Galveston Police Chief Vernon Hale did a commendable thing Tuesday night. He stood before a crowd of perhaps 200 outraged residents and took responsibility for a huge mistake a couple of his officers made in handling what should have been a routine misdemeanor arrest.
The handling of that arrest had offended people all over the world, tarnished the city’s reputation and undermined public confidence in the police.
Hale’s appearance at a town hall Tuesday was a good start, but the city’s work in righting this wrong is not finished and the responsibility for completing the work goes beyond the police chief to its elected leaders.
At issue, of course, was the arrest Saturday of Donald Neely, 43, on a criminal trespass charge. Neely, who, according to an attorney representing his family, is mentally ill and had been living on the streets for months. He had been arrested about a half dozen times before for the same infraction, according to the police.
Saturday’s encounter with Galveston officers would have been no different than the others, except for the horses, the rope and the cameras.
As most people have heard by now, the mounted officers who arrested Neely affixed a rope to his handcuffs and led him along downtown streets, apparently with the intent of transferring him to a patrol vehicle. People took photographs of the two white officers on horseback leading a tethered black man afoot along a street, and within hours Galveston was ground zero of the latest racial outrage in a season of racial outrage.
On Tuesday night at a meeting the Galveston chapter of the NAACP had organized, Hale did what good leaders do. He acknowledged that his subordinates had used bad judgment, took responsibility for their failing and his own, and apologized.
“I didn’t have the foresight to see that I didn’t have all of the proper controls in place,” Hale said.
The questions now are what more should the city do, and what more can it do given the rules it must follow.
A lot of people at the meeting Tuesday called for the two officers to be fired. It’s questionable whether that would be a just response. For all most of us know now, those two junior officers were doing exactly as they had been told. If firing needs to be done, it might be higher up the chain of command.
It’s even more questionable whether firing the officers would be practical in this case. Unlike most of us in this right-to-work state, Galveston police officers are protected by civil service rules. The city has to navigate those very carefully or risk having its decisions reversed on appeal and owing the fired officers back pay and other legal damages.
That has happened here before with officers fired for infractions in which bad intent was far more apparent and provable than it is in this case.
Be that as it may, the city’s elected leadership can’t just put its head down and hope this all blows over. There should be a real investigation, a real questioning about whether the department’s policies and training practices are effective and about whether the department is hiring officers best suited to work in a diverse community.
What people want, and deserve, in this case is satisfaction that justice ultimately has been done and made public.
It’s not at all clear right now what that justice would look like, but elected leaders should be giving the question hard consideration.
• Michael A. Smith