In Pasadena, TX, two police officers apparently lied about circumstances surrounding the July death of a jail inmate in their custody. Police initially told the family he died of a heart attack, then told the press he tripped and fell. Now it appears he was beaten to death, reported the Houston Chronicle yesterday ("Inmate death at Pasadena jail ruled a homicide," Sept. 5):
Pasadena police stuck to the story that Gonzales "tripped" for several days after the incident, which to me implies a department-wide coverup. The family said police told them yet another story about how their relative died:
The recent death of Pasadena Jail inmate Pedro Gonzales was a homicide caused primarily by trauma to the lungs with rib fractures, the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office has determined.
While "homicide" does not necessarily mean foul play was involved, it does appear to contradict statements by officers Jason W. Buckaloo and Christopher S. Jones that Gonzales was injured after he tripped and fell as they escorted him to a patrol car on July 21.
The Harris County District Attorney's Office may refer the investigation to a grand jury later this month, said prosecutor Joe Owmby, head of the police integrity unit.
Gonzales' sister, Elvia Garza, has said police told her the morning of his death that he may have died from a heart attack or stroke.
Pre-incision autopsy photos show multiple bruises, cuts and abrasions to various parts of Gonzales' body as well as what appear to be blood splatters on his jeans.
Other photos show that Gonzales' two top front teeth were missing.
Family said those teeth were not missing before he was booked into the jail on July 18 for public intoxication.
So did he "trip," did he have a "heart attack," or is the coroner right that this was a "homicide" and the inmate was beaten to death? What do you think the odds are that either of the stories told by officers or the department were accurate? Oh, and if you still think the officers might have really told the truth, perhaps it's because I forgot to add this part from yesterday's story:
A witness to the force used by officers on Gonzales said the 51-year-old man was not struggling or resisting arrest as police hit him and repeatedly knocked his body to the ground.
"Just the way they were beating him and him not moving, I think that's (the homicide ruling) pretty right," the witness, Evelyn Moreno, 20, said Tuesday.
Whoops! So much for the tripping theory! The Harris County DA initially took officers' word for it how Gonzales died and declined to investigate, while the officers' union rep from the Texas Municipal Police Association insisted publicly, “It was thoroughly investigated and both officers did everything asked of them ... I’m not aware of them engaging in any misconduct.” (FWIW, I've never in my life heard a police union rep say anything else in response to allegations of misconduct.)
In cases where the department might be held liable, initial reports are often flat out lies. Literally falsehoods. Fabrications. When there is no evidence public yet, police spinmeisters can and do say whatever they think makes the department look best. Often these lies aren't even necessary - they sometimes appear to be just habitual. The media then dutifully report these misstatements to the public.
Within a week or so, a tiny bit of truth trickles out and police must backtrack. The media print a less prominent story with the added information.
Finally, weeks later, if evidence arises of police culpability that contradicts earlier statements, the story gets covered again, but by this time the record is strewn with false and misleading statements and often the public's attention has shifted to another topic.
At this point, one of two things happen: Either the story goes away, or in order to gin up public interest again, the media must publish a "gotcha" story that accuses the department of lying (since they did) and that causes the department to circle the wagons further to protect the officers in all but the most clear-cut cases. This pattern of media coverage doesn't just happen in Houston, btw. It's how police PIOs handle "critical incidents" just about everywhere.
When I was director of ACLU of Texas' police accountability project I'd get a lot of calls asking for quotes in the wake of a police shooting or death in custody and I declined every one. There's never enough information immediately following an incident to adequately judge how to respond, and in case after case if you wait just a bit, it turns out the initial story wasn't even close to true. I've told many reporters I think it's irresponsible to publish police statements immediately after such incidents when we all know from experience the story will change in just a few days.
Reporters need to do their best to independently verify police statements before printing them, just as they would the statements of a suspect in any violent crime. In their initial comments to the press, Pasadena police basically issued a cover story that exonerated officers who are now suspects in a homicide! How many other homicide suspects get their own institutional PR department whose statements are republished reflexively in the media as truth?
We've got a long way to go before we know whether these Pasadena officers will be held accountable for what they did to Pedro Gonzalez, but I know one thing: Wait a little longer and I'll betcha even more truth from the story will come out, and I'll bet it won't support the claim that Gonzalez "tripped."