In sheriff’s race, bodycam video prompts controversy, possible investigation

A convoluted web of accusations has recently emerged against law enforcement figures in Alpine.

ALPINE — A convoluted web of accusations has recently emerged against law enforcement figures in Alpine. The controversy started earlier this month, when bodycam footage of Will Drawe, an Alpine police officer and write-in candidate for Brewster County sheriff, was shared online.

The video was shared by Jim Crouch, an employee at current Sheriff Ronny Dodson’s gun store — prompting some residents to call it a political hit. The Alpine Police Department asked for an investigation into how the video went public. But Rod Ponton, city attorney for Alpine, said the video — which shows Drawe responding to a report of criminal trespass — instead raises questions about whether Alpine police are arresting people without probable cause.

Then, at a city council meeting on Tuesday night, District Attorney Sandy Wilson said she’d contacted the Texas attorney general’s office after she said the Brewster County Sheriff’s Office was refusing to work with the Alpine Police Department or let police use its jail, which she said was a threat to public safety. She said Sheriff Dodson was “abusing his office” and suggested he may have committed a crime but did not elaborate.

Ponton told officials that Dodson didn’t want to take people into his jail when he worried about issues of probable cause — but Wilson countered that “that’s not the issue here” and that “Mr. Ponton is not able to handle this situation.” City council, which says Brewster County has a standing agreement to let Alpine use its jail, appeared to agree with Wilson. At the end of the meeting, they planned to go into executive session to discuss these issues — but they didn’t want Ponton in that session, and they voted to postpone it rather than let him attend. It’s unclear why exactly that is, but a discussion of Ponton’s role as municipal prosecutor and city attorney was also on the agenda for that session.

The bodycam video, a 10-minute video from April, shows cop and write-in sheriff’s candidate Drawe responding to a report of criminal trespass and arresting a man. The person who called in the report was Edward Cardoza, himself an off-duty cop.

The bodycam video opens with Drawe arresting and searching that suspect. Though the man was arrested for criminal trespass, the bodycam footage shows him in a public street. In the video, he says: “I’m just walking the street.”

Meanwhile, Cardoza accuses the man of “being a nuisance” in the video. He said the man had gone “by my house four f—ing times” and was “making my dogs bark.”

According to Alpine City Attorney Ponton, the incident report raises further questions about why the man was arrested.

In memos to city officials — which The Big Bend Sentinel obtained through a records request — Ponton said Drawe and Cardoza gave conflicting stories in a police incident report about why the man was arrested. He expressed concerns about what he called “arrests of persons without cause” by Alpine police.

“The allegations by [Alpine Police Chief Robert] Martin that the video was illegally obtained are false,” Ponton wrote in one email to officials. “Alpine could be shown to be liable for a repeated pattern of police misconduct.”

In a campaign statement, Drawe said the video left out “significant details” about why the man was arrested. He couldn’t share those details, he wrote, because cases against the man were “still pending.”

Both Drawe and Cardoza declined to comment for this story, citing the investigation into how the video was released.

“The case is still active and I cannot say anything more about it,” Drawe wrote in an email to The Big Bend Sentinel. “I wish I could be of more assistance.”

Police documents may more fully explain why the man was arrested, but The Big Bend Sentinel was unable to review any of those relevant police documents firsthand because Alpine police say they’ve asked the Texas Rangers and the Texas attorney general’s office to investigate how the video was released.

In a statement, Texas Rangers said they “do not have an investigation involving these matters.” The Texas attorney general’s office declined to confirm or deny an investigation, as is standard policy.

In a news release last week, Alpine Police Chief Robert Martin said that “legal procedures” were “clearly violated” in the release of the video. In fact, the video does appear to have been legally released.

Martin says publishing the video was not permitted because the case is still open — but he also says he already turned it over to Brewster County Attorney Steve Houston, who prosecutes misdemeanors like trespassing. And records show Sheriff Dodson obtained the video through a records request with Houston’s office, a legal way for anyone to obtain public documents. The Texas attorney general’s office did not respond by press time to questions seeking more clarity on when precisely documents from criminal cases are eligible for release.

Chief Martin, also citing the investigation, declined to offer his thoughts on the arrest, the bodycam video or the alleged leak. But in the interest of fairness, he says he’s asked state authorities to investigate not only the release of the bodycam video, but also the officers’ conduct in the video and the circumstances behind why the man was arrested.

“I want to be transparent,” Martin said in a phone interview last week. “That’s why I’ve asked for the whole matter to be looked into.”

Current Sheriff Dodson and Brewster County Attorney Houston both declined to comment for this story, also citing the new investigation.

In a memo to Alpine city officials, City Attorney Ponton said Dodson was concerned that Alpine police were arresting people without probable cause. “If a person was illegally arrested without probable cause by the Alpine Police Department, but then placed into Brewster County jail,” Ponton wrote to city officials, “Brewster County would incur civil liability for the illegal detention of that person.”

But Dodson is also currently facing an election against one of the officers in the video. And regardless of his reasons for requesting the footage, it soon became a political football — ending up first in the hands of one of his employees, and then on social media.

Crouch, the gun store employee, did not respond to a request for comment by press time. But in a social media post, he said the video showed how Drawe would act as sheriff.

“Is this the guy you want to be your sheriff??” Crouch wrote. He alleged the man “was arrested and charged with a class B misdemeanor for criminal trespassing and never left the public street.”

In his post, Crouch also expressed concerns about how officers had spoken to the man. Both officers tell the suspect to leave town, which Crouch described as an “abuse of power.” (Crouch also claimed Officer Cardoza told the man to “take yourself out,” though the video shows that Cardoza instead said “protect yourself how?” after the man said he felt a need to protect himself.)

In his campaign social media post, Drawe said his remarks should be understood in context, as a stern warning to a repeat offender that “his chances were up.”

“Other APD officers have dealt with this individual for similar issues,” he wrote. “APD has made genuine efforts to help this individual.”

This incident is just the latest controversy to emerge in the race for Brewster County sheriff. Devon Portillo, a former sheriff’s office employee, initially planned to run as a Republican against incumbent Sheriff Ronny Dodson, a Democrat. But Portillo dropped out in August, months after racist social media posts from 2013 resurfaced and prompted an online petition denouncing his candidacy.

Portillo declined to comment on why he dropped out, but Monica McBride, the GOP chairwoman for Brewster County, cited personal reasons. Drawe, a current police officer and also a former sheriff’s office employee, announced his own write-in candidacy and started a campaign Facebook page a few days later. “I believe in ethical law enforcement,” he wrote in a social media post from August. “I have proven my personal and professional commitment to our community every day through my own actions and dedication.”

With the November elections less than two months away, Alpine voters may end up choosing a new sheriff before all the facts come to light. In the meantime, Erik Zimmer, the city manager of Alpine, says he’s seen no evidence of widespread misconduct at Alpine Police Department — including the arrests of people without probable cause.

“There’s not been anything specific,” he said. “And we’ve willfully asked for feedback.” It remains to be seen whether there’s truth behind any of these claims of wrongdoing.