In East Texas, Van Zandt County Sheriff Resigns After Deputy Punches Handcuffed Man

A controversy in Van Zandt County is shining light on excessive force.
A controversy in Van Zandt County is shining light on excessive force. Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash
It started in September with a man fleeing law enforcement and ended last week with the Van Zandt County sheriff’s resignation.

Last fall, 28-year-old Nicholas Scott Crouch ran from police as they pursued him for a string of burglaries. When they caught up with Crouch, he was placed in handcuffs. Then, a sheriff’s deputy hit him in the face.

The ordeal touched off a series of events that would shake up law enforcement in Van Zandt County, located roughly an hour southeast of Dallas.

Sheriff Steve Hendrix will serve his last day on May 14. Along with two other law enforcement officers, he'd been indicted for allegedly lying about the incident to investigators, according to eExtra News.

Crouch’s attorney, Mitch Adams, thinks the sheriff’s resignation is likely in his best interest.

“Law enforcement officers, especially elected ones, ought not to allow that sort of thing to take place in their departments,” he said.

In Texas, police custody can be a dangerous place for those held there. Some who are jailed report getting beaten by guards. Police in the Lone Star State killed 105 people in 2021, 13 more than they had the previous year, according to the website Mapping Police Violence.

But advocates say the real number of excessive force incidents could be far greater. The Washington Post reported in 2021 that for the second year in a row, just over a quarter of police departments nationwide handed data over to the FBI’s use-of-force data collection.

Hendrix had only served as sheriff around a year and a half prior to issuing his resignation. Adams said he hopes that it’ll put an end to “folks getting beaten up in Van Zandt County by law enforcement officers."

The Van Zandt County sheriff's department, Hendrix's lawyer and the county district attorney's office did not return the Observer’s requests for comment.

But the sheriff's legal team has slammed the indictment as "baseless," adding that he "looks forward to defending the allegations in court," according to Austin's FOX 7.

“[Civil rights] either apply to everybody or they don’t." – Mitch Adams, attorney

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What happened in Van Zandt County is common in Texas, said Krish Gundu, co-founder and executive director of the Texas Jail Project. The fact that Hendrix is resigning comes as a surprise because law enforcement often dodges consequences in such incidents.

Gundu pointed to other excessive force cases, including one in Harris County last year during that February’s historic winter freeze. The Houston Chronicle reported at the time that an inmate, Jaquaree Simmons, died after being beaten by detention officers.

Eleven employees were fired, but six were merely suspended and no charges have been brought against any of them, Gundu said, adding: “It’s so rampant, and there’s no accountability.”

North Texas also has cases involving a questionable use of force. Last year in Collin County, Marvin Scott III died in police custody; his death was ruled a homicide. Several detention employees were placed on administrative leave but didn't face charges.

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards collects data on serious incidents each month, but they’re self-reported, Gundu said. It’s safe to assume that much more police-driven violence happens than even gets logged.

The trauma is on both sides, though, she added. The system is set up in such a way that it prevents good officers from effecting change and often pushes them out. “The way the system functions, the culture and the mindset, is a symptom of how deep-rooted and deep-seated our belief in punitive systems is,” Gundu said.

In jail, it’s not actually the sheriff’s job to punish someone, she added.

“If our community members can’t be safe in a sheriff’s custody, where their whole job and whole mandate is to keep us safe, then how can we expect them to keep people in the community safe?”

Crouch has pleaded guilty in each of his burglary cases. Adams hopes that his client stays out of trouble while behind bars, makes parole and goes on to lead at least a quasi-productive life.

Criminals don’t always receive much sympathy, but Adams said even convicts have protections under the law. Civil rights are worthless if people like his client don’t get the benefit of them.

“They either apply to everybody or they don’t,” Adams added. “We’re either a country of laws or we’re a banana republic.”
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Simone Carter, a staff news reporter at the Dallas Observer, graduated from the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism. Her favorite color is red, but she digs Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.
Contact: Simone Carter