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FBI seeks Astroworld info

Spill ’em if you got ’em.

The FBI has created a website that seeks information on the deadly Astroworld Festival, the Houston Police Department said Friday.

Members of the public can upload photos and video from the Nov. 5 event at NRG Park. Police said in a statement that they’re specifically looking for media from between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. “of the main venue area,” which can be uploaded at fbi.gov/astroworld.

“HPD continues to lead this investigation and we appreciate the assistance from our federal partners at the FBI,” the statement read. The federal agency has previously offered to help with the investigation.

I genuinely have no idea how likely this is to result in usable, actionable information. For that matter, it’s not really clear to me what HPD might uncover in its investigation. I think we’re more likely to learn things from the county’s internal investigation and from the various lawsuits – whichever one gets to discovery first will probably be the main source of new information. But you never know.

Another look at the Aguirre/Hotze debacle

Man, do I ever want this to be the end of Steven Hotze as a political force.

A well-funded far-right group—that made inroads with Stop The Steal organizations, paid a former police captain more than $200,000 to hunt ballots, and became entangled in a roadside stickup—was making war plans for Election Day 2020 months ahead of time, documents reveal.

The fringe group, the Liberty Center for God and Country (LCGC), led a lucrative fundraising blitz in the run-up to the election and quietly networked with now-notorious election denialists. Their work came to light in October of that year when former Houston Police captain Mark Aguirre allegedly rammed his SUV into a man’s truck, forced the man onto the ground at gunpoint, and accused him of transporting 750,000 fraudulent ballots. Aguirre’s claims were baseless—his victim was an innocent air conditioner technician—and no widespread voter fraud has been found in the 2020 election. Aguirre was indicted this week for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

The criminal charges outed the LCGC, which had quietly moved hundreds of thousands of dollars in the name of preventing voter fraud in the months before the election, launching a website and fundraisers in the months before Nov. 3.

In the fall of 2020, as Donald Trump trailed Joe Biden in the polls, Republican activists sought ways to sow doubt in the event of a possible Trump loss. Aguirre and LCGC were among them.

Aguirre’s description of himself as a “retired” police captain (he’d actually been fired for a disastrous raid) was the least of the fundraiser’s lies. Although the fundraiser shed little light on Aguirre’s “team,” the fundraiser was launched one day after Aguirre signed an affidavit in a lawsuit accusing Houston-area Democrats of widespread voter fraud.

The lawsuit, filed by Republican activist Steven Hotze, accused Texas Democrats of a plot to defraud voters, in part by offering early voting and more voting locations. Some of its claims rested on supposed evidence collected by Aguirre and a former FBI agent who, like Aguirre, later became a private investigator.

“Based on interviews, review of documents, and other information, I have identified the individuals in charge of the ballot harvesting scheme,” Aguirre wrote. Aguirre’s involvement with Hotze went deeper than the lawsuit suggested. In late August, according to business records, Hotze formed the LCGC. The group’s earliest web presence called on Trump to designate three days “for national repentance, fasting, and prayer.”

[…]

In order to crack down on alleged fraud pre-election, the LCGC allegedly hired Aguirre to investigate people it suspected of running fake ballot rings. According to charging documents, Aguirre admitted to surveilling the home of air-conditioning technician David Lopez-Zuniga, on the suspicion that the Houston man was running a scheme to force children to sign 750,000 fraudulent ballots. Aguirre allegedly rammed Lopez-Zuniga’s car off the road, forced him onto the ground at gunpoint, and knelt on his back before an actual police officer was able to intervene. The day after the incident, the LCGC sent $211,400 to Aguirre’s bank account.

The LCGC was pulling in big money, its fundraisers suggest. In addition to Aguirre’s GoFundMe, which earned at least $2,600, the group operated its own GoFundMe, which raised nearly $70,000 from mid-October to mid-December.

The LCGC also registered as a nonprofit—a status that would be useful when networking with a burgeoning movement of voter fraud hoaxers.

See here, here, and here for a bit of background; there’s more if you go looking for the bogus and universally losing lawsuits Hotze filed in 2020. The Washington Post did a deep dive on this about a year ago, and I’m glad to see others are continuing that quest. The possible key to ending this little piece of madness is the lawsuit filed by AC repairman David Lopez, which has survived a motion to dismiss and will surely provide a lot more evidence of wrongdoings as it proceeds. All I want for Christmas for the next 20 years or so is for a verdict to come down that absolutely bankrupts Steven Hotze. Link via Daily Kos.

New details about the Deshaun Watson criminal investigation

All sorts of bad things from the search warrants.

Houston police have at least nine reports accusing Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson of sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions, with search warrant records showing that investigators are eyeing indecent assault — a misdemeanor crime — as a possible criminal charge.

The three search warrants — signed in October by a judge to collect data from Watson’s Instagram and Cash App usage — shed light on the Houston Police Department’s criminal investigation into the athlete, who has not been charged with a crime, amid months of litigation from nearly two dozen lawsuits. The search warrants detail accounts from nine women who say their encounters with Watson devolved from massages to misconduct.

The women reported receiving Cash App payments after the sessions, with some amounts ranging from $100 to $300, according to court records.

In two incidents at The Houstonian Hotel, the football player pressured the women into performing felatio, court records show. One licensed massage therapist said Watson contacted her on Instagram and that they met in June 2020 for a massage without incident. During a second appointment at the Memorial-area hotel, he asked her for oral sex.

The woman “felt as if she had no choice,” the investigator wrote.

[…]

Much of the accusations outlined in the search warrants were already detailed in civil lawsuits against Watson but investigators also revealed aspects of the case not previously made public using interviews that the Forensic Center of Excellence — a Houston group of forensic nurses who specializes in trauma — conducted with the accusers.

The Houston Police Department acknowledged in April their investigation into Watson but have declined to comment since. The civil litigation, meanwhile, is still pending.

Investigations by the FBI into Watson’s alleged behavior and the NFL are also happening. Watson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, has denied wrongdoing by the quarterback, saying any sexual encounters with massage therapists were consensual.

On Wednesday, Hardin said he welcomed the police department’s investigation into his client’s records.

I’ve skipped over most of the more graphic stuff. The HPD investigation is still ongoing, the civil litigation is awaiting the first court dates, and Watson is still a non-playing member of the Texans. Not much else to say at this point.

Aguirre indicted

Gotta admit, I had thought this happened long ago.

A Harris County grand jury on Tuesday indicted former Houston police captain Mark Aguirre on an assault charge after he was accused of running a man off the road and pointing to a gun to his head because he thought he was committing voter fraud in the run-up to the 2020 election.

Aguirre will face a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The trial currently is scheduled to begin in February.

Prosecutors allege Aguirre slammed into the back of an air conditioning repairman’s truck at about 5:30 a.m. on Oct. 19 of last year. He pulled a gun, forced the repairman to the ground and put a knee on his back. He ordered another person to search the truck. A police officer happened upon the scene shortly after.

Aguirre, who was fired by the police department in 2003, would later tell investigators he was conducting a “citizens investigation” into an alleged ballot harvesting scheme he thought was orchestrated by local Democrats. He told police they would find hundreds of thousands of ballots in the repairman’s truck.

They found only air conditioning parts and tools. Aguirre said he had been following the repairman for four days.

Aguirre, a licensed private investigator at the time, was hired to investigate fraud claims and paid about $266,400 by the Liberty Center for God and Country around the time of the incident. That group is led by Steven Hotze, the local conservative activist, and Jared Woodfill, the former Harris County Republican Party chairman.

See here, here, and here for some background. Aguirre was arraigned almost exactly a year ago – I genuinely have no idea why it took so long for there to be a grand jury and an indictment. I mean, sure, COVID likely didn’t help, but he was arraigned in peak COVID times, so I don’t know what the effect would be. With the trial scheduled for February, maybe things will move a little faster now, but if you want to explain to me why this all just happened now, please feel free. In the meantime, at least the lawsuit against Steven Hotze is proceeding apace.

Travis Scott speaks

Really not sure this was his best move.

Amid countless lawsuits against him, Travis Scott sat down with The Breakfast Club radio personality, Charlamagne tha God, for his first public interview since a dangerous crowd surge injured hundreds and left 10 people dead during his Astroworld Festival performance on Nov. 5.

In a one-hour discussion shared to Charlamagne’s YouTube channel on Thursday, Scott, whose real name is Jacques Berman Webster II, shared that he’s been experiencing a range of emotions, largely grief, trying to wrap his head around the tragedy and remained consistent to previous statements denying his knowledge of the severity of the mass casualty incident until the press conference that occurred after his set.

“Even after the show you’re just kind of hearing things, but I didn’t know the exact details until minutes before the press conference,” he said, adding, “And even at that moment you’re like, ‘Wait, what?’”

“People pass out, things happen at concerts, but something like that… it’s just like,” he added before trailing off.

[…]

In response to criticism that the event was poorly planned and understaffed, Scott pointed to the responsibilities for all involved. An artist is responsible for the creative side of the show, he said while he trusts the “professionals” to control what they can in the crowd and “make sure that people are taken care of and leaving safely.”

“You can only help what you can see and whatever you’re told,” Scott said responding to a question about the responsibility an artist has to help in that type of situation. “Whenever somebody tell you to stop you just stop.”

James Lassiter, a Houston attorney representing the family of Bharti Shahani, a 22-year-old Texas A&M University student who died, and other injured festival attendees, responded to Scott’s interview Thursday afternoon.

“Travis Scott’s attempt to escape responsibility for creating a deadly situation from which his fans could not escape is shameful and, sadly, true to form,” he said in a statement.

Houston’s NRG Park, where the festival was held, occupied up to 50,000 guests that night, a crowd size that Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said he had enough officers onsite to handle. But he also said he could not have abruptly ended the show for fear of sparking a riot his department could not control.

Finner said the “ultimate authority” to end the show resided with LiveNation and with Scott. The two parties have largely taken the hit for the continuation of the concert for an additional 37 minutes after local authorities declared the event a mass casualty.

But in the interview, Scott said that part was never communicated with him directly.

Scott also denied the tragedy having anything to do with the crowd size as there have been festivities “way bigger,” he said.

“It’s not about the maximum of it, I think it’s about the attention to what’s going on and how it’s going on, and as long as that’s handled then I think things will be okay,” he said. “But as you look at it through the history of festivals, this isn’t the first time happening. It’s been a long history of this.”

The Astroworld Festival tragedy already ranks among deadliest U.S. concerts ever.

Scott said he believes he did everything he could possibly do to help. While he’s not surprised to be at the epicenter of the blame since he’s the “face of the festival,” he said he thinks the responsibility should be a shared load for everybody collectively to “just figure out the bottom line solution” to the problem to make sure this never happens again.

I dunno, man. I Am Not A Lawyer, but I’m pretty sure the right move in this kind of situation is to keep your mouth shut and limit any public remarks to “I can’t comment on pending litigation”. I feel very confident that all of the lawyers suing him – as well as counsel for the various co-defendants – will be listening to this interview very closely, and will be ready to pounce on any inconsistency that arises from future statements given under oath. I understand where he’s coming from, and whatever else happens I have empathy for him, but I can feel his lawyers cringing from here.

I’ll see your AstroWorld lawsuit and raise you $10 billion

That’s a big number, though that’s partly because there are a lot of plaintiffs.

A local law firm has just filed the largest suit to date against Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival after the mass-casualty tragedy that claimed the lives of 10 concert-goers. Attorney Brent Coon is demanding $10 billion in restitution on behalf of 1,547 attendees — that’s more petitioners than any firm thus far.

Additionally, Coon’s firm, Brett Coon & Associates, has filed a request with the Harris County District Court system to consolidate all cases involved into one courtroom to provide for more efficient management of the docket on behalf of all claimants, per a press release. A hearing is scheduled for December 13, 2021.

Aside from the mammoth suit, Coon notes in a statement that he is demanding legislative action to include crowd control planning specialists to certify events, mandated training programs for event preparation and criminal liability for any wrongdoing.

[…]

Coon’s suit comes after a $2 billion filing by San Antonio lawyer Thomas J. Henry and a $750 million petition by Houston attorney Tony Buzbee.

See here for some background, and here for the Chron story. I assume the mention of consolidating the cases is a reference to the many others that have been combined and will be heard in Harris County via the Texas Multidistrict Litigation Panel.

Not much else to add to that story, so let me note a couple of other AstroWorld items that I didn’t put into their own post. First up, Travis Scott is seeking to be dismissed as a defendant from eleven lawsuits.

Houston rapper Travis Scott has responded to 11 lawsuits launched against him in the deadly Astroworld festival tragedy denying all liability and requesting he and his record label Cactus Jack Music be dropped as defendants, according to court documents.

Scott, whose real name is Jacques B. Webster II, has been named in hundreds of lawsuits totaling billions of dollars since the tragedy that took 10 young lives on Nov. 5. Scott’s attorney Ed McPherson issued a “general denial” on his behalf to allegations claiming he was to blame for the deaths and injuries of concertgoers.

Scott is also requesting the claims be “dismissed with prejudice” so that once finished, cases cannot be refiled.

Representatives with Scott’s legal team said in an email to the Chronicle that the request is “a standard response to the plaintiff filing and reiterates what’s already been out there that Travis is not legally liable.”

One of the 10 victims, 22-year-old Texas A&M student Bharti Shahani, died nearly a week post-festival after succumbing to injuries that left her on a ventilator. Her family filed suit against Scott and festival organizers and refused to accept Scott’s financial assistance for funeral expenses. Their lawsuit is one of the 11 Scott’s lawyers responded to.

Not clear to me from the story why Scott is taking this action in only eleven lawsuits, or why these specific eleven lawsuits. Maybe they have something in common, maybe they were just first in line, maybe he’s in settlement talks with the others, maybe full dismissal will be sought for others. I have no idea, but given the high-powered legal team working for Scott and Live Nation, I’m sure this is just a first step.

Other AstroWorld stories that I have skimmed but not found anything original to say about:

Exclusive: CEO of Astroworld medical provider recalls moment when routine festival spiraled out of control

How missed warning signs at Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival led to one of the worst U.S. concert tragedies

8 biggest revelations from the Houston Chronicle’s in-depth Astroworld investigation

This story will be with us for a long time.

How’s that city push to get its employees vaccinated going?

Not bad, actually.

Nearly three months after Mayor Sylvester Turner signed an executive order requiring Houston’s 21,000 city employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, receive a medical or religious exemption, or submit COVID-19 test results every two weeks, compliance with the order varies widely among departments.

Just over 60% of Houston firefighters had either been vaccinated, submitted test results or received an exemption as of Nov. 15 — the lowest rate of any city department.

That’s according to city data released to Houston Public Media, which also revealed Houston police, waste management and health staff at the bottom of the list of those who have complied with Turner’s order.

Just 74% of police officers were in compliance with the mandate, along with 74% of Solid Waste Management employees and 74% of Health and Human Services employees.

The city secretary’s office, which has just seven employees, is 100% compliant with the mayor’s order. The legal department with 185 employees and the city I.T. department’s 180 are next on the list with about 98% compliance each as of Nov. 15.

The mayor’s own office is 90% compliant with his executive order as of Nov. 15, 13th on the list of 25 departments.

[…]

The city’s Nov. 15 compliance data was the most recent available. Houston Public Media has requested a more recent report, which was not available as of Thursday afternoon.

On Sept. 8, the date Turner issued his order, 342 city employees had active cases of COVID-19, including 129 police officers.

Fourteen city employees have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to the mayor’s office.

Turner had previously mandated face coverings for all city employees in August, after Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting local governments from such mandates. Abbott then banned COVID-19 vaccine mandates statewide on Oct. 11, preventing any employer from requiring vaccination. That order is still making its way through state courts, but his mandate ban could nonetheless stymie the mayor’s efforts.

But Turner’s executive order doesn’t require workers to get vaccinated. Instead, it offers unvaccinated employees two alternatives: Either submit COVID-19 test results every two weeks or file a medical or religious exemption.

Under the order, employees were required to submit test results on the first and 15th of each month, beginning on Oct. 15. Employees who don’t comply could be subject to “corrective action up to and including indefinite suspension or termination,” the order states.

“A failure to adhere to the policy will result in disciplinary action and could even cost you your job,” Turner told city council at a meeting where he announced the order.

In a statement Thursday, the mayor’s office didn’t specify how Turner plans to address employees who aren’t complying with the order, but said the city’s Human Resources department is continuing to educate employees on the requirements.

“By implementing the executive order, our goal is save more lives, prevent illness throughout city departments and reduce costs for everyone,” the mayor’s office wrote. “The City intends to enforce the Executive Order and follow the steps outlined to ensure compliance.”

See here for the background. There’s a table in the story showing compliance rates for each department, though it should be noted that the actual numbers may be higher for at least some of them. The president of the Houston Police Officers Union was quoted saying their numbers are better than what was represented, for one. Even without that, the city’s efforts have nudged the vax numbers upward, which is exactly what you want. I thought at the time that Abbott and Paxton would not stand for this workaround on the city’s part, and I’m delighted to be proven wrong. Now let’s see what enforcement there is for the holdouts. No excuses at this point, get on board or say goodbye.

No independent investigation of the AstroWorld tragedy

Not sure how I feel about this yet.

Harris County will not launch an independent investigation into the Astroworld festival disaster after commissioners declined to support a plan by County Judge Lina Hidalgo to do so.

Instead, the group on Tuesday voted unanimously to conduct an internal review, at the request of Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

“I proposed a more thorough and detailed scope to increase the likelihood of objectivity and an impactful outcome,” Hidalgo said. “While this scales back my proposal, I am happy to see the court move as a unit on some next steps.”

Garcia, a former Houston Police Department officer, made a motion to support that agency’s investigation. The motion also directed the county administrator, Harris County Sports Authority and Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation to examine safety regulations for outdoor concerts.

“There’s a lot of moving pieces in this particular event, so my motion is intended to help us move forward in the spirit of making sure that we are coordinating and collaborating, but at the same time looking forward,” Garcia said.

He expressed concern that authorizing a new investigation would expose the county to lawsuits.

[…]

Hidalgo, as a member of the three-member Democratic majority, rarely loses votes on Commissioners Court. She was unable, however, to convince any of her colleagues behind closed doors to support her plan for an independent investigation of the festival, which she said would not interfere with the Houston Police Department’s probe.

Hidalgo said she hopes the review would suggest actions the county can take to make concerts safer.

I hope so, too. I liked the idea of an independent investigation, though there had been no discussion of what that might look like and what powers the investigator would have. Campos thinks it’s a mistake for the county to not pursue this, while Erica Greider has mixed feelings. The county’s review will not overlap with the HPD criminal probe, so maybe it will turn up some useful information. Like I said, I hope this is worthwhile.

UPDATE: Stace also thinks Commissioners Court should have approved the independent investigation.

Some more AstroWorld stuff

Firefighter logs from the event tell the story of early chaos and continued problems.

Houston firefighters arrived at a small command post parked on the far-flung Orange Lot, about a mile from the festival grounds. They spent the day listening to radio dispatches from some of the hundreds of Houston police officers inside and outside the park, or using cellphones to call the concert organizers’ privately hired medical providers. They added notable updates to the 11-page log.

After the early breach of the entry, firefighters wrote just after 10 a.m.: “Venue fences damaged. No control of participants.”

In the initial rush on the gates, four concertgoers were injured, the logs show. Revved-up concertgoers would rush gates at least nine other times Friday, fire officials wrote.

At about 11 a.m. Friday, firefighters noted that a crowd of about 100 people were headed toward the Fiesta. Eighteen minutes later, they noted another 200 people approaching the park’s Gate 10.

“Participants are now dismantling barricades,” firefighters wrote.

[…]

Shortly after 5 p.m., the place was already about two-thirds full, according to the logs. The number of concert crashers appears to have grown significantly as well, with one entry showing that officials estimated as many as 5,000 people had not been scanned entering the park.

Police continued to respond to calls of people pushing down fencing at 5:50 p.m. and an hour later. They reported a “mob” at Main Street at 7:15 p.m., and a crowd of some 250 people rushing a pedestrian bridge nine minutes later.

Half an hour later, police had another 13 people in custody.

At 8 p.m., they reported a Houston police officer suffering from a hand injury;

By 9 p.m. — about the time that Travis Scott began performing — the crowd at NRG park had grown to 55,000, according to the logs.

As the concert progressed, hundreds of festivalgoers continued to pour over fencing.

But if the security breaches were the first signs of trouble, the most significant signs of danger began to appear shortly after 9:15 p.m.

“Individual with crush injury, breathing difficulty,” firefighters noted, at 9:18 p.m. “(ParaDocs) en route.”

“This is when it all got real,” they wrote, at 9:28 p.m.

There’s more if you want to keep reading. I suspect we’re going to learn a lot from these logs, and from what the firefighters who wrote them have to say about it now.

Another source of information about this disaster will be all the litigation.

Attorneys representing more than 200 people claiming they were injured in last week’s Astroworld Festival stampede in Houston said on Friday that they are filing another 90 lawsuits against the promoters of the event in which at least nine people died.

The announcement marked the latest legal action to follow last Friday’s concert by Grammy Award-nominated rapper Travis Scott before a crowd of 50,000 at NRG Stadium that got out of control when fans surged toward the stage.

“We represent more than 200 victims who were injured mentally, physically and psychologically at the Astroworld Festival,” civil rights Attorney Ben Crump announced at a news conference in Houston.

At least 50 other suits have been brought against producer Live Nation Entertainment Inc and Scott over the deaths and injuries related to the Astroworld Festival that was intended to signal the resurgence of Scott’s hometown.

A ninth person succumbed to her injuries on Wednesday, raising the death toll to nine. It occurs to me that the families of the deceased have not yet filed any lawsuits. I have to imagine those will come later. We will be re-living this experience for a long time.

And in the end, I hope we learn from this terrible experience.

The Danish city of Roskilde shares little with Houston other than a proximity to a waterway and a music festival tragedy in which nine people died.

The Roskilde Festival, which typically draws more than twice as many music fans as the town’s population of around 50,000, made only celebratory news until its 30th year, when nine fans were crushed in a mosh pit during a Pearl Jam performance there on June 30, 2000.

One year later, the festival returned with Bob Dylan headlining.

Carlos Chirinos, a music and global health professor at New York University, studies music-related crowds and behaviors. He worked with Roskilde Festival organizers in 2005.

“I was impressed with how they stepped up security in the pit,” he said. “I had an opportunity to be close with security and saw how closely they worked with stage management. They tried to achieve total control.

“And they haven’t had any incidents since then.”

[…]

In the meantime, experts say large-scale changes to how the music industry conducts its events are unlikely to take place. Those advocating for the end of general-admission music festivals with tens of thousands of concert-goers may get a short-term reprieve: the festival season largely hibernates for the winter.

But by next spring and summer, music festivals will likely return in full fervor.

“It’s not cynical, but just an observation, that some of the most heartbreaking tragedies at mass gatherings in the United States have not yielded a lot of change,” said Steve Adelman, vice president of the Event Safety Alliance. The non-profit organization was formed following a 2011 concert event that was to feature the band Sugarland at the Indiana State Fair. Severe winds knocked down supports for a temporary roof, killing seven fans and injuring dozens of others.

“What are the likely long-term changes after the tragedy at Astroworld? You can find people asking if it will be the end of GA shows, and commenters saying that will happen. I don’t think that’s likely at all,” Adelman said. “If for no other reason than the economic model for the music industry has changed. No one is selling records. So the industry sells live music, food, beverages and merchandise. That’s just the model. It’s economics.”

Of course, those that organize and promote these events have to be able to get insurance for them. The lawsuits may make that more difficult for them, or at least force them to make some changes. But yeah, it’s probably best not to bet on anything truly game-changing. Attend at your own risk, hopefully with the knowledge of what can go wrong.

The safety protocols

We won’t know for some time what exactly went wrong at AstroWorld, but we do know what should have been in place to keep the concertgoers safe.

When tens of thousands of people are packed into a confined area like NRG Park, crowd surges of some form are to be expected, security industry experts say, and certain precautions should be implemented.

“It’s very natural when the lights go down or somebody takes the stage, the entire crowd takes a step forward. It’s just natural, you move toward the point of interest. … And depending on the density of the crowd, that can become extremely dangerous,” said Tamara Herold, an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Herold researches crowd management and works with security firms and sports leagues around the world to ensure public safety at large-scale events.

While Herold couldn’t comment on the security at the Astroworld Festival, citing a lack of publicly released information, she said there are general steps organizers can take to mitigate risk at such festivals.

[…]

High-density events such as Astroworld carry with them inherent dangers, which have played out to tragic ends at concerts and sporting events throughout modern history. More specifically, Herold’s research has found that there is a much higher likelihood of violence and injury at events with general admission seating, the standard at festivals such as Astroworld.

One way to mitigate that risk is to separate the crowd into more manageable sections, Herold said. Videos posted to social media do appear to show the area in front of the stage separated into four sections.

If a crowd surge turns dangerous, the next best bet is to notify the performer, have them pause the show and encourage the crowd to settle down, according to Herold.

“If you allow the concert to continue, the pressure will continue to build, people will begin to panic and then they behave in ways that create even more pressure in the crowd as they try to escape, and it creates a very desperate situation,” Herold said.

See here and here for some background. Professor Herold is speaking in general terms, and what she says makes a lot of sense. This particular event should have had its own safety protocols, and there are questions about whether they were followed.

Astroworld had a plan for all sorts of emergencies. It designated who could stop a performance and how. It included a script for how to announce an evacuation. It detailed how to handle a mass casualty event.

Whether promoters followed it Friday evening, when eight concertgoers died and scores were injured during Travis Scott’s headlining performance, is unclear.

The Houston Chronicle obtained the 56-page “event operations plan,” which the festival promoter developed to ensure the safety of 50,000 guests at the sold-out event at NRG Park.

“Astroworld, as an organization, will be prepared to evaluate and respond appropriately to emergency situations, so as to prevent or minimize injury or illness to guests, event personnel and the general public,” the document states.

Attendees described an entirely different scene: an overwhelmed venue where security personnel were unable to prevent fans from being crushed. Where medics were too few. And where production staff were unwilling to halt the show despite pleas from fans that others had collapsed.

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said a review of the plan — and whether it was properly followed — should be part of an objective, third-party investigation of the tragedy.

“What I know so far is that Live Nation and Astroworld put together plans for this event,” Hidalgo said Saturday. “A security plan, a site plan. That they were at the table with the city of Houston and Harris County. And so perhaps the plans were inadequate. Perhaps the plans were good, but they weren’t followed. Perhaps it was something else entirely.”

Litigation will provide a window into that, but that’s a slow process. Judge Hidalgo is right, we need a thorough investigation; I’m not sure what a third-party investigation would look like, but as long as everyone has sufficient faith in whoever is leading it, that’s fine by me. The goal should be to come to some answers, even just preliminary ones, in a short time frame. We all need to know how and why this happened. Ken Hoffman and Texas Public Radio have more.

Here come the AstroWorld lawsuits

As well they should.

At least 34 Astroworld Festival attendees have sued or plan to sue the event promoter in what is expected to be a bevy of litigation related to the mayhem at NRG Park.

At least eight people died and dozens more were injured Friday during rapper Travis Scott’s concert at the Houston festival. The plaintiffs in several of the lawsuits allege that their injuries — and in one case, a family member’s death — were aided by the negligence of organizers, who they say failed to plan a safe event and failed to provide adequate medical staff, security and equipment for what was expected to be an unruly scene.

“Tragically, due to Defendants’ motivation for profit at the expense of concertgoers’ health and safety, and due to their encouragement of violence, at least 8 people lost their lives and scores of others were injured at what was supposed to be a night of fun,” attorneys said in a lawsuit filed by concert attendee Manuel Souza.

[…]

Souza and another attendee, Cristian Guzman, filed separate $1 million lawsuits in state civil district court over the weekend, alleging they were both trampled and injured.

Guzman, who said he suffered a significant back injury, is suing Live Nation, NRG Park, NRG Energy and the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation.

Souza is suing a variety of owners, operators, promoters and public relations representatives – including Scoremore, Live Nation, ASM Global, Travis Scott and a number of other named individuals.

Both of the men are also asking the court to grant temporary restraining orders that would require the defendants preserve evidence in the case.

See here and here for some background. Stories like this are certain to become obsolete quickly, as more lawsuits get filed. KUT and CultureMap both mention lawsuits not included in the Chron story, and legal experts anticipate many more. Which is how it should be! Eight people, including two children, died at this event, and many others were injured and traumatized. It may ultimately be shown that everyone involved in the planning and execution of this event acted responsibly and took adequate safety measures, but no one believes that right now, and nor should they. We have a civil justice system for a reason, and this is what it’s here for. I guarantee you, we will learn more about what happened via discovery and deposition than by any other means. The Press has more.

A timeline of the AstroWorld tragedy

Good reporting about a terrible event.

For 37 minutes after Houston police and firefighters responded to a “mass casualty” event at a packed Astroworld rap concert where attendees were crushed against the stage Friday evening, Travis Scott continued performing.

Police officials said the promoter, Live Nation, agreed to cut the show shortly after multiple people collapsed at 9:38 p.m. But concert attendees said Scott appeared to play his whole set and finished at 10:15 p.m. Concert staff ignored pleas from fans to halt the show, including some who climbed onto camera platforms to point out others who had collapsed and needed medical attention.

A review of videos and social media posts that documented one of the deadliest concerts in U.S. history raises questions about the official timeline of events put forth by local officials, the swiftness of their response and their ability to communicate effectively with concert promoters during the disaster.

Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said he had enough officers onsite to handle the crowd of 50,000. But he also said he could not have abruptly ended the show for fear of sparking a riot his department could not control.

The delay restricted the movement of first responders, who were still transporting limp bodies when Scott finished his final song, “Goosebumps.”

Eight people died, including 14- and 16-year-old high school students. Scores were injured.

[…]

Two veteran concert promoters of major shows — one with experience in Texas — said the plans and procedures between promoters, showrunners and local officials outline exactly how to pull the plug on a show. Neither would comment publicly because Live Nation, the company that managed Astroworld, is a dominant force in entertainment booking.

Often, a performer with a high-energy and complex performance such as Scott’s would have a direct line to a producer or stage manager via an earpiece. The producer/manager would be in constant contact and have the ability at practically any time to tell a performer what is going on and that a show is being abruptly halted.

Cancellation can come from various people along the process, ranging from the artists themselves to promoters and police. Stage crews can, in a matter of seconds if necessary, turn off all power to the stage and broadcast safety and security messages on video boards and over the audio system.

Live Nation did not use the PA system or video boards to broadcast any safety messages Friday evening, attendees said.

The procedures are especially common when promoters hold outdoor shows. Free Press Summer Fest, held across multiple stages and at multiple venues in the Houston area over the past decade, canceled and restarted performances in a matter of minutes as rain moved into the area in 2015 and 2016.

See here for some background, and read on for that timeline, which was put together with the help of eyewitness accounts and their social media posts. There are a lot of questions to be answered about whether security was adequate and what happened with communications, and it’s important that we figure that out and make the answers public. And then, as needed, seek accountability.

Deshaun Watson not traded

He’s still with the Texans at least though the end of the year.

If quarterback Deshaun Watson had been able to settle the 22 civil lawsuits before the NFL’s trade deadline on Tuesday, he would be leaving Houston for Miami, his preferred destination.

Because Watson was unable to reach settlements, he’ll still be on the Texans’ roster rather than playing for the Dolphins. The next time teams can make trades is when the new league year begins in March.

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, general manager Chris Grier and coach Brian Flores have coveted Watson for months. The Texans thought they had a deal almost two weeks ago, but Ross insisted that Watson settle the civil suits accusing him of sexual assault and misconduct, according to sources familiar with the trade negotiations.

Watson, who has a no-trade clause in the four-year, $156 million contract he signed in September of 2020, told the Texans months ago he would not accept a trade to any team other than Miami. It’s known that he rejected a possible trade to Philadelphia.

Sources said Watson didn’t want to reach financial agreements with his accusers because he thought it would be an admission of guilt, but as the deadline approached and Miami’s interest intensified, he relented.

The sources said when Watson agreed to settlement discussions late last week, there wasn’t enough time for his attorney, Rustin Hardin, and Tony Buzbee, who represents the plaintiffs, to reach agreements with all 22 accusers.

See here for the background. I don’t care much about that, but I am interested in this.

The most recognizable of 22 women who accused Watson of unwanted sexual contact, [Ashley] Solis said she has endured death threats, an unexplained break-in and a stream of fake epithet-ridden web reviews of her business since she sued earlier this year.

Solis, 28, is the only plaintiff who agreed to be photographed and named publicly. She is also among 10 women who spoke with NFL investigators, answering every question they posed, said Tony Buzbee, the lawyer who represents the women in civil suits against the Texans quarterback.

Solis recalled that her NFL interview several months ago seemed brief — about an hour — and included questions that surprised her, including one about what clothing she was wearing. She hasn’t heard back.

Commissioner Roger Goodell has said he still can’t make the call on Watson’s culpability. He told NFL owners last week, “We don’t think we have the necessary information to place him on the exempt list.”

[…]

Solis said she met with a woman from the sexual assault division at the NFL sometime before June.

“It just overall wasn’t a great experience,” Solis said. “She said, ‘Tell me how he assaulted you. What did he do? What did it feel like?’”

Solis said she didn’t feel there was empathy in the encounter.

“She asked me what I was wearing.”

They said they’d get back to her. She hasn’t heard anything since.

Her family and friends support her, but she said she’s had minimal support from the public. She likened herself to a piñata that keeps getting beaten and beaten at a party.

“It’s been very, very stressful.”

“I’ve had a series of events take place from people creating fake accounts to slander my business, writing fake Google reviews, to finding me on my business social media and giving me death threats and wishing terrible, terrible things on me,” she said. “I’ve had a break-in at my studio a few days after I went public. I’ve had strangers approach me telling me to stop lying.”

Solis has no qualms about seeking compensation because the Watson incident has decreased the number of clients she can see and she is now undergoing therapy.

Solis said she has no choice but to continue with body work, she said, noting, “I don’t have (a) degree in anything else.”

She no longer accepts new male clients unless someone can vouch for them.

I don’t know what will happen here. Maybe Ashley Solis will accept a settlement offer, and maybe that will help her get at least the financial part of her life back on track. Maybe people will think Deshaun Watson is guilty if his alleged victims agree to settlements, and maybe we’ll all have forgotten about it the next time he does something cool on the football field. I find I care much more about Ashley Solis’ future than I do Deshaun Watson’s.

A brief meditation on the Deshaun Watson situation

Let us pause for a moment and contemplate this John McClain column about the likely football fate for the Texans’ soon-to-be-former star quarterback.

Deadlines have a way of initiating action, and if the Texans are going to ship quarterback Deshaun Watson to Miami or another team, they better do it by the NFL’s trade deadline on Nov. 2 at 3 p.m.

If Watson is still on the roster after the deadline passes, the Texans will have to wait until the start of the new league year in March to reopen negotiations on a trade that probably wouldn’t happen until close to the draft that begins April 28.

[…]

Dolphins’ owner Stephen Ross has approved a Watson trade, but he wants his legal issues resolved. The only way for Watson to do that before the trade deadline would be to settle the 22 civil suits. League sources say Watson doesn’t want to settle his cases because he believes it would be an admission of guilt.

Before a deal can be completed, Ross would have to find out from commissioner Roger Goodell if Watson would be suspended under the personal conduct policy, and if so, how many games he would miss.

[…]

At the league meetings on Tuesday, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, Troy Vincent, told reporters that, in the event of a trade, it would be up to Goodell to decide if Watson would be available to play for his new team right away.

“We don’t think we have the necessary information to place him on the exempt list,” Goodell said. “We don’t have all the access to that information and (we) pride ourselves on not interfering with it. That process is ongoing.”

Watson could be suspended, or he could be placed on the commissioner’s exempt list. Watson is being paid his $10.54 million base salary to report to the Texans each day and be inactive on game days. The exempt list is a paid vacation for the player, who can’t be part of the team and has to work out on his own.

If Goodell didn’t place Watson on the exempt list at the start of the Texans’ training camp, it’s unlikely he would do it after a trade.

Emphasis mine. The main takeaway here, for those who don’t care about the football angle, is that we may get a sudden and almost certainly confidential resolution to this whole sordid mess. There are some criminal complaints and an FBI investigation as well, but the former at least could be dropped as part of a settlement agreement. There will be some loud protest in Miami or Charlotte or wherever Watson gets traded, if that does happen, and it will fade away over time as we get distracted by more pressing matters. And then that will probably be that. I don’t know exactly how I feel about all this, but it’s not a good feeling. The Ringer and Rivers McCown have more.

(The fact that the Texans will undoubtedly screw up the draft picks they’ll get in the trade because they’re a terrible organization with a shitheel owner is a side matter.)

Mayor Turner orders unvaxxed city employees to get tested twice a week

So maybe get vaccinated, and avoid all the hassle.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Unvaccinated city workers must get tested for COVID-19 twice a month and report their results to the human resources department, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Wednesday.

Turner signed an executive order implementing the policy,which takes effect Oct 8. It will allow some exemptions for religious and medical reasons.

The plans come as the city regularly has had more than 300 active cases of the virus among its workforce, Turner said. The latest numbers showed 342 workers with the virus, including 129 police, 161 municipal and 52 fire department employees.

Those cases hamper city operations, the mayor said.

“When you have 129 police officers with COVID, they’re not able to perform their jobs. Same thing with municipal workers, and, for example, permitting, that slows things down,” Turner said. “Simply don’t want them to get sick and don’t want anybody, anybody to die.”

[…]

The policy will apply to all police, fire and municipal staff who have not been fully vaccinated. It will not apply to elected officials or appointed members to the city’s boards and commissions.

The fire, police and municipal workers unions did not respond to requests for comment on Turner’s plan.

Turner said staff will face disciplinary action if they do not comply.

“It could even cost you your job,” the mayor said.

The mayor in recent weeks had teased a policy to encourage vaccinations, saying many city workers have not gotten their shots.

Mayor Turner implemented a mask mandate for city employees in early August. As far as I know, that executive order has not been involved in any of the lawsuits over mandates and Greg Abbott’s ban on them. This is a step up from that – it’s not a vaccine mandate per se, but it’s pretty close and I doubt Greg Abbott or Ken Paxton will split hairs. (They already have a reason to be whipped into a frenzy about this.) Whether or not cities can issue vaccine mandates is on the agenda for the next special session. What I’m saying is, I don’t know how long I expect this policy to last. And that’s before we hear of the inevitable resistance from the police and firefighter unions – police unions around the country have been staunch resisters of vaccine mandates, and we know how well the Mayor and the HPFFA get along. I support what the Mayor is doing here – if anything, I’d want to see the testing be more frequent – I just doubt he’ll be able to fully implement it. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.

Appeals court overturns verdict in firefighter pay parity lawsuit

Wow.

An appeals court on Thursday reversed a ruling that declared Houston firefighters’ pay-parity measure unconstitutional, a major win for the fire union and one that could have far-reaching effects on city finances.

The fire union won approval of a charter amendment, known as Proposition B, in 2018 that would have granted them equal pay with police officers of similar rank and seniority. The city and the police officers’ union quickly sued, though, and in 2019 a trial court ruled the referendum unconstitutional because it contradicted state law that governs how cities engage with police officers and firefighters. The voter-approved charter amendment was never implemented.

In its ruling, the Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Houston said that was an error. Justice Meagan Hassan wrote in a 2-1 opinion that the Texas Legislature did not intend to stop cities from enacting such pay measures.

“Preemption is not a conclusion lightly reached — if the Legislature intended to preempt a subject matter normally within a home-rule city’s broad powers, that intent must be evidenced with ‘unmistakable clarity,’” Hassan wrote.

The justices sent the case back to the lower court. Both the city and the police union said they plan to appeal the ruling.

It was not immediately clear when the city would have to implement the pay parity measure.

[…]

Controller Chris Brown, the city’s independently elected fiscal watchdog, said the ruling was disappointing and concerning from a financial perspective. He said the administration and union need to iron out a collective bargaining agreement so the city knows how much it will have to pay if Prop B is upheld and back wages are owed. It could be in the ballpark of $250 million to $350 million, he said, adding the city and union could agree to pay that money over several years instead of all at once.

“We need to have certainty on the ultimate financial impact to the city,” he said. “I have a concern because ultimately, the taxpayers are going to foot this bill… If we do have a big, one-time payment, where’s that money going to come from?”

Good question. See here for the background here for the majority ruling, and here for the dissent. I would imagine this will be put on hold pending appeal to the Supreme Court, so we’re probably looking at another two years or so before this is resolved. It’s possible that the Mayor and the firefighters could hammer out a collective bargaining agreement that would moot this, or perhaps the next Mayor could, if the Supreme Court decides to wait till after the 2023 election to hand down a ruling. I wouldn’t bet on that, but it is theoretically possible.

More criminal complaints against Deshaun Watson

Yeesh.

Multiple women have filed complaints with the Houston Police Department related to Texans’ quarterback Deshaun Watson, according to both sides in the football player’s civil sexual assault cases.

Almost half of the 22 women who filed civil claims against Watson have given sworn statements to police and spoken to NFL investigators, attorney Tony Buzbee said Sunday. Defense lawyer Rusty Hardin specified on Monday that eight women in the suits have filed complaints with police. He also said two new women not in litigation have done the same, which ESPN first reported.

Houston police on Monday declined to comment beyond an initial statement they released in early April. One person filed a complaint, they said at the time, leading the agency to open an investigation.

The police and NFL investigations remain underway with no signs of immediate resolution for Watson, who returned to training camp this week amid the allegations of sexual assault and harassment.

Those cases as well as the lawsuits are trudging along, keeping Watson in a holding pattern while he doesn’t play and demands a trade — that in itself an unlikely occurrence until his legal issues end, team sources have said.

“Both processes are very lengthy,” Buzbee said, referring to the police and NFL probes. “We expect to provide further information to the NFL from all victims.”

[…]

Hardin said on Monday Houston officers should also speak to the remaining 14 women who sued but did not file police reports, he said, in order to complete a full investigation.

The lawsuits are meanwhile moving through the discovery process in the Harris County civil courts. Buzbee said his team is currently obtaining written information from Watson, including electronic data and payment records.

See here and here for some background. The complaints by two women who are not suing Watson sounds ominous to me. I know that he’s Rusty Hardin and I’m not, but if I were Rusty Hardin, I might be a little worried about what the police might find when they talk to those other 14 women.

Again with the existential Constable question

Here’s a long and detailed story in the Chron about the history and purpose of the Constable office in Harris County, where they are bigger and do more than anywhere else in the state.

Constable Alan Rosen

The lawsuit’s allegations were stunning: Harris County Precinct 1 deputy constables assigned to fight human trafficking had been exploited and molested by their superiors during undercover “bachelor party” stings. Undercover deputies pretended to be partying, with the hope of convincing escorts to agree to sex for cash — so they could try to build cases against the women’s pimps. But female deputies said they received little training before being thrown into “booze-fueled playgrounds” in which their bosses groped them.

Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen defended his agency, saying internal investigators hadn’t found any violations of policy or law, but for many, the accusations against high-ranking officials of the department reignited a debate that has simmered in Houston for the last half century: What is the appropriate role of the constables? And why were deputy constables running undercover prostitution stings — far afield from their traditional roles of policing rural counties or working as process servers and protecting local justice of the peace courts?

Many constables’ offices elsewhere in Texas have just a few employees. But not in Harris County. For a half century, Houston-area constables have steadily accrued more power and more responsibility. Now, they occupy a position unlike any other in Texas. According to records from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, Harris County’s largest constable jurisdictions far outnumber any other constables’ offices elsewhere in the state. Harris County’s largest constable’s office, Precinct 4, mans 567 deputies and dispatchers and has a budget of $60 million, according to county records. The largest department outside of Harris County, the Montgomery County Precinct 3 Constable’s Office, has 65 employees, state records show, and a budget of about $6 million, according to Montgomery County records.

Critics say the offices are bloated and out of control, duplicating other law enforcement agencies and creating a two-tier system where wealthy neighborhoods pay for what amounts to a private security force. Defenders say constables provide badly needed backup to the region’s larger departments, while constables themselves say that because they are elected, they are more responsive to their constituents.

“Constables are first line on community policing,” said Matt Wylie, newly elected president of the Justices of the Peace and Constables Association and Constable of the Johnson County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office. “We are elected by smaller percentage of county, more accountable to people we serve.”

The story is based on the scandal in the Constable Precinct 1 office that we are still waiting to learn more about. It’s a long story and there’s way too much to excerpt, but let me address a couple of points. I do think there’s a lot of duplication of effort in what the Constables do versus what the Sheriff and HPD do, and I don’t think there’s any good way to address that. Ideally, there would be better communication and coordination between these organizations, but there isn’t the incentive for that to happen and no way to enforce it. We could of course just limit what the Constables do, so that they’re more like Constables in other counties, but given where we are now that would be a heavy lift.

I know that we have had this discussion before, probably circa 2012 when two different Constables got arrested for various bad acts. In poking around a bit, I see that there was a report by then-County Attorney Vince Ryan on the practices of the various Constable offices. Maybe an update to that report, which is now almost a decade old and was criticized for not being comprehensive enough, is in order. How much duplication of services is there? How much do the Constables fill in gaps in other law enforcement services? What return are we getting on those fancy task forces that several of them have set up? An outside view of all that might shed some light on things.

In the meantime, I just want to know more about what is going on with the Precinct 1 situation. I recognize that there’s only so much that can be said while there is pending litigation, but this is still a public office and we need to know what the scope and purpose of that “human trafficking” division is, and what they have actually accomplished. We needed to know that before all this crap hit the fan.

The HPD transparency portal

This is good.

Traffic stops. Discipline. Use of force. Following widespread calls for police accountability, Houston residents now can use the city’s “Police Transparency Hub” to get far more detailed, accessible information about some of police’s most controversial topics than has ever been available previously.

The online tool — compiled in a series of dashboards — provides information about the work and conduct of Houston police officers, including how often they use force, how often they are disciplined, statistics on the department’s diversity, information on traffic stops, and information on the department’s implementation of “cite-and-release,” in which officers issue citations for some misdemeanor offenses instead of arresting people.

Since the start of the year, police officers conducted 88,301 traffic stops, used force 4,203 times, and issued 152 citations instead of arrests.

In a news release that accompanied the launch of the tool earlier this month, Mayor Sylvester Turner said it was “a significant step toward increasing transparency and accountability while building trust between the public and the police department.”

The website also tells residents how to file complaints about police officers and shares information about other controversial policing topics, including the city’s contract with its officers, the police department’s general orders, the city’s new Office of Police Reform and Accountability, and the Independent Police Oversight Board.

[…]

Criminal justice reform advocates called the dashboard a “critical step” toward keeping HPD accountable but said it needs more work.

“Data transparency is a vital tool to assess the efficacy and fairness of policing,” said Julia Montiel, policy and advocacy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “We hope city leaders will collaborate with advocates to further refine the dashboard.”

See here for the background, and here for the city’s press release. The portal looks pretty useful, and the key here is just that the data is publicly available, in easy to view form. That will help answer a lot of questions, and will be a force for accountability just because people will be able to see how the data trends over time. I don’t know what specifically could be done to make this better, but the suggestion that the city work with activists and get their feedback makes a lot of sense. There was a lot of work done under Mayor Parker to make a bunch of city data available in raw form for developers and other folks who might want to make use of it, and I hope that is the case with this data as well. Take a look at what’s there and see what you think.

City’s budget passes

There was a little bit of drama, but nothing too big.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s City Council voted Wednesday to approve a $5.1 billion budget for the next fiscal year that relies heavily on a massive infusion of federal aid to close a $201 million budget hole and give firefighters their biggest raise in years.

Council members also banded together to rebuke the mayor by increasing the money given to district offices to spend on neighborhood projects for their constituents.

The council voted 16-1 to approve the spending plan after a lengthy meeting in which council members proposed nearly 100 amendments to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s budget.

At-Large Councilmember Mike Knox voted against the budget. At-Large Councilmember Letitia Plummer later said she intended to vote no and tried to get the council to reconsider the vote, but her motion failed.

The body met in person for the first time in a year, with the members — most of whom are vaccinated — discussing the budget unmasked around the dais in City Hall chambers.

[…]

Most district council members joined forces to raise the amount their offices receive in a program that lets them spend money on neighborhood priorities. The 11 districts currently receive $750,000, and the council voted to hike that to $1 million each, at a total cost of $2.75 million. District J Councilmember Edward Pollard proposed the amendment, ultimately using money from the city’s reserve funds, prompting visible disappointment from the mayor.

The amendment passed, 10-7, with the mayor opposed. Turner said it could take money from city services like Solid Waste and risked depleting reserves ahead of an uncertain year.

“I was going to insist on a roll call vote, because you’re going to have to justify it,” Turner said before members cast their votes. Those supporting the amendment were Pollard, Amy Peck (District A), Tarsha Jackson (District B), Abbie Kamin (District C), Carolyn Evans-Shabazz (District D), Tiffany Thomas (District F), Greg Travis (District G), Robert Gallegos (District I), Martha Castex-Tatum (District K), and Michael Kubosh (At-Large).

It is exceedingly rare in Houston’s strong mayor form of government for the mayor to lose a vote, though Wednesday’s motion marked the third time in seven years council members have aligned themselves to expand the district funds during a budget vote.

See here for the background. The “Council members add money to their budgets” thing has been done before, though as the story notes it may not actually result in that money going to them. This is money that is already being spent, it was just a matter of shifting it from one line item to another. I’d actually be in favor of Council members having some more funds at their discretion, though there’s not likely to be room for that most years. A chunk of the federal money available for this year’s budget was set aside for now, pending fuller guidance from the feds as to what it can and can’t be used on. Not much else to say here.

In related news, from earlier in the week:

People caught illegally dumping in Houston now will face a steeper fine, after City Council approved a measure doubling the penalty.

The council unanimously approved hiking the fine to $4,000, the maximum amount allowed under the law.

“This is to make people pay for illegally dumping,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “It makes things far, far worse, it’s unattractive, it’s not safe. It’s a public health problem.”

Turner, who characterized the city’s efforts against illegal dumping as an “all-out attack,” also encouraged judges to enforce the law sternly.

Illegal dumping can range from a Class C misdemeanor — akin to a parking ticket — to a state jail felony, depending on the weight of the trash and whether the person previously has been caught dumping. Most cases involve Class B misdemeanors, or between five and 500 pounds. Enforcement is somewhat rare as it is difficult to identify perpetrators if they are not caught on camera.

The measure received wide acclaim from council members, who have noted anecdotal increases in dumping of late.

“It should be more,” Councilmember Tarsha Jackson said of the fine hike.

Illegal dumpers are scum who deserve to be fined heavily, no doubt about it. The problem is catching them in the act, because that’s about the only way this ever gets enforced. The city has deployed more cameras at frequent dump sites and that has helped some, but there’s a lot more of it going on. We have a ways to go to really make a dent in this.

Here comes our boring budget

Save the drama for the budget amendments.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Sylvester Turner painted a dire picture of the city’s finances as he laid out his plan to balance last year’s $5 billion city budget.

Like other cities across the country, Houston’s sales tax revenue had plunged as the public stayed home, and Turner was proposing to make up the loss by furloughing 3,000 municipal workers, deferring police cadet classes, cutting the library budget and draining the city’s emergency reserves.

“These are financially difficult times, and it’s simply unavoidable,” Turner said of the cuts.

One year later, the city is emerging from the worst of the pandemic with its finances largely unscathed. Thanks to a payout of more than $1 billion in federal aid, Turner and city finance officials avoided the projected furloughs, reinstated the police cadet classes and are heading into the next fiscal year with replenished emergency reserves and a rare budget surplus.

Still, as City Council prepares to consider Turner’s $5.1 billion annual spending plan Wednesday, not everyone agrees on how the city should use its newfound wealth. Since prior mayoral administrations, city officials have passed annual budgets that spend more than the city takes in through recurring revenue, such as taxes. They have made up the difference by selling city-owned land, deferring hundreds of millions of dollars in maintenance on city buildings, dipping into cash reserves and using other one-time fixes. Turner has attributed much of the budgetary struggles to the city’s revenue cap, which limits annual growth in property tax revenue to 4.5 percent or the combined rates of inflation and population, whichever is lower.

City Controller Chris Brown and a number of council members have urged the mayor to use the relief money to address the long-standing budget issues, warning that added costs will leave the city in a precarious position when the federal money runs out. Eventually, the thinking goes, the city will run out of land to sell, while city infrastructure will continue to deteriorate and demand for city services will keep rising faster than the revenue used to fund them.

“The challenge is when that money runs out, if we add too many of the wrong things, i.e. recurring expenditures, it’s only going to exacerbate this structural imbalance in the future and make it that much worse,” Brown said.

Houston received a $304 million haul this year from the federal stimulus package approved by Congress in March, and it is set to receive the same amount in 2022, on top of a $400 million allotment it received last year from the first round of COVID aid. Turner is asking city council on Wednesday to approve a spending plan that uses $188 million of the aid to close most of the city’s projected budget deficit, and a chunk of the remaining funds to increase pay for Houston firefighters by 6 percent when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

See here for the previous entry. I tend to lean towards what Controller Brown is saying, but we’ll see what the details of this budget are, and go from there. I know that my calls to trim the police budget while we still can went unheeded, but I’d welcome an amendment to that effect from one or more Council members. We have two years to make good use of these federal funds. Let’s do what we can to get the most out of them and put the city on a stronger financial footing going forward.

Houston gets to have a boring budget

Thanks, President Biden and all you voters in Georgia!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to use an influx of federal cash to give firefighters a “raise the city can afford,” expand the Houston Police Department and replace lost revenue from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the mayor’s $5.1 billion annual spending plan.

Turner’s budget proposal relies on roughly $304 million in federal relief money that was set to be deposited into the city’s coffers this week. The administration would use $188 million of that money to close most of the city’s projected $201 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year, while fully replenishing the $20 million rainy day fund ahead of hurricane season.

“Without this flexibility, the city would be facing catastrophic cuts across all services,” Turner said, a nod to the city’s estimated $178 million in lost revenue during the pandemic, mostly driven by sales tax.

The proposed spending plan largely would leave the city’s $214 million in reserves, which officials have relied on in recent years to help balance the annual budget, untouched. Turner also did not account for $112 million of the city’s stimulus funds in his initial spending plan, leaving the door open for other initiatives that he declined to detail Tuesday.

A portion of the extra federal aid likely will cover the firefighter raises, which Turner did not include in the budget as proposed Tuesday. The mayor declined to reveal the size of the firefighter pay increase, saying only that he plans to implement raises over three years, starting July 1, when the 2022 fiscal year begins.

[…]

Without the firefighter raises, Turner’s spending plan represents a 4.7 percent increase from last year’s budget. The tax- and fee-supported general fund, which pays for core city services, would total $2.58 billion next year, up 3.9 percent. The largest increase would come from the police department, which would see its budget rise to $984 million, about $33 million more than city officials expect to spend this year.

The additional police spending would fund six cadet classes instead of the usual five, and cover a 2 percent raise for officers. The city’s contract with police officers has expired and the two sides have not agreed on a new one, but an evergreen clause in that deal secured the raise. The raise accounts for $11.7 million of the added funds.

The Houston Fire Department also would see a modest budget increase, with funding for four cadet classes. The initial $515 million HFD budget includes funding for 3,648 classified firefighters, according to city finance officials, about 76 fewer than the current budget.

For now, the two public safety departments account for roughly a quarter of the mayor’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year and half the general fund costs.

Controller Chris Brown said the federal stimulus money bailed the city out of a truly dire scenario — Houston’s worst-ever deficit, which could have resulted in as many as 2,500 layoffs.

“I’d breath a sigh of relief and look at the fact that the city really dodged a bullet this budget cycle,” Brown said, adding that his biggest concern is the city’s continuing structural imbalance. Its recurring expenditures outweigh revenues, meaning the city usually has to employ stop-gap measures such as land sales and deferrals to balance its books.

See here and here for the background. It’s hard to remember now, but a year ago things were looking really bad. The CARES Act helped, but the American Rescue Plan provided more money with fewer strings attached. It also provided money for the next fiscal year, by which time hopefully the city’s sales tax revenue will have bounced back. Not having this money would have made the next budget so much worse than it was in 2010. We still have challenges ahead, but at least the hole didn’t get exponentially bigger.

(As for the increase to the police budget, well, I didn’t expect anything different. Here’s hoping the Lege fails to carry that ball across the goal line.

Houston police reform items announced

It’s a start.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Thursday unveiled a sweeping effort to reform policing in Houston by banning no-knock warrants for non-violent offenses, restructuring the police oversight board, publicly releasing body camera footage when officers injure or kill residents, expanding diversion programs and allowing online and anonymous complaints against officers.

The reform package, which Turner outlined at a City Hall press conference with Police Chief Troy Finner and other city officials, comes nearly 11 months after the mayor appointed a task force to explore changes the city should make after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The group published a lengthy report last September that recommended 104 reforms to policing in Houston. Turner at the time said he supported “almost all” of the measures.

The city made more modest changes before and after it unveiled the report, such as an executive order curbing certain uses of force, “safe harbor” court to provide alternatives to jail for people who cannot afford to pay fines, and joining a cite-and-release program that gives citations instead of arrests for certain nonviolent crimes.

The slow pace in addressing big-ticket items, though, frustrated advocates looking for more immediate reforms. Turner sought to change that Thursday, addressing many of the central recommendations in the task force’s report. He said the city now has implemented more than half its suggestions.

Among the changes: a dashboard to track police misconduct and encounters while also accepting anonymous complaints; a revamped oversight board with full-time investigative staff; the ban on no-knock warrants, one of which resulted in two civilian deaths and unearthed a major scandal for Houston police; and the public release of body camera footage within 30 days of critical incidents.

The online complaint form, available in five languages, and data dashboards will be available by the end of May, Turner said. It will allow for anonymous complaints, which advocates have said is critical.

Scott Henson, executive director of justice reform nonprofit Just Liberty, said a similar change had a profound impact in Austin, where officers began anonymously reporting each other for infractions.

[…]

Turner also said he will use more than $25 million in federal pandemic relief dollars over three years to expand diversion programs, a key victory for some advocates who had called for the city to add mental health counselors to police responding to certain calls, or replace them altogether.

The diversion programs include Crisis Call Diversion, which directs certain 911 calls to mental health professionals with the goal of resolving an incident without a police response; Mobile Crisis Outreach Teams, which dispatch mental health professionals without law enforcement; and Crisis Intervention Response Teams, which pair a mental health counselor with a police officer.

The mayor said the city will expand the call diversion program to around-the-clock coverage, at an annual cost of $272,140, and hire 18 new mobile crisis outreach teams at a cost of $4.3 million per year, as the task force recommended.

While the report called for 24 new crisis intervention teams, the city will hire six new teams to add to the current staff of 12, among other efforts.

“We do ask our police officers to do way too much, and put them in some very precarious situations where the outcomes sometimes are not positive,” Turner said.

See here for the previous update. Overall, this seems pretty good, and the announcement drew praise from CMs Letitia Plummer and Tarsha Jackson, who are among the leaders in pushing for reforms on City Council. Some advocates were more muted, but at least no one was quoted in the story with harsh criticism. It’s still early days, so we’ll see about that. The next step is in the implementation, which will be another measure of the commitment from the city, as well as an indication of if we’re going in the right direction and at the right pace. It’s a good start, now we need to take the next steps. The Press has more.

On the topic of criminal justice reform, there were also a couple of items of interest from the Lege. First, the George Floyd Act passed the House.

The Texas House on Thursday quickly gave preliminary approval to three police reform measures that are part of a sweeping set of legislation following the in-custody murder of George Floyd last year.

The bills would require Texas law enforcement agencies to implement more uniform and substantive disciplinary actions for officer misconduct, bar officers from arresting people for fine-only traffic offenses and require corroboration of undercover officer testimony.

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, lead author of the bills and the omnibus George Floyd Act, said the disciplinary measure was about fairness and accountability.

“The bill is by no means a cookie cutter process,” said Thompson, D-Houston. “Every case of officers’ misconduct is different. But so are other crimes in this state.”

The approved measures will head to the more conservative Senate after a final vote in the House. The upper chamber has also passed targeted pieces of Texas’ George Floyd Act — though only those that are also supported by police unions. The measure on officer discipline is strongly opposed by major police unions.

See here for some background. I am cautiously optimistic, but with the Senate working to pass permitless carry over the objections of law enforcement, I fear they’ll aim to appease them by watering down this bill. We’ll see.

Also from the Lege: Smaller penalties for pot possession passes the House.

The Texas House preliminarily approved a bill that would lower the criminal penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana and provide a path for many Texans charged with such a crime to expunge it from their criminal records. The bill applies to possession of one ounce or less — approximately two dime bags.

Currently in Texas, possession of up to two ounces of marijuana is a Class B misdemeanor, which can be punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine. House Bill 441, authored by state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, would reduce possession of one ounce or less to a Class C misdemeanor, which carries no jail time. Police also wouldn’t be allowed to make arrests for possession at or under an ounce.

In a committee hearing, Zwiener said the language had been worked on with Gov. Greg Abbott’s office and praised the “bipartisan conversation” over reducing possession penalties. The House passed a similar measure two years ago, but Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick opposed it and quickly declared it dead in the upper chamber. Patrick’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

I continue to believe that no measure of marijuana decriminalization will pass the Lege as long as Dan Patrick is in a position of power. I will be happy to be proven wrong about that.

The guilty verdicts in the George Floyd murder trial

I didn’t comment on this yesterday because I didn’t have anything original to say. Today I want to echo what so many others are saying in the wake of the guilty verdicts for the police officer who murdered George Floyd. This was a first step, there’s much more to do.

Floyd’s murder sparked nationwide Black Lives Matter protests across the U.S. and in Texas during the summer and prompted renewed calls for police reform. And Texas police departments garnered criticism for their use of force during those protests. Before this year’s legislative session began, the Texas Legislative Black Caucus unveiled the George Floyd Act that would ban chokeholds and limit police use of force in an effort to protect Texans from police brutality.

Members of the caucus celebrated Chauvin’s conviction by pumping their fists and hugging during a Facebook Live stream. Many state legislators, including multiple caucus members, responded to the verdict with public calls to pass the caucus’ police reform bill, or House Bill 88, which was left pending in committee in March following a debate over a provision that would remove police officers’ legal shield against civil lawsuits.

“A just verdict, but this is only one step, and it can never bring George Floyd back,” state Rep. Sheryl Cole, D-Austin, wrote on Twitter. “Now we must pass the George Floyd Act and other reforms so that we never have to do this again.”

I do not expect HB88 to pass – it likely won’t get a committee vote, and if it does it probably never makes it on the calendar. Republicans generally don’t support the removal or reduction of qualified immunity for police. It’s the same in Congress with the national version of this legislation. That one at least passed the US House, and is among the other bills that are sidelined by the usual filibuster bullshit. Still, it has a chance, albeit a slim on at this time.

During a press conference, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner called for reflection, and he said he and the Houston Police Department would be announcing police reforms next week. Turner said reform is a constant process that also includes investing in underserved communities, like the Third Ward, in a “real and tangible way.”

“Justice has been served,” Turner said. “The Floyd family has waited for almost a year for this verdict, but I will quickly say that they will experience the loss of their loved one, George, for the rest of their lives.”

We’ll see what’s in those long-awaited reforms. I don’t think people will be happy with a small-ball approach here. If we’re not going to take at least one big swing, I’m not sure what we’re doing.

One crime Texas isn’t so tuff on

And that’s sexual assault, in the category of crimes Deshaun Watson has been accused of.

As the Houston Police Department investigates at least one criminal complaint against Deshaun Watson, a review of the allegations made in civil court against the Texans quarterback show officials could be limited to pursuing misdemeanor charges for all but a few serious accusations.

More than half of the 23 women who sued Watson say he made sexual contact without their consent. In Texas, that’s a misdemeanor in criminal court, on par with burglary of a vehicle or property theft between $750 and $2,500.

Three plaintiffs allege that Watson either forced or coerced fellatio — a second degree felony punishable by two to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

[…]

Texas lags behind some states in punishing offenders in cases of sexual assault that don’t rise to the level of rape. The Houston Chronicle analyzed a database of sex crimes laws across all 50 states compiled by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. It found that unwanted sexual contact described in more than half the lawsuits — where there is no penetration involved — is a felony in a dozen of them, but not in Texas.

Experts say classifying what Watson is accused of doing as misdemeanor indecent assault minimizes the seriousness of such crimes and discourages victims from coming forward.

“The gravity of indecent assault or indecent acts can vary so substantially,” said Geoffrey S. Corn, South Texas College of Law Houston’s Gary A. Kuiper Distinguished Professor of National Security Law. “Compelling someone to touch your genitals or touching them with your genitals is a much more aggravated crime” than grabbing someone’s buttocks.

[…]

Other states impose harsher punishments than Texas. In Utah, for example, forcible sex abuse — touching a person’s anus, buttock, pubic area or any part of someone’s genitals, or touches a female’s breasts — is a second-degree felony punishable by one to 15 years in prison.

Alaska classifies non-consensual sexual contact as sexual assault in the second degree, a class B felony. It’s punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.

But in Texas, the same crime is only a class A misdemeanor. At most, a person found guilty of indecent assault would receive a year in jail and be fined $4,000.

Corn said each offense could be punished separately. But still, “treating it conclusively as a misdemeanor is troubling,” Corn said.

I should note that the penalties cited in this story are the maximum for the given crime. Most likely, an offender who was convicted or accepted a plea for them would get a lesser sentence. I’ve learned enough over the years to be very skeptical of aggressive punishments for most crimes, as they seldom have any positive effect on the frequency with which those crimes are committed, and of course because of the great racial disparities in our criminal justice system. That doesn’t mean Texas has the right idea with its punishments for these non-rape sex crimes. If anything, it tells us more about the state’s attitude towards this kind of crime. (*) There are a lot of reasons why people (mostly but not entirely women) are reluctant to come forward when they are victimized in this fashion, but the prospect of seeing their attacker get off with a light sentence even in the best case scenario is surely one of them.

(*) – Compare, for example, to the multi-year prison sentence Crystal Mason got for voting when she wasn’t eligible. If her conviction is upheld by the Court of Criminal Appeals, she would serve more time than Deshaun Watson would if he were convicted under most of the charges levied against him.

Where are we with Houston police reform?

It feels like it’s been on the back burner for awhile, but we’re about to get some action this month.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston officials are developing a system for residents to report police misconduct online and will announce changes later this month to the city’s body camera policies and Independent Police Oversight Board, Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Turner responded Tuesday to written questions from the Chronicle, more than six months after his police reform task force released a lengthy report with more than 100 recommended changes to the Houston Police Department, including stricter disciplinary rules for officers and an overhaul of the police oversight board. Though the mayor endorsed “almost all” of the task force’s recommendations at the time they were released, he has yet to announce any major policy changes and has enacted only a handful of the smaller proposals that task force members said could be carried out within 90 days.

The slow pace has unsettled police reform advocates.

“We haven’t made any meaningful progress since the George Floyd protests, just forget about it,” said Alan M. de León, an organizer with MOVE Texas. “Whether the oversight board, union contract negotiation, or crisis intervention, on no front are we making meaningful progress, and that’s completely disappointing.”

The mayor, who controls the city council agenda and policy changes, said he plans to hire staff within the city’s Office of Inspector General — including a deputy inspector general — as his task force recommended. Turner also said he supports body cameras recommendations, including publicly releasing footage of major incidents within 30 days and installing dashboard cameras in all cop cars, and promised more details later this month.

Those pushing for police reform hope new Police Chief Troy Finner, a native Houstonian who took over Monday, will push reform. Since being appointed in March, Finner has promised to meet with and listen to reformers.

“You could tell he wanted changes to happen,” said Harrison Guy, a police reform task force member who met with Finner twice last year. “I feel like (former chief Art Acevedo) led with a lot of ego, so I felt like he got in the way of a lot of change.”

[…]

Lacy Wolf, president of the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, said Turner’s administration has not updated task force members on the status of their recommendations. However, Wolf said after seeing bureaucratic barriers that delay reforms, he is more forgiving than some fellow union members.

“But if I put myself back in that place I was at (last summer), I could see why people would be frustrated.”

Bobby Singh, another member of the task force, said he believed Turner viewed policing reform as among the most significant policy issues of his administration.

“This is going to be a legacy line item for him,” he said.

I sure hope so. Someone once said that it’s better to be right slow than to be wrong quick. There are limitations to that, and I don’t blame anyone for feeling like this has taken too damn long, but when all is said and done either Mayor Turner has delivered on this promise or he hasn’t. I believe he can, but we still have to see what changes he makes.

One more thing:

In September, HPD joined Harris County’s cite-and-release program, which allows police officers to issue tickets for various low-level crimes instead of arresting people, fulfilling another task force recommendation.

But despite much fanfare, reform advocates say the city has failed to provide data about whether police are actually using the new rules to arrest fewer residents than before it was enacted. They said city officials told them no information was available.

“It seems like the police department is completely ignoring the mayor’s executive order, and has no intention of complying unless the county collects this data,” said Nicholas Hudson, a policy and advocacy strategist with the ACLU of Texas.

Not to get all “run it like a business” on you, but one thing I have learned in a million years of working for a large company is that if you can’t (or don’t) measure something, you can’t say anything about it. Either you provide an objective metric to show how something is or isn’t changing over time, or it’s all talk. This should be an easy fix, and it’s the only way anyone will know if HPD is doing what it says it’s doing. We have to do better than this.

Why lawsuits?

If you’ve wondered why the women who have accused Deshaun Watson of sexual harassment and assault have filed lawsuits against him instead of police reports, this Chron story offers some reasons.

The 22 women suing Deshaun Watson for allegedly sexually assaulting and harassing them have been criticized for not first taking their allegations to police.

But experts say a civil suit is often a sexual assault victim’s best shot at justice.

“In a civil case, you can expect a broader range of accountability,” said Elizabeth Boyce, general counsel and director of policy and advocacy for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. “You might settle before trial and that might include a public acknowledgment and apology.”

[…]

But experts said there are myriad reasons why a victim would choose to file a case in civil court instead of a criminal complaint — including compensation to pay for any emotional and medical care needed after an assault.

“Victims of sexual assault had something stolen from them,” said Noblet Davidson, founder and clinical director of enCOURAGE Trauma Center in Houston. “They need to be compensated. If you get in a car accident, you get compensated.”

The fear of being outed, for example, can deter a victim from filing a police report, Boyce said — especially when the alleged perpetrator is famous.

“Confidentiality and privacy is always at the heart of these cases,” Boyce said. “Honestly, it’s a fear of any victim of sexual assault that this is going to result in some sort of public condemnation or harassment.”

The nation has seen it play out over and over again, Boyce said.

When California professor Christine Blasey Ford testified before Congress, alleging that now-Supreme court Justice Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her in high school, she received death threats. She and her family had to move multiple times and had to pay for a private security detail.

[…]

For some victims, taking their assault to police can seem hopeless.

Not only are they retraumatized each time they have to describe their assault, Boyce said, but it can also seem as if they are not in control of the outcomes.

“In criminal cases, the state doesn’t represent the victims, they represent the state and they control every aspect of the case,” Boyce said. “And so often (the cases) are refused for prosecution for a variety of reasons — if they think they can’t win or they think there’s too much political pressure.”

The criminal investigation process also is intrusive and time-consuming, with court hearings, follow-ups with police and medical appointments, said Olivia Rivers, executive director of the Houston-area advocacy nonprofit Bridge Over Troubled Waters. Officers may show up at the victim’s house or workplace. Family and friends — who the victim may not want to tell about the assault — may be interviewed to corroborate the report.

“A sexual assault exam can take hours,” she said. “How do you explain to your family why you were at a hospital for that long? Or how do you explain to your employer why you had to miss so much work for court?”

Additionally, the burden of proof also is lower in a civil court than in a criminal prosecution. Civilly, the victims only have to show a preponderance of evidence, but in criminal cases, authorities have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the assault happened.

Therefore, it can easier for victims to get some form of justice in a civil court, whether it be a public apology or a monetary award for pain and suffering — especially when there isn’t enough physical evidence to criminally convict a perpetrator.

“Sexual violence … isn’t taken seriously by society,” Rivers said. “This about having their voices heard.”

Sometimes, victims might seek both criminal prosecution and civil damages.

At least one alleged victim has done exactly that, and others may follow. In the meantime, lawsuit #22 is on the books. We won’t know how successful this approach is until we have some resolutions in these cases, but the reason why the lawsuits were filed should be clear.

HPD now investigating Deshaun Watson

Someone filed a report.

Already facing a rash of civil lawsuits, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson now has been named in a criminal complaint, according to the Houston Police Department.

HPD confirmed it “is now conducting an investigation and will not comment further during the investigative process.”

The probe comes as Texans quarterback faces 21 civil lawsuits from massage therapists or wellness professionals who allege he sexually assaulted or harassed them at various points during massage sessions in 2020 or 2021.

Watson and his attorney, Rusty Hardin, have denied the claims

Hardin, who has publicly chastised Watson’s accusers for not disclosing their names in the litigation, said his team will cooperate with police.

“We welcome this long overdue development,” Hardin said of the investigation. “Now we will learn the identity of at least one accuser.”

Houston attorney Tony Buzbee, who is representing the alleged victims in the civil lawsuits, pushed back against the criticism of the alleged victims, saying they are courageous in coming forward.

“It takes great strength to do what these women are doing,” he said. “We are not only dealing with the future of a star quarterback, we are dealing with the physical health, mental health, safety, and well-being of courageous people who had the fortitude to step forward, although powerless, against the powerful.”

On Friday, Buzbee said that he was aware of the criminal complaint filed Friday morning.

“I will also confirm that other criminal complaints will follow, as previously indicated, in Houston and in other jurisdictions and with other agencies,” he said.

That’s more direct than Buzbee’s previous word salad on the topic. It seems likely we were always headed in this direction, but the story so far has proceeded in an unusual manner, so who really knows. Nothing to do but wait and see what if anything comes of this, and how many other reports get filed.

Will there be any criminal complaints filed against Deshaun Watson?

Maybe? It all depends on what Tony Buzbee means, and Lord only knows about that.

In his latest Instagram post about the sexual assault allegations against Deshaun Watson, Houston attorney Tony Buzbee said Tuesday that he plans to take evidence of the assaults to an investigating agency outside the Houston Police Department.

Buzbee has filed 19 lawsuits on behalf of women who said Watson sexually assaulted or harassed them during massage sessions in 2020 and 2021.

In Buzbee’s post, published around 9 p.m., the attorney said he was initially reluctant to provide information about the alleged crimes, citing his 2019 mayoral bid in which he called for then-Police Chief Art Acevedo’s resignation.

Acevedo recently took a job as police chief of the Miami Police Department. Buzbee, however, said he has since discovered that Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, has a son “who is on of (sic) the exclusive Command Staff of HPD.”

“I am not saying in any way that Deshaun Watson’s lawyer, Mr. Hardin, has a son who has a position that would compromise HPD and its investigation,” Buzbee wrote. “I support his service, along with all Houston police officers—I think the rank and file know that. But, I am saying that me and my clients will go elsewhere to provide our evidence to investigative authorities. Stand by.”

Buzbee said his legal team has been “roundly criticized” for not filing formal complaints with the Houston Police Department. He said the team has “provided info to other organizations” but did not elaborate in the post.

What “other organizations” might those be? Who knows. I’m not going to try to interpret the musings from Tony Buzbee’s galaxy brain. He’s got a strategy and he’s clearly got evidence to back him up – see Sean Pendergast’s analysis of the five most damaging allegations against Watson for an appraisal of that – and he’s gonna do what he’s gonna do. At some point, we’ll see what the endgame that Buzbee has in mind is. In the meantime, the lawsuit count is up to 21. And as of Wednesday, we now have this.

In a concerted attempt to paint Watson in a more favorable light, Watson’s defense released statements Wednesday from 18 women who “are deeply troubled by the accusations” made against Watson and who believe the allegations are “wholly inconsistent with their experiences with him and who they believe him to be.” All 18 women who released statements Wednesday supporting Watson made their identities public.

Watson’s defense attorney Rusty Hardin said these women who have spoken out on Watson’s behalf have collectively worked with the Texans star “more than 130 times over the past five years.”

“These statements show the other side to this story that has been so lacking in the flurry of anonymous complaints filed by opposing counsel,” Hardin said. It’s the most vigorous attempt from Hardin yet to defend Watson, and comes after Hardin claimed last week that at least one of Watson’s accusers had privately attempted to blackmail the quarterback into paying her to keep quiet about what happened during their massage appointment.

Several therapists are quoted, and you can go read what they have to say if you wish. I get where this is coming from – whatever ultimately happens with the allegations and lawsuits, Watson’s reputation has taken a big hit, so some of this is an attempt to mitigate that damage – but the old-school “well, he never did anything untoward around me” defense is, at best, not on point. I would hope by now that we have internalized the idea that a person can behave differently in different contexts and around different people. It’s dangerously close to victim-blaming, and that’s a road we should want to avoid.

Mayor Turner selects the new HPD Chief

Congratulations, Chief Finner.

Houston’s next police chief will be Troy Finner, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Thursday afternoon.

Finner is one of outgoing Chief Art Acevedo’s two top assistant chiefs.

Turner’s decision comes just days after Acevedo abruptly announced that he was resigning to lead the Miami Police Department.

[…]

Finner’s career took him on patrol assignments in Southwest Patrol and South Gessner; he also handled assignments in Communication Services, Internal Investigations, Criminal Investigations and Public Affairs. Finner spent 12 years working as a patrol officer before being promoted to sergeant in 2002. He spent five years in that role before becoming a lieutenant, and then was promoted directly to assistant chief in 2014.

After Acevedo arrived, he tapped Finner to be one of his two top subordinates. Finner now oversees the department’s Field & Support Operations, which includes all of the department’s patrol commands, as well as the property room, fleet maintenance, the joint processing center and the traffic enforcement division.

[…]

The day Turner was set to make his pick, criminal justice reformers sent him a letter asking him to conduct a “transparent” hiring process of the next chief, and make changes to the mission for the role.

Noting that criminal justice reform and police-community relations are at a “critical moment,” members of the Right2Justice coalition called on Turner to conduct a national search for a new chief.

“This past summer demonstrated that the people in Houston want you and the city council to lead,” the letter’s authors wrote. “Sixty-thousand Houstonians decried brutal and racist policing practices, including those in Houston.”

In the letter, the coalition members urged Turner to focus on reducing disproportionate arrests of Black Houstonians within a year; implement changes recommended by the mayor’s previous task forces on criminal justice reform; to reduce unnecessary police interactions on low-level offenses and mental health calls, and host community meetings to gather input from residents about qualities needed in HPD’s next chief.

See here and here for the background. The Right2Justice webpage is here but I couldn’t find the letter quoted in the story; their Facebook page hasn’t been updated in months and I didn’t find a Twitter page for them. I agree broadly with their goals, and I hope Chief Finner will take steps to achieve them, beginning with those task force recommendations that we’re all still waiting on. The Houston Press reports that he is committed to doing that, which is encouraging. I wish him well in the new job, and I look forward to him getting started on that project.

Who might succeed Acevedo?

Names are floating about.

With Police Chief Art Acevedo announcing his departure from Houston, law enforcement insiders say they believe Mayor Sylvester Turner is likely to select one of Acevedo’s two top assistants — Executive Assistant Chiefs Troy Finner and Matt Slinkard — as the next chief.

Acevedo named both in his farewell letter, saying the two chiefs are “ready and highly capable” of moving the department forward. Houston Police Officer’s Union President Doug Griffith said the union supported both men.

“From a union standpoint, I think anyone inhouse could do the job and be very effective,” Griffith said. “I think our two executive assistant chiefs would be a benefit to the department and do phenomenal job. They possess the skills to lead our organization.”

Law enforcement veterans say one factor they believe may prompt Turner to choose one of the two is that if he picked someone else within HPD, it would amount to an obvious vote of no-confidence in the two men, with whom he has worked for the last five years.

At the same time, Turner’s remaining time in office — his second term ends in January 2024 — is another consideration. Given the custom of new mayors choosing their own leadership when they take office, outside candidates are presumably less interested in a job that they know has an obvious expiration date of just a few years from now.

See here for the background. What the story says makes sense, but it’s not what I’m interested in. I want to know who is going to prioritize the reforms we’ve been talking about, or at least who isn’t going to stand in their way. I don’t know what criteria Mayor Turner will use in picking a new Chief, but I sure hope he’s got that on his mind, because this is a golden opportunity for that.

HPD Chief Art Acevedo leaving

Headed to Miami.

Police Chief Art Acevedo is leaving Houston to take over the Miami Police Department, the chief told his officers in an email obtained by the Chronicle.

Acevedo informed HPD troops in an email dated Monday, March 15, that some officers working Sunday night received early. The Miami Police Department is expected to announce the news at a 9 a.m. Monday press conference.

“This is like getting the Tom Brady or the Michael Jordan of police chiefs,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez told the Miami Herald Sunday.

In the email, Acevedo thanked officers and called his departure “truly bittersweet.”

“We have been through so much as an extended family,” he wrote. “Hurricane Harvey, two World Series, a Super Bowl, (Imelda), the summer of protest, and most recently, an ice storm of epic proportion. On top of all this, we have sadly buried six of our fallen heroes.”

Acevedo said he hadn’t been looking to move, “but with the end of Mayor Turner’s final term in office fast approaching and my strong desire to continue serving as a police officer, we decided that the timing for this move was good. Good because you will continue to serve with the strong support of Mayor (Sylvester) Turner and his council colleagues and good because Executive Assistant Chiefs (Matt) Slinkard and (Troy) Finner are ready and highly capable of continuing to move our department forward.”

The story goes into Chief Acevedo’s career and the main things that happened on his watch, so read the rest to review the history. It’s safe to say there’s a range of opinion out there about Chief Acevedo. He definitely had his good qualities, while also being a fairly straightforward law-and-order guy. He was more talk than action on police reform items, which is a big reason why some folks were not impressed by him. Of course, the impetus and agenda for reform come from the Mayor, and that will be top of mind for many people as we consider who will succeed Acevedo.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner confirmed Monday that Police Chief Art Acevedo is leaving for Miami, Fla., a decision the mayor said caught him by surprise.

“I hate to see him leave the city of Houston,” Turner said. “But I also realize this is an excellent, extraordinary opportunity for him at a time when he is one of the nation’s leading voices in law enforcement.”

Acevedo informed Turner of his decision Sunday at around 5 p.m., Turner said, acknowledging he had received no prior hint about his police chief’s departure. Acevedo never formally applied to be Miami’s top cop and was not on anyone’s radar there “other than just a few people at City Hall,” the Miami Herald reported Monday.

Turner said Acevedo will stay in Houston for a few more weeks. He said he would announce a new chief by the end of the week, though it was not clear if that appointment would be an interim or permanent replacement.

The mayor declined to say whether he would look to hire Acevedo’s successor from within the department or elsewhere. He downplayed the significance of the chief’s departure, while praising his tenure in Houston.

“No one person is indispensable,” Turner said. “It is about the organization and the institution that you put together. …I would like to believe that we are building a city that even if one person leaves, or two or three, this institution, this cruise ship, will continue to move forward.”

Acevedo’s replacement will inherit a department of more than 5,000 officers, which Turner has pledged to grow even amid calls from activists to divert funding to other city departments in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minnesota last year. The mayor has said he plans to funds six police cadet classes next fiscal year, instead of the usual five, which he said he necessary to fight an ongoing crime wave in Houston.

Last year, Turner convened a task force to recommend reforms to the police department and said he supported “almost all” of the recommendations laid out by the group in October. He defended the slow progress of implementing the reforms, such as bolstering the city’s Independent Police Oversight Board and tightening disciplinary rules for officers, pointing to the COVID-19 pandemic and recent winter storm.

“Many of those things are being implemented as we speak,” Turner said. “My timetable doesn’t mean you don’t have winter storms. …Nature has its own timetables.”

[…]

At-Large Councilmember Letitia Plummer, who pushed most aggressively for police reform during last year’s budget debate, said reform should be top of mind in selecting a new chief. She said it needs to be someone who is open minded and will help implement the recommendations from a task force Turner appointed last year.

“Whoever that person is, as soon as I hear the name, I’m making a phone call,” Plummer said. “That task force worked hard on getting that done, and they delivered an impeccable document. I don’t believe that document needs to sit on the shelf.”

The councilmember said she did not have anyone in mind that fits the bill.

“Every time someone exits, in my opinion, it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to make a really great choice,” Plummer said. “It’s a choice now. We have clean slate. So let’s choose someone that understands the systemic issues that we’re dealing with when it comes to policing. Let’s find a chief that can be a partner in making (reform) happen.”

I’m with CM Plummer on this one. This is indeed an opportunity. Let’s take advantage of it. I wish Chief Acevedo well in his next phase. I wish his successor even better in the next phase of HPD. The Trib and Stace have more.

A closer look at the Aguirre/Hotze debacle

This WaPo story was pointed out in the comments here, and it’s worth your time to read. I should note that while the Houston Chronicle has not (at least so far) identified the air conditioning repairman that Aguirre attacked, this story did identify and talk to him. For now, I’m going to stick to the Chron’s style guide, so where the WaPo story includes his name, I’m going to put “[the ACRM]” in my excerpt, to stand for “the air conditioning repairman”.

The episode illustrates the extreme and sometimes dangerous tactics that a set of conservative groups have employed in an effort to substantiate President Trump’s unproven allegations of widespread voting fraud in the election. Theories about truckloads of missing mail-in ballots, manipulated voting machines and illegal mail-in ballot collections have abounded in far-right circles, despite a lack of credible evidence, leading to threats of violence against election workers and officials.

Many of the fraud allegations have come in the form of lawsuits that have been rejected by state and federal judges across the country.

The overall effort in Houston stands out because it relied on an expensive, around-the-clock surveillance operation that, for reasons so far unknown publicly, targeted a civilian — authorities called him “an innocent and ordinary air conditioner repairman” — with no apparent role in government or election administration. The operation was also financed by a newly formed nonprofit group run by a well-known GOP donor in Texas and prominent former party officials in Harris County, the state’s most populous county, corporation records show.

The nonprofit group, the Liberty Center for God and Country, paid 20 private investigators close to $300,000 to conduct a six-week probe of alleged illegal ballot retrievals in Houston leading up to the election, the group has said. None of its allegations of fraud have been substantiated.

The group’s president, Steven F. Hotze, did not respond to an interview request.

Aguirre declined to say why the operation focused on [the ACRM].

“I’m not trying my case in the paper,” Aguirre, who was released on $30,000 bail, told The Post in a brief phone interview on Dec. 16. “I don’t care about public opinion. I’m trying my case against these corrupt sons of [expletives].”

The origins of Aguirre’s election fraud investigation date to the formation of the Liberty Center for God and Country in late August.

[…]

Hotze’s nonprofit group was created “for the purpose of ensuring election integrity primarily,” said Jared Woodfill, Hotze’s personal lawyer and the former executive director of the Harris County Republican Party, the county that includes Houston. Woodfill is listed on state incorporation records as a director of the nonprofit group, along with Jeffrey Yates, the former longtime chairman of the county’s Republican Party. Yates did not respond to phone messages.

“The socialist Democrat leadership in Harris County has developed a massive ballot by mail vote harvesting scheme to steal the general election,” a now-deleted fundraising page for the group alleged. “We are working with a group of private investigators who have uncovered this massive election fraud scheme.”

The group raised nearly $70,000 through a GoFundMe page from Oct. 10 through last week. Hotze has said publicly that he donated $75,000 to the probe and that an unnamed individual had donated another $125,000.

Hotze turned to Aguirre to assemble a team of 20 private investigators, according to Aguirre’s attorney, Terry Yates, who is not related to Jeffrey Yates.

“Mark would say he’s the guy who was in charge,” Terry Yates told The Post.

I’m not going to try to guess what might be going on in Steven Hotze’s whack-a-mole brain, but I do want to understand why these jokers came to focus on this one poor guy. There had to be some reason for it, however irrational and ultimately wrong-headed. If nothing else, the attorney that eventually files a massive lawsuit against Hotze for the pain and suffering our ACRM endured will want to know the full story.

In September, Aguirre wrote an affidavit for a lawsuit brought by Hotze and the Harris County GOP before the Texas Supreme Court seeking to curtail early and mail-in voting. The affidavit alleged Democrats had devised a scheme to submit as many as 700,000 fraudulent ballots in Harris County. The Texas Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit on Oct. 7.

Nevertheless, law enforcement officials in Harris County began looking into the claims in the affidavit. The affidavit did not mention [the ACRM], but described what it contended was a broader ballot-harvesting effort directed by local Democratic officials.

Four investigators from the Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office, which is responsible for investigating voter integrity issues, were assigned to the investigation, an official said.

“We looked into the allegations,” said Constable Alan Rosen, who said investigators conducted interviews with various people but got no cooperation from Aguirre and other private investigators. “We wanted to investigate their side of the story and they wouldn’t talk to us.”

“No proof was ever substantiated,” according to Rosen.

As the Nov. 3 Election Day neared, Aguirre and other unidentified private investigators began to monitor [the ACRM] more closely, court records show. By mid-October, they had devised a plan to carry out extensive monitoring that kept eyes on the air conditioning repairman day and night, court records show.

Beginning around Oct. 15, the investigators started “24 hour surveillance” on [the ACRM]’s mobile home, a police affidavit states. They set up a “command post” nearby, renting two hotel rooms for four days in a Marriott hotel, according to the affidavit. As they watched [the ACRM], Aguirre unsuccessfully tried to convince law enforcement authorities at the state level that he was on to something big, according to several law enforcement agencies and court records.

On Oct. 16, Aguirre called a member of the state attorney general’s election task force, Lt. Wayne Rubio, to request that Rubio order a traffic stop of [the ACRM]’s vehicle, court records show. Rubio declined. Aguirre “seemed upset that the Department of Public Safety could not stop and detain an individual based solely on [Aguirre]’s uncorroborated accusations,” Rubio later told police, according to the affidavit.

Aguirre told Rubio that he would make the traffic stop and execute a “citizen’s arrest,” the affidavit states. Rubio did not respond to interview requests, and the Attorney General’s Office declined to comment.

Aguirre also contacted Jason Taylor, a regional director at a separate statewide law enforcement agency — the Texas Department of Public Safety — the agency said in a statement to The Post. That contact came a day before Aguirre is accused of ramming [the ACRM].

“Mr. Aguirre brought up the allegations of election fraud during a phone call on Oct. 18, 2020, with the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) Regional Director,” a spokesman wrote. “Based on that call, the matter was then discussed with the (DPS) Texas Ranger Division. The decision was then made to refer Mr. Aguirre to the Office of the Texas Attorney General.”

Aguirre later told police he was frustrated that he had “not received any help” from law enforcement agencies, according to the police affidavit.

So many questions here. What evidence did Aguirre present to DPS and the AG task force? Clearly, it was pitiful, because had there been anything at all to the juicy allegation of Democrats engaging in massive fraud, these guys would have been all over it, but that’s not the whole picture. The bigger question is, should Aguirre’s delusions have given these guys cause to worry about his actions and the potential danger to the ACRM? Did they take his threat of a “citizen’s arrest” seriously, and if not why not? Imagine for a minute if our ACRM had had a concealed carry license, and had made the determination when he saw Aguirre approach him that his life was in danger (which, as it happens, it was) and he needed to defend himself. Or instead imagine if Aguirre had gotten jumpy and made the same decision for himself. This “citizen’s arrest” could very well have had a body count, which is why I ask, should the law enforcement officers that Aguirre complained were unwilling to help him have taken action against him instead? It’s more grist for our ACRM’s future attorney, I suppose.

Police later reviewed grand jury subpoena records from Aguirre’s bank, the police affidavit states, and saw wire transfers of nearly $270,000 to his account from the Liberty Center for God and Country with payments of $25,000 each wired on Sept. 22 and Oct. 9, and $211,400 deposited the day after the alleged assault.

Houston police declined an interview request and said they would not answer specific questions about the case because the department’s investigation is ongoing.

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office, which charged Aguirre after a grand jury indictment, also declined to answer questions. “This is an active, ongoing investigation,” spokesman Michael Kolenc wrote in an email.

As I said before, I really hope that this ongoing investigation includes Hotze and the malevolent organization he spawned to finance this travesty. I sure won’t be surprised to learn that they were not scrupulous in following the law prior to Aguirre’s attack on the ACRM. Don’t be afraid to go where the evidence leads.

Aguirre’s arraignment

The latest update on the Aguirre/Hotze fever-dream “vote fraud” case.

An ex-Houston police officer on Friday swore he is “done” with private investigations after being arrested and charged with assaulting an air conditioning repairman he claimed was involved in a massive ballot fraud scheme.

Mark Aguirre, a former Houston Police Department captain who is now a licensed private investigator, called in to state District Judge Greg Glass’ courtroom for his first court appearance in the case. His setting originally was scheduled for Thursday but was postponed because he has COVID-19, his attorney said.

As conditions of his release on bond, Aguirre is barred from contacting the repairman, possessing firearms, or continuing to work with the Liberty Center for God and Country, which hired him to investigate voter fraud leading up to the Nov. 3 general election.

When prosecutors requested Aguirre no longer work with the right-wing group, he volunteered not to do any more investigations, period.

“No. I’m done,” he said.

Aguirre frequently works with law firms around Houston, defense attorney Terry Yates said.

Glass denied prosecutors’ requests that Aguirre be monitored by a GPS tracking device. He has one firearm that he said he would turn over to his attorney.

Aguirre was charged Tuesday with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a felony, and was released after posting bond on a $30,000 bail.

[…]

Yates gave a different account of what happened in an interview Friday, alleging that the incident took place after Aguirre and the repairman were involved in a “fender bender.” Yates said the repairman got out of his truck and rushed at Aguirre, prompting the confrontation.

“(The police) came out and investigated, and after they took quite a bit of time out there interviewing everybody, they gave (Aguirre) his gun back and told everybody to go their separate ways,” Yates said.

See here and here for the background. My first thought is that I’m going to need to come up with a pithy name for this saga, because the description I used in the opening of this post just won’t do. My second thought is that if Aguirre goes and does something stupid before his trial, at least he met the criteria of being able to pay a bail bondsman for his ability to be out on the street. My third thought is that defense attorney Terry Yates, and by extension Hotze, is going long on the defense here by claiming a completely alternative reality, one in which the victim in the alleged crime is actually the instigator and the defendant is the real victim. I presume there will be a heaping helping of conspiracy as part of this defense, since there was a few weeks between the event in question and the arrest of Aguirre. I wonder if Yates will have any evidence to present to back his claims about the van driver, or if he’s just going to spray a lot of countercharges and hope to confuse the jury. I have previously speculated that there may be further investigation into the payments that Hotze made to Aguirre, and so I wonder if we will see further charges down the line. Or maybe this is all there is and it will fizzle out, perhaps into a misdemeanor plea. It’s something to look forward to in 2021, at least.