Photographs of a black man being led with a rope behind two white police officers on horseback drew accusations of racism against the police department Monday.
The photographs were posted and shared on multiple local Facebook pages, including Galveston Island Crime Watch, a page focused on tracking local crime incidents. They were quickly shared hundreds of times Monday afternoon.
The photos show Donald Neely being led down the middle of 23rd Street between two police officers on horseback. Neely appears to have his hands tied behind his back and is being led down the street by a rope held by one of the officers.
The officers’ action struck some people as racist and they likened the photographs to historic images of slavery.
Galveston’s police chief and city manager said they believed the officers used poor judgment in the situation portrayed in the photograph.
“Although this is a best practice in certain scenarios, I don’t think it was the best practice at this point in time,” Police Chief Vernon Hale said.
One photo was first posted by Erin Toberman, a former Galveston resident known for running the Galveston Kindness Project, a civic engagement effort meant to teach people how to be kind and mindful.
In a phone interview on Monday, Toberman said a friend who lives in Galveston and didn’t want to be identified sent her the photo.
Toberman called leading Neely down the street with a rope a “gross decision” and compared it to a historic drawing of a chattel slave being led behind a man on horseback.
“I find this a poor example of any kind of law enforcement,” Toberman said. “It sends a message that they don’t know how to do their job.”
Toberman called on Hale and City Manager Brian Maxwell to explain the police officers’ actions, and how they would respond to it.
In an interview at city hall, Hale said the officers used bad judgment.
Neely was charged with criminal trespassing, a misdemeanor, Saturday afternoon at 306 22nd St., according to the Galveston Police Department.
It’s unclear whether Neely was detained at the address, or at another location. Toberman said the photo was taken at the intersection of 23rd and Church streets, about six blocks from the address given by the police department.
The two officers had made another arrest not long before arresting Neely, Hale said.
A police unit the officers had called to transport the first man arrested was not available to pick up Neely, so the officers chose to walk Neely to the intersection of 21st and Market streets, where the mounted units were staging, according to the police department.
The officers appeared to use proper techniques in leading Neely while on horseback, but the practice is usually reserved for extracting people from large, dense crowds, Hale said.
“It is a valid training technique for transporting prisoners in the proper scenarios,” Hale said. “In my opinion, quite frankly, I think my guys showed some poor judgment in this scenario. It wasn’t a crowd-control scenario or anything like that. They should have waited on a unit.”
The department has changed its policy to stop using the technique used on Neely, Hale said.
Neely, 43, has a history of arrests dating back to 1994, including six other criminal trespassing arrests this year, according to county court records.
The Daily News was unable to find Neely to attempt an interview. He was not listed as being jailed Monday.
The photos spread quickly after being posted online about 1 p.m. and drew immediate attention from a Galveston civil rights group and a candidate for Congress.
The police department is obligated to explain the officers’ decision-making, said Mary Patrick, president of the Galveston chapter of the NAACP.
“I’m not happy with it, but I’m waiting on additional information,” Patrick said.
Later Monday evening, Patrick contacted The Daily News to say she had spoken to Hale and the police chief had the full support of the NAACP.
Adrienne Bell, who is running for the Democratic nomination for Texas 14th Congressional District, called for “swift action” to ensure the way Neely was arrested would not be repeated.
“It is hard to understand why these officers felt this young man required a leash, as he was handcuffed and walking between two mounted officers,” Bell said.
The city manager’s office and police department had already received several phone calls and messages about the photos by Monday afternoon, Maxwell said.
“While I think most of law enforcement would say if you’re going to have to transport a prisoner while on horseback, they certainly followed what is deemed to be a best practice,” Maxwell said. “I just feel it was not using their best judgment to do it that way.”
The officers involved in the arrest would be counseled about their actions, Hale said. As chief, it is up to Hale to decide on discipline actions against police officers, Maxwell said.
Galveston has a nine-member mounted patrol unit.
The horseback officers are most frequently seen at large city events such as the annual Mardi Gras celebrations, which often involve thousands of rowdy people.
Hale, who became Galveston’s police chief in January 2018, regularly talks to his officers about considering how their actions affect people’s perception of the department, although Monday’s controversy came from an unexpected source, he said.
“You have to be aware of the images we portray,” Hale said. “We talk about it when we talk about use of force, when we talk about vehicle pursuits. Quite frankly, I never would have dreamed of it in the context of mounted officers.”