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MIDLAND, Texas – Two police officers in an oil-rich West Texas city spent weeks competing to see who could take the most cardboard signs away from homeless people, even though panhandling doesn't violate any city law.
Nearly two months after the Midland Police Department learned of the game, the two officers were suspended for three days without pay, according to findings of the internal affairs investigation obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request.
Advocate groups immediately blasted the department's handling, suggesting that the punishment wasn't harsh enough and that the probe should have been made public much earlier, before news organizations, including the AP, started asking about it.
"The fact that they are making sport out of collecting the personal property of homeless individuals could be seen as them targeting these individuals for discriminatory harassment," said Cassandra Champion, an attorney in the Odessa office of the Texas Civil Rights Project. "Simply holding a sign is absolutely a protected part of our free speech."
Police Chief Price Robinson said the actions were an isolated incident in a department of 186 officers and didn't deserve a harsher punishment. After the investigation all officers were reminded to respect individual rights and human dignity, he said.
"We want to respect people, no matter who they are — homeless, whatever," Robinson said. "That situation's been dealt with. Those officers understand."
The investigation found the two officers, Derek Hester and Daniel Zoelzer, violated the department's professional standards of conduct. There is no ordinance against panhandling in Midland, an oil-boom city of more than 110,000 where a recent count put the homeless number at about 300. About a quarter of those are transient.
Evan Rogers, founder of Church Under the Bridge Midland's ministry, said the failure by police to disclose the officers' behavior once discovered made it appear the department was "pushing it under the carpet.
"I think that does give the public the wrong message," he said.
Asked Wednesday about why the investigation wasn't made public earlier, city spokeswoman Sara Higgins said it is not the department's standard protocol to announce when an internal affairs investigation is completed.
On a recent afternoon, one group of homeless people could be seen near a trash bin behind a fast-food restaurant and another around an intersection. Among their signs was one that read: "Anything helps. God bless."
"If it was them, I guarantee you they'd be doing the same thing," said Desarie Caine, who sought donations on a street corner while eating from a package of beef jerky. "I think they're bored."
The two officers, who did not appeal their suspensions, have been with the department about two years. They both returned emails from the AP declining to be interviewed.
According to the investigation report, eight signs were found in the trunk of Hester's patrol car on Nov. 20 and Zoelzer had thrown the about 10 signs he had confiscated into a city trash container after Hester called him to warn him he had been reprimanded by his superior for having the signs.
The two told the internal affairs investigator, that they were issuing criminal trespass warnings when they took the signs. But according to the report, no homeless people were issued criminal trespass warnings by either officer in 2013. Most of those warnings in Midland are written, but some are verbal.
The investigation also looked into complaints from within the department that Hester and Zoelzer failed to log into evidence brass knuckles, a small set of scales and two knives they had obtained during other patrol stops. The investigation into the signs began after an officer on patrol with Hester when Hester obtained the brass knuckles sent an email to his sergeant Nov. 18 about Hester saying he wasn't going to log them in as evidence.
The signs and the brass knuckles were found in Hester's car during a vehicle inspection two days later.
The contest between Hester, 25, and Zoelzer, 26, was alluded to in text messages on Nov. 21 obtained by the AP. It was unclear which of the officers sent each message.
"My bad man when he first ask me about it he didn't seem mad or anything so I just told him me and u wereaking (sic) a game outta it when we'd trespass them and stuff," one text read. Another read, "Man this is some bs."
Although Rogers said he doesn't believe the officers' actions reflect on the whole department, he considered the penalty insufficient.
"I don't believe three days gives it justice," Rogers said.