Friday, July 12, 2013

Houston PD discplinary system like swiss cheese thanks to cop-friendly arbitration

The Texas Observer has published a lengthy investigative feature by Emily DePrang titled "Crimes Unpunished: At Houston Police Department, a lax discipline system keeps negligent cops on the street," (July 10). Here's a notable excerpt:
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.

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.
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 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.


Anonymous said...

Wow! I am a state employee and only wish our union could do that much for us. How on earth can a governement entity in a right to work state have such a d!(#&d up system?

DEWEY said...

"...suspensions of just a few days..."

Most of the time with pay. Punishment ? HA !!!!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the civil service system is working. It is designed to provide an option for someone not involved ( not supervisors, officers or non-PD complainants) to look at the situation objectively. Both the officer and PD are involved in selecting the hearing officer so this isn't some type of hearing officer bias in favor of police. It does appear to raise some issues about supervisor abuse of the complaint system by filing inappropriately or use of unjustified discipline levels.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Well, 9:29, it's certainly working like the unions wanted it to when many years back they got the Democrats to install special protections to keep cops from being held accountable. Not really working for the public, though, now that it has become essentially impossible for chiefs in civil service cities to control their own departments.

Arbitrators know the police unions won't agree to use them if they don't grant leniency more often than not. Meanwhile, the unions have far more clout than management in local politics. Your comment is either disingenuous or naive, probably the former.

Anonymous said...

Both parties are involved in the "hiring" of the hearing officer. Each side strikes from a list of 7 possible arbitrators until only 1 remains. So your argument about hearing officers considering whether they will be hired goes both ways. After having been involved with this process, from both sides of the issue, I have been most comfortable with this process. The Civil Service Commission members are hand picked by city councils to favor the city. Police chiefs are dealing with political issue which can affect their decisions.. I would much rather have a neutral hearing officer. I have seen hearing officers who were ex- city attorneys or ex- federal judges. Not exactly groups that are biased in favor of officers or worrying about getting hired as a hearing officer.

Emily DePrang said...

Arbitration isn't really the problem. Arbitration points to the problem, and the arbitration documents provide a look at the messed up approach to evaluating officer wrongdoing, but arbitration sees only a few dozen cases a year.

The problem is how few complaints are sustained and how mild the discipline is when they are "punished." That's where justice gets miscarried. Arbitration is just garnish.

Anonymous said...

If the public (the portion that walks upright) has no problem with this version of I.A. being a final decision maker regarding police misconduct, then why don't we just go ahead and inject the following -

Let's arbitrate criminal complaints against citizens by utlizing an appointed ex-convict. We would save millions in tax dollars. If they (cops) can set up an in-house Cover-Up Unit, then we (citizens) should look into it also. Goose and gander.

At some point even the cops will have to admit that this in-house shit is flat out wrong. Only the dirty will take time to fight for a cover up unit in their corner. It's a great time to be a dirty cop. Go dirt bags!, go dirt bags!, don't worry about it, we got your 6and the so-called 'clean' cops and citizens arn't saying shit. It's a frat after all.

Anonymous said...

You'd be flat out wrong to say these words -

"Arbitration isn't really the problem."

Either it's wrong or it's not - can't report one thing and assume another. A Cover Up is a Cover Up, no matter what cool trick is used.

Yes Emily, Arbitration is the problem and you just reported it. Grits covered it under the post entitled - "Houston PD discplinary system like swiss cheese thanks to cop-friendly arbitration". A great must read.

Anonymous said...

Grits, do you know what year Texas started allowing this form of in-house law enforcement discinplinary practice to operate? It used to be I.A. units that covered up dirty cops actions (another in-house trick).

*I believe that you have posted similar posts on this topic (fake discipline) in the past.

If they keep getting slaps instead of real discipline, then we should consider keeping a database on the slappees (and the arbitrator(s) ) to see where they are on a yearly basis.

Wouldn't we feel stupid to find out that we voted for a judge that has a record of getting away with crimes or played critical roles in falsely arresting folks and beating a few women along the way.