Bovine bandits are on the rise – or are the cows just coming home?

Recent news stories have reported that the centuries-old crime of cattle rustling – or stealing cows – is alive and well in Texas, thanks to rising beef prices.

Investigating livestock and ranch equipment theft is typically up to the Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, which has 27 licensed investigators in Texas and three in Oklahoma. So I lassoed some statistics from the TSCRA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to see what I could find. Of note:

Source: Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association
Source: Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association
  • In 2014, they investigated about 800 complaints of missing or stolen livestock – including about 4,000 cattle – and filed criminal charges in 36 cases. Cattle rustling is a state felony, punishable by up to 10 years behind bars.
  • This year, TSCRA has investigated 463 case reports and recovered $1.16 million in missing or stolen property, spokesman Laramie Adams said.
  • No bull – the price of cattle has clearly risen over the years. But I didn’t find a similar increase in the number of criminal charges filed, which has remained fairly steady. Adams wasn’t sure of the value of property TSCRA investigators recovered in previous years.

    Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture
    Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

“In a lot of them, the cattle are located. They’ll report it stolen, and we may have found it, or it may have strayed off and it’s in a neighbor’s pasture, or the sheriff’s office may have impounded them,” said Larry Gray, TSCRA’s director of law enforcement.

Ranching is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and cattle represent half of Texas’ agriculture earnings. Got cows? Keep a watchful eye on your herd, and make sure they’re branded.

Note: I used the USDA’s statistics for medium and large feeder steer auctioned in San Angelo, and calculated the cattle price with the assumption that each calf weighed 525 pounds. 

Are states writing – and repaying – IOUs for execution drugs?

In 2013, the Virginia Department of Corrections gave Texas some pentobarbital, a drug used in lethal injections. Two years later, the Lone Star State has returned the favor.

According to Jason Clark, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Virginia officials approached Texas, which “reciprocated” by giving Virginia three, 50-milligram vials of the drug.

Buzzfeed on Thursday reported on the drug exchange after it was revealed in an Oklahoma death row inmate’s court filing. In response to an open records request made by inmate Richard Glossip, Virginia released a receipt for the three vials dated Aug. 26, 2015, listing “Tx Dept of Criminal Justice” as the “supplier,” Buzzfeed reported.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections uses midazolam to carry out executions, and says it’s unable to obtain pentobarbital. Glossip is scheduled to be executed Sept. 30 and has challenged the state’s use of midazolam, which was used in the 2014 botched execution of Clayton Lockett. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in June that Oklahoma could continue using midazolam, and Glossip’s lawyers recently had a hearing in the case canceled after determining they couldn’t prove that an alternative drug could be obtained in time.  

Glossip’s Thursday filing was intended to highlight the “factual dispute regarding the availability of pentobarbital,” his lawyer wrote: In other words, if Texas is producing its own pentobarbital, then Oklahoma could, too.

When asked if TDCJ is indeed compounding its own pentobarbital, Clark wrote in an email that the vials were “legally purchased from a pharmacy,” and no money was exchanged between the two states in either occasion.

Texas has a history of keeping secret the names of the compounding pharmacies that supply its execution drug. That shroud of secrecy was strengthened by a new state law, which went into effect Sept. 1 and mandates the suppliers remain anonymous.

Channeling my inner “beast”

Late last week, I was tasked with covering Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s Article 32 hearing for The Daily Beast. Bergdahl, 29, left his post in Afghanistan in 2009, was subsequently captured by the Taliban, and spent five years in captivity.

Bowe Bergdahl, courtesy of Army/Reuters
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, courtesy of Army/Reuters

President Barack Obama traded five Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl in 2014. Amid rumors that Bergdahl had assisted the Taliban and left his post on his own accord, he was charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy in March.

The Article 32 hearing is a preliminary proceeding, after which the Army will determine whether or not to court-martial Bergdahl. Check out my coverage of the two-day proceeding here:

Can Bowe Bergdahl get a fair trial after publicly being called a traitor? 

Day 1: Bowe Bergdahl’s commanders detail their frantic, dangerous search

Day 2: Grieving parents: Jail Bowe Bergdahl 

ICYMI: Police group calls for overhaul of use-of-force culture, training

The police research and policy group’s recent message to law enforcement was clear: It’s time to overhaul training and culture regarding the use of force to consider the sanctity of human life.

perfAn August report by PERF, or the Police Executive Research Forum – which comprises police chiefs from major U.S. cities – rehashed the group’s May conference, when brass from across the country discussed the subject of use of force.

The conversations are among a series of PERF discussions prompted by events – starting with the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown – that have shaken the police profession like a “series of small earthquakes,” wrote PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler.

Federal courts have ruled that an officer’s use of deadly force is considered to be reasonable – and not a constitutional violation – when the officer has reason to believe the suspect poses a threat of serious harm. But just because they “can,” does that mean they “should”?

Wexler says a growing idea among police is that the review of an officer’s use of force should also include what led up to the incident.

Officers should be held accountable if they failed to de-escalate the situation in order to prevent it from ever reaching the point where the use of force was necessary. – Chuck Wexler

He also calls for more training on de-escalation techniques, which some departments have already undergone. After the death of Garner, for example, all 35,000 New York police officers were mandated to undergo three-day training courses. One day was dedicated to “Smart Policing,” where officers learned de-escalation tactics and techniques.

(Curious about what other information PERF releases? Click here.)

Texas judge expunges truancy records in accordance with new law

With a click of the mouse, Williamson County Justice of the Peace Bill Gravell expunged 2,208 records for people who’ve wound up with truancy-related criminal charges over the past 20 years, giving them “another shot of life,” he said.

Terra Tucker, policy analyst for Sen. John Whittier, and Judge Bill Gravell expunge criminal truancy records in Williamson County.
Terra Tucker, policy analyst for Sen. John Whitmire, and Judge Bill Gravell expunge criminal truancy records on his courtroom computer in Williamson County.

When Texas lawmakers discussed several bills to decriminalize truancy during the 84th legislative session, they heard often from Gravell, who initially opposed changes to the 1995 law. Gravell’s program was plenty successful, he would say, indicating he didn’t need the state’s help in keeping kids in school.

The bill, HB 2398, eventually passed and became law, making truancy a civil matter. On Thursday, as he sat before a table covered with baskets of the records-to-be-destroyed, he called the new law the “best piece of legislation possible.”

A bailiff walks near baskets of records that Judge Bill Gravell ordered to be destroyed in accordance with a new truancy law.
A bailiff walks near baskets of records that Judge Bill Gravell ordered to be destroyed in accordance with a new truancy law.

Previously, students who racked up 10 unexcused absences in six months could have faced a Class C misdemeanor. In 2014, nearly 100,000 students fell in that category. The new law – effective Tuesday – directs courts to expunge those charges.

Texas Appleseed Executive Director Deborah Fowler, who worked with Gravell and others to craft the bill, said her organization is watching how courts address the expunction portion of the law and praised Gravell’s actions.

“We’re pleased to see that some of the most vocal opponents have really come around,” she said. 

Fowler called the mass release from criminal convictions “unprecedented,” noting about 100,000 students were criminally charged each year for the past 10 years.

In addition to the expunctions, Gravell cleared three outstanding truancy cases, dismissed 100 outstanding truancy warrants, lifted suspensions on driver’s licenses for 87 students and waived collections for 16 people who owed the county fees.

Use of force in Bexar County shooting under review

UPDATE: Click here to read Bexar County Sheriff’s Office’s use of force policy. Sheriff Susan Pamerleau has said that the two deputies used a shield and Taser to attempt to detain Gilbert Flores, struggling with him for about 20 minutes before shots were fired.

PREVIOUS POST: The two Bexar County Sheriff’s Office deputies who shot and killed 41-year-old Gilbert Flores both took a “use of force” class last year, according to records released by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.

DocumentTCOLE also said it had never suspended the peace officer licenses for Robert Sanchez, 51, a 25-year veteran of the department, or Greg Vasquez, 47, who’d been with Bexar County for 12 years.

(View their TCOLE files here: Robert SanchezGreg Vasquez).

Questions about the officers’ use of force were raised by the Federal Bureau of Investigations after a local news station posted a bystander’s video that appears to show Flores holding up at least one hand while being shot.

Local officials like County Judge Nelson Wolff have also brought up the issue. Vasquez and Sanchez were responding to a domestic disturbance in which two people were wounded, and the sheriff’s office has said they believed Flores was holding a knife.

“I think everybody’s concerned about this, the use of force. We’ve seen so many incidents around the country,” Wolff told The Los Angeles Times on Tuesday. “That’s why we want to review the policy see if there’s a way to strengthen it, increase training.”