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TX: Temple PD fires officers in excessive force case

As Bell County’s “right fighting” prosecution of C.J. Grisham concluded, the Temple Police Department has announced action in another alleged excessive force case involving two police officers accused of breaking 15-year-old Lorenzo Martinez’s collar bone.

Martinez’s account of his May 18 police encounter sounds as that of a young person, a minor, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Reportedly observing what he said looked like an arrest taking place in the front part of the Temple Walmart store caused Martinez to attract the attention of Officer Daniel Amaya. Martinez attempting to leave the store after Amaya allegedly told him not to reportedly prompted Amaya to grab the teenager’s arms to cuff him. Upon asking a reason for his arrest, Martinez maintains “Amaya slammed him to the ground, an officer got on his back and another officer grabbed him around his throat.”

Martinez claims officers ignored his complaints of injury and accused him of being involved in a theft. Martinez admits spitting on the ground upon the officer’s accusation and doing it again after the officer ordered him to clean it up before the officer then “slammed him down on his back – hurting his arm again – and then moved him back and forth on the ground like a rag to use his shirt to clean it up.”

Last week Martinez’s mother Elsa received a letter from Temple Police Chief Gary Smith advising that the investigation of her May 21 complaint against the department was complete and that “violations of the rules and regulations of the Temple Police Department were found to have occurred.”

Smith further stated how because of the violations, disciplinary action was taken, specifically that the two officers involved – Amaya and Jeremy Case Bales – have been indefinitely suspended from the department. An indefinite suspension, Smith wrote, “is the civil service equivalent to a termination. It is the strongest administrative action that I can take.” The matter, however, is “not fully concluded” as the officers have appealed their suspensions.

Acknowledging that “it may appear that this investigation has taken an inordinate amount of time to complete,” Smith blamed the delay due to “outside agencies and their criminal investigation that ensued following your complaint.” Claiming he requested a criminal investigation by the Texas Rangers and the Bell County District Attorney’s office, Smith said his October notification of the criminal investigation’s completion “then allowed for the internal investigation to be fully resumed.”

Smith’s admission that violations occurred is interesting especially in light of a Bell County grand jury’s Oct. 16 decision to not take action against the officers.

With the grand jury no bill, Martinez’s attorney, Kurt Glass, told the Temple Daily Telegram he was “livid and ill at the same time.” He also noted how the decision’s wording indicated the matter was presented as a misdemeanor case. Bell County District Attorney Henry Garza did not comment on the decision.

In a statement responding to the police chief’s letter, Glass commended Smith for “admitting that Lorenzo Martinez was wronged,” and said this of Garza: “Unfortunately, I am unable to be as complimentary to our District Attorney, Henry Garza. Mr. Garza’s office failed to successfully indict the Officers involved. Mr. Garza’s office is unable to prevent further wrongs of this nature and Mr. Garza utterly failed in making anything right for Lorenzo and his family.”

The grand jury no bill appeared as one more demonstration of officials exercising protectionist interventionism on behalf of other governmental agency peers. The idea that city of Temple and Bell County officials are committed to serving their own interests over taxpayer interests has been a recurring suspicion throughout months of pending police excessive force allegations.

The city seemed especially resistant to the idea of citizen and other online journalists’ information requests. City of Temple Deputy City Attorney Nan Rodriguez told one blogger it is “the public which is precisely who is not to have access to that information – precisely.” In further emphasizing the point, she said, “you are the reason that the thing is not public – you are the reason – you and every one of your ilk.”

Days before the second Grisham trial, Larry Keilberg, executive director of the National Self Defense Fund, a gun rights organization that pledged $1 million in legal services for Grisham, told the Telegram how Grisham attorney Blue Rannefeld had requested a meeting with Temple Mayor Danny Dunn “in an effort to save the city and Temple Police Department some embarrassment during the trial.” Keilberg said Dunn refused the meeting.

Steve Ermis, the Temple police officer who responded to the non-emergency report that brought him in contact with Grisham, was a key witness in both Grisham trials. At last week’s trial, a series of questions revealed what can aptly be called the Ermis Doctrine, an interesting view of resisting arrest and use of force concepts.

Ermis testified that a suspect never has the opportunity to resist arrest, that it’s appropriate to use the force necessary to affect an arrest. When asked if a defendant has the right to resist the use of unreasonable force, Ermis replied no, that the court system is “where things are to be hashed out.”  This certainly speaks to expectations of a citizenry not just complying with the government it funds, but something more akin to unquestioning submission.

Meanwhile, county prosecutors in the court system Ermis said was for citizen recourse promoted how authority is a part of our society, we always have someone telling us what to do, how to behave. In further advocating the Ermis Doctrine, they told how police officers have been given a job to protect and serve our communities, laws must protect police and tell citizens you are not to fight back if an arrest is being made. The jury was encouraged to “come down on the side of officer safety.”

Identifying themselves as “big believers in accountability,” prosecutors asked the jury to help protect officers in the community who uphold the laws. No positions expressed indicated concern or even toleration of the idea that citizens also sometimes need protection when law enforcement crosses bounds of reasonability.

And while on reasonability, it would never be right to say local law enforcement doesn’t employ responsible, professional officers. That said, months of Grisham case discussions have brought to light a department with a troubled reputation that includes Temple police being seen as heavy-handed and aggressive with citizens.

With this backdrop, the timing of Smith’s investigation conclusion and disciplinary action is interesting.

The Temple Police Department made the right decision with the Martinez case, but was it for the right reason or to attempt diffusing its recent bad press – especially in light of the Grisham video finally being released to the public?

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Government is obviously good at protecting itself. The Grisham case proved that fully while the Martinez case is a split decision with questionable timing. And with both cases likely to spawn civil litigation, the issues aren’t closed and neither is the tab for which taxpayers are responsible.

It will now be interesting to watch the investigation and potential prosecution of Temple Mayor Pro Tem Judy Morales for violations of Bell County employee policy and perhaps state election laws after allegedly using county resources in the course of her 2011 Temple City Council campaign.

With multiple Class A misdemeanor charges possible, the Grisham case has set precedent for Bell County’s future prosecution of misdemeanor cases.

Morales recently stepped down from her position as director of the Temple HELP (Health, Education, Leadership, Progress) Center, an outreach department of Bell County that helps connect area residents with a wide range of community-based, often taxpayer-funded services, due to another recent discovery that the Temple City Charter precludes individuals with tax-funded income from holding office.

The legitimacy of Morales’ election and council representation while a HELP Center employee is not being addressed. Morales was, however, reportedly working with the city and county to create a consulting position that would sidestep the charter issue, allowing her to continue an income stream from the HELP Center and to retain her position on the council. Bell County Judge Jon Burrows told the Telegram that discussion is now on hold and “probably unlikely.”

As area residents routinely remit significant hard-earned dollars to fund our local governments, taxpayers have good reason to watch closely the activities our taxpayer funds are supporting and just whose interests these activities are serving.

Lou Ann Anderson

Lou Ann Anderson is an information activist. As a contributor at Raging Elephants Radio and Examiner Austin, she writes and speaks on a variety of public policy topics. Lou Ann is the creator and online producer at Estate of Denial®, a website that addresses probate abuse via wills, trusts, guardianships and powers of attorney as well as other taxpayer advocacy issues.

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