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June 11th, 2020:

We keep hitting the wrong marks

Up, up, and up.

For the second day in a row, Texas has reported a record number of patients hospitalized with the new coronavirus, a metric Gov. Greg Abbott has said he’s watching as businesses continue reopening and limits on their operations are loosened.

Data released Tuesday by the Texas Department of State Health Services shows 2,056 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, up from 1,935 the day before. The previous high was May 5, when 1,888 people were hospitalized.

The figures come a little more than a month since Abbott’s statewide stay-at-home order ended and he began a phased reopening of businesses. It also comes about two weeks after Memorial Day.

[…]

“I’m concerned but not yet alarmed,” Abbott told a North Texas television station. “I look at Amarillo that was a hot spot zone a couple of weeks ago, where they had a lot of concerns. We had surge response teams that addressed it, and now their hospitalizations are going down.”

Texas has 15,400 available hospital beds and 1,700 available ICU beds, the data shows. There are 5,900 ventilators available. The number of available beds is seen as a key gauge for the state’s ability to handle a potential surge in coronavirus cases, and Abbott has said the hospitalization rate — the proportion of infected Texans who are requiring hospitalization — is a benchmark he’s closely monitoring. He cited it as an encouraging metric as the state’s stay-at-home order expired at the end of April.

In Houston, Dallas and other areas that have seen increased hospitalizations, “we need to drill down and find out exactly why that is,” Abbott said.

Yeah, I’m closely monitoring the hospitalization rate, too. We’re now at three straight days of record numbers there, for those of you playing along at home. It’s happening locally, and it’s mostly been happening since Memorial Day. I’m going to keep asking the same question I have every time I do one of these posts: What’s our plan for when we start getting into the “dangerously full” zone for hospitals? If it turns out to be localized rather than everywhere in the state, will Greg Abbott let local leaders have more discretion to take action as they had back in March? I really really hope it doesn’t come to that, but hope seems to be all we’ve got.

UPDATE: From the Trib: “Texas reports largest single-day increase in coronavirus cases”. Insert shrug emoji here.

Javier Ambler

Remember his name.

Javier Ambler

Javier Ambler was driving home from playing poker on March 28, 2019, when he failed to dim the headlights of his SUV to oncoming traffic.

A Williamson County sheriff’s deputy initiated a stop and began chasing him for the minor traffic violation. After Ambler apparently refused to pull over, a pursuit that lasted 22 minutes and ended when Ambler’s Honda Pilot crashed north of Downtown Austin.

Minutes later, Ambler, a 40-year-old father of two, was dying on a neighborhood street.

Records obtained by the KVUE Defenders and the Austin American-Statesman reveal that deputies used Taser stun guns on him at least three times, even as he told them multiple times that he had a heart condition and could not breathe.

The circumstances of Ambler’s March 28, 2019, death have never been revealed. The Williamson County Sheriff’s Office tried to shield information from release since receiving its first request in February.

Ambler’s death was ruled a homicide, which officials said include “justifiable homicide.” Medical examiners listed his cause of death as congestive heart failure and hypertensive cardiovascular disease associated with morbid obesity “in combination with forcible restraint,” according to an in-custody report filed with the Texas Attorney General’s office. The report included no other details about Ambler’s autopsy, which hasn’t been released, but noted that he did not appear to be intoxicated by drugs or alcohol.

[…]

Plohetski and the KVUE Defenders learned about Ambler’s death in February from frustrated investigators who felt stymied in their quest to understand what happened.

The Williamson County Sheriff’s Office sought to keep confidential internal affairs records in the case after a request for information in late February.

On May 18, however, the Texas Attorney General ruled that the agency had no legal grounds to withhold information and ordered that at least some materials be released. Ten days later, the sheriff’s office provided a three-page internal affairs investigative report that found no wrongdoing by deputies.

Plohetski and the KVUE Defenders learned about Ambler’s death in February from frustrated investigators who felt stymied in their quest to understand what happened.

The Williamson County Sheriff’s Office sought to keep confidential internal affairs records in the case after a request for information in late February.

On May 18, however, the Texas Attorney General ruled that the agency had no legal grounds to withhold information and ordered that at least some materials be released. Ten days later, the sheriff’s office provided a three-page internal affairs investigative report that found no wrongdoing by deputies.

The deputy chased him for 22 minutes because Javier Ambler had his high beams on. When was the last time you were pulled over for that offense? What possible public safety goal would have been achieved by pursuing and then forcibly subduing Javier Ambler?

More from the Statesman:

The deputies’ decisions to chase and repeatedly use their Tasers on a man who simply failed to dim his lights prompts questions about the agency’s practice of pursuing drivers for minor crimes.

“It is of very serious concern to any of us who are in law enforcement that the decision to engage in that chase was driven by more of a need to provide entertainment than to keep Williamson County citizens safe,” said Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore.

Some 15 months after Ambler’s death, Moore’s civil rights division is still investigating the incident. After questioning from an American-Statesman reporter, she said her office plans to present the case to a grand jury.

[…]

As Deputy J.J. Johnson, who is regularly featured on “Live PD,” patrolled the quiet suburban roads just north of Austin last March, a film crew rode along with him.

When Ambler passed with his brights on at 1:23 a.m., the deputy turned his car around and flipped on the flashing lights.

Ambler didn’t stop. Johnson gave chase.

For the next 22 minutes, the two vehicles sped across highways and onto neighborhood streets. As he drove, Johnson narrated for the TV crew, telling them what he thought was going on in Ambler’s mind.

As they crossed into Travis County, Austin officers were instructed not to get involved in the pursuit because they are allowed only to chase dangerous criminals.

There’s a long, detailed account of what happened after that. Ambler was tasered four times, and told the deputies that he had congestive heart failure, was unable to breathe, and was trying but unable to comply with the orders they shouted at him, while sitting on top of him. They handcuffed him when he fell unconscious, and only realized a few minutes later that Ambler was not breathing.

You may be wondering, why was there a TV crew with Deputy Johnson?

Investigators say they are disturbed about what happened to Ambler and how the Williamson sheriff’s officials have responded to his death.

They are troubled that deputies went to such extraordinary lengths to capture Ambler for a minor offense. They also have grave concerns about the consequences of having “Live PD” camera crews at the scene.

“Live PD” did not respond to requests for comment on Monday. The footage shot that night has not aired.

In the past three years, more than half of the nearly 100 pursuits initiated by Williamson County deputies were for traffic violations, according to department records.

Chody said Monday that he does not believe the department’s current, more restrictive, pursuit policy was in place during the chase that led to Ambler’s death.

[…]

The case also adds fuel to a yearlong fight between Chody and Williamson County commissioners about his department’s participation in “Live PD.” Chody has said the show offers viewers a first-hand experience of policing, has raised the profile of his agency and is a valuable recruiting tool.

But Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick has said he’s concerned that “Live PD” refuses to provide prosecutors with video footage it collects while on patrol with deputies.

“It is getting very difficult for my prosecutors to uphold their statutory and Constitutional obligations to disclose evidence when prosecuting sheriff’s department cases,” Dick said.

Days after Dick raised those concerns in 2019, Williamson County commissioners ended a contract with the show.

In March of this year, however, filming resumed when Chody signed his own agreement with producers, prompting commissioners to issue a “cease and desist” order to the sheriff’s office.

Chody refused to comply, and in May, the county sued him.

“Sheriff Chody can perform the core duties of sheriff without the live TV show,” the lawsuit said. “But he doesn’t want to. Instead, Sheriff Chody seeks social media and TV exposure like a moth to a light bulb — and he’s flown out of his job description to get back on TV.”

I don’t even know what to say about that. But if you’re thinking that at least there’s video of the whole thing, well

Video filmed by a “Live PD” crew of an in-custody death of a black man last year has been destroyed and can no longer be turned over to Austin investigators, representatives of the reality TV show said Tuesday.

The disclosure by A&E Networks came a day after the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE-TV first reported details of the March 2019 death of Javier Ambler while being arrested by Williamson County sheriff’s deputies in connection with a traffic violation. The Austin American-Statesman is part of the USA TODAY Network.

A&E confirmed Tuesday that “video of the tragic death of Javier Ambler was captured by body cams worn on the officers involved as well by the producers of Live PD who were riding with certain officers involved.”

It said that the incident did not occur while the show was airing live and that the video was not broadcast later.

A&E’s statement said that Austin investigators had not asked for the video or to interview show producers. “As is the case with all footage taken by Live PD producers, we no longer retained the unaired footage after learning that the investigation had concluded,” the network said in a statement.

[…]

Three of four Williamson County commissioners Tuesday called for Sheriff Robert Chody to resign after learning of Ambler’s death and charges that Chody’s department had failed to provide evidence to Travis County investigators.

“The citizens have lost faith in him,” Williamson County Commissioner Russ Boles said.

The TDP and State Rep. James Talarico have also called for Sheriff Chody’s resignation; I’m sure others will follow. The point here is the same point that so many other people have been making, some for a very long time and others in recent weeks, which is that the death of black Americans at the hands of police officers happens all the damn time, in every state, and that fundamental, root-and-branch change is needed to stop it. It’s not a matter of “bad apples”, it’s the system. CBS News and the Texas Signal have more.

Don’t forget about school police

Maybe we can take another crack at breaking the school-to-prison pipeline.

Several social justice organizations called Monday for Houston ISD to eliminate its police department and contract with local law enforcement agencies, whose officers would respond only to emergency situations on campuses.

In a letter to HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, the organizations’ leaders argued police officers make students feel less safe in school and drain funds that could be better spent on mental health counselors and social workers. The organizations are Disability Rights Texas, ONE Houston, Texas Appleseed, Children’s Defense Fund Texas and the Earl Carl Institute at Texas Southern University.

“All children have a right to feel safe and supported at a school, and the police officer’s presence makes some kids feel less safe,” said Karmel Willis, an attorney for Disability Rights Texas. “I don’t think people always look at that.”

The effort follows the death last month of Houston native George Floyd, who stopped breathing after Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his back and neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd’s death has triggered nationwide calls for police reform.

School districts throughout the U.S. have increased the presence of police in schools and installed more security measures in recent years following numerous on-campus mass shootings. About 30 miles southeast of HISD, a student is accused of fatally shooting 10 people at Santa Fe High School in 2018.

In a statement Monday, HISD’s administration said its leadership “requires time to thoroughly examine this proposal.

Lathan is proposing to spend an additional $3.5 million in 2020-21 on raises for HISD police officers, whose salaries trail those of Houston Police Department officers. Trustees are scheduled to vote Thursday on the 2020-21 budget.

HISD Board President Sue Deigaard said she has talked to Lathan in recent days about evaluating the district police department’s policies, practices and patterns. However, she said a “bigger conversation” is needed before making major changes to HISD’s police force.

“That is something that should be open for discussion as a board,” Deigaard said. “But we need to balance that conversation, especially in a world we live in with outside threats to our students.”

[…]

HISD Trustee Kathy Blueford-Daniels, who represents some campuses with the area’s highest disciplinary rates, said she would not support eliminating the district’s police department this month or in the future.

“I can’t emphasize enough that the most important thing we can think about as board members is to ensure our children get to school safely and return home safely,” Blueford-Daniels said. “Heaven forbid that something should happen like it did in Santa Fe and there’s no one there to protect them.”

Clearly, there’s a need to discuss this at some length. Similar proposals are being made at other school districts as well. The problem with having police officers inside schools is that they tend to do the things that police officers do, which is write tickets and make arrests for things that would have been handled as internal school disciplinary matters had they not been there (*). Note the bit in that report about “the broad discretion given to school police officers to use pepper spray, Tasers and other types of force” inside schools, and the lack of transparency about same. That was from 2011. Now here’s a quote from the Houston Public Media story about this same proposal:

“They have tear gas, rubber bullets, battering rams,” said Sarah Guidry, director of the Earl Carl Institute at Texas Southern University. “They started getting this equipment, as if they were going to war. And if that’s your philosophy — ‘we’re ready to go to war’ — then it’s going to be easier for you to go to war as opposed to helping somebody.”

It’s almost as if these problems have been around for a long time, without anything being done about it. Note also that the number of armed police officers in schools increased in 2018 following the Santa Fe school shooting.

I doubt that the HISD Board will support cutting out their police department, but now is an excellent time to bring the subject up and make a plan to start drastically reducing police presence in our schools. I look at it this way: I attended public middle and high school in New York City between 1978 and 1984, when the crime rate was way, way higher than it is now. Neither of those schools had any police presence in them. Schools are for learning, not for policing. This is a great time to push for real reform here as well.

(*) To be fair, internal school disciplinary processes are often quite problematic on their own. But one step at a time. Grits has more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of June 8

The Texas Progressive Alliance stands with those demanding justice for George Floyd as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

DA dismisses charges against most protesters

Good.

Kim Ogg

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office on Tuesday dismissed almost 800 cases filed against protesters arrested during the George Floyd demonstrations last week in Houston.

In total, prosecutors dropped 796 charges filed against 654 protesters, District Attorney Kim Ogg said. Many of those cases were cited in court filings as being dismissed “in the interest of justice.”

Charges still remain against 51 adults and one juvenile accused of 35 misdemeanors and 19 felonies, Ogg said. Those include weapons offenses and charges of aggravated assault of a peace officer.

Prosecutors made their decisions by looking at “people who sought to do harm (to) others and property vs. those arrested for simple civil disobedience,” according to a news release.

“The job of the prosecutor is to seek individualized justice in every case,” Ogg said. “While probable cause existed for the arrests of those people who refused to disperse after being ordered to do so by police, our young prosecutors worked hard to identify the few offenders who came to inflict harm on others and intentional damage to property.”

The dismissed cases were nonviolent misdemeanors, mostly obstructing a highway and trespassing.

[…]

Monique Sparks, of the Houston Protestors’ Defense Team, commended the DA’s office for dismissing some charges. She said her group, which is representing protesters for free, is now focused on expunging charges from their clients’ records.

“What it shows is that our DA’s office is on board with what the Constitution says,” Sparks said. “We think this is a good start.”

The protesters will be informed of avenues to take if they want to file civil lawsuits, Sparks said. The district attorney’s office will work to help expunge the cases from the protesters’ records, although they might need representation to do so, Ogg said.

They might also need cash to do that. As Sarah Wood, policy director at the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, noted in the story, an expunction can cost hundreds of dollars in fees, including attorney’s fees. It would have been much better all around if these folks had been not arrested in the first place. Which, again, is a big part of the point that the protesters have been trying to make – far too much police activity is geared towards behavior that doesn’t actually threaten public safety, but does put a lot of ordinary people into the criminal justice system, and all of the harm that brings with it. Consider how many of these protesters might be in jail right now and for who knows how much longer if the DA had been willing to press charges and if Harris County was still requiring cash bail for even the most low-level offenses. And then consider the risk they would be in from COVID-19 in that scenario. We made significant progress on bail, but most of the problem is upstream from there. We can, we should, we must change this.