Police Chief Vernon Hale faced hundreds of angry island residents Tuesday night and took responsibility for events that led to Donald Neely being arrested and led with a rope along city streets between two mounted police officers.
“I didn’t have the foresight to see that I didn’t have all of the proper controls in place,” Hale said.
He was speaking at a town hall meeting organized by the Galveston Chapter of the NAACP a day after images of Neely’s arrest by officers P. Brosch and A. Smith had already circled the globe and drawn widespread condemnation of the city and its police force.
The crowd at the meeting called on Hale, who is black, to answer questions about Neely’s arrest and to explain what he planned to do about it.
Hale had apologized Monday for the way Neely had been treated, calling it an “unnecessary embarrassment,” and suspended the practice of using horses and ropes to escort arrestees.
He did not condemn the two officers who arrested Neely, although he did say they used poor judgment.
“They want people to understand they were using the tools they were provided,” Hale said
The officers had used an accepted method of extracting people from large, dense crowds with horses, Hale said Monday.
The two officers were not at Tuesday’s meeting, but Hale said they remained on duty as the incident was being investigated.
Some in the crowd on Tuesday night called for the officers to be fired, while others called on Hale to release body camera footage of the incident for public review.
Hale said any discipline, and any release of the video, would have to wait until the incident could be fully reviewed.
Hale’s statements soothed some concerns, but left others lingering.
“I think there’s a lot of things that he said that were important,” Torrina Harris, of Galveston, said.
“It’s hard to not be frustrated in these situations because there’s a lot of being understanding of his role and his responsibilities, but also there’s an immense dissatisfaction with the things he’s not able to answer, like what is going to happen to the officers?”
Harris said she trusted that Hale would fully investigate the incident. But she didn’t trust the department would respond by firing the officers.
“I don’t know if this is the best profession for their current skill set,” she said.
The image of Neely being led by mounted police officers along a downtown street spread around the world Tuesday.
The Galveston Police Department arrested Neely, 43, Saturday and charged him with criminal trespassing at a downtown building.
Neely was handcuffed and connected to a line held by a mounted Galveston Police Department officer, police said. The officers walked Neely through city streets to a staging area where he was picked up by a police car.
The scene was photographed by at least three people and the first images of it were posted on local social media pages Monday.
The officers’ action struck some people as racist and they likened the photographs to historic images of slavery.
News articles about it appeared Tuesday in The New York Times and The Washington Post. The Daily Mail, a tabloid newspaper in the United Kingdom, splashed the image across its website under the headline “Dopes and a Rope.”
It also reached the attention of people running for the highest office in the country.
Beto O’Rourke, the El Paso Democrat running to be the Democratic candidate for president, tweeted about the incident, calling it “racism at work.”
“This moment demands accountability, justice, and honestly [sic],” O’Rourke wrote.
While Hale apologized and announced changes to the department’s policies on Monday, condemnation continued to pour in throughout Tuesday.
The Anti-Defamation League called for an investigation into the incident and into the police department’s policies and practices.
“Trust and legitimacy are vital to law enforcement’s ability to serve those they are sworn to protect,” said Gail Glasser, the group’s interim southwest regional director. “Offensive actions like this undermine both of these tenets.”
In a series of tweets, the American Civil Liberties Union said the images of the incident carried references to two historical themes: “The terror of vigilante violence against black people and the use of state authority to enforce that terror.”
Hale and the police department provided more information about Neely’s arrest Tuesday, including information about how far he was led through the streets.
The department Monday said Neely had been arrested at 306 22nd St. and was taken to a staging area near the intersection of 21st and Market streets, about two city blocks away.
The photos of Neely’s arrest clearly show that he was taken to the corner of 23rd Street and Church Street, about four blocks away from the 22nd Street address.
During Tuesday night’s meeting, Hale said Neely was arrested at Church Street and taken to 21st Street.
The department has not explained the discrepancies in those accounts.
On Tuesday afternoon, a short video of the incident emerged, again on Facebook, along with a claim that officers put a bag over Neely’s head while walking with him.
A police department spokesman said that was inaccurate, and the video showed the officer removing a welder’s mask that Neely had been wearing when he was arrested.
FAMILY SPEAKS OUT
Late on Tuesday afternoon, an attorney representing Neely’s family provided more information about the man at the center of the controversy.
Neely, whose family resides on the mainland, has lived in Galveston for five years, said attorney Melissa Morris. He has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had been living on the streets, she said.
After the news of his arrest first broke, the family attempted to find Neely and bring him back home, she said. He refused to leave the island, she said.
“He doesn’t feel violated and so at this point we don’t know what the next steps are,” Morris said.
Still, Morris said Neely’s family was upset by the way he was treated and did not accept Hale’s apology.
The family wants the police officers fired, she said.
“They are very, very appreciative of all the attention and all of the concern,” Morris said. “It was embarrassing for their brother. They were sad that the police would employ such a tactic to humiliate him or to try to humiliate him.”
GALVESTON CITY COUNCIL REACTS
Local elected leaders reached on Tuesday said they were disturbed by Neely’s arrest and expected more answers from the police department about the incident in coming days, while adding that they didn’t think it was indicative of how the city’s police department treats black people.
“It’s inexcusable, there’s no justification for it,” Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough said. “It’s certainly more serious than just an embarrassment.”
Yarbrough said there should be accountability from the department in some form. He said the city might need to “re-evaluate” the police department’s equestrian program.
The mounted patrol unit has been a topic in recent contract negotiations between the city management and the Galveston Municipal Police Association. The association has asked the city to supply more funding and equipment for the mounted officers, officials said.
District 1 Councilwoman Amy Bly said she was in disbelief after seeing photos of the arrest.
Bly wanted to ensure there was an investigation to understand what happened, she said.
The officers should be allowed to explain their actions, Bly said.
“Somebody needs to talk to them and to hear what the story is,” she said.
District 2 Councilman Craig Brown said the city “can’t condone” the decision made by the police officers.
“It looked like it was the wrong judgment at the wrong time,” Brown said.
District 3 Councilman David Collins, who represents the city’s downtown, described Neely’s arrest as thoughtless.
“It is a very unfortunate incident,” Collins said. “It doesn’t matter what the legal procedure is. I think everybody involved should have understood it was bad optics.”
The Galveston City Council does not make personnel decisions. Under civil service laws, it is up to Hale to decide whether and how officers should be punished.
The police department has so far only identified the officers by their first initials and last name.
But council members noted that they are responsible for evaluating City Manager Brian Maxwell, who is Hale’s direct supervisor, and would review Maxwell’s and Hale’s decisions closely.