A six-month Texas Observer investigation has found that HPD rarely disciplines its officers, and those who are sanctioned often end up with suspensions of just a few days before resuming their duties.DePrang performed yeoman's service by filing open records requests to delve into dozens of arbitration proceedings at a level of detail rarely seen for Texas civil service cities. Excellent reportage. Read the whole thing. Most charges sustained against officers by the department resulted in overturning or reducing punishments. Her story concluded:
The Observer compiled HPD disciplinary records from 2007 to 2012. During that span, HPD received an average of 1,200 complaints per year, less than a third of which ended in any kind of discipline. More than half of those punishments were written reprimands, which have little effect on an officer’s record and no effect on his or her paycheck.
Only 7 percent of all complaints against Houston officers ended in serious discipline, meaning a three-day suspension or more, according to an Observer analysis. Officers who left crime scenes, failed to secure evidence, lied to superiors, falsified forms and, in one case, allegedly pocketed drugs continue to police the streets of Houston.
The department’s discipline process, having evolved over decades of negotiations between the city and police union, now functions like a modern version of the notorious “code of silence” by which police officers hide one another’s misdeeds. This new, institutional code of silence is built less like a black box and more like a maze. Legitimate complaints against misbehaving officers can dead-end at any one of a dozen junctures, dismissed because of tiny procedural technicalities or judgment calls in an officer’s favor. Even if a legitimate complaint makes it through the labyrinth of regulations governing Internal Affairs investigations, the resulting discipline is often overturned by an independent arbitrator with only one or two days’ familiarity with the case.
The lack of severe punishment isn’t because Houston citizens are filing scores of illegitimate complaints, according to the Observer’s analysis of department records. Of the 1,200 or so complaints HPD receives each year, only about 300 come from citizens. The other 900—fully three-quarters of all complaints—originate with police officers and their supervisors.
The department and police union claim this proves that the “code of silence” is a myth. But the same statistic raises a different question. If officers are willing to report one another’s misconduct, why isn’t the department willing to punish it?
In some of the most serious discipline cases, HPD tries to punish its officers but can’t.
The fact that arbitrators overturn or reduce Internal Affairs’ decisions two-thirds of the time suggests a problem with HPD’s discipline system, the arbitration system, or both. Fortunately, peer-reviewed research on this phenomenon already exists.
In 2002, the journal Police Quarterly published a study on a city where, during a five-year span, arbitrators reduced the total number of officer suspension days by almost half. The author, Mark Iris, noted that at this department, “Any decision to take disciplinary action against an officer is made only after an internal investigation has passed through a multistage review process. Disciplinary measures are deliberated and considered carefully.”
When so many cases are reduced or overturned, Iris wrote, “the message to all those with a stake in the disciplinary process—the accused officer, the complainant (whether it is a citizen or the officer’s supervisor), interested media observers, the Internal Affairs investigators, police chief and management, and so forth—is that their efforts may be for naught.”
The city in Iris’ study was Houston.