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Criticizing the HPD narcotics audit

It’s good that it was finally released, but that doesn’t mean that all questions have been answered by it.

Rep. Gene Wu

Standing outside the small house where Houston police officers conducted a raid that killed two and grievously wounded their department’s reputation, Gene Wu clasped the audit he’d been asking about for months and labeled it a scam.

Wu and other state lawmakers on Thursday criticized the internal audit of the Narcotics Division, calling it a “whitewash” and vowing to propose legislation to prevent government agencies from blocking the release of internal audits or similar documents in the future.

Also at the news conference were lawyers representing relatives of Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas, the couple who lived at 7815 Harding St. and were killed in the raid. Gerald Goines, the officer who led the operation, was later accused of lying about the drug buy that led to the operation and is charged with felony murder and other crimes. His former partner, Steven Bryant, faces charges of tampering with a government record.

The raid could have happened only in an environment of “pervasive, longstanding custom and practice of illegal activity that was known and condoned at the highest level,” said Boyd Smith, one of the attorneys. “And this report doesn’t address that critical issue.”

[…]

The auditors — former Assistant Chief Pete Lopez, seven sergeants and one police officer — looked at the Narcotics Division’s street-level drug suppression squads. They found widespread sloppiness and lax supervision: unauthorized informant payments. Missing case review sheets. Incomplete offense reports. Hundreds of other administrative errors by undercover narcotics officers.

Most of the information authorities released previously centered on misconduct by Goines and Bryant, but auditors examined three years of casework of the two former Squad 15 officers, and probed casework of approximately 70 other undercover officers in squads 9, 10, 14 and 15. There are approximately 175 officers in the Narcotics Division.

Though they found policy violations and “numerous errors” related to confidential informant payments, they said they could not make conclusions about illegal activity without the ability to interview confidential informants or witnesses.

[…]

Patrick O’Burke, a former deputy commander at the Texas Department of Public Safety who oversaw drug law enforcement, said the audit is a “significant effort” but fails to identify the reasons for the sloppiness it uncovered.

“This report does not provide key findings that show how such problems will be limited or reduced in the future,” said O’Burke, tasked with overhauling Texas’ drug task forces after a racist drug arrest scandal in the 1990s in Tulia.

See here and here for the background. The point I would make is that the purpose of an audit like this is not just to document what happened, but also to provide a plan of action to remediate what went wrong. Where I work, if your department or project fails to get a sufficient grade on an audit – and we routinely perform audits on pretty much everything, not just on things that went wrong – you can’t go forward until you address the issues that the auditors cited. In this case, not only is the audit incomplete since key participants and stakeholders were not included, there’s no action plan. What is HPD going to do about this? How are they going to fix the problems that were identified, and put in processes and checks and safeguards and whatever else to ensure they never happen again? Note that “completely shutting down all activity related to this” is a viable path forward and should be considered as an option. What is HPD going to do? We need to know.

Here comes the police task force

Now let’s see them do something.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steps towards more transparency

Step One:

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step Two:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Release the audit

That’s my three-word response to this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

On a related note:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

1. Uniform Body Camera Policy

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

2. Transparent Tracking of Complaints

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

3. Citizens Review Board with Subpoena Power

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

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

HISD passes its budget

And had their own debate about police funding.

Houston ISD trustees Thursday approved a $2 billion spending plan for the 2020-21 school year that includes small raises and bonuses for nearly all employees, a compromise between board members and the district’s administration amid a back-and-forth over staff compensation.

Trustees smoothly shepherded through the budget in a 7-2 vote, ending a run of three consecutive years with last-minute changes, drawn-out debate and occasional bitterness before the approval of spending proposals. While the budget contains few major overhauls to HISD operations, it lays the groundwork for an unprecedented school year amid the novel coronavirus pandemic and difficult financial decisions looming in 2021.

“This has been a challenging year with all of the unknowns,” HISD Board President Sue Deigaard said. “We’re also going into a challenging time economically, and we’ve got some really hard work ahead of us.”

[…]

Under the new budget, HISD also plans to restructure police officers’ pay and increase their salaries by about $3.5 million — a significant boost for a department with combined annual salaries totaling about $11 million. Lathan said the raises would reduce turnover, which fuels high overtime costs, by bringing officer salaries closer in line with neighboring departments.

The increase drew added scrutiny in recent days after the death of former Houston resident George Floyd, which sparked calls nationwide from some advocates seeking to reduce or eliminate spending on police. About 15 members of the public urged trustees to reject the increase or disband the district’s police department ahead of the budget vote.

“I just don’t know about spending an additional $4 million on police officers when we can spend it on kids,” said Trustee Elizabeth Santos, who joined Trustee Dani Hernandez in voting against the budget.

See here for the background. The Press adds some details.

A number of speakers including several HISD students — fighting continued technical and human error problems with the new call-in, social distancing system — called for the district to pull its police force from schools and instead direct the money to counseling, mental health assistance and libraries. Several said black students are particularly targeted by campus police out of all proportion to their share of the student body.

Ironically enough, the new budget approved an additional $3.5 million for an increase in HISD police officers’ pay, which Lathan said was lower than other police departments in the area.

Lekha Sunder, a student who said she represents a coalition of more than 950 members of the Lamar High School community who signed a letter urging HISD and Lamar to remove police officers from campuses, spoke to the board saying “When schools place police officers on their grounds, they’re agreeing to send some of their students to juvenile court for behavior they would never otherwise be prosecuted for.

“When we criminalize our students, they begin to see themselves as criminals.”

Karina Barbosa, a graduate of HISD schools, said at her high school “We had a cop but no full-time nurse. We had a cop but no on-campus library. We had a cop but no mental health counselors.”

Larsen Tosch a senior from Bellaire High School said the use of police officers in schools instills “paranoia among students, especially students of color.

“I do not see why we need to pay for bullets at a school that routinely runs out of paper.”

Board President Sue Deigaard said she was putting together an ad hoc committee of trustees to discuss the police in schools issue. In addition she said there will be a board meeting on September 1 to discuss the issue with a report from the administration. The call to defund police departments has risen nationally following George Floyd’s death while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers who have been charged in his death.

As with the city of Houston, this is a starting point. The goal is to shift spending away from police and towards other services and resources. HISD’s expenditures on police is a much smaller percentage of their budget than Houston’s is, but the principle that this is not the best use of those dollars is the same. I’m glad to see HISD is discussing this – I hope they will solicit community feedback as well – and I look forward to the report in September.

The current status on local police reform efforts

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

CM Letitia Plummer

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Now, as for that executive order:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, there was action taken by Commissioners Court.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Javier Ambler

Remember his name.

Javier Ambler

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More from the Statesman:

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Ambler didn’t stop. Johnson gave chase.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

DA dismisses charges against most protesters

Good.

Kim Ogg

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Executive action on police reform

It’s a start.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday announced he would sign an executive order to enact some immediate reforms aimed at curtailing police violence, including requiring Houston officers to give verbal warning and exhaust all other options before firing their weapons.

Turner outlined his order, which embraces proposals from the #8cantwait campaign, at the funeral for George Floyd, the former Houston resident whose May 25 death at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked international protests and widespread calls for reform. Turner said he would sign the order Tuesday evening, but that was canceled at the last moment; a spokeswoman said the mayor planned to sign the order Wednesday, but did not explain the delay.

The mayor’s announcement came shortly before dozens of Houstonians urged City Council to reject Turner’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, unless millions of dollars are diverted from the police department to other areas.

[…]

Though the actual text of Turner’s executive order was not available Tuesday, it will include a ban on chokeholds, require de-escalation, comprehensive use-of-force reporting, mandate that officers intervene when they witness misconduct, “and more,” Turner said on Twitter.

It was not clear whether the order would embrace the remaining recommendations from the #8cantwait project, which claims that departments who adopt the eight measures have fewer uses of force.

HPD already enforces some of those measures. The department’s use-of-force policy from 2015 includes a duty-to-intervene clause and a ban on shooting at moving vehicles, unless the driver is immediately threatening someone’s safety.

The Houston Police Officers’ Union said the department has had a ban on chokeholds for four decades and possibly never used them. It was not immediately clear, however, whether that prohibition is codified in writing.

Joe Gamaldi, president of the union, said he was waiting to comment on Turner’s executive order until the text is released.

Many other police departments already have adopted the #8cantwait measures with little impact to show for it, said Kevin Buckler, a criminal justice professor at the University of Houston-Downtown.

“They’re already used across the country. Perhaps not by every department, but they’re already utilized, and we still arrived at the current state of affairs that we’re at right now,” Buckler said, adding that the campaign “is a very good marketing strategy, but it’s not evidenced-based at all.”

You can see the tweet here. Much of the rest of the story is a later version of the one I blogged about here. In addition to the proposals from various Council members, we also have that forthcoming task force. Based on Professor Buckler’s comments, I’d say that task force needs to recommend that everything we do is quantifiable and aimed at a specific goal – some number of reductions or increases or changes or what have you, which we track with the idea of adjusting the new guidelines or ordinances as needed to achieve those goals. We want change that actually makes a difference, after all.

Commissioners Court to address police reform

On the agenda for today.

Ten police and criminal justice reform items appear on Tuesday’s agenda; seven by Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, two by County Judge Lina Hidalgo and one by Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia. They would:

  •  Examine whether to create an independent county civilian oversight board, with the ability to subpoena documents and witnesses, to investigate claims against police, including use-of-force complaints
  •  Order the creation of a universal use-of-force policy for all county law enforcement agencies, to include de-escalation techniques and alternatives to violence
  •  Determine how to engage the community in budget evaluations for all the county’s criminal justice departments;
  •  Create a public website with monthly use-of-force reports, including video footage, submitted by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and constables’ offices
  •  Determine the feasibility of creating a new emergency responder program to handle some responsibilities that currently fall to police, such as mental health and substance abuse crises
  •  Study whether to create a new county agency to run “violence interruption programs” to end cycles of violence in communities
  •  Determine how to expand alternative, non-punitive intervention techniques to address issues including poverty, homelessness and substance abuse
  •  Study the effect on poor arrestees of cash bail, criminal fines, fees and penalties
  •  Order a bi-annual report on current racial disparities in the justice system with recommendations on how to eliminate them
  •  Make improvements to the indigent defense system

Ellis, who has cited criminal justice laws as among his proudest achievements during his 26-year career in the Texas Senate, said in an email to constituents on Thursday that reforming law enforcement must extend beyond addressing police brutality.

“We must re-imagine what justice means, and open our eyes to the ways that the justice system intersects with racism, classism, and other societal inequities, and chart a new path predicated on community well-being,” Ellis wrote.

As noted, Commissioners Court has less power to affect policing in Harris County than Mayor Turner and City Council do in Houston because Sheriff Gonzalez and the Constables are all elected officials themselves. They do have the power of the purse, however, and can threaten to make budget cuts as needed to effect reforms. More transparency and a CAHOOTS-like program as proposed by CM Letitia Plummer both seem like strong ideas that can have a quick impact, and an oversight board with subpoena power is also needed. Now get some community input and start implementing these plans.

Time for a task force

A good step, but it needs to be followed by real action.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to appoint a task force to review Houston Police Department policies amid growing calls for reform following local and nationwide protests over the death of former Houston resident George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

Turner’s office said the task force would focus on ensuring accountability and transparency within the department. He announced the task force Thursday night during an hourlong ABC13 town hall on police and community relations.

“It’s so important to hold onto the trust between the community and police because the two have to work together, not be against one another,” Turner said. “Establishing that confidence and that trust is a critical component. That’s why it’s important for all of us to listen, to listen to what people are saying, to listen to the reforms that people want to see put in place, and then to act on those reforms. And we’re going to seek to do that.”

It was not clear Friday when the mayor would appoint people to the task force or when it would begin meeting.

Turner publicly has not endorsed any specific reform, though he consistently has emphasized the importance of police training in television appearances this week.

[…]

Conversations about potential reforms began before Floyd’s death, Councilwoman Tiffany Thomas said. After a string of six fatal police shootings here in Houston, several council members met privately with Police Chief Art Acevedo to address the deaths.

Thomas said she would favor strengthening the oversight board; ensuring there are public and readily available records of complaints made by both citizens and officers against their colleagues; and having some sort of research arm — either within the city or with an external partner, such as Texas Southern University — that could parse through data to illuminate other options.

Councilman Ed Pollard has offered a budget amendment to create an online database where residents can view complaints made to the police department. Pollard said the information would boost transparency and give the public and policymakers data to inform future reforms. His amendment calls for building off an existing platform, called Project Comport, that is free and already used in other cities, though Pollard said it would carry some costs to set up.

“We (would) have a public, online platform that is able to compile the data and put it out in real time on different complaints,” Pollard said.

Councilwoman Letitia Plummer has proposed the furthest-reaching budget amendment. It would eliminate 199 vacant HPD positions in the budget and one of five planned police cadet classes. Plummer seeks to redirect about $11.8 million of the proposed police funding toward a package of reforms, including subpoena-empowered oversight board probes; increased spending on re-entry and My Brother’s Keeper programs; and creation of a mental health unit to respond to some low-risk calls instead of regular patrol officers.

See here for more about CM Plummer’s budget amendment and plenty of other reform ideas, some of which are within Councils’ power and others of which are not. The formation of a task force or blue ribbon committee is always the first thing done when there’s a serious problem that demands actions that some people are very much going to not like. It buys time, it diverts energy, and if you’re not careful the formation of the task force can end up being the sum total of action taken. Look to see who’s on the task force (and how long it takes for it to be named), what their timeline and mandate are, and who does or does not commit to take specific actions based on their recommendations. Then remember that it exists, and that we’re waiting for it to do its job, and that the longer it takes the less momentum there is.

Let’s talk “meaningful reform”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The George Floyd March

Impressive.

Sixty thousand people joined the family of George Floyd as well as elected officials and religious leaders today in a peaceful Houston march from Discovery Green to City Hall organized by rappers and civic activists Trae tha Truth, Bun B, and Floyd’s nephew Brandon Williams.

Floyd, 46, a native Houstonian from the Third Ward, died in handcuffs last week after then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Chauvin, who was fired immediately after the incident was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter four days later.

It was released Monday that both a private autopsy done by Dr. Michael Boden and Dr. Allecia Wilson hired by Floyd’s family as well as the Hennepin County Medical Examiner ruled Floyd’s death a homicide though both reports differed on cause of death. The medical examiner ruled it was heart failure, while the private autopsy ruled asphyxiation. Both reports agreed Floyd died on site, and not later in an ambulance.

The march began and ended with a prayer as well as Floyd’s family’s wishes that the day remain peaceful—and it did. It is reported that prior to the march the Houston Police Department removed bricks and artillery that had been stashed around downtown and a Houston Alert asked everyone to be on the lookout for suspicious activity.

A family member of Floyd spoke deliberately stating, “This is our home, we will find justice on the streets of Houston, we are going to march in peace and show the nation, show the world what George Floyd is all about.” She thanked Bun B and Trae tha Truth for helping to organize the event.

Although this was not a city-sponsored march, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner turned out and addressed the crowd, once again applauding them for standing up for George Floyd and the need for change, but again warning that violent actions undermined their cause.

I assume the Chronicle will have a full story on this, but as of when I wrote this post, what they had was a liveblog of the event, which you have to read from the bottom up. The question that always accompanies mass protests is what actions should come of it? Tarsha Jackson, who is still awaiting a court ruling to allow the runoff in City Council District B to proceed, posted on Facebook nine specific items to address in the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the police union. Seems to me that if you believe the problem is mostly “a few bad apples”, then you should want to make it easier to pluck those apples out of the barrel, or at least make it so they have a harder time advancing in their career. These ideas have been out there since 2018. Do we have the will to fight for them?

Three other things. One, you can make a contribution to support bail funds around the country here. Two, William Barr needs to be arrested at the first opportunity. And three, our two US Senators really suck. You can do something about one of them this November.

We now have data about police shootings of civilians

The Chron reviews the first year’s worth of data.

Rep. Eric Johnson

Rep. Eric Johnson

Texas police reported shooting 159 people in the first year that the state tracked such cases under a groundbreaking new law. Officers in Houston shot 31 of them – compared to eight in San Antonio and Dallas and five apiece in Fort Worth and Austin.

Houston’s share of officer-involved shootings has been disproportionate – even when considering its size as the state’s largest city – compared to other Texas police departments.

The last year of incidents here involved dozens of tragic scenarios, from shootouts with heavily armed criminals to shootings of unarmed civilians. An unarmed man was shot after he was pushed into an off-duty HPD officer working security at a bar. A man with a gun who his wife later said had gone out to “look for his horse” was shot and killed by two Houston officers. A mentally ill veteran who opened fire on a neighborhood on Memorial Day weekend and shot seven was killed by a Houston SWAT sniper.

Each incident should be examined separately and no conclusions should be drawn from numbers alone, said former Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland, whose former agency was involved in most Houston cases. Police agencies differ in patrol strategies, policies and frequency of violent arrests, and the data should prompt further study of the actions of officers and suspects alike, he said.

“All of us in law enforcement and the media must get this right for the public,” he said. “A department’s entire reputation and relationship with its community may rest on this single issue.”

While many shootings involved armed clashes between civilians and police, some of the most troubling episodes revealed in the new Texas records involved officers shooting juveniles or killing unarmed adults suffering a mental health crisis. Statewide, 20 percent of those shot in the last year were unarmed.

[…]

In 2015, Rep. Eric Johnson, an African-American Democrat from Dallas, was so troubled by the debate over disproportionate use of force against minorities that he championed a reform to gather more information about all officer-involved shootings. Johnson sought to pass a law because of his own experiences “as an African-American male who notices that we have an interesting – statistically speaking – relationship with law enforcement.”

He initially sought to collect more data but later agreed to omit identifying information about officers and to require reports when police are shot by civilians.

“If you’re going to collect data on shootings, then be fair,” said Charley Wilkison, executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. “Did the officer believe the person had a gun? Was the officer in a struggle? We didn’t want this to turn into a ‘gotcha’ aimed directly at officers.”

Officers reported killing 71 people and injuring 88 in the first year. And that data already shows that something Johnson suspected is true: 28 percent of those shot were African-American, though African- Americans make up only about 12 percent of Texas’ population. Of the rest, 28 percent were Hispanic and 43 were Anglo, according to reports filed by police.

During the same period, 21 law enforcement officers were reported shot by civilians, and the fatal shootings of two other officers went unreported to the state. Including those two, at least seven were killed – five died in Dallas after an African-American sniper opened fire just after a peaceful Black Lives Matter march in Johnson’s hometown. The shooter, an Afghanistan war veteran, was killed too.

Racial disparities also show up in the state’s in-custody death reports. According to research by Amanda Woog at the University of Texas, 27 percent of the 1,118 people who died in police custody in Texas from 2005-2015 were African-American.

“While this data cannot tell us why these numbers have increased so drastically, it does alert us to the problem of increasing fatalities in police encounters in Texas,” Woog said. “Without such data, the national conversation around people dying in police custody – in particular black people – has been largely anecdotal. This data helps inform the conversation, revealing an alarming trend.”

Thanks in part to Rep. Johnson’s bill and to investigative efforts like those by Amanda Woog and the Texas Tribune, we now know a lot more about civilian deaths at the hands of law enforcement than we did before. (We should have known this stuff years ago, but we didn’t. Better late than never.) With this knowledge, one hopes we can gain the understanding to reduce those numbers. Some of this was unavoidable, but some of it was not, and it’s on us to learn which was which so that we can learn what we should be doing and what we should not be. Like with body cameras and recorded interrogations, this is for everyone’s good.

“Unholstered”

Some really good work by the Trib here.

The Texas Tribune spent almost a year attempting to collect information on police shootings from departments in the state’s 36 largest cities, which have a population of 100,000 or more, and was able to confirm 656 fatal and nonfatal shooting incidents involving 738 individuals that occurred between 2010 and 2015. Those 36 cities make up almost half of the state’s population.

It remains impossible to determine exactly how many more times police officers in Texas pulled the trigger, and the data vacuum isn’t just about total shooting incidents. At a time when much public attention — and political debate — is focused on police shootings of minorities, it is also virtually impossible to know how many shootings in Texas involve Hispanics, the state’s largest minority group, because some departments don’t distinguish between race and ethnicity in their records.

Frustration over the lack of readily available, standardized and reliable data on police shootings is widespread among lawmakers, criminologists and the general public, particularly after several deadly shootings — like those in Ferguson, Missouri, Minnesota and Baton Rouge — that have garnered national attention.

With such an information void in Texas, it’s difficult to find a starting point in assessing police interactions with communities — and any possible reforms or solutions, said Durrel Douglas, co-founder of the Houston Justice Coalition. “If we can’t get there, it’s absolutely frustrating,” Douglas said. “We have absolutely nothing to even start with.”

The FBI tries to collect nationwide data, but its statistics are incomplete and riddled with mistakes. Texas lawmakers passed legislation in 2015 requiring statewide reporting, but those efforts won’t capture all police shootings in the state.

Access to comprehensive information rests almost completely in the hands of local police departments. Departments in big cities, such as Houston and Dallas, post information on every police shooting on their websites. But a list from most departments can only be obtained through an open records request — and often after a fight over what information should be made public.

[…]

National record-keeping efforts are also inconsistent. The FBI’s database of police shootings — based on voluntary reporting by departments, which fluctuates from year to year — only includes fatal shootings, and even those are often undercounted.

From 2010 to 2014, the latest year for which FBI data is available, the Tribune confirmed at least 198 fatal shootings by the 36 departments examined. But it appears at least 89 fatal shootings were either not reported to the agency or reported incorrectly.

Additionally, the FBI’s incomplete database only counts fatal shootings, which the Tribune’s analysis shows made up just 36 percent of all shootings in Texas during that time.

Calling the current system a “travesty,” the FBI has said it plans to revamp its system for tracking police shootings in 2017, including expanding reporting to note other injuries caused by police. That would still miss instances in which police shoot but miss. From 2010 to 2015, 142 of those incidents made up more than one-fifth of all shootings in Texas’ biggest cities.

Read the whole thing, and be sure to click on the other stories in the series as well. We can’t understand the situation, let alone make sensible reforms as needed, if we don’t have the basic facts of it. Shootings are also only one piece of the puzzle, as people die in police custody for other reasons as well. That information is supposed to be collected but often isn’t, and the information we do have is not readily available. Grits for Breakfast contributing writer Amanda Woog, who is a postdoctoral fellow at the UT-Austin Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, has been working on this, with the data she has gathered at the Texas Justice Initiative website; here’s a podcast conversation with her about it. We need to know what is actually happening, we need all relevant entities to report their data in a timely and cooperative fashion, and we need to ensure there are consequences for not complying. Then we can move forward.

Abbott pushes for hate crime status for targeted killing of police officers

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Gov. Greg Abbott wants the targeted killing of a police officer to be deemed a hate crime in Texas and urged lawmakers to send him such a bill to sign during next year’s legislative session.

Abbott announced Monday his plan to lobby for adding his Police Protection Act to Texas law. Along with extending hate crime protections to law enforcement, the measure would also increase criminal penalties for any crimes in which the victim is a law enforcement officer and “create a culture of respect for law enforcement by organizing a campaign to educate young Texans on the value law enforcement officers bring to their communities,” according to a statement from Abbott’s office.

[…]

“At a time when law enforcement officers increasingly come under assault simply because of the job they hold, Texas must send a resolute message that the State will stand by the men and women who serve and protect our communities,” Abbott said Monday in a statement

Abbott’s proposal comes after U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, introduced legislation on Wednesday that would make killing a police officer a federal crime.

I don’t have a position on these proposals yet; I’d like to see some analysis by policy experts first. What I do know is that the mostly conservative opposition to hate crime bills in the past has been on the grounds that they are redundant and thus unnecessary. The politics in this case are a lot different than they were in the past, and I fully expect to see people espousing very different views on this than they might have 20 years ago. To the extent that Greg Abbott’s views on such legislation of yore can be ascertained, it would be useful to ask him why and how his opinion on hate crime laws have changed, if indeed they have.

UPDATE: Lisa Falkenberg and Murray Newman have some fully-developed thoughts on the subject.

Who watches the private police departments?

Not good.

A veteran state lawmaker said Monday he is outraged by televised images of Rice University police officers striking a suspected bicycle thief with batons and appalled the university can refuse to release details because it is a private institution.

“We need to make certain we stop police officers from being able to hide behind their private institution status,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. “Does stuff like this happen every day and they’re able to withhold it?”

Whitmire saw portions of a video, shot during an August arrest, when the excerpt was televised last week by KPRC-TV. The Houston Chronicle also has seen only the televised excerpt.

Whitmire said the Texas Rangers are investigating the university’s police department at his request and said he intends to seek to strengthen open records laws for more transparency.

[…]

The Rice police agency is under fire after officers hit 37-year-old Ivan Waller with batons while arresting him for stealing a “bait bike” that officers put out as part of a sting. Rice officials said in a statement that an internal review concluded the force was justified, but they did not release the full video or other information related to the arrest.

Texas law requires any government institution to release public information, such as salaries, mug shots of criminal suspects and personnel files. Because Rice is a private university, the police department is not required to release information such as the arrest video.

“Of course it was a beating,” said Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “If (Rice administrators) don’t have zero tolerance for what I saw with my own eyes, I will deal with them in Austin.” He said he wants the officers seen in the video fired.

The KPRC report is here, with a followup here that includes reactions from Sen. Whitmire and State Rep. Garnet Coleman. There are many law enforcement agencies in Texas, including some highly specialized ones, and some that are under the auspices of private entities like Rice University. It should be clear that all law enforcement agencies should be subject to the same level of disclosure and transparency, but they’re not, and as usual we don’t think about it until something like this happens. The same rules should apply to anyone that has the authority to arrest someone and to use force to subdue them. I look forward to the bills Sen. Whitmire will file as a result of this, and I recommend Rice take him at his word.

Fare enforcement for Metro

Dodging the fare on the light rail lines could become more difficult to do.

Provided a key piece of state legislation comes through, Metro officials said the plan is to have new monitors in place when the new North, East and Southeast lines start ferrying passengers along the city’s rail system.

“It is growing a bunch, and this is the first time Houston’s had transit like this,” Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said. “I see this as a great opportunity to reach out to new customers who’ll need to know how to ride.”

Garcia said he prefers to consider the new hires “ambassadors” as opposed to officers, but agency officials acknowledge a critical role will be to enforce payment of fares, a key lapse in Metro’s current system.

[…]

A bill by state Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Tomball, to allow Metro to hire nonpolice fare checkers passed the House last week by a wide margin. Fletcher said last month Metro approached him about the bill, and he thought it made sense as the rail system grew.

Fletcher’s bill allows Metro to hire fare enforcement officers who do not have to be deputized law enforcement officers, but who can inspect and verify fare payments on behalf of the transit agency. They would also issue citations.

“We want them to have fare enforcement authority,” Metro interim CEO Tom Lambert said.

But he added that revenue related to fines will not fund them. Lambert said under the current rules, that fine money goes to the county if the person pays the fine in court, and not to recoup Metro’s operating costs.

“This has nothing to do with fines coming back to Metro,” Lambert said.

The bill in question is HB3031. If you had asked me to guess who carried it, or if you had asked me before the session to suggest someone from the Harris County delegation to carry a bill like this for Metro, I would not have come up with Rep. Fletcher. He got the job done, though, so kudos to him. Metro estimates that about 15% of rail riders currently do not pay the fare when they ride. At about 5,700 fare-shirkers a day, that works out to about $2.6 million in annual revenue, not a huge piece of Metro’s budget but not nothing either. It will be very interesting to see what the effect of this bill will be, assuming it makes it through the Senate.

Cancelling constables

Like Grits, I see this as an opportunity, not a loss.

Budget cuts have led two Harris County constables to cancel their security contracts with several area school districts, leaving the districts scrambling for a fix to cover the end of this school year and beyond.

[…]

Cy-Fair is facing the loss of a 38-deputy contract with Precinct 4 Constable Ron Hickman. Galena Park will lose its existing 11-deputy contract with Precinct 2 Constable Gary Freeman.

In both cases, the districts reimburse the county for 80 percent of the $91,000 cost of a deputy’s salary, benefits and equipment. The full cost of the deputies come out of the constables’ budgets, and the reimbursements from the school districts go into the county coffers.

Hickman’s contract with Cy-Fair, for example, represented a nearly $3.3 million expense on his $29 million budget this year; the district’s cost would have been about $2.7 million.

Harris County Budget Director Dick Raycraft, whose office has worked with constables to implement the county’s deepest spending cuts in years, said the school contracts were the first to go because districts can levy taxes to hire police, unlike, for example, civic clubs.

Or they can say to themselves “That’s a lot of money we could spend on teachers instead”, which would be my preference. Some amount of security is needed, but surely the districts can figure out a way to do it for less. And if along the way that means fewer tickets are written, that’s all to the good.

Should we do away with school police forces?

Grits makes the case.

If public school budgets will be radically cut in Texas, a prospect which for the moment appears all but inevitable, which employees should be eliminated first? Judging from the ongoing debate, maybe campus cops. Jason Embry at the Austin Statesman describes some of the debates surrounding school budgets thusly:

One of the most important dividing lines in the discussion about the state’s budget crisis separates those who think Texas schools need more money and those who think schools just need to make better spending decisions.

Those in the second group have some powerful numbers on their side. In a December report, Comptroller Susan Combs found that per-student spending increased 63 percent over the previous decade. That growth rate was nearly twice as fast as inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, and it points to a Texas school system that isn’t starving for cash.

Another statistic in wide circulation these days says Texas school districts employ about as many nonteachers as teachers. This has led many to suggest that, even as lawmakers consider billions of dollars’ worth of funding cuts to schools, local education officials can balance the books without shedding teachers.

I’ve not seen hard data, but based on anecdotal accounts I’d suggest that the growing number and size of school-based police forces likely account for a big chunk of growth among nonteacher school employees in the last decade. Shouldn’t they be among the first to get the budget axe? They’re the only sizable class of school employees we know for sure they can do without because schools did so for most of their history in Texas and elsewhere. The phenomenon of campus-based police departments is something that’s really only arisen en masse in the last 20 or so years in Texas public schools.

He notes that Sen. John Whitmire has advocated greatly reducing the amount of tickets that school cops write, which would fit well with this idea. For what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of savings in this – as I reported before, according the HISD Trustee Anna Eastman, HISD budgets $13.5 million for its police force, of which 95% is personnel costs. That ain’t nothing – it’s 270 teachers, assuming $50K per year in salaries – but it’s less than eight percent of the optimistic-case $171 million projected shortfall. Maybe it would be more in some other ISDs, I don’t know. I think there’s merit to the idea, and not just for budgetary reasons, I’m just trying to keep perspective on it. What do you think?

On a side note, I can’t leave this subject without pointing you to Martha’s posts about why schools need more support staff, not less, and why gutting educational service centers are a bad idea. That Jason Embry article linked by Grits also gets down to it:

In 2000, 49 percent of Texas students were considered economically disadvantaged. In 2010, that number reached 59 percent. These students often need extra attention as they move through the system.

As the student population has changed, Texas has continued to pile more demands on schools, and it costs money to meet those demands. Schools began giving the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, a much tougher exam than its predecessor, in 2003, and began that year to require students in the third grade to pass the reading section of the test to advance to fourth grade. Today the test is tied to promotion in grades five and eight. In addition, students who used to graduate from Texas high schools with three credits in math and three in science now must have four credits in each. To meet these demands, schools have spent more on student remediation, teacher training and the renovation of science labs.

Schools are preparing to give a new test next year, the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, which the Texas Education Agency has promised “will be significantly more rigorous than previous tests.” And let’s not forget that, led by our last governor, the federal government created an additional set of accountability measures for schools to meet during the past 10 years.

The increasing demands on students have put more demands on teachers and principals, particularly considering the state’s heavy emphasis on standardized testing to judge schools.

Districts across the state have therefore decided to hire instructional coordinators, curriculum specialists and others to give students extra attention and to help teachers make sure their lessons help students meet the escalating expectations.

In other words, yes, schools spend more than they used to. But the people of Texas also ask their schools to do more than they used to.

Funny how that latter part always seems to get overlooked by the “schools have too many administrators” crowd. In addition, as BOR notes, the cost of administering TAKS tests in Texas increased tenfold from 1999 to 2009. There’s been way too much talk in this debate about what schools do or don’t need by people who probably haven’t stepped foot in a public school in forty years, and it’s drowning out those who are there every day trying their best to make it all work. Martha’s a fine example of the latter, so please go see what she has to say.

Walle files bills to address school ticketing

A couple of weeks ago I noted a Texas Appleseed report that discussed an increase in “Class C misdemeanor ticketing and arrest of students for low-level, non-violent behavior that historically has been handled at the school level”, which it believes is a contributing factor in our state’s high dropout rate, and which called for “Chapter 37 of the Education Code be amended to eliminate Disruption of Class and Disruption of Transportation as penal code offenses for which students can be ticketed, and to clarify that arrest of students be a last resort reserved for behavioral incidents involving weapons and threatening safety”. Now State Rep. Armando Walle has filed a series of bills to address these concerns.

HB 350 would allow juveniles charged with Class C misdemeanors (the mildest category of misdemeanors) to fulfill their sentences through community service or tutoring hours, instead of paying a fine, which can run between $60 and $500. HB 408 creates minimum standards for the training of juvenile case managers, who help students navigate the courts. HB 409 places juvenile case managers under the supervision of a judge.

“Disciplinary problems are a red flag that tell us a child is at risk of dropping out of school,” Walle said in a statement. “Since many of these young people end up in our municipal and [justice of the peace] courts, it’s important for our courts to offer consequences, like community service and tutoring hours, that appropriately address the discipline problems while helping these students to stay in school.”

He’s also filed HB 348, which would require specialized training for school district peace officers, school resource officers, and school security personnel employed by a school district; and HB 349, which would require that school districts keep track of tickets and arrests of students. I think all of them are appropriate and I support their passage. You can see Rep. Walle’s full statement about these bills here.

Too many tickets

From Texas Appleseed, via Grits.

Class C Ticketing, Arrest of Youth at School is Introducing Thousands to Justice System, Says New Appleseed Report

Schools Should Follow Lead of Juvenile Justice Agencies: Restrict Pepper Spray, Taser Use

Austin, TX. – A growing police presence in Texas public schools is coinciding with increased Class C misdemeanor ticketing and arrest of students for low-level, non-violent behavior that historically has been handled at the school level – sending more youth to court and increasing their chances of academic failure and future justice system involvement, according to the third in a series of reports on Texas’ “school-to-prison pipeline” released today by the public interest law center Texas Appleseed. [Link: Report , see Executive Summary for findings/recommendations.]

“We are strongly recommending that Chapter 37 of the Education Code be amended to eliminate Disruption of Class and Disruption of Transportation as penal code offenses for which students can be ticketed, and to clarify that arrest of students be a last resort reserved for behavioral incidents involving weapons and threatening safety. This would go a long way toward helping check the move of student discipline from schools to the courthouse,” said Texas Appleseed Deputy Director Deborah Fowler. The increase in ticketing comes at a time when overall juvenile crime rates are low, she said.

Also of major concern is the broad discretion given to school police officers to use pepper spray, Tasers and other types of force – and the lack of transparency around some schools’ “use of force” policies, Fowler said. “These types of force have been shown to cause physical and psychological harm to adults, and the impact on children can be even more devastating,” she said. While many school districts make their use of force policies publicly available, others have sought and used an Attorney General’s decision to keep such policies from parents and the public. Texas Appleseed filed suit last year against San Antonio ISD and Spring Branch ISD to compel full disclosure.

“School-based policing is one of the fastest growing areas of law enforcement,” Fowler said, “yet school police officers receive little training specific to child development or working in school environments, and there is little to no review of ticketing and arrest practices at the school level to determine their impact and effectiveness in improving student behavior and no required reporting of this data to the Texas Education Agency.” A body of research across the country indicates that Positive Behavioral Support programs in schools are much more effective in improving behavior, school climate and campus safety, she said. Last month, New York City became the latest to require its school police department to provide data on student arrest and ticketing in response to growing concern about using this approach to address low-level student misbehavior.

Based on 2009 data from the Texas Office of Court Administration, it appears that at least 275,000 Class C tickets were issued that year for offenses most commonly associated with school-based misbehavior, but poor record keeping and reporting makes it impossible to point to a definitive number,” Fowler said. In response to Texas Appleseed’s open records request to the 167 Texas school districts with stand-alone police departments, only 22 districts and four court jurisdictions provided 2006-07 ticketing data – representing almost a quarter of Texas’ students. These districts issued close to 32,000 tickets that year, with the greatest number reported in Houston ISD, 4,828; Dallas ISD, 4,402; San Antonio ISD, 3,760; Brownsville ISD, 2,856; and Austin ISD, 2,653. Districts with the highest ticketing rate (per student population) that year were Galveston ISD, 11%; San Antonio, Somerville and Waco ISDs, 7%; and Brownsville and East Central ISD, 6%.

Juvenile justice officials told Texas Appleseed that a large percentage of their referrals result from school-based arrests, Fowler said. In the 17 districts providing 2006-07 arrest data to Texas Appleseed (accounting for 13 percent of the state’s total enrollment that year), 7,100 students were arrested. The state’s two largest districts with stand-alone police departments, Dallas and Houston ISDs, could not provide any requested student arrest data.

The data that Texas Appleseed collected reflects these important trends:

  • Most Class C misdemeanor tickets written by school police officers are for low-level, non-violent misbehavior that do not involve weapons, yet ticketing can have far-reaching financial and legal impacts. Fines and costs associated with Class C tickets, reported to Texas Appleseed by municipal courts, range from less than $60 to more than $500 per ticket. Failure to pay the fine, complete court-ordered community service or comply with a notice to appear in court can result in the youth’s arrest at age 17. African American and Hispanic youth are disproportionately affected by this practice, and the ACLU of Texas recently filed suit against Hidalgo County after discovering hundreds of teens had been jailed for unpaid truancy tickets issued years earlier. While a new state law (SB 1056, 2009) mandates criminal courts (including municipal and justice courts handling Class C tickets) immediately issue a nondisclosure order upon the conviction of a child for a misdemeanor offense punishable by fine only, the large volume of these cases has created a huge backlog, resulting in Class C misdemeanors remaining on a youth’s “criminal record” accessible by future employers and others.
  • Ticketing has increased substantially over a two- to five-year period, and where the child attends school – and not the nature of the offense – is the greater predictor of whether a child will be ticketed at school. Twenty-two of the 26 school districts or jurisdictions supplying ticketing data reported an increase in the number of tickets issued at school.
  • African American and (to a lesser extent) Hispanic students are disproportionately represented in Class C misdemeanor ticketing in Texas schools. Of the 15 districts that could disaggregate ticketing data by race and ethnicity, 11 disproportionately ticketed African American students compared to their percentage of the total student population in 2006-07. In the most recent year for which ticketing data is available, these districts reported ticketing African American students at a rate double their representation in the student body: Austin ISD, Dallas ISD, Humble ISD, Katy ISD, and San Antonio ISD.
  • It is not unusual for elementary school-age children, including students 10 years old and younger, to receive Class C tickets at school—and data indicates students as young as six have been ticketed. More than 1,000 tickets were issued to elementary school children for a six-year period in those districts for which we have data.

The full report is quite long, but the executive summary is enough to give you a good picture of it; this Texas Trib story is also a good summary. I was curious as to how much HISD spent on its police force, so I sent an email to Trustee Anna Eastman to inquire. She responded that the budget allocates $13.5 million to HISD police, of which 95% is personnel. Speaking for myself, I’d prefer that HISD look at cutbacks in this area when forced to do so by the legislative budget before it looks at things that would affect classroom instruction. If nothing else, I’d like to see more scrutiny of their practices, and I hope this report offers a starting point for the discussion.

Tweet it! The cops!

New frontiers in social networking and law enforcement.

Milwaukee’s department is one of a growing number of police and fire agencies turning to social networking Web sites such as Twitter, which lets users send text-message “tweets” to a mass audience in 140 characters or less. The tweets can be read on the Web or on mobile phones within seconds.

Some departments use Twitter to alert people to traffic disruptions, to explain why police are in a certain neighborhood or to offer crime prevention tips. Others encourage leads on more pressing matters: bomb scares, wildfires, school lockdowns and evacuations.

[…]

One risk of Twitter is that anyone can go on the site and claim to be the cops. In March, the Texas attorney general’s office shut down a phony Twitter account called “Austin PD,” which had about 450 followers and used the official city seal.

The culprit has not been arrested, so his or her intent is not yet known. Mainly the tweets were in a joking vein, such as “Warming up my radar gun for SXSW,” a reference to Austin’s South By Southwest music conference.

But the potential for more dangerous misinformation worries Craig Mitnick, founder of Nixle LLC, which offers what it calls a secure “municipal wire” that public agencies can use instead of Twitter to broadcast updates.

Web sites like Twitter or Facebook are “meant for social purposes and not for trusted information,” Mitnick said. “It’s a bombshell waiting to explode.”

[Milwaukee police spokeswoman Anne E.] Schwartz pointed out that anyone concerned about the validity of the Milwaukee police posts on Twitter can call the department, and she said most of its posts direct readers back to the police Web site as well.

I could be wrong, but I think the fake “Austin PD” example will turn out to be an exception. Twitter is sufficiently easy to use that I think most law enforcement agencies will adopt it sooner rather than later. Plus, how hard is it really to verify that a given account is legit? If nothing else, I’d expect that any new law enforcement-related Twitter sighting will get checked out via traditional media, many of whom have enthusiastically jumped on the Twitter bandwagon or by crowdsourcing pretty quickly. I seriously doubt that any copycat attempts will be nearly as successful as “Austin PD” was. There may be value in a product like Nixle – I’m not familiar with it, so I can’t offer a judgment of it – but I think calling Twitter and Facebook a potential bombshell for law enforcement is a serious overbid.