Friday, February 06, 2015

Lege, not mayors, must address police accountability in civil service cities

Previewing public safety issues in the Houston mayoral race, Charles Kuffner opined that:
The discipline policies and practices for HPD in general need a long, hard look. It’s very rare for officers to be punished for excessive force complaints, even in the face of overwhelming (and sometimes video) evidence. Between 2007 and 2012, according to HPD records, officers killed citizens in 109 shootings. Every killing was ruled justified. The process needs an overhaul, and more public involvement. I want to hear Mayoral candidates address these issues, and not just give me the same paeans and platitudes we’ve gotten in past campaigns.
While Grits' shares Kuff's concerns about the HPD disciplinary process, it's worth mentioning that, because Houston decades ago adopted the state civil service code (many years before the most onerous provisions limiting discipline and open records were added), most of the policy issues which need addressing lie in state law, not under the purview of local government. Indeed, there's a Houston-specific section of Local Government Code Chapter 143 which governs disciplinary policy in detail. About 73 Texas police departments operate under the Chapter 143 civil service code, including most of the larger cities except Dallas and El Paso.

The problems created by Chapter 143 are fundamental. For example, police disciplinary files are closed records in civil service cities and open records in non-civil service cities, making the latter departments more transparent and accountable to the public. We know departments can operate successfully with open disciplinary files because most of them do. And secret disciplinary files arguably contradict new disclosure requirements under the Michael Morton Act, since the records are concealed from prosecutors as well as the public. Re-opening those disciplinary files would be one of the most important police accountability reforms the Lege could undertake. (See a related NY Times story published Feb. 4.)

Further, the civil service code limits the time frame in which complaints can be filed to 180 days but also disallows management from amending the complaint after subsequent investigation. And it limits promotion decisions to a combination of written test scores and seniority without taking into account an officer's disciplinary record.

Those are the sort of mundane bureaucratic mechanisms which must be adjusted to improve police discipline in civil service cities. A civilian review board which only makes recommendations won't do the trick. The barriers to accountability are enshrined in state law and out of the control of municipal officials, a fact which contributes immensely to weakened disciplinary processes in those jurisdictions.

The rest of Kuff's piece is excellent so give it a read. I only wanted to clarify the complex issues surrounding police accountability and the limits of any mayor or city council to improve it.


Anonymous said...

Should anyone be immune from prosecution just because they operate "under the color of law"? I don't believe any person employed by any state to protect the interests of the public should have that immunity...DFPS is infested with those individuals who blatantly disregard our civil liberties, violating due process, falsifying court records, and violate state statutes in the "best interest of the child" while racing to the bank with the Title IV Federal funding money incentives. While they are destroying some families and selling off our children to benefit their corrupt system.

Admittedly, there are some children in very abusive situations and should right fully be removed, manufacturing a subjective opinion and putting a spin on the true facts and sometimes telling outright lies, all over the country families are speaking out against such abuses!

When is Grits going to look into some of the criminal injustices hidden under the color of the civil procedures in this state?

Steve Houston said...

Police promotions in Houston take into account written test scores as well as an assessment by outside experts of a higher rank that come from hundreds of miles away with no ties to the city. Seniority, college, and military also contribute a small amount of points.

But the assertion that past disciplinary history plays no role is patently false as Civil Service law allows a Chief to pass a promotional candidate up "for cause" and gives said Chief a great deal of latitude in terms of what constitutes "cause". In Houston at least, candidates that scored and assessed better were passed over despite putting in hundreds of hours of studying; hardly fair when such people could have been told ahead of time they would not be promoted based on their record.

Steve Houston said...

And the continued emphasis on use of force in terms of shooting deaths is a rabbit trail because each of those is scrutinized in extreme detail compared to other forms of force complaints. As I said on Kuff's site:
"In terms of discipline, reports from the Chief are that other officers account for the bulk of complaints, to the tune of around 75%. Focusing on the cases of people being shot and killed is okay but frankly, given the level of scrutiny both inside and outside of the department on such, there are reasons why all of them were justified. Contrary to most statistical norms, such events are NOT random and therefore do NOT fall on a bell curve no matter how much some want that to be the case. All it takes to be legally justified is fear, an emotion available in great quantity these days. After all, people in fear embellish their initial calls to police when calling 911, often laying the groundwork for more aggressive police responses. Ways fear can be reduced include requiring, not just allowing, two officers to ride in a patrol car together, increased tactical training, not just sitting in a class while someone reads a lengthy policy conceived by idiots that haven’t been on the streets dealing with crime in decades."

Some of your readers get upset over the phrase "I was in fear for my life" as a catch all that acts as a shield from discipline in their opinions. Sorry, but unlike days of old when a throw down gun was considered acceptable (we're talking decades and decades ago too), each police cadet has that term drilled into his or her head endlessly. That doesn't mean it is not a true statement though as some suggest and state law has long held the lawful ability of an officer to shoot someone under related circumstances.

Just because there might have been an alternative to shooting does not make a shooting illegal or discipline worthy either, if the officer is reasonably in fear of their life or that of another, articulating it in the investigation, it most certainly protects their action. Do cities like Houston place people in situations that are way more than they can handle or bargained for? I would suggest this happens all the time despite policies that require more than once officer in some circumstances.

Unfortunately, even the city admits it is greatly understaffed according to current policies, geography, and population yet with budget troubles, that is not going to change any time soon. As the lowest paying major city in the state, they aren't getting the cream of the crop either, places like Austin paying something like $20k more to start at this writing, quota baby hiring for generations greatly impacting the quality of cadet too.

And on a side note, grand juries serve the role as civilian review boards with subpoena power and more authority than any city appointed board would ever have over the Chief's authority. Just because some of you don't like the outcomes they come up with does not invalidate their decisions.

rodsmith said...

now me I love this!

"I was in fear for my life"

of course I think we should see more citizens using it in response to cops getting into their faces. like this!

Well this crazy looking cop got in my face and since there is ample evidence that even when we do what they want they still shoot and kill us. "I was in fear of my life" so I shoot first.

in line with the FIRST LAW OF A CITIZEN. I have just as much as not more right to go home at the end of the day as a damn cop!

last time I looked I did not hire on to do a so-called dangerous job and I did not take an oath to uphold the constitution and the law.

I said so-called before from the numbers I've seen showing the list of dangerous jobs in American cop doesn't even make the top 5

Anonymous said...

There is no "ample evidence" that compliance with a lawful order by a police officer leads to the officer shooting someone. Out of the tens of millions of police contacts per year, several hundred people are killed. In almost every case, those people shot were not following orders. Good luck trying to convince a judge or jury with the modern day equivalent of the "twinkie defense" in almost all cases.

rodsmith said...

well 5:15 I figure since the gov't has spent the last 20 years illegally and retroactively fucking with over ONE MILLION American citizens based on the ideal that IF IT SAVES ONE CHILD. Well guess what i'm using that same measuring stick against them. If it stops ONE COP from illegally killing or hurting a citizen. It's ok to take em all down,.

Anonymous said...

Rodsmith, what one million people are you referring to? I agree with the commentator that thinks you'll find a noose at the end of your proposal, or at least a chemical injection if not a hail of bullets, but that's how internet warriors are I suppose.

rodsmith said...

well 8:05 if the "if it saves one child" is not clue enough try a google search for SORNA or Megan's law. also a google search for the 2002 smith v dole United States Supreme Court decision. based on that decision pretty much every sex crimes law registry law passed in the last decade and a half is pretty much illegal on it's face. as for what's at the end of the road. sorry but if 10% of that group decided to go out with a BANG. This country would be dreaming of the good old days they only had to deal with al quada. Assuming there was still a working national gov't to do it.

Anonymous said...

so requiring sex offenders to register translates into you deciding it is okay to kill cops, giving the legislators and voters passing such legislation a free pass. Isn't that special...

Just leave the children alone and move on with your life already so you won't have to worry about such things.