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Texas Rangers Fail to Adequately Investigate Custody Deaths

It’s been a grim month for the Texas Rangers and their record as law enforcement. First, a blockbuster study showed that when it comes to investigating political corruption, they obtain only 11 percent of convictions and often decline to investigate at all. Now, an investigation by the New York Times exposed how deficient the Rangers are when it comes to holding authorities accountable for deaths in Texas jails.

The Rangers have a wide and varied role in Texas law enforcement. In addition to political corruption and deaths in custody, they’ve done everything from stop presidential assassinations to patrol the southern border. While often lauded as heroes, they’ve fallen under the same widespread scrutiny as other law enforcement since protests against police began with the death of George Floyd.

Michael LaForgia and Jennifer Valentino-DeVries’ report in the Times paints a gruesome picture when it comes to how the Rangers allow personnel in jails and prisons to get away with murder. They identified 29 cases where a suspect had stopped breathing after an altercation with authorities, and zero led to a charge, let alone a prosecution. These victims included Genaro Rocha II, Andrew Carmona, Michael Cassel. In many cases, the Rangers did no interviews and even failed to visit the scene. 

One notable death is that of Kelli Leanne Page, who was being held on drug charges. Page, 46, had been banging a hairbrush on her cell door. “One jailer threw her to the floor, punched her in the face while they scuffled and piled atop her as blood streamed from her nose.” Her death was blamed on a heart condition even though a 390-pound trainee pinned her down until she stopped breathing. The death was ruled a homicide by the coroner. No charges were ever filed. 

Multiple law enforcement experts that LaForgia and Valentino-DeVries spoke to commented that the efforts by the Rangers shown in files were lazy, though some praised the work as correct and methodical. Reports show a consistent reluctance to blame law enforcement for deaths, often in complete opposition to the autopsy results. Any drugs or health problems in the suspects’ pasts were usually blamed, even when an officer bore down on their neck with a metal object until they asphyxiated.

 The trend is extremely troubling, especially considering recent moves in the state. The Rangers are overseen by the Department of Public Safety, which means that ultimately, they report to Governor Greg Abbott. Abbott is currently in the middle of a new initiative to jail as many suspected undocumented immigrants as possible, usually by accusing them of trespassing. In some cases, Border Patrol has already been accused of staging trespasses in order to have a pretext for arrest.

With more immigrants being thrown into Texas jails under the governor’s directive, it seems only a matter of time before one of them is killed in a similar manner to the people shown in the Times report. When that happens, it is the Rangers who will be responsible for holding authorities accountable. They’ve already been shown to be inadequate in that job when dealing with citizens. How likely is it that they’ll be more aggressive when it comes to a class of people their boss has targeted for the toughest treatment?

Jef Rouner
Jef Rouner
Jef Rouner is an award-winning freelance journalist, the author of The Rook Circle, and a member of The Black Math Experiment. He lives in Houston where he spends most of his time investigating corruption and strange happenings. Jef has written for Houston Press, Free Press Houston, and Houston Chronicle.


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