5 Texas COs indicted in alleged inmate beating
The jail has a history of violence, including a 2016 incident in which a group of inmates beat a prisoner to death
By Brooke A. Lewis and Keri Blakinger
HOUSTON — Five detention officers with the Harris County Sheriff's Office were indicted Tuesday for allegedly doling out a brutal jailhouse beatdown, a legal development announced just days after a former inmate filed a $1 million lawsuit for an unrelated beating.
"These actions are not representative of the Harris County Sheriff's Office and the values that we strive to uphold," Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said in announcing the indictments.
The Harris County Jail has a troubled history of violence, including a notorious 2016 incident in which a group of inmates beat a fellow prisoner to death.
That outburst of violence came just five months before the beating that sparked Tuesday's indictments and left inmate Jerome Bartee battered so badly he needed facial reconstruction. Bartee needed screws, stitches and a plate to reconstruct his face and a shattered eye socket, according to Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg in a news release issued by her office.
Her office said officers Jeremy Ringle, Joshua Degler, Napoleon Harmon and Andrew Rowell all face aggravated assault by a public servant charges for the September 2016 incident. Officer Salvador Garibay was indicted on a misdemeanor assault charge tied to the incident. A warrant has been issued for the arrests of those charged.
"Our office supports law enforcement. We don't want anyone to think that our office is out seeking something against law enforcement," Assistant District Attorney Jules Johnson said at a Tuesday news conference. "What we are trying to do, is that we want the laws of the state of Texas followed by everyone."
Started with traffic stop
A month after his alleged beating, Bartee filed a civil suit against Harris County requesting unnamed compensatory, special and punitive damages, as well as a trial by jury.
A 29-year-old father of three, Bartee was originally arrested on Sept. 3 after police found drugs and a gun registered to his wife inside his car, according to a narrative laid out in Bartee's suit.
The case started when he was pulled over for failing to use a turn signal.
The following day, Bartee told jail employees that he had a severe toothache and asked to receive medical care.
He was escorted to the clinic by Rowell, according to court filings. The man was then allegedly pushed into a door in the clinic hallway by Rowell "unnecessarily and without provocation," the suit said.
Rowell and several other Harris County employees continued to physically assault Bartee, throwing him "into a chair and a podium" as they stomped and beat him to "near unconsciousness."
Jail surveillance cameras caught the whole episode on tape - including the moment when one employee tried to shut off the recording.
The injured man was taken to Ben Taub hospital by jail employees, but he returned to general population the same day, with sutures and bruises, according to court papers.
Punching 'not necessary'
After an internal affairs investigation, three Harris County Jail employees were suspended just days after the incident.
"We feel that that part of it was not done properly," Sheriff Ron Hickman said at the time. "We feel there was punching involved that was not necessary."
Bartee was released from jail on Sept. 7. He was originally charged with assault of a public servant, but it was dismissed on Sept. 8.
Five months later in February 2017, Ringle was terminated by the sheriff's office for an unrelated use-of-force investigation tied to a July 2016 incident, according to the sheriff's office.
Garibay and Rowell were terminated in September. Degler and Harmon, who are still working for the sheriff's office, will be relieved of duty based on the indictment, according to the sheriff's release.
In an unrelated legal case, another jail inmate, c, last week filed a $1 million lawsuit alleging three unnamed jailers beat him up so badly they dislocated his shoulder, then tossed him in solitary confinement and allegedly tried to cover it up.
"There's a problem with excessive force in the Harris County Jail," said attorney Andre Evans, who's representing Tennyson in his civil case. "These allegations aren't baseless, and they have been systemic."
The Harris County Sheriff's Office referred all comment to the county attorney, who did not immediately respond.
Tennyson was sitting in jail on a family assault charge when he says he was pulled from his pod in the middle of the night on March 3.
"Somebody was singing or rapping or making noise in his pod," Evans said. It was well after 1 a.m., and lights were out for the night - so the jailers dubbed it a group demonstration, which is banned in jail.
"Then one of the Harris County employees came and rounded up a group of about six or eight African-American inmates," Evans said. "Mr. Tennyson was one of those inmates, and he let her know it was discriminatory."
In response, a male guard allegedly slammed Tennyson's head and neck so hard it dislocated his shoulder. Afterward, they tossed him in a cell until the next morning, when day shift employees finally got him medical care, he says.
At one point, a higher-ranking jailer allegedly tried coercing Tennyson into keeping quiet, telling him that if he didn't make an issue out of the incident he wouldn't have to worry about a disciplinary record.
Ultimately, Tennyson's disciplinary charges were dropped, though he did spend 24 to 48 hours in solitary confinement, Evans said.
The suit also harps on the jail's past mistakes, including those leading to a 2009 U.S. Department of Justice memorandum finding constitutional deficiencies such as insufficient medical treatment and potentially inappropriate use of force.
"Harris County Jail has for years, systematically failed to protect its detainees from harm, especially from harm caused by its employees," Evans wrote in court filings, also accusing the jail of a "well-documented history of misconduct involving abuse of authority or misuse of force, including beating, kicking and body-slamming inmates."
©2017 the Houston Chronicle