The day before Attorney General William Barr complained about disrespect for the police, Harris County, Texas, District Attorney Kim Ogg announced that her office had identified 69 more convicted drug offenders who may have been framed by a veteran Houston narcotics officer. The skepticism that Barr decries cannot be understood without taking into account the sort of corruption that Ogg is investigating.
Speaking to police officers in Miami last Friday, Barr condemned "a deeply troubling attitude" toward police. "Far from respecting the men and women who put their lives on the line to protect us," he said, overzealous critics "scapegoat and disrespect police officers and disparage the vital role you play in society."
While Barr may prefer to believe that attitude has no basis in fact, every day brings news of police officers who foster such disrespect by lying, using excessive force and abusing their power for personal gain. Although it is unfair to portray those cases as an indictment of the entire profession, the way police officials respond to such revelations often invites that conclusion.
The former officer at the center of Ogg's inquiry, Gerald Goines, was employed by the Houston Police Department for 34 years. He faces state murder charges and federal civil rights charges because he invented a heroin purchase by a nonexistent confidential informant to obtain a no-knock warrant for a 2019 raid that killed a middle-aged couple, Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas, in their home on Harding Street.
As a result of that disastrous operation, which discovered no evidence of drug dealing, Ogg's office is reviewing thousands of cases handled by Goines and his colleagues in the HPD's Narcotics Division. So far prosecutors have dismissed dozens of pending cases and backed the claims of two men arrested by Goines in 2008 who were recently declared innocent.
"We need to clear people convicted solely on the word of a police officer whom we can no longer trust," Ogg said last week. But the HPD's problems clearly go beyond the crimes of one rogue cop.
Another narcotics officer, Steven Bryant, faces state and federal charges in connection with the deadly Harding Street raid because he backed up Goines' fictional story. If Goines falsely implicated people in drug crimes for a dozen years or more, it seems likely that other officers actively helped him or looked the other way, which would make their testimony suspect as well.
Goines' supervisors also deserve a share of the blame for failing to properly monitor his use of warrants, informants and department money. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, who initially hailed Goines as a hero while posthumously tarring Tuttle and Nicholas as dangerous heroin dealers, has announced several belated reforms, including limits on no-knock warrants, using body cameras during drug raids and a new commitment to the oversight that HPD supervisors were supposed to provide.
Acevedo nevertheless insists that Goines' crimes did not reveal a "systemic" problem, and he wants credit for not sweeping them under the rug. "What would have been more tragic for this community, and for this department, than the incident itself is for the department to have failed to investigate it to the extent that we did," he said in a recent Texas Monthly interview.
At the same time, Acevedo wants the public to accept the inevitability of outrages such as the senseless deaths of Tuttle and Nicholas. "I don't think there's a policy or a process that can guarantee 100 percent that something like this would not happen," he said. That's the message Acevedo is sending Houstonians looking for reassurance that they can trust police to respect their constitutional rights.
After three interview questions about the biggest scandal to hit his department in decades, Acevedo lost his patience. "This is the last I want to talk about it," he said. "We need to move on to something else." That attitude is at least as troubling as the one that bothers Barr.
Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @JacobSullum. To find out more about Jacob Sullum and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.