Parks, Wildlife, and Racism

Wardens recount longstanding, institutional discrimination against African-Americans at TP&W

Parks, Wildlife, and Racism
Illustration by Jason Stout

"Who becomes a Texas game warden is decided at conception," said one veteran warden at the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, the agency charged with (among many other responsibilities) law enforcement in the state's park system. "The color of one's skin can mean 30 years of going nowhere," said another. Moreover, the racial barriers reportedly extend to wardens of any color who don't play along. "If you work well with a 'nigger,'" explained another warden, "you'll be treated like a 'nigger.'" (The black wardens generally avoid using the racial epithet themselves but say that's what they've been told by white staff members.)

Some wardens are saying that's just one of many unofficial racial principles long practiced (and occasionally made explicit) within the Texas Parks & Wildlife's Law Enforcement Division. One recalled: "I've heard that and much worse. We're all considered 'niggers' here."

Agency officials say they are aware of the institutional problems and history of racial discrimination and are determined to make changes – but thus far, the people most directly affected say they've seen little evidence of any reform.

Most of the wardens who spoke to the Chronicle declined to be named for fear of retaliation. But Sgt. Melvin Fowler of Pflugerville, who is black, and Warden John Rao, of Clear Lake, who is white – both veteran wardens with more than two decades of experience – have spoken out by filing formal complaints against the agency with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Fowler and Rao both graduated from the TP&W training academy in 1991. Their documents and the recollections of the African-American wardens portray a state agency that has been indifferent to institutional racial discrimination for many years, as well as to more direct, personal racism endured by African-American personnel – racism either ignored or condoned by supervisors.

In his 2010 complaint to the EEOC, Fow­ler alleges he "was subjected to unlawful employment discrimination when passed over for promotion to the rank of Captain after interviews were conducted ... by board members. The selectee ... has been employed a less time than I, has less seniority, training, law enforcement experience and investigative experience. All of the board members are White males and they did not select three candidates to proceed to a final interview panel, in violation of manual regulations requiring a minority member [on the board], and the selectee is White. I believe I have been discriminated [against] because of my race, Black/African." Fowler also alleged a conflict of interest concerning a private security company called Frontera Security and Investigations – most board members, as well as the selected candidate, were Frontera employees.

According to Rao's attorney, Delana Cline, the discrimination also affects white wardens who don't adhere to the racial caste system. "Blacks are targeted," said Cline. "They, by design, are to be the lowest-level wardens. If [a white warden] 'consorts' with one, he will stand at the bottom of the hierarchy, too. This practice is pervasive at TPW." Rao's 2010 EEOC complaint, still pending, alleges that TP&W subsequently retaliated against him after he filed an EEOC complaint in 2007 (ultimately unsustained) that alleged that TP&W had punished him for working with a black game warden.

Invisible and Unwanted

The raw TP&W staffing numbers appear to reflect a legacy of at least institutional neglect, if not systematic discrimination.

• Of 532 current TP&W game wardens, only 12 are African-American. (That works out to 2.3%; the state African-American population is about 12.2%. By comparison, the Texas Department of Public Safety has 9.9% black officers under commission.)

• Not one black male game warden has been hired at TP&W since 2005.

• Not one black game warden cadet is enrolled in the current academy class.

Current TP&W Director Carter Smith
Current TP&W Director Carter Smith

• Not one black game warden has ever achieved the rank of major or colonel.

• In the agency's history, only three African-Americans have achieved the rank of captain, and only in succession, one at a time.

• Over its 49 years of existence, only 1% of game wardens commissioned by TP&W have been African-Americans.

Why are the numbers so persistently low? TP&W is "a caste system," concluded one warden – maintaining a historical legacy under which African-American wardens are for the most part either not hired or not promoted. Fowler said that the statistics tell only the surface of the story. "It's just a feeling you don't matter, that you are invisible," he said. "Your input just doesn't matter; it's the overall attitude, the overall culture. No matter what, you don't get the chance to climb the ladder."

One black warden said he had noticed an aversion even to his presence at the officer academy. Again and again, he said, he would reach out to shake a white cadet's hand, and find himself "holding only air." "If you're black," he says he learned, "you better not extend that hand." Other white cadets would faux-whisper racist jokes behind his back, or more blatantly, when drunken in groups, "They'd all holler, 'nigger!'"

Once he became a warden, he says, following a period of human resources "cultural diversity" training, some white wardens would grudgingly extend him a hand – but only in the presence of supervisors. Over the years, he recalls, he worked well with prejudiced game wardens "one-on-one," but in public, "some wouldn't talk to me at all."

Officially, TP&W frowns on racial discrimination. "We can, must, and will do better," Executive Director Carter Smith told the Chronicle. But according to some Afri­can-American wardens, lower-level supervisors make it clear that unofficial practice was a different matter. "Them boys" – a supervisor told one black warden, referring to white wardens – "them boys ain't workin' for no niggers." As a result of that ingrained racist culture, black wardens say, they were expected to defer to their white colleagues.

Any warden who dared buck the explicit warnings or unwritten rules understood there would be consequences. "They'll be 'puttin' the paper' on you when you try to promote," said one, using the informal phrase meaning to meet opposition from supervisors. In their complaints, Rao and Fowler allege that's exactly what has happened to them.

Like It or Leave

Rao has master's degrees in both criminology and behavioral science, is a renowned authority on exotic fish species (routinely consulted by TP&W biologists), and is certainly a credit to the agency. In April 2007, Rao filed an EEOC "Charge of Dis­crim­in­ation," alleging that the department had retaliated against him for defying standing orders not to "work with" an African-American game warden.

Rao's complaint reads: "I began my employment in November 1989. ... Shortly after, Mr. Albert Lynch [Rao's supervising captain] began working at my location. I was told by Mr. Lynch not to work with Kelly Newman [a black warden]. ... Even though I was told this, I made the decision to work with Newman. On or about May 28, 2006, I was cursed out by [Warden] Mr. Kevin Mitchell, White. I was told by Ted Tolle, Major, that I needed to apologize to Mr. Mitchell for making him curse at me."

After Rao filed the 2007 complaint, said his attorney, "His life was never the same." The agency "put him under investigation [and] engaged in false allegations." In his complaint, Rao recounts that when he complained about the retaliation to human resources staff, he was told that "Law Enforcement is 'paramilitary,' and the retaliation laws do not apply to us."

In subsequent years, Rao applied for a series of promotions but was consistently rejected, including for two promotions in 2010. He eventually filed a second complaint, in 2010; it alleges that he once asked Assistant Chief Robert Goodrich (on a speakerphone with another officer present) the reason for yet another rejected application. According to Cline, Rao asked Good­rich "what he could have done differently in the [promotion] interview," reports Cline. "Goodrich indicated that there was nothing Mr. Rao could have done differently, because Pete Flores [then director of TP&W's Law Enforcement Division] had said that Rao had filed that complaint – meaning the 2007 Charge of Discrimination." Rao concluded, said Cline, he'd been "blackballed."

Former TP&W Director Pete Flores
Former TP&W Director Pete Flores

"My client didn't want to sue Parks & Wildlife [in 2007]; he just wanted it on record he'd had these problems," Cline said. "However, when Parks and Wildlife continued to pass Mr. Rao over for promotions, and [instead] promoted people without experience and accreditation, he decided, 'I am going to have to file another charge of discrimination in order to uphold my rights.'" So Rao filed his 2010 complaint, but the EEOC has yet to issue a determination; the agency could issue either a "determination of probable cause" (which normally moves to mediation), or what is formally designated a "right to sue."

Cline specifically blames former director Flores for Rao's inability to promote. "Pete Flores indicated to Goodrich that Rao wouldn't get the promotion; it wasn't Goodrich blocking Rao," Cline said. "Flores is very much part of the 'GOB' [Good Ol' Boys] network – believing 'do not turn on your brothers [and] do not go out of department.' That's our understanding," Cline said. "People at TPW, who step ... off the plantation, if you will – are not getting promoted."

Moreover, Cline claims that in August 2011, a captain from Houston named Nick Harmon convened members of Rao's department for a meeting and announced that other districts considered them "malcontents and complainers." As Cline tells it, "Harmon told the group, 'Going forward, all of you who complain: We will have paper in Austin ready for your release.'

"We contend that Harmon was speaking directly to our client, basically saying, 'If you don't like the situation, you can leave.'"

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."

Parks, Wildlife, and Racism
Photo by Jana Birchum

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.

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