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Crime Stoppers

One more step towards the bail lawsuit settlement

We’re almost there. I know it feels like we’ve been there for awhile and are just waiting for it all to become official, but there were still a few checkpoints to get through first, and this is one of them.

In a move that signals she will likely approve a landmark bail agreement, a federal judge in Houston issued a lengthy opinion Thursday meticulously addressing concerns raised by outside parties to the proposed consent decree that would govern bail practices in Harris County for the next seven years.

The 55-page document from Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal is not the norm in that preliminary approvals at this point in most class action suits usually take up half a page, at most two pages, according to lawyers familiar with typical dockets.

In the opinion, the judge addresses whether the deal was properly negotiated, whether it addressed the needs of all parties and whether the solution was adequate given the potential delays, costs and impact on public safety.

Specifically, she said the plan hit on the key factors required: it addressed the constitutional violations, protected poor defendants, safeguarded the public and reduced the chances that defendants would miss hearings.

While atypical, Rosenthal’s comprehensive memorandum and opinion are in keeping with how the judge runs her office, according to a former law clerk who served in the Houston federal courthouse.

“I’d say this is pretty standard for a judge who is thorough to a fault,” the former clerk said. “It definitely signals ultimate approval, but the point isn’t to telegraph.”

The clerk, who asked to remain anonymous, continued, “It’s simply to respond to the filings in a complete and timely way.”

[…]

Two county commissioners who opposed the resolution — Jack Cagle and Steve Radack — submitted their concerns to the judge along with District Attorney Kim Ogg, the Pasadena police chief and several organizations. The objectors included the Harris County Deputies’ Organization, the Houston Area Police Chiefs Association, the Texas School District Police Chiefs’Association, the Professional Bondsmen of Harris County, Equal Justice Now, Crime Stoppers of Houston, Inc. and the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council.

The parties directly involved in the case then submitted detailed responses to these amicus or “friend of the court” briefs.

Rosenthal said “the amicus briefs and objections do not identify an adequate basis to deny preliminary approval of the proposed settlement and consent decree.”

See here for the background. Ogg, who continues to talk about the imminent settlement in a way that makes one think she’s asking for trouble in her forthcoming primary election, made a statement about how it’s now all up to the judges to make this work. It’s always been all up to the judges, it’s just that in the past they did a lousy job of that. There’s a “final fairness hearing” set for October 21, and I’m guessing we’ll get the officially signed and sanctioned settlement agreement some time after that. I’m ready for this to be over and done.

More reaction to the HPD no-investigations report

I’m not the only one that wasn’t impressed by Chief McClelland’s response.

[Burglary victim Heather] Heinke’s experience is not unusual in the nation’s fourth-largest city. A recent HPD staffing study says that 15,000 burglaries and thefts, 3,000 hit-and-run crashes and 3,000 assaults were simply set aside last year without a follow-up investigation. Houston police commanders told researchers they didn’t have enough staff to review the cases, even those with promising leads.

“It seems like (crime has) increased, and to (the point of) not being able to leave your home in a peaceful state of mind,” Heinke said. “You kind of feel helpless … you feel you’re out there exposed, like you’re out there on your own.”

The report’s finding that thousands of crimes aren’t being fully investigated, although it may not be unique to Houston as a major city, has angered citizens, civil rights groups and victims and surprised some City Council members. The disclosure came shortly after the Police Department in April disciplined eight homicide detectives for either ignoring or conducting shoddy investigations into nearly two dozen deaths.

[…]

The tally of unworked cases came as no surprise to former Houston police investigators, former Police Chief C.O. Bradford and union officials.

They described a daily triage by Houston police lieutenants and sergeants, who review reports of new crimes and determine which have no leads or “solvability factors.” Then, the supervisors assign what they consider the most solvable and egregious crimes to investigators. The others, despite having leads, are simply “suspended” and may be investigated if they are linked to another crime.

Mike Knox, a former gang investigator for the Police Department, said he’s surprised there were only 15,000 burglary and theft cases that were not investigated.

“I’m sure HPD would love to investigate every single case, but we just don’t have the manpower and money to do that. So we go after the ones who are doing the most harm,” Knox said.

Bradford, who resigned as chief in 2003 and now serves as a city councilman, noted there are fewer police on the force today than when he was in command.

“There’s not enough personnel,” he said. “You only have so many investigators in the burglary and theft division.”

The researchers hired to study HPD’s staffing noted that while Houston has a lower staffing ratio than many large city police departments, such data is relevant but not all-telling. Major cities in the Northeast that have urban centers that developed “vertically,” and are denser, have traditionally had higher ratios of police officers. Southwestern cities that have developed horizontally are less dense and tend to have lower ratios.

Houston’s police-to-citizen ratio of 2.3 officers for every 1,000 residents is lower than those of Chicago (4.7), New York City (5.1), Detroit (4.4.) and Washington, D.C. (6.3.).

Rania Mankarious, executive director of Crime Stoppers of Houston, said she is frustrated that more investigators don’t call on the nonprofit agency to help them solve cases. HPD is the agency’s major sponsor, but she said some investigators don’t want to go through the “hassle” of providing information about unsolved cases.

Others are not familiar with the services provided by Crime Stoppers, which have led to the solving of 30,000 felony cases in three decades of operation.

“I’m angry in the sense that we’re a free resource, this is all we do, and we need to be utilized,” Mankarious said, adding that cash rewards paid for information are funded by probation fees.

See here and here for the background. Let’s be clear that since the report talks about the need for more investigators – 27 is the number cited – the officers-to-citizens ratio isn’t particularly useful. Uniformed officers aren’t the one charged with investigating crimes. Obviously, most investigators will start out as uniformed officers, and I’m happy to have a discussion about what needs to be done to promote more investigators to help close that gap. But let’s keep our eye on the ball.

I guess I’m just skeptical about the calls for vastly increasing the size of HPD. I’m going to need some questions answered before I buy into any of that. If crime is declining, as he report states, why hasn’t HPD been able to keep up? How long has this problem of not investigating cases with “workable leads” been going on? Has there ever been a time when that wasn’t a problem? If so, what has changed since then? If not, why have we never talked about it before now? Surely we didn’t need a third party consultant to point that out if it’s always been the case. HPD’s budget has increased considerably in recent years. What is the money being spent on? What assurances do we have that the parallel problems in the homicide division won’t recur? It would be nice if when all this gets to City Council if someone on Council would drop the deference and do their best Jolanda Jones impersonation. Ask questions like a defense attorney. Let’s really understand what’s going on before we start proposing solutions.