Fort Worth chief says he'll fire officers caught driving drunk

Posted Friday, Jan. 04, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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FORT WORTH -- One day after another of his officers was accused of drunken driving, Fort Worth Police Chief Jeff Halstead said Thursday that "we've had enough" and that any officer whose DWI accusation is "sustained" by internal affairs will be quickly fired.

"My message is very, very strong to every employee in this organization, sworn or civilian: You cannot drink and drive any longer unless you want to throw your career down the drain, because I will not tolerate it," Halstead said Thursday morning at a news conference, flanked by department brass and people who have lost loved ones to drunken drivers.

Halstead said he will no longer wait for a drunken-driving case to make its way through the criminal justice system before he dishes out his discipline.

"If the [internal] investigation reveals the truth of the allegation, from this day forward every employee will be ... terminated. They will not work in this Police Department any day after a sustained violation of DWI," Halstead said.

The change essentially reverses a previous decision by the chief to handle DWI allegations case by case and subject officers to punishments ranging from a 15-day suspension to termination. That replaced a policy of automatic termination that was in place when Halstead took over in 2008.

During an interview with the Star-Telegram in 2011, Halstead explained the change by saying that "each incident cannot just be thrown into one category -- that they were DWI."

"We actually go deeper into the employee. What's going on personally with the employee? ... It's not just 'fire them all' because if you have a 15-year employee who has never, ever done anything wrong ... do they deserve the same thing as a one-year employee that's already been suspended four times for erratic behaviors?"

Halstead said Thursday that the department has made strides in dealing with alcohol-related issues in the past few years, including mandated alcohol awareness training, peer support and mentor programs.

"Still, after all that we have done in a proactive manner for the last over three years, we find ourselves standing here again," Halstead said.

"I'm in total agreement with our employees, our citizens, stakeholders in the community, and most importantly, the survivors of those who have been killed by drunk drivers -- we've had enough."

'I have never

been so frustrated'

Since 2008, 14 officers have been arrested on suspicion of drunken driving. (Previous numbers released by the department included public intoxication arrests, police officials clarified Thursday.)

One of the highest-profile incidents came Dec. 1, when Maj. Paul Henderson -- the chief's right-hand man -- was arrested on suspicion of DWI in Parker County. Halstead quickly demoted him to captain and stripped him of his chief of staff position.

Henderson spoke often about how the department was getting tough on alcohol-related arrests. In 2010, he said that "the Police Department and specifically Chief Halstead are not going to tolerate this destructive behavior."

While Halstead has acknowledged that Henderson's arrest hit hard, the final straw came early Wednesday with the drunken-driving arrest of Nicolas Ramirez, a Fort Worth DWI enforcement officer.

Keller police say Ramirez was weaving in and out of his lane on Texas 114 in Westlake and was pulled over. The officer failed a field sobriety test, and a breath test later indicated that his blood-alcohol content was more than twice the legal limit of 0.08, police said.

"We only made it through one day in 2013" before an officer broke the sacred bond not to shame his colleagues, Halstead said.

"I have never been so frustrated in 24 years of doing this job than yesterday."

Halstead said officers whose punishment is already pending will still be handled case by case for legal reasons.

But beginning Thursday, new DWI allegations that are sustained by internal affairs will lead to termination.

"We're an organization that's hurting," Halstead said. "Public trust is the foundation of public service. When these incidents occurred, I know that our great citizens can question this uniform, and that's what hurts many of our officers, soon-to-be officers and veteran officers behind me.

"Everyone that wears this badge, we don't like these headlines and we're going to mandate that they stop."

'They're being

the monsters'

Standing behind the chief during the news conference was Stella Lopez, whose daughter, Sonia Baker, was killed Dec. 11, 2009, by an off-duty Fort Worth officer driving drunk.

Jesus Cisneros is serving a 20-year sentence for the death of Baker, a mother of two.

Karen Freeto, whose husband, Fort Worth officer Dwayne Freeto, was killed by a drunken driver on Dec. 17, 2006, also attended with her daughter Jenna.

Freeto said she knows that the chief is doing all he can but that officers need to take responsibility for their actions and use the resources offered to them.

"It's disgusting when you think someone like an officer could do something like that," she said.

"They're out there to protect us. They're being the monsters they're trying to protect us from."

Freeto says she takes it personally when a Fort Worth officer is accused of DWI.

"It just hurts," she said. "They're part of my family. They tell me that I'm still part of the police family.

"To do something like that, when your own 'brother' was killed by a drunk driver, is very heartbreaking. It stings a little more."

Deanna Boyd, 817-390-7655

Twitter: @deannaboyd

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