If you’ve watched the TV show Law & Order, you know the criminal justice system depends upon close cooperation between two groups of people: One is the police, who investigate crime, arrest suspects, and gather evidence. The other are prosecutors, who decide what charges to bring, who present cases to grand juries, and who try cases in court.
Ideally, these two groups work closely together. Sometimes – just like in the TV show – they quarrel over whether enough evidence has been accumulated to bring a case, whether that evidence may have been tainted by police actions, or whether a police officer’s courtroom testimony was effective.
But sometimes, the problems go beyond the normal professional disagreements and differences in perspective between police and prosecutors. And the fact is, the relationship between the Rockport Police Department and my office, the Aransas County District Attorney, is broken and has been since before my time.
Unlike the editorial dare presented by Probst, I’m writing today to offer my perspective on the problem, and offer some suggestions on what we can do to fix it.
First, let me provide some important reassurance: People who commit crimes in Rockport are still being arrested and prosecuted. Although problems with the evidence-collecting practices and other shortcomings of the RPD have forced our office to decline to accept cases directly from that department, Sheriff Mills, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Aransas Pass Police Department and Child Protective Services have helped fill the void. While this is inefficient and there are no doubts that some cases that should be brought aren’t, no one should get the idea that Rockport has become a free-fire zone for criminals, or that citizens and our visitors aren’t safe in their homes or on the streets.
But we do have a problem, and it was a long time in the making. For many years, Aransas County didn’t have its own full-time prosecutor. It shared services of a DA from a nearby, larger county. Over the years, it became the practice for those DAs to disregard Aransas County and in the end, the DA office even sued Aransas County over a petty matter. Suspects who were arrested either took a plea or managed to have their cases disposed of one way or another without trial and law enforcement survived the best they could.
One unintended side effect of this longstanding practice was that the county’s local police departments (and the sheriff’s office too) seldom had their feet put to the fire in the rigors of trial. Without the system’s necessary check and balance, evidence collection practices became sloppy, investigative skills deteriorated, and the ability to give effective testimony that could withstand cross-examination declined.
When, in September 2015, the County got its own elected District Attorney, our office worked with the Sheriff’s Department and other local police departments to bring those atrophied skills up to where they needed to be to support effective prosecutions. And to their credit, those agencies worked hard and cooperatively and we seldom see the same problems anymore.
Except with RPD. It’s not the fault of any one person, but there is a cultural resistance to change in the RPD that needs to be addressed. It goes at least as far back as a former commander who once said, with respect to a domestic violence case that we were prosecuting, that he didn’t believe there was such a thing as domestic violence and that in this particular case “she deserved it.”
In one case that has received media attention because RPD leaked it, a police officer who we were preparing for trial, surreptitiously recorded our practice session, foolishly triggering the application of Texas’ Michael Morton Act. That statute, almost unique in the United States, was signed into law by Governor Perry in 2013 in response to the discovery that a man who had been sentenced to life in prison was in fact innocent and had been convicted only after key evidence was withheld. The Morton Act extends to the prosecutor’s entire case file and law enforcement’s entire investigation, not just evidence that will help the State prosecute. RPD’s video of the practice session involved specific facts of the case and the Morton Act mandated its disclosure. Although this case was called to trial, the chief and Rockport mayor refused to make the video available until later, and instead, provided it to a felon to put on YouTube. This cavalier attitude toward the law infuriates judges, alienates prosecutors, and torpedoes cases, sometimes allowing criminals to walk free.
Ultimately, our office felt compelled to force RPD to recognize that it needed to change, and notified the department – as we were legally entitled to do – that we would no longer accept cases from it. It took a year, a new mayor and the involvement of the Aransas County Commissioners, but by August 2018 the RPD agreed that it would use the same intake forms as are used throughout Texas and do the other things it needed to do to enable us to effectively prosecute cases. But now, the city has backed out of the deal and seems to be taking the position that, with a new police chief soon to be in place, the slate has been wiped clean and everything should be swept under the rug.
The people who live, work in, and visit Rockport deserve better. They need to ask their elected officials why their police department cannot seem to achieve what its neighboring police departments – who have similar resources and histories – have accomplished. The people of Rockport deserve the same level of competence and professionalism from their police as their neighbors, and indeed the entire State of Texas.
Meanwhile, as the county’s prosecutors, our office is working diligently to protect Rockport despite these obstacles. We have resumed taking cases from RPD, but when we do, we are closely reviewing them and using the resources of other law enforcement agencies to ensure that cases can be effectively prosecuted. Of the roughly 135 cases submitted by RPD between November 2017 and March 5, 2019, we have had to reject 50, of which at least 29 were tainted by the involvement of the officer who withheld evidence. During that same period, we have won more than a hundred convictions either by trial or guilty plea for other law enforcement agencies.
So be assured wrongdoers in Rockport and Aransas County continue to be prosecuted. But it would be a lot more productive, and public safety would be enhanced, if we could work cooperatively with the Rockport police, as we do with all the county’s other law enforcement agencies, as colleagues and teammates.
Ms. Barnebey has been the County District Attorney for Aransas County since 2015. For updates see kristenbarnebey.com.