by Nick Braune
Mid-Valley Town Crier
Last week I attended Holy Spirit Affirmation Night, an annual event for over two decades. Although the event was once formally connected to McAllen’s Holy Spirit Catholic Parish, the current bishop came into conflict with the energetic group and cut it off from the parish a few years ago. But the annual event keeps going and is always important.
Last year the national director of Pax Christi spoke. And Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote “Dead Man Walking,” was here several years ago as was Fr. Roy Bourgeois, a famous priest concerned about the U.S. military role in Central America.
But this year’s Affirmation Night did not have an out-of-town guest speaker: This year was a retrospective on, and tribute to, Valley activism back in the 1970s and 1980s. Some topics back then: the first exposes of Port Isabel’s federal detention center, “sanctuary” for political refugees from El Salvador, and stopping police brutality.
I caught one speaker afterward, Richard Flores, who now has a private practice in Edinburg but was a young lawyer in 1979 and 1980 with the ACLU’s South Texas Project. He and their executive director at the time, Jim Harrington, represented some clients who were reporting being beaten by the McAllen police in the police station.
On a miraculous tip from a client, the lawyers found out that the police — incredibly — had installed a video camera in the booking area. “Once we had these tapes,” Flores told us, “we had proof and went to the court to get an injunction. We demanded that the beatings stop, that proper training and psychological exams be given police and that a citizen’s board be set up to process complaints.”
When Judge Jimmy Deanda saw the tapes, he was noticeably shocked and immediately sent his court bailiff to reach the U.S. Attorney’s office. Things started rolling, and they started identifying the cops from the tapes. The story broke in the local media and soon hit national TV.
Braune: You saw these tapes. Were there really beatings?
Flores: Yes: fists, kicks, everything.
Braune: I am trying to picture this. Was it Anglo cops doing the beatings in the police station? Was this racism, targeting Mexican Americans?
Flores: Actually, the cops were mostly Hispanic with a few Anglos in the mix. It was not directly racism but rather power. The police thought they were untouchable: how could anyone believe a common criminal or drunkard over a police officer? (Police were held in such high regard.) This was a situation where bravado and tough guy attitudes became the norm, especially between 11:00 pm to 7:00 am. That was considered the toughest shift, requiring tough cops to handle all of these criminals.
Braune: Why were the police so clueless as to allow this gross misconduct to be filmed?
Flores: Actually the camera was placed to protect the cops from frivolous claims. The police thought that they were untouchable, so the camera was never a deterrent to their misconduct. Frankly, they never suspected it would come back and be used against them.
Braune: I write occasionally about the Blue Wall of Silence, the “police culture” code which encourages police to lie for each other. It is very hard to get a cop to testify against another cop. Most of the violence, you told us, was on the graveyard shift. But didn’t the other police know about this problem? And what about the chief?
Flores: Everybody knew of the actions of this group of police officers. The tapes were reviewed each night, but not one single thing ever came up about it. The chief would turn his head and the C-Shift would flaunt their toughness. They called themselves the “C-Shift Animals” and even printed T-shirts with that name and wore them around. Everybody at the police department knew about this. You are right: it was a culture of silence.
Braune: How did it end?
Flores: After these tapes hit the air, local and national, there was an uproar. Some indictments followed and two or three officers lost their jobs; other tough ones were disciplined and some left by attrition. (There were some good officers too, by the way, who stepped forward to help us.) Significant institutional changes were made.
As a consequence of all this, one of the entrenched powers, Mayor Othal Brand, who was a produce magnate, was challenged in the elections by a reformer, Dr. Ramiro Casso, a very well respected physician. Two other prominent Mexican-Americans also got on the ticket to oust council members. It was a hell of a race. This was the first time a Mexican-American had run for mayor — historic. Brand won, but by a very narrow margin.
Braune: Thanks, attorney Richard Flores, for this interview.