Some calling for independent probe of fatal Texas drug raid
HOUSTON — The growing investigation into the deadly January drug raid by Houston police that killed a couple and injured five officers has some local officials and community activists asking whether the probe should be taken over by an independent third party.
The Harris County District Attorney’s Office, which is heading the investigation into the deadly drug raid at a Houston home, pushed back on the idea, describing it as effort by officials to “interfere with the duties of the elected district attorney.”
But some legal experts say bringing in a third party, as has been done in other investigations around the country of alleged police misconduct, might be the best thing to do as the inquiry has ballooned into a review of the inner workings of the Houston Police Department’s narcotics division and 14,000 of its cases over several years.
“If you’re talking one or two bad apples, I’m not sure it has to go outside. But if it becomes like the whole narcotics division and it’s ingrained in the unit or there’s a culture there, then I think that may be something that you’d probably want to give to an outside entity,” said University of Dayton law professor Thaddeus Hoffmeister.
The Jan. 28 raid came under scrutiny after allegations that one of the officers who was shot, Gerald Goines, lied in a search warrant about having a confidential informant buy heroin at the home. The informant told investigators no such drug buy took place.
During the raid, four officers were shot in a gunfight that killed 59-year-old Dennis Tuttle and 58-year-old Rhogena Nicholas, the couple who lived in the home. A fifth officer injured his knee.
Family and friends of Tuttle and Nicholas have angrily dismissed allegations the couple sold drugs.
Shortly after the shooting, prosecutors said they were reviewing more than 2,000 cases tied to Goines and another officer connected to the drug raid.
But this week, prosecutors said their investigation has now grown into a probe of 14,000 cases handled by the Houston Police Department’s narcotics division.
The district attorney’s office asked county commissioners on Tuesday for funding to hire more prosecutors to help with the probe. Officials turned down the request and instead suggested an outside investigator might be needed.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county’s top administrator, said she and other officials had spoken with Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg months earlier about the need for an independent investigator after experts told county officials that a district attorney’s office, which works closely with police, would not be the best agency to conduct such a probe.
In a statement Friday, Ogg said that under the law, only a district attorney has the authority and jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute.
“This is a constitutional fact derived from the checks and balances that keep local politicians’ hands out of criminal investigations. We have promised the people of Harris County that we are going to get to the bottom of this,” she said.
Ray Brackens, with the Texas Organizing Project, a progressive community group, told county commissioners his organization favors an independent investigator as it doesn’t “have confidence in … Ogg’s ability to deliver the oversight that we need.”
“The outside person coming in … gives you a much cleaner picture of what happened and when the community looks at it, it gives the community confidence that the system worked,” said David Thomas, a criminal justice professor at Florida Gulf Coast University and a former police officer who has taken part in independent probes of police agencies.
Alex Piquero, a criminology professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, said he can understand the concerns some activists might have about prosecutors being involved in the investigation.
“But I see no reason why the DA should not continue to be involved in this process as well as having this independent investigation and let the facts come out when the facts come out,” Piquero said.