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Cops Are Beating Up an Unarmed Suspect Almost Every Day in Houston

A shocking expose on the total lack of accountability in the Houston police department.

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This article  first appeared in the Texas Observer.

Sebastian Prevot watched helplessly as three police officers advanced on his wife. Prevot was handcuffed and bleeding in the back of a cop car. Half of his left ear dangled where it had been torn from his head. The Houston Police Department doesn’t deny that its officers gave Prevot these injuries during a late-night arrest in January 2012. The only dispute is whether he earned them.

Prevot had been returning home from a night out with a friend. He was two miles from his house when he stopped just past the white line at a four-way stop sign. Two officers in a patrol car tried to pull him over, but he kept driving. Prevot says he didn’t want to pull over and continued home—“going the speed limit, stopping at every stop sign”—because he knew he was about to be detained and have his car impounded.

“My kids had to go to school in the morning,” he told me. “My wife had to go to work.”

Prevot sits across from me in a noisy McDonald’s at dusk. He’s 30, married, with three little boys. In 2009 Prevot was one semester away from getting his bachelor’s degree in marketing when his wife, Annika Lewis, was promoted at her job with AT&T, and the family moved to Houston from Lafayette, Louisiana. Now he takes care of his sons, ages 7, 5, and 4, coaches youth sports and looks for work. His left ear still bears a crosshatching of paler brown where an emergency room doctor stitched it up on January 27, 2012, the night he should have stopped.

I ask Prevot why he anticipated trouble if all he’d done was roll past the line at a stop sign. He looks at me like I’m crazy.

“Obviously, it’s three in the morning,” he says, “so they’re gonna find something. Besides, the inspection sticker on my car was bad.”

Prevot didn’t say he expected to be arrested because he is black, but racial profiling is common. In 2012, almost half the Houstonians arrested during traffic stops were African-Americans, though they make up less than a quarter of the city’s population. Houston Police Department statistics show that white drivers are more likely than black drivers to be carrying contraband, but according to HPD’s annual report on racial profiling—which concludes, “The analysis provides no evidence that officers of the Houston Police Department engage in racial profiling”—officers performed “consent searches” on black drivers in 2012 more than four times as often as on white drivers. A consent search is specifically one made without probable cause.

“When they put those lights on,” Prevot says, “I automatically knew I was going to jail.”

Prevot also kept driving because he was scared. “I mean, I saw the cops,” he says. “I’m from Louisiana, and it was two white boys in the car in a dark area. I wasn’t about to stop nowhere close to there.”

“What were you afraid of?” I ask.

“Getting beat up,” he says. “The same thing that happened.”

As Prevot drove, more police cruisers joined the slow pursuit. By the time he arrived at his house, he estimates 10 cars had him surrounded.

“When I pulled in right in front of my driveway, I got out, hands in the air,” Prevot says. “They already had guns drawn on me. Then they put those up and attacked. From there, they was just beatin’ the bricks off me.”

What’s rare is for the Houston Police Department to punish its officers for excessive force. An eight-monthTexas Observer investigation found that during the past six years, Houston civilians reported officers for “use of force”—the department’s term for police brutality—588 times. The Internal Affairs division investigated each complaint and dismissed all but four.