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Procedures, Police, and a Parade

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Editor’s note: In the interest of public safety, OutSmart is publishing this letter regarding an incident that occurred during the 2009 Pride Parade.

When our neighbors invited us to join them at last year’s Pride Parade, we didn’t hesitate. After all, my wife and I own a 1920s bungalow in eclectic, walkable Montrose, known for its historic homes and recently honored as one of the country’s 10 great neighborhoods. We count Annise Parker as a neighbor, and in previous times the late Walter Cronkite and Howard Hughes lived nearby.

So, on that Saturday night in June, we hopped on our bikes and pedaled over to Stanford St. We met our neighbors, a diverse bunch of single and married couples, some with children and others not. The parade began, and we cheered as Mayor Bill White marched past us on Westheimer, heading east to a crowd estimated by the Houston Chronicle to number 80,000. My wife Kirste was busy snapping photos with her iPhone, but she soon discovered that headlights on the floats caused glare, and her pictures looked better if she faced away towards the east.

And then it happened — a tragedy that should never befall another person enjoying a parade in Houston.

A trio of Houston police officers on horseback approached from the west. They turned into the onlookers assembled along Westheimer, and used their animals to force back surprised spectators, many of whom were cheering as music blared from the floats. But the police did not use any whistles or other sound-making devices for crowd control. And, the Chronicle later reported, there were no barricades on that section of Westheimer. So, the people were immediately confronted with two choices: either step back or be trampled. And my dear wife, facing the opposite direction, never saw what hit her.

The next day, June 29, 2009, a Chronicle article recounted: “Police say the officers, and the horses, were just doing their jobs. ‘The woman wasn’t kicked, stepped on or trampled,’ HPD spokeswoman Jodi Silva said.”  However, several dozen witnesses viewed Kirste on the ground as she was repeatedly kicked and stomped by Kato, a 1,200-pound gelding ridden by Officer P. Hernandez.

During the subsequent police internal affairs probe, an investigator told me that an officer on foot said she saw the horse strike Kirste in the back of her head and knock her to the ground.

Who can we believe?  The injuries tell the tale: An ambulance took Kirste to the emergency room that night. She suffered deep bruising on her arms, legs, and torso. Her forehead was swollen with knots the size of tennis balls as was the back of her head. And she had a hole from a deep cut to her chin that went clear through into her mouth.

But she survived the assault — and for that I am thankful.  And so here we are, nearly a year later, her bruises have healed and dozens of dentist visits are behind her. She still has temporary teeth, and faces multiple years of orthodontic work ahead of her, not to mention reconstructive surgery to her chin.

It’s odd sometimes that a person in shock will focus on an issue that seems inconsequential. Kirste recalls asking herself in the ambulance, “Where are my shoes?  I’m supposed to usher tomorrow at Trinity Episcopal, I have to be there. I want to tell the police officer that I forgive him. I can’t leave without telling him.”

HPD has never told me why the Mounted Patrol decided it was necessary to turn their horses into the crowd, but they did. Or why, at first (until multiple witnesses came forward), did the police department’s public affairs office release statements to the media that this incident never even occurred.

Or why, despite the fact that the police are trained in first aid, no officer offered to render aid. A Good Samaritan helped me pick Kirste up and carry her safely away from the agitated horses. Eventually Lt. Wallace dismounted and watched as civilians attempted to stop the bleeding.

Paramedics loaded her into an ambulance, yet no police officer asked her name, or to our knowledge filed a report. Can any of this be standard police operating procedure?

For over 30 years, Houston has hosted a Pride Parade and included the participation of local leaders such as Mayor White. I believe Mayor Parker is this year’s Honorary Grand Marshal, and she rode in the parade back in 1979. I don’t know about previous years, but 2009’s parade was peaceful. Would this behavior be acceptable if a small child had been trampled by a police mount at the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade?

Houston surely is no stranger to parades, but perhaps our city can find an example in the way nighttime parades are managed in New Orleans, where they have been a way of life since the 1830s. Crowd control is managed by a large police presence, primarily on foot. Yet Lt. Wallace was quoted in the Chronicle as saying that about 20 officers were scheduled to patrol the Pride Parade on foot that night but they “didn’t make it”. Why not?  Did the shortage of officers cause the mounted patrol to become overly aggressive?

So, we are left with little but questioning:
• Why did HPD use the crowd control methods they chose?
• Why did the police spokesmen initially deny that anything happened?
• Does HPD use different procedures for the Pride parade than it uses for other parades?

And, has the Houston Police Department or the City of Houston made any changes in parade planning or security procedures as a result of the incident involving Kirste?

My wife and I are both native Houstonians, and we love our city. Our insurance paid for the initial emergency room charges. As for the dental work, I have been paying for it out of pocket. Yes, the costs have been considerable, and much more will come in the months ahead. But it’s not always about the money, sometimes it’s about doing the right thing.

Kirste feels strongly that she needs to speak out and that the HPD needs to behave better. She plans to take her concerns to the City Council. For, if she does not speak out, and another parade onlooker was injured in a similar tragedy, she could never forgive herself.

—Bill Maxey, Houston

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