running isn’t likely to say, ‘I'm going to hold you all accountable,’ ” he continued.
Lawrence was the lead author of a recent Urban Institute study that examined the impact of a 2014 U.S. Department of Justice program called the National Initiative for Building Community Trust. The initiative spanned six cities, including Fort Worth, and consisted of officer training, departmental policy changes, and community engagement designed to repair and strengthen police-community relationships. The study examined policing from 2013 to 2017.
The research paints a generally positive picture of how better training, community outreach, and other policy changes can impact policing, particularly on the use of force. In 2014, police use of force averaged around 53 incidents a month. That number dropped to fewer than 30 a month by 2017.
“We found in Fort Worth that there was a reduction in use of force actually before this effort occurred,” Lawrence said. “So in late 2014, use of force was actually going up a bit. But then in late 2014, it started a pretty steady decline. So by the end of 2017, it was averaging about half as many.”
In February, city officials in Fort Worth appointed Kim Neal as the police oversight monitor. As the name suggests, the position is more of an auditor than enforcer. Some of the job’s duties include monitoring police contacts and complaints, reviewing policies and procedures, sitting in on training sessions, conducting community engagement events, and collecting data on incidents and use of force. The office will periodically “provide public reports” on its work.
Neal has publicly advocated for a community police oversight board. Over the summer, she conducted two surveys: one of more than 800 police officers and another consisting of around 4,000 citizens. The preliminary results suggest the vast majority of officers don’t believe more oversight is necessary, while most citizens strongly believe otherwise.
Lawrence said civilian oversight boards can be effective if they’re willing to work with police.
“It really depends how the city writes the policy for that oversight board to operate,” he said. “Some will operate outside of the department and try to investigate the environment from a very external perspective. Departments in most communities won't play ball with them.
“Other policies that I've seen create a much more collaborative effort,” he continued. “It's almost an understanding that [the board] is another component of internal affairs where there's an external outside perspective of the investigations that are going on. And those I would say have a lot more power in pursuing accountability metrics associated with officers who were really struggling to do their job well.”
Neal and the office of police oversight did not return multiple phone calls and emails in time for this story’s deadline.
Moore said he and his group will continue to do their part to hold police accountable.
“My long-term plan is to gather more data for other things to help actually produce a proposal for a better police force,” he said. “That's going to take some time because it's going to deal with other factors too.
“You have to start by kicking some of the power back for accountability,” he said. “ They're kind of policing themselves. That's not appropriate for anybody.”