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.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 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.
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.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.
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.