Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

February 20, 2013

Alto residents upset about police situation

Ben Tinsley
Jacksonville Daily Progress

ALTO — Town residents are expressing outrage that the officer who shot and killed a 48-year-old suspected armed robber in January has been spotted around town patrolling in a police vehicle while still technically on administrative leave for the shooting.

As many as 100 people turned out to a city council meeting in Alto Monday night to voice their concern about this matter. They also are upset about what many believe to be a growing problem with the way Alto police officers treat residents.

"All we want to do is discuss this with the city," the Rev. Herman Martin, of the Weeping Mary Baptist Church, said to a reporter Tuesday. "But the police department has been using strong arm tactics. It's chaos here right now. In the past month-and-a-half there have been three tasings and one killing in Alto. That's pretty chaotic, wouldn't you say?"

Alto Police Chief Jeremy Jackson was out of the office Tuesday, and couldn't be reached to comment. Alto Mayor O.T. Allen was at city hall Tuesday afternoon, but a subordinate said he was in a meeting and could not come to the phone. He did not return a telephone message.

The Jacksonville Daily Progress immediately submitted a Texas Open Records Act request to the city of Alto, seeking all of Smith's disciplinary records as well as an accounting of all police tasings within the past two months.

Some residents say they are very concerned about a perceived lack of training and experience with the city's newest officers. Officer Brandon Michael Smith technically had only five months total police experience before he shot and killed James Eric Griffin, 48, an Anderson Cherokee Community Enrichment Services patient believed to have been off his medication at the time.

The late January shooting happened after Griffin displayed a machete tucked in his waistband to a convenience store clerk as he stole a pack of cigarettes.

The incident has hit a fault line in Alto's black community, provoking allegations of police brutality, professional callousness and even racism. It comes at a delicate time for the city. The Alto police force had only been reinstated about 13 months before the shooting after having been sent on a six-month furlough, then fired and replaced in 2011.

Although Officer Smith also is black, Martin said he can't help but think the way police are treating certain residents has been racially motivated. He contends everyone who has allegedly been tased is black.

Residents at the Monday night meeting say city council members assured them Smith was not performing any actual police duties while in the police vehicle in which he was spotted and any work he actually did was confined to the office.

City officials said when citizens voiced concern about the situation, Smith was removed from the office completely and will not be back until the conclusion of the investigation.

But the fact he was out on the street at all is a complete disconnect from what the police chief initially told reporters he was planning to do after the shooting – put  Smith on administrative leave with pay, based on Alto Police Department standard operating procedure, and not allow him to return until the investigation was completed.

It is unclear why the chief changed his mind.

At the conclusion of a Texas Ranger investigation, a full and formal report about the shooting is expected to be presented to the local District Attorney, officials said.

Trooper Jean Dark, Texas Department of Public Safety public information officer, said Monday the investigation into the shooting by the Texas Rangers is still ongoing.

"I don't have any further information at this time," she said in an email.

Prior to the  five months of full-time active duty, the rest of Smith's job experience included three months as a part-timer and three months as a reserve officer, according to records released by the Texas Commission On Law Enforcement Officer Standards And Education.

In all, Smith's training has been comprised of 672 hours of classes, including basic peace officer lessons, special investigative topics, and crisis intervention training, records show.

Rev. Martin said members of the community hope to meet with Alto Mayor Allen soon to discuss these issues.

"We're looking to see a police department that is fair and impartial," he said.