By WES SWIFT

The Daily News

GALVESTON

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.

Contrasting images

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.

(10) comments

Jim Casey

I'm going to cut to the chase here:

Peace officers are authorized by the state to maintain public order and enforce the law.

In that role, they undergo quite a bit of training. If they screw up—and they sometimes do—they are subject to penalties that can include prison time.

HOWEVER, as my father taught me decades ago, when a police officer tells you to do something (that is not expressly illegal or immoral), you do it. If you don't like it, you get a lawyer and go to court later.

The amount of sympathy that I have for a group of fine young gentlemen who may have been too well acquainted with the fruit of the vine, the barley plant, the agave, or the potato, is the dictionary definition of zero.

- Jim

Chris Gimenez

Well, you certainly fit the fit the definition of a sheeple. If someone doesn't ask "How high?" when the popo says to "Jump!" then they should be assaulted, beaten, tased, and falsely charged. Cool.

Don Ciaccio

They are not authorized for brutal attacks on citizens which is definitely the case here.

Jim Casey

It is not definitely the case.That is why the judge sent the complaint to trial.

Have a great day on God's good earth.

Miss Priss

What does the hotel management testify to the night this took place? At some point they had to be involved and have some responsibility.

What involvement did the hotel security play? What were their observations of the way the police handled the matter?

JBG JBG

Galveston County Police Officers and Firemen are my heroes! Only people I know who when others are running away from AK 47 gun fire, and large buildings burning.....they are running toward the danger. Ready to get shot at or to run into a burning building to save a human or sometimes an animal.
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When I look at the kind of world we live in now, I shiver to think about what it would be like here without them.
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Now I say give the police the same consideration constituents expect! All I could hear concerning police forcing riotous patrons off the Strand during Mardi Gras recently, was "It was not me!" "It was those other people!" "They got the wrong man!"
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Okay, then why are people in that bar incident saying POLICE did this and that? What POLICE, did what? What was his badge number? Did he/she have a name tag on? Can you describe him or here to the court. Was it ALL the police who committed what was thought to be wrongs to those on the scene, or just one,...two....or three?
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Sounds like double standards to me! I'm just saying.......

Steve Fouga

I am nothing but impressed by the quality of police work in Galveston since I moved here -- December of 2011.

I hope justice is served in this case. By that I mean that no officer is wrongly found guilty of excessive force; that any officers who may have stretched the Department's standards of proper use of force are scared straight by this case and are able to continue in a productive career with the Department; and that any citizens whose rights were violated are appropriately compensated.

I trust that by now the Department has examined and revised whichever processes led to 34 officers being dispatched to a bar brawl. "One riot, one ranger" obviously isn't the answer, but surely it doesn't take 34.

Island Lover

This happened right after Ike. The city was still under curfew, so only those staying at the hotel were supposed to be out. There were so many police because they just came from a shooting near the shelter at Alamo school. The police had been working 24-7 since before the hurricane. I don't know what happened, I wasn't there, but tensions must have understandably high, considering what this island went through.

Miceal O'Laochdha

Over the years, I have had both good and bad experiences with the GPD and have heard both good and bad stories about them as well. But, for me, it is worth noting that one of the best interactions I have ever had with a police officer was with the man who is currently Chief of Police: Henry Porretto. I am aware he was not Chief at the time of this incident but, he lends credibility to all the GPD does, at least for me.

The never ending news stories of some very bad behavior by the New Orleans police Dept in the days immediately after Hurricane Katrina, stories that continue in the news even after all this time, may well contribute to the perception that the GPD behaved out-of-control and with unnecessary violence in the San Luis bar incident. But it is worth considering the long, violent and corrupt history of the New Orleans police, and the extraordinary chaos and anarchy of New Orleans in the days after Katrina are in no way comparable to the Galveston police or to the post-Ike conditions in Galveston

I don't know whether the GPD screwed up much here but, I will not assume, for any reason, that they are solely responsible for this mini "riot". That will need to be proven by facts presented in court.

taz

Wow why have a trial, the judge seems to have everything worked out already. I don't go to family functions anymore because when the alcohol is flowing GOD help the police in trying to deal much less show up and arrest a family member. All you could hear is "It's Ok, it's OK, their OK" over and over. Never ends well when dealing with people who have been drinking, especially when some of the people think they are special or above the law. They should have tested everyone that was arrested bet there was more than alcohol involved. If the under 21 was not drinking and these were responsible people this would not have taken place.

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