Agent filed complaint after TABC chief’s comments during interview with Dallas Voice
Officials with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission this week voted to start an inquiry into an agent’s complaint against Administrator Alan Steen over comments Steen made during a July 16 interview with Dallas Voice.
The complaint came from Christopher Aller, one of two TABC agents involved in the June 28 raid on the Rainbow Lounge in Fort Worth. Carolyn Beck, public information officer for the TABC, declined to discuss the details of the complaint.
In the waning moments of their Tuesday, Aug. 25 meeting, following an executive session, TABC Commissioners Steve Weinberg of Colleyville and Melinda Fredricks of Conroe voted to have the agency’s general counsel, Lou Bright, and Internal Affairs Department head Capt. Andy Pena "look into allegations" against Steen "regarding public comments he made during the Rainbow Lounge investigation," according to a statement released Thursday, Aug. 27.
Jose Cuevas, chair of the commission, voted against the inquiry.
"This is strictly a management issue and does not require an inquiry of any sort," Cuevas said. "TABC has always been open, transparent and accessible to the public and media. Administrator Steen has given numerous interviews during his tenure with TABC and I know the other commissioners would agree that he and his staff should continue to be open and accessible."
After the meeting, Fredricks said she has "great confidence in and respect for" Steen’s leadership and that her vote in favor of the inquiry "in no way should be seen as anything other than following procedure when an allegation has been made."
Beck said Aller filed in the formal complaint against Steen in a letter addressed to the commissioners and dated July 24. This week’s meeting, she said, was the commissioners’ first opportunity to address the complaint.
Bright and Pena will report back to the commissioners regarding the inquiry at the commissioners’ next meeting on Oct. 27.
Beck said Aller did attend the Tuesday meeting and spoke briefly to the commissioners but did not comment on the complaint.
"He said he didn’t feel he was fairly portrayed. He said he hoped to clear his name, and that he can learn from the situation and become a better agent," Beck said.
In the interview that prompted Aller’s complaint, Steen told Dallas Voice that Aller and Jason Chapman, the junior agent involved in the Rainbow Lounge incident, committed multiple "clear violations" of TABC policy, although he did not identify them by name at the time.
Steen said Aller and Chapman were not wearing appropriate attire at the time of the raid, and that had they asked their supervisor to clear the operation beforehand, that clearance would have been denied.
In addition, Steen told Dallas Voice that the eight law enforcement officers and the paddy wagon present at Rainbow Lounge at the time of the raid likely constituted an excessive show of force.
"If our guys would have followed the damn policy, we wouldn’t even have been there. … We have these conversations all the time and we don’t participate in those kinds of inspections when there’s not probable cause or reasonable suspicion or some public safety matter to be inspected," Steen said.
Steen released a report on Aug. 6 detailing 19 violations of TABC policy that Aller and Chapman allegedly committed during the Rainbow Lounge raid. Disciplinary action against them and their supervisor, Sgt. Terry Parsons, is pending, as is the completion of a separate investigation into how Rainbow Lounge patron Chad Gibson sustained a head injury during the raid. Gibson was hospitalized for about a week as a result.
Beck also said that while TABC commissioners also discussed some changes to the agency’s use of force policy on Tuesday, those changes were not implemented in response either to controversy over the Rainbow Lounge raid or to a report aired Monday night, Aug. 24, by CBS 11 investigative reporter Bennett Cunningham.
Beck said agency officials had decided to refine the policy at the first of the year following a report last year on the Austin Police Department’s use of force policy.
She said TABC hired former Texas Ranger Chief Earl Pearson in January, and among the tasks assigned him was a review of TABC’s own policy on use of force. The revised policy came out Aug. 4, she said.
Beck said that use of force is determined on a continuum that starts with command presence, followed by a verbal command and then an officer using his or her hands to control a suspect. It then moves on to use of a chemical spray and so on up to use of deadly force. A Supreme Court ruling issued in 1989 said that officers are not necessarily required to use every step in the continuum, and that the force required to control a suspect is, in some part, based on an officer’s judgment at the time.
Beck said that in revising the policy TABC took that ruling into consideration in developing a new guide on responding to resistance or threats that talks about different circumstances an officer might encounter and the reasonable response those situations require.
"The law hasn’t changed, they just made the policy more clear," she said.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 28, 2009.