Pubdate: Fri, 29 Aug 2003
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2003 The Dallas Morning News
Author: DAVID McLEMORE, The Dallas Morning News


Critics Call It PR Ploy; Supporters Hope For Better Communication

TULIA, Texas - In an effort to turn aside a national reputation for racism 
and intolerance, the people of this small Panhandle community put their 
city and county judicial system under citizen review Monday.

It was, they said, time to move on.

Critics called it a public relations trick. Proponents, including parents 
of some of the 35 people pardoned last week by Gov. Rick Perry, said 
citizens' review was a necessary step to attract businesses and remove the 
taint from Tulia and the rest of Swisher County.

The panel of two black, two Hispanic and two white residents will act as a 
conduit for complaints and concerns of residents about the Tulia Police 
Department and deputies of the Swisher County Sheriff's Department. It is 
only the second city in Texas, after Dallas, to name a civilian review board.

"Our mission is to foster unity and promote a better sense of communication 
among those who feel their needs are not being addressed," said Angie 
Trevino, one of the review board members. "We want to look toward the 
future, not the past."

For more than four years, Tulia, a community of about 6,000 between Lubbock 
and Amarillo, has been battered by accusations of racism and intolerance 
stemming from a controversial 1999 drug sting. Of 46 people arrested during 
the operation, 39 were black. In the spring, a state judge recommended that 
convictions be thrown out for 38, noting that the arresting officer Tom 
Coleman, a freelance undercover cop working for a regional task force, was 
not a credible witness.

In June, 12 of the Tulia 38 still in prison were released pending new 
trials. Last week, Gov. Rick Perry issued pardons for 35, wiping out their 
convictions. One man was not pardoned because of an unrelated charge in 
Potter County, and two others remained jailed on probation violations.

The idea of a citizen review board grew out of conversations between 
Swisher County Judge Harold Keeter, Sheriff Larry Stewart and Randy Credico 
of the Kuntsler Foundation in New York, one of the principle advocates for 
the Tulia 38.

"We've spent three years trashing this community because of what happened 
to the people wrongly jailed," Mr. Credico said. "One day in June, the 
judge and the sheriff and I sat down over coffee to talk about where things 
would go from here. We all agreed it was time to move on to the future."

The pressures put on the county and Tulia during efforts to free the people 
wrongly convicted prompted national exposure that painted Tulia as racist, 
Mr. Credico said.

"That is not reflective of the people of this city," he said. "This is not 
Mississippi in the '60s. But the bad image was killing job development. How 
was that going to help black people?"

The community review board was picked from nominees prepared by Mr. Keeter, 
Sheriff Stewart and residents Mattie White and Freddie Brookins Sr., who 
both had children imprisoned as a result of the drug sting turned bad.

"We need to get jobs in here," Mrs. White said. "This is a good place to 
live and I don't want to have to go anywhere else and I don't want my 
daughter to leave to find a job."

Mr. Brookins also enthusiastically endorsed the review board.

"It's an important step. We want jobs and we want equality," he said. "This 
board will help move us forward on justice issues and let us put the past 
behind us. Then we can work on economic development."

Not everyone is convinced of the value of the review board.

"Essentially, it's a PR effort to put a good face on the city," said Alan 
Bean, a founder of United We Stand, a grass-roots organization in Tulia 
that helped bring the questionable arrests to light three years ago. "The 
test will be just how effective the board will be in getting accountability 
for the complaints that come in."

The six-member board will serve for two years and without pay. The racial 
and ethnic balance will be maintained in subsequent panels. The prime job 
of the board is to funnel complaints about police and city government to 
the appropriate agency for action, Mr. Keeter said. The panel will have no 
authority to change policy.

Both Police Chief Jim McCaslin and Sheriff Stewart supported the goals of 
the review board.

"We're going to watch and see how it works, but I really see nothing but 
positives come out of this," Chief McCaslin said.

The sheriff agreed. "Anytime you have the opportunity for improved 
communications between law enforcement and the community, that's a good 
thing," he said.

It's not all smooth sailing for Tulia. Last week, attorneys representing 
two women caught up in the 1999 sting filed suit in federal court in 
Amarillo alleging civil rights violations, including false arrest and 
unreasonable search and seizure.

The suit also targets the drug task force in Amarillo that hired Mr. 
Coleman despite reports of a checkered law enforcement career. The suit 
alleges the task force was negligent in hiring the troubled cop and setting 
him loose with little supervision to conduct the 18-month undercover operation.

Sheriff Stewart is named in the lawsuit, as are Mr. Coleman and District 
Attorney Terry McEachern. All parties declined to comment about the suit.

But, Mr. Keeter said, the review board is an indication that Tulia and 
Swisher County are working at mending its fences and overcoming the blemish 
the sting arrests gave the community.

"We're not in the process of creating a community action committee that 
would focus on economic development issues," he said. "We're also looking 
at ways to find money to expand our drug treatment facility to provide more 
counseling and women's and juvenile units.

"If anything we've learned over the past few years, it's that this has to 
be a community effort," he said. "We all have to work together to move forward."
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart