New details emerge on Hall’s police ride alongs

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By SHELLY WILKISON
A former Liberty Hill police officer said that footage taken from his body camera, which was provided by the City of Liberty Hill to The Independent recently as part of an Open Records Request, is not complete.

After watching the video posted on the newspaper’s website, Jeffrey Farmer, who was the driver of the police vehicle during a pursuit on Oct. 4, 2018, said there is more to the video than what was provided to The Independent. Mayor Rick Hall, who was Farmer’s front-seat passenger that night, was participating in a ride along.

According to a grievance filed in April by former Police Chief Maverick Campbell, the Mayor’s behavior during the ride along was first noticed by Lt. Jeff Ringstaff following a request from the FBI for the Liberty Hill Police Department to share all video of the incident. Campbell said Ringstaff alerted him to the video, he watched it and directed Ringstaff to send all video to the FBI as requested.

“The Mayor was seen and heard in the body camera footage using profanity towards other agencies as to why they weren’t there to help, made some very inappropriate comments and is seen accessing the mobile computer terminal as an unauthorized user,” Campbell wrote.

Hall has repeatedly denied all of the allegations cited in the grievance.

The Independent officially requested an interview with Hall and Ringstaff regarding the content of the video, but through the City’s attorney, the request was denied on July 15.

“The City and Maverick Campbell are still in the middle a hearing with the Texas Workforce Commission. He has listed the Mayor and Lt. Ringstaff as potential witnesses to the hearing. At this point, because of the administrative matter, I have recommended that they not sit down for an interview related to issues arrising from allegations made by Mr. Campbell,” wrote Attorney Tad Cleaves in his response to the newspaper.

While the body camera footage provided to The Independent shows the Mayor accessing the officer’s computer, appearing to be proficient in its use, there is no audio of any profanity. (Read the Story)

“I don’t remember all the conversation, obviously, because I was paying attention to the driving and the radio and making sure everybody knew where I was at,” Farmer said, adding that he doesn’t specifically recall any inappropriate language from the Mayor that night. “Is it possible? Knowing the way I know the Mayor, yes, but I can’t honestly say that was on there (video).”

Farmer said he manually activated his body camera at the time he initiated the patrol car’s lights and siren attempting to stop a motorcycle on a traffic violation. The stop was made in the southbound lanes on US Hwy 183. He said after 21 years of experience as a law enforcement officer, he had a hunch that the driver would flee, so he activated his camera and waited briefly in his vehicle.

“That’s not the whole video,” Farmer said Friday. “There was more to it, especially at the beginning. For sure it was cut short at the beginning. Because almost 100 percent of the time, once the traffic stop is initiated we turn that body camera on. It’s definitely not the whole video because I noticed that the first time I saw it, it started when I was almost halfway through the pursuit, and I was like ‘wait a minute, that’s not even the beginning’, so it’s definitely not the full video.”

Farmer said he remembers activating the camera because it’s a step “that’s like second nature to me. I knew he was going to run, and that’s what I was telling the Mayor, and that’s why I didn’t get out of the vehicle right away, because it was like okay based on 21 years experience you kind of know. That’s why I didn’t get out to approach the guy because he kept looking back.”

He said that while the video ends as he is in mid-sentence, he can’t be sure if that’s where he disengaged his camera. Just before it ends, the Mayor is heard questioning why other agencies are not there to assist.

Farmer explained that the manually-activated cameras are commonly turned on and off as needed.

“We turn it off and on each traffic stop or each time we get out and talk to somebody,” he said. “What else was there, I can’t tell you. But was there more? Yes, especially at the beginning.”

Farmer, who previously worked in small police departments as well as a large sheriff’s office before coming to Liberty Hill in November 2016, said he didn’t know the Mayor had accessed his patrol unit computer until he watched the body camera footage on The Independent’s website. He said he did not see Hall access the computer on the other occasions he rode with him, but he couldn’t be certain if he accessed the equipment while Farmer was outside the vehicle on a traffic stop. He estimated that the Mayor rode with him “five to 10 times”, although he was not certain of the dates.

“As you see in the video, the lid was halfway down and it was turned toward me,” Farmer said. “Anybody that would ride with me knew they weren’t allowed to get on that computer. I never gave him permission to use that computer. I have no clue what he was doing. I look back at it and look at what button he may have been pushing, and I don’t know unless he was trying to see who the guy was. He could have been seeing what dispatch sent us because they send us the information once I called in the (license) plate.

“I’m doing 100 something miles per hour and watching for traffic, and telling people on the radio where I’m at, so I’m really not watching what’s going on on the computer part,” he explained. “But looking at the video now, he (Hall) clearly knew what to do. He learned it somewhere.”

In recent interviews with The Independent, the Chief of the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement and a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed that access to an officer’s in-unit computer is limited strictly to individuals who have been trained and authorized to use it. The computer accesses Texas Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (TLETS), which provides information from the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information System (CJIS). Using the system, officers have access to an individual’s criminal history, driver’s license and vehicle registration, and additional private information.

Kim Vickers, chief of TCOLE, said if DPS learns of unauthorized use of the system, it could result in a department losing access to CJIS. He said while an unauthorized user would be committing an offense depending on what he did with the information, discipline would be likely for the officer under whose watch access occurred. He added that he would expect an internal affairs investigation to show whether the access was granted voluntarily on the part of the officer or whether there was coercion on the part of someone who was in a position to make decisions regarding an officer’s employment.

Farmer said he was not disciplined as a result of the pursuit, but said he did feel uncomfortable at times with the Mayor as his passenger.

“He’s pretty much the boss, so yeah, there were times when it was awkward or I can’t really say anything now for (fear of) retaliation or revenge. I felt like if I said anything that there would be something else done, or I would lose my job or something. I don’t know what would have happened, but I felt uneasy that something may happen if I said anything,” Farmer said.

Farmer said Hall always wore his gun in the vehicle — something strictly prohibited by the department’s own ride-along policy.

Farmer said Hall was the most frequent rider, adding that he rode with other officers as well. He said the Mayor typically rode about three to four hours at a time and was usually finished by 11 p.m. He added, however, that he thought it was “unusual” that the Mayor rode out with officers so frequently.

“A lot of times he would just show up at the office or he would call and say, ‘hey, come pick me up’,” Farmer said. “There were times when I’d drive by his house and he’d be outside, and he’d say, ‘hey, I’m going to ride with you,’ and I’d say okay.”

Farmer said at the other agencies he worked previously, there would be an occasional ride by the mayor or a council member to observe, “but I’ve never seen this much in my career, and I was a lieutenant on patrol before and a detective, and I’ve never seen as much as that.”

Farmer said he recalls seeing Hall complete a ride-along application one time, but didn’t remember when it was.

However, in response to an Open Records Request from The Independent seeking any signed forms by ride-along participants to participate in the program from Jan. 1, 2018 to July 8, 2020 produced only five riders, all of whom rode in 2018, and the list did not include Mayor Hall or any other elected officials.

Campbell said in addition to Hall, council members Steve McIntosh and Liz Rundzieher did ride-alongs, as well as former members Troy Whitehead and the late Wendell McLeod.

While Campbell and others have come forward regarding incidents where the Mayor was seen intoxicated in public, Farmer confirmed that he observed similar behavior on multiple occasions. He specifically pointed to one occasion when he pulled Hall aside at a City-sponsored event and advised him to put his weapon away because he appeared to be intoxicated.

“It was either a July 4th function or the Sculpture Festival. He was intoxicated, or appeared to be, and he had his weapon with him and he was walking around, and I noticed that and pulled him off to the side and mentioned to him that ‘it probably isn’t a good idea for you to be walking around like that with your weapon, it is a bad image for you’. He said he was sorry. I did notify the Chief (Campbell) later on so no coming back later and saying, ‘hey, who does this Officer Farmer think he is’.” Farmer said he couldn’t be sure, but he thought Hall put the weapon in his truck.

Farmer resigned from the department in October 2019 “for personal reasons.” He said that at the time of his resignation, he had a good relationship with Hall.

Campbell said that after the October 2018 pursuit, he stopped all ride alongs until the department’s policy could be reviewed.

The current ride-along policy, which was approved by Campbell, was provided to The Independent this week in response to an Open Records Request. It defines an application process that restricts participants to only one ride per month, requires a background check, and outlines conduct expected of riders. Among those expectations are that participants will not use alcoholic beverages immediately prior to the ride, “not use profane or abusive language”, play no active role in the police function, and “shall not be allowed to operate any police equipment unless directed to do so by a police officer in an extreme emergency.”

The policy also states, “participants shall not be allowed to carry any firearm or other weapon, even when otherwise authorized by law, while participating in the ride-along program.”

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