Monday, August 29, 2016

Houston PD, union want control over CSU at officer-involved shooting sites

The Houston police union and the acting chief want the department to regain control of crime scene technicians who investigate police shootings, reported Lise Olsen at the Houston Chronicle, after that authority was transferred to the city's independent crime lab two years ago. Her story opened:
Houston's acting Police Chief Martha Montalvo, with the support of the powerful Houston Police Officers Union, has made a behind-closed-doors bid to take back control over the troubled Crime Scene Unit from the city's independent forensic science lab.

The Crime Scene Unit is small but critical - its technicians gather and photograph evidence from all homicides, including incidents in which police officers use deadly force against civilians.

Montalvo's move comes in the wake of a highly critical audit by three outside experts who concluded in July that crime scene investigators need increased independence from the Houston Police Department - not less - to objectively gather evidence in shootings involving HPD officers.

The audit focused on eight recent officer-involved shootings in 2016 and concluded that crime scene analysts had in some cases been influenced in their evidence collection decisions by statements made by other officers at the shooting scene. The audit found that analysts had failed to properly collect evidence, including bullets, photos and samples, and needed more training. The unit is currently made up of a mix of sworn officers, who are members of the police union, and civilian lab employees overseen by a civilian director.
Nicole Casarez, who chairs the newly independent crime lab, said the move would undermine their independence and possibly threaten accreditation. What's more, reported Olsen, the move could jam up the city in ongoing civil rights litigation:
The debate over who should run the Crime Scene Unit and what experts concluded about its lack of independence is taking place as the city of Houston is facing civil rights lawsuits in federal court that criticize HPD for systematically failing to adequately investigate officer-involved shootings of unarmed people. HPD data and information cited in the lawsuit shows that every intentional shooting involving a Houston officer since 2010 ­- more than 150 in all - have been found to be within department policy.

The Houston Police Department reported 32 officer-involved shootings in 2015 and 18 so far this year - far more than any department in the state, according to HPD's statistics and data available under a new state law that requires such incidents to be tracked. Houston police have in recent years reported more incidents of potentially lethal use of force than were reported in New York or Los Angeles. From 2010-2015, officers shot and killed 78 people and wounded 133 others. About 17 percent of those shot by police were unarmed.
Insisting on the police department controlling crime-scene techs,  but only at officer-involved shootings, is a ballsy and brazen demand which smacks of a shallow and smarmy self-interest and should be roundly rejected. There's no justification for it except to let the chief control and potentially manipulate information. Indeed, this is a great example of why the crime lab in Houston was made independent in the first place: It relieved lab workers from institutional pressure to conform their findings to law-enforcement narratives and allowed them to focus on evidence and science. Two years later - particularly in light of this dynamic where the chief and union agree on rolling back reform - that move seems prescient, not problematic.


Drew Willey said...

So, why in the world is Mayor Turner not immediately hiring a real police chief, in light of the incredibly brazen snub at everything police accountability related? Someone who can at least put on a face for community policing? We all know the union is the real devil, but now the "interim" chief is not even pretending to care about accountability. Tone from the top scares the hell out of me for Houston citizens sake.

The Comedian said...

So why not let family members investigate the alleged crime(s) of suspect(s)? What? Conflict of interest? Nah, after all, who knows the suspect and his or her propensities better than his or her own family?

Anonymous said...

If the city continues to refuse paying civilian workers what other cities and agencies are paying, switching back to using police officers might be the only viable solution. At least the cops seem to stay long enough to develop some level of expertise, the job circulars posted on the city website made me wonder if they were actually hiring entry level clerks from local high schools. But a local attorney suggested that as little confidence he has in the CSI cops the city has used of late, their municipal equivalents just don't stay long enough to learn the job and start off greener than anyone he'd ever seen. With pending pension cuts for all city employees, that will only get worse.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me like it's another brazen attempt by the chief to make sure that none of his officers have to answer for a non justified shooting. OTOH, what else would you really expect coming out of Houston and Harris County?

Miketrials said...

"a brazen attempt by the chief?" Surely you jest, sir.

File this under "another outstanding police operation." With no inquiry comes no questions. It's all good, no, outstanding, for the poh-leece. For us -- not so much.

Anonymous said...

I admit, this acting chief is pretty ballsy to try this after so many people worked so hard to upgrade the crime lab. She needs to go.

Anonymous said...

Anon 8/30/2016 02:48:00 PM, if you read the original article or even the slanted bit by Grits, you'd note that the acting chief is a "she". But if you knew anything at all about "Martha", the chief in question, you'd know she has no problem throwing an officer under the bus regardless of the facts of a case, her lack of proper temperament to be in a leading role recognized by a great many that have watched the petty dictator up close and personal. But if it takes a false narrative to prevent her from assuming the lead spot permanently, I doubt there will be an outcry by the run of the mill officer over specifics.

Anon 8/30/2016 10:18:00 AM, given the cluelessness of the civilian's hired for the evidence gathering or even much of the lower level lab work, I assure you that they are paid much more than they are worth. The best people for the job over the years were the officers that really liked their work, very few complaints coming in about tampering, slanted investigations, or faked results, some of them even turning down promotions because it would mean transferring to other divisions. Then it was made clear how the well paid new positions would get all the perks, all the best days off and shifts, as well as be treated with respect by the new lab leadership so all the seasoned officers left. The rookies that were ORDERED to the positions given the way new civilian hires used the jobs as stepping stones were demoralized and putting in their time but they were still much better, the chronicle article not touching how many complaints the civilians had against them.

And like it or not, the officers gathered all needed evidence while following established protocol, the investigations always led by a classified supervisor and remaining so under the new system, the internal politics not greatly impacting the end results even if the back and forth between groups has caused a lot of friction. If you believe the narrative how the civilians could do no wrong and the officers were horribly placed as they were bumblers and lousy at their position, the lab leaders so desperate to push all classified officers out of their span of control will be happy at your acceptance of their lies.

Anonymous said...

"About 17 percent of those shot by police were unarmed"

According to many, that automatically justifies 83% of the shootings, the remaining 17% including cases of suspects reaching under car seats, making moves many would consider dangerous, and refusing to follow lawful orders. Most regulars here are smart enough to know such assumptions are faulty but meaningful reform won't happen with numbers like these, too many people shot being previously convicted felons, holding guns, and committing crimes.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@10:52, your comments might have more merit if the acting chief wanted to control crime scene techs for ALL crimes. But this is more narrowly a CYA project. She only wanted it for officers' cases.

@2:32, Philando Castile was armed, shot dead, was unjustified, and spurred widespread criticism. I think you're making too-broad assumptions. "Many" can believe something but large numbers of others may believe differently. For example, in a state with more than a million concealed carry permit holders, there are a lot of folks with guns out there who would prefer not to be shot and would not consider it justified if they were just because they exercised a legal right. That's a perspective only a narrow subset of the population shares, not close to a majority, but those who think that way believe it adamantly and tend to be politically active.

Anonymous said...

Grits, IIRC, Houston's acting chief has a history of supporting officers as CSI techs. As it is clear there are political issues involved (the lab's board want all officers out of their way and the Mayor is in favor of it) and she wants to remain in the top spot, perhaps she believes that it comes across as more rational to support the smaller project first?

In the second part of your comment, I suspect the criticism was muted when it was said that he continued to reach where the officers couldn't see despite warnings to the contrary. There is a difference between the knee jerk response by groups like BLM who instantly assume any shooting of a black male by a white cop is criminal. Locally, CCW classes emphasize complete cooperation with cops, not moving until specifically instructed to move, and provide a mindset that on the side of the roadway, the cop is always right. In other states, I'm told there is far less training in that regard but among those likely to serve on a grand jury locally, the belief in using caution seems overwhelmingly in favor of blaming the person shot if he presents a threat. If that is a narrow subset of the population, so be it, but they are the ones making key decisions involving shootings.

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