Texas Town's First Black Police Chief Sparks Racial Firestorm
On a June morning in 1998, Rodney Pearson, the first black highway patrolman in Jasper, Texas, got a call. He walked along a mile and half of drag marks, skin and blood, and found the spot in the woods where three white supremacists had wrapped a logging chain around James Byrd Jr.'s ankles, hooked it to a pickup truck and dragged the 49-year-old black man to death along an asphalt road.
Thirteen years later, Jasper's city council named Pearson (pictured at left) as its first black police chief. The town has changed a lot since Byrd's murder, and Pearson's election could have symbolized the Texas town finally overcoming its ugly past. But instead it's ripped the city apart, right down the color line.
"East Texas is really a part of the country that the civil rights movement missed," said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, referring to racial tensions there. He notes that in a triumphant moment in 1999, the city tore down the cast iron fence that had long separated the black and white parts of the cemetery. "But you can't cure 200 years of terrible race relations, with one symbolic act."
In just over a year since Pearson's selection, the city council has flipped from four-fifths black to four-fifths white; a group of white residents managed to organize the first recall election Jasper has ever seen; and despite evidence of forgery on recall petitions, the city managed to kick out the council members who gave Pearson the job.
"This time, the black council had the audacity to make their own independent choice for police chief," said Pearson's lawyer, Cade Bernsen. "And you see what happens. They got 'em."
The mayor and several white residents claim that Pearson just wasn't qualified. "I don't think race played any part in this," said Vickie Stewart, who helped lead the campaign to remove him.
Some white residents accuse the city's black (and now former) council members of being racially biased and making a back-room deal -- the same allegations that those ousted council members have thrown at them. Three white candidates for the police chief position actually sued the city for reverse discrimination. Last week, Pearson filed his own race discrimination complaint with the federal government, and plans to take the city to court. He may not be its police chief when he does, however. The council's now white majority is not his biggest fan.
Friends In The Right Places
Jasper is a working-class town of around 7,600 in deep East Texas, 46 percent white, and 44 percent black. In recent years, black residents have held a host of government positions. But the police department has remained mostly white -- with only four black employees out of a staff of 29, according its second-in-command Captain Curtis Frame.
That's bad luck for the black community, because having friends in the police department can be useful in Jasper. When a son of Mayor Mike Lout's live-in girlfriend, Debbie Foster, got into a car accident and then reportedly failed a sobriety test, the driver's police detective brother, Garrett Foster, disposed of drugs that were in his car. Some thought the investigator, Capt. Gerald Hall, went easy on Garrett. He received a letter of reprimand.
Said Lout, "I think in any police department, there's a certain amount of cronyism."
Some residents also believe the department went easy on Mayor Lout. When the police found him drunk and shirtless one night a couple of years ago, after crashing his car at a local burger joint, he was given a $370 fine for public intoxication instead of a more serious DUI charge.
That story didn't get any play on the local radio station though, according to the Houston Press. The mayor owns the station and his girlfriend is on its payroll.
A Stunning Choice
Last February, the city council had to appoint a new interim police chief. According to a Facebook post by the outgoing chief, the mayor told his friend, Capt. Hall, that he would get the job. But the mayor lacks the authority to make that hire; only the five members of the city council have that power. At the time, four of Jasper's five council members were black, and they unanimously voted for Pearson.
Some balked, complaining that Pearson, who had been a state trooper rather than a city police officer, wasn't up to the job. Hall said publicly that he had never been more "embarrassed" or "humiliated" in his 18-year career.
"Am I going to put in another 10 years and still be a detective?" asked Garrett Foster.
"I have to tell you, it literally made me sick to see him in that uniform..." Hall's wife Judy wrote on the Facebook wall of Todd Hunter, the outgoing police chief. Pearson says that several police officers, the mayor, his girlfriend and their friends soon began a campaign to discredit him.
A Hot Check And A Bad Score
The town still needed to select a permanent chief, and suddenly a lot of people started applying for the job -- people from all around Texas, with gleaming credentials. In an interview, Willie Land, a council member at the time, speculated that the mayor and other city officials were soliciting applications.
None of the city council members serving then had ever picked a police chief before, so the mayor said he decided to adopt a new scoring system to help sort through the candidates.
Unfortunately for Pearson, the new scoring system was heavily weighted toward municipal experience. So Pearson's 21 years as a Texas State Trooper didn't count for much. He got a really low score.
While interim police chief, Pearson also had to go through a rigorous background check. The investigator found that when Pearson was 21 years old, he'd been convicted of writing a hot check -- a Class C misdemeanor, just like the mayor's public intoxication citation. In an interview, Pearson said it was for less than $20, but he admitted that it was wrong not to mention it on his application.
A good friend of Debbie Foster's, Vickie Stewart, who was the head of the newly created "League of Concerned Citizens," got a copy of the report and sent it to all the local media outlets.
The mayor's station gave all of this news good play.
Racial Epithet After Police Chief Picked
But in April 2011, the City Council selected Pearson as Jasper's permanent police chief, with the four black council members voting for him, and the one white member voting against. A public uproar ensued.
Two council members defended their vote, saying Pearson was from town, unlike the other top applicants. But some white residents complained that the black council members were abusing their power. "They wanted a black person who they felt they could control," said Lance Caraway, a gun shop owner, and member of the League of Concerned Citizens.
"Can you believe this????????????" Vickie Stewart wrote on Facebook, when Pearson became chief.
"I'LL SAY IT !!! STUPID N----- !!!" replied Caraway, who apologized for using the epithet a few days later.
Several of the candidates for police chief then sued the city alleging discrimination, saying they weren't hired because they were white. The League of Concerned Citizens, meanwhile, began circulating petitions to oust three of the black city council members. Soon after, a 62-year-old woman filed a complaint, with the mayor's girlfriend by her side, accusing Chief Pearson of groping her breasts. She never filed any charges.
It certainly didn't calm things when Pearson reassigned to a lower rank a few of the police officers, who had bashed him publicly, like Gerald Hall and Garrett Foster. "In order to be a successful leader you need to surround yourself with people you can trust," he said. Hall and another officer filed race discrimination complaints with the government. Foster sued.
There was also controversy over the recall petitions. In a challenge to the recall, a forensic document examiner who'd worked for the FBI testified that at least 15 signatures were definitely forged, and around 225 needed further investigation.
But when the city council members up for recall tried to discuss the issue, the mayor struck it from the agenda. In November, two of the council members were successfully recalled.
In response, a group of black residents successfully petitioned to have a recall election for Mayor Lout. But Lout won the vote in a landslide. The two recalled council members tried to get their seats back, but they lost the vote to their white opponents.
"Blacks don't own a radio station here, or a newspaper," said Terrya Norsworthy, one of the recalled-council members, told AOL Jobs. "We didn't have a way to get our word out to the community."
Most people in Jasper want the ordeal to be over now. When racial tensions run high, bad memories come back. And Jasper has changed a lot since James Byrd's murder. Residents could never have predicted back then that 14 years later more whites would be claiming discrimination than blacks.
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Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin. Follow Claire on Twitter. Email Claire at firstname.lastname@example.org. Add Claire to your Google+ circles.more...