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Jerry Pittman: The Worst Cop, but there's more in San Antonio

Part II of the Pittman Story

(click here for Part I of the story of San Antonio's badddddest cop)

But let’s go back to the beginning of Pittman’s triumphant arc as a black role model, endorsed by white leaders and officially commended by the state’s black legislators. If you were a black nobody cop in the seventies, well, what would it take for you to get promoted? You’d have to be Superman, wouldn’t you? And in a city that sells itself on a myth of cultural fusion, then who would you arrest if you wanted a chance at getting promoted? Hmmmmm?

His name was Big House. Real name, Willis Sterling, and he was one of those benevolent drug-dealer types, who’d get arrested, make bond, then go home to the Eastside in the 1980s. A non-violent man. “He was like a modern-day Robin Hood,” says T.C. Calvert, a well-known community activist who doesn’t do drugs himself, only hamburgers. He was so well-liked, say my elder sources, that all sorts of politicians liked hanging out at his place, a two-story joint off Sherman Street, near the railroad tracks. Well, one night, in 1986, the police raided it, quien sabe porqúe.

Translation: Who knows what game done gone bad, what deal went sour.

Somehow, then-Sargeant Pittman, in the heat and chaos of the night - was shot three – or four – times in that raid, depending on the story you read. He emerged as a force for good, an avenging angel willing to put away the bad guys, meaning Blacks, because as we all know they’re the criminals we have to fear, right? The thing is, Pittman got a Purple Heart out of it. And Big House got killed.

Only Pittman, my elder sources say, was shot by his own cops. Nobody ever tells you who shot him in the media stories, do they? All we have to go by is the police report, hmmmm. Pittman, my sources say, sued the city - and months later Pittman emerged as a Lieutenant in charge of Vice.

Other sources tell me, and this is pure chisme, but given Pittman's ethical breakdowns, there may be some truth to it: The story is the prostitutes were scared of him, because he would demand some for himself - or his buddies - or they'd go to jail.

It's funny how people are talking now, especially women with stories about abuse at the hands of the police, with the proverbial wolf guarding the chickenhouse.

By the way - Big House’s autopsy revealed no drugs or alcohol abuse in his system.

There’s more. The “Nasty” situation in 1990 when Pittman, acting against the advice of the District Attorney’s office, told more than 80 record stores to remove the 2 Live Crew album from their shelves or face obscenity charges. He made lots of headlines for his moral crusade, and I’m certainly no fan of booty rap, but there is a first amendment, and “Nasty” kept selling records in San Antonio.

In September 1997, Pittman was in a fender-bender while driving a city vehicle, and the patrolman reported smelling alcohol on Pittman’s breath, though he didn’t administer a sobriety test. At the time, Pittman oversaw the Drug Abuse program for the City. Pittman wasn’t ticketed, receiving “counseling” instead.

“In a phone bank survey of 3500 voters in San Antonio from all 10 districts, 99% loved the police,” says Patricia Castillo, the Director of the Peace Initiative, a well-known advocate on behalf of women’s rights in domestic violence cases, and a familiar face to the police. She explained this to me last year, when I was researching Marci Bennett’s rape allegations against Pittman.

According to the phone bank survey, Castillo said, people “think our police are the greatest, they need all the support they can get.”

Except for one thing, she added. When we ask them have you called them?

The answer is clear. “No. They’ve never had a need to interact with the police.”

According to Amnesty International, Antonio is one of twelve cities in the country, maybe the last great one, without a Police Review Board, also known as a Civilian Review Board. If we had one of these, which involves the police getting policed by the people, ordinary voters like you and me with subpoena power, who pay their salaries, then a Jerry Pittman might not have become.

Back in 1981, when María Antonietta Berriozábal was running for City Council, she was challenged by Al Peeler, President of the Police Officer’s Association. One of her planks was a Police Review Board, coming on the heels of a police brutality case named Santos Coy. She won, but couldn’t get the votes necessary on the City Council to pass the resolution. She says today that if Mayor “Henry Cisneros wanted something, he could’ve gotten it.”

When Marci Bennett accused Chief Pittman of raping her, there was no independent investigation. The police and the District Attorney’s Office, colluding as they must when they have to prosecute bad guys, organized a witchhunt, with Bennett emerging as the bad girl, ultimately charged with perjury, a Class A misdemeanor, by District Attorney Susan D. Reed for making false sexual assault allegations.

I’m not saying Pittman raped Marci Bennett. But emotional trauma accompanies rape, and a woman deserves an unbiased review of her case, especially when she’s accusing the moral law of the land, named Jerry Pittman. But she didn’t get it.

“If she says he did it, he did it,” one prominent Black woman told me, as did others, all off-the-record, all warning me to be careful. White women leaders told me they liked Pittman, that he was a “good man,” and didn’t want to hear about Marci Bennett.

At that press conference in March where I first saw Pittman, this is how he began his scripted remarks, never deviating from the page: “I want to thank my wife, my daughter, my family…I want to thank people who offered their support…and prayers. Thanks to Chief Ortiz…Thanks to Susan Reed.”

I asked him why he never hired a lawyer, hiring instead a fancy public relations firm. “Aren’t you worried of the perception of power?” That’s when he shot me that brown-ice glance, answering that Connally’s work was pro-bono, free.

Blacks make up 6.82% of the population in Bexar Country, according to the 2000 Census, and 141 officers out of a 2000-member force, from the city’s website. But our crime index is higher than other cities, near double what comparable cities have. I suspect it’s because we’re a poor city, and uneducated. I have a brother in prison, I understand the circumstances, familial and societal, that push young men into prison. I also know how violent prison is, how we warehouse Black and Brown men as if they were trash. At the same time, Black men are like Denzel or T.O., sexy, desired, worshipped, paid to be a little bad.

We sure have complicated feelings about Black men, don’t we.

For all the talk about Pittman, this whole story isn’t about him. He’s just the symbol of what’s wrong with this city, we’re a macho city, a militarized, over-Catholicized city, with a racist history desperately trying to prove it’s not. The powers-that-be needed Pittman to prove we are the world.

Pittman’s not the only bad cop, he’s not the only po-po who’s aggressive because that’s what we like, hoping he’ll control himself when we stay stop. We want our cops to be smart, to be prudent and we don’t want them to beat up their wives, as many do, and get away with it. Just ask Lynne Blanco of the Rape Crisis Center, who told me that after Bennett made her allegations, policewomen called in complaining about abuse from their peers on the force.

All the more reason why, in the wake of Pittman, we should demand that this City Council give us the power to police the police.

Police need to be subpoenaed, questioned, and judged, especially in sensitive cases. And sent to the Grand Jury, if necessary. Let them scream and holler about this idea, but a Civilian/Police Review Board can protect them when cops have to make split-hair decisions in the line of fire, as well as recommending they charged with a criminal offense when s…t happens.

Adiós, Pittman. I hope you’re the end of an era, but I doubt it. I pray for you. But I also pray with all my heart for Marci Bennett.

For a hard copy of this story, check out The San Antonio Observer on the newstands or call 355.8686


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