Words By Guadalupe Pardo
Edited by Josue Ramirez and Abigail Vela
The problem of abuse within policing and the larger prison system has been a prevalent force historically. At their inception, Texas policing systems had been used as a means to quell indigenous resistance during American colonization. Later, Texas law enforcement agencies like the Texas Rangers used their power to act as voluntary slave patrol. The practices cultivated from these occasions, although reformed through public cognizance and government intervention, were passed through generations.
The combination of a culture of impudent behavior and complicity, abettance and instruction from superiors, and an alleged government coverup were the standout characteristics in the case of the “animals” of the McAllen PD, which eventually garnered national attention. However, the incidents have been mainly lost to history for many potentialities from lack of archival documentation to more speculative ideas.
McAllen Jail Beatings
We are McAllen Police Department. We are the best. Here we kick ass first and take names later.
McAllen’s “C-Shift Animals” were a group of graveyard shift officers known for savagely beating inmates upon any slight provocation. The notoriety they earned throughout the late 70s was one they wore like a badge of pride.
The officers of C-shift were predominantly Mexican American men whose hateful actions weren’t necessarily motivated by racial animosity but were the result of a corrupt use of power. The officers were trained to get even with “unruly” inmates. Whether inmates’ behavior constituted physical aggression or unsavory language, officers beat, punched, kicked, and assaulted them while in custody.
This prevailing workplace culture was emboldened, according to the words of fellow officer Isadoro Ybanez, when Sgt. Roberto R. Ramos took command. Ramos rotated officers out of C-Shift that weren’t “aggressive enough”; officers “that weren’t tough enough, the ones he didn’t like, the ones that weren’t ass-kickers, he didn’t want them there.”
According to another officer’s federal testimony, the environment Ramos and other officers shaped engendered a custom of cruelty. “We had a bad reputation, we were known for not taking any abuse,” Police Captain Alex Longoria said. “This is the way I was trained, this is the way I was taught.” The terrifying ethos of C-shift was illustrated most explicitly in their unofficial policy to remove inmates’ handcuffs and let the inmates provoke a fight with the the city and police department, told me in an interview that Robles not only had a speech officers. If the inmates chose to fight, it was clear for officers to beat them.
“Kick someone’s ass as long as he deserved it, as long as he wasn’t handcuffed. If you took the handcuffs off and he fought you, then he was open game.”
In his testimony, Ybanez says that Ramos’ later demotion, supported by allegations of police brutality, was for ‘appearance’ only as Ramos’ boasted he maintained Sergeant’s pay.
The addition of Lieutenant Walter G. Stadler III in 1978 intensified the circumstances. Stadler was a former Marine Corps drill instructor whose military discipline transformed C-Shift into an almost “paramilitary group,” according to David Hanners, the Brownsville Herald reporter for the case. In fact, the group at that phase referred to themselves as ‘Company C’ and to Lt. Stadler as ‘Company Commander.’ The men took their roles so seriously that they presented Stadler with a shirt that read ‘Company Commander’ in front and ‘C-Shift Animals’ on the back in red and gold, the Marine Corps color scheme. Shortly after, every member of C-Shift
had their own ‘C-Shift Animals’ t-shirt. “From then on, we were Stadler’s Animals, the C-Shift Animals, and the name stuck…”
Excessive force was like a rite of passage for the C-shift animals, and even ‘good apple’ officers spoke of the pressure to treat inmates as badly as possible. This behavior resulted in dozens of later civil suits, one class-action lawsuit, criminal charges and a grand jury investigation.
McAllen PD picked up eighteen-year-old high school student Guadalupe Cano for public intoxication one night. Cano became physically ill in the back of the squad car and was later hosed down outside the station upon arrival. Cano recalled during testimony being heedlessly beaten, officers “punching him all over” until he was knocked unconscious.
Leadership in the McAllen PD was notorious for fomenting abusive and militaristic behavior. Digital Collage by Guadalupe Pardo.
In another incident, cousins Mike Robles and Lisandro Espinoza had both been jailed and beaten under false pretenses when Robles was picked up on suspicion of auto burglary. James Harrington, the ACLU lawyer who defended many of the plaintiffs in their suits against impediment and was hard of hearing but had a development disorder. Robles, according to Mr. Harrington, sat in the car waiting for his cousin and counted his pennies as police approached the vehicle and took him into custody. Espinoza later showed up at the department demanding to see his cousin.
Testimony from Sgt. Eliberto Sanchez created a conflicting narrative, as the officer testified that he told Espinoza to “sit and wait” while he finished filing the paperwork for his cousin. According to that testimony, Espinoza did not sit and wait but took multiple trips to the bathroom and, at one point, began to bang on the restroom door and water fountain. The behavior, according to Sgt. Eliberto Sanchez, was distracting enough to ask another officer for help arresting him. However, during cross-examination, James Harrington indicated that previous testimony from two years prior contradicted the testimony Sgt. Sanchez gave that day. “Espinoza never mentioned hitting a water fountain in the deposition. And the officer said he saw nothing wrong with banging on the restroom door,” according to Harrington.
Robles and Espinoza, who were high school students at the time of the incident, eventually won their suit and were rewarded $10,500 in punitive damages. The officers did not face criminal charges.
These were only a few of the dozens of victims who brought civil suits against the police department and the officers who assaulted them over the course of five years. ACLU lawyer James Harrington represented many of the victims. In total, Mr. Harrington helped 17 victims and brought 26 suits against McAllen and/or its police department. The most astonishing part for all participants was the introduction of video evidence.
When it came to the evidence presented during testimony, the existence of tapes had been hearsay up until that point. James Harrington recalls first hearing about the recordings early on when one of his clients mentioned he had heard the officers talking about turning off the camera. The camera perched above the booking room desk was supposedly there to ‘protect officers’ from inaccurate claims of brutality. The captured footage wasn’t brought in as evidence until four years into the trials. Officers continuously denied the existence of the tapes until testimony given by Captain James Borman revealed not only had there been six years of video evidence but that Chief of Police Jack Caldwell ordered them destroyed. “We had a bomb dropped on us when we learned they existed.”
Public opinion may have been up in the air before, but the tides swayed when the booking desk videotapes were released to local news network KGBT. Years and years of abuse were recorded, 67 incidents in total, previously confined in the walls of McAllen Police Department had now been illuminated. The story went from local intrigue to a national spotlight.
A report on the CBS National News describes the abuse of power by the C Shift Animals, noting that police misconduct extends “beyond the big cities” and in the smaller towns like McAllen as well. CBS Archival Footage.
The local government’s part allegedly was one of concealment and conspiracy. Mayor Othal Brand had been aware of the reputation of the police department and the C-Shift animals and the video evidence as early as 1977, years prior to its introduction in court in 1981, and years before any actions to investigate brutality claims. During his bid to join the State Board of Corrections at the same time that his role in the McAllen jail beatings was being questioned, Democratic State senator Hector Uribe had claimed Mayor Othal Brand had ordered the videotapes to be erased.
Apparently, Mayor Othal Brand had confessed to ordering the tapes to be destroyed, but according to him, not in an attempt to cover up the claims. Othal Brand maintained it was because the tapes had been in violation of a 1979 city ordinance. The confusion of the situation goes further in that prior to these claims, Othal Brand had insisted that the order had come from the McAllen City Manager. The local government’s part, however, was one of intentional negligence as District Judge DeAnda had ordered all tapes, video, and audio to be preserved in 1976 going forward. Regardless of whose orders it was under, approximately 700 tapes were destroyed, and a federal grand jury investigation brought no clarification of the allegations against the Mayor and the city.
James Harrington’s class-action lawsuit ended in the implementation of a civil review board, a mandatory 40-hour training course, and $5,500 in court fees for the city. The reforms ultimately did not succeed as the civil review board was disbanded.
During an interview with James Harrington, Mr. Harrington recalled the failure of the civil board and regarded the loss as one that didn’t work “because they don’t work anywhere.” “ I think you need to have a different kind of change,” remarked Harrington. What this different kind of change consists of is more difficult to flesh out.
Advocates like James Harrington fought against police abuse and misconduct, they helped pave way for the new wave for the contemporary abolitionist movement. Digital Collage by Guadalupe Pardo.
What is known is that the history of policing in the Rio Grande Valley is dappled with marks of injustice; sexual and racial violence has scarred this region. This history has been at the cost of so many lives: the ancestral indigenous brutalized for this land, the dissidents of the American status quo decades after (a cultural) calling for civil rights, the recent case of Edinburg’s Christopher Reyes experiencing a mental health episode, and the murder of Jorge Gonzalez in 2020. Focusing on the lessons of these stories necessitates us looking to our community for guidance and education. The fact is the civilian review board, the modern integration of mental health training in Valley police departments and the national spotlight on police has done nothing to stop police violence. Perhaps the kind of change we need doesn’t center around reforms and creating larger budgets for police that don’t actuate our safety but centers these stories around the lives of the communities affected by this violence every day. The explicit contempt of government and law enforcement agencies has necessitated this movement of self reliance and self healing.
The local movement has included a surge of youth and elders alike supporting national movements and emphasizing our own. Divest/Invest RGV is an organization that looks to illuminate this history and document instances of police harm. Academic work like that of UTRGV professor Brent Campney and UT professor Monica Munoz Martinez has helped amplify the public discourse of historical incidents of police violence. But let’s not stop there, interpersonal relationships hold the key to protection and the preservation of our community. Creating structures for healing and harm reduction supported by academic and empathetic motives alike, we can start to move away from these systems that uphold a violence of their own. A unique amalgamation we create of self-reliance, transformative justice, and centering victims and our history. The cure, after all, is a prescription we will write ourselves.
Creatives have long discussed their role in shaping the information they communicate, but do we consider where and for who creatives choose to share their talents with? As creatives, we must ask ourselves what role we play in the narratives surrounding us.
Piñatas are a staple for many Latinx communities, but they are not just associated with childhood anymore. The craft carries the deep cultural significance of a practice that has endured from indigenous times, sustained generations of families, and continues to be a staple of our visual identity.
Trucha in collaboration with Carla Hughes Studios are proud to welcome Souther Recio as the inaugural resident artist for the Rio Grande Ceramics Residency (RGCR). Learn more about what Recio has planned and follow her process.