Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

March 15, 2013

Alto police chief opens one inquiry as Texas Rangers investigation winds down

Ben Tinsley
Jacksonville Daily Progress

ALTO — Police Chief Jeremy Jackson said Thursday he plans to initiate an investigation into whether Officer Brandon Michael Smith uttered a racial epithet as he shot and killed suspected convenience robber James Eric Griffin in January.

This investigation into the alleged slur begins as the Texas Rangers' investigation into the police-related shooting winds down, Jackson said.

Both Smith and Griffin are black, and it was not immediately clear Thursday what the exact racial slur is alleged to have been.

“It's under internal investigation right now,” Jackson explained Thursday. “This will be done by me and the city attorney. We will decide if there were any violations of policy or procedures and deal with it then.”

Alto officials, meanwhile, have declined to release certain records sought by the Jacksonville Daily Progress through the Texas Open Records Act – namely, Smith's disciplinary records and an accounting of all Alto police taserings in the past two months.

Alto City Attorney Jimmy Cassels has appealed the request to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, asking the information specifically be withheld.

Thomas Kelley, spokesman with the AG's office, indicated the review process takes 45 days from the time a request is received to complete.

It could not be immediately verified Thursday if the request had been received. Chief Jackson said the city's response to the Open Records Act request is standard procedure.

Griffin, 48, an Anderson Cherokee Community Enrichment Services patient, was believed to be off his medication during the suspected convenience store robbery in January.

The shooting took place down the road from the convenience store where Griffin apparently displayed a machete tucked in his waistband to a store clerk as he took a pack of cigarettes.

After the shooting, members of Alto's Af-rican-American community came forward to the media, contending  local officers were overly-aggressive with them – going as far as to employ uncalled-for taserings.

Members of Alto's police community counter that there has been no strong-arming, but added they are not at liberty to discuss it because they have been instructed not to publicly comment.

In his first interview with the Progress since just after the shooting, Chief Jackson denied that his officers have displayed any overly-aggressive behavior “in regard to race or gender.”

The situation became even more inflamed along racial lines during a February Alto City Coun-cil meeting. There, members of the black community expressed outrage that Smith had been spotted around town patrol-ling in a police vehicle while still technically on administrative leave for the shooting.

City officials assured the many residents at the meeting that Smith would not be seen working on city property again, at least until the investigation was completed.

The chief said Smith was always confined to the office because the investigation was ongoing and had never been placed back on active duty.

“I brought him back on administrative duties to more or less be my secretary in the office,” the chief said. “He has never been on any kind of law enforcement action. He was seen in a police car going to Tyler to run an errand and he drove to lunch with Officer Troy Ansley one day. But he was never involved in any type of enforcement.”

As far as the shooting investigation is concerned: The chief said he was informed by Texas Ranger Sgt. W.R. “Rudy” Flores that his investigation findings are nearly complete and should be turned over this week to the office of Cherokee County District Attorney Rachel Patton. Patton is expected to submit those findings to a grand jury.

The chief predicted it could make the grand jury by late March.

Sgt. Flores could not immediately be located to comment.

Patton said Thursday said her discussions with Chief Jackson also indicated the file would be forthcoming.

When an officer-related shooting in Texas is investigated, the findings are submitted to a grand jury, which then determines if the officer acted appropriately and, if not, what charges are warranted, the district attorney said.

“This file will include witness statements, physical evidence and lab reports, which we will then pass on to the grand jury,” Patton explained.