Beaumont police chief says department will rebound from setbacks

January 20, 2011

Law & Courts

BEAUMONT — Police Chief Frank Coffin told a media gathering Thursday that after the recent convictions of four officers, morale in the Beaumont Police Department may be in “a downward spiral,” but he expects it will rebound.

Coffin, speaking at a luncheon meeting of the Press Club of Southeast Texas, also said that while he has felt some outside “pressure” in recent months, he has no immediate plans to retire. But Coffin, who has served in the department since 1972, said he likely would hang up his hat before reaching his 40th anniversary in June 2012.

“I think my boss is happy with the job I’m doing,” Coffin said of City Manager Kyle Hayes.

In the freewheeling discussion with print and broadcast journalists and other communication professionals, Coffin said he was from the old school of his predecessor, Tom Scofield, in believing “You don’t take credit when crime is going down, because you have to take the blame when crime is going up.”

But Coffin did point to statistics showing that property crimes and violent crimes in the city have gone down since he became chief in 2006. He credited the department’s use of its COMPSTAT (for Computer Statistics) program, in which the department’s leadership every week pours over statistics showing which areas have the most incidents.

The COMPSTAT program became a bone of contention in the December trial of Officer James Cody Guedry, who was convicted by a Jefferson County jury of official oppression, a Class A misdemeanor, in connection with twice using a Taser against Derrick Newman during a late-night traffic stop in August 2007.

State district Judge John Stevens, Jr. on Tuesday sentenced Guedry to 30 days in state jail, probated for 90 days. Another, since-resigned officer, David Todd Burke, was convicted of the same offense for using his police baton 13 times against Newman and sentenced to a year’s probation in September. [UPDATE: Following a March 31 hearing, Stevens ruled April 1 that Guedry should receive a new trial based on ineffective counsel.]

During Guedry’s trial, prosecutors alleged (and elicited testimony from officers supporting the allegation) that the COMPSTAT program had led to police treating residents of Beaumont’s South End, where the Newman incident occurred, differently than other parts of the city.

But Coffin called the allegation “ridiculous, not accurate at all.” While he said the department has instituted “zero tolerance areas,” that doesn’t mean that individuals are treated differently, he said.

“It’s true that in some areas of town if people are out late at night there’s a good chance most of them could be involved in suspicious activity,” he said. “But you can’t say for a fact that a part of town is going to exhibit those kind of factors all of the time.”

Coffin said that since the convictions of Burke and Guedry and two other officers who received deferred adjudication for tampering with paperwork in a case against a man whose conviction was later overturned, his department has felt some strain with the Jefferson County Criminal District Attorney’s Office.

But he said he and other other department leaders met this week with Criminal District Attorney Tom Maness to try to repair the relationship.

“We want to do as good a job as we possibly can. We’re optimistic that we can do a good job and bring cases to them that they will accept,” Coffin said.

Coffin denied that a “culture” of police oppression existed among some part of the rank-and-file, saying the recent convictions and other incidents were a “string of coincidences.”

He said the department does what it can to hire “the absolutely best possible people that we can find,” but that on occasion some officers might be “having a bad day” and “make bad decisions” that stray outside departmental policy. He said the department takes every citizen complaint seriously and investigates them in both formal and informal ways.

“It’s not OK to got out there and have a bad day,” he said.

Coffin noted that the department’s leadership is constrained somewhat by its labor agreement with rank-and-file officers in the Beaumont Police Officers Association.

“Morale is not good,” Coffin said. “A lot of officers were upset with me when I disciplined Todd Burke.” [Coffin suspended Burke for two days after investigating the Newman incident, but that decision was later overturned by an outside arbitrator.] He noted that he did not discipline Guedry at the time because he was a rookie officer still in his probationary status.

“I think the organization has been going in a downward spiral, and it will last for a while. I think we’ll have bad morale for a while, and I think it will improve,” he said, noting that often happens in all kinds of organizations.

Coffin said that while new information technologies, including cell phones that can take photographs and video, might seem to hamper police, he thinks they benefit police in the long run. He pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1966 Miranda v. Arizona decision, which stated that police must inform suspects of their Constitutional rights. At the time, he said, many police thought that would be disastrous for police, but it has proven to produce better police work.

Coffin also spoke on the proposition among some residents and City Council members that Beaumont should institute a Citizens Review Board to oversee investigations of police misconduct. He said his opposition to such a board is based on legal prohibitions under the city’s civil service status against allegations that prove to be unfounded being released to members of the public.

Coffin said that in other Texas cities where such boards have been formed — including Austin, San Antonio and Corpus Christi — they have proven to be expensive, onerous and sometimes disbanded.

He said the call for such a board in Beaumont is a “symptom of a bigger issue” — that the department has lost credibility with some segments of the public. He said the department can find other, better ways to restore that credibility. [Read about a Jan. 25 public meeting on the Beaumont Community Advisory Committee here.]

UPDATE: On March 29, Coffin announced that he was retiring effective Sept. 30. On Aug. 30, the Beaumont City Council unanimously approved the hiring of Jimmy Singletary, a major with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, to serve as the next police chief. On Sept. 23, Coffin swore in Singletary.

CORRECTION: The headline for this entry oringally had a mispelling of “Beaumont.”

Copyright © 2011 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.

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About Ken Fountain

I'm a journalist and writer in Houston, Texas. My areas of specialty include law and courts, local government and industry and environmental issues. You can follow me on Twitter at @twitter.com/kenfountain and email me at kenfountain1 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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