Jasper Sheriff Battled Ghosts of East Texas
East Texas police do things differently than when 45-year-old Sgt. James Carter of the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office came of age, poor, in the black part of town. Very differently.
Thirty years ago, Carter said, local police saw minorities as a kind of outlet for ceaseless, free-floating cruelty. More than once, Carter recalled, he saw a squad car nearing a black man as he walked down the street and the officers ordering the man to duck his head inside the window. Then they pounded his head with a blackjack.
Another memory: “Imagine being 7 or 8 years old, playing ball with your friends, and having a policeman lean out his car window and shoot your dog. I saw it happen many times. Officers would come by and if the dogs weren’t tied, or not vaccinated, they would just shoot them. No remorse.”
Jasper County Sheriff Billy Rowles, however, is known for another sort of swift action. Early on the morning after James Byrd Jr.'s mutilated body was found on a Jasper road last June, Rowles drove an hour south to Beaumont to tell FBI agents that a race-based murder had occurred in his town. In the eight months since, Rowles oversaw the capture of three suspects within hours, urged help from lawmen throughout the region and, last Tuesday, blew a kiss to Byrd’s family when the first of the suspects was convicted of capital murder. After a swift trial full of meticulously gathered evidence, the jury condemned John William King to death, only the third white man in Texas history sent to death row for killing a black.
For those familiar with East Texas, Rowles’ conduct and that of his colleagues was exemplary--and in telling contrast to the historical, and even recent, record of many regional officials toward race crimes.
What this change signifies, however, is less obvious. Some experts said the way authorities attacked the Byrd crime shows a growing official professionalism across this former slaveholding region, whose history is spattered with unsolved murders of African Americans.
Some said the investigation mirrors the culture of Jasper, a logging town of 8,000, often considered more progressive than its East Texas neighbors. Still others, including Bill Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project in Austin, maintained that the aggressive pursuit of Byrd’s killers reflects nothing more than basic competence in the glare of world scrutiny.
“Yes, it is an anomaly” in East Texas history, Harrington said of the Jasper prosecution. “It’s an anomaly because of the horrendous details and the media coverage.” But, he contended, police abuse and low-level racial violence still characterize daily life around here.
Stereotypical East Texas Sheriffs
There is consensus that, unlike some stock figures in Texas lore, the stereotypical East Texas sheriff--picking and choosing those he protects--has been real for many minorities. Economically more like Louisiana than the rest of Texas, this region was almost entirely bypassed by the civil rights movement, explained Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama.
“That has been reflected in the relations between blacks and whites, and blacks and law enforcement,” Potok said. To this day, civil rights monitors call the region a locus of Ku Klux Klan activity, home to the majority of Texas’ estimated 5,000 avowed white supremacists, according to the Texas Commission on Human Rights.
Byrd, torn apart while being dragged by a truck, was an explicit reminder of race crimes, often unpunished, that raged through this region in the first part of the century. Sometimes blacks were dragged to death by teams of horses. Sometimes they were wrested from police custody, as happened in 1934 to a black man in neighboring Newton. His name lost to history, the man was hanged by a mob of 200 and shot. In 1958, an East Texas sheriff was the agent of death, killing a black man other officers said was unarmed. The sheriff was acquitted.
Racial violence and official abuse persist. Minutes away from Jasper in Hemphill, three law enforcement officials beat Loyal Garner Jr., an African American man, to death in 1987. All three were eventually convicted.
“We’re still afraid of law enforcement agencies, just about anywhere in East Texas,” said Ernest Deckerd, director of the NAACP branch in Tyler, about 150 miles north of Jasper. “They don’t respect black folks. . . . They do things to us and lie about it.”
Lack of federal funding and a culture in which blacks still hesitate to report many racial attacks make it nearly impossible to quantify the civil rights violations in this area, experts said. In 1997, however, Texas local law enforcement agencies reported 333 bias-motivated crimes to the FBI.
“We think there’s less violence [than in the past], but we’re nowhere where we should be at this point in history,” Harrington said.
Jasper Sheriff’s Office Is Praised
A 52-year-old African American woman from neighboring Newton retains fresh memories of the death of Anthony Peacock, a young black man found by the road in the 1970s. Many in the black community said he had been castrated and hanged for dating a white woman who was also seeing a member of Newton’s sheriff’s office. Newton officials said it was a hit-and-run death, however, and no charges were filed.
The Newton woman, who works in a Jasper store, praised the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office for its handling of the Byrd case and said she’s not sure it would have had the same outcome in Newton County.
“It probably would have been handled but not as aggressively as it was handled here,” she said. “I’m thinking back to when Peacock was killed. There wasn’t anything done. It was just swept under the rug.”
Nerissa Williams, 25, buying a microwave at Wal-Mart with her husband and his teenage son, praised the prosecution of King but added that she often worried about Jasper authorities’ treatment of blacks.
“There was a lot of tension,” Williams said. “If a black person was driving down the highway and it was a nice car, they were going to be stopped. I was mostly concerned that my husband and his son were going to get hurt and caught up in all this stereotyping.”
To Sheriff Rowles, in office for less than three years, the Byrd killing sparked his own fears of being stereotyped--and revealed his own blind spots about race relations.
Lean and youthful-looking in white jeans and white denim jacket, Rowles, 53, glowed with relief last Thursday. King had been sentenced to death, and in some ways it was a confirmation of the kind of lawman Rowles most tries to be: harsh toward criminals but an advocate for all his constituents.
There have been peaks and valleys, Rowles said. Early on in the Byrd case, when a national news show was preparing to interview him, he overheard the producer tell her office that Rowles’ middle name was not Bob, as her listener had wagered.
“The media thought they’d find a ‘Billy Bob’ redneck sheriff . . . the kind of old sheriff that takes care of business based on who you are and where you are,” he said.
Paramount in handling the Byrd case--and subjugating his ego to ask for outside help--was dismantling that image, said Rowles, who then daintily leaned toward a trash can to spit his tobacco juice. Although he clearly relished showing off his rural roots, Rowles succeeded in his main task.
Rowles, a school athlete, former Marine and Vietnam veteran, thought of himself as colorblind. But neither he nor his department were seen that way, a municipal task force after the murder discovered in community interviewing.
Like other residents in the wake of the killing, Rowles had plunged into sometimes painful self-evaluation. He would give his eyeteeth, he says, to have more than one black on his 34-employee payroll. (The county is 18% black; the city of Jasper, whose 15-member police force employs two black officers, is 45% black.)
An elected official, he’s used to glad-handing citizens but now thinks he may have unconsciously avoided real conversation with blacks. He recalled, ashamed, that in the past he used to use racial slurs. “Not in a long time,” Rowles said, minutely straightening his desk blotter. “I didn’t want to pass that on to my kids. I had it passed on to me.”
Rowles’ new thoughtfulness, Potok believes, mirrors some national trends. Programs like Texas’ mandatory diversity training for police officers are producing better-educated officers, and law enforcement disasters like those in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, have made authorities across the board wary of impulsive violence. Then, too, cases of police abuse are hardly limited to East Texas, as recent high-profile cases in New York and elsewhere attest.
Carter, immaculate in a sergeant’s uniform, boots and his hair cut to the scalp, also credits Rowles, his mentor. It was Rowles, then a state trooper, who took Carter aside and offered him the sergeant’s job if Rowles won the sheriff’s race. No other officer, Rowles said, was anywhere as qualified.
Carter, who dropped out of high school, grew up fascinated by the crisp uniform and the responsibility of police work, despite his memories of Jasper lawmen. He worked in a mill, got his GED and landed a job as Jasper’s jailer. For two years, he endured insults from other employees but studied to get his police certification.
Now he is in charge of some of his former tormentors and yet treats them decently, he said. In fact, what he loves about his job is the power he has to show what constitutes humane police work.
“I have seen some horrible things,” Carter said. As a supervisor, he was one of the first to look at Byrd’s torn body on Huff Creek Road. He knew instinctively that the crime was done out of racial hatred.
On the other hand, Carter said, he works in a place where every morning his boss greets him with a hug. “We don’t shake hands. We hug,” Carter said, smiling a bit at the sentimentality of it, his voice tinged with wonder at how Jasper can change.
--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---
This story originally ran with information provided by the A.P. that John William King was the second white man in Texas history sent to death row for killing a black. A.P. later ran a corrective that he was the third. This story has been edited to reflect the correct information.
--- END NOTE ---