I don't know what the solution is. A civilian review board sounds nice - but in reality, do they really do any good? The boards tend to be made up of politically-connected folks who don't really want to go out on a limb. Even if you give the board subpoena power, what would you accomplish? Would the board be tasked with seeking out the truth - and forgoing criminal prosecution? Would the board's job be to uncover evidence and turn it over the the DA's office? Would members of the board have any idea what they were doing?He's right. So-called "civilian oversight" accomplishes little. What's really needed is to strengthen police administrators' ability to deal with misconduct in their ranks, whereas right now in Houston and 70+ other civil service cities they're too often hamstrung, their authority over personnel too easily second guessed, and their termination decisions too often overturned. Civilian oversight can't accomplish much when the agency's own administrative oversight remains ineffective. In other words, if the chief can't fire bad cops, as a practical matter "oversight" adds nothing to the equation.
From 2000 through 2006 I was director of ACLU of Texas' Police Accountability Project, and before that was among the founders of a PAC created to push for the establishment of "civilian oversight" in Austin, a campaign that resulted in the establishment of Austin's Police Monitor office. In all the years I've worked on the issue, I've never seen nor heard of a civilian review board, anywhere, that worked as advertised, effected meaningful change or satisfied those that advocated for it. Ditto for "police monitors" like in Austin. I've come to believe they're largely a waste of time and divert activists, media, officialdom and public attention generally from issues where focused attention might produce more meaningful reform.
What would work? And since the Legislature is in session, what could the Lege do?
Transparency: Independent, aggressive press oversight, as a practical matter, is MUCH more effective than any civilian oversight mechanism I've ever heard of, anywhere. Civil service cities like Houston have most of their disciplinary records closed unless officers are severely disciplined (more than two days suspension), and then only summary information is public. So, for example, in Dallas or El Paso, which never opted into the civil service code, reporters get a LOT more information on police misconduct than Houston or other civil service cities, and it really shows in their coverage, particularly at the Dallas News. Easily the most effective change to improve police oversight in Houston and other civil service cities, without costing the taxpayers a dime, would simply be to re-open police disciplinary files; hundreds of non-civil service cities and every Texas Sheriff operate just fine under the Public Information Act, and so would civil service cities if they were brought back under its umbrella.
Another key, too-often neglected transparency issue: Former Harris County DA Johnny Holmes and the Texas Supreme Court, abetted by the Legislature after the fact, gutted the Law Enforcement exception (Govt Code 552.108) to the Public Information Act in Holmes v. Morales. State Rep. Harold Dutton still carries a bill (see here) every session to change the standard back to what it what from the inception of the Open Records Act until that episode. This change was pivotal, casting a thick blanket of secrecy over information which had been public for decades. If we don't fix the transparency problem - both reinvigorating the law enforcement exception and re-opening disciplinary files in civil service cities - IMO all other "solutions" will founder.
Accounting for Misconduct in Promotions: Then-state Rep. Chuy Hinojosa filed a bill back in 2001 that never went anywhere but which would have required sustained misconduct to be counted against officers when considering them for promotions, see here. I've always thought that would give a lot more oomph to internal disciplinary decisions than is currently the case and potentially play a big preventive role.
Bolstering Disciplinary Decisions: The biggest problem with the civil service code regarding police misconduct at Texas police departments is that, too often, fired officers too often don't stay fired. The state could require civil service cities to have a "Uniform Disciplinary Matrix," which is a pre-set array of punishments available for different types of misconduct. This helps prevent arbitrators from overturning punishments when they comply with the disciplinary matrix, including indefinite suspensions/terminations, establishing what's a reasonable punishment as a matter of policy instead of letting the arbitrator make an arbitrary determination after the fact in each case. (See the discussion here.)
Those are all things the Legislature could do to reduce police misconduct in Houston and other civil service cities with no fiscal note, and without resorting to dysfunctional non-solutions like a civilian review board. And ironically, a GOP dominated Legislature might be just the group to do it, since the main special interest promoting secrecy are public employee unions (who thanks to the brouhaha in Wisconsin have become movement conservatives' whipping boy of the day). All those Democrats who just got ousted in the Texas House would never in a million years have stood up to the police unions to re-impose transparency, but it wouldn't surprise me if some of the Tea Party types might.