Sunday, November 24, 2013

Harris DA 'simulator' primes grand juries to no-bill cops when they shoot unarmed civilians

The final installment of the Houston Chronicle's series on police shootings of civilians by James Pinkerton, titled "Bulletproof," (see parts one and two, and prior Grits coverage), revealed the use of an unusual "simulator" as part of grand jury trainings showing dramatic portrayals of justified police shootings. The DA employs a:
firearms training simulator as part of orientation that new grand jurors receive from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. Grand jurors, whose duties include reviewing police shootings, play the role of police officer in the simulations by using a modified gun to shoot a beam at the screen.

The use of the shooting simulator, which was not widely known until a Houston Chronicle investigation, has prompted questions among defense attorneys and civil rights activists about whether it could prejudice grand juries. Harris County grand juries have cleared HPD officers in shootings 288 consecutive times. ...
The DA’s office, which began using the simulator in 2003, contends it helps grand jurors understand pressures of police work and the split-second decisions officers must make.
Only one other large Texas county - Bexar - shows grand jurors a similar presentation, according to the article. The use of the simulator to educate (indoctrinate?) grand jurors wasn't something even insiders in Harris County's criminal justice system were aware of, the paper reported:
Grand jurors empathizing with police officers is at the heart of questions raised about the shooting simulator.

Julian Ramirez, who is head of the DA’s civil rights unit, said the training simulator uses scenarios including school shootings, a domestic violence call, the scene of a sexual assault and traffic stops. Ramirez said the simulator gives grand jurors a better understanding of the “police officer’s experience when he goes on some of these calls.”

The DA’s office began inviting the news media and defense attorneys to use the simulator after the Chronicle began asking about the practice. The device’s use was not previously known by some local defense attorneys.

“Damn, I’ve never heard of that,” said Danny Easterling, who has spent 32 years as a defense attorney and is a past president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. “That does raise concerns … the neutrality of it could be questioned. It seems to be a bias towards the police.”

Harris County criminal district judges David Mendoza, Jan Krocker and Katherine Cabaniss said they also were not aware of the simulator’s use.

“I’m surprised. I’ve never heard of that occurring or that procedure,” said Mendoza, judge for the 178th court.
Though "Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson said the simulations educate jurors about situations when self-defense claims are legitimate — not just for police officers but for all residents," it sounds like the only justified shootings shown in the simulations involve someone with a badge pulling the trigger.

Certainly the use of the simulator isn't the only reason Houston cops are unlikely to be indicted by grand juries. "University of Houston assistant professor of criminal justice Larry Karson conducted a 2004 study that found more than half of the 129 grand jury commissioners selected in Harris County in a two-year span had close ties to the legal system. They included judges, attorneys, court employees, bail bond agents, probation officers and law enforcement officers." So many grand jurors are people predisposed toward siding with police officers, anyway.

And, of course, grand juries can only base their decisions on the information given to them by the same District Attorney's Office that's showing them the simulator video. There's no one else representing the victim's interests in the room and because transcripts are secret, no one can ever know what the ADA said to them or what information may have been omitted in the presentation.

No doubt, in many cases a no-bill was justified. But even a conservative Republican judge questioned Harris County grand juries' lack of action on questionable Houston PD shootings. “The big void on indictments of police officers is certainly alarming, and I just hope each grand jury had decided those cases based on the facts independently of what the district attorney wants them to do,' said 209th District Judge Mike McSpadden.” Remarkably, "The newspaper’s investigation showed that more than a quarter of the 121 civilians Houston Police Department officers have shot in the last five years were unarmed."


Lee said...

Fox guarding the henhouse

Anonymous said...

Someone besides the DA's office should be presenting these cases to a grand jury. The DA's office and police don't want to step on each other's toes. Bring in someone that doesn't have to have a working relationship with the police.

Anonymous said...

I suspect the videos shown the grand jurors are all examples of either obvious targets - the restaurant customer turning toward the officer with a knife in hand and then quickly approaching the officer or grabbing a person at a table or a series of views of children seemingly playing and then one of them turning to the officer and shooting at him. This would be followed by a series of similar otherwise bland videos but always with a civilian suddenly producing a weapon and shooting at the officer. In training with these repetitive situations you are quickly conditioned so that you will shoot even your mother as she may produce a firearm from under the dishtowel she is carrying!

Further the videos lack a level of context that a shooting normally has (for example no peripheral vision comes into play when shooting against the screen) as, for example, a kid playing with a plastic pellet gun that an officer believes is real yet the 3 adults and 12 other kids playing just off screen on a sunny school holiday in River Oaks is missing from the scenario.

That too is part of the information that in involved in deciding to shoot or not as it gives context to the status of the so-called "weapon" and the officer's claim of "fearing for his life".

The unanswered question is how often are HPD officers (or any others) given training in judgement and shoot/no shoot scenarios utilizing tools such as this with scenarios of adults pulling out shiny cell phones and hair brushes instead of firearms thereby allowing an officer to have experience in recognizing these otherwise non-deadly common actions before he opens fire. :~)

Anonymous said...

a related question is how often are shootings where officers miss hitting the suspects investigated by a grand jury. Remember every time an officer misses it was, in reality, an attempted homicide.

Shouldn't every discharge be reviewed by the grand jury to determine if the shooting was justified or if it was done in violation of the law?

If a citizen opens fire on the streets of Houston isn't that exactly what happens now to them? What difference is there if an officer does the same and why would anyone rely on the department that will face potential financial liability to determine the legitimacy of a shooting - any shooting? Just curious. :~)

The Homeless Cowboy said...

I think Lee has a valid point which I believe the first anon post was agreeing to. The anon posts do raise valid points though I'm not sure about an officer missing a shot being called "Attempted Homicide". I feel an officer should not discharge their weapon if they feel there is a chance they could miss,but that is another snap judgement call. I do believe that they should be held to the same standard as any citizen in the same situation. If they shoot a person and they are wrong, like the recent case where police shot a man in his driveway and then lied and said he "rushed" them, then they found a video of the whole thing and the officer just shot the man down for no real apparent reason, yes. That officer was fired at once and charges may be filed.(hopefully).

Anonymous said...

The following linked article is all anyone need know regarding Harris county grand juries:

After you read it, you'll get the whole picture.

Want to serve, well it's not easy, and even if you meet the criteria, unless you know someone who has served previously you won't make the cut:

Anonymous said...


Appreciate your comment. Regarding an officer missing his target, the logic is simple; the officer shot to kill his target ("stop that action that justifies the use of deadly force") and missed. He attempted to kill his target, ergo, an attempted homicide. That, it seems to me, is grounds for a review by a grand jury. Also , when an officer generally discharges a weapon he feels that he will hit his target yet the stress, etc. impacts accuracy. :~)

Anonymous said...

In Harris County, you can be arrested on fake charges, be positively picked out in a line up and receive an Indictment where niether you or your defense attorney had absolutely no imput.

Race baiters will want you to believe that they target minorities only.

This has been going on for decades folks. The simulator is a digital form of what they used to do in person.

*Wrong is wrong.

*Brain washing is brain washing.

*Conspiring is conspiring.

*Joing a gang (any gang) is a sign of weakness. But, when the leader is buying you breakfast, lunch & diner, paying for parking and putting a lil sompn-sompn under your tree, the power trip pull is mofo.

Yet, despite everyone already knowing about the rigging of Harris County Grand Jurys' for decades, it'll take more than a DA / HPD / HCSO friendly Chronicle Editorial Board approved piece to get the word out to the rest of the state.

Anonymous said...

When someone is falsely arrested and wrongfull convicted, we have grown to refer to it as -

Police Misconduct


Prosecutorial Misconduct


Defense Team Misconduct


Bench Misconduct

Why? Because we are used to seeing certain crimes being watered down in media reports and again by those that re-report the documented criminal acts as such.

How many times have we heard anyone on the planet mentioning the conduct of the rest of those involved in the game to assist US convict only those that we say to convict - i.e., Grand Jury's?

We (Texans') deserve this bigass boil due to allowing it to festure. Sadly, everyone paid for the Similator Misconduct to be beta tested on the smog-brain-dead followers. Where's a flute player and a cliff when you need one.

Anonymous said...

If the grand Harris County jury process is anything like it is in Dallas County, there's no need for a simulator, because prior to voting, prosecutors "recommend" a true bill or no bill on every single case. And many jurors are happy to simply follow the prosecutor's recommendation.

Ryan Paige said...

The use of the simulator is pretty outrageous, in my opinion.

But even in a county where such a simulator isn't used, it's still almost impossible to get an officer indicted for shooting a suspect.

Look at Dallas and the situation in which the officer, on camera, rolled up and almost immediately opened fire on a mentally ill man that was standing still several yards away. After a neighbor's surveillance video showed what happened (the police report claimed that the suspect lunged at the officer with a knife) was released to the press, the officer was fired (it appears that the police initially tried to cover up the incident, having charged the suspect with aggravated assault even after they'd seen the video and still haven't released the dashcam video), but the officer has not been indicted (and a judge refused to sign an arrest warrant).

Anonymous said...

"It seems to be a bias towards the police." And we are biased against the police.

rodsmith said...

well 10:13 if we are. It's because they deserve it. Sorry but you can only slap someone so many times before they start to look at you cross eyed every time they see you!

considering the 1000's of incidents that the govt fails to punish. They should be on their knees thanking GOD we're not reaching for a weapon when we see them