Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Houston PD should shut down Narcotics Division based on problems revealed in (redacted) audit

Readers of this blog know Grits is a solutions-oriented guy, so stick with me because I've got one here.

The audit of the Houston PD Narcotics Division was finally released last week, albeit with officer names annoyingly redacted.

Sam Walker, an old-school criminologist from the University of Nebraska who's seen a lot of dysfunctional agencies in his day, declared that, “The number and variety of errors looks like an operation completely out of control,” reported St. John Barned-Smith in the Houston Chronicle.

State Rep. Gene Wu held a press conference to decry the redactions and declare the audit a "whitewash." But for a whitewash, I thought it aired a lot of dirty departmental laundry. 

Having now read the document, IMO Sam Walker called it: What we learned was that the Houston narcotics squad was an essentially unsupervised. No one was watching the store.

This audit doesn't provide a smoking gun to prove that other officers in the division abused their positions in the way Gerald Goines and Stephen Bryant allegedly did. But it showed that, if that were the case, processes were so lax that supervisors likely would never have caught them. Houston narcotics officers have grown accustomed to operating in a system with virtually no meaningful oversight over their work.

The HPD narcotics division includes about 175 officers broken out into squads of 8-12 officers. The audit analyzed cases from the two officers at the center of the inquiry - Gerald Goines and Stephen Bryant - as well as batches of cases from several other squads, revealing hundreds of problems with the casework.

It's filled with juicy tidbits, especially about Goines and Bryant. Goines most common casework error should have been a red flag: "failed to tag the drugs into the evidence box at the end of his shift 48% of the time."

Goines and Bryant also both routinely committed to informant payments without supervisory approval and got payments approved after the fact, which takes the supervisor out of the decision making loop and is contrary to policy.

About a third of the time, case files included no "Case Review Sheets." This is subtly important because it's how the police bureaucracy exercises supervisory control over the casework. Both a sergeant and a lieutenant are supposed to sign off on that document to ensure its completeness. But a third of the time, it doesn't exist. This was true across squads, to a greater or only slightly lesser extent.

When the casework was there, some squads had more than 25% of their cases dinged for lack of "thoroughness." Reports and case tracking were routinely late - sometimes many months late. 

The whole thing was a byzantine mess revealing few systems in place that anyone felt obliged to adhere to, and an overweening focus on the lowest level drug busts, mainly in black and brown communities. If you're a cop in the Narcotics Division and weren't doing crappy work, you likely were sitting next to someone who was and never said anything. There's not much to salvage here.

So here's my solution: Why not simply eliminate the HPD Narcotics Division altogether? Absorb those officers into other work (we're always hearing HPD is short-staffed, anyway) and stop pursuing low-level buy-bust cases in minority neighborhoods as a primary enforcement strategy.

There's strong evidence that drug enforcement in Houston is extremely discriminatory. The datasets aren't exactly a match because some drug arrests are made outside of the Narcotics Division. But according to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition's Harris County data dashboard, Between Jan. 1, 2016 and May 2018 (the last month available), Houston PD was responsible for charges against nearly 1,000 people with possession of a controlled substance, either less than a gram (904) or one to four grams (87). Of those, 75.78% of the cases involved black defendants.

Indeed, these days, when you send people to prison for a drug crime, you're risking their exposure to the COVID 19 virus. We've already seen examples of Texans sent to prison for short, treatment-focused sentences who died of COVID while they're there.

Grits' advice to Mayor Turner and Chief Acevedo: Cut your losses. Trying to solve the management problems demonstrated in this audit would require shifting more cops away from police work and toward paper pushing, and for what? Who imagines that these penny-ante drug cases are contributing significantly to public safety? Better instead to eliminate that division and focus on other, less corruption-prone public-safety strategies with a better record of success. 

When you find yourself at the bottom of a hole, Will Rogers quipped, the first thing to do is stop digging. That advice resonates here. Between hundreds of innocent people set up over faulty field tests or narcotics officers making up informants in cases (including potentially George Floyd's!), drug enforcement in Houston has been a constant source of managerial grief  and heartache.  Why not just have those 175 officers spend their time doing something else? Why not?

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Laws on rioting an anachronistic snapshot into Texas Legislature's anti-civil rights mentality in 1965

Grits has heard of people reading someone the Riot Act, but until recently had never read Texas' own riot act for myself.

On the Reasonably Suspicious podcast the other day, Mandy Marzullo and I discussed Texas' laws on "riots," which were invoked via dozens of arrests around the state, including "several dozen" in Fort Worth. In Dallas, protesters have sued to challenge the constitutionality of the law.

First, some historical context. Texas' offense of "Riot" was created in spring 1965, reacting to national events like passage of the the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Harlem Riots later that year (begun after police shot a young black man). The famous 1965 Watts riots wouldn't come until later that August, when the Legislature was no longer in session.

Regardless, by then Texas had a long history of repressing black-liberation politics, often by dubbing the speaker a "Communist" to justify quashing them. Grits recently recounted examples of repression of civil-rights activism in the '50s and '60s in northeast Texas, including the intervention by Gov. Price Daniel in 1960 to redbait black leaders and fire all Wiley College faculty members who had not opposed a visit from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. Texas state political leaders were serious about fighting communism, conflating that with desegregation to a degree that seems nonsensical with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight. 

By 1965, John Connally was governor. But Texas' Jim-Crow era political coalitions hadn't yet changed, much less the culture of its governing institutions. Connally's opposition to the federal Civil Rights Act had spawned large protests in Austin before he modified his position. Regardless, many conservative Democrats in Texas agreed with him the first time and weren't going to let any of that long-haired, protest stuff infect our fair state with communist propaganda about black equality, etc..

That was the ideology and culture being projected by the Texas Legislature with the creation of the "Riot" offense in the Penal Code, as well as the expansion of police power in Ch. 8 of the Code of Criminal Procedure to "suppress" riots.

These statutes were an expression of an historical moment and have never been altered since. Today they're anachronisms and, like an old, racist monument, it's time to resign them to Trotsky's "dustbin of history," but with a legislative vote rather than a mob pulling them down.

The Texas Penal Code defines a "riot"in such a way as to give police maximum arrest discretion in any situation involving 7 or more people. Here's the statutory definition:
Sec. 42.02.  RIOT.  (a)  For the purpose of this section, "riot" means the assemblage of seven or more persons resulting in conduct which:

(1)  creates an immediate danger of damage to property or injury to persons;

(2)  substantially obstructs law enforcement or other governmental functions or services;  or

(3)  by force, threat of force, or physical action deprives any person of a legal right or disturbs any person in the enjoyment of a legal right.
So if an "assemblage of seven or more persons" resulted in conduct that, by "physical action ... deprives any person" of "the enjoyment of a legal right," then they're engaged in a riot under Texas law.

Notably, under the statute, "It is a defense to prosecution under this section that the assembly was at first lawful and when one of those assembled manifested an intent to engage in conduct enumerated in Subsection (a), the actor retired from the assembly." But that's just a future defense, it doesn't keep you from getting arrested in the first place!

Can you think of any behavior which truly constitutes "rioting" that isn't already criminalized somewhere in the law? Disorderly conduct? Property damage? Physical altercations? Obstructing a peace officer? IANAL, but creating an uber-offense that lets police indiscriminately round up everyone in a given location to me ignores the need for particularized accusations. I'm glad someone is litigating it.

For that matter, on the podcast, Mandy wondered if there were any activity seven people could engage in in a public setting that might not disrupt others' enjoyment of their rights? She also suggested the law is "so poorly written that it is essentially unenforceable."

As such, the law gives police maximum authority in the moment, almost on the assumption that charges will be dismissed later. In all cases I've seen stemming from the George Floyd protests, that appears to be what happened. (You might beat the rap but you won't beat the ride.)

An open-ended penal statute designed to empower police officers, regrettably, isn't that unusual in Texas. This one was passed 55 years ago but there were probably other examples passed in every session since.

What IS extraordinary is the array of additional police powers granted to officers in Chapter 8 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure to "suppress" riots when they happen. First, individual officers are authorized to convene their own counter-mob, if necessary supplemented by the military, to combat the first mob:
When any officer authorized to execute process is resisted, or when he has sufficient reason to believe that he will meet with resistance in executing the same, he may command as many of the citizens of his county as he may think proper; and the sheriff may call any military company in the county to aid him in overcoming the resistance, and if necessary, in seizing and arresting the persons engaged in such resistance.
Officers must urgently address these 7+ person riots with the full force of law:
Whenever a number of persons are assembled together in such a manner as to constitute a riot, according to the penal law of the State, it is the duty of every magistrate or peace officer to cause such persons to disperse.  This may either be done by commanding them to disperse or by arresting the persons engaged, if necessary, either with or without warrant.
And they operate under a special use of force standard that's different from those articulated elsewhere in the statute. Instead, the Legislature gave us this super-vague alternative:
The officer engaged in suppressing a riot, and those who aid him are authorized and justified in adopting such measures as are necessary to suppress the riot, but are not authorized to use any greater degree of force than is requisite to accomplish that object.
So, to summarize, a "riot" is seven or more people doing anything that might be construed as disturbing any other person in the enjoyment of a legal right. And if there is a "riot," then a police officer can round up a posse of available folks (perhaps including the ones whose enjoyment was disturbed in the first place) to suppress the riot using whatever degree of force "requisite" to accomplish such suppression. This was a horrific thought in 1965, a half-decade before the UT-Austin football team would integrate. Today it is ridiculous.

These special rioting statutes are unnecessary. The massive, militarized response by police to the George Floyd protests demonstrated that law enforcement is more than capable of crushing the protests themselves, Tienanmen-Square-style, if they chose to do so. Who today of any political stripe wants to give officers authority to round up civilian mobs, much less to violate protesters' rights by arresting them for "rioting" offenses that can't be prosecuted?

If anything, officers' special powers should be replaced with special duties to protect protesters' First Amendment rights. Texans wouldn't be one iota less safe, and probably would be even safer, if all these old rioting statutes were just repealed.

Friday, July 03, 2020

San Antonio can't fire cops who use the N-word or feed homeless people feces: Accountability systems in Texas civil-service cities broken

In San Antonio, recently, a fired police officer was reinstated by an arbitrator after repeatedly using the N-word to address a black suspect while handcuffing him. The head of the police union said it was no more offensive than the mayor publicly using the word, "goddamn." I suspect that's a minority viewpoint.

San Antonio has emerged as the premier case study demonstrating that Texas' civil-service system is broken: 70% of police officers fired by the chief end up back on the force. The city's union-friendly police contract is being touted nationally as an example not to be followed.

The city thought it'd gotten a monkey off its back when it finally was able to fire Matthew Luckhurst and make it stick. They'd done so once after he fed dog feces in between two pieces of bread to a homeless man, but an arbitrator let him back on the force. Later, he was fired again for shit-themed misconduct after spreading a brown substance around a women's restroom to harass a pregnant colleague. This time, just last month, the arbitrator upheld his firing.

But no sooner was Luckhurst off the force than Officer Tim Garcia gets put back on after using the N-word. SAPD appears doomed to remain the state's poster child for the broken police disciplinary system in Chapter 143 of Texas Local Government Code. (See suggestions here for fixing that chapter.)

What's more, when SAPD does fire bad cops, they may still end up working at one of the smaller agencies in Bexar County. Reporter Emilie Eaton identified three fired SAPD officers (including Officer Garcia), who all ended up working as reserve officers at the Leon Valley PD.

Eaton noted that, under current law, "the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, the state agency tasked with licensing and training police officers, cannot revoke an officer’s license short of two dishonorable discharges, a criminal conviction or a probated sentence." The story described how Texas' laws letting cops fired for misconduct remain in the profession are especially lenient:
“Texas does not align with most other states that have decertification processes for police officers,” said Roger Goldman, a professor at the Saint Louis University School of Law who has studied police licensing for more than 30 years.

“Around two-thirds of states permit decertification, even if the officer hasn’t been convicted of anything,” Goldman said. “The action itself — the commission of the conduct, rather than the conviction for the conduct — would have led to an administrative hearing.”
Expanded decertification powers are something the 87th Texas Legislature could do something about. The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement is up for "Sunset" review next year and the agency could use some focused attention. In general, TCOLE needs more staff and more power: They're understaffed to perform their current duties and hamstrung by union-friendly statutes from holding bad cops accountable. They could do more if the Legislature empowered them to do so.

In the meantime, if you want to see how Texas police civil service code prevents departments from holding bad cops accountable, look no further than San Antonio. The stories may sound like satire - getting back on the force after feeding a homeless guy a shit sandwich; N-word-using officer reinstated - but this is really how the police department in Texas' second largest city is run.

Houston PD decides public can know when police might injure or kill them

For years, Houston PD has kept its use of force policy secret, abetted by a series of Texas Attorneys General. Most of their General Orders were public, but the use of force policy was largely redacted. While the AG upheld Houston's request to keep the policy secret (an example of the transparency losses suffered when the Legislature codified Holmes v. Morales in 1997), to my knowledge, few other departments had followed their lead.

Grits always thought that's because keeping the policy secret didn't make sense. If nothing else, I found it unseemly and a little rude that police would go to the trouble of writing down a policy that basically tells the public, "Here's when we will hurt you" and then refuse to share a copy with them.

"No, I won't tell you the circumstances under which I'm trained to kill you, but don't worry, you'll know when I do!"

Now, the policy has been un-redacted and is publicly available, reported the Houston Chronicle last week. Before releasing it, the department made mostly minor, inconsequential revisions, the paper reported, including changing the policy's name from "Use of Force" to "Response to Resistance." (Austin and Dallas have done the same thing, likely many others.)

The "response to resistance" terminology is verbal judo being deployed on behalf of authoritarianism, an Orwellian re-framing in which all police use of force, by definition, responds to "resistance" and is therefore justified. It comes off to me as a little smarmy. If you don't like "Use of Force," OTOH, some scholars suggest the title, "Police Violence," instead.

Grits hasn't had time to examine Houston's policy in detail, but I know there are local activists who've been waiting to see it for many years. Releasing this policy was a small but important step; it's hard to debate appropriate police practices when they are secret.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

TCOLE screwed up new racial profiling data required in 2017 Sandra Bland Act

Many kudos to the Houston Chronicle's Eric Dexheimer for identifying a big screw up by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement regarding racial-profiling data collection by Texas law enforcement agencies.

In 2017, the Texas Legislature expanded the data collected to include after-stop data involving arrests, searches, contraband discovered, and use of force. But when the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement went to implement the statute's requirements via rule making, they excised the "racial" data from the racial profiling reports, making it impossible to use them to assess discriminatory practices.

At first Grits feared we may have screwed up the language in Rep. Garnet Coleman's bill, but at this point all agree the errors arose in the agency rule making process.

By all appearances, this was a good-faith error, and TCOLE has pledged to fix the problem. Normally, Grits might be more skeptical, but TCOLE's chief, Kim Vickers, operates an unusually open and accountable shop, in my experience. Considering they're fixing the problem as soon as it was identified, I'm inclined to afford him the benefit of the doubt. (Since the agency is currently up for "sunset" review at the Legislature, they have lots of incentive to be cooperative.)

Notably, Just Liberty last year analyzed this data as soon as it came out to help construct arguments for limiting arrests for Class C misdemeanors. The 2017 Sandra Bland Act mandated information on Class C arrests and use of force at traffic stops be reported for the first time, and we reported that data by agency. We found Waco PD led the state in Class C misdemeanor arrests at traffic stops, arresting more than 4.5% of driver stopped for these lowest-level offenses. Houston PD used force most frequently, at about one out of every 188 stops.

This was a short turnaround project - the initial data only appeared mid-session in March. Our goal with that analysis was to counter the opposition's argument that arrests like Sandra Bland's are infrequent, so Just Liberty's report focused on total arrests and use of force incidents without attempting to break them out by race. Apparently, nobody else used the dataset until Eric began poking around, so no one discovered the omission.

It's disappointing these data aren't crunched more often, particularly by local reporters and policy makers overseeing local law-enforcement agencies. Grits must admit, I put a lot of stock in transparency and the power of data to confront significant social problems. But data don't matter if no one is using them.

That's even more frustrating because Texas' so-called racial-profiling data are now particularly robust. Once TCOLE fixes its categorization problem, this data set will become one of the most comprehensive of its type, providing policy makers a statistical window into traffic-enforcement activities that constitute a huge proportion of police interactions with the public.

Particularly when it comes to vehicle searches, the ability to tell whether contraband is found will let researchers and police supervisors drill down to discover discriminatory practices. The old data might show black folks were searched more often, but shed no light on whether that was justified.

These sorts of analyses aren't as viscerally compelling as, say, video of a Minnesota cop with his knee on George Floyd's neck. But they help counter arguments that discriminatory policing is confined to "isolated incidents." And they provide policy makers more aggregate information about what, exactly, their officers do in the field than any other source available.

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

A primer for new, local police-reform advocates in Texas

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, 
committed, citizens can change the world. 
Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” 
- Margaret Mead

On the Reasonably Suspicious podcast this week, the Austin Justice Coalition's Chas Moore and I talked about the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests across Texas, including in small towns and parts of the state without a significant history of civil-rights activism. In particular, we discussed how local reformers in smaller jurisdictions outside the big cities might go about seeking change.

Let's take a moment to elaborate on this theme and suggest how local Texas advocates might go about seeking police reform, wherever they live. As discussed on the podcast, police reform is a long-term project. There are no quick fixes, either #8cantwait or otherwise. OTOH, there's no time like the present to start. The advice below is somewhat prescriptive and intended for folks launching their political efforts in an environment where no prior infrastructure exists.

Identify basic priorities
You don't have to decide everything at once, but it helps to have some starting goals that relate to your local situation to organize around. Police will be quick to tell you, "we already do that" whenever you demand something, so always measure their words against their actions. See below for how to research individual cases of police misconduct. Once you've reviewed the details of police shootings in your area (some of this is online and easy to look up) there may be more specific demands that emerge from those cases. But here are a few ideas Texas-based advocates might consider as near-term goals:
  • divest money from the department and use it to fund alternatives for mental illness, drug addiction, homelessness, etc..
  • change use of force policies to emphasize de-escalation and proportionality
  • demand the department collect and regularly release data on all use of force episodes
  • stop arresting people over Class C misdemeanors, which under Texas law are punishable only by fines, not jail time (this is something Republicans and Democrats both have in their state party platforms but police unions oppose)
  • stop arresting people over Class B misdemeanors for which officers have discretion to write citations (including driving with invalid license, marijuana possession, and several less common offenses). Some agencies implemented this because of COVID; the policy should be made permanent.
  • eliminate unnecessary military equipment
I could think of dozens of other possibilities, but these all seem to coincide with the zeitgeist of the moment. The common theme is reducing use of force both by changing force policies and scaling back the departmental footprint to limit when force might be used. They're all reasonable suggestions that can't be dismissed as radical or anti-cop. (For some folks, Grits acknowledges, that may make them too moderate.) And of course they're just a starting point. Inevitably, all local agendas will diverge in their particulars if advocates are doing their jobs well.

Research local cases
The best advocacy campaigns involve storytelling. When stories have a compelling "moral" and it supports your agenda, they can frame the terms of debate in a way that data and logic can never quite accomplish. While the narrative surrounding George Floyd's death in Minnesota may have launched the recent protests, local police understandably will insist that criticisms of their officers be rooted in local history. So, how do you find local stories? Here's how to get started.

Texas maintains records about all police shootings, deadly or not, since 2016. A separate database compiles reports on all deaths in custody, including deaths in police custody and in prisons and county jails, going back to the 1980s. Research these to identify problematic examples. (For analysis of these datasets, visit the Texas Justice Initiative.) Once you get victim names, search local media archives, as well as social media outlets, to see what if anything was published about them. Have any family members been particularly outspoken? You may want to talk to them.

File Public Information Act requests with the police department for police misconduct records. If you're in a jurisdiction which has adopted the state civil service code (Chapter 143 of the Local Government Code - about 73 agencies), then you'll only get summary information on cases where an officer was suspended without pay. In most jurisdictions, though, you'll be able to get information about lesser punishments like written or oral reprimands as well as complaints against officers.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Advice for Texas police reform activists outside the big counties: Interview with Chas Moore, plus was George Floyd set up by a crooked Houston narcotics cop? Texas' anachronistic 'riot' laws, and other stories

Better late than never, here's the June episode of Just Liberty's Reasonably Suspicious podcast, co-hosted by me and Amanda Marzullo.

This month, Mandy and I reflect on the last month's tumultuous protests and calls for police reform in Texas and beyond.

Top Story
  • Reflecting on the George Floyd protests, including an interview with Chas Moore of the Austin Justice Coalition.
Fill in the Blank
  • Was George Floyd set up by a crooked Houston narcotics cop?
  • The policy behind the slogan of "Defunding Police"
  • Texas' anachronistic "riot" laws
The Last Hurrah
  • Abolishing cops ... in schools?
  • How cops spend their time
  • How does Austin police Chief Brian Manley still have a job?
N.b., in the discussion of Texas' anachronistic riot laws, I mentioned historical examples of suppression of the civil-rights movement in East Texas that were also touched on in the interview with Chas. Though I clarified at the end I was only talking about East Texas, let me say for the record I am absolutely aware of civil rights activism elsewhere in the state. I was discussing events in northeast Texas - in particular in Marshall - and referencing the history discussed in this recent blog post. Mea culpa for any confusion.

Find a transcript of this episode below the jump. Enjoy!

Monday, June 29, 2020

Police reform roundup

Let's clear a few browser tabs; here are some odds and ends that recently caught my attention and may also interest Grits readers:

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Rodriguez must navigate attack over botched #SandraBland vote

Regular readers will recall the ignominious fate last year of Rep. James White's legislation, inspired by the Sandra Bland case, limiting police officers' authority to arrest people for Class C misdemeanors.

Confused and unmotivated Democrats killed the bill, twice! Despite widespread, bipartisan support. This left a terrible taste in my mouth, so Grits was not disappointed to see the issue arise in my own local state-senate race, where former County Judge Sarah Eckhardt criticized Rep. Eddie Gonzalez in a mailer for skipping out on the Friday evening vote.

To be clear, Grits had nothing to do with this mailer and has never even spoken about the issue with Eckhardt or her campaign. I learned of it when the postcard arrived in my mailbox. But I do think Democrats in gerrymandered safe districts should be held accountable when they screw up. And this was a big Democratic screw up: Killing the Sandra-Bland legislation first by ignorance, then by apathy.

Do I think Eddie's entire legislative career should be judged on that one bad decision? Of course not. At the same time, it's a valid criticism, and one that Grits made as soon as the smoke had cleared:
One absent Dem that we know of had legitimate reason not to be there: Donna Howard's husband had a medical emergency. But why would Austin's Eddie Rodriguez not show up? Members from Houston, San Antonio, and other drive-able locales went home early for the weekend instead of staying to vote.

If just two of them had cared more about preventing what happened to Sandra Bland than leaving work early to start their weekend, this bill would be on its way to becoming law.

Honestly, why bother seeking election to the Legislature if you're not going to show up on big votes to do your job?
I'm sure Rodriguez has made other contributions at the Legislature on other topics, and I'm sure his campaign plans to spend money emphasizing those. But he's never particularly been a leader or even much of a sympathizer on criminal-justice reform. That's a fair criticism, if an unfortunately timed one given the undeniably reformist tenor of the current historical moment. 

Eckhardt perhaps gets more credit for interest in justice reform, though it's also the case that the county inherently has a lot more criminal-justice business before it than an average legislator. 

Grits would submit Travis County wouldn't have a new Public Defender without Eckhardt and, eventually, she supported postponement of a proposed women's jail expansion. However, during those fights she rubbed some people the wrong way, and not all reformers in town are happy with her performance. (I tend to cut a little slack when the disputes were as nasty and bitter as that public-defender battle turned into, but you can't tell someone else when to take offense.)

Honestly, I could still be convinced either way in this race. What I want to hear is the same for both candidates: How has your attitude toward criminal-justice reform changed in the last month? I know your records. What I don't know is whether each of them recognizes the magnitude of the historical moment and intends to step up on justice reform going forward.

Eckhardt's mailer at a minimum signals she recognizes which way the political winds are blowing and wants to be seen as pursuing a reformist agenda. For Eddie, his response to this attack will in many ways define the strategic outline of the rest of the campaign. Because his record is not strong on criminal justice, to me, reacting defensively, as have some of his Twitter surrogates, risks falling into a trap where the rest of the campaign debate plays out on terrain that disfavors him.

If I were Eddie's consultant, I'd tell him to own the mistake on James White's bill, express regret for not prioritizing the issue, then tell us how recent events have affected his thinking and what he intends to do with regards to justice reform going forward.

Right now, lots of people who're suddenly sympathetic on justice issues are having to justify their apathy in the past. That's okay. Own it. Appreciate it. Take it for what it is: An opportunity for a fresh start, purchased in blood.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Reform updates from Dallas, Houston, and Austin, a police-union hissy fit, how police spend their time, and other stories

Here are a few odds and ends related to policing that merit Grits readers' attention:

Big D Demands for Police Reform
Check out a list of demands out of Dallas from anti-police brutality activists, and see coverage from the Dallas Morning News:
Dubbed 10 New Directions for Public Safety and Positive Community Change, the demands fall into one of two categories, the authors say: reprioritizing city and county money currently earmarked for public safety and increasing transparency and accountability.

Among the recommendations in the first pail: hiring mental health professionals to respond to emergencies and creating a city-county task force of community members to identify programs that can lift black and Latino residents out of poverty rather than locking them up.

The second group of suggestions aimed at police accountability includes prohibiting an officer from shooting at a person running away, benching officers accused of using deadly force until after a grand jury can investigate, and ending the county’s contract with the federal immigration department.
Policing Improvements in Houston Off to Slow Start 
In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner has latched onto the #8cantwait reforms as his response to recent reform calls, signing an executive order banning chokeholds and implementing other #8cantwait policies. These are good first steps but insufficient. Meanwhile, the Houston Chronicle has called for beefing up civilian oversight at Houston PD and the Harris County Commissioners Court wants to create oversight mechanisms for the sheriff and constables' offices at the county level. 

Grits' experience has been that policy changes like #8cantwait don't matter if agency culture doesn't support reform. E.g., Austin has a perfectly fine "duty to intervene" policy on the books, but cops who witness misconduct by their comrades in arms are seldom punished for it.

I'd also caution that civilian oversight in Texas makes little difference because state civil service law protects bad cops in Houston and most of the larger Texas agencies. Such boards help with transparency - the public knows more about police misconduct in jurisdictions that have them. But they don't prevent misconduct or provide meaningful redress to victims.

Speaking of Houston reforms, Grits believes that city's leaders should flat out abolish the HPD narcotics division. I predict that, if the audit of that division is ever made public, its findings will corroborate widespread problematic practices there. Their activities contribute little to public safety and have been a major source of scandal, of which Gerald Goines is only the most prominent example.

2018 Police Shootings in Austin Analyzed
In Austin, the Office of Police Oversight has produced an analysis of all Officer Involved Shootings at Austin PD in 2018: 12 incidents involving 11 suspects and 33 officers, 5 of them fatal. "In only 1 of the 12 incidents did officers use “less-lethal” force before using their firearms."

APD deemed two of the five fatalities suicides, though in one of those "suicides" police fired 10 shots at the person, hitting him at least twice (police say the suspect then shot himself in the head). The other was the so-called Austin bomber, who killed himself detonating one of his own devices. 

At least half the incidents involved a mental-health component, according to the report, and 25 of the 33 officers involved had less than six years on the force.

Suspects were armed in four of the five deadly shootings. In the 5th, a SWAT sniper shot and killed Hugo Alvarez while he was unarmed and exiting his home with his mother in response to police commands. 

Police Chief Resignations Complicate Austin's Conundrum
Speaking of Austin, despite the city manager affirming his support for police Chief Brian Manley, Grits still harbors a conceit that the dozens of community groups arrayed against him may prevail and he still could be removed/demoted. But the situation is made more complicated by the wave of police chiefs stepping down under fire around the nation. Makes hiring a replacement a more vexed question than when the #FireManley campaign began a month before George Floyd's death. Austin chief is a plum gig, so I've no doubt there'd be candidates available. But we don't want to get rid of Brian Manley and end up with more of the same. The city needs someone capable of instilling a reform-minded culture in the department, not just another cop who stayed in the profession long enough to be promoted up the ranks.\

In Hissy Fit, Union Tells Officers Not to Work Protests
The police union in Austin is advising officers not to work at protests if the city doesn't rescind its ban on firing tear gas into crowds. This to me is an easy one: Call their bluff. Police in Texas cannot strike. If they don't want to work their assignments, terminate their employment. The officers who believe they can't work a protest without using tear gas are officers we don't need.

Debating Abolition of School Police
The effort by Disability Rights, Texas Appleseed, and other groups to convince Texas school districts to abolish their police departments hasn't been met with success, yet, but is generating a robust debate. The Houston Chronicle editorialized in favor of the move. In San Antonio, school board members rejected the suggestion but pledged to examine disciplinary practices for officers. (Grits must admit, whenever I think of SA school police, in my mind's eye I see the cop bodyslamming a middle-school girl a few years back, though to be fair, the guy was fired for it.) For more background, here's a good summation of the research surrounding the efficacy of school-based police.

Budget shortfalls add risk to defund-police proposals
Grits has a nagging fear that budget shortfalls related to the COVID pandemic may undermine some of the divestment/reinvestment strategies being pursued by police-reform advocates at the local level. City Councils in Austin, Dallas and elsewhere have stated their intention to reduce police budgets and reinvest the savings in health/service-oriented approaches to solving social problems. Grits supports this approach. But nationwide, local government faces budget shortfalls because of the COVID recession. So I'm afraid we'll see local government cut police budgets but fail to subsequently invest savings in alternative approaches. Instead, the savings will go to ameliorating red ink in the budget. Then, if government doesn't invest to solve the social problems police deployments had been papering over, there's a risk of a backlash down the line.

I believe the divestment/reinvestment strategy can work. Spending ever-more money for police to respond to less and less crime makes little sense. But that reinvestment part is really important. If it doesn't happen, there's a big risk the "defunding" agenda becomes a trap down the line.

How Do Police Spend Their Time?
Police spend very little of their time responding to violent crime, much less preventing it, according to a review of public data by the New York Times. Serious violent crime make up only about 1% of calls for service and account for about 4% of police officers' time in jurisdictions for which they found data. About half their time is spent on non-criminal calls and traffic enforcement.

A hacker group released data from 200 police agencies and fusion centers that was stolen from a Houston-based web consultant. Now, though, the purported link to this data isn't working. If anyone knows another way to access it, please report in the comments.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Policing budgets and outcomes: A Catch 22

Viewed broadly, America finds itself essentially at the bottom of a thirty-year crime decline. But as police have had less crime to respond to, their budgets and staffing have ballooned, reported Politico this week.

Police officials routinely tell the public that cutting their budgets would make us less safe. This is true even at agencies that had their budgets increase and saw crime rise.

Indeed, have you ever noticed that, when it comes to police budgets, there's no version of reality that would justify reduced funding?

If crime is going up, we're told we need more officers to address it.

If crime goes down, it's attributed to past budget increases and we're told cutting budgets would reverse progress.

The whole process resembles a self licking ice cream cone. To hear the police chiefs and city managers tell it, there apparently is no situation that justifies applying budget scrutiny to these agencies. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Imagining a "George Floyd Act" for Texas

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has already suggested he'd be open to signing a "George Floyd Act" next legislative session, and legislative offices have begun jockeying over who should carry such a bill and what should be in it.

As a thought experiment, let's explore possible policy proposals such George-Floyd legislation might embrace. The Texas legislative session won't begin until January, so there's plenty of time to add to and refine this list. (As always, gentle readers, please suggest any omissions, tweaks, or criticisms of these ideas in the comments; now is the time for a robust discussion regarding how to confront these subjects.)

There will be a temptation to pass a narrow bill banning chokeholds, claiming victory, then everyone going on their merry way. Many departments are already looking to the #8CantWait proposal, which has been disavowed by leaders of the group that created it as inadequate to the moment. Too many departments are pretending that, by adopting those eight policy measures, they can say they've solved the problem. Advocates must be clear from the get go - both at the state and local level - that that's not good enough.

Many protesters have focused on scaling back the policing footprint, spurring a national debate over what it would look like to "defund the police." But local governments, not the state, decide how much money police departments receive, so Grits suspects state legislation will avoid the whole divestment/reinvestment debate. Other than Texas DPS, whose jurisdiction and governance issues differ significantly from local departments, the legislature has little to do with setting law-enforcement budgets.

So, what more substantive reforms might go into a state-level George Floyd Act in Texas?

Use of Force: New limits, greater transparency
Grits would like to see deadly force standards scaled back in Texas. Ours allows deadly force to be used in too many situations where it's not needed. In 2017, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson filed HB 2044 which included a first stab at that project. That bill would disallow deadly force unless officers faced an "imminent threat" of death or bodily injury to themselves or others. It also would have eliminated language that said deadly force could be used against anyone suspected of a violent felony, whether or not they posed an immediate threat. Finally, the bill would have required departments to implement policies of de-escalation and proportionate response. That legislation didn't pass, but its proposals should be revisited now.

Texas also needs more transparency and data surrounding use of force. As part of the Sandra Bland Act passed in 2017, Texas began to require reporting of use of force at Texas traffic stops. (We learned from that data that Houston residents are more likely to be assaulted by police at traffic stops than any other jurisdiction, using force on about one out of every 188 drivers stopped.) Texas also now has mandatory reporting for all police shooting episodes, whether or not the victim dies. But Texas does not gather comprehensive reporting on lesser use of force examples, and most local departments don't publish that data, if it's kept at all. That should now change. As Grits has said often on these questions, you can't manage what you do not measure. 

Duty to intervene
There are many "duties" of police set out in Texas statutes, including some that need to be scaled back, like the "duty" to arrest people for every violation under statute (an absurd assignment that no officer could possibly fulfill). But Texas law does not impose on officers a "duty to intervene" when another officer is violating law, departmental policy or harming a person unnecessarily in their presence. This is among the most striking images from George Floyd's murder: the other officers just casually standing there while a man died. We saw the same dynamic as protests filled the streets and cell-phone video captured numerous episodes of police brutality and excessive force. Typically, only a few officers engaged in the most abusive behavior, but their comrades-in-arms just stood there and watched.

Disciplinary processes/civil-service reform
Other possible reforms could focus on strengthening police disciplinary processes, especially in cities governed by the state civil service code (Local Government Code Ch. 143). Civil service rules make it exceedingly difficult for police chiefs to hold officers accountable, even when they sincerely want to. Just Liberty has already been asked by a handful of legislative offices what provisions of the civil-service code need revisiting, and came up with this short list:
  • 180 day rule: Currently, the civil-service code forbids disciplining officers after 180 days have passed since the alleged misconduct; this should be repealed.
  • Ending special treatment during investigations: Eliminate provisions letting officers see complaint/video/investigative files against them and giving them 48 hours before supervisors and investigators can question them about serious misconduct.
  • Create a strong, clear, progressive disciplinary matrix. This helps keep disciplinary actions against police from later being overturned in arbitration. The more consistent and standardized discipline becomes, the less likely it will be overturned on appeal. 
  • Transparency about police misconduct: eliminate LGC 143.089(g) making personnel files closed. Same records are already open at Sheriffs offices and non-civil-service cities, and it doesn't create problems for them.
  • Transparency in negotiations: Require that negotiations between city management and the union over police contracts must be public meetings that anyone can attend.
  • Forbid police union contracts from making disciplinary processes more lenient. Should only be able to enhance accountability in contracts, not diminish it.
  • Add a Sunset provision requiring voters to re-authorize civil service every ten years. The Lege has passed many cop-friendly anti-accountability provisions since most departments adopted it in the '40s. Voters never approved of most of the anti-accountability measures mentioned here, they were all added after the fact.
There are almost certainly other tweaks to the disciplinary process needed; this is what we came up with as a starting point on relatively short notice.

Corroboration for police testimony in drug stings
There's another reform element Grits feels like should be in any eponymous George Floyd bill that relates not to his death but his time in Texas. As it turns out, George Floyd was one of at least 160 people whom the Harris County District Attorney has identified as being convicted of a drug offense based solely on the uncorroborated testimony of a corrupt Houston narcotics officer named Gerald Goines.

There appears to be a good chance that George Floyd was set up by a corrupt narcotics cop in that case and may well have been innocent of the charge.

The Legislature has tried and failed to address this issue before. Most folks have forgotten the Tulia drug stings in the late '90s, in which an undercover cop named Tom Coleman lied to secure drug convictions against about 15% of the black population in that small, West Texas town. Coleman was eventually convicted of perjury and Gov. Rick Perry pardoned nearly all of the defendants.*

The following legislative session in 2001, then-Rep.-now-state-Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa filed a bill to require corroboration for undercover police officers in order to secure a drug conviction. The bill was scaled back during the process to only apply to testimony from non-police informants. That's still a big deal, since cases based on their testimony are more common than police officers personally going undercover. But the failure to require corroboration for cops left a giant loophole that Gerald Goines (and likely others at HPD narcotics, if we're honest about it) abused with impunity.

Grits believes Texas should go back and pick up that spare from the 2001 session. The state has shown it can still make plenty of drug cases using corroborated evidence (it's not like they stopped using informants post-2001, after all), but the requirement adds in a needed check on officers like Goines who would abuse their position just to bulk up arrest stats.

This is a non-comprehensive, first-cut list of suggestions for police-reform proposals that the Texas Legislature could embrace. It's meant to be a starting point for discussion, not the final word on anything. So definitely let me know what you think of these suggestions in the comments, as well as anything I might have missed that legislators should consider.

MORE: The Austin Statesman also offered suggestions for what should be in the Sandra Bland Act. A couple of their ideas - the Sandra-Bland no-arrest-for-Class-Cs and closing the "dead suspect loophole" - are likely to be filed as their own stand-alone bills. And in truth, closing the "dead suspect loophole" is only part of what we need to revive the public's open-records rights on these topics. The access we've lost goes much deeper than that.

*As a coda to that two-decades-old story, the Tulia cases launched an early effort that today might be categorized as part of an "abolish" or "defund" the police campaign. Tom Coleman worked for one of (at the time) 51 multi-county "regional narcotics task forces" which employed more than 700 narcotics officers across Texas. Your correspondent, then at ACLU of Texas, was part of a six-year campaign resulting in the outright abolition and defunding of these task forces in 2006. This is now mostly forgotten history and the effort was never replicated in other states. But it's among Grits' proudest achievements in a quarter-century of activism on these topics. Very few other #cjreform victories in Texas have been as thorough, or as satisfying.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Roundup on policing and COVID in prisons

Here are some recent articles Grits found enlightening that may interest readers as well:


More police-reform polling: People don't want to "defund" police; 50/50 on divestment/reinvestment; but other reforms are popular. See additional, related polling here, here, here, and here.

As cities grew safer, police budgets continued to rise.

Former police chief explains why it's so hard to fire bad cops.

COVID in Texas prisons

Data sources on racial disparities in the Texas justice system

Been asked a few times now by reporters where to get data about racial disparities in the Texas criminal-justice system. Were I assigned that task, here's where I'd start:
If you're aware of other sources on this topic, please add them in the comments.

Time to consider disbanding police departments in Texas (and no, I'm not calling to "abolish" police)

Grits has been thinking a lot recently about the barriers to meaningful police reform in Texas and ways around them. Chief among those barriers is the state civil service code governing most larger police agencies and various police-union contracts authorized by it.

Both the civil service code and those contracts include provisions making it difficult to fire police officers who engage in misconduct and, in the case of the contracts, may lock in certain employment and spending levels that thwart efforts to divest money from police and reinvest in other services that make people safer. 

In San Antonio, for example, 2/3 of fired officers get their job back, the Express-News reported recently. Repeatedly, officers at the center of high-profile misconduct episodes are reinstated by local civil-service commissions or arbitrators. It can be infuriating.

Long-time readers know the civil service code (Texas Local Government Code Chapter 143) has been the bane of Grits' existence for more than two decades. There are so many anti-accountability elements to it, it's mind boggling, and even folks like me who're familiar with its workings keep being surprised at how egregiously misguided are some of its provisions. E.g., I only recently learned about limitations on firing police chiefs, and I've been paying attention to these topics since 1995.

Grits has been among a vanishingly small group of people trying since the 1997 Texas legislative session to get some of these provisions changed, and we've never been successful. Texas has passed other policing reforms over the years, but in all that time, nobody's ever cracked the civil-service code nut in the Lone Star State. The police unions have been too powerful and reformers' natural institutional allies in that fight - police chiefs and the Texas Municipal League - have been too cowardly and restrained.

Plus, quite frankly, until about five minutes ago there simply wasn't broad-based support for police reform, even (perhaps especially) among Democrats. In Texas, at least (I can't speak to other states), all the folks now crowing that we must "abolish" the police were nowhere to be found when their budgets were ballooning over the last couple of decades. 

After the Ferguson protests, we began to see a handful of young advocates engaging in budget processes, but mostly aiming to limit growth: prospects for actually reducing budgets were for all intents and purposes, non-existent. For example, the Austin Justice Coalition, which recently called for a $100 million reduction in the Austin PD budget, before now has limited its asks to not adding more police positions to the budget. And they've never once won that battle.

Indeed, despite recent calls to "defund police" or to hold bad officers accountable, those lonely few of us pushing to restrain or reduce police budgets or improve police accountability mechanisms in Texas have typically found more allies in the conservative camp, where the agendas of opposing unions and reducing government budgets more naturally find ideological purchase, than among the lefty set. That's changing now, as new liberal allies step up. But it's important to recognize this is a very belated development.

So how do we crack this nut? Realistically, I see only two options. First, there's a (slight, IMO almost negligible) chance that the terms of political debate on these topics have so fundamentally changed that the Texas Legislature will act to scale back civil-service code protections for bad cops in the 2021 session. Honestly, I'm not holding my breath, and even if that happened, it fails to address the budgetary issues that crowd out funding for more effective solutions to problems like homelessness, addiction, and mental illness.

Instead, I've become convinced that the real solution may only be found in the examples of Camden, NJ, and now Minneapolis: Civil service departments must be formally disbanded and differently reconstituted. All the officers must be let go and then departments must create lists of those with problematic records and simply refuse to extend them job offers.

That's not to say Grits supports abolition of police. I don't. I support radically scaling back their budgets and overall footprint and spending the money instead on services-oriented approaches to homelessness, addiction, and mental illness. But actual crime and violent people do, in fact, exist, and failures to address them hurt black folks as disproportionately as does wanton police violence. (Much more on this, later.)

The goal of disbanding police departments is different from abolition. The purpose is to re-launch without the limits of the state civil service code and bypass anti-accountability provisions in union contracts. Whereas abolitionists would end policing altogether, disbanding police departments and reconstituting them seeks a fresh start, unencumbered by the bad decisions and practices of the past.

In some jurisdictions, this may also be the only way to reduce the size and scope of police forces. Some police contracts (but not all) limit departments' ability to abolish police positions or layoff officers. (Thankfully, in Austin the city retains that authority, but that's not universally true elsewhere.)

Dr. Phillip Goff points out that some contracts require a last-hired, first-fired policy in the event of layoffs. (He actually claimed all of them do, but that's factually inaccurate - e.g., Austin's contract contains no such provision.) This creates a problem because younger officers are likely to be more diverse and more progressive, while officers from the baby-boomer and Gen X generations may come to the table with racist and ideological baggage with which subsequent generations are less encumbered.

For agencies with last-hired-first-fired provisions in their contracts, getting rid of those old-school officers may actually cost more money in the short term via financial incentives to retire early. That certainly flies in the face of the defund-the-police agenda!

OTOH, many officers who engage in significant misconduct do so early in their careers. In Austin, Christopher Taylor has been on the force five years, has already killed two people under dubious circumstances, and admitted in court to filing a false police report that covered up misconduct by other officers.

What you really want is the opportunity for a clean sweep: To identify officers with problematic backgrounds, young and old, and excise them from the force in one fell swoop. Only disbanding/reconstituting departments would afford that option.

Grits is not a labor lawyer (nor any kind of lawyer at all, for that matter), and I have little doubt that there will be unforeseen difficulties and complications to this approach. But the entire police-reform project is fraught with difficulties and complications. There's no easy solution to any of this and anyone who claims otherwise is lying to you. For me, I'm willing to try a new difficult path, because the difficult path we've been on doesn't appear it will get us anywhere close to a desired destination.

UPDATE/CAVEAT: Michelle Phelps and others have pointed out that Camden NJ engages in aggressive "broken windows" policing (under the guise of "community policing") in ways that are problematic and one wouldn't want to replicate. (See this coverage, for example.) Grits agrees. I'm only calling to replicate the tactic of disbanding and reconstituting the department, not every jot and tittle of their approach after that.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

George Floyd is Texas' new favorite son: Small-town protests change police-politics landscape, and make history in East Texas

Protests in the big cities have received the most attention, but one of the most remarkable developments on the civil-rights front in Grits' lifetime has been the rise of protest events in smaller Texas towns where we've never witnessed this sort of activism. 

Small-town Texas 💘 #BlackLivesMatter
On Twitter, Texas Monthly compiled a list of small-town protests. Rural hamlets where a decade ago such protests seemed unimaginable - like Vidor, Jasper, Hondo, or Alpine - witnessed sizable turnouts and impassioned speeches. Places like TexarkanaAmarillo, or Wichita Falls, I'm certain, considered themselves immune to such upheaval, but all saw significant protest events. In tiny Paris, TX, a city council member resigned following criticisms he made of protesters on social media and a censure vote by his colleagues. Most counties where anyone actually lives saw protests.

Reflecting on the existence of civil-rights protests in my hometown
Wade Goodwyn at NPR this week ran a story featuring protests in my hometown of Tyler, which was largely bypassed during the civil-rights movement of the '50s and '60s. The idea of a Black Lives Matter protest in Bergfeld Park frankly boggles the mind, and indeed, someone allegedly threatened to shoot protest leaders if they held the event.

Grits recalls in the early aughts visiting Texas College, an HBC in North Tyler, to give a Know-Your-Rights training when I was at ACLU-TX. The prof who invited me described how Marshall, Tx, lying twenty miles from the Louisiana border across from Shreveport, was as far west as the civil-rights protests extended into Texas' Piney Woods. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at Marshall's Wiley College in March 1960, against the wishes of the administration, and young activists inspired by his visit went on to hold sit ins at the local Woolworth department store. 

The retaliation was intense: Police turned water hoses on the students, and the President of Bishop College (a now-defunct HBC, also in Marshall), who'd invited Dr. King, was red-baited, formally accused of being a Communist by then-Governor Price Daniel, and run out of his job. Student organizers from both Wiley and Bishop colleges were arrested, though most of the charges were dismissed later that year. That summer, though, all Wiley faculty who had not supported the administration in opposing Dr. King's visit were fired. (Go here for the best account I've found of the incident.)

After that example, scarce few people at Texas College or really, throughout East Texas, were willing to speak up for civil rights. Would-be black movement leaders were largely cowed into submission and the civil-rights movement that gripped the rest of the American South largely passed the region by for the next 60 years. Until now.

MORE: The other big, early moment that decapitated the civil rights movement in East Texas was the banishment of the NAACP from Texas courts in 1957. Cory McCoy at the Tyler Morning Telegraph re-told that story a few years back, check it out. AND MORE: From the Texas Observer, "What the Black Lives Matter protests mean for East Texas."

Charges dropped against hundreds of protesters arrested in Houston
Two hundred miles south, in Houston, more than 650 people were arrested during recent police accountability protests. Harris County DA Kim Ogg this week dropped charges against more than 600 of them. While Grits is glad charges were dismissed, local defense attorneys pointed out that the DA's office in Harris County must pre-approve all non-warrant-based arrests. So if there was no probable cause to think these folks committed crimes, they probably should have figured that out during intake and avoided arresting these folks on the front end.

Introducing the George Floyd Act
In light of the broad-based reaction in Texas' hinterlands, Gov. Greg Abbott's response to recent events seems less surprising. For a moment, when he issued a disaster declaration threatening to deputize federal agents to combat protesters in the Texas' large cities, Grits feared he was about to channel his inner-Price Daniel and crack down on everyone involved. Since then, though, his rhetoric has softened. Recently, he met privately with George Floyd's family and pledged to enact reform, despite tepid support for police accountability measures so far on his watch.

Similarly, at the legislature, members who were at best lukewarm toward police-reform bills are now emerging as champions, while our actual, historical champions are licking their chops at all the new opportunities emerging. For now, at least, it's official: George Floyd is Texas' new favorite son.

Family: More to death-in-custody of Enrique Quiroz than official reports let on

The police abuse cases that receive national attention like George Floyd typically are ones where a bystander captures the incident on cell-phone video and police are unable to contain information about the event. But isn't it remarkable how many problematic police killings in Austin (and really, everywhere) aren't fleshed out in the press until well after the fact, if at all?

Recently, the Statesman's Tony Plohetski told the story of Javier Ambler, who died begging for his life while a Williamson County Sheriff's deputy repeatedly tazed him. The incident happened more than a year ago but was only fully reported this month.

Then, on March 31st, Enrique Quiroz, died after being tazed repeatedly by Austin PD. Though Quiroz was arrested for trespassing, the family says he had the homeowners' permission to be there. The family this week held their own amateur press conference to tell their side of the story. 

Police said Quiroz died of medical complications after being subdued, but family members say he was beaten and tazed, then dragged down the stairs in handcuffs "like an animal." (The death in custody report filed by APD said officers had to "help him down the stairs.") Before the family spoke up, press reports had exceedingly sparse. Only KXAN covered their presser, and we still haven't seen any reporters truly dig into the episode.

Hundreds of complaints filed against police over Austin protests

The Austin Office of Police Oversight received complaints from 606 people between May 29 and June 10, and is recommending 227 separate complaints based on those communications. The release of this information in and of itself is a victory for transparency in police oversight: Before 2018 changes to the police contract won by the Austin Justice Coalition and their allies, the city would have deep sixed this information and nobody would ever have known any complaint details. Even with names and locations redacted, the allegations are telling.

One complainant reported that a protester was "receiving medical help from a professional at protest when officers shot him in the head along with the medic that was administering help." Another decried the APD firing "chemical weapons" (read: tear gas) into crowds. Yet another lamented police "firing a foam bullet from less than 12 feet away directly at a protester that resulted in the need for limb-saving surgery."

Another suggested, “It seems 'less-lethal munition' is a name that gives the user an a false sense to release rounds with less consequences to the human being that is the target. It can''t be 'less lethal' if it's fired at close range. Please abolish the name and idea of 'less-lethal munition.'" Yet another described an incident where the "protester was standing still, hands in his pocket, posing no threat. And he was [pepper] sprayed at point-blank range. Needless, senseless use of force." 

Another complainant described how an officer "maced/sprayed [a] protester and two other women standing on either side of her, one of which was an 14-year-old girl," wondering, "Why has he not been fired already?"

The classmates of Levi Ayala filed a complaint over shooting him in the head with "less lethal" munitions. "As students, as community members, and as humans, we demand responsibility for these inhumane actions," read their letter.

“My Mother Was Shot With Bean Bag Rounds By A Firing Squad Of Officers," said yet another complaint. "She has a huge wound on her leg from the incident. Even now a week later she is feeling pain."

One protester complained not of brutality but of demeaning attitudes by officers:
I could see the smirks on some of the officers faces as they laughed at my sign when I walked by (my sign said: check the privilege & please don’t kill my son because he’s black). Some officers took 30 minutes of their time to tell me things like: “you can hold that sign all day it won’t make a difference,” “we will always have each other’s back, “my brothers in uniform die too,” “your sign doesn’t even make sense” ... oh and one officer even had the nerve to look me up and down and blow me a kiss. ... I got so angry at his insensitivity. ... those actions by OUR LOCAL PD make it hard to continue peaceful protests. 
Some complainants wondered why officers who witnessed abuse didn't intervene or report wrongdoers themselves: "I know I can report it, but why do I have to police my police? There were other police around."

One complainant wondered, "Why shouldn’t I vote to allocate funding away from the police department when they pose more threat than a benefit for the city? Austin is better than this." Yet another opined, "I find it disgusting that a city that applauds itself as diverse, safe, liberal and weird encourages wanton police violence."

Go here to read excerpts from the complaints and a list of relevant APD policies the OPO says should be reviewed. The APD Internal Affairs Division has a big job in front of them. Frankly, Grits fears they're not up to it.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Austin Council demands reform; police chief touts toothless half measures

Whether history will view the resolutions passed at the Austin City Council yesterday as a true turning point for policing in this city remains to be seen. But the resolutions at least opened up the possibility we could witness change on a scale previously unseen at the police department in the Texas capital.

Leadership Change: Council has "No Confidence"
Item #96 on yesterday's agenda included a statement of no confidence regarding Police Chief Brian Manley and the city's public-safety leadership team: "The elected members of City Council have no confidence that current Austin Police Department leadership intends to implement the policy and culture changes required to end the disproportionate impact of police violence." 

Two more city council members last night - Alison Alter and Leslie Pool - openly called for a change in leadership at Austin PD, adding their voices to four others who'd already said they've lost faith in Chief Manley to lead the department. Pool's comments were particularly surprising as until now she's been the police department's foremost champion on the council. Yet, she insisted, "We cannot move forward and heal without a change in leadership."

Alter went further, calling out city manager Spencer Cronk in no uncertain terms for his conspicuous silence during the city's tumultuous last two weeks, accusing him of failing to lead. She said her office had received more than 13,000 emails supporting change, with many of them calling for Chief Manley's ouster. Why had he not acted?

Meanwhile, although the news pages of the Austin Statesman continued their lapdog ways (more on this in a moment), the editorial staff issued a commentary accusing APD of succumbing to "cultural rot" under Manley's rule. "As a leader," they wrote, "Manley has not demonstrated the resolve to push for deep-seated cultural changes at the agency where he has spent his entire law enforcement career."

I don't know if having a "no confidence" resolution unanimously pass and six of 11 council members openly calling for Manley's ouster will be enough to get rid of him, but certainly the pressure is mounting.

Item #96 also included a call for divesting from Austin PD and spending more money instead on alternative approaches to public safety. Four council members from the dais echoed calls from the Austin Justice Coalition to reduce the APD budget by $100 million, while the rest agreed there should be some reduction but declined to put a number on it.

If it happens, it will be a big deal: Austin PD's budget has only ever gone up in my adult lifetime. Paying for policing has supplanted other public expenditures to address issues like homelessness, mental health, and addiction, and is the primary driver of city property-tax increases.

However, this aspect of the resolution is purely aspirational and the council will very soon get an opportunity to put the taxpayers' money where their mouth is: The council returns in late July to hammer out the next year's budget, already facing constraints from falling sales tax revenue. How much APD's budget is reduced and what those funds will be used for instead will all be decided in August. Whether they implement the priorities evinced in this resolution will be determined entirely by whether the local reform movement can keep up the pressure they were able to exert on the council this week. We'll see.

Limiting Use of Force
Item #95 on last night's agenda directed the Austin PD to rewrite its general order provisions related to use of force, restricting when officers can use deadly force, making explicit their duties to implement de-escalation tactics wherever feasible. The resolution prohibits the use of tear gas, limits deployment of impact munitions, and discourages acquisition of military-style equipment, including from the federal government's much-maligned 1033 program.

This may be the most substantive change of the evening - it's certainly the one where Chief Manley pushed back the hardest - but it, too, amounts merely to an opening gambit. Now the general orders must be rewritten, and although the City Council insisted that the Office of Police Oversight be a big part of that, Chief Manley is the person who issues those orders.

So the questions become: 1) will the rewritten general orders faithfully implement council's direction? And, 2) will APD leadership enforce changes to use of force policy with which they disagree? The latter question is a big reason why most of the city council has spoken up to call for Chief Manley's ouster: They keep enacting policies that he simply doesn't implement.

Indeed, in many cases Austin has decent policies on the books, but current management won't enforce them. For example, APD already has rules on the books creating a duty to intervene when officers see their comrades-in-arms engaged in misconduct. But the entire city has seen videos of APD officers indiscriminately firing impact munitions into crowds, and even shooting at medical personnel: No officers intervened and no officers have been punished for failing to do so.

Writing better policies is only important if departments then train on them and enforce them when violated. Otherwise, culture eats policy for breakfast. That's why changing leadership is so important.

Manley's PR Pushback
With these changes as a backdrop, let's turn to Chief Manley's PR offensive launched during the day while the city council listened to hours of public testimony. He held a press conference with a group called JUST America purporting to announce new reforms. But those reforms ranged from achingly modest to non-existent, not remotely approaching the changes for which the city council is asking. When grilled by the City Council last night, Manley announced that really there was nothing new in them and the press conference had only clarified existing practices in order to educate the public.

Manley's new partner, the group JUST America is an odd duck: Nobody in the movement whom Grits works with had ever heard of them or their leaders when their press conference was announced. And it's remarkable that such a new group could get so much press coverage of their efforts when organizations like the Austin Justice Coalition capable of putting 10,000 people in the street (as they did last Sunday) can't get their agenda covered in the local press.

JUST America portrayed itself as a community group formed in the wake of the recent protests. But there's a debate on an Austin subreddit on whether or not they're a front group for the Austin Police Department.

I don't know which is true. As I'd said on Twitter, I "can't tell if they're straight-up Astroturf or just naive young people being used by Chief Manley to undercut real reform. At this point, I'm inclined to think it doesn't matter which is the case - the result is the same."

If they're a front group trying to give APD and Chief Manley positive PR, so far it's worked. The Statesman treated their PR gambit as a news event on equal footing with the City Council's actions, though the latter was objectively a far more serious and important development than the former. If they're sincere, JUST America's failure to engage or coordinate efforts with established civil rights activists has led them to a strategy that undercuts more serious reform.


If Austin City Council members follow through, what they did yesterday could be the beginning of significant change at the police department. If they chicken out and local media continues to provide the department cover, as we saw with their lapdog coverage of the JUST America presser, momentum could easily be lost. My crystal ball is hazy and Grits can't say what will happen. But the possibility for real change exists where it did not three weeks ago, and as my father likes to say, that's "better than a sharp stick in the eye."