MIDLAND, Texas (AP) — 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. She said the officers weren't suspended until January because of staffing issues and the winter holidays.
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."