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Deputy’s reprimand exposes rifts within sheriff’s office

Jim Finnel

Fallen Cannabis Warrior & Ex News Moderator
EDINBURG — For more than a month, Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Deputy Jeff Contreras has found himself in the middle of a fight larger than the issue that got him there in the first place.

After testing positive for marijuana use following an on-duty patrol car accident in April, Contreras was thrown into the center of a firestorm long brewing between Sheriff Lupe Treviño and a group of disgruntled employees.

Contreras’ case exposed fault lines within the usually tight-lipped sheriff’s department.
On one side, a group of current and former deputies that argue Contreras is one of many county lawmen allowed to keep their jobs despite violating internal policies; that deputies are promoted based on whether they campaign for the sheriff; and that the officers are given special treatment based on their personal political connections.

On the other side stands Treviño, who maintains he has been consistent in his disciplinary policies and believes everyone deserves a second chance so long as their offenses are not criminal. His supporters say the dissent is merely professional jealousy from "an old guard" of deputies who served under former sheriff Enrique Escalon’s administration.

TROUBLE BEGINS
Contreras, 36, declined to speak to reporters Monday, but authorized his father, Justice of the Peace Bobby Contreras, to speak on his behalf.

Jeff Contreras’ trouble began, his father said, on the night of April 6.

Just before 8:30 p.m., Deputy Contreras hit a maroon Oldsmobile that cut him off near the intersection of Farm-to-Market road 1015 and Mile 12 Road North near Edcouch, according to an incident report filed with the sheriff’s department.

An investigation into the incident ultimately determined he was not at fault for the wreck, but he voluntarily submitted to a drug test under department policy.

"We always administer a drug test after any sort of wreck, shooting or other incident," said Treviño, who didn’t confirm the results of Jeff Contreras’ test. Bobby Contreras, however, confirmed his son tested positive for marijuana.

While the results indicated the deputy had smoked marijuana in the recent past, it did not show he was intoxicated at the time of the wreck, Bobby Contreras said. Normally, the sheriff said, marijuana is detectable in a person’s system for about 30 days.

Treviño decided to temporarily suspend Deputy Contreras and ordered him to undergo substance abuse counseling, his father said.

Within days, a group of current and former deputies had tagged Jeff Contreras as another in a long list of "bad apples" allowed to work within the department.

They also said Jeff Contreras was given special treatment because his father is a political ally of the sheriff’s. Bobby Contreras said he has never contributed to any of Treviño’s campaigns, however.

NOT HIS FIRST ON-DUTY INCIDENT
The April 6 on-duty incident was not Jeff Contreras’ first with the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office.

Aside from a voluntary resignation in March 2001, his past record includes a few questionable other incidents.

In March 1999 — under former sheriff Escalon’s administration — Contreras had been involved in another accident at the intersection of Alberta and Tower roads that ended with the death of one of the passengers, Treviño said.

A Texas Department of Public Safety investigation faulted Contreras for failing to yield the right of way and inattentive driving but also indicated there were no traffic signs at the intersection.

Documents detailing this incident were not immediately available, but a grand jury declined to indict him on any charges.

Escalon fired him more than a year later, though, for failing to take an alcohol test after a sergeant accused him of showing up to work drunk. Deputy Contreras appealed his termination and was reinstated by the county’s civil service commission. Escalon refused to take him back.

Two years later, Treviño decided to re-hire the deputy after he took office in January 2005.
Since then, Contreras has served with no notable problems, the sheriff said.

After word of the failed drug test began to spread, however, Jeff Contreras’ name was circulating through the sheriff’s department again.

OUTPOURING OF OUTRAGE
On May 4, The Monitor published a letter to the editor titled "Moral decline at the Sheriff’s office" on its opinion page, in which author Robert Martinez, of Pharr, questioned the recent firing and resignation of several deputies.

Within hours, readers commenting on the online version of the letter at The Monitor propelled it to the top of the Web site’s "Most Popular Stories" feature.

Among them, a group of posters who identified themselves as current and former deputies.

For days, the bloggers flooded the Web site with allegations and innuendo of favoritism and corruption within the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office. The case of Jeff Contreras was just the latest example, they said.

None of the disgruntled deputies offered any documentary evidence of the claims made in their letters.

Treviño immediately took issue with the anonymous nature and vicious tone of the blog postings.

"Those are anonymous postings and 98 percent of the information in them is untrue," the sheriff said.

Still, tensions remained high — and Justice of the Peace Contreras blames them for the events that led to his son’s eventual termination last week.

On May 5, three deputies allegedly called him to harass him about his status within the department, the elder Contreras said.

Jeff Contreras snapped back, and within days the wife of one of his alleged tormentors filed a complaint against the deputy for threatening to harm her husband, Bobby Contreras said.

Treviño would not confirm the details of the Contrerases’ account, citing the privacy of personnel records.

SECOND CHANCES
Although Treviño refused to comment on the specific reasons he fired Contreras, he flatly denied it had anything to do with the dissenting deputies who questioned his decision.
Bobby Contreras says his son has no one to blame but himself.

"My son has made his own bed," he said. "This thing should never have happened, and he’s very sorry for it.

"I told him you walk away and thank (Treviño) for the time he let him work there."

The sheriff maintains that he offered the same opportunities to Jeff Contreras that he has offered countless deputies who have run into trouble in the past.

Citing a number of past incidents of deputies who have been given second chances, the sheriff maintained he had never held a zero-tolerance policy.

"I consider myself a really strict disciplinarian — but one with compassion," he said.
"I’m also no advocate of throwing my deputies under the bus. If you confess to your mistake, haven’t committed a violent or criminal offense and are really sincere, you should be given a second chance."

Even though his son was fired, Bobby Contreras defended the sheriff against the disgruntled deputies.

"I think he’s doing a hell of a job running the county," he said. "But like anything, you’ll have a few malcontents who disagree. I hope he weeds them out soon."

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