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Here comes the police task force

Now let’s see them do something.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday announced the appointment of 45 people to a task force that will review Houston Police Department policies for potential reforms.

Laurence “Larry” Payne, a former staffer of Mayor Kathy Whitmire and U.S. Rep. Mickey Leland, will chair the committee, which includes activists, academics, business leaders, law enforcement officials and clergy.

Among them: Judson Robinson III of the Houston Area Urban League; Hispanic Chamber of Commerce CEO Laura Murillo; former criminal district court judge Marc Carter; George Ryne of the Texas Anti-Gang Center; and rapper Trae the Truth. The full list can be found here.

The task force is expected to bring recommendations in the next 60 days and to complete a report by Sept. 1, Turner said. Its work will invite widespread scrutiny from activists in the community who have pushed for far-reaching reforms and redirecting city funds away from police.

The launch of the working group was met with skepticism by some activists, who argued the city has studied the issue thoroughly in the past and that it is time for action.

“We believe it when we see it. Because we’ve never seen it,” said Tarsha Jackson, an advocate who formerly was the criminal justice director for the Texas Organizing Project.

See here for the background. There was more where that came from on Thursday.

More than 100 people called into a Houston city council committee meeting Thursday to demand that city leaders strengthen oversight of the police or dismantle the department altogether, as council members sought more information from law enforcement officials about potential reforms.

Among the hightlights: the Houston Police Department is not required to tell neighboring agencies when one of its recruits fails a psychological screening; and the chair of the Independent Police Oversight Board — one of the primary targets for reform among advocates and some elected officials — struggled to answer simple questions about how the board’s work could be improved.

Speaking in two-minute intervals, scores of residents challenged City Hall — often in harsh terms — to trade task forces and promises for direct, immediate action in the wake of protests over the death of Houstonian George Floyd. Their comments came a day after Mayor Sylvester Turner revealed the 45 members who will serve on his police reform task force, which generated widespread skepticism that continued Thursday into the committee meeting.

Roughly half the residents who called into the eight-hour meeting advocated for dismantling the police department, with some endorsing a strategy to strip a quarter of its funds every year for four years. They urged that those resources be diverted to other services, such as housing and health care. Other frequent targets included the oversight board; the negotiations underway for a new contract with the Houston Police Officers’ Union; and the department’s refusal to release body camera video and an audit of its narcotics division.

Skepticism is an entirely fair and rational response, and I say that as a supporter of Mayor Turner. I don’t know what this task force might come up with that hasn’t already been proposed, but at least we’ll find out in relatively short order. If I were advising Mayor Turner, I’d go back and review some of those things, and see which of them I could get implemented now, via another executive order or Council action. Maybe the value this task force can provide is by blunting the usual opposition to any meaningful change. Let’s just say the clock is running, and the case for decisive action will never be greater. Transform Houston has more.

Steps towards more transparency

Step One:

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Friday he is reviewing an internal audit of the Houston Police Department’s embattled narcotics division and will send the results of the probe to state lawmakers who have called for its public release.

Turner revealed the news days after state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, authored a letter signed by seven other House members that called on Police Chief Art Acevedo to publicly release the audit’s findings.

Acevedo ordered the internal probe after the deadly 2019 raid at 7815 Harding St., which ended with the deaths of the home’s two residents and left four police officers shot. Investigators subsequently said that the officer who orchestrated the raid lied to get the warrant used in the operation. That officer, Gerald Goines, has been charged with murder and faces federal civil rights charges.

Twice in the last two weeks, Turner has declined to say whether the audit should be released, and he had not admitted to reviewing it himself until Friday. He said he is giving lawmakers access to the audit as long as they promise not to reveal it to the public.

“As I go through the audit — and I’m going through it now — you don’t want to disclose the identity of officers who have been acting undercover and expose them to risk,” Turner said after a roundtable on police reform at City Hall. “But I do understand the importance of making it available to our legislative colleagues, so that they can see it for themselves.”

[…]

Wu on Friday said it was not enough to release the audit only to lawmakers.

“This is an investigation of a public agency, of public servants’ wrongdoing,” he said. “It’s absolutely 100 percent in the public interest and right to know what public servants are doing. I cannot imagine we would tolerate this from any other city or state agency where we suspected rogue employees or individuals. The public not only has a right to know, it needs to know.”

Rosenthal echoed Wu in calling for the report to go directly to the public, not House members.

“Taxpayers paid for that report, they pay for that department, it belongs to the people,” Rosenthal said. “I’m disappointed they would ask us to not send it to the people. Our ask was that it be made public.”

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said he “appreciates” Turner’s decision to allow lawmakers to review the audit.

“I think it’s important in this time that transparency is there. In a strong mayor form of government, that is a call the mayor can make,” he said. “I still think it should be public, that hasn’t changed.”

I say again, release the audit. If there are some people named in it who are not under any suspicion or who have no connection to the underlying problems, then go ahead and redact them out of it. Otherwise, I agree completely with what the representatives are saying. This is information for the public.

Step Two:

A group of 20 marched through drizzling rain on the downtown Houston streets Friday where thousands had just gathered for George Floyd, now demanding justice for a Hispanic man killed by police in April.

The rally ended in front of the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, where about a dozen more supporters joined and called for Houston police to release body camera footage of the incident in which 27-year-old Nicolas Chavez was fatally shot by lawmen while, according to a cell-phone video of the encounter, on his knees.

“I know that they’re going to make him look bad and they’re going to try to justify what they did,” said his mother, Leantha Chavez. “In the end, it doesn’t matter what he did. He was on his knees when they shot him and he was unarmed.”

Chavez’s family and friends emphasized that he seemed to be undergoing a mental crisis. His 5-year-old son stood nearby during the gathering outside of the courthouse, holding a sign that read, “Abolish the police!”

Houston Police Department spokesman Kese Smith said while the family viewed their footage, the agency needs to consult with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office before releasing video to the public.

“The family’s wishes are obviously a very important part of it, but we have to have conversations with the District Attorney’s Office as well,” Smith said.

“We are certainly available to police if they want to discuss concerns about body cam videos or any other evidence,” said Dane Schiller, spokesman for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. “We independently review all officer-involved shootings and we present all the evidence in every instance to a grand jurors, regardless of whether it has previously been made public, so they can determine whether a criminal charge is warranted.”

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo has asked the FBI to review the April 21 death of Chavez. He called the cell phone video “difficult” to watch but has yet to make public any of the police department’s roughly 70 videos that captured the shooting.

The whole point of body cameras, and the reason why there was such a demand for them in recent years, is precisely because they can shed light on contentious and disputed interactions between the police and the public. If the DA needs some time to review the footage to determine whether or not to bring charges, that’s fine, but let’s not draw this out any longer than necessary. This is, again, information for the public. Let’s act accordingly.

Release the audit

That’s my three-word response to this.

A growing chorus of elected officials is calling on Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo to release the findings of an internal audit on his department’s narcotics division, arguing that the chief’s refusal to do so contradicts his vows to be transparent and accountable.

Acevedo ordered the internal probe after the deadly 2019 raid at 7815 Harding St., which ended with the deaths of two homeowners and left four police officers shot. Investigators subsequently said that the officer who orchestrated the raid lied to get the warrant he used in the operation.

Now, with the death of George Floyd in Minnesota galvanizing worldwide protests and searing scrutiny of police departments across the country, state Reps. Anna Eastman, Christina Morales, Jon Rosenthal, Senfronia Thompson and Gene Wu are renewing their call from March for Acevedo to release the audit. And they are joined by three other members of the Texas House — Garnet Coleman, Gina Calanni and Mary Ann Perez — along with U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and more than half of Houston City Council.

Wu, who wrote both letters, said that the chief’s reluctance to release the audit is at odds with his past pledges to be transparent and hold officers accountable.

“The violations of policies, procedures and laws by officers in the Narcotics Division must be made known to the public,” wrote Wu, D-Houston. “If there are other officers who have repeatedly broken the law, the continued concealment of their behavior does a gross disservice to reputations of officers who are doing their jobs well.”

You can read the rest, and you can see a copy of the letter here; page two is visible on Dos Centavos, which is where the signatures are. I mean, being transparent means doing stuff like this. If there really is some content in that audit that might affect prosecutions, a little redaction is acceptable, as long as the substance of the report is not changed. But come on, either you meant it when you said you wanted to be transparent or you didn’t. Show us what you meant.

On a related note:

The mayor shouldn’t pretend that the calls for police reform were suddenly sprung on him this week. His own transition team in 2016 made a litany of reform recommendations. Our organizations participated in the committee, as did senior members of the mayor’s administration. Then in 2017, city council spent $565,000 on a 10-year financial plan that included recommendations to cut some of the 75 percent of the budget spent on public safety over that time span.

Houston does not need another study. What we need is action on the existing recommendations for police reform. After participating in the transition committee, our organizations established the Right2Justice Coalition. We have met regularly to address ongoing issues of policing and criminal justice in Houston and Harris County. Today, we are publishing a progress report of existing recommendations from Turner’s 2016 Transition Committee on Criminal Justice and the 2017 10-year financial plan.

The progress report shows that the city has implemented only a few of the recommended reforms, the most significant being the consolidation of the city’s jails with Harris County in 2019. It has failed to adopt recommendations to develop, in partnership with grassroots organizations, a plan for community policing, to enact a cite-and-release policy to divert people accused of minor offenses from the criminal justice system, to combine 211 and 311 to better meet residents’ needs for non-police services, and to implement a body cam video release policy that “maximizes public access to footage in a prompt manner.”

And instead of civilianizing 443 positions as the 10-year plan recommends to save $5-10 million, the administration has increased the number of officers by 81 and shrunk the number of civilian positions by 258.

Delays in implementing these recommendations in the last three years have further eroded public trust. Turner and Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo’s actions speak louder than words — by that standard, their message is unchanged.

C’mon, guys. The time for action is now. You promised it, we want it. I know you can do it. Don’t let us down.

What are we going to do about that Independent Police Oversight Board?

The easy answer is “make it better”, it’s how you do that that’s harder.

As protests over George Floyd’s death swept the nation, activists in Houston cried out for police reform. Among their demands: Give us an independent police watchdog.

One already exists, city officials said: Houston’s Independent Police Oversight Board.

But the board lacks meaningful power, with one longtime civil rights activist calling it “window dressing.”

Houston’s Independent Police Oversight Board, which reviews investigations completed by the Houston Police Department’s internal affairs division, meets at police headquarters. It cannot launch its own inquiries or accept complaints directly from civilians. Members are forbidden from discussing any of the cases they review — even with the mayor or other public officials. Its sparse website includes instructions on how to file a complaint with police, but little information on the board’s own work. It lacks the power to subpoena documents or compel officer testimony. It’s a volunteer body appointed by the mayor and has no professional staff. And when members of the oversight board make policy recommendations, they often never find out what happens to their suggestions, current and former members told the Chronicle.

“It’s clear if we had additional clout, we could do more and better work,” said Gerald Birnberg, a Houston attorney who serves on the oversight board. “It feels like we’re working in the dark.”

As America reckons with racism and calls to address police violence, critics say Houston’s police oversight board is inadequate. Those who argue against change say the board has sufficient power and lacks training to investigate or issue subpoenas.

[…]

The board can make recommendations to the chief related to disciplinary action, policies and training, but the chief has the final say.

While members are forbidden from discussing the cases they review, some of their recommendations became public in a police brutality lawsuit filed after the 2012 police killing of Kenny Releford.

HPD was forced to turn over internal affairs files related to several shootings, with recommendations filed by the IPOB and its earlier incarnation. When the board reviewed the July 2012 shooting of Rufino Lara, two members of the panel wrote notes urging de-escalation training.

The officer should not have “fired her gun on someone who was not pointing or near to pointing a dangerous weapon toward her,” one member wrote. “Better training needs to be provided.”

The majority agreed with the department’s conclusions, but all checked off boxes indicating training had not been sufficient.

The police department also maintains discretion in deciding what records to release to the oversight board, though board member Kristin Anderson, a psychology professor at the University of Houston-Downtown, said members “see all documents associated with any case” that comes to the board.

She said the public deserves transparency, but said granting the board subpoena power is a “red herring” and would not give members “the ability to tell if a cop is lying.”

Birnberg said board members do not have unfettered, immediate access to all the records they request. He recalled seeing cases where board members were told obtaining an autopsy would take four months — far longer than the two-week period the board’s panels have to review individual cases.

“I don’t know if the chief is aware of the structural impediments to the panels getting meaningful information at the time they’re supposed to be ruling on the cases,” he added.

[…]

Houston attorney Joe Melugin, who spent three years suing the Houston Police Department over the shooting death of Kenny Releford, said he disagrees with those who say holding police legally accountable police should be left to the district attorney.

“Until the city fires police officers for abuses of power and unjustified violence, and until the DA prosecutes police the same as any of the rest of us, then the problems with police abuses of power will persist regardless of changes to the IPOB,” he said. “We must change how the police force exists and operates in our city.”

There’s a lot of back and forth in the story about what the IPOB can and cannot do, and I’m not in a position to assess the claims. I agree with Joe Melugin, the ultimate goal needs to be accountability, where bad cops are fired and cops who break the law are arrested and prosecuted like anyone else would be. Surely if that had always been the case, we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in right now. As for the “how do we get there” part of the discussion, I basically agree with the Houston Justice Coalition demands:

1. Uniform Body Camera Policy

The current body cam policy is a disjointed mess. Cameras are not on consistently. According to a KHOU investigative report completed in 2017, very few tapes were released to the public upon request. We demand that cameras run and that all tapes are released within 24 hours upon request.

2. Transparent Tracking of Complaints

When a complaint is made on an officer, there is no way to know the status of the complaint. The timelines for followup are egregious, and often aren’t even followed. Houstonians who want to hold police accountable must have a clear system with expedient, easily accessed methods of feedback between them and HPD to ensure that officers face consequences when they violate policy and civil rights.

3. Citizens Review Board with Subpoena Power

A citizens review board must have the power to bring officers in for questioning and possibly for charges and repercussions. Otherwise, a board is simply an artificial token, not an arbiter of true justice. We demand that a citizens review board chosen by The People, unchecked by the Houston Police Officers Union or City Hall, be formed immediately and granted with the power to subpoena law enforcement—full stop.

Maybe subpoena power isn’t all that, but let’s try it first and see where it gets us.

Let’s talk “meaningful reform”

Chief Acevedo brought it up, so let’s go there.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo’s voice cracked several times and his eyes welled as he railed against the death of George Floyd beneath a policeman’s knee and implored protesters to demonstrate peacefully with him.

“I will not allow anyone to tear down this city, because this is our city,” Acevedo shouted on Sunday to the group of mostly black Houstonians surrounding him at one of many protests in the wake of video showing Floyd’s fatal encounter with police in Minneapolis. “Pay close attention! Because these little white guys with their skateboards are the ones starting all the s–t.”

Video of Acevedo’s profanity-laced remarks went viral and, along with his other blunt statements this week, won the chief acclaim from those outraged by the death of Floyd, a former Third Ward resident.

It has also drawn anger from those who say Acevedo has failed to address the very things he’s condemning at home. His calls for police to be more transparent and enact “meaningful reform” have refocused attention on a series of fatal shootings by his own officers, and his refusal to release body camera video of the incidents.

“We’re looking at him say one thing on camera, but locally, we know different,” said Dav Lewis, a local activist who was friends with Adrian Medearis, one of the men who died in the spate of shootings. “We know different locally. We have not seen police accountability.”

The chief has also resisted calls to release the results of an audit of his narcotics division, rocked last year by one of its worst scandals in decades, and he has downplayed calls to bolster the city’s Independent Police Oversight Board, long criticized as a “toothless watchdog” group.

“While these are great photo ops, and maybe the chief has political aspirations, and this is all warm and fuzzy kind of stuff he’s doing, it’s time for some action,” said Mark Thiessen, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.

[…]

Protesters intensified their calls on Tuesday for Acevedo to make the videos public. Mayor Sylvester Turner’s remarks at City Hall were punctuated by several people chanting “release the tapes,” and hours later Acevedo was directly confronted by a group of critical protesters at the downtown park Discovery Green.

Some lawmakers questioned Acevedo’s rationale for not releasing the body camera video.

“It is not law enforcement’s job to worry about prosecution,” said state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston. “It’s their job to be law enforcement.”

Wu, a former prosecutor who has called on Acevedo previously to release his audit, said Acevedo’s attitude “does more of a disservice to taint the public’s perception than anything else.”

“Right now you have the general public believing the police hide things,” Wu said. “When other cities during this crisis have shown they can release body cams immediately — that they can fire and discipline officers immediately — the fact we can’t get videos released months, sometimes even years later, is very telling.”

There’s more, and you should read the rest. On balance, I think Art Acevedo has been a pretty good Chief of Police. It’s not at all hard to imagine someone worse in his position – the current Chief of Police in Austin, for example. I also think that some of these reform ideas should be taken out of his discretion and mandated by the appropriate governing body. For releasing body camera footage and just generally being more transparent about it, that could be the Legislature or it could be City Council. Point being, the less room he or any Chief has to stall on releasing said footage, the less time we have to have this debate about transparency.

There are plenty of other things that can be done, at all levels of government, with the local stuff having the greatest potential for swift adoption. Tarsha Jackson, formerly with the Texas Organizing Project and now on hold in the City Council District B runoff, recommended several changes to the police union contract. CM Letitia Plummer, thankfully recovering from COVID-19, has proposed a budget amendment that would:

-Require officers exhaust all reasonable means before shooting
-Ban chokeholds and strangle holds
-Require de-escalation
-Require officers give verbal warning before shooting
-Notify Independent Police Oversight Board when death occurs
-Give IPOB subpoena power

It would also redirect funds currently allocated for a police cadet class as follows:

$2M, fund separate IPOB investigations
$1M, build online portal for residents to report misconduct
$3M, police training
$2M, permanent revolving fund for the Office of Business Opportunity, no-interest loans to minority-owned biz
$2M, enhance Health Dept’s Community Re-Entry Network Program
$500k, enhance Health Dept’s My Brother’s Keeper program
$1M, equipment and implementation of a “CAHOOTS” program (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets)

The point of that last item is to redirect a class of 911 calls that now go to law enforcement to this Crisis Assistance program, so the police can handle higher priority calls. Look at the photos she embedded in this Facebook post (specifically, this and this) to get a better feel for this. The city of Eugene, Oregon has used a program like this successfully since 1989. I strongly suspect most police officers would be happy to not have to respond to these kinds of calls for the most part going forward.

Stace adds recommendations from 8CantWait, which largely overlap the items noted by CM Plummer and Tarsha Jackson. Again, these are things that could be done now, if we wanted to. If there’s something you want to do in this direction, call Mayor Turner’s office and your district Council member along with the At Large members in support of these proposals. There are many ways to make noise.

There’s still more. Looking at the federal level, Sherrilyn Ifill and a triumvirate at The Atlantic have a list of action items for Congress, including an end (or at least a serious cutback) to qualified immunity, national data collection and tracking of police conduct and use of force, stronger enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and more. Ifill notes that “Currently, officers fired for misconduct and brutality against innocent civilians can be hired by other departments”. This will sound depressingly familiar to anyone who remembers the story of Tulia.

I personally would add: Decriminalization of marijuana and a complete shift of focus on other drug offenses from arrest and incarceration to treatment; Expanding Medicaid, which as I have said a gazillion times before will do so much to provide mental health services to countless Texans; Really attacking the homelessness problem by funding housing for the homeless and raising the minimum wage so that more people can afford housing in the first place; and repealing SB4, the odious “show me your papers” law. I believe these things will drastically reduce the interactions that ordinary people – overwhelmingly people of color – have with the police and the criminal justice system.

None of these things are panaceas, and none of them directly address systemic racism – I will defer on that to those who can speak more directly from their own experience – but I do believe all of them will have the effect of reducing harm to the black and brown people who have always received the brunt of the violence that comes from encounters with the police. Again, much of this is doable right now. Clearly, some other items will require winning more elections, in Texas and around the country, but we can still get started on what can be done now. If Chief Acevedo wants to come out in support of any or all of these things, that would be nice, too. Whether he does or he doesn’t, we can make them happen anyway.

Chief Acevedo’s priorities

They sound good to me.

When Houston police officers shot and killed an armed man standing in a street intersection this summer, officers’ body cameras taped the incident – but the recordings didn’t start until after the man had been shot.

The video released to the public didn’t convince skeptics that police were telling the truth about the man allegedly pointing his gun at the officers. And critics questioned whether the department’s homicide division could investigate the officer-related shooting death objectively.

After just two weeks on the job, Art Acevedo, Houston’s new police chief, is calling for two major changes in department policy to improve transparency. He wants body cameras to start recording automatically when police officers exit their vehicles, and he plans to create a specialized unit this spring that will investigate officer-related shootings and alleged wrongdoing by police.

“To me the relationship between a police department and a community starts with legitimacy,” Acevedo told the Houston Chronicle this week. “Cameras and the way we investigate officer-involved shootings … is absolutely the most important aspect of what we do to build that legitimacy and to build that trust. That’s why I’m starting there.”

[…]

Automatically activated body cameras could help prevent situations like the Braziel case in which critical moments are not captured on video. Acevedo said they also would simplify things for police.

“When an officer turns a corner and they see a person being shot or assaulted or stabbed, the last thing they should be worrying about is hitting a button,” he said.

Along with the camera policy, Acevedo said he plans to change how the department handles officer-involved shootings and other criminal investigations of police.

“Hopefully by the end of the first quarter, we’ll be establishing a special investigations unit that will be handling officer-involved shootings and officer-involved criminal allegations,” Acevedo said.

At a meeting Thursday, the chief said he hopes the new unit will launch in April as part of a larger reorganization.

Currently, officer-involved shootings are investigated by three entities: HPD’s homicide and internal affairs units, and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

The new unit, whose members Acevedo says he will “hand-select,” would investigate officer-involved shootings, taking the place of homicide detectives.

“It’s a matter of prioritizing their limited bandwidth,” Acevedo said, noting that each year homicide investigators get about 45 officer-involved shootings added to their load of 300 or so murder cases.

The body camera proposal makes a lot of sense. There are cost questions, both for the hardware and for the increased storage, but those are surely surmountable. As for the special investigations unit for police-involved shootings, the main concern here is sufficient transparency to ensure public trust. Either people will believe this unit will do a fair and impartial job, or they will believe that it will tip the scales in favor of the officers. The rest is mostly details. So far there’s no real opposition to any of this, but we’ll see what happens as these ideas move forward. The Press has more.

Council approves body camera storage funds

Good.

City Council voted Wednesday to spend $1 million to buy servers and other equipment to store video collected by city police officers equipped with body cameras.

The vote, passed with relatively little fuss following months of sometimes-contentious public debate, marks the next step in the Houston Police Department’s ongoing effort to equip more than 4,000 patrol officers with the devices.

The storage will cost the city about $8 million over five years, with about $585,000 more per year in additional staffing costs, officials said. An alternate proposal to use cloud-based storage would have cost the city even more.

[…]

The city plans to purchase 4,500 body cameras, of which about 400 would be spares. Wednesday’s vote cleared the way for the city to purchase Dell Compellent computer servers with space to hold 1.5 petabytes of data, and a similar amount of space to hold a duplicate copy of the data.

One copy would be stored in HPD’s data center, with a separate copy stored in the city’s Disaster Recovery Center, according to the police department.

The move to store the data in-house had prompted worries from some that the data could be more easily tampered with, a concern Mayor Sylvester Turner brushed aside in brief remarks after the meeting.

“I’m comfortable the integrity of the system is sound,” he said.

See here and here for some background. I’m a little surprised that a cloud solution was more expensive, but no big deal. A petabyte, by the way, is one step up from a terabyte, which is one step up from a gigabyte. If your PC has 500 GB of hard disk space, then 1.5 petabytes is like 3000 of your hard drives. So yeah, a lot of storage space.

The city wasn’t the only entity taking action on body cameras. From the inbox:

In a move to strengthen service, the METRO Board unanimously approved issuing body cameras to METRO police (MPD) officers as part of their regular uniforms.

“Our officers are excited about this. We see this as an enhancement not only for our officers but for our employees and patrons,” said MPD Chief Vera Bumpers.

The $184,125.00 contract with Watch Guard covering the purchase and implementation of the 195 cameras, will provide new surveillance capability for security purposes. Each camera costs $699.00, and all officers as well as sergeants will all wear the units.

“We are pleased to take this step. We expect this program to enhance our police department from a investigative and training perspective as well as strengthen community trust in law enforcement with increased transparency and accountability,” said Board Chair Carrin Patman.

Anticipated delivery and roll-out of the new security program is projected to take six months.

Camera data is planned for storage on MPD’s video management system for 90 days unless it is classified as evidence. Storage of the video data will require the purchase of additional hardware with an estimated cost of $253,015. The METRO Board has not yet approved that expenditure.

Good for Metro. I hadn’t been aware before now that they had been working on getting body cameras for their 191 officers. We should remember that there are a whole lot of law enforcement agencies in Texas, and the more of them that equip their officers with body cameras, the better off we’ll all be. The school districts, community college districts, universities like Rice and UH and TSU, and the many small cities in the area should all have plans of some kind to get on board with this. Don’t be the last holdout.

HPD rolls out its body cameras

The first wave has been deployed.

The Houston Police Department handed out Thursday the first wave of 4,100 body cameras being distributed to all first-line officers over the next 12 to 18 months, initiating a new policy that will require officers to wear the cameras for all law-enforcement related activities.

About 200 officers – those on duty at Central Patrol – received their body cameras Thursday. Mayor Sylvester Turner joined Acting Police Chief Martha I. Montalvo, District Attorney Devon Anderson and several city council members at a press conference at Central Patrol to announce the new policy.

[…]

Under the plan, officers are required to wear the camera on their chest, so it is clearly visible to anyone interacting with law enforcement. They’re expected, according to HPD’s policy, to keep the devices in standby mode and then to activate them before arriving at any call, initiating a traffic stop, detaining or arresting someone, conducting a search, interviewing witnesses, or engaging in a pursuit, among other interactions. Officers are not permitted to turn the cameras on and off at their own discretion.

The footage will be downloaded and stored on a server at the station and transferred to a disaster recovery site. Video involving an incident classified as Class B or above will be retained for 10 years, or until the statute of limitations expires. For some crimes, including homicides, the statute never expires.

Class C traffic violations will see footage stored for one year. Informational cases, in which an officer interacts with a citizen but no crime is committed, will have footage stored for 180 days.

Right now, only first-line officers are receiving cameras, though the department hopes to extend the policy to officers in Investigations after the full rollout, Skillern said. Officers in the traffic enforcement division, who have a high volume of interactions with citizens, will receive cameras next. Then, it’s southeast patrol, followed by a different patrol group each month. The staggered distribution is meant to handle any training and technical issues.

Questions still remain about how the camera data will be stored and how it will be accessed. No one questions the utility of these things, though. Let’s see what they can do, and let’s make sure that any questions that arise get answered in a way that promotes transparency. The Press has more.

More questions about body cameras and video accessibility

Still sorting it all out.

Months after statewide body camera legislation took effect and the Houston Police Department outlined its policies regarding the devices, local criminal justice watchdogs worry that some video from high-profile incidents may never see the light of day.

At issue, they say, are provisions in the law that could stymie requests for camera footage, privacy protections, and local departmental reluctance to release information.

When the Legislature passed SB 158 last year – easily in the House and with some opposition in the Senate – it was touted as a way to bring more transparency to law enforcement.

The legislation was enacted as police departments across Texas began weighing the use of body cameras and its intent was to set statewide policies for their use and establish a grant program for departments to defray costs.

But six months after it went into effect, civil liberties and open government activists are concerned that the law may make it harder for the public to obtain footage of controversial interactions between civilians and the police than it is to obtain other information under the Texas open records law.

Among the concerns, they argue is that the law gives police more time to decide whether to release the footage and it protects footage shot in a “private space,” such as a home. Also, people requesting it are required to provide the date and time and the name of at least one individual involved in the incident and it allows agencies to charge more for processing the release.

Kelley Shannon, with the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation, called the new law “a good step in the right direction,” but pointed out that some of its provisions were more restrictive than the state’s policies regarding dash cam video.

“It might put up a hurdle that some people may not realize exists,” she said.

Kim Ogg, a Houston attorney and candidate for Harris County district attorney, who was among those addressing their concerns recently to the Houston City Council, said footage from the cameras may not be as accessible as people may think.

“The public believes the body cameras are going to provide them objective and independent evidence (of) police interaction with citizens and with each other,” she said at a news conference before the City Council meeting. “And it doesn’t look like … the digital recordings are going to be made public under this new law. It looks like they’re going to be less accessible than under the Open Records Act, and so it’s a step backwards, not a step forward.”

As we know, this has been an issue in Houston, and continues to be one. Some of this is because this is all new and we’re still figuring parts of it out, some of it is because of the natural tendency to want to keep things secret, and some of it is because the current state law is unclear. The courts will address some of the latter, and the Lege is sure to revisit things in 2017. Some of it will need to be addressed by the public raising a fuss. It’s going to be a process, and the more engagement everyone has in it, the better.

On a tangential note, I came across this Ars Technica story a few weeks ago and have been waiting for a reason to mention it.

One of the world’s most prolific computer worms has been found infecting several police body cameras that were sent to security researchers, the researchers reported.

According to a blog post published last week by security firm iPower, multiple police cams manufactured by Martel Electronics came pre-installed with Win32/Conficker.B!inf. When one such camera was attached to a computer in the iPower lab, it immediately triggered the PC’s antivirus program. When company researchers allowed the worm to infect the computer, the computer then attempted to spread the infection to other machines on the network.

“iPower initiated a call and multiple emails to the camera manufacturer, Martel, on November 11th 2015,” the researchers wrote in the blog post. “Martel staff has yet to provide iPower with an official acknowledgement of the security vulnerability. iPower President, Jarrett Pavao, decided to take the story public due to the huge security implications of these cameras being shipped to government agencies and police departments all over the country.”

That’s from November, so it’s certainly possible that this issue has since been addressed. The point is, Conficker was malware from 2008. Your modern OSes are not affected by it. For it to have been found on these body cameras speaks volumes about security practices and software versions, none of it good. This doesn’t have anything to do with the question of how body camera data should be used and accessed, but it is a question to keep in mind. And as long as we’re talking security, CM Stardig was quoted in the Chron story in favor of a cloud solution for camera data storage. I think that’s fine, and it’s in line with current corporate practice, just make sure that standards and penalties are clearly spelled out in any agreement that gets signed. While there’s time to figure out the best practices for making the data public, safeguarding it is well-established. Let’s get that right the first time.

When should body camera video be released?

HPD is still working on it.

As the Houston Police Department begins rolling out body cameras among the rank and file, Chief Charles A. McClelland said the department is changing its policy governing how and when HPD releases videos collected by the devices.

“If we have a body camera video that’s an officer-involved shooting or complaint against one of our officers, if we have completed the administrative investigation, which looks for policy and procedure and training violations, and we have completed the criminal investigation, meaning the case went to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, I’m going to release it,” McClelland said Thursday. “I’m not going to hold it in anticipation of civil litigation.”

The shift reflects the uncharted waters many departments find themselves in as they roll out the new devices and how law enforcement is responding to the scrutiny they have faced in the last year over how they use force against civilians.

McClelland said the department is still seeking guidance from the Office of the Attorney General about when the department could release videos – particularly when a grand jury declines to indict an officer involved in a shooting.

“We need to get some clarity on that,” he said, explaining that state law only allows for videos to be released after a shooting has been fully adjudicated. A no-bill is not necessarily a final adjudication, he said, adding that while the department would likely be releasing videos sooner, the entire process could still take six months to a year before they ended up being released.

See here, here, and here for the background. I laid out my general issues in that last link. We do need the legal questions clarified, but the underlying goal here has to be transparency. The point of the cameras is for everyone to feel that information they need is available to them.

Council approves body camera contract

Moving forward.

City Council approved a $3.4 million contract Wednesday to equip Houston Police Department officers with body-worn cameras despite some lingering concerns that key pieces of the city’s policy for the equipment have not been finalized.

Councilmen Mike Laster, C.O. Bradford and Michael Kubosh along with councilwoman Brenda Stardig voted against the contract with the selected company, Watchguard. Officials hope the cameras will provide transparency and evidence in resident-officer interactions, particularly when force is used.

The four council members who voted against the contract said they supported outfitting officers with the cameras, but that they were either concerned that community groups had not been included in the broader body camera discussion or were frustrated that the city’s policy for storing the video data had not yet been finalized.

Mayor Annise Parker said the plan was to split the body camera program up into three parts: the equipment, the protocol for using the equipment and a storage plan. But she said the camera procurement was sound and the best price for the city.

“My only concern about this whole process is the police department being the police department was, ‘We’re the police experts, we’re going to …’ They don’t always think about the fact – and the chief acknowledged it – that this is a highly sensitized issue right now and a lot of scrutiny,” Parker said. “They could have done a little more up-front public information, although I’ll point out there were some council members today who … collective amnesia.”

A committee meeting on Thursday will tackle the question of whether footage from the cameras should be stored in-house or with a third party, a more costly option but one that proponents say would alleviate concerns about video being tampered with or edited.

There are more questions than that that need to be answered. I’m sure there’s time to get those questions answered before the body cameras are fully deployed, and if this was the deal that was on offer, then it needed to be completed. This process does need to move along, but let’s remember that it is a process, and it’s an ongoing one.

Meanwhile on a related note, this interview with Chief McClelland about the need for criminal justice reform is well worth reading. A sample:

How have previous policing policies affected Houston and how might this new response change that?

There are many who believe the criminal justice system is broken. I’m certainly not one to believe it’s broken – it’s producing the results it’s designed to produce. If we want different results, that’s why the system must be reformed. Because it’s doing exactly what it was designed to do. When we have mandatory sentencing laws [for] minor crime offenses, drug offenses, for people who are really not the greatest threat to community safety, and who are using massive amounts of law enforcement resources, there has to be a better way.

And criminal justice reform and what we’re speaking about in our group… to reduce crime and incarceration – we believe we can do both – if we put more resources into substance abuse treatment, treatment of folks suffering from some form of mental illness and also to reduce the homeless population. Because if you think about it – some of people we arrest on a regular and routine, and very frequent, basis for minor crimes – We are sentencing these people to life sentences – but they’re serving just 3-4 days at a time. Those suffering from intoxication, mental illness, homelessness – they commit a minor crime [and] they only stay in jail 2-3 days at a time, but they are being arrested quite frequently. And over a lifetime, we’re sentencing them to a life sentence – they’re just serving it 2-3 days at a time.

It just doesn’t get to the root cause of the problem or the issue the person is suffering from.

Now let me make this very clear – people who pose the greatest threats to our neighborhoods and our communities, especially those who are violent – and repeat violent offenders, we need to lock those people up for long periods of time, and some of those individuals need to be locked up for the rest of their natural lives. But that’s a very, very small portion of folks who make up the criminal justice system, because an overwhelming number – 90 percent of folks who go to prison get released at some point in time.

But if a person has nothing to be released to – no family structure – no opportunity for legitimate employment – no education, no job skills – the system is almost guaranteeing you’re going to get involved in some illegal activity and go back to prison.

Also, the empirical data clearly has shown that the earlier one contacts the criminal justice system, such as a juvenile, the chances increase two- and three-fold you will go to jail or prison.

So if we can prevent the initial contact from occurring, we reduce the likelihood a great deal that you’ll ever be arrested and put into the system.

Lots there for us all, including the next Mayor and police chief, to think about. Go take a look and see what you think.

Defining HPD body camera policies

It’s still a work in progress.

Houston Police Department officers would activate body cameras when arriving at a crime scene, initiating a traffic stop and during an arrest or search, according to a long awaited proposal outlining use of the devices that was released Tuesday.

But City Council members said they were concerned by a process they said seemed to have failed to seek input from everyday officers, the public or other non-law enforcement groups. They also said the policy did not adequately address tricky logistical problems such as how the department planned to store camera footage, or explain how much the whole process would eventually cost.

“I’m really concerned that there are no community stakeholders involved,” said C.O. “Brad” Bradford, an at-large city council member and former HPD police chief.

Council member Michael Kubosh called for “the public at least have an opportunity to come and discuss this matter before council” and urged for the body camera data storage to be run by an independent third-party vendor, and not the police department.

Timothy Oettmeier, HPD’s executive assistant chief, encountered the resistance after offering details of the draft policy at a three-hour presentation to the Council’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee.

Oettmeier said police officers would also use the body cameras when executing search warrants, transporting prisoners, engaging in suspect pursuits or interviewing victims. In some situations – such as quickly unfolding events – officers might not be able to immediately activate their cameras, he said.

Police officers working extra jobs would also wear the devices, he said.

[…]

Oettmeier said the presentation to the committee was the department’s first step in presenting the policy to the public.

The draft also outlined retention plans for the data. Oettmeier said that for footage deemed evidentiary, the department would retain the video for a period of time following the state’s statute of limitations for the recorded offense or case.

Footage deemed nonevidentiary would be kept for 90 days. The department plans to regularly audit the recordings, he said, with supervisors and internal investigators both reviewing recorded footage every year.

One key point of pushback from city leaders came after Oettmeier said officers would have to classify whether the footage was evidentiary.

“From a conflict of interest standpoint, how can the officer that may have been involved in the arrest, in the crime, in the whatever, determine an evidentiary position or opinion, because it seems like that would be a conflict of interest,” said council member Dave Martin.

I agree with CMs Bradford and Kubosh. Community input is going to be vital to ensure everyone buys into the plan. As for Kubosh’s comments, let me put my IT hat on for a minute here. There are a few things to think about.

1. Security: Who has access to the video footage? That’s a policy question, but for that policy to be properly enforced, there needs to be monitoring of who accesses what, and a full audit trail, since among other things we’ll need to know who at the hosting company is doing what with these files. And who has access to the audit logs? What is the request process, and who if anyone approves requests?

2. File retention: How long is that period that evidentiary footage is kept? What about backups? When a file is deemed no longer needed, are backups destroyed as well?

3. Incidents and alerts: We’ve already discussed monitoring. What happens when an unathorized access attempt occurs? Under what conditions are HPD, the District Attorney, and the relevant defense attorneys notified when there has been a potential incident? Who gets notified, and when, in the event of an outage, whether planned or unplanned?

This stuff isn’t terribly complicated, and I’m sure HPD already has similar policies in place for its existing data. But getting back to Bradford’s point, the public needs to be involved in setting these policies. If the idea is to have this up and running by the beginning of next year, we need to get this going. The Press has more.

Turner’s police plan

Time to look at a major policy proposal, from Mayoral candidate Sylvester Turner.

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

Mayoral candidate Sylvester Turner unveiled a plan Thursday to expand the Houston Police Department by 540 officers by 2020, an effort he said is needed to help police better engage the communities they serve and to improve trust between some neighborhoods and the department.

Turner said he would pay for the estimated $85 million “Partners in Safety” plan by seeking, “as quickly as I can,” voter approval to alter the city’s decade-old revenue cap to allow more public safety spending.

[…]

In his announcement, Turner did not criticize Police Chief Charles McClelland or term-limited Mayor Annise Parker’s management, but he said the city’s police officers are stretched too thin to exit their patrol cars and do the sort of engagement that is needed.

“In the last several years, the enemy to community policing has been the lack of resources,” Turner said. “When you have 5,300 police officers and that number has remained stagnant over the last 10 years, more people coming into the city, the city’s even more diverse, it’s very difficult to have effective and adequate community policing.”

The department employed 5,470 officers in 1998, and is projected to operate this budget year with about 5,260, despite enormous population growth during that time.

Turner’s proposal also includes fully funding the body camera initiative, the first phase of which is scheduled to launch this year, along with enhanced cultural and de-escalation training for officers, greater public input and more youth outreach efforts. Turner also backs offering police officers, as well as firefighters and municipal workers, incentives to live inside city limits. A similar proposal to lure officers to high-crime neighborhoods is being developed by the Parker administration.

You can see the full plan here. I like the community engagement and de-escalation training aspects of it, and I support the body-cameras-for-all aspect. I’m glad that it at least acknowledges the noninvestigations report, but I still want to see my questions get addressed before I get on board with any expansion of HPD. The amount of money Turner says will be needed to achieve this expansion is $20 million less than what Chief McClelland asked for, which he says can be done by eliminating reassignments, overtime, and some other costs.

As far as amending the revenue cap to help pay for this, I’ll note that the cap hit this year is $53 million, so there’s still a gap to cover, at a time when other action will be needed to deal with forthcoming budget shortfalls. (As you know, I’d like to see the revenue cap lifted entirely, but I freely admit that amending it to pay for cops is a much easier sell.) I want to see a comprehensive review of HPD’s (and HFD’s) budget to see what savings might be achieved there before we talk about any expansions there or cuts elsewhere. We greatly increased the size of HPD in the 90s under Bob Lanier because crime rates had been increasing nationally for thirty years. Since then, crime has been on a 20-year decline, and violent crime around the country is at its lowest levels in 50 years. No one could have known that was about to happen in the 90s, but we know where we are now. How many cops do we really need? What do we really want them to focus on? I appreciate Turner’s effort – there’s a lot there that I do like – but I’m still waiting for these questions to be part of the discussion.

Sheriff asks for more funds for body cameras

Good move.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office recently applied for a grant from the Department of Justice to purchase 750 wearable body cameras, a new technology aimed at improving government transparency and accountability after a year of high-profile police-involved shootings around the country.

A 30-day trial run with body cameras by a few dozen deputies earlier this year encountered some obstacles, including stormy weather, brisk temperatures and loud music.

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson has also issued $900,000 to fund body cameras for the sheriff and another $1 million for the city of Houston. The federal grant would bring in another $900,000 to match the funds Commissioners Court has agreed to.

A measure sponsored by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott, sets out statewide policy for the use of the cameras, which retail for about $400 apiece. But the basics of operating them and dealing with the massive amount of data they will create presents some new challenges for county government.

The patrol officers who tried them out said they weren’t sure if they could don raincoats when it raining outside and still get decent footage from the body-worn cam. Loud music in the background during domestic calls was hindering the audio quality, said Deputy Thomas Gilliland, spokesman for the sheriff’s office.

[…]

The county attorney’s office has told the sheriff and the information technology department that law enforcement will also have to budget for redacting the video, if bystanders are caught unwittingly on camera.

“We’re working together to draft a plan that will protect the privacy and safety of Harris County residents while ensuring any resulting program is cost-effective and in compliance with state and federal laws,” said Barbara Armstrong, deputy managing attorney for public law, who heads a multi-department planning committee on body cameras at the County Attorney’s Office.

See here for previous blogging on body cameras. I don’t have a whole lot to add here, just that there are a number of potentially challenging questions, about things like the official usage policy and how the data will be managed and stored and made available, that need to be answered, by the HCSO and HPD and any other law enforcement agency as we go. These things have a lot of promise, but we have to get the implementation right to reap the rewards of that promise.

Early returns on body cameras are positive

So far so good.

The majority of 100 Houston Police Department officers who have field tested body cameras over a recent two-month period called it a positive experience, though many expressed concern that the technology could endanger officer safety or be used by superiors to discipline them, according to an internal report obtained this week by the Houston Chronicle.

That technology is expected to be adopted department-wide beginning this summer as a way to increase police accountability.

[…]

In one case, a body camera video later helped confirm the validity of an on-scene confession, the survey showed.

In all, 72 officers who responded to the survey rated the body camera experience either very positive, positive or somewhat positive. Only 7 officers found the experience unacceptable, according to the report.

Some officers complained they felt reluctant to use necessary force on suspects -or even forceful language – for fear of being accused by superiors of abusive behavior. Others said they were distracted by the camera, reacted more slowly instead of relying on their “natural reactions,” or even placed themselves in a dangerous position during a traffic stop to get a better camera angle on the scene.

“Having to remember to activate a camera when engaging in a foot pursuit, ending a car chase or approaching a vehicle in a traffic stop reduces focus on the task at hand,” said one officer surveyed.

But it’s still unclear when officers will have to turn on – or off -those cameras, and HPD has refused to release a draft policy it’s developing.

Several officers complained about “vague guidelines” for use of their test cameras. That same complaint is also being raised by two Houston attorneys defending two different residents whose arrests were recorded with the cameras.

A copy of the report is at the story link. I’ll say again, we do need to know how HPD plans to use these things. We’re almost at the time for the planned rollout, so any day now would be nice. In the meantime, the Lege is moving on a bill that would “create a statewide grant program to fund training, the purchase of equipment and the cost of implementing the policy that would draw upon federal funds”. As such, if Houston is having a positive experience with body cameras, then there’s good hope the rest of the state can as well.

Mayor Parker’s last budget

Here it is.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Despite sounding the alarm for months that a multimillion dollar deficit could force service cuts, new fees and employee layoffs, Mayor Annise Parker rolled out a $5.1 billion city budget on Tuesday that largely preserves spending levels by drawing on one-time funding sources and higher-than-expected revenues to plug the gap.

Parker warned that more than 90 percent of the $130 million general fund spending increase will go to contractually obligated spending, pension obligations in particular. The city’s financial outlook also continues to be hobbled in coming years by a triple threat of rising pension costs and debt service and a voter-imposed revenue cap that limits the city’s ability to collect property taxes.

The city is “standing still, we’re not moving forward” under the proposed budget, Parker said.

[…]

A looming question as the city’s projected revenue gap dropped from $144 million to $63 million earlier this year was whether that might dampen Parker’s ability to pitch an amended or repealed revenue cap to City Council and voters. On Tuesday, Parker said she would wait to bring any such changes to City Council until after budgeting is done and the Legislature wraps up, but “there’s still room for conversations.”

Here’s the Mayor’s press release, which has the details. The main items of note are $2.8 million for body cameras and an increase in the homestead exemption for seniors to comply with the stupid revenue cap. I’m glad to see that’s still something the Mayor would like to discuss, though I doubt it will go anywhere at this point. Council gets a chance to introduce its own amendments when the budget gets debated next month. Perhaps then we’ll see if there’s been some kind of shift in power.

We need to know how body cameras are going to be used

Having the body cameras is great, but it’s how we use them that really matters.

Harris County’s two largest police agencies are testing body cameras on officers but refuse to release their policies detailing when the cameras should be turned on and off to maximize accountability and minimize intrusiveness.

The Houston Police Department spent $108,000 to buy 100 VIEVU body cameras in May 2013 and began testing them later that year. The pager-sized cameras are worn on the front of an officer’s uniform.

In the months since, HPD has balked at releasing anything but anecdotal information about the results of its pilot project.

In September, the Houston Chronicle filed an open records request asking HPD for its report on the test, a copy of the policy that governed the camera test and copies of videos from the first month in cases that had a final disposition or figured in the outcome of a citizen’s complaint against an HPD officer.

Earlier this week, HPD released edited videos of six encounters its officers had with citizens, including traffic stops, a domestic dispute, a foot chase and a nighttime incident in which the officer drew his gun and yelled commands to arrest a suspect without incident.

However, HPD now claims it did not know what report the Chronicle was referring to. It has asked the Texas attorney general to allow it to withhold the results because comments made by officers evaluating the equipment could endanger the process of purchasing additional cameras.

HPD also has asked the attorney general to allow it to withhold the camera test policy.

[…]

Sheriff Adrian Garcia also has declined to release his agency’s test policy, claiming the same exemption.

“Right now, we are not sharing the pilot project policy because it’s not the final policy,” said Alan Bernstein, director of public affairs.

See here for some background. I get that HPD and the Sheriff’s office are still in testing mode and don’t want to feel like they’re committing to anything until they’re ready, but other agencies like the HISD police have released their test policies, and if they can do it others can as well. More to the point, the cameras are about transparency and building trust with the public. This would be a good place to start. Let’s get on with it.

2015 Mayoral manifesto: Public safety

Preliminaries
Transportation

When I first started thinking about this series a couple of months ago, this section was all going to be about the budget. We’ve covered this ground before – public safety is about 65% of the total city budget, yet it’s always “off limits” for consideration when there are shortfalls. It’s always the rest of the budget that gets the axe when cuts have to be made. Politically, I doubt anyone thinks they can lose votes by being “for” public safety and against any cuts to it. I’m not advocating cuts, I’m advocating the same level of scrutiny and due diligence for the public safety budget as for the rest of the budget.

Just at an abstract level, it’s impossible to believe that a hundreds-of-millions of dollars budget involving thousands of people, hundreds of departments, and multiple layers of management could not be refined and made more efficient. Here in Houston we have the specific example of thousands of uninvestigated criminal cases, for which as far as I can tell there still hasn’t been a reckoning by HPD. Chief McClelland’s response has been to ask for more money to hire more officers. My response to that is that we need to know a lot more about how the money HPD gets now is being spent. Maybe we do need more cops, and maybe we do need to spend more money on HPD. But that can’t be the default answer. We need to know more about how things are being done now. Only then can we know what we should be doing differently.

Public safety includes the fire department as well, and HFD has its own issues. Twice in the last five years HFD has exceeded its budget due to greater than expected overtime expenditures, caused at least in part by the way vacation time is scheduled. As crime has gone down nationally, so have the number of fires. The vast majority of calls to HFD are EMT calls, not fire calls. As with HPD, it is fair to ask, are we making the best use of our resources, and getting the best value for our tax dollars? I want a Mayor who will not be afraid to ask those questions.

One place where there appears to be general consensus is with body cameras. Everybody wants them, and thanks to a grant from the District Attorney, we have a plan to outfit HPD, Sheriff’s deputies, and constables with them. This is great, but it’s a first step. What will be the rules for their usage? How accessible will the video data be, and who will have access to it? What will HPD’s discipline policy be towards officers who fail to use them properly? Do we have a plan to get cameras for Metro cops? Let’s hear some details.

The discipline policies and practices for HPD in general need a long, hard look. It’s very rare for officers to be punished for excessive force complaints, even in the face of overwhelming (and sometimes video) evidence. Between 2007 and 2012, according to HPD records, officers killed citizens in 109 shootings. Every killing was ruled justified. The process needs an overhaul, and more public involvement. I want to hear Mayoral candidates address these issues, and not just give me the same paeans and platitudes we’ve gotten in past campaigns.

Note that I haven’t said anything about pensions. I don’t see the need to, since we’re not going to be able to avoid hearing about them from the candidates. The issue is central to the candidacies of at least two of the hopefuls so far. What any of them might promise to do that Mayor Parker hasn’t already tried, especially given the lack of interest by the Legislature in getting involved, is an open question. I’m sure they’ll tell us something.

Everyone agrees that something needs to be done about the city’s criminal justice complex. Everyone also agrees that it will be hella expensive to do something about it. One possible way to reduce the cost might be to rent instead of repairing or rebuilding, but not everyone is happy with that option. Given that this is almost certainly an item that will wind up on the next Mayor’s to do list, it would be nice to know what they think the current Mayor should do about it.

Mayor Parker recently said that “we need a complete rethinking of the nation’s drug laws”. What do the Mayoral candidates think about that? Will they push for HPD to use its authority to write citations for low level drug offenses instead of making arrests?

It seems likely that some form of “sanctuary cities” legislation will be signed into law this session. That will require local police forces to inquire about the immigration status of someone detained or arrested by a police officer or risk losing state funds. Who among the Mayoral candidates will be willing to speak out against this? Will anyone promise to at least investigate the possibility of filing a federal lawsuit to overturn such a law if one is enacted?

Finally, there was a lot of talk in the 2009 Mayor’s race about getting the various law enforcement agencies that operate in and around Houston to work together better. There’s been some progress on this, most notably in the area of radio communications, but overall it’s been a low profile issue. Where do the current crop of candidates see room for improvement on this? To tie this back to an earlier point, one large police force in Houston that isn’t in line to get body cameras yet is the Metro police force. Do the candidates have an opinion about that?

One more of these entries to go. Let me know what you think.

Now what do we do with those body cameras?

KPRC addresses an important question.

HPD has been running a pilot program regarding body cameras for more than a year. 100 officers are currently wearing a body camera. The department has yet to finalize a policy on the use of these cameras and the retention of video.

As it stands now, each officer is responsible for turning on the camera and recording an incident and then downloading the video and the end of every shift. Each camera records up to four hours of video.

HPD officers wearing these cameras are also required to check a series of categories indicating what type of incidents they recorded during a shift. HPD officials said “use of force” incidents are flagged in the system and the video is immediately reviewed.

HPD is not deleting any video at this point. HPD also has not given a specific time frame as to when these cameras will be implemented depart wide.

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia put 38 body cameras on the streets and is still crafting policy. Garcia has said he wants a full implementation within 90 days. Garcia’s is also experimenting with different types of cameras that can be mounted on the head, chest or shoulder.

Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen began a pilot program 5 months ago with three cameras. Rosen says the cameras are deployed during all tactical assignments and when high risk warrants are served.

Rosen’s office is also experimenting with different types of cameras and whether an officer will be responsible for turning on the cameras or a having system where the cameras are turned on automatically during a call. The Precinct 1 Constable’s is saving all video for 90 days unless part of a complaint or criminal case.

“I think it’s also going to help the public understand what we go through on a daily basis, the split second decisions law enforcement has to make,” said Rosen. “The public has to have confidence in its police.”

See here and here for some background. I hope HPD finalizes its policies soon. I would prefer for there to be clear rules about when cameras are to be in operation, with clear and enforceable consequences for not following those rules. We also need to know who will have access to the data, how long it will be kept, and what the process will be for requesting a specific video or set of videos. I’m sure there are some best practices out there that can be copied, so copy away. This has the potential to do a lot of good, but we have to do it right and ensure that everyone has confidence in it.

Commissioners Court approves body camera purchase

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously approved District Attorney Devon Anderson’s plan to spend $1.9 million in seized assets to equip Houston police officers and Harris County sheriff’s deputies with body cameras.

County officials also said they would move toward giving about 700 deputy constables the same equipment, though the precise amount of funding has not been determined.

“If we’re going to go in this direction, which I think is a good direction to go, give all our patrolmen body cameras,” Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said.

[…]

Radack asked county budget chief Bill Jackson to determine how much it would cost to equip some deputy constables with the cameras.

After the meeting, Radack predicted the cost would be relatively low, perhaps totaling $700,000 if each camera costs $1,000.

“If it costs $700,000, it’s a necessary expenditure,” Radack said.

Jackson, however, cautioned that the cost could go beyond the cameras, pointing out that back room technology would increase the total.

“You’re holding a telephone in your hand, but it has to connect to something,” Jackson explained. “That’s just a piece of it.”

If approved, funding for outfitting constable deputies with cameras would come from the county’s general fund.

See here for the background. Adding in the constables is a great move, as they’re the next biggest law enforcement group after HPD and the Sheriff’s office. I’ll be interested to see what the back office costs of this are, and of course what policies get put in place to manage the video data and allow access to it. But for now, the main thing is getting the cameras. Kudos to all for that.

DA’s office to help buy body cams

Very good news.

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson plans to purchase hundreds of body-worn cameras for Houston police officers and sheriff’s deputies, weeks after widespread protests erupted when a white Missouri police officer was not charged for fatally shooting an unarmed black teen.

In the aftermath of the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Mo., on Nov. 24, civil rights groups have called for increased accountability during police encounters, including the use of small cameras worn on officers’ uniforms. This month the Chicago police department, the nation’s second-biggest force, announced a pilot program for body cameras to begin in January. The Obama administration also recently asked Congress for approval to spend $263 million to help states acquire 50,000 body cameras.

A sheriff’s spokesman and Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, confirmed the purchase of the body cameras locally.

[…]

Local officials with the NAACP called the camera initiative “good news.”

“That’s a very positive step,” said Carroll Robinson, treasurer-elect with the Houston Branch of the NAACP. “The body camera won’t solve every problem but the more we can see the less we have to rely on he-said, she-said.

“They will help improve community trust in the law enforcement system and bring confidence to those who want to make sure the criminal justice system is hearing their voice and their concerns.”

Carmen Roe, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said body cameras are “essential to provide transparency out on the streets, for the protection of law enforcement as well as citizens in the community.”

Roe and others said policies and guidelines for the cameras’ use are critical.

“I hope there will be some written policies in place to ensure the cameras are not used at the discretion of officers,” Roe said. “Any time there are officers out on the street, their cameras should be activated to record any interaction with citizens in the community.”

Agreed on all counts, and major kudos to DA Devon Anderson for taking this initiative. This also addresses something I’ve been thinking of since the push for body cameras for HPD began, which is what about Sheriff’s deputies? There’s a lot more cops than just HPD, after all. Of course, there’s more than HPD and the HCSO, too, but you have to start somewhere.

You also have to keep in mind that body cameras are a tool and one piece of a much larger puzzle. They’re not a solution in and of themselves.

Justin Ready, an assistant professor of criminology at Arizona State University who has conducted research on the use of body cameras in the Mesa, Ariz., and Phoenix police departments, said the technology may not be enough to prevent another Ferguson.

“Any interaction is complex. The cameras might show you five pieces of a 10-piece puzzle, and we tend to fill in those blind spots with our own biases,” he said.

Though body cameras can raise transparency and accountability on both sides of the lens, experts also urge caution about unrealistic expectations for the devices.

One study released in September, “Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program” – a joint report from the Police Executive Research Forum and the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services – examined how agencies were using the devices and offered recommendations for those considering outfitting officers with cameras.

“There’s a lot of public support for it right now and agencies are really wanting to jump on board, but what we say is: Do this cautiously and think about what your policies are going to be and how this is going to impact your community and how officers are going to do their jobs,” said Lindsay Miller, the report’s co-author and a senior research associate at the Police Executive Research Forum.

Most cameras cost $1,000 to $1,500 each, but deploying the units also requires a more expensive component: video storage and management.

“Every video, no matter how you store it, has to be uploaded, characterized, properly tagged and sometimes linked to a document system,” Miller said. “This program requires a considerable amount of money and manpower.”

Absolutely, and it also requires a lot of thought, and ideally a lot of engagement with the public, to do this effectively and appropriately. That we are going to start thinking about these things, and again getting the public involved in the process, is a positive step. I commend DA Devon Anderson, whose action will enable all Sheriff’s deputies to get body cameras, for doing her part to make this happen. Grits, who notes pushes for body cameras all over Texas, and Hair Balls have more.

Mayor Parker wants body cameras for HPD

Good.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Houston won’t wait for federal funding before buying body cameras for all of the city’s uniformed police officers, Mayor Annise Parker said Wednesday, as activists launched a petition drive for an ordinance essentially mandating the mayor’s plans.

Both the mayor and police chief have announced their commitment to body cameras designed to record all interactions between officers and the public, even though the innovation is expected to cost around $7-million during a severe city budget deficit. Houston plans to apply for some of the federal funding proposed by President Obama earlier in the week, the mayor said, but the city plans to invest in its camera program before Washington’s money flows through the pipeline.

“We are absolutely going to apply, as is every other big police department across the United States, for body cams,” Parker said. “Actually, not every police department will want to go that route, because you have to have the policy in place, you have to have the ability to store the records from the body cams. But we’ve had our pilot up, we know what we want in the cameras. We have a good initial policy that we’re going to roll forward.”

The mayor hopes grants and law enforcement foundations will bankroll about half of the expected expense.

“As the national debate on body cams becomes more robust, I think you’re going to see more interest,” Parker said.

See here for the background. Activists are pushing for an ordinance to require body cameras on the grounds that while the current Mayor and police chief support them, the Mayor we get next year and the chief he or she appoints might not be so supportive. You might think that after the travesty in Staten Island with Eric Garner that body cameras aren’t what they’re hyped up to be, but that isn’t the case. They will do a lot of good, for the public and for the police. Let’s get this done.

Searching the couch cushions for loose change

That’s basically what this is.

BagOfMoney

To say the city of Houston is working to cut a looming $120 million budget deficit one color copy at a time would not be accurate. It’s more like millions of color copies.

Cellphones no one is using, old cars no one is driving, a 50-step process for approving fire alarm permits no one can explain – these are the targets and triumphs of a small team of efficiency experts tasked with burrowing into mounds of data and analyzing city operations to find savings.

While city leaders are looking at some painful ways to close next year’s massive deficit – pension reform, layoffs, cuts in service – the six members of the Lean Six Sigma squad have generated $25 million in savings and better processes in three years, showing there are easier ways to cut.

Next on the list? Perhaps an email to the sixth floor of the Houston Fire Department headquarters at 600 Jefferson. The shared printer there spit out 32,519 color pages in September, the most of any of the city’s networked printers. About 81 percent of the machines’ pages printed in color, nine times the citywide average.

It may sound like small ball, but given the size of city operations – 55 million pages are printed each year – the potential savings can add up quickly.

Finance director Kelly Dowe, who formed the Lean Six Sigma team in May 2011, said the group – named for decades-old problem-solving methods that began in manufacturing – has a broad focus, targeting everything from shortening the time it takes to hire city workers to helping pollution and restaurant inspectors plan better daily routes.

I don’t want to denigrate or belittle this in any way. It’s a valiant and necessary effort, it will achieve real savings, and it will make government work better. These are all very good things. What I do want to do is disabuse anyone of the notion that there’s more of this that can be done to close the rest of the budget gap. In the best case scenario, Dowe’s efforts might shave five percent or so off that projected $120 million deficit. That’s real money, but it’s nowhere close to a solution. The rest of the way there is a lot harder, with the choices a lot less pleasant.

The other point that needs to be made is that we need this level of scrutiny on the whole budget, including the public safety budget. As far as I can tell, that part of the budget has been walled off and the only thing one can do with it is propose to spend more. That’s not something I will accept, certainly not until my questions about HPD’s operations are answered. I’ve said before and I’ll say again, I’m willing to accept the possibility that we really do need to spend more on public safety to get what we want out of it. (Body cameras, for example, I’d absolutely support spending on.) But I want to see the numbers first. I want to know what what we’re spending our money on now is the best and most efficient use of it. Show me we’re putting the same effort into critically examining the public safety budget, and then we can talk. Along the way, we might also make some more progress on that deficit.

A “Mike Brown Law” for Houston

From the inbox:

COMMUNITY TOWN HALL 12/4 TO DEMAND MIKE BROWN LAW

HOUSTON- Hundreds plan to attend a town hall organized by Houston Justice, a grassroots activist group aimed at local criminal justice reform. The first goal is to pass necessary legislation to adopt the Mike Brown Law that requires body cams for on duty police officers in Houston. Houston Police Department Chief Charles McClelland has already come out in publicly in support of the measure (link to Houston Chronicle story), but with a $140 Million deficit looming at city hall, the group is proactively demanding commitment from Houston City Council.

“Recent events have caused an awakening in our community, our first goal is to pass the Mike Brown Law at Houston City Hall,” said Durrel Douglas, an activist with Houston Justice. “With our energy we will pass an ordinance funding mandatory body cams for police (petition here) and increase diversity on grand juries. We will balance the scales of justice in Harris County,” concluded Douglas. According to a recent Gallup Poll, 24% of African American males said they had been treated unfairly in dealings with police in the last 30 days.

The activist group is holding a town hall this Thursday where next steps will be planned and attendees will have an opportunity to voice their opinions, apply to be grand jurors in Harris County and register to vote.

TOWN HALL

Who: Houston Justice Coalition
What: Community Town Hall, Planning Session
When: Thursday, December 4, 2014 6:30 PM
Where: El Dorado Ballroom
2310 Elgin
Houston, Texas 77004

See these two posts for some background on HPD and body cameras, and this Chron story from last week for Chied McClelland’s most recent statement in support of them. McClelland has already made a request to Council for up to $8 million to buy and deploy these cameras. We need to determine a funding source for that and make it happen, and along the way we need to figure out what the rules will be for keeping and accessing the video footage they will generate. I kind of like the suggestion made in the comments here by Steven Houston to make it all (with some limited exceptions) publicly available. Whether that’s feasible or not, let’s move forward with this. There’s a lot to be done to ensure accountability and restore the faith of all of the public in police work, and this is a key first step.

UPDATE: Here’s a Chron story about another town hall event, which took place yesterday. I don’t think we can have too many of these right now.

Body cameras for HPD

I’ll be very interested to see how this goes.

Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland is asking City Hall for $8 million to equip 3,500 police officers over three years with small body cameras to record encounters between law enforcement and residents as a way of improving accountability and transparency.

Last December, McClelland announced a pilot program that fitted 100 officers with the recording devices at a cost of $2,500 per officer, explaining that body cameras were more likely to record officers’ contact with residents than dashboard cameras in patrol cars.

[…]

Proponents of body cameras – roughly the size of a pager that can be clipped to the front of a uniform shirt- say the technology can be key in lowering use of force by police and citizen complaints. However, the effort to equip additional officers with the devices faces uncertainty as Mayor Annise Parker’s administration acknowledged Wednesday it is having trouble finding money to pay for the project.

Amin Alehashem, director and staff attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project office in Houston, called the proposed camera expansion a “huge victory for transparency” in assessing the actions of local law enforcement.

“Often times a lot of what happens with interactions on the street between an officer and an individual ends up being a ‘he said, she said’ altercation,” Alehashem said. “It’s great if we have cameras there. For the criminal process, it will allow juries in the future to see what happened and make up their mind as far as guilt or innocence of the individual or even the officer.”

Capt. Mike Skillern, who heads HPD’s gang unit and is involved in testing the cameras, said his fellow officers act “a little more professionally” when wearing the devices.

Obviously, there’s a sense of urgency for the adoption of this kind of technology in the wake of Ferguson. There are questions about how these cameras will be used, in particular how available the data will be, but these are a better option than dashboard cams, which are often not facing the right direction to capture what’s happening, and don’t have audio either. As with video recording interrogations, having these cameras in wide use will protect both the public and the police, since unfounded complaints can be dispatched easily. Having a clear record of what happens when there’s a violent confrontation, especially a shooting, should help restore some trust. I hope a funding source can be identified and the potential of this technology can be fully exploited. See Grits and Hair Balls for more.