Commerce Chief of Police Kerry Crews remains on administrative leave, although City Manager Darrek Ferrell has said that Crews' employment status should be resolved soon. Crews has been on leave since the aftermath of a highly publicized incident on May 20 in which he was involved in the arrest of a Texas A&M University-Commerce student.
Carmen Ponder, 26, of Dallas, was arrested by Commerce police at the local Walmart following a complicated series of events that began with a road-rage incident between Ponder and Commerce resident Michael Beane. Crews was off duty at the time, but became involved and directed an on-duty officer to arrest Ponder on a charge of resisting or evading detention. Last week, Hunt County dropped the charge against Ponder.
The incident has received national attention due to allegations of a racial element in the incident. Ponder accused the other driver in the road-rage encounter of calling her a "black b----" in the parking lot of the Walmart. Ponder initially identified Crews as the motorist, but it later came to light that Beane was the other driver who verbally engaged with Ponder. Neither Beane nor Crews have spoken publicly about their roles in the events.
The City of Commerce initially contacted the Texas Rangers to investigate the incident, but the Texas Rangers declined, as neither Crews nor the on-duty officer, Sgt. Kalei Beelitz, were suspected of breaking any laws during the incident, Farrell said. The Texas Rangers generally only investigate such matters when a local law officer is suspected of having committed a crime.
The Commerce Police Department's usual internal investigation process couldn't be used, as the investigating officers report to the chief, Farrell said. For that reason, the city hired the Fort Worth-based law firm of Lynn, Ross and Gannaway to investigate the events of May 20, Farrell said.
Last week, a news release from the city said that attorney Julia Gannaway had concluded that Crews did not act with any racial bias during the incident.
"The first thing that set this whole case off were some racial allegations that were made against Chief Crews," Farrell said. "Some comments attributed to Chief Crews that were racist in nature - and anybody that knows Kerry Crews, knows that that's not the case for him. So we as a city, and probably the whole community, knew that Kerry Crews did not make those comments. What has been official is having an outside, objective, third party find that to be true."
Ponder's attorney, Dallas-based S. Lee Merritt, has maintained his claim that the entire incident was exacerbated by the racial bias of those who engaged with Ponder. However, neither Ponder nor her legal counsel have filed any formal complaints regarding the incident, Farrell said.
"The (Lynn, Ross and Gannaway) investigation is purely administrative," Farrell said. "There's an issue that got a lot of notoriety, that created a lot of bad press for the city. And so we have an obligation, from an administrative side, to look into that."
Lynn, Ross and Gannaway remain in negotiations with Crews' attorney regarding a way to resolve the incident satisfactorily, Farrell said. Crews has retained a lawyer through the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, a police officers' union, Farrell said.
"There's no evidence of the racial allegations (against Crews) to be true," Farrell said. "There are a few other things that are procedurally concerning that we need to look at, and some situational things that we're still questioning. And so when I say there are conversations are going on between our attorney, the investigators, and Chief Crews and his attorneys, they're really ironing out those procedural and situation issues that we need to know more about before we can reach a resolution."
No timeline has been set for the resolution of the matter, though Farrell said he expects Crews' status to be decided upon soon.
The City of Commerce charter gives the city manager sole discretion over the employment status of city employees, including police. The city manager serves at the will of the city council, but the council lacks formal authority over city employees, Farrell said.
"That's a protection for the employees, to keep them from being at the will of the council, like I am," Ferrell said.
Many people have petitioned the city government to reinstate Crews, Farrell said.
The city council did, along with Farrell, review the findings presented by Lynn, Ross and Gannaway, Farrell said.
"They did spend four hours with me in a closed session, watching videos, listening to audio, hearing the report from the investigator, and reaching ultimately what we think a resolution should be out of this," Farrell said. "To have the advice of those five people on the council is extremely important. Even though they're not allowed to direct me, they can certainly give me advice and tell me how they think that ought to go - and they did."
Farrell described the decision before him as an "incredibly difficult" one.
"Kerry was one of the first people I met when I got to Commerce," Farrell said. "The day of my interview, he gave me a tour of the city. So this whole situation has been a nightmare. It's very personally trying, very personally difficult, because I care about Kerry and I care about Kerry's family, and where we're at in the situation is incredibly uncomfortable."