Parks, Wildlife, and Racism
Wardens recount longstanding, institutional discrimination against African-Americans at TP&W
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The Flores Era
Flores, who retired in May, was promoted to director of the Law Enforcement Division on March 1, 2005. He hired and promoted Hispanic game wardens in encouraging numbers, raising the agency's diversity quotient as a whole. But according to one black warden, Flores reportedly believed that "blacks weren't interested in getting an education," and others say he had informally vowed to replace the agency's "Good Ol' Boy" network with a "Good Ol' Vato" network.
Flores also spearheaded moving the TP&W training academy from Austin to donated range land in Hamilton County, west of Waco. Black wardens say he was either oblivious to or ignorant of the county's racial history. Only 0.5% of Hamilton County's population is African-American, and the county is known among black Texans for its historic Ku Klux Klan presence. Fowler recalls that he learned as a child that Hamilton was a "drive-through" county – that is, where blacks shouldn't stop for gas or a meal.
In an email to the Chronicle, TP&W Executive Director Smith said the training center was moved to Hamilton "because the Austin facility was outdated and not at all conducive for giving our wardens the kind of field based training they need to do their jobs in mostly rural areas of the state." He called the donated land "an ideal place for training our wardens in the kind of rural settings they are likely to encounter during their service." Smith says he knows of no Klan presence there and that the location should not deter prospective recruits. He added that "if a prospective cadet is concerned about serving as a commissioned peace officer in a rural setting, then I would advise that individual not to pursue a career as a State Game Warden."
During Flores' seven-year tenure as director (March 1, 2005 to May 31, 2012), only three black wardens were commissioned, and all three had been enrolled into the academy prior to Flores' promotion. In the following years, TP&W otherwise hired no new black male game wardens, and only one black woman. "TP&W went from having a prejudiced white colonel to a prejudiced Hispanic colonel," one warden concluded. Smith firmly rejected any charge of prejudice against Flores. "I find allegations that Pete Flores held racist tendencies towards African-Americans bothersome and absolutely without merit," Smith wrote. "One of his best friends happens to be African American. Professionally, I had a number of conversations with Pete about his desire to recruit additional African Americans to join the Game Warden force, and I believe he was unequivocally committed to that. He was very proud of hiring the first African American female to become a State Game Warden and was always a strong proponent of a diverse force."
Flores' replacement, Col. Craig Hunter, was announced in July. Smith effusively praised Hunter's credentials and character, adding, "I am confident he will continue our work to recruit qualified diverse applicants to consider a career as a State Game Warden."
The Illusion of Fairness
Once hired, black wardens say, they can essentially forget the possibility of promotion – and the promotion process itself, they say, is a discriminatory sham. In his EEOC case documents, Fowler charges that the agency "does as it pleases without regard for the law, policy or procedures. The divisions within the department choose whomever they would like to promote. Then, they hold an interview board to attempt to create the illusion of fairness."
Some wardens say the promotion interview questions are often irrelevant and vague, and that favored candidates are reportedly coached in their answers. More specifically, Fowler charges that candidates connected to a private security agency – Austin-based Frontera Security and Investigation, owned by TP&W internal affairs director Grahame Jones – have an unacknowledged promotional advantage. "If wardens are not a member of the 'secret society' [Frontera]," said Fowler's attorney Derek Howard, "they have less chance of promoting."
Wardens say they believe supervising majors have an unofficial system to pre-select for promotions, and that preferred candidates are groomed and coached. One warden says he was told that he didn't communicate "the proper phrases" during the interview; others who had been promoted told him they had been advised to "go talk to the major" to learn "what he's looking for."
In his EEOC complaint, Fowler charges that Frontera personnel dominated his own May 4, 2010 promotional panel; including Jones, all but one member were Frontera employees, as was the candidate eventually selected for promotion, even though that candidate was considerably less experienced than Fowler. In an affidavit, Jones responded that Fowler was insufficiently prepared, and he excused the chosen candidate's relative lack of experience. In their affidavits, other members of the panel echoed Jones' perspective, saying Fowler wasn't promoted because he didn't do well in his interview.
Asked about the potential conflicts of interest on the promotions panel, TP&W Human Resources Director Al Bingham responded, "Taking this as a hypothetical: ... As a matter of common sense, I would hope ... [Jones] would recuse himself, and he would inform his boss of the situation." TP&W's official ethics policy requires the avoidance of "even the appearance of impropriety."
TP&W Director Smith described Jones as not influenced by apparent conflicts of interest. "First, I have nothing but the highest confidence in Major Jones' ability to separate personal and department business," he told the Chronicle via email. "Second, he is only one member of an interview panel that makes a recommendation to others who ultimately are responsible for a hiring decision." Smith did not address the fact that all but one of Fowler's promotions panel were also Frontera employees.
As it happens, the newly appointed director of enforcement, Col. Hunter, had been listed until recently as a principal in Frontera; shortly before the TP&W'S announcement of his promotion, that page of the Frontera website was apparently taken down.
Two Decades of Inaction
In the early Nineties, the state launched a celebrated campaign to hire more minority game wardens, partly under the influence of the newly inaugurated Gov. Ann Richards' administration. In 1991, according to that year's May issue of Tracks and Trails, TP&W graduated "the most ethnically diverse class in TP&W history." Including Fowler, six of 34 new game wardens were black; according to the article, they had excelled among 1,508 qualified applicants.
However, Fowler says he learned later that the fanfare was apparently just for show. "I was working for Bell County Sheriff's Office [and] a game warden who worked that area told me that Parks & Wildlife told wardens to "'go out and find six blacks you could work with,'" or the agency would 'hire the first six who applied.'" With those six candidates, the class of 1991 remains the high-water mark for the hiring of African-American game wardens. "We were drawn in and abandoned," said one black warden from that class. He noted that the percentage of African-American game wardens will plummet again – to 1% or lower – after Eighties and Nineties alumni retire, negating the slight progress.
This month, the current academy will graduate no male African-American game wardens, just like in the last cycle and the one before that – indeed, as it has failed to do in most years. In light of the treatment consistently described by current black wardens, it might not be surprising. Does the agency have any explanation? "I can't really say, can't put my finger on it," said Major* Danny Shaw, director of training. "They [blacks or other minorities] generally don't apply."
In the last three academy cycles, an average of 18 qualified African-American applicants (of an average 611 qualified applicants in all) met minimum qualifications. Following the candidate review process, Shaw said, "We offered one African-American male a job, but he declined it." Shaw said he did not know the reason.
As for the rest? None qualified as one of the "best," Shaw said bluntly.
TP&W brass officially acknowledge the agency needs to change. HR Director Bingham says as yet undetermined "new initiatives" will recruit more African-American game wardens. TP&W Executive Director Smith promised improvement "at all levels." "There is no doubt we have room for improvement with respect to the recruitment and hiring of African Americans as game wardens or in other professional positions inside the agency," he wrote to the Chronicle, although he pointed to difficulties in recruitment. "Attracting qualified minority candidates, particularly African-Americans, to positions in the law enforcement and scientific realms," he wrote, "has been vexing."
By way of explanation, Bingham noted, "Unlike [the Department of Public Safety] and local agencies, we have a degree requirement, a bachelor's degree. ... I suspect the education qualification has had some overall impact on officers that desire to be game wardens." (Yet according to data provided by the agency, African-American candidates are more likely to apply with degrees than are candidates from other ethnic groups.) Bingham also said that black candidates might not want to work in rural areas. "They [black recruits] have to be willing to go anywhere in the state and can't designate an urban center," Bingham said.
Fowler dismissed the explanations – or excuses – as insufficient. "We came to this country as slaves, to work the land, hunting, fishing all our lives – so we can be game wardens," he said. Fowler also strongly objected to the implication that high standards, like the need for a bachelor's degree, might require more exceptions for African-American game wardens.
"I believe in what I do; I believe in the agency; I believe in its mission," he said, yet his willingness to speak out has left him in a particularly vulnerable position within the agency. But he has grown to consider the alternative – silence – as worse. "I'm no more than a slave on the Parks & Wildlife plantation," Fowler said. "If I know my place, I must smile and grin, kiss posterior, be an Uncle Tom, a good colored employee."
Fowler said that whatever else happens, he hopes the public discussion of his case will eventually attract the attention of the Legislature. "If it weren't for the Legislature," he says, "there wouldn't be a black face on the Parks & Wildlife plantation, period."
* Correction: The story originally identified Major Danny Shaw, in error, as as a captain.