When the Texas Rangers learned that a woman had died in a prison south of Dallas, they put Adam Russell on the case.
They found a clash between the woman, 46-year-old Kelly Leanne Page, who had been charged with drug abuse, and two guards who entered her cell because they said she was banging a hairbrush against the door. Won’t close
A jailer threw her on the floor, punched her in the face while they scuffled and piled on her as blood flowed from her nose. Another, a trainee who weighed 390 pounds, held him down until he stopped breathing.
Six hours into his investigation, Ranger Russell indicated in his notes, he was not inclined to blame the guards for his death. And when an autopsy later determined that Ms. Page was the victim of a murder – having died of suffocation on October 8, 2017 – Ranger Russell did not reconsider.
Instead, he received a second opinion from a retired chief medical examiner, who read the forensic report and said he believed he may have died of heart disease while he was being stopped. Ranger Russell later testified that the initial autopsy was too early to judge and that “something inside Kelly” had killed him. The guards were not charged.
For many years, Texas has made available its state investigators, competent rangers, for local officials to review custodial deaths, meeting a pressing need, especially in rural areas. After the killing of George Floyd last year by a Minneapolis police officer, at least seven other states have taken a similar approach to Texas, arguing that outsider inquiries are more likely to hold wrongdoers accountable.
But according to a New York Times examination of records in Texas, state agents don’t necessarily lead to better investigations or greater accountability. Drawing on dozens of interviews and more than 6,000 pages of investigative files, autopsy reports, police records and court filings, The Times found that state investigations may suffer from the same shortcuts and pro-police bias that are needed to eliminate outside interference. is for.
State investigators in Texas review custodial deaths more often than any other state, records show, creating a rich laboratory for studying how investigations go. Rangers, in response to a public records request, completed nearly 300 case files to the Times since 2015, while other documents were obtained from local police departments, medical examiners and court proceedings.
Some Rangers investigations offer a textbook example of canine police work, such as in the 2017 overdose of 42-year-old James Dean Davis at the La Salle County Jail. Ranger Randy Garcia carefully documented the neglect of the guards who mocked Mr. Davis as he cried for help from the floor of his cell, interviewed more than a dozen witnesses and reviewed video footage and audio recordings – and secured indictments against two jailers for tampering with government records.
In other instances, the Rangers fell short of basic standards. He did not speak to all relevant witnesses, assigned investigative tasks to the agencies under review and failed to comply with indications that officers were negligent or acting dangerously. In Ms Page’s death, Mr Russell favored two guards from more than 10 pathologists who conduct autopsies in Dallas County, one of the state’s largest medical examiners’ offices.
The Times shared its findings with a half-dozen veteran homicide detectives and police experts in six states, all of whom stressed that death investigations vary widely in difficulty and circumstances. When officers shoot and kill someone, for example, many of the facts are not in dispute, particularly the manner of death, and the pressure to decide whether the murder is a criminal act falls mostly on prosecutors. to be regarded as such or not.
It is further complicated when no shots are fired, he said, and there is a conflict in which the person in custody stops breathing. A thorough investigation of those investigations provides clues about the completeness of outside police work as state investigators must trace how officers used their arms, legs and body weight at every turn – and determine whether Were those actions justified?
The Times has identified 29 cases since 2015 in which rangers stopped breathing after clashing with local officials. Neither of those inquiries led prosecutors to charge anyone in law enforcement. In two-thirds of the cases, The Times found shortcuts, missteps or judgment calls, which some veteran homicide detectives said could indicate a lack of effort on the part of the Rangers. for example:
Gennaro Rocha II, 47, died in Amarillo prison in 2019, tied in a harness and left in a cell because guards said he would kick him, the ranger not recording a single interview in his case file.
Rangers, who reviewed the 2018 death of 36-year-old Andrew Carmona east of San Antonio, launched their investigation 11 days later after local officials told them they did not need him there immediately. He never visited the scene, a front yard in which an officer held Mr. Carmona by the head and neck as he was acting “stupid”. And he did an interview – with a toxicologist.
Rangers investigating the death of 41-year-old Michael Cassell in Tyler County in 2016 provided video footage of the sheriff’s duties involved before lawyers took their statements. Castle in the woods near a road, deputies overheard him complaining that he could not breathe before losing consciousness and dying, records show.
The Texas Rangers, which handled various matters, declined or did not respond to interview requests, and the Rangers’ parent agency, the Department of Public Safety, would not provide any officers to answer questions. A spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
It is a reality of the police system in Texas and elsewhere that people sometimes die in custody for no fault of the arresting officers. When officers cross the border, investigators play a key role in holding them accountable. But matters are often a lower priority than other duties because of the many demands placed on police agencies and the general reluctance among law enforcement officers to blame themselves.
“I guarantee you this is not a sought-after assignment for the Texas Rangers,” said Adam Bercovici, a former homicide lieutenant with the Los Angeles Police Department who works as a consultant and case files for the Times. reviews. “Nobody wants them, because 99 percent of the time it’s an unfortunate set of circumstances. But dotting all the I’s and crossing out the T’s is a lot of work.”
There was no shortage of facts to investigate into Ms Page’s death. The guards at the prison had a history of misconduct, court records show, including a man pouring pepper spray into an inmate’s food, landing him in the hospital. The day before Ms. Page’s fatal encounter with two other guards, she angered one of them by splashing cleaning solution through the food slot in her cell. When she stopped him, he got a black eye.
Surveillance cameras captured video but found no audio of his death, and Ranger Russell made no mention in his report of interviewing witnesses.
None of the medical examiners involved in Ms Page’s autopsy were called to testify at a hearing about the death, and when the chief pathologist later asked permission to speak to The Times, the officer presided – Coriel County Justice of the Peace – refused to grant. The pathologist said in a brief statement that doctors stood by their decision: murder by mechanical asphyxiation.
All of this combined to create the impression that Ms. Page, who had five children and long battled depression with drugs and alcohol, was another addict to die in prison, said one of her daughters, Tiffany Gruwell. When Ms. Gruwell thinks of her mother, a different image comes to mind, she said: a grandmother, clean, calm, smiling, Ms. Gruwell’s daughter Mari.
“That’s not just his police record, but a lot of people see it that way,” Ms Gruwell said. “I think there are a lot of unanswered questions about what happened.”
a patchwork approach
Over the past decade, flashpoints of police violence across the country have focused not only on aggressive tactics and racial disparities in law enforcement, but also on the patchwork method in which encounters are investigated.
Some states, such as California, rarely send their agents to review custodial deaths, leaving those inquiries to local police and sheriff’s departments.
Washington state recently relied on a hybrid model, sending teams of local and state investigators. If his team is investigating a home agency, the officials will have to distance themselves from it.
Other states, such as Georgia and North Carolina, deploy state agencies according to a long-standing practice rather than a legal requirement when local departments request help. Texas operates the same way, although since 2017 the law has mandated independent investigations into prison deaths.
In 2014, Wisconsin became the first state to require an independent investigation into the deaths of police officers inspired by the family members of Michael Bell Jr., who was killed by Kenosha police. Eric Garner’s death on Staten Island that year led to an executive order requiring the York Attorney General to investigate some custodial deaths.
There has been increased pressure to mandate an independent review since the killing of Mr Floyd in 2020. At least seven states have passed measures that require local agencies to hand over custodial death investigations to state officials or other outside investigators. California’s law applies to shooting deaths of unarmed civilians, while New York has expanded to require an attorney general investigation into any deaths caused by law enforcement. Maine and Maryland similarly turned to their attorney generals, while Connecticut created a dedicated state office. Colorado and Florida also introduced new measures, and a handful of other states, including Arkansas and Illinois, are considering the same.
“Let’s face it — if you come from the same organization, you’ll have some level of bias, no matter how objective you are,” said Ashley Heiberger, a former police officer in Bethlehem, Pa., who leads the departments. gives advice. on the use of force. “We are all human. There is a very understandable desire to protect ourselves.”
The 29 deaths, reviewed by The Times, occurred throughout the vast state of Texas, from the plains of the Panhandle to the swamps of the Gulf Coast. Most took place outside major metropolitan areas, and more than half of those killed were white. The rest were largely Hispanic, and only three were black – figures that roughly tracked the population of the regions.
The review suggested a disparate approach by Rangers, although the record is open to interpretation. Jay Koons, who spent 36 years in the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in Texas, reviewed the case files at the request of The Times.
Mr Coons, professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston, said: “Their actions appear to be systematic in keeping with current investigative techniques, and I found no evidence to suggest shoddy work or a lack of commitment to the truth-seeking.” ” state University.
Bercovici, a former Los Angeles lieutenant, came to a different conclusion, noting gaps in some of the inquiries, including a failure to press for immediate interviews with the officers involved.
“You’re giving them a chance to adjust their story,” he said. “You need to be in a room with someone. You need to look them in the eye. You need to watch their body language.”
In at least 16 cases, rangers failed to interview all those who witnessed the incident…