Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
Pasadena police have given Rick Dovalina every excuse to get loud and rowdy. So far, the attorney with the League of United Latin American Citizens has resisted.
For the past two weeks, police have supplied bumbling, incomplete and contradictory explanations for why 51-year-old Pedro Gonzales turned up dead in his jail cell, hours after being arrested on suspicion of public intoxication.
First, family members said police told them it was probably a stroke or a heart attack. Then, when autopsy results showed Gonzales suffered a punctured lung and broken rib, police said he probably tripped on the way to the patrol car. Later, they said Gonzales may have broken the rib while resisting arrest.
Police claimed Gonzales was drunk and belligerent, although he’d been out of jail only an hour on another intoxication charge when they approached him shortly after 2 a.m. on July 21.
Bruises and scabs pocked Gonzales’ head and chin at his funeral, and family members said his hands were so battered that the funeral home covered them with blue surgical gloves.
These facts alone might send another group of civil rights activists into the streets, spewing hyperbole to TV cameras, threatening lawsuits and warning of escalating tensions in an outraged community.
It’s a common strategy intended to keep stories alive in the public consciousness, so that law enforcement agencies feel pressure to conduct thorough investigations.Quanell X reacted loudly earlier this year, protesting the fatal shooting of 23-year-old Robert McIntosh of Sunnyside. Houston police claimed McIntosh was shot only after he grabbed and fired the officer’s Taser. Some witnesses who claimed McIntosh was already handcuffed when he was killed later recanted.
But LULAC’s Dovalina has kept his troops calm, trying to maintain a civil approach, a patient fact-finding mission that hinges on meetings with police and family members, monitoring media reports and awaiting the release of documents, such as autopsy results.
He acknowledges that the death has sparked outrage in the community, and he’s particularly concerned that one of the officers has been indicted, though not convicted, of using excessive force on a 15-year-old South Houston High School student in 2001.
But Dovalina said he doesn’t want to make threats or raise the volume on the case so high that police have an excuse to cut off communication with him.
“Once the word ‘litigation’ comes into play, they kind of withdraw and they get advice from their attorney that they shouldn’t talk to us,” Dovalina said.
It’s a strategy “we’re kind of trying,” he said. “We’ll see where it gets us. When they tell me they can’t release the autopsy report, or they can’t discuss it, then we’ll know it didn’t work right. I don’t see what taking to the streets would gain, aside form alienating the department. You understand what I’m saying? We’re just trying to do this thing, this way, this time. If it doesn’t work, we’ll go back to getting out the troops.”
Call for independent probe
Dovalina certainly gets high marks for maturity, but he may be giving Pasadena police officials too much credit. So far, they’ve been less than forthcoming. In one of his early meetings, they omitted a key detail: A woman passing by during Gonzales’ arrest called 911 to report that officers were beating a man on the ground.Police have since told Houston Chronicle reporter Robert Crowe that they didn’t send anyone to investigate the woman’s claim because the incident was just about over. Records suggest 25 minutes passed from the call to Gonzales’ booking at the police station a half mile away.
Instead of getting mad, Dovalina wrote the FBI asking for an independent investigation. Last week, he chose not to participate in a protest at police headquarters organized by The Millions More Movement Ministry.
Dovalina said he hopes to have another meeting with police later this week, while his call for an independent investigation appears on its way to being answered. The Harris County District Attorney’s Office has vowed to launch an investigation to check Pasadena’s, once it’s complete.
Then, the Justice Department will likely conduct another investigation to check the DA’s, said Assistant District Attorney Joe Owmby, police integrity unit chief.
“We will have to look at the context of the reports to see if people are purposely trying to be misleading or if there’s just confusion,” Owmby said.
Meanwhile, the Pasadena Police Department has stopped responding to the Chronicle’s calls, e-mails and records requests. It sill hasn’t released Gonzales’ final mug shot, the video from inside the jail that night, the dispatch policy regarding police brutality calls, and other public records.
At this point, openness and honesty are the only way out of this mess. Dovalina is betting the department will see that.
“We’re giving them every opportunity to do the right thing,” he says.
I just hope they take it.