Actions of West Texas Police Force Gain Broad Scrutiny

An officer's videotaped beating of a suspected car thief during an arrest last month is just the latest troubling incident involving the Lubbock police department, including the unexplained demotion and subsequent resignation of the police chief earlier this summer and a federal notice critical of the department's hiring practices.

The latest episode was the July 29 arrest of Jose Escarcega-Ysaias, who is being held on two counts of aggravated assault against a public servant. Police say Cpl. Ryan Durrett stopped to help Escarcega push a stalled vehicle into a parking lot, only to discover that the car had been reported stolen. After a short foot chase, Escarcega was able to speed off in Durrett's patrol vehicle while Durrett fought with the Mexican national from the vehicle's doorway, authorities say.

The SUV soon careened into a utility pole and dash-cam video shows the two on the ground adjacent to the SUV when officers arrive, Escarcega with one arm up and the other obscured by Durrett's motionless body. One officer appears to charge forward and kick Escarcega and then straddles him while delivering at least five blows. Police say Durrett was hospitalized with serious injuries. He is now recovering at home, according to Jeremy Jones, president of the Lubbock Professional Police Association.

Police don't plan to disclose the name of the officer who struck Escarcega or say whether he has been placed on leave pending the outcome of an internal review of the incident, said Lt. Ray Mendoza.

Online jail records did not indicate an attorney for Escarcega and a guard at the Lubbock County jail did not have the information.

The violent arrest is just the latest troubling episode for the department.

In June, the U.S. Department of Justice notified the city that its practice of hiring probationary police officers discriminates against women and Hispanics.

"We have concluded that the city's use of the written examination since 2009 has caused an adverse impact on Hispanic applicants for probationary police positions," Vanita Gupta, an assistant attorney general, said in a letter to the city.

Gupta also said the police department's physical fitness test resulted in disparities in passing rates between male and female applicants.

Jones said the DOJ allegations lack merit.

"If you speak with Hispanic officers and female officers at the department they would say they're offended by the claims in that letter," Jones said.

But Mendoza said Tuesday the department has forwarded to federal officials proposed changes to its testing procedures. Lubbock officials hope to have the DOJ approve the changes in time for the next round of testing for applicants in October.

The police force, which has more than 400 sworn officers patrolling a city of 245,000 people, has had about 300 applicants appear for an exam, Mendoza said. Approximately 70 officers are needed to fill the ranks, he said.

One of the positions that must be filled is police chief, following the demotion in June of Roger Ellis, who held the job for four years and who has since resigned. City Manager James Loomis on Tuesday declined to explain the demotion, saying the city doesn't comment on personnel matters.

A message left for Mayor Glen Robertson was not returned.

It remains unclear if the demotion is related to the DOJ findings or some other matter, such as the well-publicized killing of a 15-year-old boy that Mendoza said will be addressed by interim Chief Jerry Brewer at some point this week.

Mark Anthony Ysasaga's remains were found in June with the help of a tipster after the teen had gone missing in 2012. Critics have questioned whether the tipster, a young man who was arrested on unrelated charges, may have been involved in the killing.

Mendoza said the results of an internal review of the Ysasaga case will be announced by Brewer, including an answer to claims that police arranged for the tipster to leave town after disclosing where Ysasaga's body was dumped.

The recent controversy hasn't been confined to the police department. Mayor Robertson was investigated this summer after allegedly pulling a gun during a confrontation with another man, the city attorney resigned last year following charges of sexual assault, and the chief executive for a city-owned utility resigned last year amid claims he rigged a lucrative bid in favor of one company.

But Mendoza said the lens is now focused on city police.

"Officers are still going to come to work and do their jobs, but that's in the back of their mind that there will be people always criticizing their actions and what they do," he said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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