LAKE WORTH, Texas — His town is fairly small in the scope of the DFW Metroplex, only about 2.5 square miles and located right next door to Fort Worth, but Lake Worth Police Chief JT Manoushagian said that doesn’t mean they’re immune from big-city problems.
“Everything that Fort Worth deals with, we’re dealing with here,” said Chief Manoushagian.
Well, when the same big-city problem hit Lake Worth twice in just a handful of days, the chief quickly showed that he’s ready to take a stand for his town when the need arises.
“I think you’re gonna notice right away that today’s briefing is going to take on a new tone,” said Manoushagian, staring down the camera in a video posted to Lake Worth social media last month.
The chief posts a community briefing video every Friday on Facebook and Twitter, as well as the department’s various digital channels. The videos usually feature him with a smile on his face, sharing positive insights and mentions of town matters. However, this video showed Manoushagian with a serious look on his face as he described two recent cases in Lake Worth that caught even the longtime lawman’s eye.
“The outrage we feel associated with these cases,” he said to viewers in the video. It's outrage, he said, that stems from the similar outcome in each of the cases.
In the first, Manoushagian said his officers arrested a suspect in a violent child trafficking case that they discovered occurring at a local motel.
“A 50-year-old man who was trafficking a 14-year-old girl,” the chief said with a note of disgust in his voice. “[He] kept her in a hotel room for five days where he drugged her and sexually assaulted her.”
In the other case, he described a woman whom his officers arrested for a DUI. That in itself is not an unusual charge, even in the 2.5 square miles of Lake Worth, but Manoushagian said it’s what they discovered in the woman’s past that made her case stand out.
Manoushagian said the woman was currently out on bond for an incident in Collin County where she’d been charged with manslaughter in a crash that killed her own mother.
In both situations, Manoushagian said his officers made clean arrests and presented strong cases when they turned the suspects over to the county jail for processing. He said that in both cases, though, he felt his officers’ hard work was thwarted by the decision of the magistrate judges in the county.
Manoushagian said the child trafficking suspect was given, in his opinion, very low bond amounts on all three of his charges, two of which the man had already posted payment for. The chief said the suspect’s release was imminent as of late last week.
As for the DUI with priors, he said it appeared the priors weren’t even considered in that suspect’s bond setting.
“The arraigning magistrate set a bond of $650,” said Manoushagian, shaking his head as he recalled the dollar amount.
The two cases, it seems, were the proverbial "straws that broke the camel’s back" for the chief. His entire 10-minute briefing video, which has since been viewed thousands of times, features him calling on state lawmakers to make changes to the current bail bond system to make it more difficult for potentially dangerous suspects to be released back into the public while their trials are pending.
The chief said that currently bonds are often set based on predetermined formulas and, in his experience, at times little to no attention is given to prior criminal history or the risk posed by the suspect.
Experts say the Lake Worth chief isn’t the first peace officer to speak up on that situation.
“Bail reform has come up in the last three legislative sessions,” said Texas attorney Ken Good, who represents members of the bail industry through his work with the Professional Bondsmen of Texas.
Good said that this year was no different and, despite some ongoing discussion about the details of the legislation, it looked as though reform might actually happen in the 2021 legislative session as a bill and a potential constitutional amendment were in their final phases of discussion. Good said those would have, among other things, added criminal history considerations to the bond setting process, allowed for preventative detentions and changed some long-standing rules for setting bail.
However, he said the bill’s biggest sticking point ended up being its position on the agenda in the final day of the session.
“The election integrity bill was right in front of it,” said Good, “and they delayed until 11 [p.m.] and then couldn’t delay any longer, and it was gonna pass, so they [Texas Democrats] walked.”
That was the now-infamous breaking of quorum that created an abrupt end to the legislative session and left several bills, like bail reform, on the table.
Now, though, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has started a special session of the Legislature in which, among other items, bail reform is again up for discussion.
However, while the need for some kinds of changes to the system seem to be fairly bipartisan, the actual ways of creating change and the legislation currently being worked on aren’t so agreed upon.
The Texas ACLU titled the 2021 bill "Predatory Bail Reform" on its website and wrote that it opposes the measure, saying:
"SB 21 is unfair and unconstitutional. While it masquerades as reform, the legislation would enrich the predatory bail industry, punish the poor, and trample on Texans' rights and freedoms. It would also increase poverty-driven mass incarceration and costs to county taxpayers."
That has long been a concern in the bail bond industry and in reform talks: the effect of the rules on poorer Texans and Americans. Many worry about bond amounts being set unfairly high and forcing suspects, who may be innocent of their charges, to sit in jail while they await trial, simply because they can’t afford to get out. Other concerns have been brought up in the debate over risk assessments of suspects, such as the potential for racial profiling in the bond setting process.
On Friday, the Texas Civil Rights Project released a joint statement alongside nearly 50 other civil rights groups, including the ACLU, opposing many of the current bond reform proposals in front of the Legislature. Among the concerns, the group cited worries about preventative detentions chipping away at the presumption of innocence, restrictions on charitable bail funds and advancements to the cash-only bail system which they say unfairly benefit the wealthy while leaving others stuck behind bars. The group instead said they would support legislation that expands personal bonds to those without access to cash, treats the inability to pay as a factor considered in the bond setting process and adds safeguards such as representation at bail hearings.
Chief Manoushagian said he worries the politics in some of the details of the bond reform bills will again result in no changes coming to what he says is a system in need of fixing. However, the Lake Worth chief said there’s no doubt that it has to be done right.
“Keeping someone in jail only because they can’t afford to bond out is not what we’re about,” he said, emphatically.
However, after long staying silent about the topic, Manoushagian told his social media audience that he can no longer sit by and watch his team’s hard work get put in jeopardy because of a busted system.
“I’ve had enough,” he said. “As a general rule, the police don’t concern themselves with the bond. That’s something where we say, ‘we have no control over that, we’re gonna present the best case we can, and the judge is gonna do what the judge is gonna do,’ and that’s all well and good until you start seeing the same people destroying lives over and over and over again.”
So, he said he plans to do what he can, and speak out to whoever he can, in hopes that lawmakers will find a middle ground on this one and give his officers some relief.