Executive Director's Report
January-February 2009

Diversity training

Rob Kepple

TDCAA Executive Director in Austin

There, I said it. I read in a Newsweek article that those two words were guaranteed to make people roll their eyes and squirm in their seats. When they see this subject on a conference agenda, folks think to themselves: “OK, what idiot in what office said something wrong to prompt this discussion?”

I will confess that in my 18 years at TDCAA, it never occurred to me that our association should be talking about how race impacts our offices, our profession, and ultimately the work we do in our communities. Even though most law enforcement agencies and many other organizations and businesses regularly provide diversity training, we as prosecutors didn’t—until the Elected Prosecutor Conference in December.

Why should we? The answer is simple: It is a service to our members. A growing number of assistant district attorneys and prosecutor office staff don’t look like me, a 50-year-old white guy. We don’t keep demographic numbers for our service group, but you need only come to one of our Basic Trial Skills Courses to see an ever-more diverse group of young prosecutors. That really hit home when 2008’s President, Bill Turner, organized a meeting last March of a number of black and Hispanic assistant prosecutors to talk about race in our profession. We had a great discussion with a group of dedicated prosecutors who were anxious not to complain about anything but who wanted to do four basic things: encourage minority law students to enter the profession, retain minority prosecutors and staff, better connect prosecutors’ offices with the community at large, and enhance the image of our profession in the community—goals we all want. In addition, as that 50-year-old white guy with the firmly established home field advantage, it never occurred to me that many comments, jokes, and thoughtlessly chosen words that swirl around a prosecutor’s office everyday may seem fine to me but can leave other folks scratching and shaking their heads. It’s time to talk about this subject with the goal of making us a more effective team.

In a recent issue of The Texas Prosecutor, Bill Turner talked about beginning a dialogue within our Texas prosecutor community on race and how it impacts our offices, profession, and community. At our Elected Prosecutor Conference, Sharon Jones, a former Assistant United States Attorney and now a principal at Jones Diversity Group LLC, led a discussion about how we might create an inclusive office environment and a positive force in the communities we serve.

In the future, we plan to establish better ties with Texas law schools and their minority students who have an interest in prosecution. In the past, we haven’t done much as a profession to approach students while they’re still in school, and I have a feeling we’d attract a lot more law-school graduates if people knew how rewarding prosecution is and how many jobs come open during any given year. (More on recruiting law students later in this column.) In 2009, we will organize focus groups at some of our conferences and begin some affinity groups, such as the Black Prosecutors Caucus, to develop communication and feedback on our efforts.

The goal is to improve our profession over the long haul and avoid the mistakes of mandated and justifiably maligned “annual diversity training.” We are talking about cultivating an inclusive office environment, the type of place in which everyone wants to work and employees stick around for awhile. We are talking about connecting with your community, with the people you serve. We are talking about identifying promising minority law students and educating them about the opportunities they can find at a prosecutors’ office.

But mostly, we are talking. And that’s a good start.

Victim witness services

We are now in the second year of TDCAA’s Long Range Plan. As you have read in past editions of this journal, TDCAA operates from a plan that is revised every five years; the purpose is to be sure that we are doing all the things that you want us, as your support organization, to do.

One goal high on the list is increased support for victim-witness services. Since 1989 each prosecutor office has been mandated by state law to employ a victim witness coordinator, but that mandate came without any funding. (A unified state funding source has never appeared.) Many of you have found the resources to provide these services to victims, even if it means doing the job yourself.

TDCAA has offered victim assistance training and certification for those in the profession, but many of our members have often had to seek outside resources for consistent, in-depth training. TDCAA’s leadership decided at the last long-range planning meeting to devote substantial time and resources through the association to support your offices’ victim witness services. Whether you practice in a big office with lots of victim assistance coordinators (VACs) or are a county attorney who does double-duty as a victim assistant too, we hope to find the resources to help you do your job well.

The centerpiece of the plan calls for the creation of a statewide victim assistant trainer at TDCAA. This person will operate much like Clay Abbott does in the world of DWI: as a great resource who will bring training directly to your office. Funding for this position isn’t firmed up yet, but the Texas District and County Attorneys Foundation is playing the lead role in getting the position up and running. Our first step will be to develop guidelines for operating a victim witness program so we all can agree on how this new position will operate across the state. If you have any ideas you’d like to contribute, just give me a call at 512/474-2436. I’d love to talk with you about this part of your long range plan.

2009 TDCAA leadership

The Annual TDCAA Business Meeting was held in conjunction with the Elected Prosecutor Conference in December. Your executive leadership for 2009: President: Barry Macha, CDA in Wichita Falls; Chairman of the Board: Bill Turner, DA in Bryan; President-Elect: Scott Brumley, CA in Amarillo; Secretary/Treasurer: Mike Fouts, DA in Haskell; CDA at large: Joe Brown, Sherman; CA at Large: David Escamilla, Austin; Assistant Prosecutor at Large: Nelson Barnes, Assistant DA in Belton.

Your regional directors are: Region 1: Lynn Switzer, DA in Pampa; Region 2: Bobby Bland, DA in Odessa; Region 3: Cheryll Mabray, CA in Llano; Region 4: Martha Warner, DA in Beeville; Region 5: Lee Hon, DA in Livingston; Region 6: Elmer Beckworth, DA in Rusk; Region 7: Staley Heatly, DA in Vernon; and Region 8: Elizabeth Murray-Kolb, CA in Seguin. Congratulations to all of these new board members!

The Tom and Ted Show

Most of you have had the pleasure of sitting in on a search and seizure training conducted by Tom Bridges, former DA in San Patricio and Aransas Counties, and Ted Wilson, a former Harris County Assistant DA (now retired). Tom and Ted have contributed mightily to the training of Texas prosecutors and continue to do so.

They have also continued to lead: Tom Bridges is a former President and Chair of the Texas Prosecutor Standards Guidelines Commission, a group appointed by Governor Ann Richards that produced a set of Texas-specific prosecutor ethics guidelines in 1993, and is still active as a member of the TDCAF Advisory Committee. Ted has served on numerous committees and has been a great addition as the sole lawyer member of the Investigator Section Board. They also co-author the definitive guide for police and prosecutors on search and seizure.

What do you give guys who have it all and who have done it all? Well, the pleasure of our company in perpetuity. At the annual business meeting in December, the TDCAA membership awarded Tom and Ted life memberships in TDCAA—a very rare honor reserved for those who have done it all, done it well, and done it a lot. Their life memberships guarantee they can come and visit with us every year at the conference of their choice and guarantees we can continue to enjoy their company!

Congratulations to our good friends.

The first prosecutor combine

Say you work in a midsize or smaller office, so you don’t have job openings that often. Don’t you wish that when you did need to hire a new prosecutor you could get a better feel for the talent out there? Do you ever get frustrated that you can’t offer a job to a great prospect until that person passes the bar in November—and by that time some of the best candidates have gone to the big private firms? And what about trying to hire minority lawyers who are already snatched up come Novem-ber?

We as a professional association hope to address these concerns on February 4 and 5, 2009, when we participate in a statewide job fair at the UT School of Law. Some prosecutors’ offices will interview at the fair on their own, but the purpose of this “prosecutor combine” is to identify talented law students who are interested in prosecution but who don’t have a good feel for what jobs are available and what chance they have of getting a job once they pass the bar. To that end, prosecutors from around the state have volunteered to interview students for two days, not for a certain job in November but for the prospect of getting on the “hot prospects” list that we can share with all offices looking for a good assistant. If you are interested in being involved in the process, please give me a call.

No refusal weekends gaining steam

Since TDCAA hosted the DWI Summit sponsored by the Anheuser-Busch Companies this past March, DWI “no-refusal” weekends, where police, prosecutors, and judges join forces to secure search warrants for blood draws when suspected intoxicated drivers refuse to provide breath samples, have started to catch on across the state with a lot of success.

As a citizen of Travis County, I want to take time out to thank our Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo for holding the city’s first no-refusal weekend at Halloween. The numbers are in, and of the 26 refusals that led to search warrants, all of them tested over 0.11 BAC, and half were over 0.16. The guy with the highest tested at 0.29, which might explain why he crashed into a home occupied by young children sorting their Halloween candy, barely missing them, after which he fled the scene on foot only to be detained by parents of other trick-or-treaters until police could arrive. In addition, five of the drivers who refused to give a voluntary sample were involved in collisions, and three had prior DWI cases pending in court at the time of their arrests over Halloween.

The results of this weekend are consistent with reports we’ve received from other jurisdictions that have blood search warrant programs, namely, that some of our most dangerous drivers are the ones most likely to refuse to submit voluntary samples. Congratulations to the Austin Police Department and Travis County Attorney David Escamilla whose office assisted with this initiative. Great job! ✤