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Harris County Sheriff

Missing In Harris County Day 2022

From the inbox:

For those with missing loved ones and those who would advocate for them, an annual event May 14th in Houston is the place to be for resources, awareness, and more.

May 14, 2022, is Missing in Harris County Day (MIHCD).  To celebrate and commemorate this occasion, local, state and national agencies with a mission to find missing persons ask you to attend Missing in Harris County Day on Saturday, May 14, from 10 AM to 3 PM at The Children’s Assessment Center, 2500 Bolsover Street, Houston, TX 77005. MIHCD’s mission is to help those with missing loved ones make connections that can help bring the missing home.

Families and friends of missing persons as well as interested members of the community are encouraged to attend the event to learn how to navigate the missing persons system. Agencies at the event to assist families and friends of missing persons include social service agencies and various missing persons networks, such as Texas Center for the Missing.

The event will feature:

  • Local law enforcement agencies accepting missing persons reports and updates from families of the missing
  • Trained DNA collection specialists collecting voluntary family reference DNA cheek swabs to upload into a national missing persons database
  • Bilingual guides assisting all attendees in the completion of a missing persons report or directing attendees to resources
  • Private roundtable discussion for family members with a missing loved one
  • Panel discussions addressing missing persons issues and more!

Families or friends should plan to bring information to the event for data entry or information updates in the national missing persons database, including:

  • Photos of the missing with identifying features (e.g., tattoos or birthmarks) or personal items (e.g., favorite earrings or shirt)
  • X-rays, dental or medical records
  • Police reports or other identifying documents that can be scanned and placed on file
  • Two biological relatives from the mother’s side of the missing loved one to voluntarily submit DNA samples, if desired

More information is available at: http://centerforthemissing.org/missing-in-harris-county-day/.

Attendees are welcome to wear memorial t-shirts and bring posters, photos, or literature to display to commemorate their missing loved ones on the “Wall of the Missing.” The “Wall of the Missing” is a centralized location at the event for all attendees to view missing persons information. Documents placed on the board will not be returned after the event.

About Missing in Harris County Day

Partners in the Missing in Harris County Day event include the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Houston Police Department, Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, Texas Center for the Missing, and The Children’s Assessment Center. Other collaborators and in-kind sponsors of the event include: Alexandria Lowitzer Recovery Fund, Alzheimer’s Association, CODIS, Consulate General of Mexico in Houston, Crime Stoppers of Houston, Doe Network, Galveston County Medical Examiner's Office, Harris County Community Services Department, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, NamUs – National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, Pasadena Police Department, Project Guardian, Project Lifesaver, Texas Equusearch, and TEXSAR Gulf Coast Division. Law enforcement connected to the event will not be checking for citizenship documentation or for arrest warrants.

See here for more. The event takes place on Saturday, May 14, at the The last MIHCD was in 2019; I’m sure you can guess what caused the interruption. The Harris County Institute for Forensic Sciences sent me all of the press information on this. There’s free parking available at the location, so drop by and learn something. Maybe you’ll have some information to impart, who knows.

Along those lines, the IFS also sent me this list of people who have died and are in the county morgue but have not been claimed by their next of kin. It may well be that their families don’t know what has happened to them, which is another way to be missing. If you know anything about any of these folks, call the IFS with what you know at 832-927-5000 – there’s a case number for each.

State task force recommendations on AstroWorld

Interesting.

To avoid a repeat of the mayhem at last year’s deadly Astroworld Festival, Texas needs to standardize its event permitting process, establish “clearly outlined triggers” for stopping shows and ensure local public safety agencies are organized in a clear chain of command during large events, a state task force recommended Tuesday.

The event permitting process currently is “inconsistent across the state, which can lead to forum shopping by event promoters,” according to the task force that recommended a universal permitting template with a standardized checklist for counties to consult before issuing permits.

The group, appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott after 10 people died from injuries sustained during rapper Travis Scott’s show last November, also advised event promoters to develop “unique contingency plans” for venues including NRG Park — formed by a series of parking lots — that fans can easily stampede. The venue perimeter was breached at least eight times leading up to Scott’s 2021 performance.

Presenting its findings in a nine-page report, the Texas Task Force on Concert Safety said its recommendations are “narrowly tailored to address gaps that were identified as contributing to safety failures at the Astroworld event.” Members of the task force who met over the last five months included law enforcement officials, public safety experts, state agency employees and music industry representatives.

“While some level of risk is inherent in any mass gathering, it is the opinion of the [task force] that proper planning will allow Texans to enjoy safe performances, concerts, and other culturally significant events,” the report reads.

More uniform permitting regulations would also help mitigate confusion that can arise at venues located under the jurisdiction of multiple government entities and public safety agencies, the report found.

The Astroworld Festival took place on Harris County property but lies within the city limits. The city approved all permits for the event, and the city fire marshal — who is responsible for inspecting the NRG Park facility under an agreement inked between the city and county in 2018 — signed off on the site plan.

Still, the task force found “there was no occupancy load issued for the event, which is typically determined by the Fire Department.”

“A consistent permitting process could have helped establish jurisdiction and authority over ultimate event shutdown in the face of a life-threatening incident,” the report reads.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said there was no occupancy permit for the Astroworld Festival because such permits do not exist for outdoor areas. The event organizers did secure permits required under the city fire code for pyrotechnics, tents and propane. The city released those and other permits in November.

“The event was a county-sanctioned event on county property,” Peña said Tuesday night, adding that he had not yet fully reviewed the task force’s report.

The task force report is here. It’s pretty straightforward, I don’t see anything unexpected or eye-catching about it. I must have missed the announcement of this particular task force, I don’t have a previous post about it. Whatever, this is fine.

That doesn’t mean that it is without some controversy.

Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie L. Christensen on Wednesday rejected findings issued by a state task force which laid some of the blame for the Astroworld tragedy on the county’s handing of the incident.

[…]

The task force recommended a universal permitting template with a standardized checklist for counties to consult before issuing permits.

But the findings again raise one of the central issues related to the Astroworld tragedy: Ever since it occurred, city and county officials have sought to avoid blame for the fiasco by pointing fingers at each other.

The task force pointed to two laws that have permitting requirements — one related to mass gatherings, and one related to outdoor music festivals. Both refer to county events, because incorporated municipalities can create their own ordinances.

The situation is complicated by the fact the Astroworld Festival took place on Harris County property but lies within Houston city limits. The city approved all permits for the event, and the city fire marshal — who is responsible for inspecting the NRG Park facility under an agreement inked between the city and county in 2018 — signed off on the site plan.

Echoing other county officials who spoke to the Chronicle, Christensen said she had reviewed the task force’s findings, but that the task force cited statutes that “simply do not apply” to the Astroworld event. The laws, she said, apply “only to performances outside the boundaries of a municipality.”

“The fact the Astroworld event occurred within the City of Houston along with the (memorandum of understanding) between Harris County and the City of Houston clearly shows Harris County lacked any jurisdiction for permitting the Astroworld event,” she said. “Our office will continue reviewing the recommendations over the next several weeks.”

City officials, including Fire Chief Sam Peña, have argued that the event was “a county-sanctioned event on county property.”

I’m not particularly interesting in a pissing contest between the city and the county, but it is fair to point out that the laws cited by the report didn’t apply here because of the county-property-within-city-limits aspect of NRG Stadium. That doesn’t mean we should just shrug our shoulders and move on, but if it is more complicated than the report suggests, then we need to wrestle with the complexity. This is the point at which I’m officially out of my depth, so let me just say that we’re not off the hook and we shouldn’t act like it.

I should note further that there is a local task force working on its own report, and that first story gave us an update on it.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, another task force – this one selected by city and county officials – continued to meet to review communication, protocols and permitting requirements locally. City officials had more to say about that task force’s work than the one in Austin. Mary Benton, spokeswoman for Mayor Sylvester Turner, said the mayor has not yet reviewed the state task force’s report but would do so soon. She said the local group continues to meet and will write its own report for Turner and Precinct 2 Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

“The task force will incorporate nationally agreed principles and draw from national and international strategies, policies, guidelines, standards, and doctrine,” Benton said. “The work is multidisciplinary and will cover issues presented by crowded places and mass gatherings in general. The task force has already begun this work, met earlier today and has meetings planned in the future.”

County Fire Marshal Christianson is among the local task force members. I look forward to reading that report as well. And now that the state has done the local task force the favor of publishing first, we here can respond to it as needed. Just get moving and get it done.

More on Tina Linn and Harold Clouse

Very moving stuff.

Donna Casasanta picked through the brush in an overgrown patch of woods in northeast Harris County, looking.

The 80-year-old mother had spent 40 years wondering. She had traveled 980 miles, driven with her grown children for three days from her home in Florida, to be here.

Casasanta is not as sturdy as she once was. Navigating through the brush and brambles wouldn’t have been difficult 40 years ago, but now she walks with a cane.

But she needed to reach the spot where police finally found her son’s body, a small piece of land next to Wallisville Road in northeast Harris County. The spot was sprinkled with palmettos, fallen trees, and a bed of leaves that crunched and rustled at every step.

She needed to see it.

Forty-two years ago, her son, Harold “Dean” Clouse and his young wife, Tina Gail Linn, moved to Texas from New Smyrna, Fla.

He’d been promised a job building houses, a job that would help him provide for Tina and their infant daughter, Hollie Marie.

They exchanged letters all throughout 1980, but that October, Dean stopped writing.

As the months passed, Casasanta became more and more worried. What had happened to her son?

As we now know, her son and his wife had been murdered. Their bodies were found in 1981, but weren’t identified until last year, thanks to DNA, geneaolgy, and a couple of amateur sleuths. It’s a fascinating story, and you should go back and read the first one if you haven’t already. But there was another mystery to go along with what happened to Tina and Harold. What happened to their baby daughter Holly?

Weeks after those IDs, more questions have emerged: Who will investigate the 1981 murder of Dean and Tina Clouse? Did the Jesus Freaks have something to do with it? And what became of Holly? Was her tiny body carried away by predators or overlooked?

With help from relatives, Peacock, who no longer works with Identigene, has already begun exploring another possibility: Was Holly kidnapped by her parents’ killers? If so, she’d be a woman of about 42 with no memory of them at all.

The Clouse homicide case is considered active in Harris County, according to Deputy Thomas Gilliland, a Harris County Sheriff’s Office spokesman. But recently, that department, which has jurisdiction over a county of 4 million—a population larger than most states—essentially defunded their cold case unit. The two detectives who once oversaw unsolved murder cases like this one have been reassigned, leaving the unit with only one part-time investigator. Gilliland told the Observer via email that the department has “no active suspects or any information on the missing daughter. This case may be transferred to the Texas Attorney General’s Missing Person & Cold Case Unit so that they can utilize more manpower/resources than we can.”

Unfortunately, the cold case task force formed last year by the Texas Attorney General’s office has only just begun to take its first cases. The group’s blue-ribbon advisory board has met, but its progress has been frustratingly slow, members say. Potential leads in the 1981 murder of Tina and Dean Clouse—and the disappearance of their baby Holly—are scarce. It’s unclear if any of the physical evidence from the murder scene is still around.

And it’s not the only high-profile cold murder case in Texas that seems to need urgent attention. Most genetic genealogy groups, like Identigene, rely on small grants or even crowdfunding to work cold cases. But even with limited funding, relatives of several other Texas homicide victims have already been identified through genetic genealogy.

In April 2019, genetic genealogists had identified two out of four women murdered and dumped at different times in a lonely patch of woods in League City, Texas. But the serial murder case called “the Killing Fields” remains unsolved more than 30 years later.

Then, in August 2019, other genealogists working with the non-profit DNA Doe Project helped identify Debra Jackson, a teen found on Halloween 1979 off I-35 north of Austin. Jackson’s murder was initially blamed on Henry Lee Lucas, Texas’ notorious lying “Confession Killer.” But Lucas’ death sentence was commuted after his lies were exposed, and Jackson’s murder also remains unsolved.

The state’s huge backlog of unidentified murder victims should not exist at all, argues Kristen Mittelman, whose husband and business partner David is a member of the AG Cold Case and Missing Persons Unit Advisory Committee. She and David Mittelman, who together run a genetics lab in Houston called Othram, both told the Observer that the state should move more quickly. “We’re super excited with the task force. But unfortunately, we haven’t worked any cases,” she said. “What’s going to change the world is creating a way to solve these cases at scale—and to be able to clear 1,000 of cases at a time and be able to clear these backlogs.”

More money is the obvious answer to that. I can see a bill to make it happen getting through the Legislature – it’s the kind of thing that would have little to no opposition, and would be an easy cause to champion – but someone has to do it. It might take more than one try, as these things often do. But it can be done, if someone makes the effort.

Here comes that AstroWorld task force

Got to admit, I had thought this had already happened.

Three months after 10 people were killed at the Astroworld Festival at NRG Park, Houston and Harris County have named a 10-person task force to review procedures, permitting and guidelines for special events in the region.

The task force, made up mostly of city and county officials, will seek changes to ensure the city and county collaborate better on events that draw large crowds. The group plans to meet monthly, but members said Wednesday they do not know when they will release recommendations.

The officials left Astroworld unmentioned in their initial remarks, but later acknowledged the concert tragedy directly inspired the task force’s formation. Still, they insisted the group would look forward, not backward at any one event, and would not spend considerable time trying to determine what went wrong at the concert festival.

“I think anyone of us would be dishonest if we say it didn’t precipitate it. Certainly, it did,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said, adding later: “This task force is going to be futuristic. The investigation into the Astroworld event continues, so we certainly do not want to impede in that investigation.”

[…]

The task force will be chaired by Susan Christian, the director of the mayor’s office of special events, and Perrye K. Turner, Sr., the deputy county administrator and the former FBI special agent in charge of the Houston division.

It will also include Houston Police Chief Troy Finner, Fire Chief Sam Peña, and Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen, as well as Steven Adelman, vice president of Event Safety Alliance; Rob McKinley, president of LD Systems, a production services company; Major Rolf Nelson of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office; Ryan Walsh, executive director of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp; and Mike DeMarco, chief show operations officer for the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.

As noted in the story, Commissioners Court decided against launching an independent investigation into the disaster, opting instead to let the law enforcement investigations do that work and to conduct an internal review. It’s not totally clear to me if this task force is the fulfillment of that “internal review” item, but I suspect it is as there’s no other mention of it that I can find, in this story or via Chronicle archive search. The task force, which was put together by Mayor Turner and Commissioner Adrian Garcia, looks fine, it’s just a matter of what their scope is and when they intend to produce a report. We’ll see.

It’s not like there aren’t a bunch of other things going on that will tell us more about the tragedy and things we could or should have done differently. In addition to the law enforcement investigation and all of the lawsuits, which should produce a lot of info when and if they get to the discovery phase, there’s also a Congressional probe and an FBI website seeking input from witnesses. This task force has a different and more focused mission, and if they do their job well it should produce something worthwhile. We’ll know soon enough.

Sheriff Gonzalez re-nominated for ICE

Take two.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez is still President Joe Biden’s pick to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, even after the Senate failed to confirm him last year.

Biden renominated Gonzalez for the ICE director on Tuesday. His initial nomination, from April, expired earlier this week.

Gonzalez still faces an uphill battle in the Senate, which is evenly split and has been moving through Biden’s nominees at a glacial pace amid Republican opposition. ICE — a particularly polarizing agency — has been without a permanent director for five years.

“He’s likely to face the same result in 2022 that he has in 2021,” said Rice University political science professor Mark Jones. “He’s received quite a bit of flak from the left and the right. The right has attacked him because of his because of his past criticism of ICE, but the left has attacked him because of his support for border security and the rule of law at the border.”

Gonzalez is one of many Biden nominees who Democrats have struggled to get confirmed, reflecting shifting norms in the Senate and the growing difficulty of confirming political appointees in recent years, said Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan organization that promotes effective government.

See here for the background. With all due respect to Professor Jones, if Gonzalez lacked support from even one Democratic Senator, he’d be toast. There are progressive critics of his, though I’d say that criticism is more about ICE as an agency, but if that had been enough to sway any votes in the Senate, someone else would be getting nominated. As both this story and the previous one note, the main issue here is the extreme slowness in getting presidential nominees approved by the Senate, for a variety of reasons in that profoundly broken institution. Either Leader Schumer is able to get a floor vote for him on the calendar, without negatively affecting any higher priorities, or we face the same situation next year, possibly with a Republican-controlled Senate that will make the matter entirely moot. Good luck.

Sheriff Gonzalez’s status

Two words: In limbo.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

The Senate has yet to confirm Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez as director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, meaning he will likely need to be nominated again and will face an uphill battle to be confirmed in that role.

The Senate must agree unanimously before Jan. 3 to hold over the nomination of Gonzalez or nominate him during the 2022 legislative session.

Even if Gonzalez is held over — or nominated a second time — a number of political obstacles remain in the way of confirmation.

“The prospects for the confirmation of Sheriff Gonzalez in 2022 would not be very auspicious were Biden to nominate him again,” said Rice University political science professor Mark Jones, who noted the confirmation process would essentially start over from scratch in that case.

“The fact that there was a hold that remained now suggests that if Biden nominates Gonzalez again, he’s likely to face the same result in 2022 that he has in 2021,” Jones said.

The struggle to confirm Gonzalez reflects shifting norms in the Senate and increasing difficulty to confirm political appointees in recent years, aid Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan nonprofit that promotes more effective government.

“Everything is becoming harder and slower, and you have even fewer people actually being confirmed for very important positions,” said Stier.

As of Dec. 30, just 266 of Biden’s political appointees had been confirmed, according to the Partnership for Public Service and the Washington Post, compared to 383 during the Obama administration.

The position of ICE director is especially challenging to confirm, considering the polarizing beliefs on immigration law enforcement and the 50-50 split of party control in the Senate.

“The position itself in this instance, ICE director, is one that’s become a bigger lightning rod, a more controversial position,” said Stier.

Trump failed to secure someone in that role during his entire term.

Mark Jones said he doesn’t believe the Senate’s failure to confirm Gonzalez has much to do with his ability to lead the agency, but much more to do with how Republicans are likely to utilize the hot-button issue of immigration during the 2022 midterm elections.

Gonzalez “still has a long track record of criticizing ICE, which means that during a time when Republicans realize that immigration policy is an advantageous one for them, they’re unlikely to support his confirmation. Even though from a policy perspective, his position is not nearly as far from their position,” Jones said.

Republicans have questioned the Democratic sheriff’s commitment to immigration enforcement since he was tapped for the role in April.

As a reminder, Sheriff Gonzalez was nominated in late April, and was approved by the Senate committee in early August. It’s not clear what the actual holdup is here, as Gonzalez would get through if he has full Democratic support. It may be that one or more Democratic Senators are not on board with him, or just don’t want to confirm anyone to this position without some action on immigration in general or ICE in particular, or it may be that this was just another thing moved to the back burner while everyone was chasing Joe Manchin to get his vote on Build Back Better. If it’s the latter, then I think there’s a decent chance Sheriff Gonzalez eventually gets confirmed next year. If not, then we’ll know when he eventually withdraws his name from consideration.

Plaintiff in Constable Precinct 1 lawsuit responds

She’s not having it with the dismissal of Constable Alan Rosen as a defendant from the lawsuit.

Constable Alan Rosen

The booze-fueled undercover hotel operations were bad. Felecia McKinney’s worst moment at the Precinct 1 Constable’s Office, however, came two years ago, during an undercover sting at a Massage Heights near the Texas Medical Center.

Another Precinct 1 employee had been assaulted at the business. Her bosses wanted her to pose as a customer, wait to see if he acted again, and then give a signal to bust him and take him down.

When she emerged from the spa, a superior told her to drive herself to the hospital to get a sexual assault examination while Constable Alan Rosen held a celebratory news conference in the business’ parking lot, she said at a press conference Friday.

[…]

After the spa sting, McKinney and Erica Davis — the Precinct 1 employee whose assault led to the investigation of Massage Heights — sued the establishment, saying the budget spa chain, its employee, owner and franchisor were negligent in training and supervision. Davis agreed to a monetary settlement in the case but McKinney’s complaint is still pending. Criminal charges against Wenjin Zhu, the massage therapist accused of sexually assaulting Davis and McKinney on the massage table two days apart, are also still pending. Zhu is detained in the county jail.

Though her lawyers have described her experience in court filings, McKinney had never addressed the public about her sexual assault in August 2019 until her brief remarks to reporters at her attorney’s office Friday morning.

“He knows what happened to me,” McKinney said of Rosen. “He intended it. He ordered it. And to hear him claim victory — and that he wouldn’t be held personally accountable for something he’s admitted to doing makes me feel attacked, unheard, and very alone.”

What angered her the most, she said, was reading comments from Rosen’s defenders that the constable should never have been included in the lawsuit in the first place.

“This case was never about money for me. It was about exposing the truth and holding people accountable,” she said, her voice catching. “When I read his comments and his attorney’s comments, I felt really victimized in ways I never expected. …When I saw the claim that he never should have been in the lawsuit, after ordering an operation that I go in to be sexually assaulted, I broke down.”

See here for the previous entry. I don’t know if the decision to remove Rosen as a defendant was a good one or not – I presume it can be appealed, but regardless of that the lawsuit itself if still ongoing. The allegations still refer to things that happened under Constable Rosen’s watch. I’m still far from convinced that any of the undercover actions were a good use of law enforcement resources, whether or not the deputies in question were put in needless danger. I don’t know what will come of this case, but we need to hear what Ms. McKinney and her fellow plaintiffs have to say.

Constable Rosen removed from sexual harassment lawsuit

Good news for him, but the suit continues.

Constable Alan Rosen

Harris County Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen has prevailed in a legal effort to be removed from a lawsuit accusing department supervisors of sexual misconduct against female subordinates in an undercover anti-prostitution unit.

In a five-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt on Monday ruled Rosen could not be personally sued for the misconduct allegations that several current and former deputies and another employee had made about conduct within the unit. Plaintiffs can continue to pursue their lawsuit against Harris County and Assistant Chief Deputy Chris Gore and Lt. Shane Rigdon, the judge ruled.

Hoyt explained his ruling by saying he’d concluded that the plaintiffs’ allegations against Gore and Rigdon were “enough to raise a right to relief” but that the plaintiffs had not made any claims that would support Rosen’s individual liability under civil rights law.

Rosen touted the ruling in a news release in which he said he had “full faith in the Court’s review” of the motion.

“I thank the court for its considered review of the law as it pertains the motion to dismiss me from this matter,” he said, “and for granting that dismissal such that my full focus can remain on the needs of the residents of Precinct 1.”

Lawyers for the female deputies said they were undeterred, pointing to Hoyt’s decision to allow the suit to proceed against Harris County and against Gore and Rigdon.

“While Alan Rosen has been able to protect his personal financial interests, his conduct is still very much a part of the lawsuit,” attorneys Cordt Akers and Bill Ogden said, in a written statement.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. You can see a copy of the ruling in the story. While this is good news for Constable Rosen personally, the lawsuit is still active – this was a motion to dismiss, and it was denied for the other two defendants. For that reason, ignore this:

Rosen attorney Ben Hall said Wednesday that his client “should never have been in the lawsuit in the first place.”

He said believed Rosen was added to the lawsuit to tarnish his political viability.

“I think the fact the judge dispensed (with this matter) so quickly will at least remove this stain,” Hall said, “So he can move down the road. And if it is his fate to be sheriff, I think he’d be a fabulous sheriff.”

Sorry, but this still happened on his watch. He may not be legally liable for damages, but he’s still responsible. Maybe if the remaining defendants are cleared we can talk about his future ambitions, but until then let’s cool our jets. This is far from over.

Sheriff Gonzalez approved by Senate committee

We are one step closer to needing a new Sheriff.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

The Senate Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday advanced the nominations of two Texans tapped by President Joe Biden to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Census Bureau.

While San Antonio native Rob Santos, Biden’s nominee to lead the Census, advanced easily on a 10-3 vote, Republicans on the committee unanimously opposed Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez’s nomination to lead ICE — a sign Democrats may need to bring in Vice President Kamala Harris to break a tie in the Senate and get him confirmed.

Republicans said Gonzalez’s past criticism of the agency and moves to end a partnership with it as sheriff were “deeply concerning.”

“On numerous occasions during his time as sheriff, he criticized ICE and stated that he only worked with them because he was compelled to do so under a Texas law — a law that he openly and vocally opposed while it was being debated in the Texas Legislature,” said U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, the top Republican on the committee.

“The law enforcement agents of ICE need strong leadership now more than ever given what’s happening on the border and what’s happening in the interior,” Portman said. “The leader of ICE needs to believe in the importance of the agency’s mission. And for purposes of morale, I think it’s very important that the leader be one who supports ICE strongly.”

During his confirmation hearing last month, Gonzalez said that if confirmed, he would not end the controversial ICE program in which local law enforcement agencies screen jailed suspects to identify those who are in the country illegally. He said he believes in the agency’s mission and would be “aggressive” in going after people who pose a threat to public safety.

It wasn’t enough to sway any Republicans as the committee voted 7-6 to advance his nomination.

“Sheriff Gonzalez is a proven leader and dedicated law enforcement professional,” said U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat who chairs the committee. “At his confirmation hearing, he demonstrated his deep commitment to the rule of law and his understanding of the complex mission and challenges that ICE faces.”

See here and here for the background. I have no idea how the Senate’s calendar is likely to work, and I don’t know if a vote to confirm will come up before or after the August recess, which may wind up being shortened because of the infrastructure bill. So maybe he’s confirmed in the next week or so, and maybe it doesn’t happen till mid-September or later. Either way, I assume that Commissioners Court is thinking about who will be the next Sheriff. We’ll find out soon enough.

Sheriff Gonzalez gets a confirmation hearing date

Mark your calendars.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

The Senate Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing on Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez’s nomination to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on July 15, the committee announced Wednesday.

President Joe Biden nominated Gonzalez to lead the agency in May, potentially positioning Gonzalez as a key player in the administration’s effort to build what Biden has called a more “humane” immigration system.

Gonzalez will appear before the Democrat-led committee, which does not include either Texas senator, as the administration is working to handle a record numbers of encounters with migrants crossing the border. Republicans have hammered Biden for months over the influx, which they say he created by moving away from former President Donald Trump’s stricter immigration policies, even though encounters began rising when Trump was still in office.

ICE was in many ways the face of Trump’s hard-line approach to immigration, which Biden has sought to move away from. If confirmed, Gonzalez would be instrumental in setting its course under Biden, a difficult task as ICE has become one of the most politicized agencies in the federal government.

See here for the background. This is just the committee hearing. Once the committee advances his nomination, which should be a formality, then the full Senate will vote on him. Barring anything weird, he’ll be confirmed, though I have no idea how much longer it may take from here. But at least we’re on the way. Once he is confirmed, he will formally resign as Sheriff, and Commissioners Court will pick someone to fill his spot. I’ll talk about that more as we get closer, but for now I’ll just say that Constable Alan Rosen is highly unlikely to be on the short list.

Again with the existential Constable question

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

Constable Alan Rosen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bring in an outside investigator

That’s the Chron editorial board’s advice for Constable Alan Rosen.

Constable Alan Rosen

Rosen’s office declined to comment to the editorial board Thursday, but in an earlier statement, he said that when he was made aware of the allegations, he “proactively” ordered an internal affairs investigation months ago and “immediately” replaced the supervisor of the human trafficking unit. The investigation, he said, found no violations of law or policy. The constable, whose name has been floated as a replacement for Sheriff Ed Gonzalez if he joins the Biden Administration, suggested the allegations were being brought to impugn his department’s reputation.

“I have a zero-tolerance stance against sexual assault and sexual harassment and would never allow a hostile work environment as alleged,” he said.

If Rosen means that, he shouldn’t hesitate to call for an independent investigation by the FBI’s public integrity unit or the Texas Rangers to get to the bottom of the disturbing claims. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and others on the commissioners’ court should be seeking the same probe and certainly not consider Rosen for the sheriff’s post until they get to the bottom of what happened.

We don’t encourage public officials to cast early blame without all the facts. And indeed, people other than Rosen have pushed back on the lawsuit’s claims, including that the implication that Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg wasn’t willing to get involved.

“The allegation that our office failed to take action is completely false. It’s offensive,” said DA spokesman Dane Schiller. “There was no cover-up, no laziness, no lack of caring by our prosecutors.”

Still, somebody must investigate — other than the department accused. If the allegations don’t pan out, Rosen’s name is cleared. If they are true, the officers’ actions suggest far more than workplace harassment but deeper corruption, potentially criminal wrongdoing and a toxic culture in urgent need of reform.

See here and here for the background. I basically agree with all of this, and I agree that it’s what Constable Rosen himself should want. It’s the best way to get at the truth and have it accepted as such. If Constable Rosen resists this idea, then Commissioners Court should give him a push, or take the decision out of his hands. Let’s not waste time on this, we the voters in Precinct 1 deserve to know what’s going on.

Another deputy constable files suit

More bad.

Constable Alan Rosen

When Precinct 1 Constable deputies accused their bosses of sexually exploiting them during undercover vice operations last week, their attorney vowed there would likely be more allegations in the near future.

On Wednesday, Cordt Akers returned to the podium in the foyer of his Montrose firm, and introduced Pct. 1 Deputy Constable Jasmine Huff. And Huff, he said, had also been sexually exploited during so-called “bachelor party stings” while working on the department’s human trafficking task force.

“She is not hiding behind the anonymity of Jane Doe lawsuit, as is her right to do,” Akers said.

Huff is the fourth current or former deputy of the Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office to say she was sexually mistreated while working on the the agency’s Human Trafficking Task Force. A fifth employee —Jacquelyn Aluotto, who worked for the agency as an advocate for victims of human trafficking — has also sued Precinct 1, saying she was ignored and then fired when she conveyed concerns about the department’s vice operations to superiors.

The suit, initially filed last month, names Rosen, Assistant Chief Deputy Chris Gore, and Lt. Shane Rigdon. The alleged incidents occurred in the department’s human trafficking task force in 2019 and 2020. In response to the initial lawsuit, which raised similar allegations of sexual misconduct and other improprieties, Rosen released a statement late last month saying his office had previously investigated the alleged incident, but found no violations of law or department policy.

In response to the latest accusations, Rosen on Wednesday issued a statement declining to comment on the case because “there is a legal matter pending” and privacy issues.

In an amended 45-page complaint filed in federal court Wednesday morning, Huff’s attorneys alleged that she was a young deputy when her bosses assigned her to the HCCO-1 Human Trafficking Unit.

See here for the background. I’m skipping over the details of the allegations for the same reason as before, it’s disturbing stuff and you can read it in the story. I have the same reaction as before, that this is bad on every level, and even if you believe that Rosen had no direct involvement, this happened on his watch. He’s responsible for that.

Brock Akers, another attorney on the case (and Cordt Akers’ father) also rejected accusations that the lawsuit was an attempt to hamstring Rosen’s political ambitions. Prior to the lawsuit’s filing, Rosen had been widely rumored to be interested in seeking appointment to replace Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, or to run for sheriff in 2024.

Akers called such speculation “flat out wrong.”

“These things happened,” he said.

County commissioners have yet to address the allegations against Precinct 1, or Rosen, a fellow elected official. In response to questions, a spokesman for Judge Lina Hidalgo said she was “aware of these allegations and obviously concerned,” before declining to comment further because of the ongoing court fight.

I have not seen any names floated as possible replacements for Sheriff Gonzalez as yet – I daresay that will wait at least until his confirmation hearing is on the Senate calendar. Rosen would normally be an obvious possibility, and he is known to have bigger ambitions, but again, this happened on his watch. I don’t know how this turns out, but it sure seems like a bad time to be seeking a promotion.

Harris County approves its budget

Good priorities.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously approved a $3.3 billion general fund budget that includes new investments in pollution control, public health and attorneys for indigent criminal defendants.

The $64 million in new spending represents a 2 percent increase over the current budget.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia praised the spending plan, which he said is based on a new model that seeks to fund needs rather than departments, as a more sensible approach to meeting the needs of residents.

“With a metrics-based budget … this is another new day in county government,” Garcia said.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the new budget process is more transparent and said the county has made key improvements after events in the past two years, including the 2019 series of chemical fires and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“This budget isn’t perfect, but we’re light years ahead of where we were in terms of ensuring we’re using every dollar wisely to help tear down barriers no individual can take on alone,” Hidalgo said in a statement.

[…]

By streamlining services and spending less on debt service, the new budget includes $132 million in new investments. Those line items include increases for the fire marshal and Pollution Control Services, totaling $1.3 million, to improve the county’s response to chemical incidents, and $5 million to launch a non-law enforcement 911 system to handle incidents including mental health crises.

The budget also includes $18 million for several justice and safety initiatives, including the hiring of visiting judges to help clear a backlog in criminal cases, expanding the Public Defender’s Office and studying racial and ethnic disparities in policing, non-punitive responses to social problems and strategies to prevent violence.

Berry proposed holding back $19 million in reserve to potentially allocate when Commissioners Court does its mid-year budget review in September, and members agreed.

An additional round of federal stimulus aid for local governments would help in the future, Berry’s budget summary states, though the county is not counting on another influx of cash.

Most of the money that the county had to spend on COVID-related expenses has been reimbursed via the CARES act. We’re probably in good enough shape that we don’t need much more from the current COVID relief bill, but I’ll be happy for us to get something anyway. There’s plenty more we can invest in if the funds are there for it.

Since the subject has come up and will no doubt continue to come up, we can discuss how Judge Hidalgo goes about her business and what it might mean for 2022 all we want. What I know is that she’s done excellent work, the county is in solid shape, and we’ve got good priorities. I’ll play that hand in a re-election campaign any day of the week.

Precinct analysis: Sheriff 2020 and 2016

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
Other cities
District Attorney
County Attorney

Behold your 2020 vote champion in Harris County: Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, running for his second term in office. I’ll get into the details of Gonzalez’s domination in a minute. Here are the numbers for 2020:


Dist     Danna  Gonzalez    Danna%  Gonzalez%
=============================================
CD02   170,422   166,902    50.52%     49.48%
CD07   141,856   162,417    46.62%     53.38%
CD08    24,788    16,406    60.17%     39.83%
CD09    35,308   122,871    22.32%     77.68%
CD10    98,458    65,239    60.15%     39.85%
CD18    54,869   186,236    22.76%     77.24%
CD22    20,466    21,710    48.53%     51.47%
CD29    43,503   109,304    28.47%     71.53%
CD36    79,327    52,648    60.11%     39.89%
				
SBOE4   96,435   349,282    21.64%     78.36%
SBOE6  363,916   378,161    49.04%     50.96%
SBOE8  208,646   176,291    54.20%     45.80%
				
SD04    53,758    25,277    68.02%     31.98%
SD06    50,944   126,617    28.69%     71.31%
SD07   224,433   186,884    54.56%     45.44%
SD11    74,078    50,852    59.30%     40.70%
SD13    35,054   162,823    17.72%     82.28%
SD15   106,009   204,899    34.10%     65.90%
SD17   110,189   133,749    45.17%     54.83%
SD18    14,532    12,635    53.49%     46.51%
				
HD126   36,979    36,165    50.56%     49.44%
HD127   51,960    38,105    57.69%     42.31%
HD128   46,345    24,235    65.66%     34.34%
HD129   45,743    37,938    54.66%     45.34%
HD130   67,658    35,780    65.41%     34.59%
HD131    9,271    45,531    16.92%     83.08%
HD132   47,705    51,772    47.96%     52.04%
HD133   47,629    39,951    54.38%     45.62%
HD134   44,590    62,513    41.63%     58.37%
HD135   34,389    39,591    46.48%     53.52%
HD137    9,680    21,648    30.90%     69.10%
HD138   30,004    33,385    47.33%     52.67%
HD139   14,623    46,351    23.98%     76.02%
HD140    8,109    23,412    25.73%     74.27%
HD141    6,449    36,900    14.88%     85.12%
HD142   12,684    43,278    22.67%     77.33%
HD143   10,463    26,455    28.34%     71.66%
HD144   12,685    17,965    41.39%     58.61%
HD145   13,322    29,035    31.45%     68.55%
HD146   10,562    44,351    19.23%     80.77%
HD147   13,955    54,824    20.29%     79.71%
HD148   20,375    39,637    33.95%     66.05%
HD149   20,574    32,068    39.08%     60.92%
HD150   53,242    42,844    55.41%     44.59%
				
CC1     85,139   289,925    22.70%     77.30%
CC2    141,416   156,934    47.40%     52.60%
CC3    214,450   226,063    48.68%     51.32%
CC4    227,992   230,814    49.69%     50.31%
				
JP1     84,929   174,954    32.68%     67.32%
JP2     31,274    52,644    37.27%     62.73%
JP3     48,485    72,207    40.17%     59.83%
JP4    223,758   199,021    52.93%     47.07%
JP5    191,671   229,696    45.49%     54.51%
JP6      6,846    28,930    19.14%     80.86%
JP7     17,135   102,122    14.37%     85.63%
JP8     64,899    44,162    59.51%     40.49%

Only Joe Biden (918,193) got more votes than Sheriff Ed (903,736) among Dems that had a Republican opponent; District Court Judge Michael Gomez (868,327) was next in line. Gonzalez’s 235K margin of victory, and his 57.46% of the vote were easily the highest. He carried SBOE6, HD132, HD138, and all four Commissioners Court precincts, while coming close in CD02 and HD126. He even made SD07, HD133, and JP4 look competitive.

How dominant was Ed Gonzalez in 2020? He got more votes in their district than the following Democratic incumbents:

CD07: Gonzalez 162,417, Lizzie Fletcher 159,529
CD18: Gonzalez 186,236, Sheila Jackson Lee 180,952
SD13: Gonzalez 162,823, Borris Miles 159,936
HD135: Gonzalez 39,591, Jon Rosenthal 36,760
HD142: Gonzalez 43,278, Harold Dutton 42,127
HD144: Gonzalez 17,965, Mary Ann Perez 17,516
HD145: Gonzalez 29,035, Christina Morales 27,415
HD149: Gonzalez 32,068, Hubert Vo 31,919
JP1: Gonzalez 174,954, Eric Carter 166,759

That’s pretty damn impressive. Gonzalez is the incumbent, he’s in law enforcement and may be the most visible county official after Judge Hidalgo, he had a solid term with basically no major screwups, he’s well liked by the Democratic base, and he ran against a frequent flyer who had no apparent base of support. At least in 2020, this is as good as it gets.

Obviously, Gonzalez did better than he did in 2016, but let’s have a quick look at the numbers anyway.


Dist   Hickman  Gonzalez  Hickman%  Gonzalez%
=============================================
CD02   162,915   111,689    59.33%     40.67%
CD07   139,292   113,853    55.02%     44.98%
CD09    26,869   106,301    20.18%     79.82%
CD10    81,824    36,293    69.27%     30.73%
CD18    48,766   153,342    24.13%     75.87%
CD29    35,526    95,138    27.19%     72.81%
				
SBOE6  341,003   265,358    56.24%     43.76%
				
HD126   36,539    24,813    59.56%     40.44%
HD127   48,891    24,516    66.60%     33.40%
HD128   41,694    17,117    70.89%     29.11%
HD129   41,899    26,686    61.09%     38.91%
HD130   59,556    21,256    73.70%     26.30%
HD131    7,054    38,887    15.35%     84.65%
HD132   38,026    30,397    55.57%     44.43%
HD133   47,648    27,378    63.51%     36.49%
HD134   44,717    43,480    50.70%     49.30%
HD135   32,586    27,180    54.52%     45.48%
HD137    8,893    17,800    33.32%     66.68%
HD138   27,480    23,366    54.05%     45.95%
HD139   12,746    39,223    24.53%     75.47%
HD140    6,376    20,972    23.31%     76.69%
HD141    5,485    32,573    14.41%     85.59%
HD142   10,801    33,924    24.15%     75.85%
HD143    9,078    23,689    27.70%     72.30%
HD144   10,765    16,194    39.93%     60.07%
HD145   10,785    23,462    31.49%     68.51%
HD146   10,144    37,991    21.07%     78.93%
HD147   12,100    45,136    21.14%     78.86%
HD148   17,701    29,776    37.28%     62.72%
HD149   15,702    27,266    36.54%     63.46%
HD150   49,904    26,142    65.62%     34.38%
				
CC1     74,178   239,211    23.67%     76.33%
CC2    125,659   125,416    50.05%     49.95%
CC3    193,214   158,164    54.99%     45.01%
CC4    213,519   156,417    57.72%     42.28%

Gonzalez ran against Ron Hickman, former Constable in Precinct 4, who was appointed following Adrian Garcia’s resignation to run for Mayor of Houston in 2015. Hickman had been well respected as Constable and wasn’t a controversial selection, but he was quickly dogged with a scandal involving lost and destroyed evidence from his Constable days, as well as the usual bugaboo of jail overcrowding; his opposition to misdemeanor bail reform did not help with that. With all that, Gonzalez got “only” 52.84% of the vote in 2016, which was ahead of most judicial candidates but behind both Kim Ogg and Vince Ryan. My thought at the time was that Gonzalez maxed out the Democratic vote, but didn’t get many crossovers. Clearly, he knocked that second item out of the park this year. I’m not going to go into a more detailed comparison – I’ll leave that to you this time – but it should be obvious that Gonzalez built on his performance from 2016. We’ll see what he can do with the next four years.

Sheriff Gonzalez hires jail administrator

Interesting.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

A former state jail inspector will oversee Harris County’s jail, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez announced Wednesday.

Shannon Herklotz, who worked for the Texas Commision on Jail Standards for more than 20 years, began serving as the jail’s chief of detentions on Monday, according to a statement from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

Harris County commissioners have for years tried to install a civilian administrator to oversee the county’s sprawling jail, which houses some 9,000 inmates at any given time and in recent years has been the site of several inmate suicides, assaults, or other violent incidents.

Herklotz was deputy director for the regulatory agency, which ensures all 239 Texas jails meet state standards.

“Our search for a Chief of Detentions targeted someone with the experience, values and vision to achieve our goal of cementing the Harris County Jail’s reputation for safety, innovation and professionalism,” stated Gonzalez. “These are qualities that our team displayed while managing the ongoing pandemic, and I am excited to see the continued transformation of the Harris County Jail under Shannon Herklotz’s leadership.”

Herklotz said he takes his duty seriously to ensure “care, custody and control of every person living inside our jail.”

“Keeping every person in the jail – including our staff and those entrusted into our care – safe and healthy is our first priority,” he said. “But more than that, we are committed to making sure people leave our jail better prepared to make a positive contribution to our community by connecting them with the resources and support they need to do so.”

The Harris County Jail is the largest jail in Texas, and the third-largest in the nation, with a current population of just over 9,000. Harris County officials have flirted with the idea of a civilian administrator several times over the last 30 years.

Commissioners considered trying to appoint a civilian administrator at least as far back as 1991, according to Chronicle archives. The move was driven by the soaring cost of the jail, and the increase in the sheriff’s budget, and as the sheriff’s office had struggled to control overcrowding in its facility.

As the story notes, this idea most recently surfaced in 2015, with the administrator being hired by and answering to Commissioners Court. That was shelved when a study concluded that a change in state law would be required for that. Existing law allows for the Sheriff to make such an appointment, however, and that’s what has happened here. I was skeptical at the time, mostly because I don’t trust Steve Radack, who was the original advocate for the idea, but then-Commissioner Gene Locke made what I thought were some decent arguments, so I was willing to listen. Locke’s main argument was that Sheriffs want to put their budget into patrol, which takes money away from jail administration, so having a jail administrator with a seat at the table can be a counterweight for that. We’ll see how that works when the administrator reports to the Sheriff. If Shannon Herklotz can help the jail consistently meet state standards – a problem it has had for some time now – and maybe also help figure out how to reduce its population, that will be a huge win.

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.

Felony bail reform lawsuit moves forward

Pending the next appeal, anyway.

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the case challenging Harris County’s felony bail system should proceed to trial. Nineteen felony judges represented by state Attorney General Ken Paxton immediately gave notice they planned to appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit

[…]

The defendants include Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who does not oppose the litigation, and 23 Harris County felony district judges, who have split into a larger group represented by Paxton, who opposes the lawsuit, and a smaller faction represented by attorney Allan Van Fleet, who represented the judges in the misdemeanor bail case.

In a 65-page opinion, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal denied the state and felony judges’ motions to dismiss the case, finding that the evidence involved “vigorously disputed factual allegations that must be developed further to resolve the legal issues the parties present.”

Lawyers for Abbott and 19 Democratic district judges argued in October the judges were protected by immunity, the federal courts do not have jurisdiction and the indigent arrestees do not have standing to sue.

Rosenthal found the court had standing and thousands of indigent arrestees, even though the individuals changed over time, had grounds, as a group, to sue.

See here, here, and here for the background. This was a motion to dismiss on largely procedural grounds, so there’s plenty of room for the Fifth Circuit to step in and throw this out without the merits of the case ever getting litigated. Obviously, I hope that does not happen.

This is the first I’d heard of the judicial plaintiffs being in two different groups; I need to understand what that means going forward. You know where I stand on this, and I plan to make a Big Deal out of which judges are on the right side of this issue, and which are actively obstructing it. So far, that standard hasn’t been met, but if the Fifth Circuit upholds this ruling then I will look very sideways at further appeals.

Overview of Harris County Sheriff’s race

The explanation for why Sheriff Ed Gonzalez is a big favorite to be re-elected is quite simple, really.

County veterans wondered if former Houston police officer-turned politician Ed Gonzalez would be up to the job of sheriff in 2016 after he came out on top of a contested Democratic primary and then defeated veteran lawman Ron Hickman.

Four years later, Gonzalez has emerged the heavily favored incumbent against Republican challenger Joe Danna. Experts say Gonzalez’s chances are buoyed by wide name recognition, his performance in office, a rapid Democratic shift in Harris County’s demographics, and a contingent of Latino voters energized by the recent election of other Hispanics to county offices, including Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

“It’s going to be more complicated (for Danna) to win,” said Jeronimo Cortina, an associate professor of political science at the University of Houston.

[…]

He stumbled initially, after the sheriff’s office ran afoul of state standards in the county jail. Texas Commission on Jail Standards Executive Director Brandon Wood said the sheriff’s office received several notices of noncompliance regarding jail operations — including one for a failed annual inspection — early on. After a meeting with Gonzalez and county judge Lina Hidalgo in early last year, he said state jail regulators noticed a “marked improvement” in the department’s jail operations.

“They passed their most recent annual inspection and we have not issued a notice of non-compliance since,” he said.

Gonzalez argues that he reined in the department’s troubled budget, expanded critical intervention training, ended practices outsourcing inmates to far-flung jails in other counties, and led the department through Hurricane Harvey and a still-ongoing pandemic — at a time when police departments across the country have come under renewed scrutiny for how they treat civilians.

He gained national attention when — as a defendant in a lawsuit over the county’s bail practices — he came out as a vocal supporter for misdemeanor bail reform.

[…]

Texas Southern University Professor Michael Adams said Danna appears to be a “law-and-order” candidate more common in past elections, one who will likely face significant hurdles given the county’s blue tilt.

“In the midst of not having any scar tissue in this particular race, and what we’ve seen in Harris County going back to 2018, in terms of a blue wave, if you will, I don’t see much of a threat,” he said.

First and foremost, Harris County is Democratic. That may change over time, and we may encounter conditions where base Democratic turnout is likely to be depressed while Republican turnout is not, but in this election we can safely assume there will be more Democrats voting, likely by a wide margin. Sheriff Gonzalez has done a good job, and was on the right side of the bail reform issue, which is one reason why the Dem base likes him. Those two factors alone put him in a very comfortable spot.

Given the Dem advantage, there are two scenarios where a qualified Republican could hope t get the significant number of crossover voters they’d need to win. One is where the Democratic nominee is manifestly unqualified and a vote for that nominee would be a disaster for the office in question. The 2012 DA race, where Lloyd Oliver managed to beat a much better candidate in the primary, is the canonincal example. (It helped that the Republican candidate in that race was Mike Anderson, whose chops for the job were obvious. Joe Danna is not Mike Anderson.) The other is where the Dem incumbent is fatally tainted by scandal. The best examples here actually involve the last two Republican Sheriffs, Ron Hickman and Tommy Thomas. Sheriff Gonzalez has a clean record, so that’s a non-starter.

So, putting it all together, Sheriff Gonzalez is a solid favorite to win re-election. As well he should be.

More on the motion to dismiss the felony bail lawsuit

Should get a ruling soon.

The bulk of Harris County’s felony judges sought Monday to get the federal case against them dismissed, saying they should not be party to the challenge on how bail is determined for thousands of poor people accused of crime.

Lawyers for Gov. Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton and 19 Democratic district judges argued at a packed online hearing that the judges are protected by immunity, the federal courts don’t have jurisdiction and the indigent arrestees behind the case no longer have standing to sue.

The 2019 civil rights case challenges the county’s policy of setting bond that results in the jailing of people who can’t afford cash bail. Nearly 80 percent of the current jail population are people awaiting trial, mostly on felonies.

Although the group of judges asked for the entire case to be dismissed, or alternatively, their removal as parties to the case, the bail challenge is likely proceed regardless of the court’s ruling, since the remaining defendants — the county, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and four felony judges who hired their own lawyers — are not seeking dismissal.

[…]

The state Attorney General’s Office, arguing on behalf of the majority of the felony judges, said the bail process is constitutional because it adheres to ODonnell v. Harris County, the county’s landmark misdemeanor bond case that was resolved through a seven-year consent decree.

But the plaintiffs say the felony bail case, Russell v. Harris County, raises new constitutional issues that the court never had a chance to address in ODonnell.

See here and here for the most recent updates. I will reiterate what I said in that last link: I want this system to be reformed in a manner similar to the misdemeanor case, I want the Democratic judges to be part of the solution and not an obstacle to it, and I will remember who is who and who does what. We’ll see what happens next.

Endorsement watch: Ed and Kim

This is an easy call.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

Anyone who has been led by personal experience or the events of the past year to conclude that cops are callous and jaded hasn’t meant Ed Gonzalez.

The compassionate approach of this 51-year-old homicide detective-turned-city councilman-turned-sheriff might even win over some in the “defund the police” crowd.

Gonzalez doesn’t just give lip service to criminal justice reform or decriminalizing mental illness health, drug addiction and homelessness. He is enacting policies within the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

“The word defund is not effective,” he says. “We need right-sized policing.”

To him, that means more focus on fighting violent crime and forming a regional task force to reduce drunken-driving deaths.

Elected in 2016, the Democrat brought the long-troubled Harris County Jail into state compliance and later made it the first in the state to address the opioid crisis by offering a drug that helps curb cravings and prevent relapses. He was among the first local officials to support reform of a misdemeanor bail system a federal court deemed unconstitutional.

The sheriff led the way in implementing cite-and-release, a program seeking to reduce the jail population by treating some misdemeanor charges like speeding tickets — that is, with citations rather than arrests.

Gonzalez says conversations are underway about how health providers could respond first to lower-risk calls that don’t require armed deputies. Other programs connect domestic violence survivors with social services and another improves interactions with people with autism.

Basically, Sheriff Gonzalez is doing it right. He’s as clear a choice as there is.

This could have been a more difficult choice.

Kim Ogg

To determine if Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg is doing a good job, consider the claims of the opposition she has drawn this election year.

In the Democratic primary, she faced a challenge from the left, with opponents who believed her support for bail and other reforms has been too tepid. In the general election, her Republican opponent complains she’s too soft on law and order.

Neither claim hits the mark. For Ogg, 60, has approached the job of district attorney as she should: making it her priority to ensure a fair process that engenders trust in the system, supporting both reform and law enforcement with eyes open to their potential flaws and pushing back accordingly.

“I believe reform and public safety can mutually exist,” Ogg told the editorial board. “I believe Harris County is safer today because they have an independent district attorney.”

We agree.

There’s certainly room to criticize Ogg on criminal justice reform – Audia Jones and Carvana Cloud tried but didn’t succeed. A similar criticism from the right, based on cost savings and prioritizing violent crime over nonviolent crime – something Ogg herself highlighted in 2016 – would surely have been received favorably by the Chron editorial board. It might even be a general election winner. That’s not the argument that Ogg’s opponent was making, and the board wasn’t buying what she was selling. We’ve seen plenty of crossover votes in the DA race in previous elections – for Ogg in 2016, for Mike Anderson in 2012 – but I don’t expect much of it this year.

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.

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.

July 2020 campaign finance reports: Harris County

You can always count on January and July for campaign finance reports. This roundup is going to be a little funky, because all of the candidates filed eight-day reports for the March primary, and a few also filed 30-day and eight-day reports for the July runoff. I’ll note those folks, because it means that some of the comparisons are not really apples-to-apples. But this is what we have. The July 2019 reports are here, and the January 2020 reports are here.

Kim Ogg, District Attorney
Mary Nan Huffman, District Attorney

Ed Gonzalez, Sheriff
Joe Danna, Sheriff

Christian Menefee, Harris County Attorney
John Nation, Harris County Attorney

Ann Harris Bennett, Tax Assessor
Chris Daniel (SPAC), Tax Assessor

Rodney Ellis, County Commissioner, Precinct 1

Michael Moore, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Tom Ramsey, County Commissioner, Precinct 3


Candidate     Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===================================================
Ogg           64,109   223,775   68,489      29,698
Huffman       30,455    58,215        0      11,385

Gonzalez      37,352    28,320        0      73,959
Danna         56,446    26,240        0       8,490

Menefee       24,236    32,768        0      11,680
Nation             0         0        0           0

Bennett       
Daniel         1,302        51   25,000       1,705

Ellis         53,835   575,804        0   3,029,506

Moore        156,790   245,110        0      96,832
Ramsey       346,150    49,829        0     308,942

Both Ogg ($385K) and Gonzales ($317K) had plenty of cash on hand as of January, but they both spent a bunch of money in their contested primaries; Ogg needed to do so more than Gonzalez took the wise approach of not taking his little-known opponents lightly. I expect they’ll raise enough to run their campaigns, but as they’ll benefit from the Democratic nature of the county, I wouldn’t necessarily expect them to be big moneybags. I haven’t seen much of a campaign from Huffman as yet, and Joe Danna is a perennial candidate who gets most of his contributions as in-kind. What I’m saying is, don’t expect a whole lot from these races.

The same is largely true for the County Attorney and Tax Assessor races. Christian Menefeee had a decent amount raised for his January report, so he’ll probably take in a few bucks. I know absolutely nothing about his opponent, who doesn’t appear to be doing much. I don’t know why Ann Harris Bennett hasn’t filed a report yet, but he’s never been a big fundraiser. Chris Daniel has always used that PAC for his campaigns, and he had a few bucks in it as District Clerk but not that much.

Rodney Ellis brought a lot of money with him from his time as State Senator when he moved to the County Commissioner spot, and he will continue to raise and spend a significant amount. If previous patterns hold, he’ll put some money towards a coordinated campaign, and support some other Dems running for office directly. The race that will see the most money is the Commissioner race in Precinct 3. Michael Moore was in the Dem primary runoff, and the report you see is from July 6, which is to say it’s his eight-day report. That means the money raised and spent is from a 22-day period, which should give a bit of perspective. Both he and Tom Ramsey will have all the resources they need.

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.

The current status on local police reform efforts

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

CM Letitia Plummer

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Now, as for that executive order:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, there was action taken by Commissioners Court.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commissioners Court to address police reform

On the agenda for today.

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

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

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

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

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

Still trying to do something about the coronavirus risk in the jail

Time is extremely limited for this.

A federal judge Friday asked lawyers to hammer out a plan for releasing about 1,000 indigent inmates detained on bonds of $10,000 or less amid fear of a COVID-19 outbreak at the third largest jail in the country. The judge indicated she would take up the fate of another 3,400 people in the Harris County Jail awaiting trial on higher bonds next week.

The instructions by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal came in response to an emergency request Friday by the team of lawyers who challenged the county’s bail policies. They argued that thousands of poor defendants trapped in the jail simply because they couldn’t afford bail should be granted immediate bail hearings or be released.

The pleading laid a grave situation at the hands of a judge who has made many tough decisions in the criminal justice realm.

“A public health catastrophe of historic proportion looms in the Harris County Jail. Only this Court can avert it,” the motion says. “With every passing hour, the risk of disaster increases. All eyes turn to this Court in this dire moment.”

The bail lawsuit motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction seeks release of about half the jail’s population of nearly 8,000 if they cannot be afforded immediate bail hearings. This would mean thousands of people charged with nonviolent offenses would be allowed to await trial on bond outside the facility, as they would otherwise be able to do if they could post cash bond.

Other local officials, including the sheriff, state district judges and top county official have been tackling the potential public health threat from different angles over the past two weeks, seeking compassionate releases of medically vulnerable inmates, bonds for those accused of nonviolent offenses, or some cross-section of the two groups.

But early Friday lawyers from Civil Rights Corps, the Texas Civil Rights Project and pro bono counsel from Susman Godfrey, stepped in with a constitutional approach to the jail problem that could allow much more drastic cuts in the population than the compassionate release plans outlined by the sheriff and the county judge.

Rosenthal asked the lawyers for indigent defendants and attorneys for the sheriff and the county to assemble by Monday a list of thousands of people who might qualify for release based on their bond amounts, charges, criminal histories and risk factors. In addition, the judge indicated she would move swiftly on a subset of the indigent defendants who can’t pay their bond. She asked for confirmation that 1,000 or so people being held on bonds of up to $10,000 were not subject to other holds or detainers.

The sheriff and county officials told the judge that they had no objection to this first group being released if they fit the judge’s criteria. According to a lawyer for the plaintiffs, the only agency that opposed the release of those facing $10,000 bonds was the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

Sheriff Gonzalez had been working on this for the past week, trying to get individual judges to allow some inmates to be released, but the process was slow. County Judge Lina Hidalgo had been working on an executive order that would have released a larger number of inmates, but she shelved it after objections from the Attorney General’s office; you can read that story for the details. And I know, we’re all going to be murdered in our sleep by a rampaging horde of pot smokers and check kiters, but let’s do pause for a moment and consider what the alternative might be:

In another effort to address the issue, Harris Health System leaders on Friday sent a letter asking for the release of defendants with nonviolent offenses.

The county medical system’s president and CEO stressed that an outbreak in the Harris County Jail is not a matter of if, but when.

“The Harris County Jail and other large correctional facilities pose a real and immediate danger to the health of the community,” Esmaeil Porsa said. “An even limited outbreak of COVID-19 in the Harris County Jail has the potential to overwhelm our already overburdened hospital system. If this happened — and the likelihood is high — it could leave many vulnerable people in our community without access to care.”

Porsa urged the county to consider prioritizing inmates over 60 with pre-existing conditions such as cancer, diabetes, asthma and chronic pulmonary disease, heart disease and HIV. Jails are known to have higher concentrations of people in the high-risk group, he said.

He added that social distancing is nearly impossible, with dorm settings holding between 20 and 60 people in a close space. And quarantine is also unfeasible when inmates are booked in and out of the jail on a daily basis.

We could just let them all die, I suppose. I’m sure Dan Patrick would approve. I would rather not do that.

UPDATE: And now Greg Abbott is involved, and I’m confused.

As the first Harris County inmate tested positive for COVID-19 Sunday, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order blocking any release of inmates from jails and prisons accused or convicted of violent crime.

“Releasing dangerous criminals from jails into the streets is not the right solution and doing so is now prohibited by law by this declaration,” Abbott said at an afternoon briefing.

The news comes as federal, state and local government officials continued to squabble over details of what a jail release would look like as they attempted to prevent a catastrophic outbreak among the approximately 8,000 people incarcerated at the downtown facility.

The governor was referencing Attorney General Ken Paxton’s motion to prevent Harris County from releasing 4,000 people awaiting trial on felonies, saying such a move would “allow dangerous criminals to roam freely and commit more crimes during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Protecting Texans is one of my highest priorities. It is vital that we maintain the integrity of our criminal justice system and continue to enforce state law during this pandemic,” Paxton said. “My office will not stand for any action that threatens the health and safety of law-abiding citizens.”

Hours earlier a federal judge convened an emergency hearing to address plans that plaintiffs in a federal civil rights case had hammered out over the weekend with lawyers for the sheriff and the county judge to release inmates accused of some nonviolent offense.

An official from Paxton’s office appeared telephonically at that hearing and said the AG planned to appeal an order by the federal judge to the 5th U.S. Circuit if it called for any blanket releases.

The judge set a hearing for Tuesday to address a possible appeal.

There wasn’t anything in the previous story about people accused or convicted of violent crimes, hence my confusion. I assume there are still plenty of people in the Harris County jail for misdemeanor charges, so it’s not at all clear to me what the extent of the dispute is. Maybe later versions of the story will make that more clear.

UPDATE: There’s now a more detailed version of the Chron story and also a Trib story, but this post is too long already. I’ll be back with more tomorrow.

2020 primary results: Harris County

Let’s start with this.

Long lines combined with a lack of voting machines turned into frustration for voters at several election sites in Harris County on Super Tuesday.

Margaret Hollie arrived at the Multi Service Center on Griggs Road at 11 a.m. She finished just after 2:45 p.m.

“It was horrible,” she said. “The worst since I’ve been voting. And I’ve been voting for 60 years.”

She decided to stick around and vote at the location in the city’s South Union area. Others did not, opting to find polling sites that were less busy. Under recent changes implemented by county leaders, voters can now cast their ballot at any precinct.

In Kashmere Gardens, at another Multi Service Center, the line of voters stretched from the entrance of the voting room to the exit of the facility.

Bettie Adami was one of about 100 people in the line about 4 p.m. Healthcare, higher paying jobs and raising the minimum wage top the list of her concerns this election season.

She isn’t letting the line prevent her from voting. “I’ll stand as long as I have to to cast my vote,” she said.

[…]

The county’s political parties are in charge of deciding which polling places will be open for primary elections, said [Rosio Torres, a spokesperson for the Harris County] Clerk’s office.

DJ Ybarra, Executive Director of the Harris County Democratic Party , said the decision was made to not include some polling locations in negotiations with Republicans to keep countywide voting in the primary. The parties agreed on the final map of polling locations in January, said Ybarra.

“In that negotiation, we had to come up with what locations we wanted,” said Ybarra. “We wish we could have had more locations, but we had to negotiate and we had to keep countywide voting.

“In the future, we’re going to try our best to get all our polling locations we want earlier in the process, so we’re not put in a position where we don’t have all the locations we want,” Ybarra said.

To sum that up in a couple of tweets:

In other words, there were about twice as many Dems voting yesterday as there were Republicans, but there were an equal number of Dem and Rep voting machines, which is the way it works for separate primaries. Had this been a joint primary as Trautman’s office originally proposed and which the HCDP accepted, each voting machine at each site could have been used for either primary. Oh well.

I had asked if the judicial races were basically random in a high-turnout election like this. The answer is No, because in every single judicial election where there was a male candidate and a female candidate, the female candidate won, often by a large margin. That means the end for several incumbents, including Larry Weiman, Darryl Moore, Randy Roll, Steven Kirkland, and George Powell, some of which I mourn more than others. Alex Smoots-Thomas, who had a male challenger and a female challenger, trails Cheryl Elliott Thornton going into a runoff. I saw a lot of mourning on Twitter last night of Elizabeth Warren’s underperformance and the seeming reluctance many people had to vote for a woman for President. Well, at least in Harris County, many many people were happy to vote for women for judge.

Three of the four countywide incumbents were headed to victory. In order of vote share, they are Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett, and DA Kim Ogg. In the County Attorney race, challenger Christian Menefee was just above fifty percent, and thus on his way to defeating three-term incumbent Vince Ryan without a runoff. I thought Menefee would do well, but that was a very strong performance. Even if I have to correct this today and say that he fell just short of a clear majority, it’s still quite impressive.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis easily won, with over 70%. Michael Moore and Diana Martinez Alexander were neck and neck in Precinct 3, with Kristi Thibaut a few points behind in third place.

Unfortunately, as I write this, Democrats were on their way towards an own goal in HCDE Position 7, At Large. Andrea Duhon, who is already on the Board now, was leading with just over 50%. If that holds, she’ll have to withdraw and the Republican – none other than Don Freaking Sumners – will be elected in November. If we’re lucky, by the time all the votes have been counted, she’ll drop below fifty percent and will be able to withdraw from the runoff, thus allowing David Brown, currently in second place, to be the nominee. If not, this was the single lousiest result of the day.

Got a lot of other ground to cover, so let’s move on. I’ll circle back to some other county stuff tomorrow.

The interviews I didn’t do

As was the case with the 2019 Houston elections, there were too many candidates and too many races (and in this case, too little time as well) to do a full slate of interviews. I did what I could, and did a pretty good job of covering the races of interest in Harris County if I do say so myself, but if there had been more time I’d have done more. In some cases, I can point to previous interviews or other resources, so let’s have a review, and look ahead to what might be on tap for the runoffs.

US Senate: I’d have loved to interview some of these candidates, but it was unlikely I’d be able to get time on their calendars, especially after the filing deadline. The Texas Signal has done some Senate candidate forums, and you can see links to Facebook videos from one they did in Houston here. The Texas Trib also did a series of interviews with the five leading candidates, and they can be seen here, as well as a Q&A series here.

CD02: I interviewed Elisa Cardnell and Travis Olsen very early in the cycle, before the filing deadline and thus before Sima Ladjevardian entered the race. I’ve tried but have not succeeded at setting up a time to talk with her, and if there’s a runoff that she’s in that will be a top priority for me.

CD08: This is obviously not a district that anyone expects to be competitive, but I regret not having the time to speak to Laura Jones and Elizabeth Hernandez. They both look like super candidates, and it’s important to support efforts to build Democratic infrastructure in places like Montgomery County. That race is on my list for November.

CD09: Rep. Al Green is the one Democrat in Congress from the area that I’ve never had the chance to interview. Tried to chase him down once a few years ago but couldn’t make it happen. I don’t see this as a competitive race and there’s no need to do a November interview, but one of these days I’d like to talk with him, just to have done it.

CD10: I interviewed Mike Siegel for the 2018 runoff. This race is on my list for the May runoff, if there is one.

CD18: I interviewed Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee back in 2010. I would enjoy talking with her again, but I did not have it in me to do seven (!) interviews for this race. In the unlikely event of a runoff, I’ll definitely revisit this race.

CD22: I interviewed Sri Kulkarni for the 2018 runoff. My original thought was that if this goes to a runoff I’ll be there for it, but after the recent bizarre allegations between the two candidates who might make it into a runoff besides Sri Kulkarni, I’m not sure what I’ll do.

SD11: I interviewed Susan Criss when she ran for HD23 in 2014. I may or may not do this race for November, we’ll see.

SD13: I’ve interviewed Sen. Borris Miles twice, most recently in 2012, when he was running for re-election in HD146. Let’s just say I’d have to ask him some very different questions now, and leave it at that.

HD126: As it happens, I interviewed both candidates in 2018 – Natali Hurtado, and Undrai Fizer. I’ll probably do this one for November, we’ll see.

HD142: I have never interviewed Rep. Harold Dutton, I don’t think I’ve ever met him. I have interviewed Jerry Davis a couple of times, most recently in 2013. I will definitely want to do interviews in this race if there’s a runoff.

HD146: I have not interviewed Rep. Shawn Thierry, but I did run a judicial Q&A from her in 2010. I interviewed Ashton Woods for City Council last year.

HD147: I have interviewed Rep. Garnet Coleman multiple times, most recently in 2012. He’s always been a favorite person to talk to. In the unlikely event of a runoff, I’ll definitely revisit this race.

HD148: Had it not been for the special election in November, I’d have been all over this race. That said, thanks to the special election I’ve already done interviews with Rep.-elect Anna Eastman, Penny Shaw, and Adrian P. Garcia. I also interviewed Cynthia Reyes-Revilla for City Council. I might possibly revisit this in a runoff, but because I’ve done these interviews so recently it’s not clear to me I’d have anything new to ask these folks. We’ll see.

Sheriff: I’ve interviewed Sheriff Ed Gonzalez multiple times, including in 2016 when he first ran for Sheriff. I also interviewed Jerome Moore after he made it to the runoff with Gonzalez in 2016. I didn’t see this race as a particularly serious challenge to Gonzalez, so I put a higher priority on the DA and County Attorney races. If it turns out I was wrong and this one winds up in a runoff, I will of course revisit it.

HCDE: I also regret not doing interviews in the two At Large HCDE races, but there just wasn’t the time, and unlike with legislative offices there’s just so many questions about this position I can reasonably ask. I’ll probably do Position 7 if that race goes to a runoff, but we’ll see.

Yeah, I’ve done a lot of interviews over the years. Always room for more, though not always the time. I’ll be back to the task in March, and again later this year. Hope you find this useful.

How should we police the police?

This article raises a number of interesting questions.

Kim Ogg

A quarter of the 60-plus law enforcement agencies operating in Harris County have refused to sign agreements to help local prosecutors track problem cops.

Under those agreements, all signed since District Attorney Kim Ogg took office three years ago, 46 agencies have promised to voluntarily turn over information about potentially untrustworthy or unreliable officers. But 17 other agencies declined to sign, a move that forces prosecutors to spend time getting the information through subpoenas and can potentially drag out the resolution of cases.

The Houston Police Department, the Texas Department of Public Safety and Metro Transit Police are among those that signed memoranda of understanding, but all of the county agencies — including all eight constable precincts and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office — declined to sign.

“Based on the County Attorney’s advice, the sheriff’s office has joined with other Harris County law enforcement agencies that are unable to sign the district attorney’s proposed memorandum of understanding at this time,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said in a statement to the Houston Chronicle, adding that his agency still “fully cooperates” with prosecutors by “providing all legally required information concerning all pending cases being prosecuted.”

A county attorney’s office spokesman declined to explain why lawyers told agencies not to sign the agreement, saying the office was “not comfortable” commenting on legal advice given to clients.

To Ogg, that’s all far from ideal: Without an agreement in place, her office must send out subpoena orders to make sure agencies turn over everything.

“It’s a great deal of added work,” Ogg said. “I just don’t think this (agreement) is anything that law enforcement agencies should fear.”

Long-time local defense lawyer Patrick McCann agreed that it was a “pretty fair point” that issuing added subpoenas could be a significant burden for prosecutors, and raised concerns about some agencies’ refusal to enter an agreement.

“It is absolutely indicative of the culture of hiding the ball,” he said.

[…]

The three-page agreement asks agencies to tell the DA’s office whenever a potential police witness is charged with or investigated for a crime, relieved of duty or suspended for misconduct allegations, taken off casework, determined to be untruthful through an administrative investigation, or found guilty of misconduct that could call into question their integrity. Getting agencies to sign the agreement, Ogg said, would reduce work time for prosecutors and ensure that they get all the information they need to turn over to the defense.

“We rely upon the agencies to give us the information that we would need to comply with disclosure (requirements),” Ogg said, “and instead of just blindly relying, we’ve asked them to sign written memorandums of agreement.”

To defense lawyers like McCann, the efforts to create a database and get law enforcement on board seem “laudable,” but he pointed out that ultimately it’s up to the DA’s office as to whether or when to turn that material over. “They’re still trying to keep a stranglehold on the information,” he said, “and they’re terrible about timeliness.”

So first and foremost, why is it that the County Attorney advised the Sheriff and the Constables not to sign this MOU? I would definitely have asked this question when I was doing County Attorney interviews if I had known about this. This arrangement has been in place for five years, though it started with just an informal agreement with HPD. Similar formal agreements exist around the country. It’s certainly possible there have been problems with these things in other places, but what about this particular MOU is troubling to the County Attorney? Surely there’s a way to resolve this. I’d like to understand more about this.

The information gathered via this agreement is compiled into a database, which is not publicly disclosed by Ogg. I can understand that – there are privacy concerns, the unions would surely put up a fight, and the possibility exists that a cop could get on this list as a form of retaliation by their department. One might also argue that a cop should be eligible to come off that list after a certain period of good behavior, and that a cop might have some process to challenge their placement on that list. I also understand the argument for making it public. There’s an awful lot of secrecy that surrounds law enforcement agencies, and if we’ve learned one thing in recent years it’s that such secrecy is toxic. I got an email from a person at The Justice Collaborative a little while ago, sending me their documentation about where Kim Ogg and the two main challengers stand on a variety of issues. They had all been sent a questionnaire, and I was given the responses sent by Audia Jones and Carvana Cloud; Ogg did not respond but where her position was known via public statement or her past record, it was noted. The issue of maintaining a disclosure database and making it public was included in the questionnaire – Jones supported having a public list, Cloud said she would not make it public, matching Ogg’s position. I don’t know enough right now to know how I feel about this, but I wanted to share that much with you.

Anyway. Having this arrangement is a good thing. Getting all 63 law enforcement agencies for Harris County on board should be a priority, with the non-participating agencies made known. Whatever is preventing the HCSO and the Constables from joining needs to be resolved. That can and should be a job for all of the relevant elected officials.

Endorsement watch: Ed again

This is an easy call.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

[Sheriff Ed] Gonzalez, 50, a soft-spoken Houston native, former councilman and 18-year veteran of the Houston Police Department, ran as a reformer and he hasn’t disappointed in his first term. From taking a bold stance in support of bail reform to minimizing the use of solitary confinement to expanding vocational programs to women in the jail, changes big and small have prioritized public safety as well as fairness and the dignity of inmates.

To address the opioid crisis, Gonzalez made the Harris County jail the first in Texas to offer Vivitrol, a drug that helps curb cravings and prevent relapses. In October, the jail began equipping departing inmates grant-funded supplies of the drug naloxone, which can save lives by reversing overdoses.

Certainly, bringing a jail of 8,500 inmates that was under two consent decrees when he took office into full compliance with state standards was no easy task. The sheriff has struggled at times to address vexing problems such as jail suicides, of which there were five in a span of two years. With new protocols in place, however, there have been none in the last year, a trend we hope continues.

[…]

Gonzalez’s track record and his drive to continue reform have earned our recommendation for sheriff in the Democratic primary.

They mention the recent cite and release policy as another reform effort Gonzalez has initiated. I think Sheriff Gonzalez has had a pretty darned solid first term, and he did not draw serious opposition. Like I said, this is an easy call.

Cite and release

This has been a long time coming.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

Harris County law enforcement officials on Tuesday will begin a “cite and release” program that treats some misdemeanor charges like court citations for speeding tickets, just days after the district attorney’s office said it could not fully comply with the initiative.

The program, which applies to six charges handled in Harris County’s misdemeanor courts, comes amid countywide discussions about bail reform and over-incarceration, as well as District Attorney Kim Ogg’s repeated requests that Harris County Commissioners Court fund more prosecutors for her office.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office is the first policing agency in the area that is reported to be participating in the program approved by a working group that includes judges. After voicing concerns in a letter to the sheriff, Ogg’s office agreed to the new procedures.

Ogg’s office sent the Chronicle a copy of the letter but declined further comment.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez noted that Harris County is behind the curve on using cite and release, as other Texas counties began employing it after the state Legislature in 2007 authorized such programs. The hope is that fewer bookings will allow deputies to have more time to patrol neighborhoods, while people who are eligible can stay with their families and keep going to work, he said.

“This administrative policy should help reduce our pre-trial county jail population and provide local costs savings to taxpayers,” the sheriff said. “Citations can divert lower risk individuals from detention, reserving limited space and resources for more dangerous individuals.”

The class A and B misdemeanor charges that apply are criminal mischief, $100-$750; graffiti, $100-$2,500; theft, $100-$750; theft of service $100-$750; contraband in a correctional facility; and driving while license invalid.

If a resident is stopped on one of those offenses, the sheriff’s office will run a check for active warrants and contact the district attorney’s office to see if the person is eligible for cite and release, according to an internal memo about the procedures.

Once prosecutors accept the charges, the deputy completes the citation as long as it’s signed off by the defendant. The suspect is given a court date on the spot and then released.

These are exactly the types of defendants who would be at the top of the list for a personal recognizance bond, so it makes sense to treat them this way. I feel like we’ve been talking about this for a long time, including with HPD, but it just hasn’t happened before now. As the story notes it’s happened as a direct result of the 2018 election, as the Democratic misdemeanor court judges were a driving force behind it. This is the moment, and it’s clearly the way to go. And now that the Sheriff’s office has adopted this policy, maybe HPD will follow.

January 2020 campaign finance reports: Harris County

As you know, New Year’s Day brings a new round of campaign finance reports, for all levels of government. I’m going to be working my way through these as I can, because there’s lots to be learned about the candidates and the status of the races from these reports, even if all we do is look at the topline numbers. Today we start with Harris County races, as there’s a lot of action and primary intrigue. With the Presidential primary and of course the entire Trump demon circus dominating the news, it can be hard to tell where the buzz is in these races, if any buzz exists. The July 2019 reports, with a much smaller field of candidates, is here.

Kim Ogg, District Attorney
Carvana Cloud, District Attorney
Audia Jones, District Attorney
Curtis Todd Overstreet, District Attorney

Lori DeAngelo, District Attorney
Mary Nan Huffman, District Attorney
Lloyd Oliver, District Attorney

Ed Gonzalez, Sheriff
Jerome Moore, Sheriff
Harry Zamora, Sheriff

Joe Danna, Sheriff
Paul Day, Sheriff

Vince Ryan, County Attorney
Christian Menefee, Harris County Attorney
Ben Rose, Harris County Attorney

John Nation, County Attorney

Ann Harris Bennett, Tax Assessor
Jolanda Jones, Tax Assessor
Jack Terence, Tax Assessor

Chris Daniel (SPAC), Tax Assessor

Rodney Ellis, County Commissioner, Precinct 1
Maria Jackson, County Commissioner, Precinct 1

Diana Alexander, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Erik Hassan, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Michael Moore, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Morris Overstreet, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Kristi Thibaut, County Commissioner, Precinct 3

Tom Ramsey, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Susan Sample, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Brenda Stardig (SPAC), County Commissioner, Precinct 3


Candidate     Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===================================================
Ogg          106,572    83,276   68,489     385,908
Cloud         33,881    17,382        0      16,889
Jones         49,186    29,177        0      29,973
Overstreet         0     1,250        0           0

DeAngelo         500     2,012        0         500
Hoffman            0    41,089        0           0
Oliver             0         0        0           0

Gonzalez      95,636    47,317        0     317,264
Moore         28,595    15,896        0      12,698
Zamora         4,500    18,177        0           0

Danna         78,820    39,274    7,000       9,857
Day                0         0        0           0

Ryan          33,655    18,779        0     101,039
Menefee      135,579    41,249        0     128,547
Rose          89,476    80,932   20,000      53,341

Nation             0     1,369        0           0

Bennett       20,965     8,734        0      39,845
Jones         16,320     1,250        0      16,320
Terence        1,000     1,400        0           0

Daniel            35         1        0         454

Ellis        122,631   396,998        0   3,881,740
Jackson      110,230    71,241    8,000      19,353

Alexander
Hassan          750      4,442        0           0
Moore       209,391     13,248        0     199,052
Overstreet   17,950      2,025        0      15,925
Thibaut      51,180      4,536        0      45,761

Ramsey      154,315     24,281        0     126,619
Sample       26,624      1,828        0      26,620
Stardig      43,700     39,985        0      75,930

I guess I expected more from the District Attorney race. Audia Jones and Carvana Cloud have raised a few bucks, but nothing yet that would lead me to believe they will be able to effectively communicate with a primary electorate that could well be over 500,000 voters. Kim Ogg is completing her first term, but this will be the third time she’s been on the ballot – there was an election for DA in 2014 as well, following the death of Mike Anderson and the appointment of his widow, Devon Anderson, to succeed him. Neither of those primaries had a lot of voters, but a lot of the folks voting this March will have done so in one or both of the past Novembers, and that’s a boost for Ogg. On the Republican side, you can insert a shrug emoji here. I assume whoever wins that nomination will eventually be able to convince people to give them money. If you’re wondering how Mary Nan Hoffman can spend $41K without raising anything, the answer is that she spent that from personal funds.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez is the only incumbent here without a serious primary challenger. I’d never advise anyone to coast in an election where they have an opponent, but he doesn’t need to have the pedal to the metal. More than half of the amount Joe Danna raised was in kind, so don’t spend too much time thinking about that.

Both County Attorney challengers have done well, though again the question will be “is it enough?” I actually got a robopoll call the other day for the County Attorney race, but I didn’t stay on the line till the end – they started asking “if you knew this about this candidate” questions, and since they didn’t say up front how long the survey might take, I didn’t want to stick it out. As above, the main challenge for Christian Menefee and Ben Rose is that Vince Ryan has been on the ballot multiple times, going back to 2008. The voters know who he is, or at least more of them know who he is than they do who the other candidates in that race are. That’s the hill they have to climb.

The one challenger to an incumbent who can claim a name ID advantage is Jolanda Jones, who is surely as well known as anyone on this ballot. That has its pros and cons in her case, but at least the voters deciding between her and Ann Harris Bennett won’t be guessing about who their choices are.

I didn’t mention the Republicans running for County Attorney or Tax Assessor for obvious reasons. Chris Daniel could be a low-key favorite to surpass the partisan baseline in his race in November, but after 2016 and 2018, he’ll need a lot more than that.

In the Commissioners Court races, Maria Jackson has raised a decent amount of money, but she’s never going to be on anything close to even footing there. Precinct 1 is one-fourth of the county, but a much bigger share of the Democratic primary electorate. In 2008, there were 143K votes in Precinct 1 out of 411K overall or 35%. In 2012, it was 39K out of 76K, or 51%, and in 2016 it was 89K out of 227K, or 39%. My guess is that in a 500K primary, Precinct 1 will have between 150K and 200K voters. Think of it in those terms when you think about how much money each candidate has to spend so they can communicate with those voters.

In Precinct 3, Michael Moore and Tom Ramsey stand out in each of their races so far. For what it’s worth, the three Dems have raised more (270K to 224K) than the three Republicans so far. I don’t think any of that matters right now. Steve Radack still has his campaign money, and I’d bet he spends quite a bit of it to help the Republican nominee hold this seat.

All right, that’s it for now. I’ll have state offices next, and will do Congress and US Senate later since those totals aren’t reliably available till the first of the next month. Later I’ll go back and fill in the city numbers, and maybe look at HISD and HCC as well. Let me know what you think.