"Lawman of the Year"

New York Times Op-Ed

The state agency that monitors standards for law enforcement officers in Texas had already been warned about Tom Coleman when he was hired to conduct a bizarre one-man undercover drug operation that targeted the black population in Tulia, a small town on the Texas panhandle.

Dozens of black people, and a handful of whites who had relationships with blacks, were arrested on July 23, 1999, after an 18-month "investigation" by Mr. Coleman that at times was as farcical as a Jim Carrey movie.

Mr. Coleman, who is white, was a clownish and inept officer who threw away important evidence, made terrible mistakes when identifying suspects, routinely used racist language and on at least one occasion discharged his weapon accidentally. And yet, on his uncorroborated, unsubstantiated testimony, defendant after defendant was convicted of selling drugs, and some were sentenced to prison terms of 20 years, 60 years, 90 years and more.

For his exploits in Tulia, Mr. Coleman was given a state "Lawman of the Year" award.

But even before the curtain rose on the Tulia farce, the sheriff in another jurisdiction, Cochran County, had complained to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement about Mr. Coleman's conduct.

In a letter to the commission dated June 14, 1996, the sheriff, Ken Burke, said, "It is my opinion that an officer should uphold the law. Mr. Coleman should not be in law enforcement if he is going to do people the way he did in this town."

Officials in Tulia said they didn't know about that complaint when they hired Mr. Coleman. But in the middle of his Tulia operation, Mr. Coleman was hit with misdemeanor charges of theft and abuse of his official position in Cochran County, where he had run up thousands of dollars in debts before abruptly leaving. Mr. Coleman's boss in Tulia, Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart, conveniently allowed his undercover cop to put his investigation on hold, giving him time to borrow money and resolve the Cochran County charges.

Mr. Coleman's investigation in Tulia was incredibly shabby, but it led to the arrest of more than 10 percent of the town's black population.

Erick Willard, a lawyer who defended two women accused by Mr. Coleman, said he had been stymied in his efforts to get Mr. Coleman's original, handwritten accounts of individual arrests. In some cases, said Mr. Willard, "The way he would record it was he'd lift up his pants leg and he'd write it on his leg."

Notes committed to paper were just as difficult to come by. Mr. Willard said that during the discovery process he learned that secretaries had supposedly typed some of Mr. Coleman's reports from notes that were then "thrown away in a trash Dumpster."

He said he was never able to find out who the secretaries were.

Mr. Coleman liked to brag that he was "deep undercover," and that no one knew where he was or what he was doing, "not even the police."

Mr. Willard's clients insisted they were innocent. Both took polygraph tests and, in Mr. Willard's words, "passed with flying colors." But lie detector tests are not admissible in court and the district attorney's office would not dismiss the charges.

Both women pleaded no contest. They were sentenced to time already served, fined and released.

Top officials in Tulia acknowledged that drugs were also sold and consumed by white and Hispanic residents, but Mr. Coleman focused almost exclusively on blacks. In a videotaped interview, parts of which were aired on a local television station, Mr. Coleman said he used the term "nigger" both on the job and in casual conversations with friends and family. He said he believed the word was no longer "as profane" as it once was.

Mr. Coleman eventually packed up and left Tulia, but he soon found himself in trouble again — this time in Ellis County. Joe Grubbs, the district attorney of Ellis County, whose office had hired Mr. Coleman, told me that, among other things, Mr. Coleman had engaged in contact with a woman that was "inappropriate." He would not give details.
He said Mr. Coleman had also accidentally discharged his weapon during a drug raid, but no one had been injured.
There were other problems, a "multiplicity" of problems. Said Mr. Grubbs: "He, in effect, put me in a position where I had to discharge him, and I did."