By WES SWIFT
The Daily News
Picture a model police department, built upon trust between its officers and the community working together. The outreach efforts have resulted in declining crime rates and a plummeting number of civilian complaints. The police department is honored with awards, and even some of its vocal critics have come around, praising the department for improvements.
Now picture another police department, one labeled as plagued by a culture of questionable uses of force, a failure to police its own failings and riddled with civilian complaints.
It’s embroiled in a federal lawsuit in which a judge says its actions are “a laboratory for evaluating how pervasively and recklessly constitutional norms were disregarded by a sizable portion of the Galveston police force.”
That’s the quandary for the Galveston Police Department today. Its leader and statistics say it is on the right track. But the department is facing the fallout of a federal lawsuit involving an incident at a popular Galveston bar in 2008.
That incident drew even more attention because one of its key players — and now a plaintiff in the lawsuit — was a hometown hero and professional baseball player.
‘Protect with Respect’
Galveston Police Chief Henry Porretto, a longtime Galveston police officer who took the reins of the department in June 2012, said the police department is dedicated to helping the community and is getting results.
“In the last year, we received an award that no other police department in the state of Texas received,” he said, referring to the 2013 Texas Municipal League Excellence Award. The award honored the department’s “Protect with Respect” program, which focuses on improving interaction with the community with the aim of reducing crime.
The citation for the award hailed the program’s reduction in both crime and civilian complaints. The “Protect with Respect” initiative also received awards from the Texas Commissioners on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education and the Texas Municipal Human Resources Association.
“Our people are working hard to help the community,” he said.
Statistics also display a downward trend. In 2013, the city experienced a drop in five of the seven major crime categories reported annually to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
That improving picture comes in stark contrast to the image of the police department cast in a memorandum — first reported by The Daily News on March 10 — by U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison in a lawsuit filed by former Astros pitcher Brandon Backe and several others.
The plaintiffs claim that Galveston police officers violated their constitutional rights by, among other things, using excessive force in breaking up a party at the H20 bar in The San Luis Resort in 2008. Further, the plaintiffs say their rights were violated again by the department’s failure to properly investigate the use of force.
Ellison’s memo — which runs 40 pages — includes several in-depth recollections from the plaintiffs, outlining the alleged violent actions of police officers. But the memo also acknowledges that the accounts of the plaintiffs and the defendants vary widely.
“Defendants argue that many of these allegations are trumped up or flatly unbelievable,” the judge wrote. “The court cannot resolve such factual disputes on summary judgment.”
The judge also acknowledged using the plaintiffs’ version of events in considering a summary judgment motion from the city.
Ellison partially granted a summary judgment, but allowed the trial to proceed to determine whether officers used excessive force or failed to properly investigate the incident.
Accused of using excessive force
Plaintiffs, the judge said, could make a legitimate argument that officers used excessive force, pointing out that 34 officers responded to the scene, accounting for nearly half of all police officers on duty at the time. Of those 34, 20 were accused of using excessive force or not stopping excessive force.
The accounts provided in the memo paint the officers on the scene in a damning light. Several plaintiffs allege that they were struck with batons or flashlights or shocked with Tasers for asking questions or not moving fast enough.
Lack of reporting ‘compelling’
Meanwhile, the memo also states that although the plaintiffs allege nearly 50 individual instances in which police used force that night, no officers filled out required forms about the use of force. The police chief at the time forced officers to fill out more thorough reports. After it was done, only three forms about the use of force were completed, covering six incidents.
The judge called the lack of reporting of the use of force “compelling.” And police reports from that night raise serious questions about how the department reports its use of force, the judge said.
Ellison cited one instance in which a man was hit by a baton and flashlight, thrown to the ground, pepper-sprayed and beaten. The officer wrote in the report that the man “aggressively approached” the officer and “ignored commands to stay back.” The report also mentioned that he was arrested for interfering with a police officer. The report failed to mention any use of force. The judge added that the officer admitted only to seeing officers push the man to the ground and use pepper spray during his deposition.
The trial is set for March 24.