Police, Community Gaps are Wide in East Texas
The region’s law enforcement agencies have not kept pace with demographic shifts.
By Reporting Texas and The Dallas Morning News
This story was written by Teresa Mioli and Corynn Wilson. It was reported by Mioli, Wilson, Fauzeya Rahman, Caroline Covington and David Maly.
Keith Hawkins isn’t a typical Nacogdoches police officer. He’s black.
Hawkins is the only black officer in a department of 62 — in a city where nearly a third of the population is black. Nacogdoches and other communities in East Texas, a region with more ties to the Old South than any other part of the state, still confront issues of race.
Many of the counties with the highest percentage of black residents can be found in East Texas. It has seen a significant increase in the Hispanic population. And, according to state records, it has some of the largest racial disparities between police departments and the communities they serve.
There also is a perception gap when it comes to community-police relations. Some minorities say they are underrepresented in law enforcement and are victims of disparate treatment. Some police chiefs say they don’t see color when hiring and are actively reaching out to minority communities.
State records as of Feb. 3 show that Nacogdoches employs one Hispanic who is a licensed peace officer. Almost 94 percent of the police officers in Nacogdoches are white. More than half of the city’s residents are minorities.
“We’d have … a couple more Hispanic[s] and a couple more African-Americans” if the community was represented more proportionally, said Hawkins, a 17-year veteran of the Nacogdoches police force.
His son Quentin is in a police academy, training to become an officer in Lufkin, about 20 miles south of Nacogdoches.
If the younger Hawkins succeeds, he will be heading to another East Texas city where minorities make up the majority of the population. Lufkin’s police department is 90 percent white, with only one black officer.
The elder Hawkins wonders why there are so few minorities in East Texas police departments. He thinks it has to do, in part, with patterns that have been entrenched in the region for a long time.
“You don’t see that many black[s] apply in this area,” Hawkins said. “You have to send a minority to recruit more minorities. If you send a white officer to a black candidate, they’re not going to apply.”
Past and present
East Texas is defined, in part, by its history of racial tension.
“The story of race relations in East Texas, it’s an ugly story,” said Randolph “Mike” Campbell, chief historian with the Texas State Historical Association.
Repression and violence have been part of the landscape, starting with slavery, through Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era, and into the 20th century, Campbell said.
“You can cite one specific example after another,” he said. “You can also cite that some of the progress toward civil rights had important beginnings in East Texas, with African-Americans themselves saying ‘things need to change.’ ”
One of the most infamous cases of racially motivated violence in modern American history occurred in Jasper, an East Texas community. Three white men here dragged a black man, James Byrd Jr., to his death in 1998.
Some saw the appointment of Rodney Pearson as Jasper’s first black police chief as a sign that times were changing. He soon began to face questions about his qualifications and eventually was fired by a white-majority city council. The city and Pearson later agreed to settle his federal discrimination lawsuit.
The Jasper Police Department’s troubles did not end there: In 2013, surveillance footage showed a white officer slamming the head of a black woman arrested for unpaid traffic tickets against a countertop and then dragging her across the jail room floor by her foot.
In 2012, the ACLU and East Texas lawyers settled a class-action lawsuit against Shelby County and the city of Tenaha after accusing the police of seizing cash without legal justification during a search of the cars of minority motorists.
A year after that lawsuit, the ACLU released a report finding that marijuana arrest rates for blacks were disproportionately high in East Texas.
Van Zandt County, about 70 miles east of Dallas, had the largest racial disparity in the country. Blacks here were about 34 times more likely to be arrested than whites for marijuana possession, the ACLU reported.
ACLU of Texas Executive Director Terri Burke told Reporting Texas that “marijuana enforcement is just a tool for law enforcement to target communities of color.”
Burke said the organization has reached out to Van Zandt County and other East Texas communities and that some law enforcement agencies have been willing to listen to the organization’s suggestions.
The police record
Nacogdoches police officers “don’t see color” when they’re interacting with the public, Police Chief Jim Sevey said. He said that applies when hiring officers as well.
“For 50 years, people have been saying they want equality,” he said. “And equality is not recognizing race as a factor. I don’t care what you look like.”
Black community leaders in Nacogdoches, however, hear stories “all the time” of racial profiling, said the Rev. Leonard Sweat, president of the local NAACP chapter.
“The majority of the people that I’ve talked to feel like they are being racially profiled,” he said. “Like the police like to say, they don’t see color. But those people have the sense of … being targeted.”
Farther south, about three out of every four peace officers in the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office are white. More than half of the county’s residents are minorities.
When asked to comment on Reporting Texas’ findings, spokesman Rod Carroll said he looks at his organization as one entity. He provided statistics showing that when Jefferson County peace officers and jailers are counted together, more than half are black.
County jailers typically are paid less than deputies and do not enforce the law in the community.
Jim Harrington of the Texas Civil Rights Project said law enforcement departments need to do more to improve diversity at every level.
“It doesn’t do any good to say ‘Yeah, we’ve hired some lower-echelon people who don’t have administrative, supervisory authority,’ ” Harrington said. “That’s not going to change anything because those people are going to be telling the minority folks at the bottom of the ladder what to say anyhow, or what to do.”
The fault lines
Keith Hawkins has been a police officer for 22 years, the past 17 in Nacogdoches.
In February, the Nacogdoches Police Department received a call reporting that Hawkins was “exchanging something” with his son Quentin, a “black male.”
“What happened was, my dog jumped through a window,” Hawkins said. “So I called Quentin to give him some money to go pay for the glass and get the glass.”
Hawkins met his son in a McDonald’s parking lot. A woman noticed a Grand Marquis parked next to the police car. She watched Quentin approach the vehicle and retrieve something from his father.
The woman reported that she was under the impression that “it was a drug deal,” Hawkins said. Another Nacogdoches officer recognized that the situation was not what the citizen suspected.
On the other side of the blue line, some black residents say race really does play a big factor in their day-to-day encounters with the police:
Beaumont funeral home owner Lashon Proctor, 44, said he was pulled over twice in two days last summer — in a majority-black part of town and by the same officer.
Proctor said he was let go both times — without being given a reason for being pulled over. The well-known businessman said he talked about the incidents at a police and citizens forum.
“It happened to me … you can’t tell me it didn’t happen,” he said.
Proctor said he never lodged formal complaints with the city.
“If we don’t know about it, we can’t help,” said Beaumont Police Chief James Singletary.
City leaders in Beaumont say they are working hard to remedy any problems. Paul Jones, president of the Beaumont chapter of the NAACP, meets with the police department to address cultural sensitivities and improve trust between law enforcement officials and the African-American community.
“We were in a workshop and an officer got up and said, ‘When I stop a suspect for a traffic ticket or a violation, if I see that they’re sweating or their veins kind of popped out and they’re nervous, then I know they’re hiding something,’” Jones said.
That raised a red flag for the NAACP leader.
“Whoa! Hold up. You just described every African-American — me,” he recalled saying.
Police officers in Beaumont acknowledged that there might be times when some officers do not know how to interact with certain communities, cultures and races.
“I think we stay on that; that’s a priority,” Singletary said. “They’re taught that in service training, they’re taught it in the academy. The officers that aren’t aware of that right now, then they’re way behind the curve and it’s our fault.”
Singletary said “racial profiling is not an issue” because traffic stops are recorded, the department files a yearly mandatory report with the state and officers are supervised.
But Proctor remains skeptical about reporting procedures and whether complaints actually make it to Singletary’s desk.
“That’s one thing even with racial profiling here,” he said. “You’ve got to admit it before you can fix it.”
After police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the Beaumont chapter of the NAACP approached local police and asked to talk.
“We don’t need another Ferguson. And when you look at our demographics, we’re not a lot different from the makeup of Ferguson,” said Jones, the NAACP leader.
The Beaumont Police Department employs about 255 peace officers. About 80 percent are white, almost 13 percent are black and about 6 percent are Hispanic.
The population of Beaumont is about 47 percent black, 34 percent white and 14 percent Hispanic.
The department has hired 45 peace officers since Singletary took office in 2011. Seven are black and one is Hispanic, according to state data.
“I’m not happy about that at all,” Singletary said.
Black community organizations, led by the NAACP, started hosting community meetings with the Beaumont Police Department to hear from residents about their perceptions of the department and the experiences they’ve had with cops.
Out of these meetings came an effort between community organizations and the police department to increase the recruitment of racial minorities.
Singletary is hopeful that the recent efforts with the NAACP will work. He said the department is getting plenty of applicants but that many are not qualified or do not complete or pass the application and testing process.
Assistant Chief Wayne Jeffcoat said he will soon have a recruitment handbook prepared in cooperation with the NAACP.
But bridging that gap — finding more minority police officers — remains a hurdle.
“When I go out to Lamar University and go into the criminal justice class and I ask, ‘How many of you all want to be a police officer as a profession?’ well, nobody raises their hands,” Jones said. “Some of it’s because of a trust issue and some of it is perception. Their main issue is: ‘Why should I want to be a policeman?’ ”
Officer Hawkins sees the same problem in Nacogdoches.
“Since I’ve been here, there’s only been a handful of African-Americans even apply here at the police department,” he said.
In Beaumont, some community organizations have agreed to recommend and mentor black residents who want to be in law enforcement.
Jones said he encourages that “because the police themselves have been trying to do this for years and haven’t made any progress.”
Smaller police departments may have even more problems recruiting minorities.
“We border a large metro area, which is Beaumont, and we battle some of the departments in the metro area for applicants,” said Chief Mark Davis of the Silsbee Police Department.
State records indicated that Silsbee’s officers are all white men, in a community that is almost 40 percent minority.
Davis said he has lost minorities and women to other departments that offer better salaries, benefits and signing bonuses.
“It’s great if you’re able to have a diversity makeup that helps mirror your community,” he said. “That’s a perfect world. And some communities are fortunate to get that.”
Quentin Hawkins is proud to pursue his father’s profession. But he also understands why many minorities don’t.
“The people in the black population … they’re not fond of cops,” he said. “If the black community sees more black officers, then it’d be better than what it is. It’d improve the community and the city as a whole if the police force was more diverse.”