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June 12th, 2020:

The current status on local police reform efforts

Well, the budget amendment process didn’t do much.

CM Letitia Plummer

City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved Mayor Sylvester Turner’s $5.1 billion budget for the next fiscal year, slightly increasing funds for the Houston Police Department even as some cities are under pressure to cut law enforcement spending amid nationwide protest over police violence and the death of George Floyd.

As the council took up budget, chants of “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace” could be heard from protesters outside City Hall. Dozens of police reform advocates had asked city council the day before to divert funding from HPD’s massive budget to other services, such as health care and affordable housing.

Instead, the $965 million approved for HPD represents a 2 percent, or $19 million, increase over the current year. The overall city budget is up 1 percent.

The police department takes up more than a third of the tax- and fee-supported general fund, which pays for most of the city’s day-to-day operations. Much of the HPD increase is due to a 3 percent raise for officers under a 2018 labor contract that expires in December.

Turner, who later Wednesday signed an executive order on police reform, offered a passionate defense of the HPD budget, arguing that Houston has a shortage of police officers compared to other large cities. He often has pointed out that Houston, with a population of 2.3 million people and an area of more than 650 square miles, has 5,300 officers; Chicago, with a population of 2.7 million and 275 square miles, has about 12,000.

[…]

At-Large Council member Letitia Plummer proposed an amendment that would cut 199 vacant positions in the police department and redirect that money toward a slew of reforms, including giving the Independent Police Oversight Board subpoena power and boosting funds for mental health units and re-entry programs. Plummer’s amendments failed without the support of any other council member.

At one point, Plummer held up a heavily redacted HPD use-of-force policy, which she said the department gave her office when it requested a copy.

“We started the conversation on police reform. Not one of my amendments passed but I know that I stand on the right side of history,” said Plummer, who addressed the protesters outside after the vote. “That is the most important takeaway. I answer to the people who elected me. I will be holding the (mayor’s) task force accountable.”

The mayor did support an amendment from Councilmember Ed Pollard that would set up a public website where residents could browse complaints about police misconduct. The mayor said the site could work alongside the executive order he signed later Wednesday, and Pollard’s amendment was referred to the legal department for implementation.

I’ll get to the executive order in a minute. I know folks are upset by the failure of CM Plummer’s amendment. It is disappointing, but it’s not surprising. Stuff just doesn’t happen that fast in Houston. There’s almost always a need to build a broad base of support for significant changes, and that takes time. The good news is that CM Plummer’s proposals, especially redirecting certain kinds of 911 calls away from police and towards social workers, has a lot of merit and should garner a lot of support as more people learn about them. Making this a goal for the next budget is very doable, I think.

Now, as for that executive order:

The executive order embraces some measures laid out in the #8cantwait campaign, including: requiring officers to de-escalate, give a verbal warning and exhaust all other options before using deadly force; mandating that they intercede when they witness misconduct; forbidding choke-holds and firing at moving vehicles; and reporting all use of force to the Independent Police Oversight Board.

It also prohibits serving no-knock warrants unless the chief or his designee approves them in writing. A botched raid on Harding Street last year left two people dead, several officers wounded and two narcotics officers charged with crimes. It also has prompted the Harris County district attorney’s office to review and seek the dismissal of scores of drug cases involving one of the indicted officers, Gerald Goines.

“This is not the end,” Turner said, adding that thousands of residents protesting the May 25 death of Houston native George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis made his executive order possible. “In the absence of people that stood up, marched, protested, this would not be happening.”

Several of the requirements — the duty-to-interfere requirement, bans on choke-holds, and prohibiting firing at moving weapons — were already HPD policies, and some experts have cast doubt on whether the #8cantwait reforms have resulted in measurable progress in the cities that have adopted them.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said the reforms were meaningful in that they now are codified at City Hall. A new chief cannot come in later and undo the policies without going through the mayor’s office, he said.

“I think it is a huge, watershed moment,” he said.

See here for the background. A group called the #Right2Justice coalition put out this statement afterward:

“Mayor Turner promised bold reform on policing in Houston. Instead, his executive order on use of force is largely a restatement of existing policy. It makes little meaningful progress at a moment when tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets demanding change. Several of the requirements — the duty-to-interfere requirement, a partial ban on choke-holds, and prohibiting firing at moving vehicles — were either restatements of police best practices or already Houston Police Department policy or practice. Last year, the Houston Police Department forcibly entered a home to search it without warning. Two residents were killed, and four officers were shot. The executive order does nothing to prevent this kind of no-knock raid from happening again.

“The Houston Police Department has killed six people in the last two months. This moment demands meaningful change: new policies to require automatic release of body cam footage of police misconduct and eliminate no-knock warrants, and significant investments in diversion like those Harris County made yesterday. This executive order is not the meaningful reform we need.”

This coalition includes ACLU of Texas, Anti-Defamation League, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, Immigrant Resource Legal Center (IRLC), Texas Appleseed, Texas Civil Rights Project, Texas Organizing Project, and United We Dream. I checked several websites and Twitter feeds and could not find this statement on any of them. The ACLU of Texas Twitter did retweet Chron reporter Jasper Scherer, who tweeted an image of the statement. I feel like there is room for improvement here.

Anyway. I agree with Chief Acevedo that this means the next HPD Chief can’t just come in and throw this stuff out, and that’s good. But the next Mayor could throw it out, so we need to keep that in mind. A big question here is what happens when someone violates this order in some fashion. What are the consequences, and how will they be enforced? That needs to be addressed.

Also, too, that task force. I saw somewhere, but now can’t remember where, that Mayor Turner expects them to give a report in three months. That’s good, we need to have a deadline and a promise of a report, but that’s still just a starting point. There needs to be a plan to enact whatever this task force recommends as well.

Did you notice that bit in the budget story about the police union contract, which expires in December? That’s another opportunity to make positive changes, as Ashton Woods opines:

Under Article 30 of the contract, when a complaint is filed against an officer, the accused officer receives all copies and files associated with the complaint against them. They then have 48 hours to review the complaint against them, talk to a lawyer, and get their story together. All of this happens before they are required to give a statement to their supervisor. This “48-hour rule” insulates them from questioning and gives cops a privilege that no civilian gets.

Article 26 grants a committee of officers the power to appoint the 12 “independent hearing examiners” who get the final say in officer discipline for misconduct. But these examiners are not actually independent, as half of them are appointed by the police chief and the other half by the union. In other words, when an officer has been disciplined for misconduct and appeals that discipline, these cop-appointed examiners get to make the final call. Because the union gets to pick 50 percent of the examiners, they effectively have veto power. This gives the police union, the most outspoken opponent of police reform, a startling amount of control over officer discipline.

You may have noticed that there’s a huge piece of the puzzle missing: community oversight. While Houston technically has an Independent Police Oversight Board, this board has no subpoena power and no direct discipline authority, making it one of the weakest and least effective community oversight boards in the nation. According to the City of Houston website, the board can’t even take complaints directly from civilians. All complaints are reviewed by HPD.

As noted before, District B candidate Tarsha Jackson has recommended these and other changes as well. As much as anything, the key here is paying attention and making clear what we want to happen.

Finally, there was action taken by Commissioners Court.

Harris County’s sheriff and eight constables voiced support Wednesday for some of the policing and criminal justice reform measures approved by Commissioners Court hours after George Floyd, a longtime Houstonian killed by Minneapolis police was laid to rest.

In a session that stretched past midnight, Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved 10 reform-minded items inspired by the nationwide protests following Floyd’s May 25 video-recorded death, including a pledge to examine how to create a civilian oversight board with subpoena power, adopt a countywide use-of-force policy for officers and establish a database of use-of-force incidents.

Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said all eight constables met for several hours Wednesday morning to discuss the proposals. The group was unanimous in favor of adopting a universal use-of-force policy and sharing documents, including video, to help the county create a public log of violent police encounters.

“We’re in agreement to work with Judge Hidalgo’s group and be transparent and show any use of force we have,” Herman said.

Precinct 3’s Sherman Eagleton, one of two African-American constables, said the group did not come to a conclusion about welcoming more civilian oversight. He said Floyd’s killing had already spurred the constables to review their policies, though the group needs more time to evaluate the Commissioners Court proposals.

“That civilian review board might be a good thing once we find out more about it,” he said.

[…]

During the discussion Tuesday evening on creating a database of use-of-force incidents, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard warned court members they were perilously close to exceeding their authority by setting policy for other elected officials.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo agreed to amend the item to make clear that participation by agencies would be voluntary. She said video footage, however, often is crucial in exposing misconduct by police, as was the case in Floyd’s killing.

“How many times has this kind of thing happened and it just so happens that no one was taking a video, and so we didn’t know?” she said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said he was open to testing the limits of the court’s power even if that meant an issue needed to be resolved in state court. He said Commissioners Court’s passage of the items also could force the elected law enforcement officials to confront those issues.

“We do have the right to put the public pressure on, you got me?” Ellis said.

See here for the background. This is a good step forward, and it clearly does require the cooperation of the constables. As with the Houston items, we need to keep track of the progress made, and revisit these items in a year or so to ensure they have had the desired effect, with an eye towards doing more as needed.

Plaintiffs move for dismissal of state lawsuit over mail ballots

Not a surprise.

The fight over expanding voting by mail in Texas during the coronavirus pandemic appears to be coming to an end in state courts, but a lawsuit continues at the federal level.

Following a Texas Supreme Court ruling that closed the door to expanded mail-in voting, the individual voters, state Democrats and civic organizations that sued to expand voting by mail based on a lack of immunity to the new coronavirus asked a state appeals court on Tuesday evening to dismiss their case.

[…]

Legal challenges to the state’s voting by mail rules continue in federal courts though a panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals last week extended its order blocking a lower court’s sweeping ruling that would have allowed all Texas voters to qualify to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic. The panel cited in part the proximity of the upcoming July primary runoffs. It’s possible the issue will end up before the U.S. Supreme Court after the runoffs.

This was more or less expected after that State Supreme Court ruling, which directly addressed the question of what the state law on “disability” meant in this context. At the federal level there remains the age discrimination lawsuit and the undue burdens lawsuit, neither of which has had a hearing yet, as well as the TDP/LULAC lawsuit for which there is a block of the lower court’s ruling in the plaintiffs’ favor. (This Daily Kos elections lawsuit tracker may be useful for you.) If there’s going to be any change in the status quo, it will be for the November election, though at this point I’m dubious even if the age discrimination claims have merit. Ultimately, the sure path forward is winning enough elections to change the state law. We’re talking 2023 at the earliest for that, so in the meantime this is where the fight is. It’s all up to the federal courts now.

Tell HISD what you think about their proposed school year calendar

It’s different.

Students in Houston ISD would return to campus in mid-August, spend up to 10 additional days in the classroom and end their school year in mid-June under a 2020-21 calendar option published by the district Monday.

HISD officials are seeking feedback on the potential changes as the district debates how to add more flexibility to its calendar and increase instructional time amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Some Texas districts are approving extended calendars with more mid-year breaks, which could be used as make-up days if campuses are forced to close due to COVID-19, while others are standing pat.

HISD leaders are not yet formally proposing an extended calendar, which must be approved by the district’s school board.

Under the option unveiled Monday, HISD’s school year would start on Aug. 13 for students, about a week and a half earlier than normal, and end on June 15, about 2 1/2 weeks later than usual. The district would add two week-long breaks, in early October and mid-February.

[…]

The option also includes extending the school day by five minutes, which would help the district exceed the 75,600-minute state requirement for the academic year.

“This would ensure the district has a bank of minutes to use for emergency weather events or closures, in lieu of make-up days and further adjustments of our calendar in the future,” district officials wrote in the survey.

That survey is here. As the story notes, some other area districts have already adopted this schedule, which is designed to allow for disruptions in the calendar due to flooding or (god forbid) coronavirus. It’s easier and less likely to result in high absenteeism if weather days have to be made up in October or February rather than on actual holidays or in June. I don’t know how much of a disruption the week-long holidays in the middle of the semesters would be, and I know some people (I raise my hand here) will lament the head start HISD’s early summer vacations have given us on trip planning, but you can’t have everything. Plus, all of this is still open to debate, because no one really knows yet what the fall will look like, let alone the winter and spring. Take the survey, give HISD your honest feedback, and we’ll keep the discussion going.

Confederate monuments to be removed

From the inbox:

Today, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced the City of Houston plans to relocate the Dowling and Spirit of Confederacy statues, which are currently both located in two City of Houston parks.

The statues will be removed by Friday, June 19, in commemoration of the Juneteenth holiday, which memorializes the day slaves in Texas learned the Emancipation Proclamation granted their freedom.

In August 2017, Mayor Sylvester Turner appointed a task force of historians, community leaders, and department directors to review the City’s inventory of items related to the confederacy and recommend appropriate action.

The task force recommended that the statues be removed from Houston public property and not be destroyed. (Click the links for the final report and final appendix).

After the task force submitted its findings, the City began working on a plan with partner organizations and funders to identify new locations to place the statues permanently.

The two relevant statues in local public parks will be relocated, at no public expense, to separate sites that provide greater historical context for public viewing.

The Houston Endowment has provided a grant to transfer the Spirit of The Confederacy in Sam Houston Park downtown to be displayed at the Houston Museum of African American Culture in the Museum District.

A statue of Richard W. “Dick” Dowling in Hermann Park is expected to be moved to a permanent display at the Sabine Pass Battleground State Historic Site in Port Arthur, TX. The Executive Committee of the Texas Historical Commission voted to accept the statute and the full Commission will consider the item at its quarterly meeting on June 17.

“While we have been working on a plan for some time, I have decided to move forward now considering the events of the past several weeks, Mayor Turner said. “Our plan for relocating confederate statues from public parks to locations more relevant to modern times preserves history and provides an opportunity for our city to heal.”

“Houston Endowment is proud to support the relocation of the Spirit of the Confederacy to the Houston Museum of African American Culture, where it can be interpreted in a way that promotes an inclusive and anti-racist community, said Ann Stern, President and CEO.

“This is a huge step forward in the Museum’s history of hosting difficult conversations, underscoring our multicultural conversation on race geared toward a common future. We have an opportunity to learn from our history, the good and the bad, to truly forge one nation,” said John Guess, HMACC CEO Emeritus.

The City of Houston’s General Services Department (GSD) will begin relocating the statues next week. The City will place them in temporary storage until the partner organizations are ready to receive the delivery.

“I’m grateful for the City of Houston Confederate Items Task Force’s guidance and the generosity of the Houston Endowment for their crucial roles in the plan,” Turner added. “And I’m proud of how this plan formed with input from many sectors of the city and deep consideration of all sensitive factors involved.”

See here for the background. Note that it took almost three years to get to this point, which is why having a firm (and short) deadline for the criminal justice task force is important. I personally would have been happy to see these things thrown in the trash, but at least they’ll be put someplace where there will be some context for them. It’s better than leaving them in place.

On a related note:

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn expressed resistance to the idea of changing the name of Fort Hood, a massive Texas military base named after a Confederate military leader, as calls mount nationwide to remove monuments and rename bases memorializing Confederate leaders.

“There’s no question that America was an imperfect union when we were founded, we obviously betrayed our ideals by treating African Americans as less than fully human,” he said on a conference call with reporters. “And we’ve been paying for that original sin ever since then, through the Civil War, through the civil rights struggles in the ’60s.

“And I believe that we’ve made tremendous progress, but I don’t think we obviously are where we need to be.

“One of those most important things about our history is that we learn from it,” he added. “You can’t learn from our history if you try to erase it, because it’s hard to see where this leads. Now I could see efforts at the state and local levels to move, let’s say, move a monument to a state capitol to a history museum or the like, but I’m just not sure where, where this leads. And to me, one of the most import things about history is what we learn from it and how how we learn to not repeat our mistakes.”

Cornyn, however, refused to directly address Fort Hood in this context.

“I am for looking forward, not looking backward,” he said when pressed.

Cornyn similarly addressed the issue of whether to take down Confederate statues. The comments come as the nation is taking a fresh look at Confederate historical markers in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, an El Paso Democrat, swiftly responded to the comments.

“Erecting a statue that glorifies a confederate leader is not the same as documenting that period in history books,” she wrote on Twitter. “Cornyn knows that. He simply can’t muster up the courage to do the right thing — even when it’s this easy.”

I dunno, I feel like we’ve managed to learn about history without erecting statues of or naming military bases after Benedict Arnold or Robert Hanssen. You can mark me as being on Rep. Escobar’s side. And also on the side of renaming this fort after a true hero, Roy Benavidez.