A Texas sheriff’s deputy won’t face punishment for tasing an unarmed refugee child at one of the federal government’s shelters for migrant children in 2020.
After Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting published body camera footage of the encounter in June, drawing global attention to the incident, the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office immediately placed the deputy, Patrick Divers, on administrative leave pending an investigation.
Since then, Sheriff Javier Salazar’s department has provided so many contradictory and confusing statements about its investigation into the deputy’s conduct that it can be difficult to understand what’s going on at the department, which serves the area around San Antonio.
In December, the department told Reveal reporters that Divers had returned to work, but the investigation was ongoing.
A month later, Deputy Johnny Garcia said in an email that the investigation into Divers had actually concluded in July. In the end, Divers’ administrative leave lasted 10 days, and it was paid.
The department also originally told us that Divers couldn’t be punished because of a union contract that forbids action against any officer more than 180 days after the incident occurred.
Weeks later, we obtained a copy of the internal affairs investigation that concluded Divers followed protocol when he tased the unarmed migrant child for half a minute.
The federal refugee agency is supposed to care for migrant children. But some shelters have turned to police after children allegedly fought, damaged property or had mental health needs.
Divers tased the boy in May 2020. However, it didn’t become publicly known until more than a year later, after Reveal obtained the bodycam footage through a public records request and published it. In the footage, Divers is shown arriving at Southwest Key Casa Blanca, a government-sponsored shelter in San Antonio. Staff there had called 911 after the boy, who had fled Honduras at age 15, refused to go to class and had allegedly broken some bed frames and storage bins.
Divers, a 27-year veteran of the department, didn’t request evidence of the child’s alleged wrongdoing before tasing him at the time, according to the footage. When he encountered the boy in a small bathroom, the deputy didn’t attempt to have his orders translated into Spanish by the bilingual shelter staff, nor did he tell the boy that he was under arrest. He ordered the teen in English to stand up and turn around. The child showed no signs of fighting back or resisting arrest, according to the video footage. Divers then shot the boy with his Taser and repeatedly pulsed the weapon on his torso and thighs, shocking him for 35 seconds, the footage shows. Divers arrested the boy on a charge of criminal mischief. It’s unclear what ultimately happened with the criminal case because of juvenile privacy laws in Texas.
The internal affairs report contends Divers “utilized reasonable force based on the circumstances that (the deputy) had at the time the force was used.” In its justification, the report cites what it calls the child’s “aggressive behavior, prior assaultive behavior, and additional pertinent information provided by staff members at the facility.”
The report says Divers was informed by an unnamed female staffer of the child’s past behavior, but notes that it happened after the tasing. That information was shared by the child’s then-case manager, Julie Tamez – who later told us that she regretted what happened and wanted to apologize to the teen for her part in what occurred.
The internal affairs investigation concluded that, because he was able to state his age, the child “understands some of the English language.”
The investigation also claims that the boy was a risk because he was tying the string on his pants. Tying one’s pants “has been established through training as a que (sic) that (the child) was preparing to fight or run,” the report states.
The child was released from federal custody when he turned 18; he remains in the United States while he seeks immigration relief.
After he was released, the teen told us he understood that he was being told to stand up and did so – but he didn’t understand that Divers was ordering him to turn around. He also explained that he tied his pants because he was worried they would fall down, leaving him exposed after standing. He also said the Sheriff’s Office hadn’t communicated with him as part of this investigation.
The department’s investigation did find that Divers failed to notify supervisors in a timely manner about his Taser use. Divers submitted a use-of-force form that day, but he did not “verbally notify” the on-duty supervisor of the tasing, which prevented the supervisor from investigating and obtaining photographs of the child’s injuries, according to the report. In a written statement to internal affairs, Lt. Kenneth Murray recalled that when he walked into the sergeant’s office that day, two sergeants were in an “uproar because an officer had used their Taser earlier in the shift and they did not know about it,” the report states.
It also found that Divers violated two subsections of the county’s civil service rules: “Poor Job Performance” and “conduct which has proven to be detrimental or has an adverse affect (sic) on the Sheriff’s Office,” but the report doesn’t describe why.
Finally, the investigation found that Divers failed to advise his supervisor of the teen’s immigration status – prohibiting the department from alerting “Immigration and Naturalization Services” of the child’s presence in the United States. (The INS doesn’t exist anymore; it became U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, in 2003.) The child, however, was already in the federal government’s custody in the Southwest Key shelter due to his immigration status and seeking asylum.
The Sheriff’s Office said in an email that Divers couldn’t be disciplined for any policy violations because he’s covered by a collective bargaining agreement that shields deputies from discipline 180 days after any given incident. But the union behind that agreement, the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Bexar County, disagrees with the sheriff’s framing, alleging that Salazar is using the 180-day rule to avoid criticism for keeping Divers on the job.
The union contract includes a provision that allows the Sheriff’s Office to seek disciplinary action at any time in cases that involve “criminal conduct,” which according to the contract, “does not require that a criminal charge be filed against the employee.” Ron DeLord, an attorney and chief negotiator for the union, said the sheriff could have pursued discipline against Divers, if the investigation merited it, under this category.
“He tased someone. Now that could be a criminal charge, couldn’t it?” DeLord said. “Police just can’t shoot you with a Taser if they want to.”
When Reveal inquired about the criminal conduct provision, the Sheriff’s Office said “there was no criminality founded from the investigation that was conducted by the Public Integrity Unit, regarding the tasing incident.”
The department later suspended Divers for 10 days for an unrelated incident. Divers is appealing; the department won’t disclose details of the incident.
Reveal also has obtained new records that raise questions about whether the Sheriff’s Office knew about the child’s tasing immediately after it happened. Last summer, the agency told us that it did not know about the May 2020 incident until we brought it to the sheriff’s attention. But Divers completed a use-of-force report the day of the tasing. It was signed by a supervisor and forwarded to internal affairs, records show.
An internal affairs investigation conducted at that time would not have run up against the 180-day limit for punishment.
Reveal has requested to speak with Salazar on at least a dozen occasions since May. Despite repeated statements from his office that staffers would check his availability and get back to us, his team formally declined an interview last month.
Divers couldn’t be reached for comment. Records indicate Divers was represented by Ben Sifuentes, a San Antonio criminal and employment defense attorney. Sifuentes did not return calls for comment.
Ananda Tomas, executive director of ACT 4 SA, a grassroots advocacy organization focused on police reform initiatives, told Reveal that she disagrees with the sheriff’s decision to not hold Divers accountable.
“A 16-year-old boy was tased for 35 seconds. That’s serious damage to a young boy physically. Adults who are much larger have been killed by Tasers. What we have here is excessive force,” she said.
“It clearly should have been a criminal conduct investigation.”
A new Bexar County union contract, which was approved by the county commission this week, includes changes to the 180-day language. It would give the Sheriff’s Office 180 days to discipline deputies for “minor misconduct” from the time an incident is discovered, 365 days for “major misconduct” and 730 days for misconduct that led to “significant personal, physical, or mental injury” or violations of constitutional rights.
The sheriff has positioned himself as a reformer. Salazar began his career at the San Antonio Police Department, where he spent part of his tenure as an internal affairs investigator and later the director of communications. A Democrat, Salazar was sworn into the Sheriff’s Office in January 2017.
During his first term, he fired more than 100 deputies. He told KSAT News last February: “I’ve made no secret of the fact that we’ve got people employed here that probably should never have been hired, some of them probably should have been fired years ago.”
Salazar was reelected in 2020 after running on a campaign that touted his various reforms since becoming sheriff, including creating the agency’s first public integrity unit, expanding the internal affairs division and upgrading its body camera system.
The tasing incident was part of a larger pattern in the shelter system for migrant children. Reveal’s investigation found that a number of the government’s shelters have been turning to police to manage the sort of behavior that could be expected of children, in particular isolated refugee children. Over the previous six years, shelters had discharged at least 84 children, from ages 11 to 17, to local law enforcement, according to data we obtained after suing the federal government.
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Democrat who represents San Antonio, called for a federal investigation into the issue last year. It’s unclear whether the government has investigated the tasing or the broader practice of involving local police in incidents that involve migrant children’s emotional outbursts.
Last month, Castro confirmed the inspector general’s office for the Office of Refugee Resettlement received his inquiry. He also told Reveal that he included language in a 2022 appropriations bill; that legislation recommends more funding to, in part, “rebuild, support and train staff on trauma-informed care.”
“Immigrant children seeking asylum are often under immense stress within government-funded shelters and it’s crucial that the staff which oversees their care have a clear understanding of when it is appropriate to engage local law enforcement as well as stipulate how local law enforcement treats these minors,” Castro said in a statement.
This story was edited by Andrew Donohue and copy edited by Nikki Frick.