AP Exclusive: Texas liquor cops rarely disciplined

By Danny Robbins
Associated Press Writer / September 22, 2009

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DALLAS—The Texas alcohol agency under fire for its raid at a gay bar rarely punishes its officers for misconduct, and officers' supervisors are usually the ones who conduct disciplinary investigations. Experts say that method increases the likelihood of flawed probes.

An Associated Press review of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission's internal affairs logs found that all but 39 of the 234 allegations of excessive force or unprofessional conduct against agents since 2004 have been closed without disciplinary action. Moreover, in nearly every excessive force case AP reviewed, the accused agents' bosses headed the investigations.

The allegations included officers improperly tackling, punching and using pepper spray. The agency has a reputation for heavy-handedness and garnered national attention in 2006 when state legislators forced it to cancel a program that aggressively sought to curb public drunkenness through stings in bars.

The commission has again drawn scrutiny from its June raid at a Fort Worth gay bar that put a patron in the hospital for a week. Two agents and their supervisor were fired, and an investigation is ongoing.

Experts in police practices say it's common for internal affairs cases to be closed without disciplinary action because they often can't be proven.

But allowing officers' supervisors to investigate allegations of excessive force is unusual for large or mid-size organizations, experts say. Conducting a probe like that "seriously calls into question the integrity of the investigation," said Jon Shane, an assistant professor at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

The TABC's policy is similar to those of other Texas agencies with law enforcement authority, said Alan Steen, the commission's administrator since 2003.

Steen acknowledged there were problems early in his tenure with the thoroughness of some misconduct investigations, but that the process has improved since new officers were hired to run the internal affairs unit. He said he's comfortable with the accused agents' supervisors investigating such claims as long as there's adequate training and oversight.

The commission's 275 agents enforce the laws regulating the sale, possession and consumption of alcoholic beverages. They also have the authority to make arrests for other offenses.

Thirty-four other states have similar boards with agents who are peace officers. How much authority each agency has varies, but Texas is one of the most aggressive, said Ted Mahony, the National Liquor Law Enforcement Association's president and chief investigator for Massachusetts' state commission.

The AP found 46 allegations of excessive force were made against 36 TABC agents since 2004. Nearly half came in 2005, the height of the agency's public drunkenness crackdown. All but five of the 46 were dismissed without disciplinary action. In two instances, agents received counseling for lesser offenses. Three allegations are pending.

In compiling its own data, the TABC tracks excessive force by the number of complaints received instead of the number of officers accused. Using that measure, the agency's data shows 36 complaints since 2004. TABC spokeswoman Carolyn Beck said the number is minuscule compared to the more than 108,000 citations issued during that period.

The AP tabulated its figures by counting each time an allegation was made against an officer.

The AP's findings indicate TABC agents have faced excessive force allegations at about the same rate as the Austin Police Department.

Sam Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said he would expect agents working for state liquor boards to be accused of excessive force much less than city cops.

"It's just common sense that there would be fewer (cases) in that kind of enforcement situation than on the street in high-crime neighborhoods," he said.

However, Mahony said agents often face situations in which force is required because officers have to handle people who are drunk and don't cooperate.

One recent incident underscores the questions surrounding the TABC's process.

It involved a Victoria-based agent shown on a security video appearing to tackle a bar patron inside the club. Based on the video, an assistant district attorney in Victoria County declined to prosecute the patron for resisting arrest, but the TABC decided the agent didn't do anything wrong.

Andy Pena, who heads TABC's internal affairs, said the agent, Jeff Rendon, appropriately subdued a man who earlier tried to avoid arrest. The patron has filed a federal lawsuit against Rendon and another agent.

It's the third excessive-force allegation against Rendon since he joined TABC in 2004, the most of any agent in that time period. One was ruled unfounded after Rendon's supervisor investigated. The other was closed as justified even though TABC officials never contacted the person who allegedly was roughed up.

Beck said Rendon is on administrative leave for an unrelated matter. He didn't return AP's phone messages.


Associated Press writer Andre Coe contributed to this report.