COFFEE CITY, Texas — There’s not much to Coffee City, Texas. Two liquor stores, a couple of dollar stores, a pizza joint and a motel. But this town, which is three hours north of Houston, has quite a reputation among those who drive through.
- “A lot of officers policing a very small number of people,” motorist Jen Hendricks said.
- “They run back and forth, back and forth,” Bill Knous said.
- “They’re everywhere, literally everywhere,” Madison, who didn’t provide her last name, said.
The city limit sign on the side of State Highway 155 reads “POP 249.” In a town of barely 250 residents, there are 50 full-time and reserve officers in the department. That is five times the number of cops than any town its size, according to Texas Commission on Law Enforcement records.
- “Good lord, that’s crazy, that’s crazy,” Robert Whittington said.
- “It’s such a small town, why do we need so many?” Dylan Smith said.
Coffee City’s budget shows the town collected more than $1 million in court fines last year. That came from more than 5,100 citations officers wrote, the most in the state for a town its size according to the Texas Office of Court Administration.
KHOU 11 Investigates - Part 2 | Caught on camera: Small-town police chief goes on tirade
But there is more to this story than a small town writing a bunch of speeding tickets. KHOU 11 Investigates discovered Coffee City is a magnet for troubled cops. More than half of the department’s 50 officers had been suspended, demoted, terminated or dishonorably discharged from their previous law enforcement jobs, according to personnel files obtained through open records requests to other law enforcement agencies.
Those prior disciplinary actions range from excessive force, public drunkenness, untruthfulness and association with known criminals. They include:
- An officer terminated for posting a Facebook message to a citizen: “You should kill yourself, do the world a favor.”
- An officer suspended for smashing a window and entering his girlfriend’s home without consent.
- A deputy constable suspended after a burglary victim’s laptop computer was found in his home.
- A deputy constable terminated for tackling a non-resisting citizen to the ground during a traffic stop.
- A deputy sheriff terminated for slapping a handcuffed inmate without provocation.
- Two officers terminated for lying on their job applications.
“Looking at the disciplinary records, I mean, I was astounded to think that they’d been hired by another agency,” Greg Fremin, a lecturer at the Sam Houston State University College of Criminal Justice, said.
Fremin is a retired Houston Police Department captain. His 34 years of service at HPD included stints as an internal affairs supervisor and division commander for the training division.
“I’ve never seen anything like that in my professional career, and I’ve seen a lot,” Fremin said.
The records also reveal at least a dozen Coffee City officers who found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Their criminal charges include official oppression, family violence, theft, DWI, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, harassment and endangering a child.
“If you knowingly are hiring an officer that has a very troubled past and history and has no business to be wearing a uniform, it's a very, very precarious slope that that city is engaging in by hiring,” Fremin said.
The man who hired nearly all the Coffee City cops with tainted work histories is JohnJay Portillo. He is a 17-year law enforcement veteran who has mostly held jobs at Harris County agencies before becoming Coffee City’s police chief in April 2021.
When asked why he would hire so many people with red flags, Portillo defended the practice.
“There’s more to just what’s on paper,” Portillo said. “And that's where I rely on my captain and my background investigators to go in and dig and say, ‘Hey, what's that? What's the truth behind this?’”
Portillo said in some cases, the criminal charges officers faced were dismissed or expunged, and the dishonorable discharges overturned after officers appealed them through the State Office of Administrative Hearings. Portillo claimed most of the applicants he’s hired got on the wrong side of agency politics.
“If you go back and look at the totality of the officers’ stuff, I would say 75% if not more … they’re being retaliated against from their agency,” Portillo said. “I try to look at the good in everybody and I believe everybody deserves an opportunity.”
The opportunity to wear a badge allows officers to make extra money. In the state of Texas, a commissioned reserve officer may work off-duty performing traffic control duties, commonly known as “road jobs.” Of the 50 sworn officers at the Coffee City Police Department, 38 are reserves according to state records.
“I mean, let’s not hide it from anybody, they’re making probably about $80,000 to $100,000 a year doing that,” Portillo said.
When pressed, Portillo denied taking a cut, or percentage, of his officers’ extra job wages. He said outside of his salary as chief, the only law-enforcement money he makes is from working extra jobs himself.
A spokesperson for the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement confirms the agency has an open investigation into the Coffee City Police Department but would not say if it concerns hiring practices or any other issues.