Friday, October 12, 2012

How Shaka Sankofa Passed His Time Before Meeting the Extraction Team


            The first urge when reading an execution log is to believe the prisoner's actions in the last hours of life were a reflection of guilt or innocence. Those last hours when someone knows he or she is going to die—and not of old age or an incurable illness, but after too much pentobarbital administered by the State of Texas has a reality all its own and nothing to do with what came before.            
            Second you must forgive the guards who may be challenged by the English language but are there, basically, not to observe but to watch, something entirely different. They are there not to describe behavior but to avoid it, to make sure the condemned doesn’t “act out” or “go off on staff” or try to commit suicide. Finally don’t always believe that use of brand name products connotes product endorsement. If an inmate was eating a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup a few hours before execution that doesn't necessarily mean Reese’s is the bomb, so good that every condemned man or woman would choose it over M&Ms or Snickers for a last taste of sugar. It just means that’s what was available in the commissary. As with everything else in an information-glutted society we’re now getting more details on state-sponsored death and unlike drone strikes or assassinations the release is completely authorized. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice revised its Death Row procedures this summer and the Texas Attorney General ruled the document is public record. That's important because as always the state prison system headquartered in Huntsville remains the go-to institution on all issues execution-related. After the recent update there’s a new warning to guards that “Staff must not accept a stay of execution from the offender’s attorney,” well yeah. That makes sense.
            Any keep-on-person medication must now be turned over and administered by medical staff, to avoid the obvious. A few years ago a condemned Texas inmate managed to swallow a potentially-lethal dose of medication and was rushed to intensive care, nursed back to health—and then whacked. There’s much much more and it’s now yours to read thanks to Attorney General Greg Abbott. “The Mountain View Unit Warden shall," for example, "ensure that a female offender brings personal hygiene and gender-specific items to the Huntsville Unit," containing the holding cells and execution chamber, "as appropriate.” That also makes sense in a way. The offender—inmates in Texas are universally called “offenders,” as opposed to “prisoners,” which might have an unwanted political connotation—fills out a religious orientation statement, decides whether his or her body will be donated, writes out a list of last visitors, and a record of his or her past commissary purchases is provided to staff, reason unknown, although presumably in order to assure last minute availability for purchase. “On the morning of the day of execution prior to final visitation, all of the offender’s personal property shall be packed and inventoried.” The inmate does that his or herself. This step is often missed in movies that imitate the final days of the condemned.
             These written execution summaries recently released by the state also detail the prisoner’s last hours, it’s actually something the condemned spend a lot of precious time on, sorting and re-sorting limited belongings and deciding who gets what when the present owner is gone. The same decision must be made about the inmate’s prison trust fund, basically his or her spending money, usually provided by family: it’s unclear if those who are about to die can bequeath to others who will die later. What's most “interesting” to us on the outside, however, is the beginning of the “Execution Summary Log,” seven days out, with observations and notes on the prisoner’s behavior, first every 30 minutes and, as the needle gets closer, every fifteen. Reading how the condemned spend their last hours you get an idea of the sense of unease as if no one knows how to use remaining minutes—so they try to do everything, or nothing at all. Shooting hoops in the exercise yard. . . listening to Metallica . . . eating Reese's . . . that’s how Cameron Todd Willingham passed the hours, among other activities, back in ‘04. Most everyone devoted time to rearranging worldly goods. There was a lot of writing but less reading that you would expect: No mention of the Bible for example. A good analogy about time-use might actually be financial, it’s like having a lot of bills coming due at the same time and very little money and not knowing exactly where to spend it, because there’s not enough to go around. So you waste it instead. 
            The four inmates whose execution logs have been released include three men and one woman. Two Caucasians and two blacks. Two who were put to death more than a decade ago after a thumb-down by then-Governor Bush, and two by incumbent Rick Perry. One admitted her crime, one was widely believed to have been guilty and relied unsuccessfully on other means to escape death, and two were very probably innocent. The four: Karla Faye Tucker, executed in 1998 for her part in a gruesome murder she admitted helping commit; Shaka Sankofa, aka Gary Graham, done in 2000 for a robbery-homicide in a Houston parking lot which he may not have done; Cameron Willingham, who has become the poster boy for anti-death penalty activists, executed for an arson that killed his three daughters, following an investigation and trial that are now discredited; and Marvin Wilson, "lethally-injected" in August 2012 for the murder of a police informant, a crime he did not convincingly deny, basing his appeal instead on a low IQ. Although Texas prisoners are specifically exempted from the state’s stringent open records laws Attorney General Abbott has recently ruled the execution logs can be released. Like his predecessors Abbott seems to have been moved by the state’s strong adherence, surprisingly, to transparency, one of the few issues that both parties in Austin seem to agree on. So, too, there is the need to satisfy the public’s fascination about executions—and then there’s the Lone Star State, period. To many Texans there are only two kinds of people, good ‘uns and bad ‘uns and the bad ‘uns who kill get the needle. The Texas public wants a couple of pounds of flesh, wants to see payback, so politically release of these logs was a good decision, eventually leading perhaps to the hoped-for televised spectacle that polls have shown the public really desires. Either that or gladiator games.
            While praising General Abbott, however, we should note that the value of these logs, which could be a rich resource for research and investigation of both man and the state’s baser instincts, was already diminished the moment Abbott made his decision. The inmates whose last hours have already been chronicled by the state were presumably unaware that their final movements would be made public. In the future—once the grapevine gets active, and the condemned know that their final days will be publicized—that knowledge will doubtless influence how they spend their last moments. Like final statements and final meal requests, future logs may be tainted by self-awareness, by playing to the “audience,” which is us.
     

            Entries written by the guards watching Shaka Sankofa described him like a caged tiger, as trite as that may sound. This isn’t soul on ice, it’s fire instead: sleeping fitfully, pacing back and forth across his cell like the captured cat he was there was no rest, no coming to terms with his fate. It was Sankofa’s seventh trip to the Death House and he seemed to know it would be his last with a bloody-minded born-again Christian governor in office. By then Bush was running for president on a law-and-order platform and would eventually okay the executions of 153 out of 154 condemned inmates on his watch—this was a death foretold. The scenes in the cell make for a pretty impressive one-man show worthy of Denzel but starring Shaka instead. There’s not much dialogue—“pacing in cell” and “laying in bed awake,” this was like the death of the born-again Christian Karla Faye Tucker a celebrity execution. Sankofa was visited by Bianca Jagger and Reverend Al Sharpton and both the Klan and the Panthers demonstrated outside the prison with Rangers present in case. Before being strapped down on the gurney, according to the log, Sankofa had even taken a goodbye call from Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston. Sankofa went into a long rap as his final statement, still claiming innocence, rather eloquently one must say, and putting his “murder” in revolutionary perspective. Long before her death Karla Faye was visited in her cell by Governor Bush’s general counsel and future US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, apparently carrying the news that she would die. Among the last visitors who stood outside her holding cell and talked to her, per the guards, was the head of the Texas prison system, a Republican lawyer and criminal justice fixer from San Antonio named Allan Polunsky. In both cases what was discussed is known only by the lawyers who aren’t talking.
            While Sankofa’s death was very public, attended by much media—family and friends of both the condemned and victim—like the others who were put to death his time in the cell was not public until now and arguably more poignant for that fact. He paced, as has been noted. He went through his things. He read the newspaper, apparently following his own case in the media. He did what we all do, multi-tasking because he was pressed for time. “Offender sitting on toilet, also brushing his teeth.” Didn’t get much rest even when he could close his eyes: “Offender was waken from sleep by Officer Duff for count purposes.” He talked to himself and to the inmate in the cell beside him. He made his bed (everybody makes his or her bed, perhaps with the hope he or she will return to it) and got a clean jumpsuit. The pre-execution routine is relentless. Those early morning prisoner counts even in the final hours, are they really necessary? Sankofa refused a physical. And then came the explosion. Filmgoers are used to the long walk with clergy and warden, a la The Green Mile, or something with Jimmy Cagney, made popular through the years. Sankofa hadn’t seen the movie. He fought instead. That’s when the “Extraction Team” appeared, a group of well-padded guards, described by those who know as kind of looking like RoboCops, used to take dissenting inmates to their deaths. One of the last notations in the long log has Sankofa sitting of the floor of the van on the way to the execution chamber after he lost the fight with the E Team. A USA Today reporter who witnessed the execution said later that Sankofa was fighting again as he was strapped down to start the IV.
            While the attorney general has released these logs, as valuable as they are, the state has been more hesitant about film. Video of at least part of Sankofa’s encounter with the Extraction Team was taken but General Abbott’s predecessor as attorney general, incumbent U.S. Senator John Cornyn denied all requests for its release years ago. Tucker also made a video sent to Governor Bush apparently pleading for mercy which the State of Texas has also consistently refused to make public. Still, we do see something of the condemned here if only through words, a few sentences here and there written by people who were interested in security not history or sociology.
            Karla Faye Tucker the day before her death: “Sitting on bunk talking to officers about her busy day and how worried she was due to the amount of stress her being at the unit has put on the staff.” “Stated she was writing an outline for Chairman Polunsky on inmate rehabilitation to submit to the Board for future reference.” “Lying on bunk looking at wall.” Like withholding the videos, there does seem to be an effort by the guards to put final moments in their best light, to skew the image of the people we as a society have decided to separate from, to make it look like they were more accepting of fate than perhaps they were. Again in the case of Tucker, the last entry on her last day reads: “Standing at cell door with a smile on her face talking with Warden Dessie Cherry.” That was shortly before the end. It’s probably safe to say she expressed other emotions as well, which weren’t noted. That same emphasis on the positive is apparent in the notations on Marvin Wilson, a more recent execution. “Talking with grand kids with a smile on his face.” Several notations mention him smiling in his last hours. Okay, he may have been a cheerful guy. But maybe he had other feelings as well? Like: “This is bullshit?” Or, “This is fucked up?” Back in the day, like twenty years before, down in Beaumont he's supposed to have capped a brother who ratted him out in a drug deal. So far so good. Then he told someone about it, which is a recurring theme on Death Row, bragging about the act after the fact. A potentially fatal mistake, in this state. Fast forward. In contrast to Shaka Sankofa who took photos with his family (what's that caption in the family album?) Marvin Wilson combed his hair before his last family visit, got an insulin injection and was for a while on his final day playing chess in his cell, which might belie his argument that his intellect was too low to understand the charges against him. Tucker wore, the guards noted, “prison whites, personal shoes” in the Death House. What does one wear to one’s own execution? Sensible shoes sounds sensible. Karla Faye refused meal trays (“Sitting on bunk writing. Stated she [is] fasting and was at peace”), refused a shower, and “declined to watch television when asked if she wanted to watch the news.” The only news she cared about she'd already heard.
         Guards noted Willingham chatting with a neighboring inmate, Bobby Ray Hopkins, a former bull rider and drug dealer who was condemned to die for knifing two women. But nothing about what they said to each other. We’re not asking here for Socratic meditations, the meaning of good and evil or even last guesses about the meaning of life. But a few words about the last roundup might be enlightening. Hopkins was apparently reticent generally. On the gurney, before the poison started to flow, he told the warden that he had no statement, “at this time.” The most pitiful of the four seems to be Willingham, in the good sense of the word “pity.” Although not mentioned in his execution log the rumor is that as he was strapped to the gurney Willingham used his free hand and last minutes of life to try to give his ex-wife—who campaigned for his death—the finger. 
            Ultimately it’s still Shaka Sankofa who most attracts our attention, both in the cell and outside. Even liberals in Texas argued that the then-Gary Graham’s history of bad-acting on the streets of Houston had been so extensive that the death penalty was not acceptable but still understandable. If that was true he was being executed, in Texas terms, as a bad ‘un despite limited and contradictory evidence of the crime in question. One condemned man who was housed near Sankofa, a Hispanic from Ft. Worth who followed Shaka to the gurney took time in his final statement to praise Allah. Sankofa was an earlier wave of this same polemic. 
            Missing in the recent death penalty debate—you may have noticed—is Barack Obama. Not surprisingly for a president who doesn’t court controversy no federal prisoner has been scheduled for execution so far during his term in office. There are 58 men and women on the federal government’s death row, 35 of them minorities, the highest number from—you guessed it—Texas, according to a reliable death penalty website. Presumably the issue will come up eventually. It’s a good bet that Obama, like Bill Clinton, will come down on selective use of the needle in those cases where the public is most demanding and the facts are clearest. As he is not opposed to all wars, only dumb wars, one supposes he is only opposed to dumb executions. His work limiting use of the death penalty in Illinois while serving in the state Senate is not much to go by, the issue is different for a president who must enforce the law than for a senator who only has to write it. And we still owe Attorney General Abbott a debt of gratitude for taking away some of the mystery of the condemned's last hours.

           
            

Thursday, October 4, 2012

L'Enfant Plaza (2005)


  
            The first car that passed me was an unmarked Ford, searchlight on the driver’s side, a beefy-looking white guy at the wheel. There were flak jackets and automatic weapons on the Metro. Down the way from my hotel was this market, a convenience store really, bigger, with a good fruit section. The hotel served plastic pastry for breakfast so my idea was to pick up some bananas for the second morning in D.C.
            To reach the market you had to cross a busy intersection and then the neighborhood got low-rent really quick: some working-class Latinos and blacks hanging out on apartment doorsteps, everybody looking a little hungry, spiritually, not biologically, like the American Dream hadn’t quite arrived despite the close proximity to Capitol Hill.
            A brother in a wheelchair was entering the store at the same time as me that evening. It was hard for the guy in the chair to push his wheels and hold the door open simultaneously—and he thanked me for my help. Five minutes later we met again at the door, leaving.
            On the sidewalk he pointed at my Low Tops and mentioned, by way of casual conversation, that he bought the same shoe in 1964 for $8.
           Ain’t that a bitch?
           We agreed that eight dollars doesn’t buy a whole lot of shoe these days.
           We were just making conversation, passing the time, unhurried, unscheduled, the way only people of color can be in the middle of rush hour in the white man's world. You couldn’t help but notice that this nigger had a great deal of decorative silver in his mouth. To describe him, he was a little older than me, his legs didn’t look spindly like he had never walked but more like he had been able to walk at one time and got shot or was in an accident or met with some kind of Act of God, maybe he was a veteran but he didn’t have that proud sacrificial air that vets can get, no see-what-I-gave-up-for-you-motherfucker, he was just a brother on the streets of D.C. who couldn’t walk under his own power.
            Being in a wheelchair he probably hadn’t come far, this was his neighborhood, he might, it seemed to me, be able to point in the right direction to hook a brother up. Pussy—weed—a weapon—is it's always best to buy local.
            In order to do that you have to talk to the locals and not just ask directions.
            We were still in front of the store. A blue-and-white police car passed by, white officer at the wheel, didn’t even look in our direction. Good thing about Osama he was keeping The Man busy.
            The day was cool but pretty, it still felt good to be outside.
            “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
            “Sure.”
            “Is this the kind of neighborhood where I could find something to smoke?”
            He looked around at traffic, both cars and on foot, people talking on the sidewalk or just coming home from work, none of them looking exactly poor but definitely lesser means, yeah, black or brown, what you expect a mile from the Gates of Hell? Then—out of nowhere—a couple of dressed-for-success white people, briefcases and brisk walks like they were headed to testify before a committee.
            Looking at the white couple this guy in the chair confirmed my guess. “It’s that kind of neighborhood,” he said.
            He said that down the block, around the corner, there were young dudes with various pharmaceuticals for sale. But it would be difficult to make a buy he explained, “Because they don’t know you.”
            Could he introduce me? Could he speak for my character and for my need?
            No he could not, he said. He had seen people get jammed up doing that. He mentioned he had a friend also in a wheelchair who facilitated a transaction involving a little “medicinal herb”—for what aches you—and got busted for it.
            There were some starts and stops in the conversation after that. The dude in the chair was offended by an offer of money if he would help me score. His head turned to the side as he listened politely to my denials of employment, officially or on a contract basis, by the District of Columbia Police Department. We parted ways but he called me right back. A little airlock plastic baggie was now cupped in his hand. It must have come from under his coat. A change had transformed him and he smiled all silver again.
            “I copped the dime for you.” 
            He was the neighborhood connection and somehow we just hooked up.
            Life can be good that way sometimes. You get just what you’re looking for, when you need it.
            At the right price.
            The brother parked his wheelchair to give me time to run back into the store and get change. Korean dude behind the counter wouldn’t break a fifty without a purchase, so in exchange for the herb the brother in the WC got my sincere thanks, $10 and an Eskimo pie.
            First rule of any drug transaction is check out the goods ASAP.
            If you been burned before you don’t wanna get burned again and it’s not like you can complain to the Department of Consumer Affairs. Pulling apart the ziplock of the little baggie was enough. Out came the smell of mountains, Michoacan or Guerrero, Sinaloa or Nayarit, southern Colombia—sierra somewhere—Sr. Valdez tending his plants in the cool lush air, a DEA plane lost in the clouds somewhere overhead.
            My nostrils widened. There was just a hint of paraquat for authenticity and enough in the bag for two maybe three good-sized joints.
            A nigger’s freedom, it seems to me, is what he makes of it. Mine hasn’t been limited by this administration, not even in a pretty tight radius of the Bush's White House.
  
           
           
           

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

They Shoot Niggers, Don't They?


            Austin is a great town: an oasis in the Texas desert, cool, well-educated, hip and pretty. Got greenbelts and oak trees, Governor’s Mansion and State Capitol. A river runs through it. The major state university. Movie studios. It's the world capital of live music full of artsy Democrats and techy liberals who serve as the loyal opposition to the Republicans and rednecks who run the rest of the state. Bubba is only allowed into town on the weekend, what's not to like? There’s only one drawback, and only then if you’re a member of a minority group, specifically, Negroes—but also, the occasional Hispanic. The cops in River City like to cap a brother now and again. There. It’s said. Can we talk?
            Nothing overboard happens here, nothing over the top, nothing to cause too much attention or Justice Department condemnation or get the FBI involved. This is Austin, after all, liberal mecca, we don’t tolerate racism here. But every so often—usually about once a year—bam, the police pop a brother in the chest. Before Glocks got popular they used the old reliable .38. Been doing it for years. Developed into kind of a ritual, don't you know? Afterwards Negroes demonstrate in the streets. There’s always a grand jury investigation. (There’s one going on now.) In recent years the city has been paying out money to the brother’s family without admitting fault, culpability or liability. Eventually you get the mandatory debate before the city council, actually more like a discussion, some handwringing by liberals—tears are shed although not by members of the city council, then everybody forgets until the next year when another cop blows another brother’s shit away and the ritual is renewed.
            It’s an Austin tradition.
            So, we’re in the beginning of the cycle now. A brother named Ahmede Jabbar Bradley got popped a few months ago by a cop named Eric Copeland. Officer Copeland pulled Mr. Bradley over—either because Copeland smelled weed or because the brother was playing his music too loud or both—depends on what story the police are telling and which cop is telling it. A minor infraction, the chief said. That much is on the record. The interaction between the two men started “friendly,” according to the police chief, which can be considered the official account of events no matter how unlikely, for whatever reason Mr. Bradley drove away, then took off running. Copeland followed. There was a struggle. Bam. Or actually bam bam bam, Ahmede Bradley got holed three times, of which apparently at least one was in the chest, details are sketchy. Officer Copeland is on paid administrative leave, not talking, or at least not talking publicly. An ounce of coke and $1700 was later found, per PD. The district attorney is "investigating." Stop me if you’ve heard this before. God knows it’s not new.
            It’s the same old shit which means the same old outcome, the cop will return to duty, maybe the city will pay out a few bucks while the mayor and the police union bitch about the right of an officer to defend himself as if the pigs are the aggrieved party. The NAACP will claim profiling, that white cops go after black people in the capital city.
            SOS.
            Except this time there’s considerable evidence that is exactly what they do. The police we’re talking about—they profile. They go after brothers. And Spanish. But maybe this time they got caught in the act.
            Literally red-handed.
            Red as in blood.



            Just after the Civil War a Union Army officer newly arrived in East Texas toured the state prison and was surprised to find it full of brothers. He ventured the guess that prisons were being used in Texas as a tool to control the black population.
            Well, yeah. You could say that.
            Every once in a while minorities in the state catch a break, someone realizes what’s going on with law enforcement here—police and prisons—like the Union Army officer realized and it always comes as a surprise, at least to white folk. Sometimes it’s less of a break, not just a lucky happenstance like a roll of dice but more the result of playing the game until you learn how to win which is where minorities are now, creeping up on a win or at least getting a better idea of the odds. We took our fates in our hands you could say: Not relying on the goodwill of white people which—less even than the betting tables in Las Vegas—historically has been a low-percentage game to play. Waiting for the caucasian race to “do the right thing” can get old, too. So, in 2001, and again in 2009, we only started winning because we started writing the rules ourselves.
            A decade ago a coalition of concerned parties—the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and NAACP, led by State Senator Royce West of Dallas—a brother—passed an anti-profiling statute that required police departments across the state to track, by race, who they are stopping on the street. Of course the law had no teeth, no sanctions, and the Criminal Justice Coalition which does good work soon found that many police departments simply were not obeying. “There was a problem statewide about compliance in reporting,” says Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP. Bledsoe credits what happened next with the doggedness of Ana Yañez-Correa, head of the CJC, and the diplomatic skills of Senator West—who managed to get police officers to sit down at a table and talk about what they could live with to fix the law. Well, in short, it’s a mofo—the first, best and still-developing tool to identify police who stop Negroes and kill them. You can go to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement website and on the left side under “Racial Profiling Reporting” you press a button, there’s a map of Texas, you find your region of the state and, bingo, you can see who the pigs are stopping and, theoretically, popping. It’s self-reporting, which means there may be some slips—intentional and otherwise—but in the case of the liberal mecca Austin, Texas—live music capital of the world—the claims that the police don’t have an agenda don’t hold water. The numbers are stark and ugly. In fact, just about everything being reported points to a big policing problem in River City, which no one wants to admit but there it is. Let’s take a look.
            So—in the case of Austin PD—skip what seems to be a large number of reported stops of Middle Easterners because it’s hard to believe the Middle Eastern population isn’t being targeted in Austin or anywhere else in the Great Satan, a “driving while Muslim” experience. Let’s skip Asians too for the moment not because Asians don’t experience prejudice but because they are not traditional victims of discrimination in this state. Instead let’s look at the quintessential victim of profiling by police, black people, brothers, Negroes-at-large on the streets of America, Austin’s black population has actually fallen through the years as the town has gotten trendier and more expensive—and whiter—with the black percentage going from 14% in the 1970s to about 8% now. The police profiling report for last year shows that the drivers stopped by police were African-Americans about 13% of the time. That’s a rate about 60% higher than our percentage in the local population. Commonly it’s the traditional communitywide non-scientific definition of the offense known as DWB, “driving while black.” It’s also probably not the key to where the local pigs are breaking the law. According to experts on police profiling the issue isn’t so much who the police stop—although, yes, that is important. The bigger issue is who they’re searching and, specifically, who the police are searching without consent, that's without a warrant. That’s where the Austin police excel—despite the contentions of Mayor Leffingwell et al that everything is cool. Clearly, everything is not cool. Unless you’re white.
            Most of the major police forces in the state (Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, for example) like Austin, are searching about 4 to 8 percent of cars stopped according to their profiling reports, which are also just a click away. In some cases the officer asks if he or she can search the vehicle/occupants or reports he or she asked. But some searches are made without consent. Those “non-consensual” searches are the most revealing. The police always say there was probable cause. We have only their word to go on. And there is good cause to believe they’re lying. At least in River City.
            In Houston and San Antonio for example non-consensual searches are about 34-38% of all searches conducted. Let’s say one-third for simplicity. That means that SAPD and HPD most often ask if they can look in the backseat or in the glove compartment and in about a third of cases when they ask for permission and are told no, they search anyway. In Dallas which has a long history of heavy-handed policing the figure is 60%. That means in the majority of searches in the Big D, basically, the police have asked for permission, been told no, said to the driver fuck you, whether you like or not we’re looking under the seat, in the glove compartment, maybe you get a pat-down too. Austin police actually use even a heavier hand. In 2011—among Austin police stops that led to searches—only 5% were consensual. Yes, five percent. 95% were not consented to. That is ninety-five percent of the time a search was conducted it was done without the driver’s permission which is a full 60% higher than in Houston and 30% higher than in Dallas where the cops are mean motherfuckers to begin with. Of 11,025 non-consent searches in 2011, APD reports that in 229 contraband was “in plain sight,” in 6775 the officer had probable cause or reasonable suspicion and in 4021 the search was secondary to an arrest that was already going to happen anyway or a warrant already in hand. Houston, the biggest police force in the state, patrolling the biggest metropolitan area, had twice as many automobile stops, fewer searches and half the number of probable cause searches that Austin police reported. Those numbers bear repeating: Houston has a population and police force roughly three times larger than Austin's yet last year Austin police performed twice the number of non-consensual, "probable-cause" searches as the number Houston PD reported. To get a higher rate than APD—you have to reach out to the Israeli border police, or the KGB. 
            And it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out who the local police are pushing the envelope with: it’s not the white soccer mom with two kids in the car who may or may not like nose candy, mom and the kids too, it’s the brother with dreds who, yeah, likes to smoke a little weed. Not the white businessman in a suit and tie, driving a BMW on his way to a power lunch, it’s the Hispanic working stiff in a pickup on his way home from a job. Thirty years ago an Austin police chief by the name of Jim Everett, when questioned about another white officer’s shooting of a black suspect, said that black people are searched more and shot more often by police because we, black people, are involved in more crime and although Austin officials are too PC to say something similar today that kind of thinking continues to be common at the pig pen. But suppose it’s wrong. Suppose it's the exact opposite. Suppose more blacks get stopped (and in the case of Mr. Bradley killed) because white officers look for crime more among black people than among their own race. Is that a revolutionary thought? APD is two-thirds white after all. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Maybe the FBI does need to come in—like that Union Army officer at the end of the Civil War—and offer a new perspective. Because the numbers in APD’s 2011 profiling report are actually worse than they appear.
            Richard Watkins is a former prison warden who now serves as president of the Huntsville NAACP in deep East Texas. He has been fighting profiling among local police forces in the pineywoods of the state for some time now and he notes two particular problems in Walker County and environs both of which also apply in Austin. First is police often turn off their car cameras when stopping minority suspects. Cameras in police cars are a major issue because state law permits any police force that has all its cruisers equipped with cameras to escape the profile reporting requirements on the TCOLE website. In other words if the force is completely equipped with cameras, no statistics must be reported on who is being stopped. Most police departments are, therefore, trying to equip cars with cameras, but Watkins notes that cameras in police cars don’t help when the officer turns it off or points it away from the action—something he says is common in his neck of the woods—and as, by the way, happened in 2010 during a stop in East Austin when an officer turned off his camera and then proceeded to shoot two young men, both black, one fatally, in a confrontation that, as usual, did not lead to charges but did cost the city a $750,000 settlement. (The mayor voted against the payout. He was of the opinion the brothers, one of whom was asleep when shot, the bullet literally woke him up, were to blame.)
            There are even better reasons to compare Austin to small-town Texas.
            Because the other problem, per Mr. Watkins of the NAACP, is that an interstate passes through Huntsville. He estimates that in many of the cases of minorities who are illegally pulled over he never hears about the stop because the drivers keep going and do not complain. That may well be borne out by study. “The only hard and fast rule—don’t look at census data as a denominator. The people who drive in an area,” says Professor Geoffrey Alpert, who studies police profiling at the University of South Carolina’s Department of Criminology, “are not the ones who live there, except in small towns.” Indeed, in Austin, in the narrative explanation given to the mayor and city council regarding APD’s questionable 2011 profiling stats, obtained by open records request, the police report that they are stopping fewer people in general than before but more of them on the interstate and major highways not on city streets. How do you spot suspicious behavior going 60 miles per hour? So the opportunities to break the law and avoid the consequences are actually improving for APD. You stop a brother on I-35, conduct an illegal search, and he’s gone soon after because he can’t/won’t rent a hotel to speak to Internal Affairs in the morning.
            The most damaging admission to the pig pen's contention of a lack of bias in stops is that—in the explanation to the city council regarding the 2011 profiling report—police supervisors admit that in one-quarter of all searches last year, despite department rules, officers failed to document whether the warrantless search they conducted was consensual or not. However you do the math that’s a big number—25%—almost certainly “statistically significant,” meaning it’s not a fluke. What the department wants the public to believe is that one quarter of the time searches were made in 2011, officers didn’t notice or forgot to write down if consent was given which is the law enforcement equivalent of a guy not remembering if a woman said yes before sex. If he reports he “doesn’t remember”—guess what the answer probably is. The police department has promised to audit compliance this year. 
            “The rate of missing or unreadable data that results in the consent status being ‘unknown’ increased in 2011,” according to APD’s explanation submitted to the city council. “APD will conduct an internal audit in 2012 to determine the cause of the missing information on reports. Whatever changes are implemented, whether it is more training and/or a restructuring of the electronic reporting forms, will be monitored to ensure they are having an impact. Moreover, policy is presently being developed requiring quarterly audits of reporting documentation by field commands.”
            Ron Weitzer, an expert on profiling at George Washington University suggests after glancing at APD’s figures, “In the [APD] stats, there are about ten times more probable cause/reasonable suspicion-based searches than consent searches.” (Actually it’s closer to 20-to-1.) He questions whether Austin officers in some way have to justify the probable cause/reasonable suspicion (does loud music count?) and he adds that some studies have shown the “hit rate,” that is contraband found during these searches, is actually lower among black suspects than whites. APD disagrees. In consent searches in 2011 there was a 22% hit rate for white drivers and 25% for blacks, according to the department, a 3% difference. For all searches—consented and non-consensual—in 2011 there was a 20% hit rate for whites and 22% for blacks. It’s totally unclear if those small differences are statistically significant but APD believes it's enough to clear Austin officers of any accusation of bias: “The higher hit rate for minority drivers compared to White drivers in 2011 suggests that profiling is not occurring.” In fact—a statistician would say a 2% difference probably doesn’t suggest shit, it’s within the margin of error, but the department needs cover. Badly. Because City Hall knows that figures like these show something is wrong in River City. 
            So, suppose we look at a different measure—which also comes from APD’s narrative explanation of its 2011 profiling data. We also have to break the “rule” about not using census data suggested by Professor Alpert, the South Carolina criminologist, for the simple reason that there's no other data to go on about who is driving on Austin roads.
            In 2011, APD reported 179,882 stops and 11,719 searches. 694 of the searches were consensual—the driver said yes or is reported to have said yes when the officer asked permission to take a look or do a pat-down or whatever—and 11,025 were non-consensual either explicitly or because in some cases the police were going to make an arrest anyway. That's what the pigs are saying. Looking at Austin’s census data, to determine a rough percentage of population for the races, and doing the numbers on who is getting searched, we have the following:
            Caucasians are approximately 48% of the population in Austin, 55% of the traffic stops but only 30% of non-consensual searches. Remember, the cops are stopping someone and in general have no information to go on about who to search except a look at the person behind the wheel.
            Hispanics are 35% of the local population, 29% of traffic stops and 43% of non-consensual searches.
            Blacks are 8% of the population, 13% of traffic stops, and 26% of non-consensual searches. That means there are about one-sixth as many black people in Austin as whites, but last year almost as many black drivers were searched without consent as whites, in other words, traditional minorities represent 43% of the city population, more or less, but are 69% of forced, warrantless searches by police. Caucasians are almost half of the local population and less than one-third of forced searches. The numbers and methodology are not exact. Probably a statistician would call this approach amateurish. But the thing about math, about stats? It doesn't matter who's holding the pencil. You know? Anyone would call these numbers highly suggestive of profiling. Nor should you make the mistake of thinking that whites had fewer non-consensual searches because they consented to a police pat-down more often than blacks or Hispanics. Apparently whites consented to searches less frequently than did blacks and yet whites were still searched non-consensually less frequently than blacks or Hispanics. 
            Austin has an unofficial stop-and frisk policy just like New York City’s except here it's on the road not the sidewalk and in New York the mayor and the police commissioner admit the policy exists while the Austin mayor and city council lie to the public. In both cities declining crime rates have been achieved at the expense of minorities’ civil rights and the argument will be made that it’s an effective choice but the fact is that if you violate any part of the population’s civil rights, black or white, Jews or Mexicans, the result will probably be lower crime. The city has simply picked blacks and Hispanics to bear the brunt of tougher policing. If police began targeting white people—crime would also drop.
            The only good news about these figures is the gutsy performance of Hispanic motorists who refused searches at a higher rate than blacks or whites. There’s a theory circulating in sociology that Hispanics are becoming more radicalized, not less, about their rights in society. These figures may speak to that view. Following Officer Copeland into that grand jury room should be the police chief, mayor, city attorney and city manager. They have some explaining to do.
           


            With this background in mind let’s look back at Officer Copeland vs. Ahmede Bradley and suggest a worst-case scenario. It’s not hard to do.
            We’re on the eastside, the traditional minority neighborhood, niggers is thinning out but they's still a bunch.
             Let’s say that Officer Copeland stops Ahmede Bradley because Bradley is playing loud music, or not using his turn signals or he looks like a thug—or whatever Officer Copeland believes a thug looks like. Or suppose Bradley looks like a thug and Officer Copeland uses loud music as a pretext for a traffic stop which is an equally possible scenario. Either possibility is realistic.
            Suppose as well that Officer Cropland decides to search even though he doesn’t have probable cause—something there’s actually good reason to believe is what happened. (We’ll get to that later.) At that point Copeland has decided to take the next step, a search, and Ahmede Bradley refuses. At that point Mr. Bradley also decides his presence is no longer necessary at the scene and he drives away. Eventually he stops the car and takes off running, we're not exactly clear on that yet, nothing is clear until Copeland begins running after him, which is documented, Officer Copeland pursues on foot. Who's in the wrong? Ahmede Bradley obviously. Common sense tells you it’s not a good idea to run from a cop, even one who may have just issued an illegal order. But also—the documentation suggests—Officer Copeland was wrong. Big time. Foot chases, like car chases, are now deemed to be dangerous by their very nature and much discouraged—at least in theory, by local police. On page 94 of the police manual which Officer Copeland had presumably read before Mr. Bradley started sprinting the policy is remarkably clear: “Foot pursuits are inherently dangerous and require common sense, sound tactics and heightened officer safety awareness. . . It is the policy of this department when deciding to continue or initiate a foot pursuit that officers must continuously balance the objective of apprehending the subject with the risk and potential for injury to department personnel, the public, or the subject.” The very first and presumably easiest to remember of 14 different considerations the officer has to take into account according to the APD manual—on deciding to pursue a suspect on foot—is whether the officer is alone which Officer Copeland was. According to APD policy the prudent pig stops there. Protocol demands it. Even without considering whether the stop itself was legal or the decision to search was the result of bias—profiling—this officer was in violation. 
            Presumably the cocaine had not yet been found—the Chief said the interaction was over a minor matter—if cocaine was found at all.
            At that moment all Mr. Bradley faced was a loud music charge or a traffic violation.
            Or weed which in the live music capital of the world is not unheard of. But even if Mr. Bradley did not start running until the coke was found—if it was found—what’s the big deal? It’s not the only ounce of la blanca or la verde circulating in our lovely Texas capital city. Copeland had Bradley’s ID and his car. It was almost sunset and Officer Copeland didn’t have backup and the manual was telling him that a chase is not a good idea. Why not let the brother go? Pick him up another day. The best thing you can say about Officer Copeland's judgment that evening is it was bad. Was it criminal is the question? In fact—surprise—bad judgment in searches had already been documented by the officer's superiors.
            When the shooting occurred Eric Copeland, aged 32, had been a police officer for almost two years. He had gone through one complete evaluation by his sergeant, for 2010-2011. That APD evaluation has 16 performance measures, rated 1 to 10 with 5-6 being satisfactory and 7 to 8 being “highly effective,” and anything lower or higher being exceptionally bad or exceptionally good as the case may be.
            On four measures (initiative, responsibility/timeliness, dress and fitness) Copeland scored 7 out of 10. He was “highly effective.” On twelve measures (including time management . . . awareness . . . communication . . . analysis . . . judgment . . . goal setting . . . planning . . coordination . . . use of force . . . report writing/overall investigation . . . professionalism . . . and driving) practically the whole being-a-cop thing he scored a 6 out of 10 for a total of 100/160 points or 62.5% which made him “satisfactory” for the department but would be failing in any other line of work. The key part of the evaluation came in his sergeant’s narrative of Copeland’s first-year overall performance as an Austin police officer written a few months before the Bradley shooting included below in its entirety:
            “This is PO Copeland’s first annual evaluation. PO Copeland is a new officer, both to the department and to the profession. He has a very good work ethic and proactively seeks activity within his assigned district. He volunteers to take calls that are waiting in the queue, and clears report writing calls to assist other officers when a back-up is needed. Being a newer officer he was at first a little hesitant to ask questions of myself and the corporal. He has adjusted well and now keeps us informed of situations and notifies us as needed. He gets along well with his peers. His level of activity and experience is on a par with his contemporaries. In the coming year I want him to focus on completing all affidavits using careful thought to include all the necessary elements for successful prosecution. To date he has had five probable cause affidavits either deemed insufficient or returned for correction.” Eric Copeland may not have understood required documentation which appears to be an issue with the department overall—those 25% of searches that were consensual or not, we’ll never know—but he also may not understand probable cause, or chose not to understand probable cause, for example whether a black man, maybe wearing a doo-rag and listening to loud music, having made what even the police chief describes as a minor violation, should be chased and shot dead—something that certainly would not happen to, let’s say, a white woman chaperoning her kids, who may also have an ounce of la blanca under the seat and some in her nose, behind the wheel of her Land Rover, which is just as likely in this town because, yes, white people also use drugs. It’s called a double standard.
            “As this is an ongoing investigation I cannot speak about the case,” Senior Police Officer Copeland recently wrote in an email. He noted that his promotion to “Senior” a few weeks after he shot Ahmede Bradley was automatic after two years on the force. Other than that he has nothing to say for the moment. In the absence of better information, the best way to know what Eric Copeland was thinking when he decided to search Ahmede Bradley is not for the grand jurors to ask him questions, which they presumably have done or are about to do, but to look back through his arrests, his prior stops and searches, and to see if he has an unwarranted interest in minority drivers like a lot of the rest of APD appears to have. Officer Copeland was sued in federal court on a civil rights charge the month before Ahmede Bradley was killed, after arriving on the scene with another white officer, Copeland pulled a gun on a Hispanic driver who happened to be the guy who actually called the police. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
            


             
            Bradley was charged in 1990 with aggravated kidnapping and rape, but both charges were dismissed. Indeed Ahmede Bradley got around, he was a well-travelled Negro, with a rich personal history of small-time crime in succeeding years, mostly drugs, and with the exception of an unspecified charge involving his family apparently all were non-violent offenses. All Officer Copeland knew was that Ahmede Bradley was a black man who liked to play his music loud. Allegedly. In the world capital of live music. And he liked to smoke weed. And he liked to avoid contact with the police, shit, that describes ninety-nine percent of the public on any given day and at any time. How many whites does that also describe in this city? One big difference is the white guys are still above ground.
            The police said they would release the radio and video of the Bradley stop but so far the only release has been the 911 calls as the people on the street or passersby saw Officer Copeland struggling with Mr. Bradley. The department has couched the question of what happened on April 5th in terms of Copeland’s right to defend himself in the struggle but that’s a straw-man argument—disinformation, kind of like Iraqi weapons of mass destruction—as Mayor Leffingwell tries to avoid repercussions of the latest killing by police. No one is questioning Officer Copeland’s right to defend himself in a struggle. The point is—it was a fight that Copeland started. Bradley wanted out and the police manual said, like Moses to pharoah, let-the-brother-go. How did it reach the point of a struggle for a gun?
            Why did Officer Copeland stop Ahmede Bradley and how did a loud music complaint or weed or whatever led to the stop—if there was an issue—lead to a foot chase under unfavorable conditions which policy doesn't allow? Was Copeland forcing a search as part of APD’s policy for dealing with black people? Do the cops insist on searches of white people who play loud music in their cars? In West Austin? Bitch, please. Look at the damn stats.
            Better yet—let’s get the Justice Department back in town to run the numbers. Maybe while they’re here they can have a chat with Officer Copeland about probable cause.
            One hint, Officer Copeland:
            It's got nothing to do with skin color.
            



            

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Ruby and the Rangers


            In September five years ago a box arrived in the mail in response to my request for Texas' file on the Kennedy assassination.
           The last of the four principals who rode in the President’s car that day, Nellie Connally, widow of Governor “Big” John Connally had died a few months earlier in a nursing home and there were all those official promises, through the years, that all the facts had been revealed so—after the payment of $238 for copying costs and “staff overtime”—a little over 1,000 pages, the whole file according to the Texas Department of Public Safety arrived in the mail just like memorabilia from a long-lost aunt.
            There was a copy of Lee Harvey Oswald’s application for work at the Schoolbook Depository, his academic records in Ft. Worth (good at sports, bad at spelling) and a list of everything seized in a search of his home. There were the FBI notes of the interrogation of Jack Ruby as well as transcripts of police radio traffic the day the president was shot and witness statements taken on the street by the sheriff in and around Dealey Plaza. There were even statements by those present when Ruby murdered Oswald (one detective who knew Jack Ruby personally said he shouted out when he first saw the gun, “Jack, you son of a bitch, don’t do it!”) The scope of the documentation was wide—including the duty stations of every one of almost 500 cops working security that day—as well as detailed, with even a statement from the medical student summoned to the jail to put his finger in the suspect’s ass, in a belated search for hidden weapons. There was a letter a month afterwards from a representative for Oswald’s widow asking that her late husband’s things be returned to her, “the property I speak of includes . . . his rifle, pistol and other personal items.” But what wasn’t in the file was more interesting than what was: not a single page written by a Ranger.
            It was as if the files had been meticulously scrubbed to remove any trace of the Rangers or state troopers who worked security in Dallas that day, waiting at the Trade Mart for the president who would never show—any intelligence reports about what took place after the killing, the search for “subversives,” maybe Oswald but more likely Jack Ruby who lived and prospered as a law enforcement groupie, giving free cover and drinks in his club to anyone carrying a badge. There weren’t any Ranger reports on a case that involved not just the murder of the President of the United States but the serious wounding of the Governor of Texas followed by an investigation—statewide, national and international—that lasted a year and really has never ended.
            Wasn’t that peculiar?


            When the police searched Oswald’s home they found Russian literature from his time in the Soviet Union and his Marine dog tags with sharpshooter medal—and his library, all the books he owned, which tells us something about the man.
            Each page of the inventory was stamped by a Dallas police officer before being turned over to the FBI: something gloomy by Sartre, the anti-government bible 1984 and Revolution Must be a School of Unfettered Thought by Fidel Castro, along with enough pro-Cuba pamphlets to paper a protest march. Oswald also owned The Spy Who Loved Me and You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming. Like President Kennedy he was a fan of James Bond. The only title missing was From Russia With Love.
            A clerk at the Department of Public Safety noted in a nice letter, in response to my puzzled inquiries, that he was also curious how there could be no documents by the Rangers and he had on his own initiative contacted Company B, stationed in Garland, that covers Dallas. He was told there were no files, he said. No one documented anything. That was the Rangers’ story and they were sticking to it. Confronted with this apparent discrepancy, this Texas-sized hole in the Lone Star narrative, a later letter from the same guy in the Department of Public Safety’s legal affairs office explained, in a slightly-less helpful manner, that the Rangers file may have once existed but may have once been given to Texas Christian University—perhaps in 1968, nobody in Austin was making any promises however.
            “The Department does not know,” the gentleman in legal affairs reported the Rangers’ new position, “if these documents did or did not pertain to any investigation into the assassination of President Kennedy. There is no record to indicate that these documents were or were not returned to the Department.”
            Huh?
            A spokeswoman for the State Library said they had files on the assassination. The files had recently arrived from, you guessed it, the Texas Department of Public Safety, but only like those sent to me—none of the documents appeared to actually have been produced by the Rangers themselves. Colonel Thomas A. Davis, Director of the Department of Public Safety, and ultimate boss of the Rangers, suggested in a letter to me that the files might have been destroyed as part of a “records retention schedule,” but the State Archivist said his office had never approved the destruction of any records of historical value, much less on the Kennedy assassination. Certainly nothing on the crime of the century, the Archivist said.
            So the question came to mind: Who was more likely to know what happened in Dallas? Who was more familiar with the historic figures present, Texas’s top political leadership including Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Governor Connally?
           Who would have known the “atmosphere” in North Texas better than the Rangers stationed in the Big D? If there had been a conspiracy who was more likely to have learned about it?



            After the assassination the Attorney General of Texas decided to look at the bigger picture the question of conspiracy, just as the Warren Commission was doing in Washington. At the time the A.G. was a man named Waggoner Carr.
            If Waggoner Carr was no legal scholar that’s not what the attorney general does but he wasn’t a bad lawyer either—a former speaker of the Texas House, a self-described “Connally Democrat,” Carr himself would later be charged by the FBI during the Sharpstown scandal and defend himself and be acquitted. For whatever reason—not the least of which may have been publicity—Waggoner Carr was not ready to hand over the case to federal prosecutors. Instead he hired two “special counsels” to help him find out what happened in Dallas. He called his investigation a “Texas Court of Inquiry.”
            Half a century later, it was a lucky break for me.
            The files from the Court of Inquiry were released to the State Archives just after my request to the Rangers and Carr’s notes offer a different take on the crime of the century, one that makes the Rangers’ silence through the decades so deafening today.
            In an entry dated November 26, four days after the shooting of the president, Attorney General Carr wrote in his journal, “I talked with Colonel Garrison on the phone”—Colonel Homer Garrison, founding Director of the Texas Department of Pubic Safety, the man who sat in the top cop’s chair in Austin for 30 years and was big daddy of the Rangers—“and asked him to determine who went to Mexico with Oswald at the time he was there from September 26 thru October 3, 1963. He was advised to check all points of entry on the border. Several hours later Colonel Garrison made a preliminary report stating that two blonde women and another man either went from Texas into Mexico with Oswald or came back with him and they would make a more complete report later.” In other words they didn't know shit. But within a week after the assassination the Rangers had checked all passengers on flights in and out of Dallas, determined that the same Jack Rubinstein who had previously been investigated by the Un-American Activities Committee was not the Jack Ruby who owned strip clubs in Dallas-Ft. Worth, and reported, according to Attorney General Carr’s notes, “Oswald did not have a telephone during this period of time and they cannot check his calls. They are still checking Ruby’s calls.” The follow up led to a correction from Colonel Garrison: “Oswald entered Mexico at Laredo crossing on September 26. His transportation is not known and he entered Mexico alone. He returned from Mexico on October 3. He returned by private auto, apparently alone. His visa shows that he just went to the interior—no destination stated.”
            The first special counsel the Texas Attorney General hired was Bob Storey, former dean
of the law school in Dallas. Storey’s job was administrative, to keep the notes and do all the bureaucratic tasks that keep an investigation going.
            The second special counsel who Gen. Carr hired was tasked with solving the crime: To look at the witness statements and find the discrepancies to run the traps that would ultimately answer the question whether Oswald and Ruby each acted alone and, just as important, independently.
            That man’s name—the second “Texas special counsel”—was Leon Jaworski.
            Yes, that Leon Jaworski—the future Watergate prosecutor who would, ten years later, take Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting and dismantle a presidency. In 1963, two months after the assassination, Jaworski was a lawyer in Houston, a former Army colonel who like Dean Bob Storey made his name prosecuting Nazis. Leon Jaworski was the man picked by Attorney General Carr to break the case—to find out if there was a conspiracy and if yes, what kind. He apparently had his own ideas about the Kennedy assassination. You have to read between the lines but Jaworski's preliminary take on the case echoes the suspicions that were already rampant among the public. From his office in Houston, on January 27, 1964, two months after John Kennedy's murder Jaworski wrote a letter marked “CONFIDENTIAL” to Attorney General Carr about how to get to the bottom of certain “rumors” they heard about the assassination—rumors which also help explain what may make the Rangers so nervous today. “In order to keep aftermaths from placing you in a position of possible criticism,” Special Counsel Jaworski wrote to the attorney general of Texas, “[and] to the end of being of the maximum assistance to the Warren Commission,” he suggested that Gen. Carr send a letter to Washington. “Of course, it is to be assumed that the ferreting out of this matter,” Jaworski told his boss, “will be resourcefully and completely done. On the other hand if this is not done and something should show up at a later date, even a year or five years from now, there would be a clamor.”
            The letter that Colonel Jaworski was suggesting be sent to Washington referred to a meeting that had just taken place between Washington and Texas prosecutors about the course of the investigation, regarding “the subject of the discussion of last Friday at which Chief Justice Warren, you, my special counsel and I, [Dallas D.A.] Henry Wade and his assistant, Mr. Alexander, were present, I respectfully suggest that the Commission consider taking the following steps.” Jaworski’s plan was to find any connections the killers might have with others, yes—but the targets of the search Jaworski was suggesting were not the usual suspects in the deaths of President Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald. Not the mob, or right-wing extremists, not Cubans or Communists.
            The suspect was a member or members of law enforcement itself.
            “The ferreting out of this matter,” Jaworski described to the attorney general, required three steps, each in sequence after the other. He already had two suspects in mind.
            First he wrote: “From the director of both agencies involved, there should be obtained the names of every agent and representative in service in the Dallas area between the months of August and December. This information must be complete so that every single representative who acted for these agencies in that area, whether only a few days or for several months, is to be included.” Second: “Each of the men on these two lists should be examined under oath to determine whether he has any knowledge of the subject matter under discussion.” Third: “The director—the number one man of each agency—as well as the district director of each agency, being the district in which Dallas lies, each should similarly be examined to ascertain whether any of them has any knowledge of the matter under inquiry.” The attorney general’s file doesn’t specify the nature of “the matter under inquiry” or who the suspects were by name. But in another letter, on May 12, 1964, from Gen. Carr to Colonel Garrison, the general makes an odd plea.
            Carr tells Colonel Garrison that Texas law enforcement has been “most helpful” up to that point but that the Warren Commission needs to know if there’s anything Washington hasn’t seen.
            “’The Commission,’” Carr quotes a communication from Chief Justice Warren, “’would like to know whether any law enforcement agency in the State of Texas possesses any information not hitherto disclosed to this Commission concerning the association of Lee Harvey Oswald or Jack Ruby with any Communist or subversive organizations in the United States or abroad, or with any criminals or criminal groups either in the United States or abroad.” The second part of the letter probes further. “The Commission would also like to know whether any law enforcement agency in the State of Texas possesses any investigatory reports, police records, or other official data not hitherto disclosed to the Commission concerning the assassination of President Kennedy and the death of Lee Harvey Oswald.”
            Colonel Garrison’s response is not included in the attorney general’s files. And after the request for disclosure from Washington was transmitted—something happened to change the course of the investigation in Texas. The file got closed in Austin. The Court of Inquiry, under sudden pressure from D.C., went out of business. It seems someone didn’t dig what was happening in River City. It’s important to note that Attorney General Carr signed off on the findings of the Warren Commission—that both Ruby and Oswald acted alone. But that wasn’t the finding he came to independently, and he complained officially to Washington that, after he agreed to limit his investigation he was denied promised information from federal investigators.
            In his letter to Waggoner Carr, and the proposed letter to Chief Justice Warren, Colonel Jaworski mentioned two government agencies “rumored” to have been somehow involved in Dallas, possibly running Oswald, or Ruby, as informants or agents, assassins or thugs. The FBI is presumably one. The other, well—conspiracy theorists have always liked the CIA as “accomplice” in the crime of the century. But there’s a better suspect. The agencies that Jaworski describes in his letter have district offices that cover Dallas. Of course the CIA would be a possibility—if the CIA had a North Texas office. Perhaps they do.
            As it turns out there was a hint at the mystery agency’s identity in the records that came from the Texas Department of Public Safety. In the box was another list of seized evidence—just like the one detailing what was taken from Oswald’s home. Jack Ruby’s car was his office. After his arrest the Dallas cops found the vehicle parked not far from police headquarters. In it was everything Ruby had used to run his business and do what he did, whatever that was—the hustling, small-time thuggery, the booze and the girls. The inventory from the car lists more than $1,000 in cash, his clubs’ receipts. There was a pair of brass knuckles, tool of his trade. The only reason Ruby’s gun wasn’t in the glove compartment where he normally kept it was that he had taken it with him to shoot Lee Harvey Oswald.
            In the car there was also a stack of free passes to his shows that Ruby gave out as promotions, and a collection of business cards collected as connections. One card was from a local justice of the piece, asking any police officer to please render assistance to Ruby—a get-out-of-jail-free card, the kind of thing you show to a cop when you’re pulling out your license after you get stopped. One of the business cards was for a man named “W.M. Naylor,” showing the address P.O. Box 4087 in Austin. That was interesting. If you’ve ever made an open records request of the Texas Rangers, Box 4087 would be familiar. It’s the address of the Texas Department of Public Safety headquarters.
            “W.M. Naylor,” according to the Department of Public Safety’s personnel records was in November 1963 the chief of the DPS narcotics squad—in other words, Texas’s top narc. But Naylor actually transferred to narcotics from the Rangers where—also according to Department of Public Safety records—he was in the “Bureau of Intelligence.” Historically, investigators have always tried to make a connection between Ruby and Oswald, or failing that, Oswald and the FBI. A better connection is Ruby and the Rangers.
            Unfortunately the exact nature of the relationship is unclear because the Rangers report they have "no records" on the Kennedy assassination.


            The month after my request for the Kennedy material, an intelligence analyst for
the Texas Department of Public Safety contacted the State Archives about delivering some old files for safekeeping.
            According to an internal email sent soon after by the archivist’s office, “DPS Criminal Intelligence Service has called about records that fall under their series, Criminal Investigation Report . . . . Over the years they've kept reports of cases with historical significance, like JFK's assassination, and Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. They recently had an open records request for the JFK material and found out how much work goes into reviewing records and making them available . . . . Before they start shredding, they wonder if we have any interest in selecting any cases with perceived historical value for the State Archives. The records include police reports, evidence submitted (objects like money plates in counterfeiting cases), polygraph tests, affidavits, audiotapes of interviews. . . . [Texas Public Information Act] and privacy issues likely abound. The most voluminous case is the JFK assassination files . . .”
            The list provided by DPS included the most famous Ranger cases: Sam Bass, the 1969 University of Texas Tower massacre in Austin and a file called “Corruption in Texas,” a likely page-turner. A month later, the promised material still had not been delivered to the Archives, and a Department of Public Safety intelligence analyst named Victoria Sungino, assigned to facilitate the transfer, wrote an email to the State Archives staff that there was a delay in deciding what to send over because, “I am waiting on my commander to view the list first. He said there are some cases that I will just have to shred because of the sensitivity of the case.”
            Eventually, all the files listed were sent over by the Department—according to Archives staff—but there is no way of knowing what pages did not survive the trip from the Rangers headquarters to the State Library. The Kennedy file had obviously been thinned. Originally described by the Department of Public Safety as the largest part of the papers, measured in cubic feet, when the papers arrived at the State Library the file on a murderer named Henry Lee Lucas was the biggest, followed by the University of Texas Tower shootings. The Kennedy file was a distant third which may help answer the question about the second agency under suspicion by Colonel Jaworski.
           

            After his arrest Lee Oswald was given permission to use the telephone.
            Kept under surveillance by a Lieutenant Lord, who was in charge of the Dallas city jail the night after the president died, Oswald was actually escorted to the phone by a guard by the improbable name, “J.L Popplewell.”
            The prisoner’s first try at reaching his party in New York was unsuccessful. Most assassination buffs believe that Oswald called John Abt, the general counsel of the Communist Party USA to ask for legal help. Abt testified later to the Warren Commission that he never spoke to Oswald, that in fact he was out of town the night the accused might have tried to reach him. In any case, whomever Oswald wanted to talk to wasn’t home.
            Later that evening Lee Harvey Oswald was taken back to the jail phone to try again. “Popplewell put Oswald in the telephone booth and was standing nearby,” Lt. Lord said in a statement that he gave to the FBI and is included in the box of Rangers’s papers that the Department of Public Safety says doesn’t exist. “I called to Popplewell and told him that Oswald was allowed to make his call privately. Popplewell was advised to keep Oswald in view but to stay back a reasonable distance. Oswald was in the telephone booth about thirty minutes, making his call and then talking to his party. After Oswald completed his call he was returned to his cell by J.L. Popplewell.”
            If that were any time since 9/11, imagine how different the scene would be.
           Concerns for Oswald’s privacy would be of minimal interest. Certainly we would know who he telephoned because the call would be recorded in Dolby. There'd be video too. The telephone operator who connected Mr. Oswald with his party in New York would be followed home, and John Abt or whoever Oswald spoke with would be investigated down to the fillings in his teeth. The transfer Oswald was awaiting would be to Guantanamo.
            Fast forward half a century.
            Lt. Lord and Officer J.L. Popplewell probably couldn’t find work at the Department of Homeland Security today. By the time of the 9-11 their kind of innocence was no longer in demand due in part to what happened in Dallas.
            So why is what the Texas Rangers knew still important? Because that's the way we were, and it’s a way we’ll never be again.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Frequent Fliers at Your Expense


            In most of the United States wrongdoing by public officials follows a certain pattern and involves certain set themes. In Mississippi and in Louisiana there are still cash payments, perhaps even in paper lunch bags, a tribute to the mode of financing that built political careers in years past. In New York sex is inevitably involved. In Illinois it’s patronage. In California, at least in recent years, there have been missteps with public pensions and comely housekeepers. In Texas there’s been a mix of some of the above—and state airplanes. 
            Aircraft figured heavily in the career of the widely-regarded, most corrupt, and most successful politician at the Texas Capitol in the last half of the twentieth century, Bob Bullock.
            In the ‘70s the Travis County District Attorney tried to nail State Comptroller Bullock for using state airplanes for campaign purposes—Bullock was never indicted—and in the 1990s the FBI tracked Lieutenant Governor Bullock’s use of private planes believing he might be receiving flights on private aircraft as quid pro quo for political favors. More recently the FBI also showed interest in the flying habits of Governor Bush and Speaker Laney. 
            The reasons why Texas politicians face exposure in the air are simple. It’s a big state in which airplane travel is considered a necessity (although not necessarily, as in the present tale, in a small state-owned aircraft.) Access to private planes is prestigious in Texas where there’s nothing wrong with showing off wealth or privilege. And, last but not least, most of the major state officials in recent years are pilots: Governors Bush and Perry, Speakers Laney and Craddick. Lt. Governor David Dewhurst is ex-Air Force said to have flown for the CIA. W trained to be a fighter pilot while Perry flew military transports, sometimes state officials rely on state pilots to chauffer them around, from home districts to the Capitol, and apparently that's when problems can arise. As in the present tale.
            If you flip through the pages of the Texas Department of Transportation’s aviation logs for, say, the last two years, the same name keeps coming up: State Senator Kevin Eltife of Tyler.
            Eltife, a moderate Republican—viewed as a standup legislator who is also former mayor of Tyler, Texas—is state government’s most frequent, frequent flier, using the Department of Transportation fleet as a kind of private shuttle between Austin and his home and business interests in Tyler. Chairman of the Senate Administration Committee, former recipient of the Texas Association of Business’s “Champion of Free Enterprise” award, Eltife’s official website declares that as mayor of Tyler he implemented a “pay-as-you-go” plan for municipal government. That's mostly what he has not been doing with the state's planes.
            According to numbers supplied by Eltife’s chief of staff Cheryl Vanek, since February 2011 the senator has made 15 separate flights, between Austin and Tyler, at a billed cost of $32,000 to the Senate of which Eltife paid $16,000, Vanek says, from campaign funds. The rest of the tab has been picked up by taxpayers. As the system works, Eltife calls for a state plane, takes the flight, alone, and the aviation wing of TxDot bills the Senate which bills Eltife, who pays or does not pay, as the spirit moves him. 
            The Texas Department of Transportation has four King Airs and two Cessnas. Five pilots. In the last fiscal year there were 1,014 flights, 207,000 miles flown and 2,700 passengers transported. The Department of Public Safety, the University of Texas and Texas Parks and Wildlife, among others all have their own aircraft, although UT still heavily relies upon TxDot’s planes. Eltife’s flights are particularly troublesome because there is commercial service between Austin and Tyler at something less than $500. Most of the flights the senator has made (with one or two state pilots in attendance) have cost in the neighborhood of $2,000 each. Not to be snarky, but the public would be justified in asking, like, if there are snacks offered in-flight?
            Senator Eltife is not alone in liberal use of the TxDot service. State Senator Judith Zaffirini,  Democrat from Laredo has cost the Texas Senate almost $29,000 for flights on state planes in more or less the same period, the last two years. “Our records indicate,” says Senate Secretary Patsy Spaw, “that no reimbursements have been made to the Senate for the specified travel.” Although a less frequent flier than her Republican colleague, and justified at least once or twice by conferences, it’s hard to see why Zaffirini needs to use state aircraft to go to Laredo, a four-hour drive from the Capitol. In the case of Eltife use of state planes may have been influenced by his predecessor, State Senator and Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff who represented the same district and was the previous political generation’s most frequent, frequent flier on state planes, and also considered a good guy and effective legislator. We're not talking evil here, this is all about temptation. A TxDot official notes that use of state planes actually ebbs and flows, according to the season. Recent big users include UT football scouts: “As the team has been losing, they [the scouts] seem to be flying more.” No doubt. Among Kevin P. Eltife's business interests, according to the Secretary of State, is a company called KPE Airplane LLC in Tyler. The company is not called KPE Airlines although that may be a good name for the service the senator so enthusiastically endorses.
             In fairness to Eltife this seems much less like a case of malfeasance and much more like a case of "BTTL," the acronym in politics for "Been There Too Long," whether "there" is Austin or Washington. The Senate's other frequent flier Judith Zaffirini—although considered one of the best legislators on her side of the aisle—has been at the Capitol more than a quarter-century. It's hard to imagine a freshman having the cojones to call for a state aircraft to take him or her home from work, although he or she technically has that right. Usually it takes a couple of terms in Austin to discover perks like these. (You have to find out where the slippery slope is before you can start sliding down it.) What's interesting in the present case is that both Eltife and Zaffirini are considered good public servants. Bob Bullock was born to excess. These two senators learned, like so many others, in Austin.
            More interesting than who is flying on state planes is who is not.
            Neither Governors Perry nor Dewhurst appears on the airplane logs for the last few years. Presumably they have other means of getting where they need to go and have concluded that use of state airplanes is too problematica blind side for attack by political opponents or investigators. (Everyone on a state plane must be listed in the flight log together with the purpose of the flight.) Like campaign interns, state aircraft are fast, and convenient. Corruption can be a matter of bad judgment as much as dishonesty—of knowing or not knowing what gets you in trouble. Both the governor and lieutenant governor seem to understand that, at least in regards this particular perk. 
            Speaking of Caesar's wife, who must also be above suspicion, Anita Perry has made a couple of recent flights as part of her duties as First Lady and her work with the Texas Historical Commission, but she, like her husband, is very reserved in use of state aircraft. Filmmaker Richard Linklater was taken for a ride on a state plane by the governor’s Film Commission, must have been to scout sites. State Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson who is a former Marine fighter pilot seems to like the state aircraft well enough but nothing to raise eyebrows, and his office, after all, supervises vast land holdings across the state.
            Attorney General Greg Abbott has taken a few flights, but again nothing stands out, and that is also the case with Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Comptroller Susan Combs. There is cause, then, to respect their apparent husbanding of the state's resources. Staples, Combs, Abbott and Patterson’s offices all have statewide authority and all of their flights together in the last few years do not appear to be excessive—at least not in comparison with those of the senator from East Texas.
            Of the institutional wing of state government, setting aside University of Texas at Austin officials, who get around a lot by plane, perhaps too much, the most frequent frequent flier in the form of a state agency is the Texas Workforce Commission which regulates unemployment benefits: in the last two years, 21 flights at a cost of $58,000.
            The TWC seems to spend more time in the air than in Austin.
            Maybe that’s a good thing.