Monday, January 28, 2008

Trust and the thin blue line

Years ago in a civil case I reviewed employment records of a SAPD officer and wondered how come he got hired after being turned down twice by SAPD as well as agencies in Houston and I think Dallas, then got hired eventually at SAPD.

Later, he was involved in a shooting in San Antonio, while off-duty which many to this day believe was questionable.

We have to be careful folks on who we trust with the authority and power to protect us and society.

Law keeps public in dark on police hiring practices
Guillermo Contreras and Todd Bensman

Twenty years ago, police unions in Texas converged on the Capitol with a mission.
They found friendly legislators to push a bill that appeared to address only a mundane administrative matter about personnel record-keeping. It quickly passed in 1987 with little public notice.

But buried inside were provisions that ever since have kept taxpayers in the dark about some of the most important management practices of public institutions in Texas.
The law forever closed to the public whole sections of city personnel files.

Because of this change, known as Section 143.089 of the Local Government Code, most Texas taxpayers — with the exception of Dallas — never can know how their police departments carry out the vital functions of vetting and evaluating recruits. They also can't readily know how thoroughly officers accused of misconduct are investigated.

Through the years, 143.089 has impeded the public from exploring these practices.
Emblematic of the problem is the case of former Police Officer Joseph Anthony Evans who, the San Antonio Express-News has learned, was hired in 1994 despite a checkered past that disqualified him from being a cop. After 12 years on the force, Evans faces sentencing Wednesday for allowing his live-in girlfriend to peddle methamphetamines.

Documents in his personnel file, normally cloaked by the law, became public while he was being prosecuted. The city, citing the law, refused to release to the Express-News similar documents that would show whether other officers were hired despite a cloud.

University of Missouri journalism Professor Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said Evans' hiring exemplifies how the Texas law "flies in the face" of a strong public interest in knowing how people given a gun and the authority to kill are being hired.

"Where people are invested with a fair amount of power, then you better be doggone careful about how you are selecting people," Davis said. "I think there is a very clear link between a transparent process and hiring good people. If these people's records cannot withstand public scrutiny then why are we hiring them in the first place?"

The personnel information that is public is limited to awards, misconduct resulting in suspension or higher discipline and periodic evaluations. The public can't see records that show hiring practices — applicant background investigations, recommendations for hire, academy scores and cadet field training evaluations.

Additionally, the law masks another kind of information that, if made public, could open to debate other important management practices: internal affairs investigations that are inconclusive or result in discipline lesser than a suspension.