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Crime and Punishment

A poll about jailing people

Of interest.

New polling from The Appeal and Data for Progress shows that most Harris County residents support bail reform measures and want fewer people in the county’s overcrowded jail amid the COVID-19 pandemic

The polling shows 59 percent of residents in Harris County favor releasing people charged with low-level offenses. Support for that comes from 64 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans, according to the survey of almost 500 likely voters in Harris County.

The polling also found that 62 percent of people including 59 percent of Republicans, favor releasing people with less than six months left in their sentence.

In general, 65 percent of Harris County voters and two-thirds of Republican voters said they supported the use of ticking and citations as an alternative to jail.

The polling serves as proof that public opinion is firmly with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Commissioner Rodney Ellis, and other criminal justice reform advocates who have worked to overhaul the county’s cash bail system.

See here for more on the data. It’s meager, and I don’t see anything on the Data for Progress website to supplement it, so take it for what it is. As with all DfP polls, it was done via web panel, with 478 respondents. I point this out not because I think it’s a huge vindication of my own opinions, but because I’d really like to see a closer examination of these questions, and of the (frequently emotional rather than fact-based) arguments against them. I suspect that the potential to move these numbers, especially among partisans, is quite large, but we don’t know enough yet to say by how much. To the extent that we can have a thoughtful conversation about the costs and benefits of a policy to minimize the jail population along these lines, we should.

Trump commutes Stockman sentence

Crooks of a feather.

Best newspaper graphic ever

President Donald J. Trump on Tuesday commuted the remaining prison sentence of former Republican Texas congressman Steve Stockman, who was sentenced to 10 years in 2018 after he was convicted of nearly two-dozen felonies, including fraud.

Prosecutors said the conservative firebrand from Friendswood misused $1.25 million in funds from political donors to pay for expenses like hot air balloon rides, kennel bills and a new dishwasher — rather than for charity like the donors were told. He was also accused of planting an undercover intern in the state House office of a political rival.

Former U.S. Reps. Bob McEwen and Bob Barr, Republicans from Ohio and Georgia respectively, were among the public figures who called for Stockman’s release, according to a statement from the White House Press Secretary, announcing the outgoing president had pardoned 15 people and commuted the sentences of five.

Stockman, 64, has underlying health conditions that place him at heightened risk during the pandemic. He has already been infected with the coronavirus while in prison, the release said.

He has served more than two years of his decade-long sentence, and will “remain subject to a period” of supervised release and a requirement that he pay $1 million in restitution, the release said.

See here for the background. The Chron story mentions a pardon as well as the commutation, but it’s not clear to me that was the case. What is clear is that this latest batch of pardons is another hive of scum and villainy, and we’ve still got four weeks to go.

I suppose I should feel some outrage about this particular order, as one of the nation’s leading Steve Stockman obsessives, but my reaction when I saw the Chron headline was a sigh and a head-shake. It’s not like this was a surprise, after all. Steve Stockman is exactly the type of person Trump is moved to help. I’m a little surprised it hadn’t already happened. At least he still has the restitution to pay. Either Stockman will fade back into obscurity from here, or he’ll find another way to get arrested, because that’s the kind of person he is. I don’t know what else to say.

A closer look at the Aguirre/Hotze debacle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aguirre’s arraignment

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

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

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

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

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

“No. I’m done,” he said.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Hotze spews some BS

That could be a perennial headline, like a pinned tweet, but here it’s for a specific purpose.

Conservative activist Steven Hotze said Wednesday he does not know if the former Houston police captain he hired to investigate voter fraud really did detain an air conditioning repairman at gunpoint and direct his associates to search the man’s truck for stolen ballots, as prosecutors alleged a day earlier.

He did not witness the predawn Oct. 19 confrontation with his own eyes, so he chalked up the felony charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon against Mark A. Aguirre as “one man’s word against another man’s word.” The repairman’s truck contained only parts and tools, authorities said.

Hotze did not, however, apply that same skepticism in urging the public to take seriously his claims of a large-scale ballot harvesting operation perpetrated by powerful Houston Democrats that he said Aguirre and around 20 other investigators in his employ had uncovered and then foiled leading up to the Nov. 3 general election.

During a bizarre news conference that began with Hotze accusing Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg of a politically motivated prosecution and concluded with him recommending an unproven drug to ward off COVID-19, the activist alleged that Democrats had attempted to forge hundreds of thousands of mail ballots without providing evidence to support his claims.

Hotze confirmed that he paid Aguirre $266,400 to investigate voter fraud allegations through his group, Liberty Center for God and Country, including more than $211,000 the day after the Oct. 19 incident. And he called the assault charge “bogus,” questioning why Aguirre was not arrested earlier.

“Two months later? Really? … Something smells,” Hotze said.

Hotze said he would not condone Aguirre’s actions if they were proven true, but he called the inquiry from a reporter a “hypothetical.” And he said he was not worried about being legally implicated as the one funding Aguirre’s investigative work.

See here for the background, and here for an update on defendant Mark Aguirre. Challenge accepted, I hope. Nothing would please me more than to see someone slap handcuffs on Steven Hotze. An acceptable consolation prize would be for one of Houston’s fine trial attorneys to sue the bejeezus out of him on behalf of the air conditioning repairman who was threatened and terrorized by Aguirre and whatever other thugs were involved. A multi-million dollar judgment, along the lines of the cases that the SPLC won against various domestic terrorists in the past, would be a fine coda to this story.

The real danger of unhinged conspiracy theories

Because sometimes malevolent people act them out, with potentially deadly consequences for others.

An air conditioning repairman was driving in south Houston around 5:30 a.m. on Oct. 19 when a black SUV rammed the back of his truck. When he pulled over in the darkness and got out to check if the other driver was OK, the man in the SUV drew a pistol and ordered him to the ground.

He complied. As the other driver drove a knee into his back, the repairman saw two other vehicles pull up, and feared he would be killed in what he believed was a predawn carjacking.

Instead, according to an indictment announced Tuesday by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, the incident was a brazen attempt by a former Houston police captain to secure evidence to support a far-fetched claim that prominent local Democrats had orchestrated a scheme to harvest more than 700,000 ballots leading up to the Nov. 3 election. The ex-lawman, Mark A. Aguirre, 63, faces a felony charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon stemming from the Oct. 19 confrontation.

“He crossed the line from dirty politics to commission of a violent crime and we are lucky no one was killed,” District Attorney Kim Ogg said. “His alleged investigation was backward from the start — first alleging a crime had occurred and then trying to prove it happened.”

Aguirre told police they would find hundreds of thousands of ballots in the repairman’s truck. Instead they found only air conditioner parts and tools.

The Chronicle is not identifying the repairman.

Court records chronicling Aguirre’s arrest also reveal new details of an extensive investigation of alleged voter fraud funded through an organization run by conservative activist Steven Hotze and former Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill. Affidavits by Aguirre and others were used as evidence in several lawsuits the Republicans filed this fall challenging Texas and Harris County’s election plans.

The charging documents reveal that beyond pushing a conspiracy theory that Democrats had collected hundreds of thousands of fraudulent ballots, the “citizens investigation” by Aguirre and others put at least one resident in danger.

The repairman said as the man later identified as Aguirre held him at gunpoint, additional vehicles arrived at the scene. Aguirre ordered a second person to search the victim’s truck, court documents state. Other people then drove the truck to a different location.

A Houston police officer happened upon the scene, stopped and ordered Aguirre to release the repairman. After police confiscated two handguns Aguirre was carrying, he told Detective John Varela that he and others were part of a group called the Liberty Center, an affidavit by Varela states.

According to the affidavit, Aguirre said his team had been surveilling the repairman for four days, convinced he was involved in a ballot harvesting conspiracy at his mobile home. The repairman, Aguirre alleged, had about 750,000 fraudulent mail ballots which he was “using Hispanic children to sign” because the youths’ fingerprints would not appear in databases.

Varela said the victim let police search his home and truck, where Aguirre said the ballots were stored. Officers found the home was “appropriately furnished” and the truck had air conditioning tools and equipment, but neither contained any evidence of a ballot harvesting operation.

[…]

Affidavits by Aguirre and former FBI employee Charles Marler were part of a lawsuit filed this fall by conservative Houston activist Steven Hotze, who sought to prohibit voters from dropping off mail ballots in person before Election Day.

Aguirre and Marler provided sworn statements included in the lawsuit alleging that powerful Democrats in Harris County had devised a scheme to submit as many as 700,000 fraudulent mail ballots, representing nearly a third of the entire voter roll.

Citing secondhand sources and videotaped interviews, the pair alleged that several African-American businessmen and elected officials were involved, including Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, State Sen. Borris Miles and Biden campaign Texas political director Dallas Jones.

All three denied the claims. Aguirre in October hung up on a reporter seeking evidence of the allegations. Aguirre and Marler did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

There’s more, so keep reading. If the name Mark Aguirre is familiar, it’s because he was a captain with HPD who was fired for his role in the infamous bust of dozens of teenagers for alleged street racing – see here for a brief highlight of Aguirre’s role in that debacle. According to the story, Aguirre was paid over a quarter million bucks from the Hotze and Woodfill-run outfit Liberty Center for God and Country, most of which came right after the alleged assault. Hotze is of course out there in front of the media lying his ass off, because that’s who he is and what he does. I can’t help but feel the financial aspect of this, and the “I’m so shocked such a man might be accused of such things” reaction that Woodfill gave in the Chron story, means there will be more to this as the case progresses. We saw all of the lawsuits that Hotze filed against voting this election, there’s no reason to believe he wouldn’t go farther than that in pursuit of his electoral fantasies. You can be sure I’ll be keeping an eye on this. TPM, the Trib, the Texas Signal, Daily Kos, and Juanita have more.

Why can’t we get our jail population down?

I found this story from Thanksgiving weekend frustrating.

Harris County’s efforts to reduce its jail population have flatlined, despite more than $7.5 million aimed at alleviating systemic burdens so that the county could attempt to reduce its inmates by a targeted 21 percent.

Even after creating programs to lessen the population and reduce racial disparities in jail, criminal caseloads mounted and the facility returned nearly to capacity, county officials said. When Harris County in 2016 joined the nationwide Safety and Justice Challenge – meant to help retool the use of lockups – more than 8,789 people were in jail. On Nov. 23, that number was 8,724 — a decrease of less than 1 percent. To meet the program’s goal, the population would need to have fallen under 7,000.

County leaders next week will reapply for a final round of funding from the MacArthur Foundation to sustain progress made in the challenge overseen by the nonprofit Justice Management Institute. It remains to be seen whether how much the county will receive given the struggle to reduce the jail population.

Even if the county receives the full amount, achieving its goal remains distant, said Thomas Eberly, Harris County’s site coordinator for the challenge and program director of the Justice Management Institute, which works with localities to improve justice systems.

“I do think that the odds are not in Harris County’s favor because of past performance,” said Eberly. “We’re five years into this and the change that was expected hasn’t been achieved, and it’s quite honestly not even close.”

Some county leaders remain positive, however, citing implementation of a series of programs as part of the challenge. They include hiring a “fairness administrator” to address racial inequities and a community engagement outreach coordinator, as well as creating a cite-and-release program and a Reintegration Impact Court to divert those who have low-level cases from jail.

The MacArthur Foundation could award up to $660,000 for one year of sustainability and $500,000 for a second year.

The foundation has already provided $4.25 million to the county since 2015, and county commissioners in 2016 allocated more than $3.3 million from general fund reserves to help pay for reforms.

“We remain optimistic that we’re going to have some breakthroughs,” said Jim Bethke, Harris County’s director of justice administration.

It’s a long story that goes in a number of directions, so go read the whole thing. The main explanations cited are the damage to the courts caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, as both have contributed to long delays in resolving cases. The changeover in the courts due to the 2018 election plus the effort put into the bail reform program was also cited, though it’s not clear to me why that would contribute to the problem – the whole point of bail reform was to have fewer people rotting in jail while they wait for their trials. I needed more information to understand what that had to do with it.

Later in the story, the HPD cite and release program was listed as a potential mitigating factor going forward. It’s only been in effect since September – the Harris County Sheriff’s Office has had a similar policy since February. Diversion programs by the DA’s Office were also cited. I would have liked to know more about how much these could help, or more to the point could have helped if they had been in place longer. Not to put too fine a point on it, but one simple way to have fewer people in jail is to out fewer of them in jail in the first place. It’s very much in our power to arrest fewer people for minor non-violent offenses, with marijuana possession being at the top of that list. Circumstance can explain some of this problem, but our choices are a big part of it as well. There’s plenty we can do to change that.

More on police oversight boards

Ours in Houston isn’t very good. Some other cities do it better. We can learn from them.

Houston’s police oversight board is the weakest among Texas’ five largest cities and suffers from “a complete lack of transparency and public reporting,” a recent study from Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research concludes.

The report, released last week, analyzed police oversight institutions in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth, concluding that the agencies in each city need more resources, and fewer legislative hurdles, while its members need more experience and training.

The Independent Police Oversight Board in Houston “has very limited powers to conduct its own investigations, instead being handed completed internal affairs investigations without the ability to independently collect further evidence on the event,” reads the report, co-authored by Kinder Institute director Bill Fulton, a member of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s recent police reform task force.

The group detailed its recommendations in a 153-page report released in late September, about three months after Turner announced his 45 appointees to the board. The group recommended that city officials bolster the police oversight board with paid staffing and facilities outside the police department and by changing policy to allow the board to report some of its findings to the community, which it is currently barred from doing.

Turner has signaled he intends to adopt at least some of those recommendations, saying in early September he is “99.999 percent certain there will be some adjustments” to the police oversight board. The mayor later said he’s “overwhelmingly supportive of most of the ideas” in the task force’s report, though he said some could be difficult to fund or would require state legislative action.

The task force’s recommendations align with those presented in the Kinder report, which recommends the board be staffed with “people with legal knowledge, police expertise and research skills.” Austin has by far the most paid staff members on its oversight group among Texas’ five largest cities, the report found.

“(M)ost agencies in the state’s big cities have fewer than five employees to oversee forces of thousands of officers,” according to the report. “Houston’s IPOB has no staff or resources.”

See here for more on Mayor Turner and the task force recommendations. For more on the Kinder report, which you can find here, I’ll refer you to this Grits for Breakfast post, which goes into more detail. At this point, we have all the information we need to act. It’s time to act. I’m hopeful we’ll get some at the city level in the upcoming weeks, but as Mayor Turner says, some of this needs to happen at the state level. And there, I fear, we’re more likely to run into obstacles. For instance:

That bill is authored by Rep. Matt Krause, one of the vulnerable Republicans we were unfortunately not able to knock off this election. The problem goes a lot deeper than one State Rep, though. Cities are not going to be able to do what their voters want them to do if the Republican legislature and Greg Abbott have anything to say about it.

Paxton trial move back to Collin County on hold

Delay is the natural state of being in this saga. I don’t know why we’d ever expect anything else.

Best mugshot ever

A Houston appeals court has pressed pause on a ruling that would have allowed Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to stand trial for felony securities fraud in his hometown of Collin County.

That Oct. 23 ruling came three years after the case was first sent to Harris County, with prosecutors arguing they could not get a fair trial prosecuting Paxton in a part of the state where he and his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, are deeply politically connected.

Paxton is accused of persuading investors to buy stock in a technology firm without disclosing he would be compensated for it. He has maintained his innocence and dismissed the charges as politically motivated.

The 1st Court of Appeals in Houston has, for now, blocked the case from resuming in Collin County — likely further delaying the five-year-old case — as it considers the issues.

See here for the previous update. The Chron adds a few details.

The case was moved to Harris County after a judge ruled in 2017 that Paxton’s Republican political connections in Collin County would give him an unfair advantage at trial. But that decision has been under judicial review now for three years as Paxton’s defense team and the special prosecutors appointed in the case battle over the venue.

The prosecutors applauded the latest decision by 1st Court of Appeals Judge Gordon Goodman, a Democrat elected in 2018 as his party swept judicial races.

“The ruling of the court was not unexpected as the law and facts are very straightforward,” said Kent Schaffer, one of the prosecutors. “We are optimistic that the Court of Appeals will do the right thing, and Ken Paxton will face justice in front of a Houston jury.”

[…]

Paxton’s lawyers had argued that the case should have never been moved in the first place, because the judge made the decision after his assignment to the case had expired.

In June, Harris County state District Judge Robert Johnson ruled in Paxton’s favor and moved the case to Collin County. But the 1st Court of Appeals struck that order about a month later, after Johnson recused himself from the case because Paxton’s office is representing him in a separate suit.

The case was then reassigned to Harris County Jason Luong, a Democrat and former prosecutor with the Harris County District Attorney’s office.

Luong agreed the case should be sent back to Collin County based on his interpretation Johnson’s ruling, and he did not discuss where he believed Paxton would receive a fair trial.

The prosecutors had argued in their appeal that Luong misinterpreted the law.

Just to recap, and I’m totally relying on this Chron story rather than spending an hour digging through my own archives, but the case was first moved from Collin County to Harris County because the judge at the time, a Tarrant County jurist who had been appointed as a visiting judge precisely because no Collin County judge could handle the initial hearings, agreed with the prosecutors’ argument that Paxton would get preferential treatment in his home county. All the arguments since then have been about technicalities. It’s surely a safe bet that this current dispute will wind up before the Court of Criminal Appeals, just as the previous ones did. It’s not at all far-fetched to think that Paxton’s more recent legal troubles will see the inside of courtroom before this case does.

Idle yet hilarious thought: How much do you think Paxton will want to move the case back to Collin County if it flips blue and votes for Joe Biden this year?

Anyway. Settle in, or stay settled in if you never bothered to settle out. This will take awhile.

Judge sends Paxton case back to Collin County

Pending appeal, of course.

Best mugshot ever

A Harris County judge on Friday moved Attorney General Ken Paxton’s criminal case to Collin County, handing Paxton a major win by placing the case in his hometown, where legal experts say he’s more likely to face a sympathetic judge or jury.

Judge Jason Luong ruled that he did not have the authority to move the case, deferring to an earlier order moving the case to Collin County.

Special prosecutors Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer said Friday that they plan to appeal. Paxton’s attorneys could not immediately be reached.

The decision adds yet another layer of complication — and likely more delays — to a case that has dragged on for more than five years over numerous issues unrelated to the substance of the accusations against Paxton.

I’m going to jump in here to remind everyone that Judge Robert Johnson had ordered the case back to Collin County in June, agreeing with Paxton’s defense team that the judge who had sent the case to Harris County in the first place did not have the authority to do so. Johnson then recused himself from the case, because the AG’s office is representing the criminal district court judges in the felony bail reform lawsuit, though it is not clear that he had to do so, since Paxton is not directly involved in that case and the judges who are defendants are being sued in their official capacity, not as plain old citizens. The First Court of Appeals set that order aside in July (the technical legal term is “abated”), on the grounds that the new judge, Jason Luong, needed to have an opportunity to review Judge Johnson’s order and either agree with it or vacate it. (Team Paxton later tried to get Judge Luong removed, but that motion was denied and subsequently mocked.)

In his ruling Friday, Luong added that even if a higher court rules that he does in fact have authority, he agrees with Paxton’s lawyers that the judge who allowed the case to move to Harris in the first place lacked authority as well, meaning the case would remain in Collin County.

As it was explained to me, the same mandamus that had been filed with the First Court of Appeals to challenge Judge Johnson’s ruling will now be taken up for Judge Luong’s ruling. I should note that the First Court’s abatement was supposed to be for 45 days, but as with everything related to this Paxton case, things took longer than that. Lord only knows when the next thing will happen. In the meantime, of course, there is now the Nate Paul shitshow, and if that does not have an effect on this case somehow at some point, I will be puzzled and very, very disappointed – like, Susan Collins clucking her tongue at Donald Trump-level disappointed. What the world needed now, when not much else is happening, is some more Ken Paxton news, am I right? The Trib has more.

Mayor will support the task force recommendations

Good start, now let’s get it going.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday endorsed “almost all” the 104 recommendations laid out last week by his Task Force on Policing Reform.

Speaking at a virtual city council meeting, Turner said a few recommendations, which he did not identify, raise questions about the need for state legislative action, and a few others prompt “some concern about where we come up with the money to implement some of the proposals.”

“But, by and large, I’ve read through the entire report and I am overwhelmingly supportive of most of the ideas,” Turner said.

[…]

The task force — which laid out an implementation timeline for all of its recommendations — would remain involved in developing the implementation strategy, Turner said.

While the mayor did not specify which items gave him pause, the task force report referred to the need for legislative action on at least one occasion. That involved allowing doctors and health care workers to issue notifications of detention, currently only allowed by law enforcement officers.

Other measures, such as amending disciplinary windows for officers, would require the union to sign off on the changes unless a state law is passed.

That prospect is unlikely. Houston Police Officers’ Union Vice President Douglas Griffith said some of the recommendations, including those regarding discipline, were ill-informed or impractical.

He challenged one proposal to allow supervisors to investigate officers 180 days after learning of alleged misconduct, rather than 180 after it occurred. The so-called “180-day rule” has been a key target for reform advocates.

Officers’ current contract and state law allows supervisors 180 days after discovering misconduct to issue temporary suspensions of up to 15 days. If department leaders want to fire officers, however, the contract requires chiefs to do it within 180 days after the alleged misconduct occurred or if the officer has been indicted.

In its report, the task force said budgetary considerations were beyond its scope, so it did not outline where to find the necessary funds to implement the measures.

“We acknowledge that some of our recommendations will require additional funding and recognize fundraising as a critical step toward implementation. That said, we implore the mayor, city council, and the HPD to explore partnerships, grant applications, and otherwise exhaust other reasonable options before declaring that something cannot be done due to a lack of funding.”

The task force included timelines on how long it believed recommendations should take to be enacted, suggesting HPD and the city implement many within 90 days. Those short-term objectives include creating a way for residents to file complaints online, or for the department to follow up with civilians who had filed complaints. A policy outlining the public release of body camera footage within 30 days of incidents and a new order on long-term patrol assignments were also included in the short-term objectives, among dozens of others.

Proponents of criminal justice reform said they were encouraged by the mayor’s comments but that Turner needed to provide more details on how he would carry out the task force’s recommendations.

“There’s never been a shortage of good ideas about police reform,” ACLU Policy Advocacy Strategist Nicholas Hudson said. “But we need a clear timeline for implementation, and aggressive action from the mayor and council, especially on items in the ‘Justice Can’t Wait’ report.”

See here for the background. My advice is to get the things that can be done quickly as soon as possible, and start building consensus or working with legislators on the rest. If the union is going to object to some things, well, that’s what they’re going to do, but don’t consider that an obstacle. This is a rare chance to make some real progress, and the success of Mayor Turner’s second term will be determined in large part by what he does with this from here.

Here comes the police reform task force report

Now let’s do something with it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday rolled out his task force’s report on policing reform in Houston, but said he needed more time to digest the 153-page report before taking action on its recommendations.

The task force lists 104 reforms the city could enact to improve policing in Houston, which the Chronicle previously reported.

Among them: a fundamentally revamped oversight board with full-time investigative staff, a blanket ban on no-knock warrants for nonviolent offenses, the public release of body camera footage within 30 days of critical incidents, more stringent rules on police officer misconduct and an online process for complaints about police behavior.

Turner said his initial read indicated the report was comprehensive. He embraced revamping the oversight board — a conclusion he said he reached before the report was released — but declined to say when recommendations would be adopted.

“If you can just give me a few days to really digest it, and then to visit with Chairman (Laurence) Payne and the sub-chairs, and some of the members of city council, I’d be in a much better position,” Turner said when asked about implementation. “Literally, I just got it yesterday.”

The report is here, and I have not yet read it. But I strongly agree with the Chron editorial board that there needs to be real action here. We know the history of task forces, and of police reform more generally. The need for action is clear, and it’s urgent. Let’s not blow it. Grits, who has read the report, and the Press have more.

Turner signs cite-and-release order

Good.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Monday signed an executive order authorizing a new cite-and-release program for the Houston Police Department, aiming to let people accused of certain misdemeanors off with a ticket instead of a trip to jail.

Turner and Chief Art Acevedo also promised to release monthly public updates on its implementation, ensuring the public can review how the policy is applied. The order takes effect 6 a.m. Tuesday.

“The program gives them an opportunity to make changes in their lives and face responsibility for their actions without having the stain of an arrest, or serving jail time, on their record,” Turner said of accused offenders.

[…]

The policy has buy-in from HPD executives, the Houston Police Officers’ Union, and some advocates, who have called it an imperfect step in the right direction.

However, the city’s policy allows for exceptions that some argue are too expansive. The exceptions include if an alleged offender cannot provide a government ID, if there is reason to believe they will not appear in court, and if “an officer believes that offering Cite And Release to an otherwise qualified suspect is not the best course of action.”

In those cases, the officer must get supervisor approval and document the name of that supervisor in his or her offense report.

Those exceptions have given pause to criminal justice advocates who have pushed for a cite-and-release policy for years.

The Right2Justice Coalition, a group that includes many prominent local justice organizations and drafted a model cite-and-release ordinance this summer, wrote an open letter to the mayor last week asking him to strengthen the new policy.

It said the policy, as laid out by HPD, leaves officers with too much discretion and carves out too many exceptions. It is not legally binding and does not include all citation-eligible offenses under state law, the letter said.

Houston’s policy has 16 exceptions, whereas San Marcos has six and Austin has seven, according to the letter.

“We project that their program, as presented, will fail to significantly improve community safety, wellbeing and equity in the city,” the letter said.

See here, here, and here for the background. The detailed reporting is good, as that will let everyone know how this is working. Even better would be a commitment to make changes when the data shows there are opportunities for improvement. I can understand why the activists are still critical, but we’ll see how this goes. We are expecting the task force report in the next couple of days, so we will be continuing this discussion further, and maybe make some more progress as well.

HPD adopts cite-and-release

Took them long enough.

The Houston Police Department plans to join Harris County’s cite-and-release program, fulfilling advocates’ long-running request to implement the policy they say keeps low-level offenders out of jail and saves law enforcement resources for more serious threats.

In a presentation to the city council’s Public Safety Committee, two assistant chiefs on Thursday laid out the program they would use for a set of six misdemeanors offenses. The strategy mirrors that already used by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and other local departments in the county, using a program set up by Harris County court-at-law judges.

In those cases, officers now would be required to give people a citation with the time and date they must appear in court, instead of hauling them to jail, unless they meet certain exceptions. Like the sheriff’s office, HPD officers who use their discretion to disqualify an eligible offender from the program would have to get supervisor approval and list the reason in their report, according to the presentation.

“I believe cite-and-release programs are critical, not just as it relates to police reform, but addressing the prison pipeline and, quite frankly, racism in our criminal justice system,” said City Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who chairs the committee. “I reiterate that this is just one aspect of improving and making sure our city is safe for all Houstonians. We can’t be finished after cite and release.”

Assistant Chief Wendy Baimbridge said the department plans to adopt the program internally, as it is allowed to do under state law. It was not clear when that will be done.

[…]

Darrell Jordan, a Harris County court-at-law judge who helped design the cite-and-release program, which launched in February, said the city should not win plaudits for dragging its feet and finally succumbing to pressure.

He said the roll-out and presentation of the program was “all for show” and wasted time. The city could have opted into the program without an ordinance days, weeks, or months ago, if it wanted. The county’s cite-and-release court has processed 113 cases since the program’s launch in February. About half of those, 60, came from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, that agency reported.

“I don’t believe in applauding people for waiting six months to fix a problem,” he said. “That’s six months Houstonians had less officers on the streets. How many victims have suffered waiting for police officers to respond? How many alleged criminals have gotten away?”

See here and here for the background. I largely agree with Judge Jordan here, with two caveats. One, late is still better than never, so I do credit the city for eventually coming around. It shouldn’t have taken this long, but at least in the end they did make the right decision. And two, I do want City Council to vote on making this an ordinance, to make it harder for future police chiefs to tinker around the edges of this system if for whatever the reason they don’t like some part of it. It would also ensure that HPD doesn’t take too much time getting around to implementing this. This can, and ideally should, be part of a larger ordinance that includes other reforms. It’s a first step, not the end of the journey.

Smoots-Thomas takes a plea

A sad but hardly unexpected end to this story.

The ex-judge in an orange jail uniform stood before a judge in black robes, swore to tell the truth and tried to make sense of her predicament.

“My world truly turned upside down,” Alexandra Smoots-Thomas, a former Harris County civil judge, told federal Judge Lynn N. Hughes on Thursday, enumerating the heartbreaks amid tears. Her husband’s unemployment. A house in foreclosure. Her cancer treatments. Her father’s cancer diagnosis. Two divorces. A child’s suicide attempt.

“I regret wholeheartedly leaving such a terrible stain at what is the end of a wonderful and rewarding 18-year legal career,” she said. “I truly apologize for my actions. I apologize for the stain that this has placed on my family and even my former colleagues on the bench.”

The 44-year-old pleaded guilty to using campaign funds to pay personal expenses, capping off a turbulent year that included chemotherapy, remission, a failed bid to reclaim her former bench and criminal charges last month alleging she fired a shotgun at her husband’s girlfriend. The government dropped six remaining counts of wire fraud.

Her plea agreement details how she siphoned off campaign money to purchase a Zales engagement ring and two Prada handbags, and to make two mortgage payments and cover private school tuition for her two sons. As a convicted felon, she will no longer be permitted to practice law, the only career she’s ever known, according to her lawyer in the assault case.

Hughes took into consideration her admission of guilt, her hardships and her likelihood of re-offending, and sentenced her to the 36 days she’d just spent in jail for a bond violation connected to the shooting charges, as well as three years of supervised release.

He ordered her released from federal lockup in Conroe, and made off-handed remark to a deputy U.S. marshal to make sure she got a ride back into Houston.

Prosecutor Ted Imperato, of the U.S. Attorney’s public corruption unit, challenged the “unreasonableness” of the sentence. The judge responded, in his trademark snarky bluster, that the sentence was “pure wisdom.”

The prosecutor had requested a sentence within the guideline range of 18 to 24 months in prison, saying the defendant abused her power and authority as a sitting judge.

Imperato noted that rather than agree to a deal where she would leave the bench, “She thumbed her nose at us, and, with these charges pending, ran for re-election.”

See here and here for the background. As I’ve said before, I know Smoots-Thomas and I feel terrible for the things she has gone through. I truly hope she is able to get the help she needs to get her life back on track. I hope her children are doing all right – the story goes into more detail about the effect this has had on their lives, and it was not good. I’m also glad she lost her primary election – I voted against her in both rounds. And I hope the next time we see her name in the news it’s for something positive.

On a side note, we can certainly have a debate about the prosecutor’s complaint that the sentence she received was too light. One could argue that the guideline range is too harsh, or too limited, or that we should just let judges have the discretion to sentence defendants as they see fit. Perhaps the problem is not that she got off too easy, but that other, less prominent, defendants in her position get sentences that are overly severe. It’s a good debate to be having in many contexts.

Cite and release for Houston

Good.

Houston is preparing a cite-and-release policy that could let people accused of certain misdemeanors off with a ticket instead of an arrest, perhaps the city’s most significant bid at criminal justice reform since the killing of George Floyd ignited a renewed national reckoning over policing.

Mayor Sylvester Turner previously has alluded to the effort, and the proposal is scheduled for discussion at the Public Safety Committee on Thursday. City Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who chairs that committee, said she has helped work on the policy.

“I’m thankful to community groups for advocating for this, and to HPD and Mayor Turner for bringing this forward so quickly,” Kamin said.

The details of the measure, which remain in the works, were not immediately available Monday, including which offenses would be included and whether tickets would be required — or merely preferred — instead of arrests. It also is unclear whether the measure would be an ordinance passed by the city council or an administration policy.

Since 2007, state law has allowed citations for all Class C misdemeanors and some others. Among them: possession of up to 4 ounces of marijuana; criminal mischief (damage up to $750); graffiti; theft of up to $750; providing contraband in a correctional facility; and driving with an invalid license. In those cases, officers can give offenders a written citation with a date and time to appear in court, allowing them to await the hearing without going to jail.

Advocates and elected officials in Houston have been calling for a cite-and-release policy for years. The “Justice Can’t Wait” report, released in July by a broad coalition of Houston-area criminal justice advocacy groups, renewed calls for the policy, and five city council members echoed that in a letter released late last month.

The mayor’s own transition team recommended such a policy in a 2016 report after Turner first was elected.

See here for some background. I know some people can’t sleep at night unless everyone who has ever encountered a police officer is in a jail cell, but would you rather have those officers spend their time hauling graffiti artists and people with expired licenses off to jail, or patrolling the streets after writing them a ticket? The Harris County Sheriff’s Office has had a similar policy since February, and as far as I can tell the region has not fallen into anarchy and chaos. Keep people out of jail and keep cops on the streets. And maybe that Task Force report (due by the end of the month) will have more.

UPDATE: Here’s a later version of the story, with some back-and-forth about whether the city should implement this now as a matter of policy, or draft an ordinance to mandate cite-and-release and implement it that way.

Yes, bail reform is good

Here’s the first pieces of evidence, from Harris County, to support that.

A new report examining the impact of recent changes to bail practices in Harris County found that releasing more misdemeanor defendants from jail without requiring cash bail did not lead to an increase in arrests for reoffending.

The findings are being cited as a win by criminal justice reform advocates who have long argued that cash-bail requirements unfairly penalize poor defendants who can’t afford release from jail before trial.

Wednesday’s report was the first by independent monitors appointed by a federal judge as part of a settlement order in a lengthy lawsuit that led to changes in the bail system in Texas’ most populous county. The case has been noted by civil rights groups as the first to put America’s cash bail system on trial in federal court.

“This misdemeanor bail reform is working as intended and there are real results,” said Brandon Garrett, a law professor at Duke University and independent monitor of the reforms. “Many more people are released promptly, cash bond amounts are vastly reduced except in cases where there will be public safety concerns… [and] there has been no change in reoffending.”

[…]

The report found the rate of new criminal complaints filed against misdemeanor defendants in Harris County within a year of their initial arrest had not changed since the reforms were implemented in early 2019.

The report also found the gap between white and Black defendants being released before trial narrowed under the county’s new system. Before the lawsuit, white people were more likely to bond out of jail before trial than Black people. Data on Hispanic defendants is unavailable.

Not included in the report is data on how often the defendants who were released without payment failed to show up at court hearings. Bail reform opponents across the country have used rises in missed court appearances as ammunition against releasing people on no-cash bonds. The report said appearance rates and reasons for missed hearings will be considered in future reports.

You can read the report for yourself. It’s not the be-all and end-all, as there are still questions about defendants released on PR bonds who would have had to pay bail before versus those who did pay bail, and about rates of showing up in court, but those will be answered in time. The point is, every apocalyptic prediction about murder and mayhem in the streets resulting from jaywalkers and pot smokers not being kept in jail has proven to be spectacularly wrong. Not that this should have been a surprise, since that has been the experience everywhere else this kind of bail reform has been tried, but that didn’t stop the doomsayers. In the meantime, many fewer people were exposed to the risks of being in jail for no good reason. That right there is a whole lot of good. The Chron has more.

Another example of why bail reform is needed

This is troubling in a lot of ways, but fortunately there is a path forward.

Since November, eight defendants fresh out of jail on bond have walked into state District Judge Ramona Franklin’s court and been sent right back to jail.

Instead of standing for a routine court hearing in a first step in their criminal court cases, they ended up back in sheriff’s custody after Franklin revoked their bail and ordered them back behind bars, sometimes with no lawyer present for the defendant.

The process has put Franklin at odds with defense attorneys across Harris County who argue she is engaging in behavior that unfairly penalizes defendants who are presumed innocent — and can cause them to lose thousands of dollars they have scraped together to pay their bail.

Defense attorneys say Franklin revoked their bonds without notice or cause, some of them without legal representation. They argue the process is illegal, in a judicial complaint filed earlier this week with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

“Many times these people are effectively ambushed,” said Grant Scheiner, with the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. “They can’t defend themselves and have no access to counsel.”

[…]

When arrested, suspects usually appear before a magistrate who determines probable cause and a bail amount. After posting bail and being released from custody, they have about a day to appear before a district court judge, where they’re expected to be appointed counsel.

But Thiessen and Scheiner said the defendants complied with the rules of their appearance while Franklin violated procedure, going against the mandate recently issued in an appeals court.

“When the court of appeals hands down the decision telling you not to do something and you proceed contrary to that decision, it just shows a lack of respect for the court of appeals and the Constitution,” Thiessen said.

Franklin has said that she asks attorneys to stand in during those proceedings, the defense lawyers said, but no formal appointment or recording of those stand-in attorneys exists.

Most recently in these initial appearances, Franklin has called some of the defendants to her stand without an attorney present, Thiessen said. A prosecutor reads probable cause findings — the same document and evidence read to a magistrate — and Franklin revokes bond, raises bail amounts and remands the defendant into sheriff’s custody.

“The practice she is engaging in is very unusual,” said Amanda Peters, a law professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston who teaches criminal procedure. “I’ve never seen a judge revoke a bond and then set a higher one if a defendant didn’t violate a condition of bond.”

In some cases, she has ordered defendants who’d posted bond be held without bail, a move defense attorneys say is a clear violation of their clients’ constitutional rights.

State law mandates that judges need to give the defendant “reasonable notice” that they intend to deny bail and allow “meaningful opportunity to be heard.”

Most of the defendants were denied the opportunity for representation before Franklin acted in their cases, using probable cause materials that are often considered inadmissible evidence in trials, Thiessen said.

“Each of these defendants appeared in court and had no notice of what was about to take place,” the defense lawyers said in the complaint. “No notice that Judge Franklin intended to revoke their bonds. No notice that Judge Franklin intended to deny them bail.”

What’s happening here is that the defendants had paid the bond required of them, had shown up in court for their next hearing as they were required to do, had no violations of their bail or other offenses that could cause their bail to be revoked, and yet their bail was either revoked or raised, for no apparent reason. One thing I didn’t realize that this story pointed out is that if you have paid the bond for (say) a $25K bail, and then your bail is subsequently raised to $50K, you don’t get back the amount you paid to the $25K bail so that it can apply to the higher bail. What you paid to the bail bondsman is now gone, and you are starting from scratch to pay the higher bail. Needless to say, lots of people can’t afford this.

I don’t know why Judge Franklin is doing this – she declined to comment for the story – and it’s not clear what can be done about it. What is being alleged here is illegal, but I don’t have a sense for what the State Commission on Judicial Conduct can or will do about it. We have certainly learned over the past few years that just having a law in place for something is not sufficient if there is not an enforcement mechanism in place that brings actual consequences for violating those laws. I hope members of the Legislature, and of Congress, who have criminal justice reform on their priority lists keep this in mind.

I also hope that the ongoing litigation over bail reform for felony defendants brings all of the current abuses of the system to light:

Those probable cause documents were the same materials magistrates used to set the initial bond amounts, meaning no new evidence existed, the complaint alleges. Harris County Public Defender Alex Bunin said Texas law requires new evidence is required under a Texas statute that requires “good and sufficient cause” to raise bond. Franklin is just one of several judges who use these practices, he said.

“I think the issue is going to be taken a lot more seriously now,” he said. “Some judges have followed the rules of due process better than others, and I think that’s also coming to light.”

Let’s name names and get it all on the record. It was clear prior to the 2018 election that the Republicans judges (with one honorable exception) were the main impediment to bail reform in the misdemeanor courts. All of the felony court judges are Democrats, and so far only two of them (Chuck Silverman and Brian Warren) have petitioned to join the plaintiffs in this lawsuit. That means that all of the others are at least potentially part of the problem. It’s not too late for any of them to get on the right side of things, but that time will soon come, and it’s going to be on us Democratic primary voters to clean up whatever mess is left. I very much hope that our Democratic judges decide that they want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem, but we need to be prepared to deal with the ones that make a bad choice. Judge Franklin was unopposed in March, and has no Republican opponent. She can’t get a pass like that again.

Finally, for those who show up in the comments here with links to Facebook posts about people who get released on PR bond and then do something horrible: This is a coward’s argument. If you honestly believe that everyone who gets arrested for anything should be kept in jail until they get acquitted by a jury, have the guts to say so. Or if you believe that only people that you personally don’t find to be scary can get released, or if you believe that everyone should have to pay bail of some large minimum amount, say so. Because what you are arguing for, whether you are able to admit it or not, is for lots of people to be kept in jail before they are ever found guilty of anything. If you can’t admit what you’re actually arguing for, then maybe you should keep that argument to yourself.

No new judge for Paxton

Sorry, Kenny.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is still fighting five-year-old felony securities fraud charges, has failed in his bid to kick a Democratic Harris County judge off his ongoing criminal case.

An administrative judge in Houston, Susan Brown, denied Paxton’s motion to recuse Judge Jason Luong from the case, the Dallas Morning News first reported Friday.

It’s a loss for Paxton’s team in the long-running prosecution, which has yet to go to trial amid side fights over venue and prosecutor pay that have spanned years and bounced between numerous courts across the state. Paxton, a Republican, has maintained his innocence in the case, in which he is accused of persuading investors to buy stock in a technology firm without disclosing that he would be compensated for it.

[…]

“We’re gratified that Judge Brown found that Paxton’s motion to recuse Judge Luong was baseless,” said Brian Wice, one of the prosecutors taking Paxton to trial. “We’re confident that Judge Luong will find that Paxton’s motion to keep from being tried in Harris County is cut from the same cloth.”

See here and here for the previous updates. Here’s that DMN story.

Luong, a Democrat, is the fourth judge to preside over Paxton’s case since the attorney general was charged in July 2015. The first judge to preside over the case recused himself early on. Paxton successfully argued for the recusal of the second judge, Tarrant County Republican George Gallagher, over his objections. The third judge to preside over the case, Harris County District Court Judge Robert Johnson, recused himself last month because the attorney general is representing him and several other judges in a lawsuit challenging the region’s cash bail system.

Paxton’s lawyers argued that Luong should be removed from the case for this same reason. The prosecutors, however, said Paxton wanted to recuse Luong because he could reverse Johnson’s decision, made just before his recusal, to move the case out of Harris County. The case was moved from Collin to Harris County in 2017 after the prosecutors argued that they would be unable to ensure a fair trial in Paxton’s backyard.

All righty then. What is unclear to me from these stories is whether or not Team Paxton can appeal this ruling. I’m sure if they can they will, all previous nattering about wanting to get their guy his day in court aside, but that is not addressed and they did not comment. I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough. I also assume any ruling Judge Luong may make on where the trial should be will wait until that happens, if it does. So we don’t yet know how much more time is on the clock before something substantial happens.

Where are we again with the IPOB?

Are we moving forward, or are we standing still?

A longtime member of Houston’s Independent Police Oversight Board has resigned, saying the organization’s structure prevents it from providing meaningful oversight of the Houston Police Department and should be disbanded.

In a pointed letter to Mayor Sylvester Turner dated Aug. 13, board member Kristin Anderson wrote that the civilian police watchdog “does not serve its stated purposes and it provides cover by making it appear that independent oversight is taking place.”

“In this time of radical rethinking of the purpose and function of law enforcement, someone with the courage and moral imagination beyond tinkering with the edges of reform should rethink citizen oversight in Houston,” she wrote. “If we do not act now, what a profound opportunity we will have missed.”

The resignation marks the latest criticism of the volunteer board and comes amid widespread scrutiny of law enforcement departments following the death of longtime Houston resident George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May.

[…]

In an emailed statement, Turner said that when he appointed his policing taskforce earlier this summer, he ordered its members to review potential changes regarding the IPOB.

“Their work is ongoing, and I look forward to receiving the final report,” he wrote. “In fact, I already have sent Kristin Anderson’s letter to the chair. Ms. Anderson has served on the Independent Police Oversight Board since 2011. I appreciate her work and contributions to the City of Houston and wish her well.”

[…]

Anderson called on Turner to include members with a broader range of perspectives on the board.

“Formerly incarcerated citizens and others who have had both positive and negative experiences with law enforcement would represent the Houston community in a way that IPOB does not,” she said.

She also noted that she had never seen the IPOB fulfill one of its other charges: “to review and make recommendations on recruitment, training and evaluation of police officers; and to consider community concerns regarding the department.”

The letter is embedded in the story if you want to read the whole thing. We’ve had this discussion before, and it’s cleat there are many reforms that can be accomplished, some by Congress, some by the Legislature, some by Mayor Turner and City Council, and some by the collective bargaining process, which kicks in again this December. The Houston Justice Coalition has made three simple demands: enforcing body camera usage, more transparency with the IPOB, and giving the IPOB subpoena power. It should be noted that the Austin Police Department’s IPOB has better transparency than Houston’s and can initiate its own investigations, but the APD is kind of a mess, so these things have their limits. But all of them together would represent significant progress. We have to wait on the Lege till January, and Congress isn’t going to be able to do anything without a different Senate and a different President, but the city stuff can get moving any time.

Which reminds me, that Mayoral Task Force was formed in early June, and their report was to be delivered in three months. That means we’re a couple of weeks out from the deadline, at which time there better be a mandate to act. I just wanted to note this so we’re all ready for when it happens.

Paxton (again) wants another judge on his case

Round and round they go.

Best mugshot ever

Defense attorneys for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — whose indictment for felony securities fraud is now more than five years old — are again asking for a different judge to oversee the case. It’s the latest turn in a long-delayed prosecution that has bounced all the way from a trial court in North Texas to the state Supreme Court in Austin, and now sits in legal purgatory in Houston.

Paxton’s attorneys wrote Thursday that Judge Jason Luong should recuse himself from the case because the attorney general’s office is representing him — among a group of about 20 Harris County district court judges — in an unrelated lawsuit over bail practices. Robert Johnson, who oversaw the case until recently, voluntarily recused himself from the case for that reason earlier this summer. A Houston appeals court reassigned the case to Luong late last month.

“Judge Luong’s impartiality might be reasonably questioned” because Paxton is defending him, Paxton’s attorneys argued in a filing this week.

[…]

The prosecutors appointed to take Paxton to trial shot back Friday, arguing that Luong should remain on the case.

“Because Paxton’s palpable fear that Judge Luong will follow the law and keep these felony cases in Harris County does not come within a time zone of meeting the Draconian burden required for recusal, his motion is without merit and should be denied,” prosecutors Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer wrote.

And they noted that last month, Paxton’s attorney Philip Hilder told the Houston Chronicle that Johnson “did not need to recuse himself on the matter since … the allegations against Mr. Paxton do not involve his official capacity but rather his individual capacity.”

See here for the previous update. I don’t think the Paxton argument about a potential conflict of interest due to the bail lawsuit is completely without merit, but I do agree that it’s a thin reed. I mean, the AG’s office is basically defending the office of Criminal District Court Judge in this lawsuit, and Jason Luong just happens to be in that category. It’s Jason Luong in his official capacity, not Jason Luong, person of Texas. It’s true that Judge Robert Johnson agreed to recuse himself on those grounds, but that doesn’t mean other judges would agree with that position. It’s also true that the question could be made moot, either by Judge Luong making like Chuck Silverman and Brian Warren and filing a motion in agreement with the plaintiffs, or by the presiding judge in the bail case granting the motion to dismiss that was recently filed. Of course, a ruling on that motion could take months, and we needn’t wait that long. The point is, though, that there are other ways to resolve this conflict, if one agrees that there is a conflict.

And I too would point out that Team Paxton was just the other day talking about how their guy is ready for his day in court and that the prosecutors should quit fighting the effort to move the case back to Collin County so we can get this show on the road already. Funny how one’s perspective can change on that. It’s been pretty much entirely the work of Team Paxton and his political supporters that have caused this case to drag on for now more than five years. The DMN, in its reporting on this latest action, provides a handy timeline.

The prosecutors, Paxton’s lawyers added, are improperly trying for a do-over on this change-of-venue decision.

“It simply defies belief that the State can get two bites at the apple on the critical jurisdictional issue that Judge Johnson already properly ruled on by allowing a new judge who is similarly situated with Judge Johnson (i.e., both represented by the Texas Attorney General in the same case) to review Judge Johnson’s prior ruling. This is the ultimate appearance of impropriety.”

In their response, the prosecutors said Paxton’s own lawyers already undercut their argument when they told the Houston Chronicle last month that Johnson never needed to step off the case.

“He did not need to recuse himself on the matter since it had been ordered back to Collin County and the allegations against Mr. Paxton do not involve his official capacity but rather his individual capacity that predates his election to that office,” Paxton attorney Philip Hilder told the Chronicle.

A Collin County jury indicted Paxton in July 2015. Since then, his case has been repeatedly delayed by fights over where the trials should take place, how much the prosecutors should make and what judge should preside. Paxton’s defense team spent more than a year attempting to have the charges against their client thrown out. They failed.

Hurricane Harvey also delayed the case and many others in Houston. The COVID-19 pandemic could further push any possible trial back.

Paxton is charged with two first-degree felonies over allegations that he persuaded friends to invest in a McKinney technology company called Servergy Inc. without telling them he received 100,000 shares of stock. He also is charged with a third-degree felony, accused of funneling clients to a friend’s investment firm without being registered with the state. The Texas State Securities Board reprimanded and fined Paxton $1,000 for this failure to register in 2014.

If found guilty, Paxton could face two to 10 years in prison for the third-degree felony and five to 99 years for each of the first-degree felonies, as well as fines. He has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.

When I started writing this post, I began with the post title, and I was pretty sure that it was Paxton who had demanded a new judge in the past, but I wasn’t sure and I knew it would take a lot of archive-diving find an answer. I’m thankful the DMN did that work for me. Who wants to bet this case will still be active when the voters go to choose an AG in 2022?

A whole lot of Paxton case news all of a sudden

Brace yourselves.

Best mugshot ever

A Houston appeals court on Monday abated a recent decision to move the criminal cases against Attorney General Ken Paxton from Harris to Collin County, giving a new judge on the case the chance to revisit that order.

The abatement is a win for special prosecutors Kent Schaffer and Brian Wice. It will also allow the judge, Jason Luong, to consider whether to reinstate pay to the prosecutors, who have not been paid since 2016. The prosecutors confirmed the appeals court decision to The News but declined to speak to the matter further.

Paxton’s lawyers said they were “disappointed” and “troubled” that the appeals court ruled without giving them a change to respond.

“Mr. Paxton’s response brief on the merits of returning the case to Collin County was due today and filed after the Court had already decided to abate the case,” Paxton defense attorney Bill Mateja told The News in a statement. “As such, we intend to ask the Court of Appeals to reconsider its ruling.”

I did not know that it was in play for the First Court of Appeals to “abate” the ruling that moved the Paxton case back to Collin County. (I also don’t exactly know what “abate” means here, and how it differs from “overturns or “reverses”. You lawyers out there, please chime in.) I did know that Robert Johnson, the judge in Harris County who ruled that the case should go back to Collin, then recused himself because the AG’s office will be representing criminal district court judges in Harris in the latest bail reform lawsuit. I had not known that a new judge – who, it should be noted, is in the same boat as Judge Johnson in re: the bail lawsuit, unless he decides to make like Chuck Silverman and side with the plaintiffs. I’m putting all that in here so as not to quote the whole damn story. Now back to the excerpt:

Paxton’s legal team applauded the decision [to move the case back to Collin County] at the time and said the attorney general is ready to have his day in court.

“We are gratified by the Court’s ruling and look forward to getting Mr. Paxton’s case back on track. This case has gone on far too long,” Paxton lawyer Dan Cogdell said in an emailed statement that day. Bill Mateja added: “The Prosecutors need to let Judge Johnson’s decision stand and allow Mr. Paxton to have his day in court.”

The special prosecutors appealed his decision.

In early July, the 1st Court of Appeals delayed moving the cases to Collin County until it could rule on the merits of the prosecutors’ arguments that they remain in Houston. Now, the prosecutors say the court has abated Johnson’s decision and allowed Luong, a Democrat, to revisit the move back to Collin County.

Luong, who is also being represented by Paxton’s office in the same separate case as Johnson, has not answered questions about whether he too will recuse himself from this case.

Did you know that the original Paxton indictments are now five years old? Let’s just say I don’t believe Attorneys Cogdell and Mateja in their assessment of how long this has taken and their client’s desire to see the inside of a courtroom, even one in front of a presumably friendly judge. It ain’t the not-paid-since-2016 special prosecutors who have dragged this out for so long. I have no idea what issue there may be for Judge Luong to decide in re: their pay, but 1) they deserve to be paid, and 2) any further action on that front will for sure drag this out until the heat death of the universe. In the meantime, the ball is literally in Judge Luong’s court, and we’ll see what the next action item is. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: I have been given the following explanation of what an “abatement” is:

A Texas appellate court “abates” a case when it decides that there is some action a trial judge must take before the case goes forward. The same word is used in other circumstances but it almost always means a court is pausing proceedings.

This is a mandamus in which the prosecutors are challenging Judge Johnson’s transfer order. A mandamus is technically a suit against the trial judge in their official capacity. The First Court’s order yesterday abated the case because it had learned Judge Johnson had recused himself and Judge Luong is the new judge. The case against Judge Johnson can’t proceed because there’s a new judge who must be given an opportunity to either agree or to vacate Judge Johnson’s order. If Judge Luong agrees with Judge Johnson, the mandamus will proceed against the new judge. If he vacates, it will be up to Paxton’s defense counsel to try the case here or appeal the new judge’s order.

This type of abatement is not unusual and is all but mandatory when there is a change in judges in the middle of a mandamus. It’s unfortunate that the appellate brief was filed after the abatement, but that happens sometimes. It would be unusual if the court of appeals had not abated the mandamus to allow Judge Luong time to rule.

That makes sense to me, and as you can see from the court order, the abatement is for 45 days. So, in the next six weeks or so we should know if the ruling to move the case back to Collin County is still in place or if it has been vacated. (This is assuming Judge Luong doesn’t recuse himself, in which case I presume the main effect would be to push the timeline further back, because sure, why not.) Once we have that, we’ll know who’s appealing what. Isn’t this fun?

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.

More and better police data, please

Like this.

The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement will ask nearly 2,000 Texas law enforcement agencies to resubmit information legislators intended be used to analyze whether police were treating minority motorists differently — but which turned out to be worthless because TCOLE neglected to ask departments to include the race of the drivers in some of the data.

The change comes days after Hearst Newspapers published a story detailing how the information, required by the 2017 Sandra Bland Act, was impossible to use.

“I’m trying to jump on it pretty fast,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, a sponsor of the bill, who said he spoke Monday morning with TCOLE and they had agreed to correct the problem.

Coleman said he also has asked the agency to work with academic experts to ensure the information it is asking of Texas law enforcement agencies can be used to actually conduct racial bias analyses. Alex del Carmen, a criminal justice professor at Tarleton State University who helps train police executives, said he worked Sunday to create a survey that would produce the necessary information.

Coleman said the new list of questions will be used to gather the information for 2020. But he added the agency said it would also contact police departments to ask them to redo their 2019 surveys, originally submitted in March.

I mean, I’m glad this is happening now, but it’s more than a little embarrassing that the initial data collection was this lacking. Whose job was it to do quality assurance? Kudos to the Chron for bringing this to light.

And let me just add, while it is quite fashionable now to dunk on the idea of “running government like a business”, as someone who has worked for a Large Corporation for many years, this kind of data collection is absolutely the sort of things successful businesses do. It’s critical, to know if what you’re doing is working, to identify and learn from errors, to spot trends and respond to them, and so on and so forth. And really, it’s not that hard to do. Shame on TCOLE for such a shoddy first effort.

And also like this.

Two state lawmakers who reviewed a copy of the Houston Police Department’s audit of its narcotics division are calling on Chief Art Acevedo to release the document to the public.

“The reality is, there’s nothing in this the public should not be aware of,” Texas Sen. Paul Bettancourt said. “The real question is, what are they going to do about it?”

The police department performed the audit after last year’s disastrous Harding Street raid. Two homeowners died in the raid, and investigators later accused former officer Gerald Goines of lying to obtain the warrant on which he based the raid. He is now charged with murder.

In the wake of the incident, the police department launched an internal criminal probe, along with an administrative audit of the Narcotics Division.

[…]

In February, after questions from the Chronicle, Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, and a coalition of other Houston-area state representatives called on Acevedo to make the document public. The chief balked, saying he did not want to endanger the county’s criminal case against Goines and said the document included the names of undercover officers and could reveal information about confidential informants.

Because of the nondisclosure agreement, Wu said he could not comment on the specifics of the document. But he said that reviewing it only confirmed his belief that it should be public.

“Even without the redactions, there is little that can be gleaned from it that is not already public knowledge or could in any sense jeopardize an ongoing investigation or prosecution,” he said.

Yes, release the audit. The public needs to know. The criminal case will be fine – Kim Ogg is filing a bunch more charges now, in part because everyone involved seems to have a problem with telling the truth – but even if that were a problem, this is HPD’s mess. They need to come clean. The Chron editorial board and Odus Evbagharu, Chief of Staff to State Rep. Jon Rosenthal, have more.

UPDATE: And just like that, a draft of the audit was released on Twitter. Here’s a Chron story about it. Now let’s see some followup on this, because audits are all about actions.

Kaylynn Williford

Goodbye, and good riddance.

The head prosecutor for Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s trial division resigned Monday after posting a meme on Facebook last week that equated protesters who remove Confederate statutes with Nazis.

The meme posted by the veteran prosecutor last week shows a black-and-white photograph of hands holding an overflowing bin of rings.

It says, “Wedding bands that were removed from Holocaust victims prior to being executed, 1945. Each ring represents a destroyed family. Never forget, Nazis tore down statues. Banned free speech. Blamed economic hardships on one group of people. Instituted gun control. Sound Familiar?”

Assistant District Attorney Kaylynn Williford said in a statement that she took down the post after a friend’s daughter and later a Jewish lawyer told her they found it offensive to compare the two groups. Williford, a 28-year-veteran of the office who has tried major capital cases, said this was never her intent.

She posted it, she said, because she thought it was “thought provoking and promoted tolerance.”

You can see what she posted in that earlier story, which came out over the weekend. I held off on posting about this mostly because I wanted to see what the reaction from the DA’s office was going to be first. A group of Democratic State Reps had called for her resignation earlier in the day, and eventually got what they asked for. All I can say is that if Kaylynn Williford really truly had no idea that her stupid image was offensive and why it was offensive, then she should have been fired years ago and should never get on Facebook again. Even if you were to somehow grant her some kind of Sleeping Beauty-level exemption for deeply childlike innocent ignorance, the controlling principle of “don’t post political shit to Facebook if you don’t understand it” should apply. You know the old saying about how it’s better to keep silent and be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt? It was for situations like this that it was first uttered. Keri Blakinger has more.

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.

Back to Collin County for the Paxton trial

Where it all began.

Best mugshot ever

Years after it was sent to Harris County, the criminal case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton will move back to his native Collin County, a Harris County judge ruled Thursday.

Paxton, a Republican, was indicted in 2015 on felony securities fraud charges, but the case has yet to go to trial as side battles persist over the venue where he will be tried and the amount the special prosecutors will be paid.

A judge moved Paxton’s case to Harris County years ago, after prosecutors said they could not get a fair trial in Collin County, Paxton’s home and former district from his time in the state Legislature. His wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, now represents the region.

But Ken Paxton’s defense team argued last year that the judge who initially ordered the move to Harris County did not have the authority to do so, as his time overseeing the case had elapsed. The two attorneys prosecuting Paxton, Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer, disputed that at a December hearing and said the case belongs in Harris County. But Judge Robert Johnson, a Democrat, agreed with Paxton’s defense team in an order this week.

Wice pledged to appeal the decision.

“The only thing more wrong than the judge’s ruling is that it took him almost a year to make it,” he said. “We’re confident the court of appeals will set it aside and keep venue in Harris County where it belongs.”

See here for the previous update, and here for a full timeline of L’Affaire Paxton. Judge Johnson had said at that December hearing that he’d rule by the end of the month. I have no idea what happened with that, but here we are. As I said then, the only sure thing in all this is that it will eventually end up before the Court of Criminal Appeals. I don’t even have it in me to make a joke at this point. The Chron and the DMN have 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.

Meanwhile, the jail is filling up again

We really need to do something about this.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

The Harris County Jail population has been steadily rising since late April and is now approaching its pre-pandemic capacity despite early efforts to curb crowding, according to the sheriff’s office.

With an influx of inmates anticipated during the summer months, the jail is facing a “serious crisis,” according to a report Tuesday that a sheriff’s representative classified as “sobering.”

The update about the jail population came in a study the county commissioned from the Justice Management Institute, a Virginia-based nonprofit that works with government agencies to make their courts and jails more efficient.

“The justice system has been struggling since Hurricane Harvey,” Tom Eberly, the organization’s program director announced in video testimony before Harris County Commissioner’s Court. “Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, the justice system is on the verge of collapse in your county.”

If the anticipated pace of bookings follows previous patterns, the county could reach 10,000 inmates by Labor Day, according to the nonprofit group’s calculations. And the courts were already backed up before the virus, officials said.

[…]

The lawyers challenging the county’s bail system, who lost a bid for an injunction to order coronavirus releases, said thousands of felony defendants are stuck at the jail awaiting trial simply because they can’t pay cash bail. The vast majority of the population is made up of up pretrial felony detainees.

“Their constitutional rights are being violated, and their health and safety are being jeopardized by COVID-19, which is rampant at the jail,” said Neal Manne, of Susman Godfrey, who works pro bono on the bail cases. “Though Sheriff Gonzales wants to solve the problem, he can’t solve it by himself. No one else is doing anything other than talking about it, week after week, month after month, as COVID-19 surges.”

In the meantime, coronavirus infections have continued to increase, with 993 inmates testing positive since the start of the pandemic.

The pandemic has cramped the jail’s holding capacity, which changes day to day depending upon how many people are quarantined and how much the jail staff must space them out on the cell blocks to help prevent the spread of the virus. For example, 835 inmates who have had the virus and remain in custody have now recovered. But 778 are being kept in observational quarantine, meaning they are not showing symptoms, but they may have been exposed to COVID-19.

Another 600-plus people are housed in what the jail calls “buffer quarantine” because they are new to the jail, according to the sheriff’s office. And nearly 300 convicted inmates are ready to be transferred to state prison but Texas Department of Criminal Justice is not accepting them during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the jail population is increasing by 115 inmates per week and as of May 1, the county had more than 36,000 pending felony cases, Eberly said. If no new felony arrests were made in the coming months, it would still take 13 months to dispose of the backlog, he said.

However, if the system keeps shuffling along as is, it will take 4½ years to catch up, the study found.

Statewide, jail populations also decreased in the first months of the pandemic and have begun rising going into the summer, a normal trend outside of the unusual circumstances this year, said Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Population spikes at county jails largely stem from backlogs in the courts, he said.

“It’s going to be incumbent on Harris County to manage its jail population properly,” Wood said.

You have to wonder how much worse this would be if there were a bunch of misdemeanor inmates awaiting trial because they couldn’t make bail as well. There’s basically three things we can do here. One is to release a bunch of the low-risk inmates who couldn’t come up with the cash for bail. That’s on the judges and the District Attorney, and while there’s been some movement on that, there could be a lot more. Two is to get the courts to the point where they can make a dent in that backlog, which is going to be a hell of a challenge given the fact that the court buildings are still suffering from Harvey, and oh yeah, that global pandemic. Maybe just consider dropping a bunch of low-level charges, divert as many drug charges as possible, and offer as many deferred adjudication deals as possible. There’s some risk to this approach, but what we’re doing right now is not sustainable. And three, maybe now is a good time to just stop arresting people on low-level drug possession charges. Turn down the incoming spigot, and stop adding to the problem. I don’t know where this ends, but the direction we’re going right now doesn’t lead anywhere good.

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.

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.

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.

How about that other coronavirus hot spot?

You know, prisons?

For more than fifty years, Palestine, Texas, has been known as a prison town. Most of the time, that hasn’t been a problem.

True, it was a bit controversial in the 1960s when the Texas corrections department bought up 21,000 acres in this part of East Texas and built the biggest men’s prison in the state. According to Ben Campbell, a local historian and self-described “old geezer,” locals fretted at the time about the danger of escaping prisoners. The state provided steady jobs with decent benefits, however, and over the years one prison expanded into five, which can hold nearly 14,000 men. Now, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is the largest employer in Anderson County.

“People love it and they hate it—it’s jobs, but it’s low-paying jobs,” Campbell said. “They get decent benefits, so it’s a positive for the county.”

But when coronavirus hit, the county’s biggest employer became its biggest threat. More than 2,000 workers go in and out of the prisons—and have unwittingly been carrying coronavirus with them. More than 30 of them had tested positive for COVID-19 by Friday evening, according to the prison system, in a county with only 30 reported cases total (not all of the guards live there). There’s just one hospital in the county, the 150-bed Palestine Regional Medical Center.

“People are trying to be supportive and understanding of the guards needing to do their jobs,” said Matt Kuhl, the son of a retired corrections officer, who runs the “Happening Now in Anderson County, TX!” Facebook group. “But the general consensus is that it’s a threat to have so many cases nearby.”

[…]

By April 2,  the county already had its first confirmed COVID-19 case, and its chief executive issued a shelter-in-place order. The county also imposed an order limiting how many family members could enter big-box stores at one time because so many people had been congregating at the Walmart.

None of these restrictions could stave off the coronavirus explosion inside Anderson County prisons. The following week, the state corrections agency announced six men at the George Beto Unit had tested positive, and the maximum-security prison quickly became the biggest hotspot among the state’s 104 prisons.

“When it started spinning up out there at Beto, within a few days it was up to 30 cases and then 70,” said Peyton Williams, who has lived in Palestine for two years and works in banking. “It seemed to sneak up pretty quickly.”

Ten days after those first positives, Beto had more than 100 cases and, suddenly, a lot of people started worrying. Mayor Steve Presley sparred with prison administrators he accused of misrepresenting basic facts, like whether men were being moved from prison to prison, and thus possibly spreading the disease.

“They told us at one point that they had stopped all transfers except medical—and they eventually did, but they kept transferring them for about a week, just back and forth between prisons,” Presley told me recently. “Did they think we couldn’t find out in a town this small? That people wouldn’t tell us?”

Usually, he said, the city and the state agency get along. Everyone in town has seen vans full of men in prison-white uniforms on their way to trim grass at the city cemetery.

Prisoners had already stopped work for the city in early April when Presley vented to the local newspaper, telling the Palestine Herald-Press that he was furious that the corrections agency was not prepared to handle an outbreak. A state worker then said prisoners would no longer work at the city’s cemetery and parks. The mayor initially suspected it was in retaliation, but the TDCJ later said it was a misunderstanding and the change was not permanent.

That was two weeks ago, but problems continue. Prisoners at two other nearby units have tested positive, and the outbreak at Beto is still growing. Last week it topped two hundred cases.

Meanwhile, more people in Palestine are getting sick. “Most of the cases are prison-related,” said Dr. Carolyn Salter, a local physician who was once the mayor. “I have a bad feeling about this.”

I know the mere mention of this subject will send some people fluttering to the fainting chairs, but discuss it we must. And hot tip, lots and lots of people go into and out of these prisons (and jails) every day. If those places are ginormous breeding grounds for coronavirus – and they are – what did you think was going to happen? And more to the point, what are we going to do about it?

The new coronavirus is fully entrenched in the Texas prison system, confirmed to have infected more than 1,600 inmates and employees at dozens of units. At least 25 infected prisoners and staff members have died. But, like in the rest of the state, the scope of the virus’ spread behind bars is still largely unknown because testing has been limited.

As of Saturday, TDCJ had tested about 1,700 symptomatic inmates for the virus — about 1% of the state’s prison population, according to TDCJ reports. More than 70% of them have tested positive for the coronavirus. That’s a staggeringly high rate compared with the state overall, where less than 10% of the relatively low number of Texans tested had positive results. (Prisoners are largely excluded from state case counts.)

Epidemiologists say more testing is needed in prisons because they are incubators for disease, which can endanger not only prisoners and staff, but surrounding communities as well.

“People tend to think of them as separated from the rest of society, but that is not the case,” said Dr. Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Most [prison outbreaks] have begun with introductions from staff.”

[…]

And infectious disease experts and prisoner rights advocates say much more needs to be done, starting with mass testing of inmates and reducing the overall prisoner population.

“Until they start doing mass testing, I don’t think they’re going to get a hold of the problem there,” said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer and prison conditions expert at the University of Texas law school. “There are going to continue to be deaths, and it’s going to continue spreading to the communities both through staff and people who are released and people who are sent to community hospitals.”

But Texas has one of the lowest testing rates in the country. State Rep. James White, who leads the Texas House Corrections Committee, said the prison system is doing the best it can with the resources it has.

“Whatever we’re challenged with in the so-called free society, we have those same challenges, if not exacerbated, in the incarcerated population,” the Hillister Republican said. “We’re having challenges with testing like in the state.”

Releasing some prisoners early — which could include elderly inmates eligible for parole, people close to finishing their sentences or those who have already been granted parole but are still behind bars — is a decision that falls to Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, but neither has indicated any plans to do so.

After some law enforcement officials and conservatives argued that freeing more inmates could lead to a spike in crime when police are already stretched thin, Abbott came out against more releases from lockups.

“We want to prevent the spread of #COVID19 among prison staff & inmates. But, releasing dangerous criminals in the streets is not the solution,” Abbott said in a March tweet.

But Seth Prins, an assistant professor of epidemiology and sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, said it’s too late to rely solely on mitigation in the prisons.

“Really the only effective strategy is to get as many people out as possible,” he said. “I wish there was a middle-of-the-road answer, but there’s not.”

We could have done more aggressive testing early on, to at least try to isolate the sick from the not-yet-sick, and we could have been more aggressive about releasing low-risk inmates and speeding up the release of those who were going to be getting out soon anyway, but that ship has sailed. What we now get to live with, thanks to Greg Abbott and Donald Trump and their complete failure to provide for universal testing is this constant source of infection, which will mostly but not entirely fall on the people who live near, work in, or are incarcerated in these places. As with pretty much everything else about this virus, it didn’t have to be this way, but here we are.