Town’s police force highlights struggle to track cops with a history

Bruce Mills didn’t waste a lot of time while serving as interim police chief of Jonestown this spring. In the two months he acted as a fill-in while this lakeside town 30 miles northwest of Austin sought a permanent chief, Mills moved to fire two of the town’s seven-member police force.

As a former top Austin police official, Mills was familiar with one of the officers he dismissed. Yvonne Gunnlaugsson had been suspended several times from the Austin Police Department before retiring under a cloud in 2005, public records show. She’d come to work for Jonestown a short time later.

The second officer, Andre Anderson, was sacked from the Jonestown department May 7. An internal investigation accused him of omitting an important piece of history from his job application: He’d lost his job at the Travis County sheriff’s office in 2001, after acknowledging he’d had sex with two inmates while they were in custody.

A background check by the American-Statesman shows that a third Jonestown officer also has a checkered disciplinary history. Terry Roggenkamp was suspended and later fired by the Georgetown Police Department for two separate offenses prior to landing in Jonestown. Both alleged he failed to properly investigate suspected crimes, including one instance involving a police sergeant later convicted of sexual misconduct.

With nearly half its police force made up of officers with extensive and serious disciplinary histories in other departments, Jonestown is a dramatic example of the state’s troubled efforts to control the phenomenon known among police as gypsy cops. Despite a number of efforts by regulators to restrict the practice, Texas police officers with histories of misconduct often move easily from department to department.

At the heart of the failure is a piece of paper called the F-5, which must be filled out by chiefs every time an officer leaves a department and placed on file at the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. Required in Texas since 2005, the confidential form requires chiefs to label departing officers’ performance as “honorable,” “general” or “dishonorable.”

Yet changes over the years have created incentives and opportunities for the document to be manipulated so as to obscure an officer’s true performance. The result: Regulators say the F-5 has turned into an essentially worthless piece of paper.

“You can no longer trust it to tell you what it’s suppose to,” said Kim Vickers, the state commission’s executive director. “The system is broken.”

It is also a reminder of how difficult it can be to remove bad police from the profession generally. Teachers, doctors and other professionals can all lose their state licenses for unprofessional behavior. Texas laws covering police officers, by comparison, contain no blanket provision for suspending or revoking an officer’s license for misconduct — making it virtually impossible to take away an officer’s license for anything short of a felony conviction.

The result is that even officers with records of questionable conduct can still find work. A Statesman analysis of licensing records kept by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement shows that nearly half of the three dozen police fired by local departments over the past five years found employment at another law enforcement agency.

Among them are some of Austin’s most notorious police officers.

Five years ago, officer Leonardo Quintana fatally shot Nathaniel Sanders II outside a Northeast Austin apartment complex after the two struggled for a gun. While Quintana wasn’t disciplined for excessive force, he was suspended for failing to activate his patrol car camera during the incident. The city later paid $750,000 to settle a federal wrongful death lawsuit brought by the Sanders family.

A year after the shooting, Chief Art Acevedo fired Quintana after he was arrested and charged with drunken driving in Williamson County. Quintana blamed his drinking on the Sanders shooting, and an arbitrator later reinstated him. Quintana eventually quit. Following a subsequent domestic violence arrest — he was later acquitted — Quintana disappeared from view.

He resurfaced two months ago. In March, the former Austin officer was hired as a deputy by the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Department, in the Rio Grande Valley. Quintana didn’t return phone calls seeking comment. Acting Sheriff Eddie Guerra, who took office six weeks ago, said he wasn’t familiar with Quintana’s past.

Small change, big effect

Texas has about 100,000 state-licensed peace officers and jailers. In recent years, an average of about 16,000 have left their jobs each year, either to exit the profession or take new positions.

Historically, Vickers said, keeping track of officers as they moved around was a challenge — particularly for those forced out for poor performance. “Officers would work, get in trouble, then resign and move on,” he said.

At the time, the F-5 document only confirmed that an officer had left a department, but it gave no information about the circumstances, recalled then-Executive Director Tim Braaten. While it was filed with the then-Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Education, it held little use for law enforcement agencies seeking background information on their potential hires.

In 2005, state legislators passed a bill designed to make the F-5 more useful. The updated form explained in detail under what circumstances an officer left and added a discharge classification: honorable, general or dishonorable. An officer could appeal a dishonorable or general discharge. But the burden was on him or her to prove his chief’s assessment was undeserved.

Two years later, after police unions complained that chiefs were unfairly using the classification to punish officers, legislators flipped the system: Now when a discharge label was challenged, the burden was on the officer’s supervisor to prove that the less than honorable discharge was justified.

Supporters said the change held departments accountable and discouraged vindictive chiefs from punishing officers for mere personality clashes. But, Vickers and others say, the seemingly minor change has had giant consequences.

In 2008, Ken Walker, chief of the West University Place Police Department near Houston, fired officer Rosemarie Valdes “after she repeatedly told false and grossly exaggerated version of an on-duty incident,” court documents show. When she appealed her dishonorable discharge, Walker recalled, the small department virtually had to close up shop for a day while it sent two attorneys, the city’s human resources director, a police captain and the chief and a firefighter to Austin for the appeals hearing.

“We’re lucky we could afford to do it,” Walker said. But for small departments that can’t, he said, it’s much easier to fudge the F-5 and avoid an expensive and time-consuming appeal. “I suspect there’s a lot of negotiation going on in the termination process,” he said.

“Are there small town chiefs not checking ‘dishonorable’ when they should? Absolutely,” said Christopher Davis, who was the top lawyer at the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement until retiring two years ago.

Vickers said he knew of a half-dozen cases in the past year in which a chief agreed to let an officer resign in lieu of firing as long as he agreed not to seek a new law enforcement position in nearby jurisdictions. In other instances, Vickers said, police chiefs simply don’t show up to contest dishonorable appeals, which means the case is automatically decided in favor of officers.

The number of “honorable” discharges across the state has climbed steadily. In 2009, 74 percent of the 15,000 discharge reports issued were “honorable,” with about 22 percent of the departing officers receiving a “general” discharge.

By last year, 85 percent of the 16,500 departing officers leaving a department received “honorable” discharges. Barely 11 percent were labeled “general.” The number of dishonorable discharges has stayed flat.

“It’s not that there are not problem officers out there,” Vickers said. Rather, more and more are being given upgraded classifications, making it difficult for hiring departments to distinguish good cops from bad ones.

Misconduct firings rare

Because many departments will accept only applicants with honorable discharges, the shrinking number of less-than-honorable discharges suggests that more officers who shouldn’t be carrying a badge are continuing to work in law enforcement.

In Texas, a police officer’s license can be revoked for only three reasons. One is for “barratry,” or using his position for financial gain; officials said it is rarely invoked. The second is for a felony criminal conviction. About 35 peace officers annually get their licenses pulled for qualifying crimes.

The third is for egregious misconduct. Unlike some other professions licensed by the state, however, Texas defines this for police in an extremely narrow and specific way — two dishonorable discharges.

Over the past five years, only 11 Texas peace officers have had their licenses pulled for this reason, state records show. (One of those would have lost his license for a crime anyway: Hidalgo County sheriff’s Deputy Jonathan Trevino, the son of former Sheriff Lupe Trevino, last month was sentenced to 17 years in prison for his role in a drug smuggling ring.)

Consequently, many officers who have been deemed unfit to work at one police agency can still find work at another. Four officers who were fired from area policing agencies in recent years for being untruthful later found jobs at other law enforcement departments, according to the Statesman’s analysis.

“When you start talking about misconduct — behavior so outrageous it offends public sensibilities — (a law permitting license revocation) is something we really could use in this state,” Vickers said.

John Moritz, spokesman for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, said the state’s largest police union would support a stronger system to track troubled police officers. “We have no interest in putting an officer who has a proven record he is unfit back into the ranks,” he said.

Davis said some departments also still don’t perform background checks or request a candidate’s F-5 forms. When the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement audited the Jonestown Police Department last October, for example, investigators found the personnel files of three of its officers were missing the separation document, suggesting that a detailed check into their work history hadn’t been performed.

In other cases — particularly in small rural departments — an officer’s less-than-stellar background might be overlooked if the agency is desperate enough to fill a position. Many have difficulty filling positions because of long hours, isolated locations and low pay.

“Your assumption is that if a department knows someone doesn’t measure up, they won’t hire him,” said Roger Goldman, one of the nation’s leading law enforcement experts and a professor at St. Louis University’s School of Law. “And that’s not true.”

Those departments become what Goldman referred to as “last chance agencies” — a final stop for a troubled officer before he is finally forced to change professions. “You get someone who is damaged, but he has his license, and you can hire him right away,” Goldman said.

Officers left under clouds

After departing the Travis County sheriff’s office, Anderson quickly resumed working as a police officer, landing at the Bertram Police Department in Burnet County, according to state records. He later moved to the Marlin Police Department, northeast of Temple, then the Bastrop County sheriff’s office before being hired by Jonestown in March 2008. (His discharge status for each is unknown because F-5 reports are considered confidential except for departments requesting them for a background check.)

Jonestown’s new chief, James Harrison, fired Anderson the week after he took command. Anderson has appealed, asserting that he was truthful on his application.

Gunnlaugsson had compiled a long list of infractions as an Austin police officer. She’d been suspended six times, including for wrecking a patrol car after falling asleep and for failing to interview a suspect who had been identified by a robbery victim. Her involvement in another case led to a federal lawsuit against the city that raised questions about her judgment while responding to a call.

She was hired by Jonestown soon after. Mills said he didn’t know what kind of background check the city performed on her, or if the then-chief contacted Austin to check her background.

Mills declined to say why he fired Gunnlaugsson in March. But a series of videos from her patrol car camera obtained by the American-Statesman in March appeared to show her behaving rudely toward motorists in otherwise routine stops.

She, too, is appealing her firing, claiming that she’d never been disciplined in her seven years on the Jonestown force. “Progressive discipline, if necessary, should have been used in this case,” her attorney wrote.

Roggenkamp also arrived at Jonestown after compiling a questionable work record. According to Georgetown Police Department records, Roggenkamp was suspended for 25 days in April 2008 after he performed an “improper” investigation into an allegation that a fellow Georgetown police officer had sexually assaulted a woman while responding to a domestic violence call — including turning off his body microphone when interviewing Sgt. Jimmy Fennell.

Fennell later pleaded guilty to kidnapping and improper sexual activity with a person in custody.

Less than 60 days after returning from work from that 25-day suspension, records show then-Georgetown Police Chief David Morgan fired Roggenkamp — again for not following up on a suspected crime. Roggenkamp had pulled over a firefighter from a neighboring town suspected of drunken driving and given him a ride to a Holiday Inn, city records show.

Roggenkamp, who didn’t return calls or emails, appealed his Georgetown firing but lost. He was hired as a police officer by Jonestown the following year.

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