Unmasked?

The truth about the allegations of racism at the Department of Public Safety.

March 2000By Comments

ONE BRISK MORNING THIS WINTER, NINETY OR SO state troopers gathered at the Department of Public Safety Training Academy in Austin for an in-service seminar on cultural and racial sensitivity. Most of them were white men. “This is you,” said Captain Mark Warren to the assembled officers as he drew a dot on a blackboard. “And this is your paradigm,” he explained, sketching a rectangle around the dot. “If the paradigm shifts, and you don’t shift with it,” he said, drawing a new rectangle so that it boxed in the dot, “where does that leave you?” A young trooper in the front of the classroom raised his hand and replied, “In a corner, sir.”

Lately, that is exactly where the DPS has found itself. On January 5 former state trooper Darron Anderson held a press conference in Houston and said that he had been called “nigger” by his superiors during his twelve-year tenure with the DPS in Livingston. Far more damning, however, were snapshots taken at a 1988 birthday party thrown for him by white troopers, who had worn mock Ku Klux Klan hoods for the occasion. DPS officials swiftly condemned the incident, suspending the five troopers involved who are still with the department — corporals Paul Hearne and Bobby Perry and troopers Larry Pitts, Ricky Thigpen, and Wilburn Goodwin — and naming three black officers to assist with the investigation. But the damage was done. Throughout January KHOU-TV in Houston ran frequent updates on “The DPS Klan Party,” once overlaying an image of a DPS badge with flames and white hoods.

Despite the shocking nature of the photographs, the accusations made in the Anderson case aren’t clear-cut. Politicians such as state representative Ron Wilson, who is now representing Anderson, and activists such as Minister Quanell X, of the New Black Muslim Movement, have pushed for the dismissal of the troopers who participated in the party. (Wilson, in a strange twist, once jokingly wore a Klan hood during the 1995 legislative session to protest a Republican initiative to end affirmative action programs in the state.) Yet the troopers in question have nearly spotless records, and many of the residents of Livingston have rallied behind them.

Also troubling are the circumstances surrounding Anderson’s press conference: He was suspended without pay by the DPS last August and later dismissed from the department after he was indicted by a San Jacinto County grand jury on arson charges; he stands accused of having burned his 1998 Chevrolet pickup for insurance money. Anderson’s previous lawyer, Alan Parker, had filed an intent to plead insanity on his behalf. The Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle reported that Anderson’s counsel might argue that the trooper’s mental instability resulted from racist treatment while working at the DPS. (Parker, who is no longer involved with the case, denies that report.)

Complicating matters further is the complex web of race relations in Livingston, an East Texas town of 5,600 residents that borders the Big Thicket. Robert Johnson, a black trooper who was the guest of honor at a Klan-themed birthday party organized by Livingston troopers in 1984, when he was fresh out of the DPS Academy, insists that the event was intended as a prank. “The party was meant to be a joke, not something that was intimidating or frightening. It has been taken out of context and portrayed as something much more sinister than it was,” says Johnson, who is now stationed in Tyler. “Those guys bent over backward to make me feel comfortable. When my car broke down, Larry Pitts drove me around town to get the parts that I needed and helped me make repairs. I had dinner at his house with him and his wife many times. It was like that with all those guys. We were close friends.”

Retired sergeant Roy Henry, who managed the Livingston DPS office in 1988, rejected the notion that the birthday party thrown for Darron Anderson was anything more than a gag, saying that Anderson himself requested it after seeing photographs of Johnson’s party. “Darron knows in his heart that he wasn’t treated differently than his co-workers,” says Henry. “If there were racial slurs or harassment, why didn’t he tell a DPS inspector or request a transfer?” (Anderson, who has not spoken publicly since his press conference, declined to be interviewed for this article.) “I thought of Darron as a son,” explains Henry. “It was a close-knit group of officers. We hunted together, we fished together, we had dinner in each other’s homes. When Darron thought about taking his own life last year, after his wife left him, it was Bobby Perry who wrestled the gun out of his hands.”

As the DPS grapples with the Anderson case, it has not helped the department’s reputation that another state trooper, stationed in Woodville, was suspended in January for making racist comments to a black sheriff’s deputy, or that a trooper in Cleveland had recently been reassigned to desk duty for wearing a Klan T-shirt in public, or that a DPS communications operator in Houston was being investigated for making racist comments while in uniform. The flurry of news stories about racist activity among the department’s rank and file seemed at odds with its wholesome, courteous image. Were these isolated incidents, some wondered, or indications of a more profound problem at the DPS?

The department is certainly no stranger to criticism about its treatment of minority employees. Though the DPS hired its first Hispanic officer as early as 1957 and its first black trooper in 1969, minorities have not easily ascended the DPS hierarchy. The state’s first black trooper, Adolph Thomas, did not rise through the department’s ranks until the eighties, after he had filed a discrimination complaint with the Texas Commission on Human Rights. In 1987 black troopers told the NAACP that their supervisors were disproportionately promoting their white peers, and over the next two years the NAACP took 35 complaints of racial discrimination against the department to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The EEOC filing alleged that the DPS had disciplined black employees more severely than white employees, used promotional examinations that were biased against blacks, sometimes transferred black employees to other offices “rather than attempt to resolve incidents of racial harassment,” and retaliated against black employees who spoke out about discrimination. Bolstering this claim was the Texas Commission on Human Rights’ 1993 ruling that the DPS had denied investigator Michael Scott, who is black, a promotion to the Texas Rangers because he had been an outspoken critic of racism within the department. That fall the EEOC found in favor of the complainants, ruling that the DPS had discriminated against minorities in granting promotions.

To its credit, the DPS responded by making dramatic changes, stepping up its recruitment of minority employees and setting tolerance at a premium. Among commissioned officers, currently 11 percent are black and 21 percent are Hispanic, and one third of all DPS employees are ethnic minorities. Sensitivity training is required of all recruits, and refresher courses are taught every two years to troopers in the field. Most importantly, the DPS has made it clear that its stance against incidents of racism is unflinching. “I want you to take every step you can possibly think of to ensure that this never happens again,” Public Safety Commission chairman James B. Francis, Jr., told the department’s top leadership in an impassioned speech this January, one week after Anderson’s allegations were made public. “I want you all to enforce that in a relentless way. I mean zero tolerance, and it’s up to you all to root it out, not just turn your heads the other way.”

The fate of Bobby Perry and the other Livingston troopers has yet to be decided, since the DPS investigation is still under way. “I have full confidence that the DPS wants to root out racism in its ranks,” says Ron Wilson. “They have approached this investigation with great resolve, and I am certain that they will get to the bottom of it.” However, Anderson’s decision to wait twelve years to come forward may be considered relevant in the final analysis. “This was deplorable conduct,” says Colonel Dudley Thomas, the director of the DPS, “but does it rise to the level of discharge? If the purpose of this was to have fun — as poor judgment as that may have been — or if Anderson requested this party, these may be mitigating circumstances.” Since the zero-tolerance policy did not exist in 1988, the DPS may find itself in the uncomfortable position of keeping the Livingston troopers on staff while espousing its new, hard-line position against racism.

If the Livingston troopers remain on the force, some may see it as an example of a continuing double standard at the DPS, in which white troopers are given the benefit of the doubt while black troopers must face the consequences of their actions. Since 1996, a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic troopers have been fired from the DPS: Of the nineteen officers who have been dismissed, eleven were minorities. “In four years of representing troopers who are appealing discharges from the DPS, I have yet to represent a white client,” said attorney Donald Dickson, who often represents DPS employees and who argued Darron Anderson’s case during his 1999 dismissal hearing. The paradigm may be shifting, but only time will tell who gets left in a corner.

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