Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Baytown PD's Taser Use Questioned by Amnesty

Amnesty International this week issued a report on police use of Tasers, arguing that 70 documented deaths justify their complete ban until the weapon's safety can be evaluated. Baytown, Texas PD was one of their prime examples. Here's what they had to say:

"Several lawsuits have been filed against officers from the Baytown Police Department, Texas, for alleged abusive use of Tasers. Naomi Autin, a 59-year-old disabled Latina woman, was reportedly tasered three times by police officer Micah Aldred in July 2003 for banging on her brother's door with a brick. According to a lawsuit filed by Autin, she had gone to her brother's house to collect mail while he was away, and became worried after failing to get an answer from the house-sitter and seeing a truck parked in the driveway. She called the police and officer Aldred arrived on the scene. Autin, who is 5 feet 2 inches tall and suffers from severe arthritis, was allegedly tasered in the back by Aldred after she continued to try to gain entry to the house; the officer also allegedly threw her against a post, causing a severe cut to her head. A grand jury indicted the officer on charges of using excessive force, but he was acquitted at trial. Reportedly, police officers corroborated his account that the use of force was justified. Amnesty International understands that no disciplinary action has been taken against the officer.

"The same officer is a defendant in another lawsuit in which an unarmed woman wanted on an outstanding arrest warrant was allegedly 'shocked numerous times about the back, face, neck, shoulders and groin'.

"A lawsuit is pending against another Baytown officer for alleged excessive force during an incident in July 2003, in which the officer used a taser as a stun gun on a man who had just suffered epileptic seizures. The officer reportedly stunned 30-year-old Robert Stanley Jr at close range in an ambulance as medical personnel struggled to strap him down as he struggled in the throes of post-seizure confusion. An Internal Affairs investigation into the incident found that the officer had not violated any policies, and a grand jury investigation reportedly supported police accounts that Stanley had been sufficiently combative to warrant use of the taser."

Grits doesn't agree with Amnesty's call to completely ban Tasers, which are still less frequently lethal than firearms, but strict protocols should limit their use to instances that justify using deadly force.

Via Talk Left

Police kill Fort Bend man holding boots

A Fort Bend County grand jury yesterday declined to indict Rosenberg, TX police Sgt. DeWayne Logan, who shot and killed an unarmed man while executing a warrant in October. Officers were told the suspect had a pistol, and the shooter said the suspect appeared to be reaching into his boot, but no weapon was reported to have been recovered, and now the family is comtemplating a lawsuit.

According to the Fort Bend Herald-Coaster: "The officer who fired the fatal shot saw a man standing there with an object held over his head and he indicated he wanted the person to drop what he had in his hands," according to a police spokesperson. The deceased had a Latin surname and Grits cannot determine from this or prior press coverage whether he spoke English.

In any event, it turns out, what he was holding above his head were his shoes. The suspect "would not drop the object, and the man appeared to be reaching into a boot he was holding in his hands." The officer, "fearing for his life, thought (the suspect) may have been reaching for a weapon. He fired two shots, one striking him in the arm and chest," the spokesman said.

Shot for holding his boots above his head. What a tragedy. It's possible he didn't even understand the officer's commands.

Earlier this month we learned that Harris County grand juries are stacked with cops and prosecutors' employees who more or less do what the District Attorney tells them. In Fort Bend County, it appears, grand juries are pretty sympathetic to police officers as well. I don't have enough details to argue this officer should be indicted, but if not, he deserves significant departmental discipline. Law enforcement must begin to rid itself of trigger happy cops.

Brutalized war protester gets day in court

The night the United States launched the invasion of Iraq -- March 19, 2003 -- a UT student went to the West Mall, the University of Texas' designated "free speech area," to write "Protest the War" on a concrete wall in removable chalk. The Statesman reported on a civil rights lawsuit, which began yesterday and continues this week, brought by the student against a UT-Austin police officer after a brutality incident.

Some police abuse cases occur when an officer must make split second decisions in a complicated situation. This one just seems sadistic and mean. Most police would never do this, hell, most people with a shred of humanity would never do this, but check out the witness description of Officer Wayne Coffey's behavior:

The police officer looked "strange" as he ran across the University of Texas West Mall that night last year, "like he was tiptoeing" or "sneaking up on someone," UT student Matthew Perry testified at the start of a civil rights trial in federal court on Monday.

Perry said he halted his cell phone conversation to watch the officer, who was heading toward a student writing in chalk on a short cement wall outside the Texas Union.

After initially slowing down, the officer gathered a full head of steam and ran at the student, extended his right hand and smashed the student's face against the cement wall, Perry testified.

The student, who was facing the wall the entire time, never saw it coming, Perry told a jury convened before U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks. Perry was the first witness in a civil trial pitting Jonathan Bougie — the student who was chalking the wall that night — against UT police officer Wayne Coffey. ...

That's simply mean-spirited and childish, the kind of stunt a high school bully pulls, not a trained law enforcement professional.

Bougie's attorney, Wayne Krause of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said in his opening statement that Coffey failed to identify himself as a police officer before pushing Bougie into the wall, "breaking his glasses, leaving Dr. Bougie bloody and having to go to the emergency room.

Coffey's attorney didn't dispute the witness testimony, but merely argued his actions were justified.

Coffey's attorney, Assistant Attorney General Richard Salisbury, said the officer's actions were "reasonable under the circumstances."

Coffey didn't know if Bougie had a weapon, and his first priority was to ensure his own safety, Salisbury said.

The decision to not immediately identify himself as a police officer was "a judgment call,"

That's some judgment call. If Bougie was chalking the wall, his hands were visible, or at least the hand that he would have used to wield any weapon. Sneaking up from behind like that, the officer was in no danger. To use the phrase from the westerns, Officer Coffey "had the drop" on the student chalker, and could have easily taken him into custody.

UT not only didn't fire him, the state is providing his attorneys. Coffey's actions would be reprehensible aimed at a homeless person or a shoplifter. To exercise that level of force on a Class C misdemeanor (a fine-only offense), much less to stop a peaceful political protest, then to have state of Texas' lawyers argue it was "reasonable," is especially troubling.

I doubt Coffey was making a political statement, though, on his own behalf or the university's, and certainly nobody trained him in his smash-the-suspect's-face-into-the-wall technique, though the state has now argued the behavior was "reasonable." An ex-Arena-league football player, it sounds instead like Coffey just enjoys violence too much and probably should never have become a police officer in the first place.


UTWatch summarized the case right after it happened here, Debbie Russell informs me in an email. Sarah points to these pictures, and the same story at Indymedia. Thanks for the links!

Monday, November 29, 2004

APD Gone Taser-Happy

Austin police still use force against blacks more than twice as often as against whites, and force was used against Latinos more often this year than in years past, the Austin Real-Estatesman reported Sunday (reg. required). But police reporting of use of force and suspect injuries are down, according to documents released by the police department. The paper followed up on its investigative series analyzing use of force, first published 10 months ago. Here's the crux of the paper's findings:

Officers reported using force 25 percent less often so far this year, according to new statistics derived from forms officers fill out whenever they use force to apprehend a suspect, ranging from pushing and shoving to deadly force.

Injuries to police and civilians also have gone down by about 30 percent.

In turning to new technology — Tasers, or electronic stun guns — to supplant other types of force, the department appears to have saved the lives of two suspects who might otherwise have been shot. But two criminologists questioned whether Austin police are resorting to the stun guns too readily.

In all, officers filed 866 use-of-force reports between New Year's Day and Sept. 27.

A comparison of the latest reports with the 6,447 filed between May 1998 and October 2003 finds:

•The likelihood that force would be used on a person encountering police fell by one-third.

•The number of excessive force complaints filed by citizens fell by half, from about 6 complaints a month to 3, city records show.

•Blacks remained twice as likely to encounter force as whites. Hispanics were 65 percent more likely to encounter force than whites, up from 25 percent previously.

•Taser use skyrocketed, up from less than 1 percent of use-of-force incidents to 23 percent.

•Use-of-force rates plunged in the downtown area, where the largest share of violent encounters with police occur.

UT Arlington professor Dr. Alex del Carmen, who analyzed the statistics for the newspaper, said that while the number of use of force incidents had declined, the amount of force used in each incident increased significantly, largely because of the Tasers.
Several items here merit discussion. First, using Tasers in 23% of use of force incidents amounts to outrageously overusing the technology. By contrast, the Fort Worth Police Department has used Tasers just 103 times since 2001, reported the Star-Telegram. At least fifty people have died since 2001 from police Taser use nationwide. That figure includes three Texans, most recently a homeless man, Tasered and killed for stealing electricity for heat on a cold day. Tasers are not non-lethal, and everybody needs to stop calling them that.

Tasers should be a last resort instead of pulling a gun. Since officers never fired their guns in 23% of force incidents, it's clear APD is training officers to use Tasers under much less restrictive guidelines. The paper found APD officers use Tasers before they use batons, which is totally inappropriate -- and it's a failure of department policy, not the fault of the officers. Obviously, that's what they're being told to do. Tasers are potentially lethal force, and they should only be used in incidents that justify lethal force.

Though there's no commentary about it, the Statesman actually had a photograph of an officer inappropriately using a Taser.
Check it out:

That gal is unarmed and fully restrained to the point where the officers are quite casual about her; she's not struggling. But she's obviously panicked, and she should be. The officer in the foreground is threatening her with a lethal weapon.

The other question raised by the statistics, though unfortunately not by the reporters and editors who compiled them, is whether Austin police still report all use of force incidents and injuries to suspects. Before the original Statesman series, Austin officers believed those reports were secret. So now that they're out in the open, use of force magically declined? It seems improbable that use of force and injuries would go down that much in the first year after the statistics were analyzed, at least not for purely organic reasons like better training.

What seems more likely is that officers simply aren't filling out reports in all cases, and that injuries to suspects that previously were documented may no longer be recorded. We've seen that in Houston, Cincinnatti and elsewhere when officers were required to gather racial profiling data about traffic stops for the first time -- officers decided of their own volition to skew the statistics from the ground up, significantly influencing the numbers. That could be happening here.

Chief Knee attributed the decline to Taser use. Certainly they're overusing it, so it may have had some impact. I doubt that's the whole story, though.

The worst part about implementing Taser use in response to excessive force incidents, in this author's view, is that it ignores the real problem: Chief Knee and the department tolerate a handful of abusive officers on the force, tarnishing the reputation of other cops who're trying to do the right thing. The Statesman quoted ACLU of Texas' Ann del Llano:
"'The answer is in discipline, not training,' said del Llano, stressing that there should be consequences for officers who break the rules. 'The smartest people in the world are not going to follow their training if they don't have discipline.'"

That hits the nail on the head. Police sometimes have to use force; nobody denies that. What sucks is that when officers use excessive force in an inappropriate fashion, they're not only not punished, but often lionized by department brass. The worse the injury to the citizen, the more lavish the praise Chief Knee and his staff shower on the offending officer. This pattern has repeated so often it looks like a scripted media ballet performed after every police killing of a suspect.

I'm glad the Statesman is following up on their story, since APD use of force patterns appear to be in extreme flux. Hopefully we won't wait until the first unnecessary death, or, rather, the next one, before the department gets a handle on excessive Taser use.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

The Content of His Character

Ruben Navarrette of the Dallas Morning News is one of Texas' best newspaper columnists. But on the subject of Alberto Gonzales, he's allowed his pride to overcome his good sense.

Navarrette believes Gonzales and Condoleeza Rice, apparently because of their skin color, should not be questioned or criticized about their records or beliefs. He declares that
"white liberals ... are thrilled with the idea of minorities doing well – as long as they can claim credit." Any criticism of Gonzales, or Rice, though, must just be sour grapes.

That caught my eye, because I strongly believe Alberto Gonzales, who I've watched since his tenure on the Texas Supreme Court, is unfit for service as U.S. Attorney General.

If you don't think Gonzales would make a good AG, Navarrette opines, you're somehow engaging in "racism," a "high tech lynching," as Clarence Thomas put it, so just shut the hell up, okay? As evidence on Rice, he cites a foul cartoon and a spontaneous line from one local talk-radio host. On Gonzales, he cites a couple of emails he received, one of which compared Gonzales' disdain for workplace safety enforcement to the line from
Treasure of the Sierra Madre, "We don't need no stinking badges."

"Others, like syndicated columnist and cartoonist Ted Rall," Navarrette wrote, "have tried to paint Mr. Gonzales as Attila the Hun with a law degree, an advocate of torture, someone inspired by Nazis, "one of the most twisted minds the American legal system has ever produced" – and, most incredible of all, someone to the right of John Ashcroft."

Several substantive critiques have appeared in reputable media, but to read Navarrette, Gonzales' only critics are nutballs. I haven't seen anyone except Navarrette compare Gonzales to the Nazis or Attilla the Hun, but the rest of that paragraph is defensible. Advocating torture. Twisted mind. As for, "to the right of John Ashcroft," while Gonzales' pro-torture and states-rights-trump-federal-treaties positions might legitimately be interpreted that way, I'd say a fairer statement would be that he's just a yes-man, another sock puppet telling George Bush whatever he wants to hear, reality be damned.

I don't think that has a damn thing to do with race.

Navarrette's argument that liberals' criticism of Gonzales is racist drips with unintended irony. Last year, he was the first to criticize Dallas Latino leaders, rightly so, for giving bad Latino cops a pass when they set up undocumented immigrants in dozens of cases in the Dallas fake drugs scandal. Police told Hispanic leaders such criticism would hurt Latino officers' advancement in the department. Navarrette argued those leaders eschewed their responsibility to their constituents; he was dead right, and courageous to say so.

Now, though, when Alberto Gonzales is named the nation's top law enforcement official, Navarrette wants to portray his critics as opposing Latino advancement.

Cheap shot, Ruben.

Like a lot of smart people, Navarrette's rhetorical analysis focuses on logical consistency of arguments made at the extremes, but ignores power relations and thus portrays a false image. Those emailers, or the person who years ago accused Navarrette of benefitting from affirmative action, don't represent all liberals any more than a handful of Klansmen represent all southerners. They're just a straw man, to avoid addressing substantive issues.

Navarrette ignores the bevy of reasons Gonzales' record deserves reproach. Gonzales' advice to ignore the Geneva Conventions resulted in rape, torture and prisoner abuse. The Reporters Committee for a Free Press didn't like his legal opinions authorizing secrecy for documents from the Cheney energy task force and the first Bush presidency, or his support for making military tribunals secret. He doesn't think states have to abide by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which protects foreign travelers in the U.S., and Americans abroad. As counsel to then-Governor Bush advising on death penalty cases, Gonzales' legal work merited the recent conclusion that his "advice has not always been of the highest professional or ethical caliber."

Frankly, when you look at the details, that's a dramatic understatement.

Dr. King looked forward to the day when people would be judged not by their skin color, but by the content of their character. He still thought poor character worthy of judgment, though! For this white liberal, it's not Gonzales' skin color, but the content of his character I find troubling. I'll stick by that regardless of any race baiting.

Austinites: See 'Ray' at the Alamo

Here's a tip for Austinites: See the movie Ray at the Alamo Drafthouse at the Village Shopping Center, and show up 45 minutes ahead of time. Instead of the usual array of previews, they ran long clips from a 20+ year-old concert with Willie Nelson and Ray Charles performing together, including one of my favorite country songs of all time: their duet performing Seven Spanish Angels. (The concert originally appeared on network television, and I vividly remember watching it live back in junior high. Likely others will, too.) The version of the song from that live performance was actually better, IMHO, than the overproduced version recorded later in the studio.

Plus, it's the Alamo, so you can order a beer and a burger while you watch, and 45 minutes early you get your pick of seats. Sweet. Kudos to the management for providing that wonderful and unexpected added value.

As for the movie, Jamie Fox did a fine job as Ray Charles. Frankly I don't care for his comedy, which is his main bag, but he gave this role the respect and diligence of approach that it deserved, and offered a more-than-believable rendition of the great musician, far superior to any of his prior work.

A quibble with the script, though (note: stop reading here if you don't want the storyline revealed): The movie is sort of the R&B version of Sid and Nancy or The Doors with an upbeat conclusion -- why does every movie biography of a musician have to focus so exclusively on the struggle with drug addiction for a story arc? There's a lot more to it than that, but Ray gets off drugs and the story is over -- THAT'S the happy ending, with basically a footnote tacked on stating that he enjoyed 40 years of performing excellence thereafter.

Don't get me wrong, it's a small quibble. The movie definitely highlighted Charles' substantive contributions to a variety of musical genres and his stance against Jim Crow, which caused the state of Georgia to ban him from performing there for 18 years. (In 1979, those rights were reinstated, and Georgia On My Mind was made the state song.) It revealed a lot about his childhood and early background I didn't know, and overall was a very strong script and film. Perhaps it did everything one could possibly expect for a mass-distribution vehicle. I just thought the choice of ending was unfortunate.

Go see the film, though. If you're in Austin, see it at the Alamo-Village, and go early.

Jamie Fox as Ray Charles

New Toy

My birthday always falls over Thanksgiving weekend, and this week the Longhorns gave me an extra birthday gift by whipping Texas A&M on that day. The missus trumped the Horns, though, and forked over to get me a new toy, a Sony 'Cyber-shot' digital camera, with all the trimmings.

Obviously, working in a communications field, I'll get a lot of professional use out of it, too, but hopefully the addition to my toy box will result in livening up this blog a little.

Here's my first crack fooling around with it:

That's Margaret on the left and Bud on the right. It's not that I'm anxious to launch into dog blogging, even if cat blogging appears to be a competitive sport. But they're typically laying beside me or on the deck right out my office window when I'm writing this blog, so perhaps readers will be interested to meet these heretofore anonymous Grits contributors. (Besides, I saw Scott Chafin chastise a blogger for failing to mention his dogs until two years into his writing, so I wouldn't want to set myself up for that complaint!)

Obviously, just back from the holidays, I haven't had a chance to use it yet on blog stories, but I've been fooling around just to get the knack of it. Kathy is quite the gardener, and she's turned a once-barren, hyper-eroded backyard into a really cool spot. Check it out:

That's the view off our back deck. Here's another:

I'm always astonished the dogs don't destroy everything, but they seem to limit their destructiveness to the obviously well-worn paths, plus they like to stay on the deck. Wouldn't you?

Anyway, enough fiddling around. I've got one more personal-ish blog item to do before getting back to the criminal justice business. But I hope Grits readers enjoyed a happy holiday.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Happy Holiday Reading

I'm spending Thanksgiving with the family, and not sure if blogging will be possible, or even, frankly, desirable while I'm gone. So, since Grits has enjoyed quite a few new visitors recently (even our first troll!), I thought I'd just link to some recent "greatest hits" from Grits' short but hopefully memorable repertoire. If you're new here, check these out while I'm gone:
Thanks for visiting Grits for Breakfast. Enjoy the holiday, and I'm sure I'll be back at blogging by the weekend if not before.

Check Out Raich 'Guide'

Pete Guither has created an excellent "guide" to the historic, pending Raich v Ashcroft case. It's about more than medical marijuana, it's about setting limits on the federal government in state and local policing. Check it out, and give Pete some love. He's providing a real service. In Texas, a recent poll showed 75% support legal medical marijuana with a doctor's recommendation.

5th Circuit Bitch Slap: Death Row Conviction Overturned!

Apparently not wanting the U.S. Supreme Court to hog all the fun, on Friday the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals completely overturned the conviction of Max Soffar, who for the last 23 years resided on Texas' Death Row. Yet another embarrassment for Texas' worst court.

Let's face it, the Fifth Circuit is so right wing that when that bunch starts siding with defendants, it can only mean the Texas criminal justice system has gone completely around the bend.

Within 90 days Harris County prosecutors must either set Soffar free or decide to retry him from scratch, said the Houston Chronicle. ADA Roe Wilson said the Harris County District Attorney has not yet decided how to proceed.

Profile of a Gypsy Cop, Part Two

You've gotta love open records laws.

Grits offered a "Profile of a Gypsy Cop," Guadalupe County Sheriff's Deputy Keith Majors, based on information obtained under the Texas Public Information Act.

Turns out, based on other documents released to ACLU of Texas earlier this year,
Grits barely scratched the surface. More details about Deputy Majors come out in a seven page memo from Department of Public Safety Deputy Commander Patrick O'Burke, who oversees all Texas' drug task forces, to Ken Nicholas of the Governor's office, dated February 20, 2003.

The memo, described here publicly for the first time, was created "only at the specific request of Mr. [Mike] Toomey, [now departed] Chief of Staff" to Governor Rick Perry. Its purpose was to argue that "Keith Majors is not an appropriate selection for assignment to a narcotics enforcement position," because of incidents that "place Major's ability and integrity into question." "This documentation should be kept confidential and used for funding decisions only," O'Burke wrote. Well, now that's out the window!

described yesterday how, ten years ago, Majors admitted destroying evidence in an investigation into stolen cocaine and drug use by the South Texas drug task force commander. Majors destroyed an audiotape in which his commander admitted using cocaine.

In the February 20, 2003 memo, O'Burke reiterated that story, with a few additional details. He and a Texas Ranger investigated the South Texas task force ten years ago. They "documented a pattern of numerous task force Agents using imprest funds for alcohol consumption in local bars with little or no investigative efforts resulitng from these expenditures." Agent Majors was one of those who "utilized imprest funds in an inappropriate manner."

The memo also fills in missing details in Major's career from yesterday's post, and reveals that he ran into problems then, too. "In January, 1994, during the above investigation," reported O'Burke, "Agent Majors abruptly resigned from the Kingsville (South Texas) Task Force and went to work for the 81st Judicial District Task Force." There, Majors was promoted to supervisor, and later task force commander, but the same types of ethical problems continued to surface.

While commander in 1996, the memo documents, Majors had gone hunting and killed a deer, but had another hunting trip planned near Laredo the same season. "Commander Majors took the deer to the task force office and using his position as Commander coerced secretary Jody Lomax into utilizing Lomax's hunting license to tag the deer killed by Commander Majors. ... Majors lied during the first interview with Warden [Arthur] McCall," the memo said, but the warden pursued it and Majors later admitted what he'd done. "Warden McCall further expressed concern and a lack of confidence in Majors due to the integrity issues that surfaced during the investigation."

Majors resigned, but was soon hired again by the 24th/25th Judicial District Task Force based in Seguin.
Grits recounted yesterday how Majors impeded an investigation by DPS into missing evidence and sloppy record keeping. But the memo reveals additional problems.

O'Burke charged that Majors exhibited poor judgment in task force hiring. Over the stated objections of several officers, says the memo, Majors hired a former agent from the 81st Jucidical District Task Force named Clyde Earl Kincaid who had resigned because a severe alcohol problem. Task force officers "stated that Majors was advised that Kincaid should not be hired back into a narcotics unit ... [or] allowed to work in an undercover capacity due to Kincaid's problem with alcohol abuse. About a year later, Kincaid was leaving a bar where he was working undercover, crashed his task force vehicle, and died, the memo reports.

Majors' love life appears as contentious as his work life, perhaps because the two have been occasionally closely intertwined. In 1998, "Majors was involved in a romantic relationship with ... [a woman who was] task force secretary and Majors' subordinate." According to the memo, "Majors was attempting to break off the romantic relationship" at a bar in San Marcos. "However, the meeting escalated into a physical confrontation. [She] was able to obtain Majors' issued handgun and a round was discharged when [she] and Majors fought for control of the handgun."

Then, "Majors left the scene prior to police arrival and then returned. Majors reportedly left the scene to call his supervisor and the San Marcos Police Department on his cell phone. However, the police report documents that they actually found that Majors was calling" the woman, who had not left the scene. "Majors leaving the scene was inappropriate and suspicious," the memo notes, "since no plausible explanation was given" as to why he did so.

After that, the memo reports, the task force hired a new secretary "without significant input from Keith Majors. Majors resented [her] and they had a poor working relationshiop. [She] was employed for two and one half years, ending in 2001. [She] was later dismissed and filed a grievance. [The secretary] provided substantial documentation to the Seguin City Manager of [her] claims in the grievance. [She] alleged she was poorly treated by Majors, that drug evidence was inappropriately handled and not stored properly, and that Majors created imprest documents to cover up a loss of imprest funds in September 1998."

post described the end of Majors' role as commander of that task force -- DPS took over its management earlier this year after an inspector recommended that the task force should be abolished if Majors could not be removed from his position. He went back to the Guadalupe County Sheriff's Office, where he still works today.

In summary, the memo lists three overarching deficiences that O'Burke said should disqualify Keith Majors from narcotics enforcement:

  • Keith Majors has consistently demonstrated a deficiency in practicing, implementing or requiring adherence to standardized police procedures and investigative techniques.
  • Keith Majors has consistently demonstrated a deficiency as a supervisor. Majors failed to maintain a professional demeanor and relationship with subordinates. Majors also failed to maintain an appropriate level of supervisory control over subordinates and investigations.
  • Keith Majors has consistently demonstrated a lack of integrity and failure to conduct himself in an appropriate, professional manner as a police officer.
Yup. Throw in his failure to report crimes committed by co-workers, and that about sums it up.

Finally, the memo let the Governor's office know Majors' wasn't an isolated case: "The Department of Public Safety Narcotics Service is charged with the oversight of drug task forces partially due to the lack of standardized policies and procedures and the failures of some task forces to follow proper investigative techniques across the State. This charge has been further complicated by individual task force officers who have demonstrated a lack of integrity or character as police officers in their capacity in narcotics enforcement."

That's the DPS Deputy Commander, who is in charge of all Texas' Byrne grant funded drug task forces, diagnosing essentially identical problems as ACLU criticized in Tulia, Hearne, Floresville, and elsewhere. Drug task forces face more problems than any individual, but Keith Majors' story provides insights into how the system could get this bad.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Roundup-Resistant Coca Trumps Bush Colombia Visit

The Colombian president tells George Bush the War on Drugs there is being won by U.S. mass herbicide dumps, according to the Christian Science Monitor -- to date U.S. planes have dumped Roundup over more than 300,000 acres of coca farms.

Guess President Alvaro Uribe didn't mention the drug lords have created Roundup resistant strains of coca plants. According to Joshua Davis in the November issue of Wired, basically, now we're just doing the drug lords' weeding for them.

Texas Corruption Most Entertaining

Last week the Mayor and bookkeeper of La Grulla, a small South Texas town, were indicted for spending $53,700 in federal housing funds on a psychic.

I'd like to go on the record right now expressing my personal pride that Texas corruption is so much more bizarre, interesting, and fun than corruption almost anywhere else. I hear Louisiana gives us a run for our money, but, I mean ... come on!

Houston-Area PD Won't Use Tasers

After the recent death of a Fort Worth man caused by reckless police use of a "non-lethal" Taser weapon, Houston PD has wisely chosen not to use these unsafe technologies, for now, anyway, the Houston Chronicle reported last week. Good for them.

CORRECTION: Grits regrets such careless posting, but it's the tiny Oak Ridge North Police Department, NOT the Houston PD, that decided not to use Tasers. (It's their fault, really, the way the Houston Chronicle hid the information there in the lead like that!) I apologize for the error.

Profile of a Gypsy Cop

Guadalupe County Sheriff's Deputy Keith Majors is a "gypsy cop." That's law enforcement slang for a peace officer who floats from department to department regardless of, or because of, misconduct or poor job performance. With 2,540 law enforcement agencies in Texas, it's relatively easy for a licensed officer to find another gig. And there are plenty of law enforcement agencies like Byrne-grant funded drug task forces that have pretty low standards for who they'll hire.

Majors presently
serves as a narcotics officer for the Guadalupe County sheriff's department. Before that, though, he served as commander of the 24th/25th Judicial District Narcotics Task Force, based in Seguin, Texas.

The Texas Department of Public Safety
disbanded the task force after a 2002 audit found evidence missing from 20 percent of task force case files, and 30 files missing altogether. Many of the missing items were drugs and guns. According to records obtained by the Seguin Gazette, Keith Majors stalled and delayed the DPS investigation of missing evidence. Along with Seguin Police Chief Gary Hopper, Commander "Majors was said to have been the most significant obstacle in the path of DPS authorities requesting assistance in establishing a more accurate inventory system and locating and destroying drug evidence," the Gazette reported.

The Gazette quoted a DPS inspector
recommending that if Keith Majors could not be replaced as task force commander, the task force should be disbanded.

"It is my opinion that the only way to make the Task Force viable is to replace the project director and the commander and have all agents reapply for their position. If this is not an option, then I recommend that the Task Force not be funded,"” the inspector recommended.

This year, DPS established a new task force, run by DPS, not local officials, that includes the territory of the 24th/25th Judicial District Task Force and also the neighboring, scandal-ridden 81st Judicial District Task Force, which had one officer
set up innocent people and another steal 70 pounds of cocaine from the evidence locker. Commander Majors was not invited to re-join the task force, so the sheriff's office kept him on in its own narcotics unit. He did have the chutzpah to apply for Hopper's old job, though.

Documents obtained by ACLU of Texas under the Public Information Act, however, call into question whether Majors should even be employed in law enforcement at all. Ten years ago when he was an agent at the South Texas Narcotics Task Force based in Kleberg County, the Texas Rangers and DPS investigators caught Majors destroying evidence to conceal conversations regarding the task force commander's theft and consumption of seized cocaine.

Ironically, the DPS investigator ten years ago was Patrick O'Burke, today the DPS Deputy Commander of the Narcotics Division. At the time, though, he was merely Sergeant O'Burke, assigned to investigate the incident along with Texas Ranger Charles Brune. The following information comes from O'Burke's and the Ranger's investigative reports, obtained with an open records request.

After a duffel-bag full of 54 pounds of cocaine disappeared from the task force evidence locker, then-task force Commander William Bywaters confided to a female task force agent that he had become addicted to cocaine. He was stealing his supply from evidence scheduled to be destroyed. She told O'Burke that Bywaters admitting to starting his cocaine use prior to joining the task force, while he was still a narcotics agent for Texas DPS. Bywaters denied any involvement stealing the duffel bag of coke, but admitted an ongoing addiction. He lost his job running the task force, but unlike the average citizen caught using cocaine,
Grits can find no evidence Bywaters was charged with or convicted of any crime. (UPDATE: Bywaters was convicted of a misdemeanor offense and served just five months probation, according to a source close to the incident. No one else from the incident was prosecuted.)

Majors' old task force in Kleberg County suffered many of the same record keeping problems that would recur under his command at the Seguin task force. "Inspection of the evidence log revealed that the entries contained thereon were far from complete and accurate," reads the investigative summary. "It was determined that since 1991 evidence has been removed from the evidence locker for court ordered destruction, but it has never been logged out of the evidence locker."

For those of you who think, "Oh, that's just paperwork," check out the consequences of such oversights in police work, especially when coupled with downright pitiful defense lawyering. According to O'Burke's synopis, then-task force agent Joe R. Luna recalled:

" ... one occasion when they were in the process of going to court on a marijuana case. The defense counsel requested to see the evidence. At this time they swept up some marijuana residue off the floor, placed it in a plastic bag and took it to the courtroom. Then they advised the attorneys that mice had apparently eaten the rest of the evidence. [!!!] The defense attorney, satisfied with the answer, pled his client guilty."
That's not a paperwork problem. Large amounts of drugs were simply missing from the evidence locker, and drug task force officers lied to the court. What did they do with the missing drugs? Use them? Sell them? No one knows. Plus, I can't tell from the documents I've got, but wanna bet that Agent Luna and his co-conspirators weren't prosecuted for perjury or evidence tampering? Huh? Dyawanna?

So, a decade ago, the South Texas task force experienced nearly identical problems to the 24th/25th Judicial District task force in 2002: crappy record keeping and many different cases of missing evidence.

It was in this context that Commander Bywaters told a female task force agent that he'd developed a drug problem, and asked for her advice. She told him to turn himself in to the sheriff, but he refused, so she asked Agent Keith Majors, her immediate supervisor and training officer, to speak to the commander. She and Majors called the commander and spoke to him for 1-1/2 hours about his problem. Majors recorded the conversation on a microcassette tape, he told O'Burke, "to ensure that Bywaters would not try and turn the situation around on me." Bywaters and Majors later discussed the matter further, and Majors said "Bywaters told me that the former commander of the South Texas Narcotics Task Force Fermin Islas was also using cocaine," according to his sworn affidavit, witnessed by O'Burke.

The female agent told investigators that "Majors had destroyed the tape recording of the telephone conversation. [She] showed Sgt. O'Burke a micro-cassette tape in the garbage can near Agent Major's desk. Sgt. O'Burke observed that the recording tape had been pulled out of the plastic body of the microcassette and then discarded. ... Sgt. O'Burke later rewound the tape on the microcassette reel. A portion of the tape was not able to be rewound due to being too knotted and twisted. The portion of the tape that was rewound was found ... [to contain] a conversation between Agent Majors and BYWATERS where BYWATERS admits using cocaine."

So, ten years ago, task force Agent Keith Majors was caught by DPS and the Rangers destroying evidence of felony criminal activity by the drug task force commander. Rather than being run out of law enforcement for such behavior, though, eight years later Majors found himself
commander of a different drug task force, and this time DPS concluded the task force wouldn't be viable unless Majors weren't a part of it.

He's still in law enforcement though, further evidence that the gypsy cop culture in Texas is alive and well.

Profile of a Gypsy Cop, Part II

Sunday, November 21, 2004

When Is Rape A Misdemeanor?

When it's committed by an Austin police officer.

The Statesman reported Friday on the second Austin police officer busted for sexual misconduct in the last few months. The first case happened just before Grits' debut, so it's worth recapping. APD Officer Boren Hildebrand in September pled guilty to two misdemeanors for coercing sex. Sadly, Hildebrand isn't the first APD cop to coerce sex and get away with a misdemeanor charge, but his case is especially egregious.

Hildebrand, who "was fired after being accused of forcing two women to have sex with him, pleaded guilty in September to official oppression and no contest to a second oppression charge. He was sentenced to 120 days in jail and given two years' probation," reported the Statesman.

Official oppression is a Class A misdemeanor. Hildebrand can no longer hold a peace officer's license, but neither will he suffer the consequences of a "felon" label, restrictions on employment, housing, public services, etc.

So, since when doesn't "forcing two women to have sex with him" get the defendant a rape charge? While I support his investigation into the use of corporate money for campaigns, it's ironic that District Attorney Ronnie Earle has charged Tom DeLay's associates with more serious offenses than Boren Hildebrand.

With that recent history, the latest allegations of APD sexual misconduct feel a bit like deja vu, and one wonders whether this case will be soft-pedaled, too. Late last week APD Officer Jason Lockaby was arrested for forcing one woman to let him fondle her breasts to avoid arrest. Another woman was essentially stalked by Officer Lockaby:

"Court records show that Lockaby encountered the second woman multiple times. The first was in February, when he followed her as she pulled into her apartment complex about 4:30 a.m, the records show. He told her that her vehicle registration had expired.

"Then, on March 28, at about 4:30 a.m., the woman pulled into a 7-Eleven on RM 620, and Lockaby parked behind her, according to court documents. Lockaby told her that he was going to arrest her for outstanding warrants, according to court records. The records say he patted the woman down, touching her breasts and pressing on her nipples. Lockaby told the woman that he needed to check her bra, and she showed him her breasts, according to court records.

"Lockaby placed the woman in his patrol car to arrest her, telling her, "I like big nipples," the court documents state.

"The next day, about 4:30 a.m., according to court records, Lockaby followed the woman into her apartment complex, telling her he was checking to make sure she was OK.

"Lockaby stopped the woman two more times in the early morning hours, the records show. He is quoted in the documents as telling her on the last occasion, 'Apparently, you do not want to see me tonight because you are going under the speed limit.'"

That's just plain gross. Like Hildebrand, Lockaby was charged with official oppression, but also with the more serious charge of violating the women's civil rights, which is a state jail felony.

It seems to me that if anyone else had "forced" a woman to have sex or coerced women to flash their breasts, they'd be charged with more serious offenses than that. For Hildebrand, in particular, rape is a second degree felony. It becomes a first degree felony if committed by a peace officer in the line of duty. But DA Ronnie Earle doesn't pursue those kind of charges against police.

That's a shame, because he's under fire right now, and the stark contrast between the lack of prosecutorial aggression in these cases and his high profile political litigation isn't flattering.

Grits' Thoughts at Post 100

I see this is my hundredth post on Grits, so rather than offer details of another drug task force scandal (coming quite soon), I thought I'd take a moment to reflect.

Grits started about six weeks ago, but I foolishly didn't put a site meter here until 3 weeks and 3 days ago. Since that time, though, as of this morning, the site's had 2059 visitors, around 87 per day. I have no idea whether that's good, bad or indifferent, but at least a couple of people have suggested it means Grits isn't doing too poorly for a startup.

I'm a writer, by nature and training if not present vocation, and I knew if I started blogging I would enjoy it, and enjoy having a venue. What I didn't predict, didn't understand about the whole blogging exercise, is the extent to which joining the debate would introduce me to a new online community. Grits now has quite a few regulars who not only come for information and perspective on my topics, but who also provide encouragement and keep me honest. I'm flattered and humbled by their attention, and I hope what you find here merits the time you spend with me.

I wasn't blogging for two weeks before the most prolific and respected drug policy bloggers on the web more or less adopted me as one of their own, and I wanted to say thank you -- Drug War Rant, Last One Speaks, D'Alliance, Decrimwatch and the Vice Squad, in particular, both together and individually, have been open, friendly, supportive, and helped get the word out about Texas stories that otherwise tend to keep us pretty isolated down here. Folks, I didn't realize I was going through life uninformed on these topics until I started reading your work every day! In a similar vein, though I'm sure lowly Grits is far off her radar screen, I've also really come to appreciate and rely on Jeralyn Merritt's work at Talk Left: The Politics of Crime, especially now that the elections are over and she's back to the crime beat.

The death penalty really isn't an issue I work on the way I do police accountability and the drug war, but regular readers know it's something I care about. Steve sent me several items that became Grits posts, and from there it didn't take long to get the attention of David and Carrie, whose fine blogs on the subject make my offerings look fairly trivial. I really respect their work.

Among Texas bloggers, the eminent Kuff has been exceedingly generous to link to some of my stuff and to include Grits' perspective in his political deliberations, and the Burnt Orange Report spread around some of my bad pre-election poetry. Others like The Fat Guy and a host from the Austin Bloggers bunch -- Adina, Prentiss, Sarah, and many more -- almost immediately welcomed me to the fold and started including me in the conversation. Thank you, and thanks to anybody I've missed or neglected; once you start naming names, you risk a slight, but I'm appreciative of everybody who's contributed to my Grits experience.

For me, Grits is an experiment, a way to learn about the "new media" and to get back into the habit of daily writing. I don't really know yet where it's going or what it'll turn into. I've enjoyed blogging quite a bit so far, though, and the best part, the happiest surprise, has definitely been the fine people whom I've met, if virtually, along the way.

Thanks, Grits readers, and thank you, friends.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Bible Belt Values

Responding to my earlier post, a friend emailed me this link to a story from last Sunday's Washington Post. Read the whole story, you'll feel better about the world. It's about a young gay man living in small-town Oklahoma, and the support he received from his church when he was attacked by religious extremists. Thanks a lot -- I'll share it with the friend I mentioned.

Go Wolverines!

Michigan and Ohio State are tied with five minues left to go in the second quarter.

After Ohio's sorry performance on November 2, henceforth for the rest of my days when this game comes on, I'm hereby declaring myself a Michigan fan.

Personally, I hope Ohio misses going to the Rose Bowl longer than the Babe's curse haunted the Red Sox.

Go Michigan!

UPDATE: As my father would say, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Ohio State 37, Michigan 21. At least the Buckeyes aren't going to the Rose Bowl this year. Sigh. How sad, finding comfort in schadenfreude.

Don't Leave, Stay and Fight

I had lunch yesterday with a long-time friend, a gay man, who is utterly abject about the presidential election's outcome. A retired gentleman of means, my friend is literally thinking of moving to Canada in the wake of the Democrats' losses.

He feels the atmosphere in Texas is too ugly to tolerate, citing anti-gay legislative proposals already pre-filed for the upcoming legislative session, and the much-ballyhooed newfound influence of the religious right in the second term Bush administration.

I think it's all a lot more complex than that, though. Here in Texas, Democrats controlled the Texas Legislature for 130 years after the Civil War, and homosexuality was banned all that time. That is, until the Republican-dominated Rehnquist court, the same court that installed President Bush even though he trailed in the popular vote, overturned the statute in Lawrence v. Texas.

My friend insisted that as a straight white man I couldn't understand how he reacted to bigotry by public officials. I replied that plenty of black folks stayed in Texas, so he could probably bear it, too. He said maybe black folks would leave if they could, and he could, but I know a lot of black people who've chosen to stay in Texas, or to move here. Certainly a lot of politicians got elected spouting anti-gay rhetoric, and they'll surely try to make their political hay. But they all ran saying no new taxes, too, and just watch how quickly that will go out the window in 2005.

Stick it out and fight, I told my friend, don't give up. No doubt some bad shit will pass. But Republicans now control the government, and more, even, than rewarding their ideological footsoldiers, they now have to make the government actually function. If they implement their agenda as stated, it won't, and voters will show them the door. Or, alternatively, and I think more likely, pragmatism will prevail, and religious right types who support Republicans will find themselves just as disappointed at the end of the day as liberals did with Democrats when they were in power.

In any case, it's not a situation improved by running, unless you're running toward the fight, not away from it.


Frances Newton's Execution Imminent

UPDATE (9-14-05): Looks like today's the day. More here.

Frances Newton may be innocent, but on December 1, Texas is scheduled to kill her anyway. Newton, a black woman, was convicted in Harris County of murdering her husband and children based on ballistics evidence from the now-discredited Harris County crime lab. She has always maintained her innocence. Her attorneys say she tested negative for gunshot residue at the scene, and was represented by ineffective counsel. Her attorney at trial, Ron Mock, has had more clients sent to death row than any other lawyer.

The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty set up an
action alert to send an email or fax to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles asking for a 120 day reprieve to re-examine the evidence. I hope it helps.

In an update regarding the ongoing "
smackdown" of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Supremes stayed the execution of Troy Kunkle this week after his attorneys argued jurors were disallowed from considering mitigating evidence during the sentencing phase of the trial. Even more discrediting news for Texas' worst court.

David Elliot

Friday, November 19, 2004

Strayhorn Medicaid Fraud Probe Misplaced

She may be "One Tough Grandma," but that doesn't mean Grandma always knows best. Texas Comptroller and former Austin Mayor Carol Strayhorn recently announced a new anti-Medicaid fraud initiative aimed at taking prescription drugs away from foster kids.

Strayhorn's press release claimed to uncover "Medicaid prescription drug fraud and abuse that just in the state’s foster care system alone is costing taxpayers – conservatively – an estimated $4 million a year."

That estimate's completely phony, though. Here's where the $4 million figure comes from:

“More than 272,331 state and federal dollars were spent on anti-psychotics for foster children in one month and more than $74,000 on anti-depressants. That would make the estimated annual cost of anti-depressants and anti-psychotic drugs for children in the foster system conservatively $4 million,” she said. “Mind you that figure is a very conservative estimate for these drug expenses in just the foster care system alone.”

In other words, $4 million is the total cost of these doctor-prescribed drugs to foster children. There's only $4 million worth of "fraud and abuse" if every single prescription is unwarranted. The idea that some children who've lost their parents might be prescribed anti-depressants doesn't strike me as scandalous, but she's spun it that way.

Now, I don't support overmedication of children, and I want the foster care system to be monitoring that subject more carefully. What I object to is labeling Medicaid transactions fulfilling doctors' prescriptions to Medicaid-covered patients as "fraud." It's dishonest demagoguery, a smear on foster families and on an underfunded, overstressed system, to claim all these prescriptions are fraudulent -- thematically akin to right wing stereotypes of "welfare queens." Frankly the Comptroller knows better. (Hopefully the quotes don't reflect her true attitude, but that of whatever overzealous staffer wrote the press release.)

I worked for a couple of years at the Texas State Medicaid Office back when it was run by Dr. Mike McKinney. In my experience you may find some fraud among Medicaid recipients, but the vast majority of waste, 98+%, will be found investigating more traditional healthcare providers. After all, they receive the $15+ billion annually in payments from Medicaid -- all the recipients get are services.

The few bits of fraud found among prescriptions for foster kids will generate a good newspaper story, but will mean nothing in terms of the massive Texas Medicaid budget. She should be auditing Medicaid billing by the big hospitals like Seton and Columbia HCA, as well as nursing homes, medical transportation services and other types of Medicaid providers, for the really big bucks.

So from a budget perspective, Strayhorn's proposal is all sizzle and no steak. By contrast, here's where Attorney General Greg Abbott thinks we should focus on Medicaid fraud:

"Medicaid Fraud comes in many forms. In some cases, a doctor files claims for reimbursement for tests he or she did not perform (billing for services not rendered). Other cases may involve a hospital submitting a claim to Medicaid for a complicated, more serious illness than the patient actually had (upcoding). Or perhaps a physical therapist submits claims to Medicaid for services which were not medically necessary or which were not validly prescribed. It could also be a company billing for an expensive motorized wheelchair but delivering only a scooter to someone who qualifies for neither one."

Here's the key point when thinking about Medicaid fraud: The most a patient can get from Medicaid is free healthcare, which they'd often otherwise get in the emergency room at four times the cost. That's not hurting the state as much as docs and hospitals pocketing cash they don't deserve, and it isn't nearly as widespread.

Targeting foster parents might play well in a Republican primary, where you get to say you got tough on those beggarly welfare frauds, but if you want to maximize state savings from anti-fraud efforts it makes little sense. It's odd and troublesome for the state to go after poor people first, while white collar fraud in the system is rampant, and almost assumed by those involved.

Federal drug courts: Well intentioned but a bad idea

Federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Don Lay pleads in the New York Times for Congress to establish drug courts.

He's right to be concerned that federal prisons are filling up with non-violent offenders, but
Grits thinks he does not go far enough, and his proposal has significant workability issues. If Congress established drug courts, federal judges would then be responsible for supervising the probation success or failure of many thousands of individual defendants. Given immense federal judicial caseloads and the current backlog of judicial confirmations, creating federal drug courts would all but shut down the system.

There's a better way. States are already implementing drug courts, Lay points out. "Today, nearly every state has a 'drug court' to deal with nonviolent drug offenders through a mix of treatment and sanctions," he wrote, "all as part of an effort to reduce recidivism, substance abuse and costs. Statistics show that drug courts are a success." So why not use them? Drug cases that don't involve interstate transport should be routinely removed from federal to state courts. You remember, that whole
10th Amendment thing?

Where are the less-government conservatives when you need them?

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Animal Rights Activists Excluded As Terrorists

Dr. Stephen Best of UT El Paso performed yeoman's service earlier this year helping that city's successful efforts to pass (pdf) a resolution opposing the USA-PATRIOT Act. At the time, he didn't know he had a personal, vested interest in the matter. Just months later, though, he found himself banned from travel when the British government accused him of aiding terrorists, but not Al Quaeda.

Dr. Best and two other U.S. animal rights activists, trauma surgeon Jerry Vlasak and Los Angeles activist Pam Ferdin, were sent "Minded to Exclude" letters barring them from attending the 2004 International Animal Rights Conference in England in September. The Brits claimed the three provided "intellectual justification" for terrorism, because they backed the Animal Liberation Front, and "support the destruction of industrial properties engaged in the animal research field." Check out his account of events. In a letter to the British Home Office, Dr. Best defended his views, but did not back off his political positions:

I support the ALF, but I do not advocate violence in the sense of causing physical harm to another human being. Because they attack the property of animal exploiters, and never the exploiters themselves, I consider the ALF to be a non-violent organization. Just to be clear, I am not a member of the ALF. I am a philosophy professor who writes about, and often expresses support for, social justice and liberation movements

It is true that I have provided an “intellectual justification” for the ALF, but then again so does any modern democratic constitution or bill of rights, so did J.S. Mill, Mohandas Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., along with anyone who promoted concepts such as rights or justice that can be used on behalf of the ALF. Moreover, the ALF and other direct activists hardly need or await my justifications to act, so I don’t quite see how my words have inflammatory potential.

Ultimately, Dr. Best was granted passage to England, a favor for which he said he felt somewhat guilty because Dr. Vlasak and Ms. Ferdin were denied the privilege. Vlasak addressed the audience remotely, though, and Best posts the text of his comments (MS Word doc).

I personally have little sympathy for the animal rights cause, and even less for destruction of property as a political tactic. I have great respect, though, for the freedom for philosophy professors and everybody else to speak their mind, even if what they have to say violates the sensibilities of the majority.

The tales of Drs. Best, Vlasak and Ms. Ferdin show that "mission creep" has already overtaken the War on Terror -- real terrorists bomb skyscrapers and passenger trains, but this is the crap they're worried about.


I probably should have Googled these guys before I posted this, but here's a couple of links to the reasoning why Vlasak and Ferdin were rejected by the Brits. This industry group appears to be the source of the most virulent accusations against them. Best clearly is the moderate of the three. Vlasak's statements are extremist and offensive, but also vague and theoretical. I post them so readers may judge for themselves whether the sentiments expressed, in and of themselves, amount to support for "terrorism."

That said, the rhetoric in question strikes me as very similar to extremist pro-life rhetoric justifying assassination of doctors because of "millions of dead babies," etc. The radical tactics adopted by the Animal Liberation Front in England also remind me quite a bit of the targeting of individual doctors by Operation Rescue and fringe anti-abortion radicals. Like assasinations of docs by pro-life extremists, such tactics likely sacrifice long-term public support for short-term goals. For me, the line to draw is simple: Punish those who commit violence against person or property -- any activist engaged in civil disobedience, after all, should expect to be arrested and punished -- but as for public speech, adhere to Thomas Jefferson's dictum that error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.

The Kids Are Alright

Read why the editorial board of the UT-Arlington student newspaper, The Shorthorn, thinks "the costs of the war on marijuana far outweigh the results."

Negligence, Death Expose Ugly Jail Problems

It's an awfully rough time to be a Texas county jail inmate, but hopefully there's rough times-a-comin' for some Dallas and Williamson County jailers. Be forewarned, it's hard to read these stories, but harder still to read them without concluding something's terribly, horribly wrong with what's going on at these county jails.

The Dallas News reported today on the case of James Mim, who nearly died after being denied water for two weeks in isolation in April.

Here's the News' description of how Mim entered the Parkland Hospital emergency room:
"He had the symptoms of someone lost in the desert for two weeks, found just hours before his last dry gasp. Sodium levels sky-high. Thick, toxic gunk in his blood quickly choking him to death. Kidneys shut down, exhausted. His clothes smelled of sewage. Sores on his side spoke of days lying in virtual paralysis. He was semiconscious and incoherent.
Mim is mentally ill, diagnosed extremely psychotic. He was charged with shooting two officers 26 years ago, but was never tried because of his mental impairment. He lives at Terrell State Hospital, but once a year is taken to the County Jail so the judge can renew the order for his forced hospitalization. This time, they just forgot about him. Reporter Randy Loftis promises part two of his so-far-excellent story this weekend.

I'll admit, I haven't wrapped my mind entirely around the many grotesque implications of what happened to James Mim, considered in its totality. They are immense. I'd encourage you to read the story, though, and while you do, consider that, according to House Corrections Committee Chairman Ray Allen, 16% of Texas' 155,000 prison inmates are mentally ill, and the Texas criminal justice system is the largest mental health provider in the world.

What word to use besides "warehousing"? Perhaps "extreme negligence"? "Callous disregard"?

In Williamson County, family members of the deceased suspect more nefarious than negligent behavior in the death of Timothy Brown, the Statesman reported yesterday. Deputies claim he died after falling two feet from his bunk bed to the floor, hitting his head. If your kid hands you a story that outrageous, parents know, you're almost tempted to believe her because it seems so unlikely she'd come up with a lie so ridiculous. But all the other evidence points to foul play. Reported the Statesman:
"Georgiana Brown said when she visited her ex-husband in the hospital Sunday he was covered in bruises, and doctors told her that Brown's brain stem had been badly damaged.

"'I just don't think a lot of what (the deputies) are saying is kosher,' Brown said. 'I was married to him for 17 years, and he was a mouthy little rascal. At times, he could get under your skin to the point you wanted to grab him and shake . . . him.'

"[Sheriff's detective John] Foster said Brown had not been beaten by guards or other inmates. He said that Brown was alone in his infirmary cell and that staff had checked on him every 15 minutes.

"'Any time an inmate is injured, it is something we take seriously,' he said. 'No matter what the inmate has done, he has family members that love him. They are going to be asking questions, and they have a right to answers. To the best of our knowledge, pending the autopsy, it looks like we did everything asked of us and beyond to take care of this man.'"
Huh? If that were true, you'd think he'd be alive, wouldn't you?
"Brown's family members said he was out of a job and was an alcoholic, but seemed relatively healthy before he went to jail.

"Brown's stepson, 23-year-old Daniel Rice, said when he saw Brown at the hospital Sunday, he had a cut across the top of his head, an injury on the side of his head, two black eyes and a bruise on his chest.

"'It looked like somebody hit him with a pipe or something,' he said.

"Rice said doctors did not explain the bruises."
Well, somebody's got some explaining to do.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Non-lethal force means lethal, sometimes

This time, a Texan has died from police use of "non-lethal" force by police. In October, a young woman was killed when Boston police fired "non-lethal" rounds into a crowd of celebrating Red Sox fans over their Game 7 win against the New York Yankees. Now, Robert Guerrero, a 21-year old man from Fort Worth, has died after being shot with a Taser by police last week. Reported the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

"He was the first suspect to die after being shot with the Taser by Fort Worth police since the department began using the weapons in 2001.

"Police had gone to the North View apartment complex in the 2400 block of Clinton Avenue about 2:05 p.m. after a call from property manager Rosemary Granado.

"She said Guerrero was illegally running electricity to an apartment where a young woman and child were staying because it was cold.

"'That meter had been tampered with three times before, and a fire could have spread through the building,' Granado said.

"Lt. Abdul Pridgen, a police spokesman, said two members of the north Crime Response Team followed the electrical lines to an apartment where the occupants eventually told the police that the person they were looking for was hiding in a closet.

"'The officers went over to the closet and asked the person to come out. They did not get a response,' Pridgen said. 'They opened the door and saw the suspect crouched down in the closet.'

"Pridgen said the officers again ordered the man out, but he did not reply, even after the officers threatened to use a Taser.

"When Guerrero continued to ignore the police, officer P.R. Genualdo, a six-year veteran of the department, shot Guerrero in the chest with a Taser, Pridgen said."

Alright, at this point Grits must interject to point out that, if they weren't in possession of these shiny new non-lethal gadgets, the officers would have reached down and dragged the unarmed suspect out of the closet, just like I've once or twice done with a recalcitrant daughter. But that doesn't explain this:

"With Guerrero still in the closet, Genualdo pulled the Taser's trigger at least once more, Pridgen said. Police then took Guerrero into custody and handcuffed him, Pridgen said.

"After carrying Guerrero out of the apartment, the officers noticed that he had stopped breathing, Pridgen said. Paramedics were called, and the officers performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation until Guerrero was taken to JPS.

"Neighbor Louis Perez said that he watched police from a hallway in the apartment and that Guerrero appeared "lifeless" after being shot with the Taser.

"They drug him down the stairs, and his head kept hitting the steps," Perez said.

"Rachel Davila, who also lives at the complex, said that as police dragged Guerrero down the steps, his lips turned blue and his eyes rolled back before he quit breathing.

"Genualdo, 35, has been placed on routine restricted duty while the department's major-case unit investigates, said major-case Sgt. Rene Kamper.

"Pridgen said Taser use is allowed on unarmed suspects, like Guerrero, if the officer has probable cause for an arrest and believes that efforts to control a suspect by hand would result in someone getting hurt."

I'm in favor of non-lethal technologies if they're non-lethal. But what we have now in law enforcement is a vendor-driven effort to put new gadgets in officers hands with little regard for uniform training, specifications, or standards for use. One vendor advertises tasers will "drop an attacker with a vengeance." That's not the mentality I want to promote in the law enforcement ranks, but I'm sure it sells Tasers. Vendors aren't the only motivator, though. Police unions frequently demand "non-lethal" technologies to divert attention from incidents of excessive force by their own officers. Plus, everybody likes to play with a new gadget.

It's like your Mom told you, though, sure, it's fun, until somebody gets hurt.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

A Texas-Sized Smack Down

David Elliot at Abolish the Death Penalty reports on a Texas-Sized Smackdown of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals by the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 7-2 vote for "summary reversal," the Supremes outright reversed one death sentence and sent another back to the Fifth Circuit, all without even hearing arguments.

Translated roughly, the Supreme Court's message to the CCA was, "No, really, we mean it. Stop executing retarded people."

Another disgraceful embarassment for Texas' worst court.

75% of Texans Support Medical Pot

Seventy five percent of Texans believe patients should be allowed to use marijuana medicinally if their doctor agrees, the 900-person Texas Poll found. Reported the Statesman (registration required):

"The telephone poll showed that Texans supported medical marijuana use regardless of age, income, ethnicity, race, education and gender. Some regions of the state were more supportive than others, with East Texas favoring it the least, at 62 percent, and Central Texas the most, with 83 percent supporting medical marijuana use. Republicans also were less enthusiastic, with 67 percent favoring it, compared with 81 percent of Democratic respondents and 82 percent of independents.

"Adults ages 18 to 29 favored it the most, at 81 percent, while those in the 40- to 49-year-old group favored it the least, at 70 percent. Seventy-two percent of those 60 and older favored it."

Austin state representative Terry Keel carried medical marijuana legislation two sessions ago, but the bill never got out of the House. Since then, though, public opinion has shifted, and today nearly everyone supports legalizing medical pot. The Texas Poll question was commissioned by our friends at Texans for Medical Marijuana, but the Statesman quoted a highly regarded medical professional who concurred with the public judgment:

"Dr. Richard Evans, president of the Texas Cancer Center in Houston, is not one of those doctors. As a medical adviser to Texans for Medical Marijuana, a nonprofit group that educates cancer patients, he would recommend pot to his cancer patients if it were legal, he said.

"Marijuana has been known to ease nausea from chemotherapy, eye pressure from glaucoma and muscle spasms from neurological disorders, Evans said. It also stimulates appetite in the sick, he said.

"Evans has testified about marijuana's benefits before legislative committees, but so far, no bills have passed either house.

"[TMM executive director Noelle] Davis said she was confident her organization would get a sponsor for the upcoming session, which starts in January. However, the group has been turned down because some lawmakers worry the issue is too unpopular.

"Davis is optimistic the poll will change that. "We hope for strong bipartisan support and the poll shows Texans support this."

She pointed out that Montana, which backed President Bush in the presidential election Nov. 2, also voted to legalize the use of medical marijuana."

Actually, medical marijuana was more popular than President Bush in Montana, and at 75% approval, it's more popular than any politician in Texas today, including the President. If the Texas Legislature cares at all about what the public wants, they've got an opportunity to prove it next spring.