Despite renewed effort, Texas game wardens struggle to diversify ranks


Highlights

Five years ago, a series of allegations about race left the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department reeling.

Game warden ranks remain mostly male and white, especially in the top ranks.

Five years after Texas Parks and Wildlife Department officials pledged to diversify the agency’s law enforcement ranks following federal complaints over how the Texas game wardens operated, the agency has failed to fold more women or African-Americans into its ranks, according to an analysis by the American-Statesman.

As a further lawsuit looms over hiring and firing practices in the game warden ranks, the Statesman, examining information obtained through public information requests, found:

• The top three Texas game warden posts are occupied by white men.

• Of the 17 people who occupy the next two ranks, one is African-American, one is Hispanic, one is Native American — and one is female.

• The number of people applying to be game wardens has doubled, from about 500 applicants to the training academy a decade or so ago to roughly 1,000 a year more recently. Getting into the academy is highly competitive: Only between 40 and 70 admissions offers are made each year, depending on openings on the game warden force and legislative funding.

• The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has hired more Hispanics in recent years — but since 2008 only two African-Americans have graduated from the training academy, both of them last year.

• Of the 524 game wardens, 39 are female.

Top officials at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department created a diversity officer position in 2014, believed to be the first such position for a major state agency, to coordinate efforts to boost diversity. At the time, agency officials declined to give specific goals on minority recruitment and hiring.

“Just as biological diversity gives strength and stability to the natural ecosystem,” reads an official statement on the agency’s website, “engaging a diversity of people adds significance and sustainability to our agency and makes us relevant to the people and communities we serve.”

Census figures show that in 2010 Texas non-Hispanic whites composed 45 percent of the state, Hispanics 38 percent, and African-Americans, 12 percent.

Among game wardens, 81 percent are white; 14 percent are Hispanic; and 3 percent are black.

“It’s a fair and open state promotional process,” Josh Havens, a spokesman for Texas Parks and Wildlife, told the Statesman. “Does it give preference to white male candidates? No.”

By comparison, 58 percent of Texas Department of Public Safety rank-and-file troopers are white, 31 percent are Hispanic and 9 percent are African-American, according to agency figures. Nearly 94 percent of those troopers are men.

Among the 128 men and women who make up the upper ranks of DPS, 65 percent are white, 25 percent are Latino and 8 percent are black. Nearly 90 percent of those high-ranking DPS officials are men.

A troubled history

The game wardens trace their roots to the late 19th century as the conservation-minded, pioneering counterparts of the more storied Texas Rangers. Their mission started simple enough, to prevent the overhunting of Texas wild game.

But while “Law Enforcement Off the Pavement” remains their motto, they’ve long expanded beyond their original duties.

Game wardens now have more than a half-dozen K-9 teams trained in narcotics detection, manhunts and cadaver location. They have a SWAT-like tactical response team, a search-and-rescue squad and a forensics reconstruction and mapping team, among others. And they have been deployed, like DPS troopers, from around Texas to patrol the border.

If their history is intertwined with the state’s pioneering spirit — game wardens are the subject of a current Animal Planet TV show called “Lone Star Law” — it has also been marked by a lack of diversity.

Prior to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s creation in 1963, there were no African-American game wardens.

The first African-American graduated from the game warden academy in 1975. After the U.S. attorney general determined in 1978 that there was reason to believe the agency as a whole engaged in employment discrimination based on race and sex, in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the state agency agreed in a settlement to open up opportunities for nonwhite men.

The academy graduated its first female cadet the next year.

But that settlement expired in 1983, and nearly 30 years later another harsh spotlight was thrown on the game warden academy when several game wardens told an Austin Chronicle reporter about alleged racist incidents.

That year, 2012, agency Executive Director, Carter Smith, pledged to root out the problem.

A report he commissioned by an outside law firm found a “legacy of intolerance and favoritism” in the game warden division and identified a “long-term systematic failure of senior or supervisory game wardens to demonstrate a commitment to diversify among game wardens of lower rank.”

“The rapidly changing demographics of Texas make it imperative that every game warden, regardless of rank and tenure, discard outdated and discredited notions derived from an earlier time and rely on their own personal experiences in modern day Texas to guide their views and actions on matters of race and gender,” says the 2013 Davis Kauffman report.

“One of the best ways for game wardens to engender good will and support from the communities they serve,” it concluded, “is for citizens of those communities to feel that they are ably represented at all levels of the game warden ranks.”

A mixed recruiting record

Lt. Kevin Malonson, 44, is the face Parks and Wildlife officials hope to project. Short, earnest — and black — he grew up bird hunting and fishing in Northwest Houston — but had no real interest in law enforcement.

But while duck hunting in the late 1990s with a college friend in Matagorda Bay, a game warden pulled up to check their boat for compliance.

They chatted, he learned about the game wardens and decided to intern for the force the following summer. After college, he became a full-fledged warden.

“All game wardens are recruiters,” he says. “They’re a symbol of the agency when they put on that uniform.”

A few years ago he and another African-American game warden, Eric Howard, became the agency’s first two black recruiters.

“For us to reach a broader audience, we need recruiters that appeal to audiences we’re trying to recruit,” Havens said.

Other recruiting changes followed: In a nod to structural obstacles to African-Americans learning to swim — for generations they were barred from public swimming pools — the Parks and Wildlife Department decided to give all applicants three opportunities, rather than two, to complete a swim test. In a rebranding effort, marketing material featured women or people of color. And, most of all, the recruiters since 2013 have fanned out to historically black colleges and participated in mentorship programs targeting potential minority candidates.

The pitch is simple: Today you might be on a boat, tomorrow a truck, the next day an ATV. As a warden the work changes day to day; you can go on one case from being a patrolman to a detective.

“You’re part law enforcement, part biologist,” Havens says.

In some ways, the recruiting is working. Overall numbers of applicants have soared and Parks and Wildlife administrators have begun admitting more Hispanics and fewer whites.

Malonson said the “relationships are paying off.”

But the agency has failed to move the needle on African-American hiring.

Moving the academy from Austin to white and rural Hamilton County might not have helped with recruitment, a second 2013 Parks and Wildlife report found.

“It is possible that the priority given the infrastructure considerations may have come at the expense of programmatic efforts to recruit, hire and successfully train African-American males and other minorities,” the report found.

Malonson said the stepped-up recruiting efforts show “the department is putting its money where its mouth is.”

Asked about the inability to recruit more black candidates, he said: “This is about building of bridges, about long-term relationships.”

‘Recycled claims’

Even as it tries to improve diversity, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department finds itself fighting off new claims of racial discrimination.

In May, lawyers took depositions in another game warden discrimination case.

Kelly Newman, who is black, began working as a game warden in 1985. He claims he was given an unsatisfactory job performance review in 2014 as retaliation for supporting one of the earlier federal equal opportunity complaints by a game warden colleague. Eventually he was dismissed from the agency with a general discharge; a federal judge later shifted that to an honorable discharge.

Two previous cases brought by his Houston legal team on behalf of other wardens or cadets were dismissed by judges.

In a brief filed in federal court in Houston, state lawyers say the Kelly Newman suit involves “recycled claims” and is “the latest chapter in the saga of two former game wardens whose deficient performance led to the end of their employment with TPWD.”

The department said Newman has failed “to present a plausible … race discrimination claim.”

In December, a federal judge dismissed racial discrimination claims and any retaliation claims that occurred before November 2013, leaving alive limited retaliation claims after that date.

Still, Newman’s attorney is trying to place the remaining retaliation claim in the context of the longer racial history of the game wardens; his brief says that over the past century only about 1 percent of game wardens hired have been African-American.

In any case, things are slow to change: Of the game warden trainees admitted this year, 35 were white and six Hispanic. Two were women. The sole black applicant admitted to the academy dropped out.



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