Better answers needed from DA, Halstead

01/13/2014 6:00 PM

01/13/2014 6:01 PM

It was more than troubling in 2011 when eight Fort Worth police officers were indicted in connection with what was described as a scheme to falsify traffic ticket documents in order to collect undeserved overtime under a federal grant program.

It is just as troubling, for a variety of reasons, to learn that after more than two years the cases against the officers have been dismissed by the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office without detailed reasons why.

A ninth officer implicated in the alleged wrongdoing, an Afghanistan war veteran who had been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, did not face criminal charges after reaching an agreement with prosecutors that included relinquishing his Texas peace officer license.

According to allegations by the Fort Worth Police Department, an investigation that began in 2010 revealed the officers issued tickets during normal working hours, but changed them to reflect that the citations were given while working overtime under the federal Selective Traffic Enforcement Program (STEP).

In fact, the city of Fort Worth reimbursed the Texas Transportation Department $231,000 in grant money that had been paid to the officers under the STEP program.

The explanation for the dismissal of charges Friday, presented in a news release from the DA’s office, was that the “viability of the prosecution” had been affected by new information unforeseen at the time the cases were presented to the grand jury.

Those issues, Assistant District Attorney David Lobingier said, “include unavailability of witnesses, lack of memory by certain witnesses of the events underlying this offense, and new evidence.”

It was “in the interest of justice” the charges were dismissed, Lobingier said, in accordance with “the Tarrant County District Attorney’s high ethical standards.”

Without impugning the district attorney’s ethics or the office’s standards in prosecuting cases, the public needs a much better explanation for this decision.

The DA’s office does have a credible history of not prosecuting cases when the evidence is lacking or shaky, or if it feels it can’t win the case, resulting in Tarrant County having fewer post-conviction exonerations than most of the other large urban counties in the state.

But if there is new evidence, the residents of Fort Worth have a right to know what it is. After all, serious allegations have been made against members of the city’s police department.

If, on the other hand, these charges were unwarranted in the first place, the public and the officers involved have a right to know that.

We need an explanation as to why a case largely based on signed, dated documents by sworn officers, would be severely jeopardized by the unavailability or faulty memory of witnesses. And why it took more than two years to reach this conclusion.

Because there are now no outstanding criminal charges, the accused officers can seek to be reinstated in their jobs, complete with back pay and pension benefits, through the city’s civil service commission.

Not all are expected to seek civil service hearings, but this would be the proper next step assuming the chief of police doesn’t want them back.

At the very least, it may be a sure way of finding out more of the truth in this dark saga.

Whether or not that happens, the people of Fort Worth and Tarrant County deserve better answers from the police chief and the district attorney.

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