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The Dallas Morning News

Enforcing the law, then breaking it

When officers go to prison, it shatters lives, forces, communities

October 8, 2006
[Abridged]

Law enforcement officers who break the law crop up in departments big and small across the state. And the reasons they do it frustration with the criminal justice system, greed and stress are as varied as the individuals. At least 110 licensed Texas officers, from jailers to police chiefs, have spent time behind bars for offenses ranging from theft to sexual assault, on and off the job, according to a Dallas Morning News analysis of law enforcement records of the last four years. More than twice that many have been convicted, received deferred adjudication or been placed on probation for felony charges.

That's a tiny fraction of the more than 83,000 active licensed peace officers in the Lone Star state. But when an officer goes to prison, the experience is shattering. And if he crosses the line on duty, he generally is more reviled than if he had broken the law as a civilian. The crime sends shockwaves through his life, department and community. Nationwide, more than 365 police officers have been convicted of public corruption in the last two years, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Plea bargains, reduced charges or lighter sentences which are common often result because the officer is a first-time offender with good character references or because he knows how the system works, not because he's part of the brotherhood, experts say. In court, convictions can be difficult because the witnesses are often criminals. And jurors may give officers the benefit of the doubt. When the evidence is clear an officer is caught on tape or the witnesses are credible federal agents former officers probably are held to a higher standard, lawyers for both sides say. "The reason that you have to take it more seriously is that the public has to trust them and has to trust that they are not going to be above the law," says former prosecutor Michael Snipes.

It's hard to lose the cop attitude in prison, [an expert] says. "After you've been a cop for 15 years, everything in your mind is cop." Prison courtesy generally includes not inquiring about an inmate's crime. One warden advises former officers and child molesters to make up something rather than admit their pasts. Though administrators are aware when an officer is assigned to the unit, guards aren't necessarily informed, she says. That's good, Mr. Jones says, advising not to "get friendly with the guards because they're the ones that are going to hurt you."

"They're like military people," [an expert] says. "They're used to a structured environment. ...They understand the system, how it works, and most of them have been around a jail." "I know how to obey authority," says one prisoner without a trace of irony. "I don't have any trouble with that."