By Jeffrey L. Boney
Special to the NNPA from the Houston Forward Times
HOUSTON – “You have the right to remain silent!”
This is the beginning phrase from the warning criminal suspects usually hears when they are being read their Miranda rights from a member of law enforcement, and prior to them saying anything that could harm them in any way and lead to a self-incriminating result.
For many current and former Houston Police Department (HPD) officers, many believe that they have had to work in an environment where they have been the victim of a work environment built upon a foundation of retaliation and an unwritten “code of silence.”
For the second time in a year, a federal jury has determined that the Houston Police Department retaliated against one of their own.
After more than three weeks of testimony and jury deliberation, Officer Christopher Zamora was awarded $150,000 for compensatory damages that include emotional distress and damage to his professional reputation in the law enforcement community. The police department challenged the finding. Last December, another federal jury also ruled in favor of Officer Zamora, but a U.S. Supreme Court ruling necessitated a new trial.
Officer Zamora is the son of a retired HPD Lieutenant who, along with 23 other Hispanic police officers, filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination within HPD against Hispanics in the promotions process.
According to the ruling, Officer Chris Zamora, who was not involved in the original case, was subjected to a hostile work environment and labeled “untruthful” by the HPD Internal Affairs Division and HPD command staff. Meanwhile, during the intervening five years, Officer Zamora received the department’s 2008 South Patrol Officer of the Year Award and was also named Officer of the Year by “The 100 Club,” a popular non-profit organization that supports families of officers killed in the line of duty.
But Zamora, like any officer who challenges the system, ran into a blue wall.
It’s called the Blue Code of Silence, an unwritten rule among police officers not to rat on a fellow officer. Many feel it’s futile to challenge the blue code, because doing so could mean they are seeking to destroy long-standing traditions and feelings of brotherhood within the law enforcement family. Violating the silence could lead to being shunned, losing friends, losing back-up, receiving threats, having one’s own misconduct exposed and more importantly, being terminated.
No one has to explain that to Katherine Swilley, a well-respected and dedicated HPD officer, who served Houston for more than 20 years. Swilley received numerous “Outstanding” performance ratings and commendations from the public, her superiors, and two mayors.
She started a nonprofit organization in 2000 called “Texas Cops & Kids” – Cops Giving Kids Quality Time…Not Jail Time. Using mostly of her own funds, Swilley started the juvenile delinquency prevention program because of concerns about the lack of options that disadvantaged youth had in some of Houston’s poorest neighborhoods.
Swilley’s community service work led to city of Houston Mayor Bill White awarding her the city of Houston’s prestigious Bravo Award in September 2005, an honor that was praised by her supervisors.
After receiving the Bravo Award, Police Chief Harold Hurtt reassigned Swilley to the Public Affairs Division on special assignment in May 2006 to initiate his “Kids at Hope Program.” This is when Swilley says her career began to unravel.
In 2008, Swilley’s problems began when she reported what she believed was discrimination within the Houston Police Department’s Public Affairs Division. She cited her supervisors’ lack of support for the inner city delinquency prevention program that served at-risk youth. Swilley filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Shortly after lining the EEOC complaint, she said, the police department initiated a criminal investigation of her for allegedly misappropriating funds from her non-profit, charges that were substantiated.
Swilley says that she was unlawfully retaliated against and terminated in March 2008, actions she also links to her filing the EEOC complaint and revoking her willingness to be bound by a “Last-Chance” Compromise Waiver Agreement that required her to relinquish the rights guaranteed to her by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
She states that these separation deals include taking mental fitness tests and/ or program for officers with discipline problems, forced medical retirements and/ or sign “Last Chance” compromise waiver agreements to accept a lesser discipline and drop any and all discrimination complaints they may have filed with EEOC.
“I did nothing wrong, so there was no need for me to sign anything,” says Swilley. “Officers who refuse to accept these deals are terminated and removed from their careers in law enforcement followed by erroneous dishonorable discharges based on bogus charges, ending their law enforcement careers.”
Swilley states that she never would have imagined in a million years being framed on a baseless criminal investigation or being bullied and forced out of a police career that she loved and was committed to for over 20 years.
According to HPD Internal Affairs documents received by the Houston Forward Times, Swilley was terminated for “untruthfulness.” Other documents show that Swilley received an improper dishonorable discharge and additional affidavits and documents from HPD Internal Affairs investigators clearly state that the department has no evidence or proof that Swilley committed any crime or deserved to be terminated.
In the meantime, Swilley has lived in fear.
“For two years, I was under a protective order and ordered not to discuss my case, while atrocious lies were spread throughout the police department and the community about me,” she recounted. “I have had my integrity and credibility attacked and I have even been threatened with dead animals on my yard and phone calls.”
Swilley says that officers have mysteriously shown up at her home, claiming that they were responding to alarm calls or calls for help at her home. She says that suspicious vehicles have been parked in front of her home; dead animals have been found in her yard, including a dead opossum in front of her home with its throat cut. Her computer has been hacked and random shots have been fired into her home.
She goes further to say that since she filed complaints the threats have escalated, from someone ringing her doorbell in the middle of the night to someone writing the words “F@#$ Y@%” with the “F” shaped as a Swastika sign on the sidewalk in front of her home.
Not only has she lost her job, she lost her husband to cancer, while spending more than $100,000 in legal fees in order to clear her name. “Swilley is my married name and my husband fought bravely for this country in the military,” said Swilley. “My husband has a good name and before he died, I promised him that I would continue to fight to clear the Swilley name from these lies. I will not rest until his name is cleared and my reputation is restored.”