County, community leaders calling for change

March 6, 2008 6:23:51 PM PST
Harris County taxpayers are having to pay out more than two million dollars in a huge lawsuit after a long legal battle with two brothers. And now, county and community leaders say there should be more done to make sure taxpayers are not left with another big bill from the sheriff's department.

When the settlement offer was approved Monday by county commissioners, the idea was to put to rest the lawsuit that indirectly brought down the district attorney and clear the decks. However, more than a few people suggest a multi-million dollar judgment should force some change to guard against history repeating itself.

Call it the million dollar video, taken six years ago by brothers Sean and Erik Ibarra. They were photographing a sheriff's department drug raid at a neighbor's house. They ended up being arrested themselves. They were charged with resisting and evading arrest. Those charges were later dropped. The brothers sued and now, they're about to get a $1.7 million check from the county.

"We're gonna have to pay that kind of money out in order to get one case solved, so a review board, I think, would do a lot better," said Reverend Robert Jefferson.

Reverend Jefferson and Reverend James Nash are members of Ministers against Crime, a group that has called for the sheriff's resignation. Now the group wants an impartial set of eyes to look at the department's operation.

"It's not even about the money, I don't think," said Reverend Nash. "I think it's the principle more than anything else. Maybe this represents a turning point for this."

The deputies named in the lawsuit remain with the sheriff's department. Sheriff Tommy Thomas has conceded mistakes may have been made by the officers because they may have misinterpreted policy.

In a statement released Thursday, a department spokesman writes, "The sheriff has reviewed policy pertaining to the Ibarra case and feels strongly that current policies address all issues raised in court and do not need to be changed or amended. Additionally, the process for closing internal affairs investigations will be looked at to determine if additional safeguards to assure accuracy and thoroughness of investigations need to be put in place."

That's all being done internally. But at least one county commissioner wants more and supports an independent examination of the county's criminal justice system, including the sheriff's department.

"That's why I'm in favor of a comprehensive top to bottom review of the entire system from the moment of arrest to final prosecution, all of it," said Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia. "The mental health issues, the overcrowding, the booking issues, all of it."

The deputies involved received no disciplinary action. The Ibarras' attorney is asking the sheriff's department to launch another investigation into the case.

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