Days after two of the city’s horseback officers led a black man by a rope, sparking condemnation and comparisons to slave-chasing and the Jim Crow era, the Galveston police union has defended the incident as a matter of routine but acknowledged how it looked to the world.

“I understand the optics, and I understand the frustration it caused,” Geoff Gainer, the Galveston Municipal Police Association president, told local media Wednesday. His comments were made after a firestorm of public outrage swept through the island city outside Houston following the arrest of Donald Neely.

Neely, 43, whose family has told the media that he struggles with mental health issues, was accused of criminal trespassing Saturday when he was arrested and hauled through the street by a rope attached to handcuffs. Police said they did not have a patrol car available to take him to a station and instead opted for transport by horse.

Donald Neely is walked with handcuffs and a rope by two mounted police officers in Galveston, Tex. (Erin Toberman/AP)

Galveston Police Chief Vernon L. Hale III apologized Monday after the controversy erupted, saying the officers acted in “poor judgment” and caused Neely “unnecessary embarrassment.” A day later, he appeared to pull back from those comments and asked a crowded Tuesday town hall meeting to take a fuller look.

But Hale did tell angry community members, some of whom demanded that the officers be suspended or fired, that he would reevaluate policies and guidelines and search for another method of arrest. “I commit to you: We will do better,” he said.

The officers worked normally on Wednesday. Neely was released on bond.

Gainer strongly defended the two officers involved as fairly new to the force but motivated and compassionate, acting through what he described in a statement as a national and accepted practice for mounted officers nationwide. Two officers, each atop horses, flank a handcuffed suspect with a rope attached to the cuffs.

“It is race and gender neutral,” he said in the statement.

The decision was to wait in stifling Texas summer heat for a patrol car for an indefinite period of time, Gainer said, or take Neely to an air-conditioned staging area. The officers, identified by the department as P. Brosch and A. Smith, chose to transport him by horseback, Gainer said.

Gainer said officers are focused on the safety of themselves, the public and suspects when they make arrests. “When you think about those things constantly, when that’s at the front of your mind, the optics of what it may look like from the outside sometimes don’t get brought up,” he said.

Gainer also addressed a video later released of officers removing a bag from Neely’s head. It was a welder’s mask, he said, telling local media that Neely was well-known to officers and often felt safe with a face covering, though he offered only anecdotal evidence of the claim.

Others reacted very differently to the arrest procedure.

“What they did was real inhumane,” Neely’s brother, Andy Neely, told KPRC. “They treated my brother as if he was a dog.”

“It took me back, like, 400 years,” a black woman said at the town hall.

“Those officers took advantage of a mentally ill black man,” Ben Crump, a civil rights attorney for the Neely family, told Hale at the meeting. “Do you have the courage to do what is right, not just with words, but actions?” Crump did not return a request for comment.

Taranette Neely, Donald Neely’s sister, said “it didn’t look good” but told KPRC that her brother said he was not upset about the incident and said the officers were “nice.”

Gainer said after incidents over the “past few years” nationwide — an apparent reference to a near constant drumbeat of officers killing black men who are sometimes unarmed — the association president said that “we’re still learning."

He said he was heartened by Hale’s commitment to review policies. “If there’s a failure, it’s of training and policy,” he told local media.

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