Police Chief Apologizes for Wrongful Arrest

It is my impression that the government — be it local, state, or federal — is usually slow to admit wrongdoing or mistakes, much less apologize for it. Witness the hundred years or more it took responsible governments to even start apologizing for giving legal recognition and government sanction to slavery, as we were discussing a few entries back.

Law enforcement agencies seem especially stubborn about owning up to their mistakes. It often takes a public hue and cry, bad press, a lengthy investigation, lawsuits and political pressure before before a police department will admit that something like bursting into an 80-something-year-old grandmother’s house and gunning her down in a botched drug raid was a bad thing to do.

This attitude is understandable. Cops have a tough job. They often have to deal with hostile, irrational, violent, drunk, drugged and/or bug-eyed crazy people, not to mentioned desperate, hardened criminals who will not hesitate to shoot, stab, bite, kick, punch or gouge law enforcement officers to avoid arrest. The public does not fully understand, nor fully appreciate the work police do or the demands and pressures they work under. And many people are ready to point fingers and criticize when something does go wrong — politicians, media and the public included.

So it is natural that a kind of “us against them” mentality can evolve in some departments. And “them” is not just the bad guys — it’s all of us who aren’t cops and don’t get it. When the bad shooting, false arrest or other  unflattering incident occurs, we sometimes see that siege mentality on display. The police figure, often correctly, that no one is going to cut them a break whether they made an honest mistake or not.

Everything gets elevated by the fact that even well-intentioned police mistakes can lead to an innocent person being injured or killed or spending time behind bars. Which tends to stir up public outrage. Under those conditions — and counting on the inevitable investigations and lawsuits — there is rarely any incentive for individual officers or departments to admit or apologize for mistakes or wrongdoing until they absolutely have to.

This is unfortunate. Communities in which there is a high level of hostility and mistrust between the public and the police are ill-served by that state of affairs. The police cannot do their jobs well without the trust and support of the public. Likewise, the public does not receive the level of public safety and protection that they want, deserve and are paying for regardless unless there is a strong community bond with their local law enforcement.

All of that is preamble to this apology out of McKinney, Texas. This is a case where the police made a wrongful arrest, recognized the mistake, owned up to it and apologized.

Here is what happened:

“Christi
Hernandez, 35, was thrown in jail and later fired from her job after
she was wrongfully arrested for selling drugs.

A
cafeteria manager at Lovejoy High School, Hernandez was arrested and
handcuffed at the school. She also spent a night in jail and had to
post $2,500 bail to get out.”  (
“McKinney pays up in woman’s wrongful arrest,” WFAA.com)

The wrongful arrest was a case of mistaken identity:

“According to McKinney police records, Christy Marie Hernandez, 32, of
Anna, attempted to purchase cocaine from an undercover McKinney police
officer on Apr. 29, 2006.

Kowalski said the detective handling
the case obtained a name from the woman during the drug deal then
attempted to match a photograph of the woman taken by the Collin County
Detention Center that turned out to be Christi Hernandez from an
issuance of a bad check case filed against her back in 2001. The
detective did not know the spelling of the woman’s name at the time and
incorrectly matched Christi Hernandez’s identity to the case. A warrant
was issued and she was later indicted and arrested.”
(“Police chief makes apology to Hernandez,” McKinney Courier-Gazette)

One letter off from the real coke buyer and she goes to jail:

“Police showed up to Christi’s job at Lovejoy High School, where she was
having lunch with co-workers, pulled her aside and arrested her for
dealing drugs.”
(“Police issue apology for mistaken identity arrest,” CBS11tv.com)

Christi-With-An-I was thrown in jail, fired from her job and suffered obvious damage to her reputation, among other harms. She was finally able to convince the McKinney police they had the wrong woman — several days after her arrest — by rolling up her sleeve and showing that she did not have a tattoo that the undercover officer had seen on the real suspects arm. She was released and the charges were dropped.

Now on to the apology. The below is a mash-up from the articles cited above:

“On behalf of the City of McKinney, the McKinney Police Department, and
our city manager Mr. Robinson, I offer our sincere apology to you for
the events that occurred on January 25, 2007, the day you were arrested
by mistake through the actions of a member of our department,” said
Chief Doug Kowalski, McKinney Police Department.

“I want you to know that we mean this from the bottom of our hearts.
The McKinney Police Department does not accomplish its mission by
making mistakes,” Kowalski said. “The police department does not
accomplish its mission by putting the wrong person in jail. We made a
mistake that day. This young lady has suffered and we’ve done
everything we can from that point forward to make it right … We
apologize to her and I apologize to her, also.”

“That was a series of events that led to what I call a great misfortune
for this young lady right here,” Kowalski said. “Obviously, during the
course of that investigation, she was arrested. Several terrible things
resulted from that for her. She was deprived from her liberty. She was,
for the want of a better term, she lost her job for a period of time.
Additionally, she suffered damage to her reputation. The police
department does not go out and try and put the wrong people in jail.
That’s not what we’re about. The McKinney Police Department tries to do
what’s right, do the best we can and treat other people the way you
want to be treated and although there were probably a number of
defenses the city could have raised under good faith, the city, the
city manager (Larry Robinson) and the city council wanted to do the
right thing and that was make this young lady whole again.”

Kowalski went
on to say that the undercover officer who was responsible for arresting
Christi Hernandez has been counseled and now realizes the consequences
of his actions.

Kowalski said he could not discuss any possible disciplinary actions
that might have been taken against the detective since it is a
personnel matter.

“While he did make a mistake on the one hand,
the things he did afterward go to the level of this officer’s
integrity,” Kowalski said. “He did admit that he made a mistake. He
apologized for making a mistake. He went about trying to rectify his
mistake to the best of his ability with the district attorney and the
charges were dropped immediately. Additionally, he didn’t try to cover
up his mistake. He came back to the department and reported it.”

This was a great apology. The chief stepped right up and said we made a mistake and we’re doing all we can to make it right. No whining about what a tough job they have keeping drugs off the streets. No hiding behind sovereign immunity or any other legal defenses the department might have had. Chief Kowalski strikes me as a consummate professional. His officers too. As he notes in the last paragraph, the detective who screwed up owned up to his mistake and immediately set about to correct it. That speaks well of the professionalism and the culture of the McKinney police department.

From the McKinney Police Department website, Chief Kowalski writes:

We are very proud of the relationship that the McKinney Police
Department shares with the community. Our service delivery is described
as community-problem-solving. This includes citizen participation in
our planning and policy process and partnerships in accomplishing our
goals. Our longstanding goal is to make McKinney a safe city in which
to live, work, and visit.  McKinney is a police department that prides
itself in delivering the highest level of quality service possible.  If
you’re an individual with high standards, integrity, and determination
to excel I encourage you to join our team today and I wish you the best
in your endeavors.

You get the sense he really means it … this isn’t just mission statement happy talk. Also, they seem to be hiring.

Kudos also to the city manager and city council. The city paid Ms. Hernandez $25,000 as compensation for her wrongful arrest. Now she could have won that much and probably more in a lawsuit. And many cities would have made her file the lawsuit and go through all the trouble, expense and aggravation of litigation before paying up. But the City of McKinney did the right thing. If I had some reason to move to Collin County, Texas, I would definitely consider residing in McKinney. It is also, apparently, a great place to visit.

“I’m satisfied,”
Ms. Hernandez said Monday. “I feel like this at least gives me back the
money that I’m out, and, you know, shows that they cared enough to
offer me something.”

Good for her. She is satisfied with the apology. Her attorney is working to have the arrest permanently removed from her record. The department is revamping their identification procedures. As for Christy-With-A-Y, she’s been arrested on the drug charges.

DATE OF APOLOGY: May 29, 2007
APOLOGIZER: McKinney, Texas Chief of Police Doug Kowalski
APOLOGIZEE: Christi Hernandez
FOR: Wrongful arrest