Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Watch DEA Watch

A commenter points me to this discussion forum called DEA Watch, declaring that it's for use by DEA agents. If that's really who is commenting (posts are anonymous, but judging from the content, it sounds entirely possible), they're mad as hell and don't like George Bush very much. Or Mexicans. My personal favorite:
Isn't it curious that our pres not only didn't have the "little Mexican" AG at his side today for his illegal immigrant speech, he never once mentioned Gonzo's name.

We have 1) a president who's family is half-Mexican (one of which is a documented, habitual drug abuser [*] just like her uncle), 2) the worse illegal immigrant problem in our history since The Alamo, and 3) a Mexican-American AG who has done nothing to correct the problem... duuuuuh!
The Bush commentary actually goes downhill from there. Other commenters discuss DEA internal politics or disputes with the FBI ("feebs") and other agencies. I particularly appreciated this moment of candor:
Someone wrote: "After you finally got paid... it was a big check from DEA..." Duuuuuh, yeah! It's all about money!

Isn't money the single thing that drives drug dealers? Isn't money and more money the one thing that drives the cartels?

And doesn't the very fact that we eat drug dealers for breakfast, lunch and dinner make us just like them? Get real!!!

Why do cats have the nocturnal habits of the creatures it eats... as well as reptilian iris's yet front-facing predatorial eyes? Answer: because cats eat rodents, birds and creepy-crawly lizards and the like. Darwin 101: Things are what they eat.

We eat drug dealers so we are like drug dealers. Drug dealers crave money so we crave promotions that pay us more money. We're not unlike our prey. The only difference between us and the drug dealer is that we lie, cheat, steal and betray for what we call an "honest" paycheck. We will lie to anyone, including our spouses and family, and betray our closest DEA associate if it means we get something more than we've got.

Money is our King. Money is our God. Everything DEA stands and operates for is about taking money... cash... away from people who have it... just ask our VP who gets no-bid contracts in the billions for his former company.

Give money away??? You have GOT to be kidding!!!
A little on the scary side, but check it out. UPDATE: The commenter who provided the link, a former DEA Agent, chimed in with the following explanation regarding DEA Watch:

As a former DEA Agent, I would like to comment a little about DEA Watch and DEA.

DEA Watch contains useful information but it's not always reliable or credible; alot like DEA.

DEA Watch exists, in part, because internally DEA is a mess or as one Agent put it; "a trainwreck".

That should concern everyone because more money is spent on drug enforcement nationwide than any other crime.

There are over 5,000 DEA Agents or about 100 per state. Each state has large numbers of state personnel dedicated to drug crimes and then there's the local effort in each state.

Then there's the DEA Task Forces, MET Teams, RET Teams, HIDTA, and OCDETF.

If that's not enough, throw in the drug enforcement efforts of ICE, FBI, and the other 20 or so federal law enforcement agencies and folks, drug enforcement dominates the enforcement landscape in every state.

Yet drug purities, drug availabilities and drug overdoses continue to rise.

Most competent DEA Agents that I know understand the important global, not local, role DEA plays in dealing with the drug problem.

They know how to make a national impact on purity and availability but the flagship of DEA is not their global and national role.

It's supporting State and Local Task Forces and programs that broaden and increase their dependibility on state and local efforts.

DEA is an agency that's now statistically driven and the drivers, not the mission, control DEA.

Most DEA Agents know DEA is seriously broken and DEA Watch is a place for them to anonymously vent.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The "Untouchable Narco-State" reaches the Texas border

In this morning's brief roundup, the "Untouchable Narco-State" reaches the Texas border, while in East Texas, prosecutors and law enforcement hype meth as "worse than crack." Collectively, these stories give you the sense that for all the drug war hype, in the big picture law enforcement is fiddling while Rome burns. Their solutions seem so small for a dilemma so vast ...

Texas Observer on the Drug War in Latin America
See their fine cover story on "The Untouchable Narco-State" and the DEA's near-futile efforts to combat drug trafficking in Guatemala.

Latin American Drug War Reaches Texas
Now that it's more difficult for addicts in Texas to make meth at home, the McAllen Monitor reports on the rise of meth smugglers crossing the Mexican border, while according to the Dallas News, border-area law enforcement says that

Rifles and handguns have been replaced by rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, and high-caliber machine guns.

"Now the bad guys have more sophisticated training and better equipment," [Val Verde County] Sheriff [D'Wayne] Jernigan said. "They're better armed and willing to shoot."

Same Old Song and Dance from Walker County Drug Warriors.
Meanwhile, in Walker County (Huntsville), District Attorney David Weeks contributed greatly to the shrill tone of a hype-filled four part series on meth in the Huntsville Item (see parts one, two, three and four), portions of which seemingly could have been written by the spin doctors at the national Office of National Drug Control Policy. “You know, I thought that crack was the worst plague that we had ever seen, but I think meth is worse,” Weeks said. “From what I've seen, it's more addictive, it's more destructive, it's more violent. It's just about the worst thing you can come across.” Weeks was one of the DAs who opposed stronger probation and pushed Texas' disastrous pseudoephedrine restrictions (law enforcement officials say that after just three months they fear the new law will cause "more addiction, more overdoses, and more violence"). So he's in typical form here -- full of dire predictions but offering only bad solutions.

Meanwhile, local Sheriff Clint McRae, a former narcotics task force officer, told the paper meth is “more addictive than any other narcotic I have dealt with.” It's worth mentioning that a presentation I heard at a recent drug policy conference by Dr. Carl Hart, a clinical neuroscientist at Columbia University who studies the effects of meth on human workplace behaviors, contradicted such dire, 'worse than crack' claims -- bottom line, Hart said the qualities and intensity of the addiction, from a medical researcher's perspective, didn't differ that much from cocaine. Many of the side effects like meth mouth, it turns out, likely stem from the prohibition on safer chemicals for use by home manufacturers, but don't show up with the pharmaceutical meth he uses for tests. That makes sense. After all, US fighter pilots popping meth tablets to fly jets are taking the same drug, chemically speaking, as the meth-heads, but they aren't having their teeth fall out.

Go Here For More On The Drug War.
Blog Reload's Drug War Roundup links to a number of interesting items I don't have time to write about, including a bizarre incident in which US Border Patrol agents in Hudspeth County were outgunned by military-clad drug traffickers in a firefight over a dumptruck load full of pot.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Requiring corroboration for eyewitness testimony might have saved Ruben Cantu

What can be done to stop the government from convicting and even executing the wrong people? Blogger Clayton Cramer suggested a great reform proposal in the wake of last week's report by the Houston Chronicle that Texas likely executed Ruben Cantu in 1993 for a crime he didn't commit. Writes Cramer:
At one time, a number of states required two eyewitnesses to a murder before the state could impose the death penalty. Why?

Because America was a Bible-believing nation at the time of the Revolution, and reformed many of its criminal statutes in that era to conform to the Bible. Numbers 35:30 says:
Anyone who kills a person is to be put to death as a murderer only on the testimony of witnesses. But no one is to be put to death on the testimony of only one witness.
Even though I disapprove of the death penalty, using the Bible's standard on this would certainly have prevented the execution of Ruben Cantu for a crime that he apparently did not commit.

Liberals, unfortunately, would never tolerate writing a law with Biblical input today.
That's a terrific idea, and I think Cramer might be surprised at what liberals can tolerate. The reason a two-witness rule would have difficulty being enacted isn't because "liberals" oppose it, but because prosecutors and police unions would throw the loudest hissy fit you've ever heard. Trust me on this one -- I know from experience.

After the scandals arose surrounding the Tulia drug stings, the ACLU, NAACP, and LULAC
teamed up with ministers and victims families from the group Tulia Friends of Justice to help pass a bill requiring corroboration for undercover testimony in drug cases. (The original bill would have required corroboration for any undercover testimony, but the final, passed legislation required it only for confidential informants or "snitches," not police officers.) Still, it has had a big impact.

The biblical requirement for corroboration was very much a part of the debate surrounding the Tulia legislation, a message carried door to door at the Texas Legislature in 2001 by Reverends Charles Kiker and Alan Bean from Tulia Friends of Justice. (I've still got a copy of the flyer they distributed with a headline reading, "The Bible and the ACLU Agree: Require Corroboration for Drug Sting Testimony.")

In fact, as Rev. Kiker would be quick to point out, the corroboration requirement in Mosaic law is more extensive than what Cramer cites. In
Deuteronomy 19:15 we're told that all accusations of crime must be corroborated: "One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses." Jesus (Matthew 18:16) and the Apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 13: 1 and 1 Timothy 5:19) both affirmed this tradition for New Testament believers.

That 2001 legislation was crafted to resolve particular problems with mendacious undercover operations that became apparent in the infamous Tulia and Hearne imbroglios. (Most folks have heard of Tulia, but if you don't know much about what happened in Hearne I'd encourage you to watch this video.) But folks have been thinking about what constitutes justice for thousands of years. Nobody in their right mind, and certainly nobody at the ACLU of Texas who I work with, would flinch because some modern conception of justice coincided with Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or for that matter Buddhism or the Tao Te Ching.

I helped negotiate language for that bill on behalf of ACLU of Texas, and I can assure Mr. Cramer I didn't complain about the Reverends' religious rhetoric, nor was I particularly concerned that a basis existed
for our proposal in Mosaic law. Sitting in the gallery, I chuckled at the irony when conservative legislators quoted the Bible on the floor of the Texas House to support a bill first proposed by the ACLU, but that's politics -- everyone's political stances are informed by their values, and where those values are based on religious beliefs, I'd never begrudge someone from bringing them into the public square. Obviously, every idea deserves vetting and "God said so" isn't a good enough reason to pass a law. But in this case those ancient values of fairness and justice translate extraordinarily well into the modern setting. As Rev. Kiker told legislators, requiring corroboration
puts a protective hedge around the ninth commandment, ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.’ As long as people bear false witness against their neighbors, this Biblical law will not be outdated.
Corroboration for eyewitness testimony would be an appropriate, initial reform in the wake of Ruben Cantu's wrongful killing by the state of Texas -- but it's needed not just in murder cases but for all eyewitness testimony, which is notoriously unreliable. Cantu and the Tulia cases are the tip of the iceberg -- across the country prosecutors routinely secure convictions based on uncorroborated testimony for all kinds of cases.

I don't know if Cramer's suggestion (or Moses', I suppose, depending on how you look at it) is "liberal" or "conservative," but who cares? It would be a great first step toward preventing more wrongful convictions and executions in the future.

Cross-posted at the ACLU of Texas' Liberty Blog. See also: The Ruben Cantu Tragedy: The Real Killer Is Still Out There.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Ex-offenders' optimism crushed by reality of state indifference

Could Texas reduce crime if the state spent more resources on programs preparing prison inmates to re-enter the free world and on support services once they're out?

That's the implication of a new survey conducted by the Urban Institute among felons leaving the Texas prison system who planned to return to Houston, the Houston Chronicle's Peggy O'Hare reported this morning ("
Felons' view of freedom often rosier than reality," Nov. 26). Despite relatively high recidivism rates, the survey found that 84% of exiting inmates thought it would be "easy" to stay out of trouble and keep from returning to prison, meaning that many who hope and expect to succeed on the outside later run into barriers that prevent that goal. So what factors would cause so many people who say they want to change their lives to commit new crimes? Reported O'Hare:

Many find that prospective employers are reluctant to give people with felony records a chance to prove themselves, and finding rental properties that will allow felons to sign a lease can be even tougher. Also, experts say, family members long separated from them by steel bars may not be willing to reconnect.

But one Urban Institute researcher said the inmates' optimism is simply human nature.

"I really do believe they have every hope and every intent of making it this time," said Nancy La Vigne, one of the study's authors. "The disconnect comes after release, when they have no support system."

Researchers found 71 percent of those surveyed expected to support themselves easily, although only 15 percent had jobs waiting for them. Most acknowledged they would need help with education, job training, money, transportation and health care.

The study also found that 79 percent expected it to be easy to renew family relationships. As many as 63 percent expected to live with their families and 54 percent said they would rely on loved ones for financial support.

That's an incredible amount of optimism and positive, hopeful potential offenders appear to possess when they leave the penitentiary. It's too bad reality doesn't more closely reflect their expectations. If 71% think they'll support themselves, but only 15% have jobs waiting, then about 56% are in for a big disappointment -- so many employers refuse to hire ex-prisoners, they'll be lucky to draw any paycheck at all in the free world, much less one that lets them support themselves and their families (about half of all Texas inmates have minor-age children).

These stats highlight a disconnect in public policy that I've never understood -- more than 90% of Texas corrections resources are spent on prison buildings, guards, and other incarceration expenses, but without in-prison preparation, plus job placement and housing assistance when they get out, many felons become recidivists purely out of desperation at a lack of other options. That makes us all less safe.

Almost everyone who enters prison eventually comes out, and then what happens? Take the example of a 20-year old burglar who robs houses to get money for drugs. If in prison that person receives no drug treatment, education, or job training, then upon release, because of the "felon" label, cannot get a job or a place to live, what can anyone expect but for the offender to go back to robbing houses? No job, no home, the addiction that drove the original offense still extant -- what other option does that person have, really? We've created a situaton where criminality becomes the only available career path instead of just a youthful bad decision.

Incarceration has boomed to the point that one in eleven Texans is now a felon (after all, Texas has declared nearly 2,000 distinct acts "felonies"). That means there are an awful lot of people out there in precisely that circumstance.

If we really cared about public safety instead of just vengeance and retribution, programs to help offenders find jobs and places to live would be as important a part of the corrections system as prison walls and bars. That's because the goal of the system would be for the offenders not to commit new crimes when they get out -- to reduce the overall amount of crime. When you look at the incentives the current system provides -- bans on many jobs, allowing housing discrimination, re-arrest instead of treatment for drug abuse, restrictions on voting and participation in public life -- you'd honestly think Texas wants
ex-offenders to fail and commit more crimes.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

New Austin charter amendment campaign would open police records

Let the sun shine in! A new proposed revision to Austin's city charter might finally shed light on that city's flawed police disciplinary system. Only a small number of police officers ever engage in serious misconduct, but keeping that misconduct secret contributes greatly to an aura of distrust between Austin police and much of the community.

At noon, I participated in a press conference hosted by the Save Our Springs Alliance (representing the ACLU of Texas Police Accountability Project) announcing the launch of a petition drive to open records at the City of Austin -- of particular interest to Grits readers, the charter revisions would open up more records at the Austin Police Department about allegations of officer misconduct. The proposed change is essentially similar to that proposed by the Sunshine Project for Police Accountability in 1998, and unanimously recommended by the Austin charter review commission in 2002. Here's the summary of the provision on police records put out by the campaign in their section by section analysis (Word doc):
Under the Texas civil service code, which covers records about misconduct for Austin police officers, two personnel files are described. Cities "must,” maintain a file where public records about discipline are kept, and "may" keep a second file where they can store records that become closed (Local Government Code 143.089 a-g). All civil service cities (about 70) including Austin use the two-file system to close as many files as possible, while the disciplinary files of the other 2,400+ Texas law enforcement agencies are governed by the more generous Texas Public Information Act (Government Code 552.108). By maintaining only the mandatory file under this amendment, APD records will be open to the same extent they are presently open down the street at the Travis County Sheriff's Department and in most other cities.
So the new amendment doesn't propose any radical new revelation of police records -- it would only open records about allegations of police misconduct to the same extent as they're presently public at police departments in Dallas, El Paso, and "down the street at the Travis County Sheriff's Department." It's an elegant and much-needed fix -- a decisive exercise of local control to open critical records to the public.

The proposed charter amendment would also make negotiating meetings public between the City of Austin and the police officer's union over their "meet and confer" contract. A new law that took effect September 1 covering most other Texas cities made their labor negotiations public, so this provision just brings Austin into compliance with established practice throughout the rest of Texas.

There are a lot of other great open government provisions in the amendment that I'm sure will be discussed at length in the coming days. And signature gatherers are promoting a second amendment forcing the city to maximally restrict new development in environmentally sensitive areas.

If you live in Austin, look for signature gatherers over the holiday season and into next spring -- the campaign is shooting to put the charter amendment before the voters on the May 2006 ballot. Or contact the SOS Alliance to help gather signatures -- if you're serious about it, they're paying folks $.75 per valid signature gathered.

Ruben Cantu Tragedy: The real killer is still out there

Texas' execution of Ruben Cantu for a crime he didn't commit demonstrates a profound disrespect for life by the criminal justice system -- for Cantu's, for the murder victim's, and for the safety of the rest of us who pay police and prosecutors' salaries. (The Houston Chronicle's Lise Olson reported this week that all the witnesses against Cantu have recanted, and most people involved in the case now believe he didn't do it.)

For Cantu, who was 17 when the crime was committed for which he was executed, the disrespect for life is obvious -- the government took the easy way out instead of doing their job. Police decided who they wanted to die for the crime before their so-called "investigation" even started, then railroaded a witness into accusing Cantu after he'd told them twice Cantu wasn't the guy. They never interviewed witnesses who could have provided Cantu with an alibi or even identified the real killer. The District Attorney failed to look for corroboration for the single eyewitness, ramrodding the conviction through despite the fact that false eyewitness testimony is the leading cause of wrongful convictions in the country. Nobody blinked. Nobody cared. They just wanted the conviction.

Nearly as grave is the disrespect shown to the murder victim and his family, who suffer a second indignation when the government casts aside accuracy in a rush to secure a conviction. Crime victims and their loved ones receive no benefit or satisfaction when the person punished played no part in the affair. Can you imagine how it must feel to find out so many years later not only that the killer wasn't punished, but someone was executed who wasn't responsible for your pain? It's unimaginable.

Finally, the case shows disrespect for public safety and for justice: After all, the real killer is still out there, unpunished for this heinous crime. You've got to wonder about prosecutors' priorities. San Antonio District Attorney Susan Reed sounded defensive and reticent to think about the implications:

"I found the articles very troubling," she said Monday. "I've always said it is not our goal that an innocent person will be punished."

However, "She is skeptical about recanted testimony," and expressed no concern that someone who committed capital murder might still be on the loose. She said she'd wait to consider it after her own office could investigate, but who knows how long that will take? The original crime happened nearly 20 years ago.

How can the public have faith in a criminal justice system that would allow this to happen? Who can believe that a system delivers true outcomes when it lets a single, uncorroborated eyewitness send a man to the executioner's table? (Or to prison for decades, as in the Tulia cases.) The shame from Ruben Cantu's unjustified death will haunt and reverberate through the Texas criminal justice system for years, and deservedly so. From all appearances, it's a tragedy of the highest order.

UPDATE: See additional blog coverage from Instapundit, Prawfsblawg, TalkLeft, Clayton Cramer, Doc Berman, and The People's Republic of Seabrook.

Cross-posted at the ACLU of Texas' Liberty Blog.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Blogging Abolitionists

Say 'Howdy' to the new Texas Abolition Blog by T.J. Geiger from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, joining several other new abolitionist blogs that have cropped up in the last few weeks. (And don't forget Stand Down Texas, which is a great one-stop shopping source for Texas-related death penalty news.)

I wrote about a talk I gave at the conference of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty calling for more anti-death penalty bloggers to develop new, more effective, winning messages. (David Eliot wrote this response.) It's good to see Texas well-represented in the mix.

In other abolitionist news,

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Mistakes acknowledged, and one avoided

An innocent man may have been executed, an Austin cop was fired after killing a minority youth, and San Antonio voters rejected tough on crime rhetoric last week at the ballot box.

Did Texas execute an innocent man?
Years after his death at the hands of the state of Texas, Ruben Cantu's accusers have recanted. The special ed student from a tough neighborhood in San Antonio was seventeen with no prior convictions when he was accused of capital murder. He claimed to the end he was "framed." Now it appears he was right. Read the fantastic investigative piece by the Houston Chronicle's Lise Olson, via Doc Berman. UPDATE: Here's part two, published Monday.

Austin PD fires Rocha's killer.
Austin police chief Stan Knee fired Officer Julie Schroeder, who shot and killed an unarmed youth named Daniel Rocha earlier this year. Knee called the death "avoidable." The decision came after the Austin Statesman revealed the usually secret recommendations of Austin's civilian review panel (which asked that Schroeder be fired). The Statesman's coverage of the Rocha case has been especially strong; they deserve a lot of credit for forcing city officials to closely examine the issue.

San Antonio voters say 'no' to more crime spending.
While I was out of town, SA voters overwhelmingly rejected a new "crime prevention and control district" -- essentially a new taxing district authorized to levy a sales tax to hire more cops. I hear lots of politicians say voters demand they be "tough on crime." More and more, though, I notice that when voters are told that choice has a price tag -- in this case, a new sales tax -- they often decide they aren't interested.

Federal grants for drug task forces cut again

When a federally funded drug task force perpetrated the infamous Tulia drug stings in 1999, nobody could have predicted that six years later Texas' task forces would be fading into the sunset, or that President Bush would mercilessly slash their budgets, but that's just what's happened.

The federal "Byrne Justice Assistance Grant" that pays for local Tulia-style drug task forces all over the country will be cut by one-third in 2006 -- from $606 million to $402 million -- if, as expected, President Bush signs into law a Justice Department budget finally approved by the Senate this week. (See the Helena, MT Independent Record, "
Senate vote could mean cuts to drug task forces," Nov. 19.)

Earlier this year the House of Representatives
approved slightly deeper cuts. President Bush had proposed elimnating the fund, and a lot of conservative interests back him on that. But Democrats successfully preserved the pork barrel program first established to bolster their tough-on-crime credentials in 1988 while Michael Dukakis was running for President. Even so, the total fund now stands at half its 2004 levels.

What does this mean for state and local governments whose drug task force funds have been cut again? In short, that it's time to consider spending federal grant money on other things besides salaries for a few cops to
pursue outdated tactics. It's time for Byrne-grant funded drug task forces to close up shop -- their era is done, or it should be.

Local officials need to understand the same money can also pay for a lot of
other good stuff: to establish drug courts, purchase equipment, supplement treatment services, try juvenile justice innovations, create new programs aimed at special populations like the elderly or the homeless, in Texas they could strengthen probation programs that would draw down more state funds -- in short, lots of good stuff that local agencies need.

Only short-sighted leaders would continue spending Byrne money on drug task forces in the current environment because they're financially unsustainable. If President Bush successfully kills the Byrne grant fund in the next few years (he pushed for eliminating it in each of his first five Presidential budgets), the drug task forces will just dry up and go away. But money spent now on equipment, training and other projects -- especially innovative approaches like drug courts and cheaper alternatives to incarceration -- could build new infrastructure for the long term.

These budget cuts offer states a chance to get smarter about how they spend Byrne grant funds instead of backing failed programs year after year mainly out of habit, or possibly fear. I hope they will.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Counties unwise to become incarceration entrepeneurs

Most corrections officials view Texas' surfeit of prisoners as a looming crisis, but a few Texas counties see a chance for profiteering.

In Grits' recent column outlining
'best practices' to reduce county jail overcrowding, I mentioned how foolishly shortshighted it is for counties to view themselves as "incarceration entrepeneurs," building jails speculatively to house prisoners from other counties, or state and federal overflow. A great example of that arises in Harrison County in Northeast Texas ("Harrison County board okays $6.2 million jail extension," Longview News-Journal, Nov. 19), which plans to issue $1 million more debt than the commissioners court anticipated to build dozens more new jail beds than it needs, in hope they can turn a profit. Their vendors conviced them demand exists to keep the bonds afloat:

The state jail system is at 99.6 percent capacity, and county jails are 88.7 percent full while 90 percent full is considered capacity, [architect Donald] Olson said, adding that state officials are paying $45 to $50 per day to county jails who accept their prisoners.

The federal government, he said, is paying even more.

You'd think they'd have learned more from the jail overcrowding woes in neighboring Gregg County (Longview), where law enforcement officers have had to stop making low-level arrests because their jail is full of contract prisoners.

Once again, the seeds of tomorrow's crises lie in today's bad decisions. Turning incarceration from a lamentable government responsibility into an entrepeneurial income stream required to pay bond debt creates incentives to incarcerate ever more people, when in fact likely
many fewer could be arrested without harming public safety.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Pseudoephedrine restrictions raise fears of 'more addiction, more overdoses, and more violence'

Following Oklahoma's lead (and let's face it, can that ever be a good idea?) Texas earlier this year required pseudoephedrine products (mostly over-the-counter cold medicine) to be kept behind store counters and to require cold-sufferers to sign a logbook documenting their purchase. The idea was to reduce the number of bath-tub-gin-style "meth labs," mostly low-level users making meth for their own private consumption ("Traditional meth busts decrease, meth ice busts spike," KFDX TV, Nov. 16):
Local officers say since a Texas law went into effect restricting the sale of pseudoephedrine, the number of Meth labs found in Texoma has dropped. Instead of working at least one lab a week, they are working one every few weeks, which is a welcomed change since labs are highly toxic.
Instead, though, now a more potent, cheaper Mexican version of meth is flooding Texas' market, causing law enforcement to issue the same, tired, dire predictions we heard just months ago about home meth labs:
[O]fficer John Spragins with the North Texas Drug Task Force says officers are just beginning to confront a new problem.

Meth Ice is a purer form of Methamphetamine and it is popping up weekly. One bust last week netted $88,000 worth of Ice. Spragins says with more people on Ice, he fears we will see more addiction, more overdoses, and more violence.
Well, that's an excellent result, isn't it, for a three month old law? More addiction, more overdoses, and more violence! Surely it's now evident that trying to stamp out supply without managing demand cannot solve America's drug problems. State Sen. Craig Estes and his cohorts who passed this ill-conceived law were chasing their own tails. This substitution problem in Northeast Texas and Oklahoma is just a microcosm of the bigger dilemma -- addicted people can always find a way to get high. (At the DPA conference I heard a physician from Mexico City tell how street kids who can't afford pot sniff cheap glue that's far worse for them.)

Drug treatment is the best way to reduce meth addiction, and where Texas counties have put money into the strategy, it's working. More supply-side solutions focusing on punitive approaches aren't really helping anything.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Odds and ends ... stuff I missed

While I've been catching up on sleep, reading email, and procrastinating returning a week's worth of phone calls, I wanted to mention several items I noticed recently that merit Grits readers attention:

R.I.P. David Ruiz (1942 - 2005).
David Ruiz -- whose litigation in the 1970s against Texas' prison system "transformed our prison from a backwards Southern plantation-style system into a modern penal system," according to former district judge Scott McCown -- died this weekend in a prison hospital in Galveston. ("Inmate who fought for prison reform dies," Houston Chronicle, Nov. 14) His courage and brilliant amateur lawyering dramatically improved prison conditions for hundreds of thousands of incarcerated Texans. May he rest in peace.

With or without task forces, drug use continues.
The drug task force in Kerrville is shutting down, with agencies making plans to finance their own local drug units in its stead. ("Drug task force may lose its funding," Kerrville Times, Nov. 15) It sounds, though, like the unit wasn't doing much good. “'Cocaine and marijuana we’ll always have,' [the task force commander] said. 'We’ll always have a problem with heroin (because of long-term addicts.)'" If that's the case, then, one wonders what benefit resulted from the task force's lock-em-up approach in the first place? I'll bet crime doesn't increase one iota as a result of the agency's demise -- as in Chambers County, a lot of folks being arrested probably aren't a threat to public safety.

Anatomy of a false conviction.
A Texas Ranger's false testimony helped send two legal immigrants to prison. Their convictions are being contested by attorneys hired by the Mexican consulate. ("Texas Ranger admits giving incorrect testimony at trial," Houston Chronicle, Nov. 15) Descriptions of the suspects given by the victim as she was dying were misstated in the Ranger's reports, and he failed to notify prosecutors of possibly exculpatory evidence.

Reporting prison rape.
Michelle Deitch thinks Texas shouldn't be criticized for reporting prison rape more often than other states, because most states just aren't collecting the information. ("On prison rape, Texas tries to report it right," Austin Statesman, Nov. 9)

A middle ground approach on the drug war. I mentioned two panels on criminal justice topics I attended at the Texas Book Festival, but here's a report from another one on drug violence and the Texas-Mexico border. ("To snuff the weed, kill the root," SA Express News, Nov. 13) Author Don Henry Ford, Jr. suggests a middle ground approach falling somewhere between "legalization" and our current failed strategies.

Driving over the speed limit is illegal, but we don't throw an offender in jail unless he endangers the lives of others. Fines and loss of driver's licenses and other privileges are used to force people to comply or face constant harassment. This is the approach we should take with people using drugs. Face these sanctions or enroll in treatment programs.

For those who continue to sell hard drugs, prison will remain a necessary evil. However, the excessive sentences now required are not effective. Prisons serve as training grounds; criminals enter as novices and are released as seasoned professionals.

I suggest shorter but tougher sentences spent in isolation cells for first-time drug offenders and any others deemed salvageable.

Maquiladora prisons? Mexico is contemplating them. ("Cross border prison industries, inc.," El Paso Newspaper Tree, Nov. 14)

Alabama confronts prison overcrowding. Alabama's Governor Riley says the state must implement recommendations from his prison crowding task force or face a fiscal crisis: "'It is not a radical approach. It's one that's been followed around the country. Alabama is in a minority in not having moved further forward in community corrections,' said Birmingham lawyer Bill Clark, a task force member." ("Riley sets his focus on prison reforms," Birmingham News, Nov. 12.)

The task force found that drug use was so pervasive in prisons, it's the wrong place for inmates who want to stop using.

"Instead of just putting them in this environment where their drug habit gets worse, their criminal record gets worse, they should be treated in a different environment," [a drug rehabilitation counselor on the panel] said.

Alabama's legislative session begins in January, when the task force's suggestions will be considered as formal legislation. (See also "Groups say prison not addicts' place," Montgomery Advertiser, Nov. 15) They like grits in Alabama, don't they? ;-)

Fewer arrests don't harm public safety in Chambers County, officials say

In Chambers County in southeast Texas, officials still haven't re-opened the local county jail two months after it was shut down because of Hurricane Rita. ("Chambers County Jail Still Shut Down," Baytown Sun, Nov. 13) Officials said "the department has been forced to back off arrests without an operational jail, but stressed that any serious offender is still placed under arrest and sent to [rented beds in] Angelina County." Arrests have declined to 2-3 per day, down from 9-10 when the jail was open. Indeed, the experience indicates perhaps more arrests were being made before than necessary: “In no way are the lives and safety of the citizens of Chambers County being put at risk,” [Sheriff Joe] LaRive said. “We’re still doing our job — we’re still protecting the public.”

From that one may conclude that, in about 60-70 percent of arrests in Chambers County under normal circumstances, incarcerating the arrestees "in no way" made the public safer, in the opinion of the local sheriff. So, one wonders, why do it?

Monday, November 14, 2005

Back from CA

Finished the grueling drive back late last night from the Drug Policy Alliance conference in Long Beach (~1,450 miles). I'm not sure I'll have time to write much about the event, but the new DARE Generation Diary has a writeup -- that's the new blog from Students for Sensible Drug Policy, some of whom I got to meet in California -- and here's more from D'Alliance.

What are grits?

I don't know where Skelly came up with this little icon, but I think it's HILARIOUS:

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Until next week

Off to attend the Drug Policy Alliance's conference on the west coast, where I'm scheduled to speak at a workshop on the subject of combating Byrne-grant funded drug task forces. (See Grits' Texas drug task force coverage.) Until then, catch up reading past Grits offerings below, or check out the fine bloggers listed in the right hand column. If all goes as planned I'll be back in the blogging saddle next week. Thanks for stopping by!

Monday, November 07, 2005

Grits' best practices to reduce county jail overcrowding

UPDATE: See also Part Two.

What can be done to reduce overcrowding at county jails? Quite a lot, if counties are willing to get as smart on crime as they have been tough.

Regular readers know that Texas faces a statewide overincarceration crisis, both in our prisons and in the county jails. Crime is down, but we're incarcerating more people than ever -- indeed, about one in twenty Texans is now under control of the criminal justice system, either in prison, on probation, or parole. Since the Legislature is out of session and the Governor vetoed the most important state-level reforms, I've been looking more closely this fall at what counties can do to lessen pressures on local jails, many of which are bursting at the seams.

Requests for ever-more money for jails always portray the need as self-evident, almost an inevitability -- "our population has grown," they'll say, or, "if you dont' spend the money this terrible thing (fill in with details from the latest heinous crime) will happen more often." But that's not the whole story -- many counties presently incarcerate a lot of people when there's really no need, especially while they're awaiting trial. Texas' criminal justice system is one of the largest, most lumbering, slow-to-change bureaucracies in all of state government, and upon close examination, there are a lot of things counties could do to counter the trend, if they want to. This column offers just a sampling.

I wish I were smart enough to have come up with these ideas myself, but that's not the case. Instead, these "best practices" were gleaned from my informal survey of counties in recent Grits blog posts (check out the links below) - in other words, these are the most promising ideas being kicked around by county governments across the state to reduce overincarceration pressures.

  1. Use pretrial screening of defendants to increase personal bond use. Right now, to my knowledge, only Harris, Travis, El Paso, Webb, and recently, Montgomery and Erath counties use such a pretrial screening service, but if judges follow screeners' recommendations, they can significantly reduce local incarceration costs.
  2. Use progressive sanctions instead of revocations for technical violations. A well-attended statewide conference recently schooled DAs, judges, and probation officials on the latest tools being used in this area. With luck, the state funds offered for counties that adopt progressive sanctions will entice most of the larger ones to try their hand at more innovative court models. It won't work, though, if counties don't also commit new funding for programming that makes new sanctions meaningful. (It's still cheaper than building more jail beds.)
  3. Increase use of early probation release to create incentives for good behavior and lower the number of people incarcerated not for new crimes, but for technical violations. In Travis County, for example, more than 63% of probationers have succeeded on probation past the minimum early release date. Getting off probation is a powerful incentive for good behavior that should be utilized to improve public safety -- instead, probation departments want probationers to stay on their rolls the full ten years to maximize income from probation fees. It doesn't have to be that way. Criminal defense attorneys and local probation departments should start recommending this option more often -- it would be up to local judges whether to grant it.
  4. More efficient use of forensic lab services. Texas counties tend to use forensic lab services very inefficiently in two key areas: testing drug seized from defendants, and drug testing defendants who are out on bond. In both cases, simple changes could result in big savings without reducing public safety.
    • Counties that use DPS to test seized drugs should begin using private labs. They're more costly, but DPS' backlog can mean defendants will spend up to two extra months incarcerated awaiting trial. That's a lot more expensive than paying a private lab.
    • Judges should stop ordering drug tests except as part of a court-ordered treatment program for bonded defendants and even probationers. If you're not treating the addiction, the only point of drug testing is increased incarceration, and when prisons are full we need to save the space for more dangerous offenders, not mere drug users.
  5. Create more public defenders offices, especially for misdemeanor defendants. These offices save money on indigent defense costs and help process defendants through the system more quickly, saving incarceration costs as well.
  6. Change outcome measures for probation officers. Make reducing the number of revocations and improving probationers' education outcomes the primary performance measures by which probation officers are evaluated on the job.
  7. Use probation kiosks for proven probationers. Most probationers who violate do so in the first few years. Some probation visits for nonviolent offenders could be avoided after 2-3 years using probation kiosks where probationers check in at an ATM type machine. Probation departments could still monitor the data, require some in-person check-ins, perform home visits, and use other tools to supplement the kiosks.
  8. Stop short-sighted rent-a-bed policies. Many Texas counties apparently fancy themselves incarceration entrepeneurs, short-sightedly renting out extra jail beds to house federal prisoners, mostly immigration-related detainees. Now, long-term contracts are forcing some counties to rent extra beds, or stop accepting non-violent arrestees.
  9. Harris County should quit jailing drug abusers for first possession offense. Two years ago the Texas Legislature passed HB 2668 requiring judges to order treatment and probation instead of incarceration for first-time possession offenders. Of all Texas counties, though, Harris County has extensively utilized a loophole allowing them to incarcerate state jail felons in the county jail as a condition of probation. That's entirely judges' decision, and the policy accounts for a great deal of that county's overincarceration crisis.
In fact, much of Texas' jail overcrowding crisis may be laid at the feet of local judges, and most of these fixes would require their involvement, or at least acquiescence. They set bail, set many sentences, and control the local probation departments. They're elected officials, too, after all, and along with county commissioners courts they should be held accountable. In any event, until these approaches have been tried, it'd be throwing good taxpayer money after bad to continue Texas' jail building spree.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

New Hidalgo public defender office spurred by jail overcrowding

In South Texas, Hidalgo County (Edinburg) officials last month created a new public defender's office led by Jaime Gonzalez, a 28-year old former prosecutor, in an effort to reduce pre-trial detention and jail overcrowding. According to the McAllen Monitor ("Hidalgo County gets its first public defender's office," Nov. 6):

They started representing clients in misdemeanor cases Oct. 21 and have so far tried 60 and disposed of 32. Handling cases through his office reduces the two-week processing time about 10 days, Gonzalez said, predicting his office probably will handle 25 percent of Hidalgo County’s misdemeanor cases every year.

"Public defenders are seen as a mechanism for larger counties," Gonzalez said. "But that’s what we are now."

That's true. Hidalgo County's 1,150+ beds makes their jail one of the dozen or so largest in the state. I'd commented previously that Hidalgo officials appeared to want to blame others for jail overcrowding problems. It's good to see local officials also plan to take responsibility for the large number of low-level defendants languishing in jail awaiting trial.

The new public defender's office was made possible by a state grant that will subsidize its first four years. (The same pot of money is available for other Texas counties that want to reduce overcrowding by creating a public defender's office.) Reported the Monitor:

In 2005, Hidalgo County received a four-year grant from the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense. For the first grant period, which runs from March 2005 to February 2006, the state funded about $396,000 for the public defender’s office. The county matched that with about $94,000. As the office becomes more established, the state funding decreases and the county’s contribution increases.

However, Gonzalez said by the time the county would have the higher percentage, the office would be self-sufficient.

"Our budget would be a drop in the bucket," he said.

Friday, November 04, 2005

The surprising economics of unsanctioned immigration

When, on the cartoon South Park, unwanted immigrants from the year 4035 began using a time machine to come work for low wages (with interest-bearing accounts, the practice made them wealthy in their own time), the hysterical rallying cry from verklempt locals was, "They took our jobs." If a new study is correct, though, they could have added, "And gave us better paying ones."

It turns out, not only do more Americans have friends who are immigrants, those friends may be making them better off. A new, more sophisticated model of the economic effects of immigration shows that, counterintuitively, it may actually lift wages, reports the New York Times ("Yes, Immigration May Lift Wages," Nov. 3). Here's the argument:

In "Rethinking the Gains From Immigration: Theory and Evidence From the U.S.," Gianmarco I. P. Ottaviano of the University of Bologna and Giovanni Peri of the University of California, Davis estimate that immigration in the 1990's increased the average wage of American-born workers by 2.7 percent. (The paper is available at www.econ.ucdavis.edu/faculty/gperi.)

Although it still relies on a highly stylized model of the economy, their paper adds two complexities that bring it closer to reality.

First, the two economists assume that businesses can make additional capital investments to take advantage of the expanded supply of workers. Companies may open new restaurants or stores, add new factory lines or build more houses.

In their model, as in the real world, "investment adjusts not to keep fixed the amount of capital but to keep fixed the return to capital," Professor Peri said. As long as businesses can profitably add new production, they hire more workers, and wages do not necessarily go down. Instead, he said, "more workers means more business."

As businesses expand, hiring foreign-born workers to do one job may also require hiring more native-born workers with complementary skills. Immigrant engineers, for instance, may create demand for native-born patent lawyers and marketing executives.

That is the paper's second refinement. It assumes that immigrants do not always compete for the same jobs as American-born workers. The two groups are not "perfect substitutes," even when they have similar education and the same occupation. A Chinese cook is not the same as a Texas barbecue chef.

Immigrants often bring different skills to the American labor force, and concentrate on different occupations from natives. Among high school dropouts, the paper notes, the "foreign-born are highly overrepresented in professions like tailors (54 percent were foreign-born in 2000) and plaster-stucco masons (44 percent were foreign-born in 2000)." By contrast, American-born workers make up more than 99 percent of all crane operators and sewer-pipe cleaners.

The same is true at the highest educational levels, where foreign-born college graduates make up 44 percent of all medical scientists but only 4 percent of lawyers. (Immigrants tend to be concentrated at the highest and lowest levels of income and education.)

If that's right, then it's hard to justify the polticized anti-immigrant bashing that the New Republic says has become a "marquee political issue in the South" ("Immigration migrates: Going South," Nov. 3). The immigrants picking up jobs at day labor sites aren't taking jobs from Americans -- they're creating small businesses for the guys in pickup trucks hiring them. Once again I find myself wondering, exactly what's the big deal?

Texas leads parade toward 1,000th execution

Says Fort Worth Weekly ("Not So Easy to Kill," Nov. 2). Also see the blog, 1,000 executions, chronicling the nation's march toward that macabre landmark. I'd lay odds that thousandth man will be a Texan.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Biometrics slope got slippery awfully quick ...

Just two months after HB 2337 took effect allowing the Texas Department of Public Safety to gather drivers' biometric information and removing judicial oversight of its use, Governor Perry let the other shoe drop. The Dallas News reported yesterday (Exclusive: State homeland plan links data," Nov. 2):
The Texas Fusion Center is one facet of an ambitious new homeland security strategy to be unveiled by Gov. Rick Perry's office today.

The five-year plan, described as a "high-level road map for our homeland security efforts," is designed to bring together 34 state agencies and 24 regional councils to focus on preventing terrorism, protecting critical infrastructure and recovering from man-made and natural disasters.

Among the plan's elements:

•The use of driver's licenses and identification cards with biometric identifiers, in this case an embedded fingerprint. Applicants will also have their fingerprints checked against federal criminal and terrorism lists. The Texas standard goes beyond what Congress required for enhancing driver's license security in the controversial REAL ID Act this year.

So Texas has not only removed restrictions on police using drivers' fingerprints, now the state will routinely vet them through federal databases nobody ever mentioned before. That's almost the definition of a slippery slope. (Before HB 2337 passed, drivers' fingerprints in Texas were considered private, personal data only accessible with a court order.)

The Houston Chronicle's Polly Hughes followed up today ("
Worries mount about system to ID drivers," Nov. 3) with more on the risks of Texas' new biometrics database, many of which will be familiar to Grits readers. For starters (as I warned before the bill passed), "A company the state hired to gather computerized facial imaging and thumbprints on all Texas driver's licenses failed to protect the identities of 7,500 Nevada drivers last spring," Hughes reported.
"Yes, indeedy. They stole everything you needed to make digitized driver's licenses," [a Nevada official] said. He added that the heist netted Social Security numbers, names, ages, dates of birth and photographs of drivers.
Ironically, a system touted as a tool to catch people with fake IDs could have the opposite effect if personal information of drivers gets out. "This new system is an identity thief's dream come true," said Ann del Llano of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. "Now any good identity thief in the world has a new database that's going to be one of the largest databases that exists."

That's exactly right, as Grits argued
here and here during the 79th Legislature. What's more, reported Hughes, Rep. Frank "Corte's House Bill 2337 not only authorizes the new method for recognizing thumb and facial images, it also gives law enforcement agencies the power to access the high-tech images without first obtaining a search warrant as required in the past." (Don't forget, you heard it here first!)

Rep. Corte summed up the matter with his closing comments in Hughes' article: "Really, I guess it depends on, who are you going to trust? If you don't trust government, you don't trust any of that stuff," he said.

Trust us, we're the government. When did that become the slogan of the Republican Party? What happened to the party of small government, one wonders? Ronald Reagan must be spinning in his grave.

When Texas passed HB 2337 I asked, "
Where are the small government conservatives?" I still want to know. For whatever reason, very few of them seem to make it through the GOP primary process into state government. Instead we get Big Brother's handmaidens, like Rick Perry and Frank Corte.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Pretrial diversion = Erath County's overincarceration solution

West of Fort Worth in Erath County (county seat is Stephenville), officials are hiring a new "pretrial release officer" to resolve their local jail overcrowding problems (Stephenville Empire-Tribune, "County addresses jail overcrowding," Nov. 1).
In an effort to address the growing jail population, county officials developed the new position, which is primarily responsible for processing non-violent inmates who can’t afford bond, out of the county jail at a faster rate.

[Newly hired pretrial release officer Weldon] Wilson said the program is designed to reduce jail overcrowding and save the county money on indigent inmates.

“The way the program is set up, I will interview new arrestees within the first 48 hours of their arrest to assess their status and discuss bonding with them,” Wilson said. “It’s important to get these people back to work as fast as we can — instead of just allowing them to sit in jail at taxpayer’s expense.”
I've argued previously that excessive pretrial detention is perhaps the primary driver of Texas' statewide overincarceration crisis in its county jails, see also here, here, here, and here. Maybe the bigger counties want to keep endlessly building new jails, but some of the smaller ones may prefer to get smarter instead of tougher, especially if tougher means raising taxes.

Grits commenters take on task forces and jail overcrowding

I wanted to point out some terrific discussion in the comments to recent Grits posts that merit readers' attention.

First, in response to
this item on the demise of the Waco-based Agriplex regional drug task force, a number of drug enforcement officers -- two from Agriplex and a couple from other agencies, one of them arguing for task forces' cessation -- went back in forth with me a bit in the comments. Give it a read.

Next, commenters rolling in via search engines to
this post, and this one, about Harris County (Houston) jail overcrowding offered up terrible reports regarding jail conditions. Here's a sample:
My son has been in the county jail for 5 1/2 months. Why? He violated his drug probation by smoking marijuana. He signed for RSAT (a "drug treatment" program) but he's waiting for a space! Apparently, there's no limit to how long a person must wait. If there's no space, then why are they assigning people to this program?

Harris County is indeed a very corrupt jail system. He has been thrown out of the shower naked because two other guys were talking over the wall in the restroom. He has had his head slammed against the wall for asking why. He witnessed numerous abuses, deputies punching and hitting other inmates. Why, why is nothing done? My son is not violent. He graduated from high school with excellent grades. He was working full time when he got the violation. I realize he needs some punishment, but how long does he have to stay there? He's in JAIL, yet every day he goes to work in and around the jail. He is permitted to go outside to work also. Something is very wrong with this jail system.
I'll bet a lot of people statewide are waiting in county jails for drug treatment beds to open up, just as many more are there waiting for lab tests to return from the Department of Public Safety. As a commenter to another Grits post pointed out, another source of extra jail inmates are post-conviction felons waiting to be taken to prison, a problem exacerbated in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita.

Meanwhile, in response to
this item about overcrowding in the Hidalgo County jail, Shaine Mata left a note in the comments suggesting practical, border-related dilemmas may contribute, and elaborated further at RGV Life.

Finally, a local attorney chimed in to disagree with
Grits' recommendation against Travis County's proposed jail construction bonds, and in the process offered this horror story:
Do you know about Travis County's "Jail Reduction Docket"? Distressing stuff, all about processing people out for misdemeanors, making sausage. Folks get to court within about a week of arrest, and are usually offered low sentences, which, combined with the standard 2-for-1 jail credit, gets lots out that day. Lots of people plead guilty to stuff they either didn't do or which could be defended. But trials are two to three weeks away, and people want out today.

This happens at 1:30 every day, in one of the County Courts at Law. 20 to 80 inmates are brought from the jails. Many meet their lawyers for the first time in this setting. Often the lawyer has already worked out the case before the meeting the guy. Lawyers recieve the appointments two or three days ahead of the setting. Lots of lawyers attend, even without a client, because of the prospect of bench appointments.

And one last gem. Travis County pays court appointed lawyers according to a fee schedule. The schedule provides that a misdemeanor resolved with a plea pays $175. Cases resolved by dismissal pay $150. It takes alot more work to get a case dismissed than to fill out plea paperwork. Lawyers don't complain because the expected response involves paying less for pleas.
Surely anyone so low-risk they could plea out that day without harming public safety could also be released on personal bond? Instead, perversely, Travis County has created a financial incentive for lawyers to advise clients to accept plea bargains instead of try for a dismissal. The whole jail reduction docket the writer describes sounds like a tremendous abuse of the plea bargain system.

Excellent and welcome comments, all -- especially from those who respectfully or not-so-respectfully disagree with me.
I'm thinking through a lot of these topics, myself, as I go, and feedback from others keeps me honest, helps me learn, and rounds out the discussion. Thanks, Grits readers, for making this a truly interactive format. Keep those comments coming!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Texas ignores breathalyzer standards

Steve McVicker reports in the Houston Chronicle. Via DUI Blog.

Rocha case shows Austin police oversight toothless

I've got a confession: I was one of the folks who pushed for years to install Austin's police oversight system -- consisting of a "Police Monitor" and a civilian review board that recommends punishments to the chief -- but at this point I'm embarassed by my involvement. We did our best, but the case of Daniel Rocha shows that the compromised system Austin wound up with is a severe disservice to complainants against police -- a pointless insult tacked on to often extreme injury.

Current Police Monitor Ashton Cumberbatch has turned Austin's system into a big-league joke. Already toothless regarding its ability to impose discipline (the panel can only make recommendations), Cumberbatch could still use it as a bully pulpit -- instead, he's been bullied right off his pulpit, failing to communicate with the public even in the ways formally mandated by his job description. Not only has he never produced the semi-annual reports on police misconduct his office is charged with publishing, he has made virtually no recommendations for policy changes or other improvements. To judge by Cumberbatch's public pronouncements, there's almost nothing he would suggest changing about Austin PD's disciplinary system, though it's riddled with obvious loopholes and flaws.

Last night's civilian review board hearing on the killing of 18-year old Daniel Rocha in June made it clear: Austin's police oversight system simply offers complainants zero means for pursuing justice in their case (See the Austin Statesman, "
Residents complain that Austin police 'above the law,'" Nov. 1). The hearing was the only opportunity for public input on the matter, and about 40 people signed up to speak to the panel.

Rocha family attorney Bobby Taylor opened up the public testimony by posing the obvious query: given the panel's lack of authority, "Why are we here?" There's no question from the record, he noted, that Rocha was shot point blank in the back and killed, that officers ignored standard operating procedures including those regarding escalation of force, and that three or four police cars conveniently had video malfunctions or tapes show up missing. Finally, he said, there's no question from the public record that Officer Julie Schroeder lied when she said Rocha was fighting when she shot him -- the medical examiner's report and other police officer witnesses confirm that he was running away.

Taylor suggested that the panel recommend termination for Officer Schroeder, and that the Travis County District Attorney should examine whether to file perjury charges for falsehoods told to a grand jury. He also called for a federal investigation, opining that the community has lost faith in the city's ability to discipline its officers.

"How would you want this case handled if this was your child?" Taylor asked.

(Perhaps if Officer Schroeder were a Republican congressional leader, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle would be more interested in pursuing the case?)

Outgoing state senator Gonzalo Barrientos raised the hearing's profile by showing up to comment "as a citizen." "These things happen," he said," but they shouldn't happen this often and it shouldn't happen only to minorities."

St. David Chapel's Rev. Joseph Parker and former Austin Mayor Gus Garcia both said the Rocha case posed the question, "What does it mean to be an American?" Both men said officers treated minority youths as though they didn't deserve the constitutional rights the police are sworn to uphold. After the shooting of Jessie Lee Owens last year, Parker said, he went to the home of the grieving parents to find "a house full of black and Hispanic young people ready to take to the streets." He calmed them down, he said, temporarily averting violence, but he lamented that Rocha's and Owen's families "will never know the real truth."

Former Mayor Garcia described a recent visit to Mendez middle school in Austin, where he said students asked him directly about the Rocha case and said they feared the police. "So many young minority men and women don't trust the system at all," he said.

The Central Texas Chapter of the ACLU came forward with three proposals that were also endorsed by several other groups and the Austin Human Rights Commission: 1) New protocols to prevent officer tampering with in-car cameras and microphones, plus requiring them to run all the time, 2) pairing experienced veterans with rookie officers, and 3) creating a "uniform disciplinary matrix" to ensure that fired officers aren't reinstated through arbitration because of varying punishments.

All of those ideas could be implemented immediately, without renegotiating the city's labor contract. Other proposals for reform -- giving the oversight panel subpoena power and a stronger role in discipline -- must wait until the contract ends in several years before the city could act.

Rocha's family and friends deserve to see something positive come from the young man's pointless death, and surely Officer Schroeder should have been terminated long ago. But nothing will bring Daniel back. Nothing will assuage their loss. Nothing. One youth, whose testimony called for Schroeder and Chief Stan Knee's firing, wore a t-shirt bearing Rocha' likeness on the front. On the backside it announced, "I'll Mourn U Till I Join U." One hopes he won't have to wait that long to see justice done.