Investigations

To protect and serve: Harassment and discrimination at DPS

AUSTIN (KXAN) — After a six-month KXAN investigation revealed hundreds of complaints of harassment and discrimination at the Texas Department of Transportation, the agency is making changes and diversifying its workforce.

As we continue our analysis of the state's largest agencies, more employees have come forward saying they, too, have been victims in the workplace, including at the Texas Department of Public Safety, an agency that's meant to protect and serve.

"Working in a state agency as large as this was a fantastic opportunity that wound up being one of the most soul-crushing experiences that you could have," a whistleblower at DPS told us.

KXAN concealed the woman's identity for fear of retaliation but she did tell us her role was that of a non-commissioned employee. She says during her time working at DPS, she witnessed discrimination based on race and gender — seeing women and minorities passed up for promotion and raises, despite their experience at the agency or merit, for that matter.

"If you're looking to ever progress, be promoted, be paid more, that is going to happen more with, first off, men. It is very much a common practice for promotions, raises, to skip minorities and females," she said. "These ideas propagate because no one shines a light on it. Everyone's far too afraid to speak up." 

The whistleblower says she never felt comfortable filing a formal complaint with the agency, so she eventually quit. 

"They're not doing anything to create an environment where they're going to want to stay," she added. "We all have to be a force against something that we all know is wrong." 

By the numbers 

Our analysis of state employment data shows the top five highest paid workers at DPS are all white men. Of the nearly 10,000 employees at DPS, nearly 60 percent are men and 40 percent are women. Further, 72 men hold director positions at the agency, compared to only 36 women — that's exactly twice the number of director positions. 

"The directors are in the position to surround themselves with who they want," the whistleblower continued.

DPS workforce by gender and ethnicity

Gender/ethnicity Count
Female 4,028
American Indian 23
Asian 112
Black 784
Hispanic 1,284
White 1,825
Male 5,941
American Indian  42
Asian 109
Black 569
Hispanic 1,865
White 3,356
Total 9,969

When you break down the DPS workforce by gender and ethnicity, only about 13 percent of employees are African-American — 1,353 people in all. With 1,284 Hispanic women and 1,865 Hispanic men at the agency, a little less than a third of DPS employees are Hispanic. Nearly 52 percent of the agency is white. 

In the past five years, there have been hundreds of allegations of discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment and retaliation at DPS. 

The most frequent of the four categories was discrimination with 220 allegations between 2013-2017. Also during that time, there were 129 allegations of harassment and 69 allegations of retaliation. Allegations of sexual harassment were the least frequent of all, with only 26 allegations since 2013. 

Most allegations of discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment and retaliation involved non-commissioned workers at DPS. These roles are civilian and largely administrative or clerical in nature. 

To better understand their concerns, we asked DPS for specific details about allegations in 2017. We learned that by law, any allegation made against troopers is only shared with the public if that trooper was disciplined. DPS says last year, no troopers were disciplined as a result of such allegations so we cannot know what happened in those cases. Still, allegations against troopers made up about half the total number of allegations. 

The records we did receive about the non-commissioned side of the agency included claims of unprofessional conduct, a wide range of discrimination and even retaliation allegations.

Overall, the number of allegations agency-wide have almost doubled from 46 in 2016 to 85 in 2017. In fact, there's a clear trend of fluctuation in the allegation data. In 2013, there were 160 total allegations. That number drastically declined the following year to only 78 allegations, and 75 allegations in 2015. 

To investigate these allegations, DPS relies on an Inspector General and a dispute resolution office at the agency.

According to DPS, the EEO complaint investigative process has been centralized within the Office of Inspector General, or OIG, since 2016. The OIG, which conducts all EEO-related investigations, is the internal investigative arm for DPS and is overseen by professional investigators. The OIG reports directly to the Texas Public Safety Commission.

DPS says its Dispute Resolution Office is "an independent, impartial, and informal office that serves as an off-the-record and confidential resource for all members of the department needing assistance with questions, concerns, complaints or conflicts relating to the workplace."

Representatives with the agency say its policies "foster an environment of equal employment opportunity in hiring, promoting and retaining highly-qualified individuals." 

Still, only about 10 percent of the allegations in the five years we analyzed from 2013-2017 were substantiated, meaning that in the majority of cases, nothing was proven and no one was disciplined. 

Concerns of possible retaliation at DPS 

"If people think that that's the likely outcome from reporting you can understand why people would certainly think twice before reporting or just find another way to do it," explained Austin-based employment attorney Austin Kaplan, with the Kaplan Law Firm, who specializes in workplace disputes. "If people are scared to complain, if you have a workplace where fear is predominating, it's not going to be productive." 

With so few substantiated allegations at DPS, Kaplan says the data suggests fear of retaliation may be a serious issue at the agency and could likely be the cause of fluctuating data, year to year.  

"The data shows that there is a problem where people are afraid to report harassment. I think that the affirmative duty ought to be on DPS, or on the employer, to create an environment where that fear goes away — where people feel like they are confident enough to make that report so that that data can get to the agency and that something can be done," continued Kaplan. "It’s up to the agencies to set up a system that will root out harassment effectively, that will try to solve the problem, and that will do everything reasonable in the employers' power to keep their employees safe, happy, and working productively." 

When we took our concerns to DPS Director Steven McCraw he told us while the agency has the processes and procedures in place to handle allegations, employee reporting is crucial.

"If you know of it, if you've seen it, you have an obligation to report it — whether it's against you or somebody else," said Director McCraw. "If there’s some people that you’ve talked to that feel that way, again, the only way to eliminate that feeling is for them to come forward." 

When confronted with the fact that so few allegations get substantiated at DPS, McCraw responded, "Bring the evidence to the Office of Inspector General. They don't report to me. They report directly to the Public Safety Commission, and certainly, I can assure you, Inspector General Rhonda Fleming is an expert in investigations. She will thoroughly investigate it and follow up." 

McCraw says DPS has made it very clear that Equal Employment Opportunity is taken very seriously at the agency. 

"If it's found that there's a violation, we'll terminate people. Period. Make no mistakes and people know that and we educate that," said McCraw. "There's absolutely no tolerance — zero tolerance — for any violation whatsoever."

He continued, "If we’ve got violations and we’ve got somebody in our midst that is engaged in that type of activity, we want to identify them and take care of it immediately." 

Meanwhile, the DPS whistleblower says the current processes aren't working the way they should.

"People walk in feeling as though this is probably not going to go anywhere and then face retaliation once you get back to your division," she told KXAN. "It feels like a great way for people to, for you to single yourself out as someone who is not going to be there very long." 

The former employee added that DPS would have to start retraining people at the top to rid the agency of its current negative work culture, but says that's not all it needs. 

"To be honest, there are certain people who are going to need to be removed in order for this culture to change," she said. 

Kaplan says employees need to know that their employer is genuinely committed to responsibly responding to the problems at hand. 

At least one lawmaker we've talked with says she is looking into this issue. She's spoken to DPS, and they've committed to meet with her in person.

"Stronger laws perhaps on training, stronger laws on reporting, I think would make a significant difference on this issue and would bring a lot of these things to light, and perhaps some of these problems, the employers would fix them on their own accord. That’s ideal," Kaplan said. 

DPS initially declined our request for an on-camera interview. However, Katherine Cesinger, the communications director for the agency, provided us with this statement, in part:

"Comparable positions at the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) receive comparable pay, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender... DPS hires and promotes its employees without regard to gender, race or ethnicity. Looking at leadership positions within the agency, the Chief Auditor is a female minority, and the Inspector General is a female minority – these are two of only three positions that report directly to the Texas Public Safety Commission, which oversees DPS. Additionally, of the 13 departmental divisions, six divisions are led by females and/or minorities. Four of the seven DPS Regional Directors are minorities; and of the six specialized offices at DPS, two are led by females and one is led by a minority. 

DPS has zero tolerance with regard to discrimination, harassment and retaliation. Even just one sustained EEO complaint against a DPS employee is one too many. Each allegation is fully investigated by the Inspector General – and sustained allegations are handled appropriately." 

The agency is currently under review by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission. According to their September 2018 staff report, long wait times and high call volumes continue to plague DPS, despite repeated attempts by the Legislature to improve the problems.

Eight issues and recommendations are outlined in the commission's report. In addition to providing better customer service and the need to cut down wait times at driver's license offices across the state, the commission also addresses border security, the agency's motorcycle safety program, and other accountability measures.


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