Bargaining the Badge – How hundreds of accused Texas Officers avoid prison

CW39
Bargaining the Badge. KXAN

Bargaining the Badge. KXAN

HOUSTON (CW39) Across Texas, hundreds of law enforcement officers have permanently surrendered their peace officer license in the past four years. KIAH-TV affiliate KXAN investigates.


Investigative Summary:

A KXAN investigation of 297 of those surrenders has discovered nearly all the officers were accused or charged with a crime – most often felonies. And, in almost every case the officers used their license as a bargaining tool by agreeing to surrender it as part of a deal to avoid jail or prison.


Bargaining the Badge

Her face bloodied and front teeth cracked in half, Alexis Alpha was placed in the back of a San Marcos police cruiser and left without receiving any medical attention for 45 minutes.

Alpha’s encounter with law enforcement started as a lecture from 13-year law enforcement veteran James Palermo, a San Marcos police officer twice her size. Palermo had already pulled over a sedan in a downtown bar parking lot. Dashcam video shows Alpha, a Texas State University student, walk between his police cruiser and the car.

That’s when Palermo stopped her, and the situation quickly escalated.

Alpha began arguing with Palermo. She said she was walking to her car and had done nothing wrong. Video shows Palermo reach for Alpha’s left arm. She pulls away slightly. Palermo grabs her by the shoulders and neck and shoves her into the sedan, which rocks back and forth from the force.

Palermo then yanks Alpha to the ground, face-first. “You broke my tooth!” Alpha yells.

Palermo later explained, under interrogation by his own department, that he was only trying to “educate” Alpha on the “dangerousness” of walking through the scene. But, video shows Palermo said nothing to 13 other people walking safely along Alpha’s same path. As the department dug further into the incident and Palermo’s history of arrests, they found a pattern of him filing resisting arrest charges and the suspects being hurt during those arrests.

Alpha was charged with public intoxication, resisting arrest and obstruction of justice—a felony. Court records show prosecutors dropped all charges against Alpha within a week of her arrest.

Hays County indicted Palermo on a charge of aggravated assault by a public servant, accusing him of slamming Alpha’s face into the pavement. The first-degree felony could carry up to 99 years in prison, but Palermo was never taken to trial, nor was he sentenced to a day in jail.

San Marcos Officer James Palermo was investigated and charged with a felony after slamming Alexis Alpha during an arrest. (Hays County District Attorney’s Office)

Brian Erskine, a Hays County prosecutor at the time, offered Palermo a plea bargain: no jail, deferred adjudication, 10 years’ probation and the permanent surrender of his peace officer license — meaning he would be barred from working in Texas law enforcement forever.

Permanently revoking the officer’s badge was a critical part of the deal.

“That bargaining chip is a huge piece,” Erskine said about the peace officer license. “It says you can no longer be that person. You will no longer be an authoritative person in a position to ever cause somebody harm like that again.”

In Texas, except in limited circumstances, an officer must be convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors to be eligible for license revocation.

Considering the difficulty in taking a police officer to trial and winning, Erskine said the deal struck a fair balance.

“That’s a high, high burden. As prosecutors, they have to think about the consequences of taking something to trial and losing and having no culpability,” Erskine said. “Does that trial, and the loss at trial, mean that police officer is back on the streets doing the same thing?”

While critics of the plea deals said it seems like an unfair bargaining option favoring law enforcement that is unavailable to civilians, law enforcement officials told KXAN these types of plea deals are common and law enforcement officers are not getting an unfair break.

“By and large police officers are just good, decent, honest people trying to do what is increasingly an impossible job. Sometimes they are going to fail because they are human,” said Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, which represents more than 28,000 officers throughout the state. “We’ve gotten to a point where we expect perfection from these officers and when they come up short we want to criminalize their failures. I’m sorry, but failing, in and of itself, is not a crime.”

KXAN reviewed 297 permanent surrender cases in Texas from 2015 through mid-2018. In nearly every case, the peace officers were accused of or charged with a crime. At least half of the cases were felonies.

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