in Oregon case fired
An 'egregious' example of official misconduct, chief says
November 02, 1998, 11:15 p.m.
By LISA TEACHEY and JO ANN ZUÑIGA Copyright 1998 Houston Chronicle
Police Chief C.O. Bradford on Monday fired the six Houston officers involved in the July 12 shooting death of 22-year-old Pedro Oregon Navarro, calling it an "egregious" case of official misconduct.
A Harris County grand jury cleared five of the officers of all wrongdoing and charged the sixth with a misdemeanor, but an internal police investigation found all the officers had violated not only department policies but also state and federal laws.
Oregon's family said the terminations do not ease the pain of his death. Their attorneys said the terminations are appropriate, but they will still file a federal lawsuit against the city next week.
Mayor Lee Brown said he supported the terminations, calling them "proof that our system of justice is the fairest and most democratic system in the world."
Bradford said his decision to fire the officers was based only on the facts, not the widespread outrage that greeted the grand jury decision.
"Pressure from the community cannot change the evidence," Bradford said. "My decision is based exclusively on the evidence."
Findings from the internal investigation were submitted last week to the South Patrol Command, the Civilian Review Committee and the department's Administrative Disciplinary Committee. All recommended firing the officers.
Though Bradford said some of the officers committed criminal acts, District Attorney John B. Holmes Jr. said the case would not be presented to another grand jury.
"The grand jury that heard it, heard from every possible witness," Holmes said. "And we don't re-present cases until we get the desired result. Otherwise, we don't need a grand jury. That is the same position I've taken in all police shootings when there have been nobills."
Sources told the Chronicle on Monday that two of the officers -- David R. Barrera and Pete A. Herrada, both 28 -- wanted to resign before Bradford made his decision. The resignations were not accepted.
Barrera, Herrada, Lamont E. Tillery, 30, David Perkins, 30, James R. Willis, 28, and Sgt. Darrell H. Strouse, 34, waived their right to a hearing before the chief, sources said.
Bradford said the officers committed "a very serious set of violations" and added that in his 20-year career he had never seen a case as "egregious" as this one.
"One thing I am pleased to see is that the process for review within the Police Department works," Bradford said. "It is unfortunate from time to time these things occur in our community.
"Most of the Houston police officers out there are hard-working men and women and they do a good job on a day-to-day basis," Bradford said. "I say to these officers ... keep doing the good job you're doing."
The six officers, members of a gang task force operating in southwest Houston, were cited for various infractions, ranging from improper use of an informant to official oppression and criminal activity.
All were accused of lying to police internal affairs investigators. Bradford said the officers claimed they had planned to use a "consent and search form," as required, but investigators found no evidence that they had.
According to the investigation report, this is the sequence of events that led to Monday's action:
On the night of July 11, Herrada and Willis stopped a vehicle near Atwell and Bellaire. The driver, Nicholas B. Stutes, 18, was ticketed and released, but in the car was a 15-year-old passenger, as well as Ryan F. Baxter, 28.
After admitting to drinking alcohol and smoking crack cocaine, Baxter was arrested at the scene on Class C misdemeanor charges of public intoxication and providing alcohol to the minor.
Although it is against department policy to use an intoxicated person as an informant, the officers offered to release Baxter, who was on probation for possession of a controlled substance, if he would tell them where he had gotten the drugs.
Strouse was cited for insubordination because he did not, as required, notify the narcotics division that they were planning to investigate a narcotics case.
Baxter told the officers he had gotten the drugs at 6711 Atwell, Apt. No. 16, although it is not clear who he named as the supplier. The information was given to other officers of the gang task force, who began working on a plan to act on it.
HPD policy requires that such investigations be approved by the narcotics division before being carried out. Strouse, who was heading the investigation, was cited for insubordination for failing to do so.
Initially, the officers told Baxter to set up a meeting with the drug dealer at a local restaurant to buy more crack. When the dealer did not show, the officers and Baxter went to the apartment on Atwell and knocked, but no one answered and they left.
The officers then decided to arrest Baxter. But as they were doing so, his alleged supplier called him to reset the deal.
Around 1:30 a.m. on the 12th, the officers took Baxter back to the apartment, where he was told to knock on the door and talk to the supplier until the officers emerged.
Strouse told Baxter that when the door opened to "get down and stay out of the way."
The door opened, Baxter got down, and the officers entered in this order: Herrada, Willis, Perkins, Barrera, Tillery and Strouse.
As the officers, all in full uniform, burst into the apartment, witnesses said, Oregon, 22, ran down a hallway to his room. The officers pursued, crowding into the narrow hallway, witnesses said.
One officer shouted that Oregon had a gun, and almost immediately Barrera's gun discharged accidentally, striking Tillery and knocking him to the floor. Other officers, apparently mistaking the shot for hostile fire, began shooting at Oregon.
Oregon was hit 12 times, nine in the back. Tillery, who wore a bullet-resistant vest, suffered a minor injury.
Tillery, Barrera and Herrada have said Oregon pointed his weapon at them and they were in fear of their lives.
The investigation revealed that Oregon did not fire his gun. Blood-splatter evidence indicated his weapon was near his body and "most probably in his hand."
As the first officer to reach Oregon, Herrada was not cited for unlawful use of force because he could have perceived Oregon as being armed and been in fear of his life.
Baxter was never charged.
After a state grand jury cleared the officers, the mayor, the Mexican consulate in Houston asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the case.
At his news conference, Bradford pleaded with Oregon's family to try to understand that there are good officers in his department.
"My heart goes out to the family," he said. "It was an absolute tragedy ... but do not lose faith in the Houston Police Department."
Bradford said the department would use its findings to enhance training.
Oregon's mother, Claudia Navarro, said Monday that the terminations are "not true justice. They need to go to court."
Family attorney Richard Mithoff said, "This (the terminations) is clearly appropriate action, but it does not solve the underlying problem of inadequate training and improper supervision."
"One of the aims of the lawsuit is to change those policies under review," said family attorney Paul Nugent. "The confidential informant policy was violated and no warrant was used."
"It was the right thing to do under the circumstances," Mayor Brown said of Bradford's decision. "It should be made quite clear that police officers, when they carry out their responsibilities, have to also obey the law. One cannot break the law in order to enforce it."
Brown said Bradford had not given him details of the investigation, but had briefed him on his conclusions and discipline.
The six officers can appeal their terminations -- called "indefinite suspensions" -- to a third-party arbitrator through civil service rules.
"I think it would be an injustice to the city of Houston to have it overturned by the appeals process," Brown said.
Members of the Justice for Pedro Oregon Coalition said they are pleased with the terminations and attributed them to public outcry over the officers' actions.
"This gives us the sense there is responsibility within the Houston Police Department," said Maria Jimenez, an organizer with the Houston Immigration and Refugee Coalition.
"If police act unprofessionally, it does carry consequences."
Yet Jimenez said the threat of a lawsuit probably had no bearing
on the terminations.
"But justice is not just in the firings," she said. "Criminal indictments are still needed."
Oregon coalition member Tony Cantu said he would have been furious if the officers had not been terminated.
"But now we're left with the contradiction" of the grand jury clearing the six officers except for indicting one on a misdemeanor criminal trespass charge. Cantu said.
"I'm surprised and glad about the firings," coalition member Gloria Trevino said. "But now they need to recommend indictments for murder.
"The evidence is in the 12 shots to the back."
Chronicle reporters S.K. Bardwell, Matt Schwartz and Leigh Hopper contributed to this story.
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