Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Scaredy Cops: Fear-based training of police officers makes them more likely to shoot

Amber Guyger and Aaron Dean, the cops who shot and killed Botham Jean and Atatiana Jefferson, respectively, had something in common: Both shot an innocent person for no good reason because they were scared.

Maybe that's because they were trained to be.

Guyger testified that she killed Botham Jean because she feared for her life. And clearly Dean, who had snuck into Jefferson's backyard instead of announcing himself at the open front door, considered himself in grave danger just from seeing a woman's silhouette in the window. But neither faced an actual threat. The greater threat in both cases stemmed from their own fear.

Cop culture brims with fearful rhetoric about the dangers they face, even though most cops never fire their service weapon over the course of their careers. A former Baltimore cop writing in Medium last year worried that "police are trained to fear." "Cops are supposed to be heroes and first responders and run toward danger," he wrote, "but it sure seemed like our training was teaching us to be afraid of everyone."

The most important thing for a police officer is to be sure they "go home at the end of the day," they tell themselves repeatedly, including in police trainings on use of force. "It's better to be judged by twelve than carried by six," is a common refrain every police officer has heard repeatedly throughout their careers. Officers and their union representatives have said it to me dozens of times over the years.

In reality, though, the people who pick up your garbage are significantly more likely to die on the job than police officers. That doesn't mean police don't have difficult jobs, that they aren't subject to lesser assaults, or that they are never justified in using force. But in terms of going home to their families at night, construction workers, truck drivers, farmers, and fishermen all have more dangerous occupations.

Much of this exaggerated fear stems from how officers are trained. Amber Guyger had received deescalation training as mandated under Texas' "Sandra Bland Act," but she said she never considered following it over the course of her encounter with Botham Jean. And Dean had just completed 40 hours of CIT training aimed at dealing with people with mental illness; in essence, CIT courses are a version of deescalation training.

However, deescalation tactics are not typically included in the general use-of-force curriculum officers take at the academy. They're treated as an extra, an add-on, not as a fundamental philosophy that should infuse every encounter where force is used. In addition, there is a sizable cottage industry of fear mongering cop trainers teaching officers to adopt a "warrior" mentality.

In Minneapolis, anti-police-brutality advocates have pushed back against such "fear-based training" and the Mayor earlier this year pledged to get rid of it, declaring, “Fear-based trainings violate the values at the very heart of community policing. When you’re conditioned to believe that every person encountered poses a threat to your existence, you simply cannot be expected to build meaningful relationships with those same people.”

Police officers who shoot people have other things in common. They are more likely to be white, much more likely to be male (even controlling for job assignments), and more likely to have NRA-friendly views on gun rights, found a Pew Research Center survey in 2017.

But those effects are relatively small compared to the impact of repeated trainings which teach police to value their own safety above all else. That notion has become deeply embedded in police officer culture and underlies many of the incidents that most inflame the public.

None of this is intended to diminish real-life tragedies like that which befell Harris County Sheriff's Deputy Sandeep Dhaliwal - who recently was shot to death by a mentally ill parolee at a traffic stop - only to put the relative risks in context. Such incidents are far more rare than most people believe. (Pew found that three in ten Americans estimate police fire their weapons several times per year, whereas in fact most never fire them.)

There are more than three-quarters of a million police officers in the United States, but the number who are feloniously killed in the line of duty typically never exceeds double digits (with the terrorist attacks of 9-11 being an important, notable exception). This chart, compiled from FBI data, depicts the number of officers who die each year including both accidents and felonious deaths

By contrast, police shoot and kill nearly 1,000 people per year across America.

Grits believes it will take a generation to change police culture surrounding use of force and end the "warrior cop" mentality that's become de jure in modern law enforcement. But it will take longer than that if officer trainings continue the scaredy-cop approach.

Deescalation can't just be tacked on in addition to use-of-force training - it must BECOME the use-of-force training. And it needs to happen soon.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Roundup: Oversight overlooked, the I-35 Fine Corridor, a last chance to end forensic hypnosis, and more

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

Agency regulating judges toothless and useless
Texas' State Commission on Judicial Conduct is a toothless agency. Its investigators appear to do a good job, but they're too cozy with the judges they regulate and the results just don't sufficiently protect the public. This Houston Chronicle editorial speaks to that point: "The State Commission on Judicial Conduct should be embarrassed by the wrist slap it gave three current and eight former Harris County judges who routinely denied no-cost bail to thousands of poor defendants between 2009 and 2017," their editorial board opined. I agree, but the biggest problems are embedded in the statute and would require the Legislature to fix them.

Crime lab delays grind justice to a halt
State Representative Terry Canales complained to Texas DPS that crime-lab delays fundamentally threaten the administration of justice:
“Defendants are frequently and unnecessarily spending years in jail waiting for forensic evidence to be processed so that they can have their day in court,” Canales wrote. “This gross reality threatens the very essence of our legal system and the fabric of our democracy, and it devalues the credibility of the state’s governing bodies and law enforcement agency.”
According to the McAllen Monitor:
For instance, the oldest firearms case pending is 1,187 days old while the average turnaround is 228 days. The oldest pending fingerprint testing case is 1,279 days old while the average turnaround is 255 days. Finally, the longest pending seized drug case is approximately 1,209 days old while the average case takes 90 days to complete.
Drug war a major contributor to attacks on Fourth Amendment
There's a meme out there spread by revisionist academics like John Pfaff that critics of the drug war have overstated its contribution to mass incarceration. While it's true that only 16.5% of Texas prison inmates are incarcerated for drug crimes, drug cases represent 34% of all new felony charges filed, so Grits finds that criticism overstated, at best. Criminalizing addiction accounts for a huge proportion of how the justice system spends its time. But focusing solely on prison population ignores the severe collateral consequences from the drug war in scaling back Fourth Amendment rights, as prosecutors are seeking to do in two cases pending before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The Austin Statesman's Chuck Lindell covered those here.

Qualified immunity claim overcome in case vs. Dallas transit cop
The Fifth Circuit declined to dismiss a case against a Dallas transit cop based on qualified immunity after the officer arrested a photographer expressly in violation of her agency's written policy. Grits doesn't believe qualified immunity should even exist. Maybe Justice Don Willett is having an influence; he's a critic of the qualified immunity doctrine.

Activists angry at first Dallas police oversight board meeting
The initial meeting of the new police oversight board in Dallas erupted in chaos when board members tried to adjourn the meeting without hearing from the public. Activists were upset that three appointees had opposed creation of the board and lacked commitment to its mission. Adding fuel to the fire, reportedly one of the officers attempting to push citizens forcibly out of the room was wearing a "Punisher" t-shirt.

Fine revenue and local budgets
Now that the state legislature has capped property tax increases for local governments, expect more of them to attempt to boost revenue from criminal fines. An analysis by Governing magazine found 90 Texas municipalities where 10% or more of revenue came from fines, 39 where fines made up more than 20% of the budget, 22 where fines were more than 30% of the budget, and 10 where they made up more than half. An accompanying map shows that many of these are clustered along I-35 between San Antonio and Dallas.

Jury acquits prison guard despite repeated brutality
A Brazoria County jury found a Texas prison guard not guilty of aggravated assault after he slammed a handcuffed prisoner to the floor and killed him. The same guard had already been disciplined for doing the same thing to the same prisoner several months prior.

Politicizing innocence compensation
Having been deeply involved in passing Texas' best-in-the-nation innocence compensation statute when I was Innocence Project of Texas policy director back in 2009, Grits is incredibly disappointed at the Comptroller and Attorney General going to irregular lengths to deny compensation to Alfred Brown. This was pointless, mean-spirited, and driven by pandering to the Houston police union.

Last chance to get rid of 'forensic hypnosis'
This Guardian story on forensic hypnosis correctly hones in a case pending before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals as the best chance for the state to be rid of the practice. But it incorrectly suggested the Forensic Science Commission could deal with the issue (they say they don't have jurisdiction because the practice doesn't deal with physical evidence), and a bill filed to end the practice at the Texas Legislature last session couldn't even get a hearing in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. As such, the author was a bit too sanguine the practice might be abolished here. If the CCA doesn't get rid of this junk science, in Grits' estimation it will remain with us in Texas courts for a long, long time.

Hug it out
The judge in the Amber Guyger case explained why she gave the defendant a hug. And an academic argues that the hug Botham Jean's brother gave Guyger turned the trial into a lesson in restorative justice.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Governor should address homelessness crisis for all of Texas

"Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." - Matthew 25:40
The Trumpian tropes trotted out by the Governor and local Travis County GOP figures in the Austin homelessness debates - all while President Trump and Fox News frenetically amp up anti-homeless sentiment as a national-election wedge issue - make Grits feel tired and sad. It looks to me like a lot of state leaders doubling down on the wrong side of history, as happened not so long ago when opposing gay marriage was the wedge-issue de jeur.

For all the weeping and gnashing of teeth over Austin's homelessness problems, in reality this is something faced by communities around Texas and beyond, some of which have confronted the situation more honorably than others.

In Dallas, local media say there are no solutions in sight for the local homeless problem. But the governor isn't threatening them, and the troopers he sent in to fight crime left quietly after three months.

Houston's no-sit/no-lie ordinance, implemented under Mayor Sylvester Turner, is just pushing the population around the city. But what did work were large federal grants to pay for tracking homeless and connecting them with services.

The folks dispensing much-ballyhooed homeless services in San Antonio openly admit their must-be-sober-and-take-drug-tests-to-receive-help approach leaves much to be desired and keeps many people on the streets who might be helped by a housing-first approach.

Even places like Plano, FriscoLubbockMidland, TylerLongview, NacogdochesCorpus ChristiGalveston, Sugar LandVictoria, and Montgomery County struggle with homeless problems they don't advertise but cannot ignore.

Anti-homeless activists have spuriously suggested that California cities may send their homeless to Austin. But if anybody's doing that, it's Waco, where they're forcibly clearing out homeless camps using police and Sheriff's deputies. Then they use forced labor from county jail inmates to clean up the aftermath, with local journalists tagging along for the poverty porn.

Amarillo started down that same path, but city leaders had a change of heart and issued housing vouchers to people in a local encampment instead. Abilene, similarly, has chosen to empty its homeless camps by finding their residents housing instead of chasing them out. These jurisdictions don't have to deal with the scale of big-city homeless problems, to be sure, but their example complicates what the governor, speaking from his walled compound in Austin, might reasonably portray as a "Texan" approach.

Governor Abbott appears to have singled out Austin for political purposes, tying local debates into a national GOP effort to use homelessness as a wedge issue in the culture wars and blaming this decidedly capitalist problem on political liberalism. In doing so, he trivializes a human-rights crisis faced by numerous Texas cities, including the ones still controlled by Republicans. He's missing an opportunity to exercise leadership that could demonstrate to swing voters the Texas GOP can govern as well as it campaigns.

Perhaps what jumped out to Grits most in Abbott's letter was the threat to use "quarantines" to ban the homeless from certain quadrants. Texas' quarantine laws haven't been used since the Ann Richards administration, and that time it was also a politicized abuse of power. She disingenuously declared a quarantine to keep away the press in the aftermath of the Branch Davidian catastrophe in Waco, which incidentally is the only known use of quarantine authority by a US governor in the last century. Richards' quarantine was done in secret, but Gov. Abbott has now openly threatened to use this same authority to coerce a local city council to reinstate a repealed ordinance. Really?

As Sir Thomas More asked of his accusers, "when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, ... the laws all being flat?"

Austin Mayor Steve Adler declared that he took Gov. Abbott's entreaties as evidence that state government wants to "help" - a reaction that could only be taken as tongue in cheek. But what if Gov. Abbott did want to help solve homelessness?

For starters, the governor could begin to prioritize grants for housing, directing available funds for that purpose and working with Texas' congressional delegation to champion the cause of more federal housing grants from HUD. But as Texas Monthly's Christopher Hooks lamented:
There’s a notable and telling omission among the list of agencies Abbott has said will “help” Austin with its problems: the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, the state agency that helps build affordable housing. There’s been no real effort from state government to actually aid the city here, just a demand that they “fix” things.
He could work with legislators heading into the 2021 legislative session to develop funding packages for housing, mental-health services and prisoner reentry to help mitigate the causes of the problem. The state could fund urban "rest stops" like those on the side of the highway where homeless folks could shower and use the restroom. The governor could use his bully pulpit and personal appearances to fundraise for housing programs like Austin's Community First (at least, in between campaign fundraising for a race that's three years out).

That's what state-government leadership would look like on this issue. What we're seeing, everyone will notice, looks very different.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Texas trends follow national decline in misdemeanor arrests

The Wall Street Journal on Sunday published an item reporting on a nationwide decline in misdemeanor arrests, a trend this blog has been documenting for several years. So Grits thought it worth comparing the national trends cited to Texas data.

The WSJ article focused on jurisdictions where misdemeanor arrests could be broken out by race, with arrests of black people accounting for a disproportionate share of  the decrease. Texas data don't immediately allow us to make similar, racially delineated analyses, but the overall trend of reduced misdemeanor cases holds for Texas.

Texas misdemeanor cases by the numbers
Looking at top-line stats from the Office of Court Administration's 2018 Annual Statistical Report (from which all graphs below are screenshots), the number of non-traffic misdemeanor cases in Texas peaked in 2007 at 585,499, declining to 404,001.

When you consider Texas' dramatic population growth over these years, the decline appears even more significant.

Texas witnessed especially large declines over the previous five years in misdemeanor theft (-47%), theft by check (-81%), and driving with an invalid license (-25%), with small increases (less than population growth) for family violence (5%), marijuana possession (4%), and 1st offense DWI (2%).

Grits finds especially interesting the decline in misdemeanor-property-theft cases. Texas raised property-theft thresholds in 2015, so that one must now steal $2,500 to be charged with a felony. Felony-theft cases predictably declined in response, but misdemeanor theft cases declined even more. Perhaps that's a function of cops being less willing to focus attention on low-level cases, the tuff-on-crime crowd will surely say. But both reported crime stats and the National Crime Victim Survey tell us property thefts declined throughout this period. So if police did de-prioritize them, then policing clearly wasn't having the crime deterring effect that traditional models might predict. In fact, if such "de-policing" occurred, it correlated with less theft, not more. This raises a counter-intuitive possibility: Maybe what police do after the fact doesn't have that much to do with crime rates in the first place?

The 2018 data don't capture the period after the Texas Legislature accidentally made pot cases more difficult to prosecute without a lab test, but before then, both misdemeanor drug cases (mostly pot) and felony drug cases (mostly harder drugs) were a big source of growth in prosecutions:

Here's how new Texas misdemeanor and felony cases broke out in FY 2018:

The biggest decline, however, has been in traffic cases and other Class C misdemeanors, a trend which this blog has documented in the past.

Delving more deeply into these Class Cs, every category except local traffic ordinances have declined over the last five years. (I'm curious if readers have any suggestions why enforcement of local traffic ordinances would increase by a third over the last five years while enforcement of state traffic laws declined?)

Moreover, juvenile Class C cases have plummeted, driven largely but not entirely by the state's decriminalization of truancy:

Reporters or policy makers who would like to replicate these data for their local area may use the OCA's data query tool to break them out by jurisdiction.

What's going on?
So why is this happening? Some of the trends cited in the WSJ article don't apply to Texas - e.g., marijuana legalization or decrim hasn't happened here, and Texas' car-patrol-based policing doesn't see as frequent use of "stop and frisk" tactics as do jurisdictions where officers walk a beat.

The WSJ cited FBI statistics to document "steady declines in disorderly conduct, drunkenness, prostitution and loitering violations," which arguably could be a function of the rise of smart phones, gaming, and internet culture. Much "disorderly conduct" now occurs online, much to the detriment of the political culture, while "loitering" these days may more frequently involve staring at a telephone. Similarly, prostitutes in 2019 are less likely to stand out on the street and more likely to respond to text messages or queries on a website.

IMO, researchers have probably understated significantly the impact of digital culture on (downward) crime trends. Indeed, Grits considers the incapacitative effects of video gaming so significant for young males, in the past I've pondered the idea of issuing gaming consoles to high-risk probationers to reduce recidivism.

Grits has written before about declines in DWI and public drunkenness arrests, which I suspect may also related to the rise of car sharing apps that can easily get drunks off the streets or out of their own cars.

On Twitter, Grits asked a couple of national experts their opinions on sources of declines in misdemeanor arrests. Megan Stevenson, an economist and legal scholar at George Mason Univesity, suggested, "Broken windows policing going out of vogue. Gentrifying cities means poor people no longer live where rich people work. Increased surveillance technology reduces willingness to shoplift/graffiti. Lower blood lead levels in children." She also wondered if the trend may be influenced by "Shifting law enforcement to private security companies who intimidate but don’t arrest?"

And our pal Alexandra Natapoff, now of UC Irvine and author of Punishment Without Crime, a book-length treatment of misdemeanor questions, suggested the trend might also relate to "changes in police arrest quota and promotion policies" or attempts to reduce "Jail costs."

Austin's recent brouhaha over decriminalizing sitting, lying and camping in public spaces makes Grits give extra credence to Professor Stevenson's hypothesis about gentrifying cities removing poor people from the places rich folks live and work. Austin has always had a significant homeless population during the 34 years I've lived here. But as long as they were sleeping in creek beds and behind dumpsters where no one could see them, for most of the city's more affluent population, "out of sight, out of mind," was good enough. As soon as middle and upper class folks began to see homeless people in their daily lives - mostly under highway overpasses and in tents on roadsides - the weeping and gnashing of teeth began (with GOP officials at the local, state and national levels fanning the flames of discontent as vigorously as they could muster).

Grits considers these interesting suggestions, but all of them beg the question, why were misdemeanor arrests going up before 2007? After all, both reported and unreported low-level crime (as judged by the National Crime Victim Survey) has declined dramatically since the 1990s, and we didn't see arrest reductions until relatively recently.

Since we don't know why arrests continued to rise as crime declined, it's equally hard to tell why arrests went down as crime declined even more. For that matter, no one knows for sure why crime has declined in the first place. There are many hypotheses.

In an era when economists have built out a sizable cottage industry developing Bayesian "causal inference" models that supposedly flesh out specific causal relations for crime trends, in reality, nobody really understand the whys and wherefores of even the most basic tendencies of the justice system. Your correspondent has come to believe that running ever-more regression analyses on the same, extremely limited datasets is unlikely to cast more light on the subject.

Regardless of the cause, the footprint of the Texas justice system has reduced dramatically over the last decade, even if prison populations remain stubbornly high. These misdemeanor data provide further evidence of that trend and arguably played a big part in creating that outcome.

For my part, Grits considers the decline in misdemeanor arrests and cases mainly a positive development, not a problem to solve. Others' mileage may vary.

Monday, October 07, 2019

Parole policies the key to substantial prisoner reductions in Texas

The goal of cutting prison populations by 50 percent has been poo pooed by some as a pipe dream, but for Texas it seems conceivable.

As Grits has previously pointed out, the overall footprint of Texas' criminal justice system has declined significantly in recent years, with the proportion of people in prison, jail, on probation and on parole declining by a whopping 46 percent. In 2008, one in 22 Texas adults were in prison, jail, on probation or on parole; by 2018, that had declined to one in 41.

However, the number of people incarcerated in prison has remained stubbornly high, even though TDCJ releases about 45 percent of inmates every year.

Releases declining in tandem with number of new inmates
State officials vociferously deny it, but from the outside it appears as though parole decisions are made based less on individuals' risk to society, but as a means to keep TDCJ full enough to justify existing prisons without becoming overcrowded.

Here's the data. Before 2012, more prisoners entered TDCJ each year than were released, though not by many. In 2012, releases increased for just that one year (see this analysis for why), afterward marching down in tandem with the number of new "receives."

That's why this blog and allies pushed for prison closures as soon as new receives dipped in 2009 and 2010 (the first Texas prisons were closed in 2011). If prisons can't hold more people, the theory went, parole rates would have to keep up with "receives" to keep from violating the longstanding terms of the Ruiz settlement, the dictates of which have dominated TDCJ policy and culture for nearly four decades.

When new receives bumped back up in 2011 and 2012 (see here for an analysis of why), the parole board boosted parole rates significantly to keep numbers low enough to come in under prison capacity.

Even though the parole board doesn't admit its release decisions are dictated by prison capacity, preferring to pretend they're assessing individuals' cases on the merits, it appears to be true on its face. Since 2012, the numbers of new inmates and releases have been so close every year that it's difficult to imagine it's a coincidence.

The potential for large-scale prison population reductions
As of the end of FY 2018, 79,552 Texas prison inmates were eligible to be paroled, out of about 145,000 total incarcerated at that time, or about 55 percent. (Source, p. 17) So most offenders could be released right now if the parole board decided to do so.

The average age of prisoners incarcerated in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is 35. However, at the end of FY 2018, 9,900 prisoners were more than 60 years old, and another 18,564 were between 51-60. (p. 4) These prisoners are the fastest growing age group at TDCJ, and a big cost driver, particularly because their health costs are 100 percent paid by state government, even for prisoners who would otherwise be eligible for Medicare.

Since being in prison significantly shortens life expectancy, for many of these prisoners, TDCJ must pay for nursing-home like accommodations and eventually, end-of-life costs, as well. This is not just an issue in Texas, but a significant problem nationally. In Texas, however, the cost issue is exacerbated by the recent federal court ruling that vulnerable inmates like the sick and elderly must be housed in units with air conditioning. (Yes, I know, technically, A/C is not required, but how else can the agency keep units below 88 degrees during Texas summers?)

These rising healthcare costs for seniors are a big reason why TDCJ's budget has continued to increase even after eight prison units have been closed: A growing number of the prisoners who remain cost much more to incarcerate than the "average" 35 year old.

How to do it
The governor appoints parole board members, and the Legislature cannot directly force them to increase parole rates. (The 2007 prison reforms successfully encouraged them to decrease revocation rates for technical violations, but those gains have maxxed out.) But they can indirectly do so by changing the criteria on which parole decisions are made.

A good start would be to look to the so-called "objective parole" law passed in Michigan in 2018. That legislation mandated that parole decisions be based on forward looking risk factors instead of unchangeable criteria like "nature of the crime." The Texas Public Policy Foundation endorsed such a measure earlier this year; see my Reasonably Suspicious podcast interview with TPPF's Marc Levin on the topic from July.

Grits has recommended other, additional methods for reducing incarceration levels, but none would have the impact of boosting parole rates.

Texas has successfully reduced the footprint of the justice system more than most people - even most policy makers - understand. But significantly reducing prison populations has been the toughest nut to crack. Even so, given that most Texas prisoners are eligible to be paroled today, it's not impossible to imagine that right sizing the prison system could be accomplished sooner than later.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Initial thoughts on the Amber Guyger verdict

Former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger's murder conviction and ten year prison sentence raises so many conflicted emotions! Here are Grits' initial thoughts on the trial and the outcome:

Abuse of power by police union prez should be punished, forbidden going forward
Maybe what stood out to me most was the role of Dallas police union president Mike Mata. He showed up at the scene of the shooting, sequestered Guyger from police investigators, and gave orders to cops on the scene to turn off cameras and mics in the police car where she was sitting - which they followed! Mata is a police sergeant, not an attorney, and had no legal authority to keep Guyger from being questioned or recorded. His actions corrupted the process from the beginning. Outside of a defendant's attorney, no other third party would be allowed to do this, but Mata misused his sergeant's rank to protect her. He should be disciplined or fired for this abuse of authority, and the department should establish rules to prevent it from happening again.

Racist social media posts by cops not harmless
Guyger's racist social media postings, and those of her colleagues, also deserve more scrutiny. As the Plain View Project revealed earlier this year, this is not a one-off but part of a broader departmental problem that has been tolerated by management and encouraged by a flat-out racist subculture within the agency. Now that an officer engaging in this behavior has been convicted of murdering a black man, we see the issue of racist "personal" opinions of Dallas PD officers quite clearly has policy implications. IMO, this episode shows officers holding such views are a clear and present public-safety threat.

Deescalation training clearly insufficient; Guyger said she never considered it
Just months before the shooting, Guyger had received 8 hours of deescalation training which was mandated in 2017 by the Sandra Bland Act. But Guyger testified using those deescalation tactics never entered her mind. So was her training insufficient? Should it be expanded? Required more frequently? Do departmental policies reflect that training and require officers to use deescalation where possible? Are there professional consequences for failing to deescalate when possible, and if not, why not? DPD and the public should be concerned that its training was so ineffective that a uniformed police officer never even considered it before firing her service weapon at an unarmed man.

So we don't prosecute evidence tampering anymore?
Guyger and her married partner with whom she was having an affair both deleted texts from the night of the murder on their phones, although investigators later recovered them. Why wasn't her partner charged with evidence tampering, as any civilian would have been if they tried to destroy evidence in a murder case? Should a cop who tried to destroy evidence in a murder case even still be on the force?

Flaws in Castle-Doctrine law exposed in case
Some folks on social media blamed the judge for allowing Guyger to use the Castle Doctrine defense. But the judge isn't to blame; Texas legislators are. Most people think the Castle Doctrine means people defending their own home, as in "a man's home is his castle." But Guyger was a home invader entering another person's apartment! So there's a perception among those who haven't dug into the details of the law that there is now some sort of Castle-Doctrine bubble that white cops get to carry around with them and apply wherever they are. That impression is understandable. It sure looks that way from the outside! But in reality, the judge had no choice but to give a jury instruction on the Castle Doctrine. Texas' law says the shooter must only have a "belief" that they're protecting their home, they are not required to factually be protecting their home. So Guyger triggered the defense when she claimed she thought she was entering her own apartment. That's WAY too broad and should be scaled back when the Legislature meets next.

The verdict, and the hug(s)
Grits was not among those who believed a super-long sentence was required in this case, and I was glad Botham Jean's brother forgave Guyger from the stand and even stepped down to hug her. He's modeling excellent, Christian behavior and society would be better off if more victim families embraced forgiveness as a primary value. However, I feel differently about the judge hugging Guyger afterward. The judge didn't initiate it, but the photo of the embrace gave an appearance of special treatment in a situation that already was rife with them. It appears from a distance - obviously I wasn't there for the blow-by-blow - that the judge, an African-American woman, did a good job. But that photo coupled with a below-average murder sentence will be seen to contradict that.


There are many more issues coming out of this tragedy that will be debated going forward, these are just first-cut considerations in the immediate aftermath. While civil verdicts are more common in Dallas, a criminal conviction of a police officer is a rare and stunning result. Out of more than 50 officer-involved shootings in Dallas this year, only one officer has been indicted, and it's even more rare for indicted officers to be convicted and sent to prison. So by any measure, the verdict is big news. But Guyger's conviction won't in and of itself change a departmental culture that protects bad cops, tolerates their racist views and online postings, and fails to punish evidence tampering by its officers. That will require local officials to step up. And the public will be watching.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Humpty Dumpty, the Castle Doctrine, and other stories

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

Humpty Dumpty and the Castle Doctrine
The judge in former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger's murder trial for the shooting of Botham Jean gave the jury instructions on the Castle Doctrine defense, despite the fact that Guyger entered Jean's home and shot him, and wasn't defending her "castle." Her lawyers employed this argument as their primary defense (that it wasn't her home was a "mistake of fact," they said) so the judge had no choice but to address it, but Humpty Dumpty would be proud! The claim didn't help Guyger, however. She was convicted, anyway. UPDATE: Guyger was sentenced to ten years.

Death of trailblazing deputy raises difficult, familiar questions
The tragic shooting death of a Harris County Sheriff's deputy - a trail blazing figure who was the first Sikh to work in Harris County law enforcement - raises familiar questions with no satisfying answers. The alleged killer is a severely schizophrenic parolee who had gone off his meds and heard voices telling him to kill people. Is the criminal-justice system the best way to deal with people whose offenses are rooted in severe mental illness? How did this convicted felon and parolee get a firearm? He already was the subject of a warrant for violating his parole, should more resources be allocated to search for high-risk parole violators? His family had told officials he was dangerous and off his meds: Are there "red flag" laws that could have allowed them to act sooner? The circumstances surrounding this awful episode will provide fodder for these and many other debates in coming years. The public dialogue would have been easier, in a sense, if this had turned out to be a hate crime. The issues surrounding mental illness and the politics of gun proliferation are much more complex and difficult to deal with.

Private jail operator keeps screwing up
At the Liberty County Jail, which is operated by the Geo Group, "In the last 60 days, there have been two felony escapes, one of their correctional officers was arrested for stealing from inmates while on duty, and most recently, there are questions surrounding the death of a prisoner who hanged himself while in their custody. Apart from those instances, they have also flunked two jail inspections this year, one on April 22 and the second on June 28," the Houston Chronicle reported. Local officials are considering whether to terminate ties with the private prison contractor.

The economics of high probation fees
Check out a new article from our friend Todd Jermstad, probation director in Bell County, on the history and future of court-imposed fees at Texas probation departments. Especially interesting was his thesis that policymakers should take into account reduced means of Gen X and Millenial defendants, whose economic prospects remain less robust than earlier generations. Grits may delve more deeply into this soon, but for now, here's the link.

Bail litigation roundup
See a write-up from The Appeal of recent bail-litigation news, including from Houston and Galveston. See also related Grits coverage and our discussion of the topic in Just Liberty's most recent Reasonably Suspicious podcast.

Over friggin' pot?
In Hutto, a police officer responding to a call that someone was smoking marijuana beat up a man in his driveway and made false accusations in official documents to justify it. The victim had no marijuana in his possession, and bodycam video proved the cop was lying about the victim pushing the officer before he was attacked. The officer was fired, was indicted in May, and the victim has filed a civil rights suit, reported KXAN-TV.

Homelessness problems and solutions
In the wake of Austin's tendentious debate over homeless policy, I was interested to see this excellent New Republic article on "housing insecurity in the nation's richest cities." When, in the 1990s, my wife and I could rent a dilapidated three-bedroom house in East Austin for $190, homelessness wasn't such a big problem. Now that rents in my neighborhood for similar homes approach $3k per month, it's little wonder more people are on the streets. Meanwhile, Bloomberg News had an informative piece a couple of months back on how Finland all but eliminated people sleeping on the streets by investing in preventive strategies like rent subsidies.

How police misconduct gets covered up by plea bargaining
Here's an excellent analysis from Brooklyn public defender Scott Hechinger of how mandatory minimums and the threat of long sentences help cover up police misconduct that would otherwise come out in court. That's because "victims of police abuse — illegal stops and frisks, car stops and searches, home raids, manufactured charges and excessive force — routinely forgo their constitutional right to challenge police abuse in a pretrial hearing in exchange for plea deals." This is undeniably true. It's only in cases like the episode in Hutto, described above, where victims face no charges that officers can be held accountable through regular court processes.

Financial motive not only reason prosecutors oppose actual-innocence claims
The New York Times published a feature on falsely convicted people who've been exonerated by the evidence but cannot secure an "actual innocence" ruling because prosecutors fear the financial consequences of civil rights lawsuits against local jurisdictions. All of the examples are from other states, but Texas' situation casts additional light on this topic. I was policy director at the Innocence Project of Texas when the Legislature passed the best-in-the-nation compensation package for exonerees in 2009. We hoped to avoid this dynamic by having the state compensate innocent convicts instead of the locals. Indeed, the bill was sold as a form of "tort reform," eliminating local liability for what were seen as systemic flaws causing false convictions. But it turned out, the real, underlying complaints weren't financial. Many prosecutors and some judges on the Court of Criminal Appeals simply don't want to see falsely convicted people compensated, ever, and go to great lengths to oppose actual-innocence claims, despite the fact that locals weren't on the hook. So Grits is skeptical of the article's thesis that the motive behind opposing actual-innocence claims is financial. I think it's more pernicious than that.

Sheriffs and #cjreform
Our pal Jessica Pishko published a New York Times op ed on Sheriff's offices, declaring "The problem of sheriffs is particularly acute in the South and Southwest, where the office has more power and was historically used to prop up white supremacy." She calls for Sheriffs to undertake what amounts to a truth-and-reconciliation process for past wrongs. That sanguine suggestion to me seems unlikely. Texas alone has 254 counties, after all - a few might do that, under the right political circumstances, but most will not. And abolishing the office, as some have called for, doesn't change the fact that someone has to perform those functions. Grits has often thought that sheriffs' jail-management duties should be separated from their responsibilities to patrol unincorporated areas. These are distinct functions involving very different skill sets, and typically those elected to the office only have knowledge of one or the other. Whether Sheriffs should be an elected position is a question for another day.

Deep thinking on sex-offender policies
A recent NY Times piece examined emerging research on people who are sexually attracted to minors, finding that its roots are not genetic, but are "prenatal," and "can be traced to specific periods of development in the womb." And this Marshall Project story looks at evidence-based anti-recidivism programs aimed at people convicted of violent, sexual crimes once their sentence is complete. I found both articles to be thoughtful contributions to the discussion.

Most crime dropping nationally, but look at those rape numbers!
New Uniform Crime Report data is out, and most categories of crime have continued to fall, except rape, which has risen precipitously since 2014. See first-cut analyses from the Brennan Center and the Marshall Project. No one knows for sure what's behind the rise in rape numbers. The feds began using a more expansive definition of sexual assault in 2014, but the numbers increased even using the "legacy" definition. The question arises: Have there actually been more rapes committed over this period, or are we simply now getting a more complete picture of the scope of the problem in the wake of increased reporting thanks to the #MeToo movement? ¿Quien sabe? Regardless, the year-over-year decline in property crimes, murders, robberies, etc., is cause for celebration, while the sex-assault data should contribute to deeper conversations on the question.

Monday, September 30, 2019

'Progressive prosecutors' not all so progressive on bail reform

At the Texas Tribune festival this weekend, Josie Duffy-Rice, president of The Appeal, moderated a panel with three Democratic Texas District Attorneys - John Creuzot of Dallas, Margaret Moore of Travis County, and Mark Gonzalez of Nueces County.

(L-R) Josie Duffy, John Creuzot,
Mark Gonzalez, and Margaret Moore
An audience member asked the panelists whether they favored providing defense attorneys to defendants at "magistration," where judges set bail amounts defendants must pay to get out of jail pending trial.

Gonzalez failed to answer the question directly, conflating magistration with plea bargaining and insisting that his office was more fair than his predecessor.

Moore also talked around the issue, but in essence said she didn't think providing counsel at bail hearings was necessary. Prosecutors don't even attend those hearings in Travis County, she declared, an assertion which Grits found dubious. After all, the county indigent defense plan anticipates prosecutors may "fil[e] an application" with the court at magistration, while indigent defendants may apply for an attorney at that point, but don't get one until later. Moore suggested that a post hoc bail-review hearing was sufficient to protect defendants' liberty interests.

Creuzot was the only DA who said, definitively, "Yes," defense attorneys should be provided at magistration. He blamed Dallas judges who appealed the federal injunction for blocking the move, although at least one judge supports the idea. (The county commissioners court, which would have to come up with money to pay for additional defense counsel, surely also is a barrier to implementing that idea.)

Grits found this discussion dissatisfying, given recent developments in Texas bail-reform litigation.

In Galveston, in particular, a recent federal-court injunction explicitly required the county to provide attorneys at magistration. This was not mentioned.

Harris County eliminated magistration in 85 percent of misdemeanor cases to avoid having to make individualized determinations, and launched a pilot program to provide a public defender at bail hearings for the other 15 percent.

In Dallas, a federal judge said magistrates couldn't rely on a pre-set bail schedule without considering individual circumstances. Articulating those, of course, is a defense attorney's job. The injunction has been appealed, but the judge's order would require these hearings to occur within 48 hours of arrest.

So, if we're reading tea leaves here, in all three jurisdictions, federal judges have said that non-individualized bail hearings are unacceptable and that release decisions must be made promptly.

In that light, claims that it's sufficient to review non-individualized bail decisions later, as DA Moore declared, strike me as optimistic, at best. All the federal court rulings in Texas so far have required more.

Certainly it's insufficient to address the issue during plea bargaining, as Mark Gonzalez maintained! Part of the problem with excessive pretrial detention is that it makes defendants more likely to accept unfavorable plea bargains.

The US constitution forbids "excessive bail," not bail per se, so it's unlikely federal courts will ever "abolish money bail," as most #cjreform advocates would prefer. But it also seems clear to this observer that federal courts will eventually require individualized bail determinations, likely at magistration.

We've now seen three different options emerge from federal courts for how to do that: Provide counsel at magistration, as in Galveston; hold individualized hearings within 48 hours of arrest, as in Dallas; or simply eliminate bail determination hearings for most nonviolent cases, and provide lawyers at magistration for the remaining subset, as Harris County is doing.

No one can tell which of these options will be required writ large across Texas until the 5th Circuit rules in one of these cases. Now that the Harris County suit has settled, it seems likely that Dallas will be the first to reach that stage. Their preliminary injunction came out more than a year ago, while Galveston's only emerged last month.

Regardless, Creuzot was the only DA on the so-called "progressive prosecutor" panel who gave what Grits would consider a "progressive" answer on bail reform. Letting folks sit around in jail because they're too poor to pay just isn't good enough, anymore.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Podcast: Texas bail reform litigation, demagoguery on crime in Houston, and Grits' contribution to new TDCJ Hep C litigation

Here's the September 2019 episode of Just Liberty's Reasonably Suspicious podcast, co-hosted by Scott Henson and Amanda Marzullo. Special thanks to Scott Medlock, who's suing TDCJ over failure to adequately treat Hepatitis C. I didn't realize until he told me the idea from the suit originated from a Grits for Breakfast blog post several years ago! That's exciting. Here's this month's episode:

In this episode:

Top Stories
  • Harris and Galveston County bail litigation - 1:40
  • HPD Chief Art Acevedo demagogues on bail reform - 10:30
  • Interview: Attorney Scott Medlock on TDCJ Hep C lawsuit - 14:45
Fill in the Blank
  • TPPF on police union politics - 27:45
  • Crime debates in Houston mayor's race - 32:45
The Last Hurrah (37:25)
  • DPS stops patrols in Dallas
  • Do Dallas police murder indictments signal changing attitudes?
  • Oklahoma parole changes a model for Texas?
Find a transcript of this episode below the jump.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The case for risk assessments despite allegations they are racist

Here's an unpopular take that I'll probably regret offering:

Grits finds himself a tad annoyed with well-intentioned liberals crowing from the rooftops that risk assessments in criminal justice fields are "racist," and wishes these debates allowed for more nuance.

While I agree that criminal-justice data skews to overstate risk for black folks, I don't necessarily agree that foregoing data-driven risk assessments achieves better outcomes. Judges making seat-of-the-pants decisions rely on the same discriminatory data, and incarcerate people of all races at greater rates than risk-assessments would dictate.

Let's cut to the chase. Consider a thought experiment in which a jurisdiction is 85% white and 15% black. In this jurisdiction, based on judges' stand-alone decisions, 100 people are being held pretrial, and the proportions by race are 60 white folks and 40 black folks, so there's a significant racial disparity.

Now lets say the risk-assessment algorithm also discriminates because of the use of data from a system embedded with a racist, even white-supremacist ideology, as well as historical disparities in violent crime rates by race.*

For the sake of argument, let's say the risk assessment labels 1 in 3 white people incarcerated as "low risk" and recommends release, but only 1 in 4 black defendants. Now let's assume judges release every inmate labeled "low risk." What would be the result?

Under this scenario, 40 white people would be incarcerated compared to 30 black people. Thus, the percentage of black folks incarcerated would go up, from 40 to 43 percent. So, it's possible to accurately say that use of the risk assessment INCREASES racial disparities.

But which outcome is better from a civil-rights perspective - 40 black folks locked up in jail or 30?

I'm a middle-aged white guy and certainly can't and won't attempt to speak for black people. But my own belief is that the outcome under the risk-assessment model is more tolerable. Others' mileage may vary.

What am I missing here?

CAVEAT: There are many offenses where no risk assessment need be used at all. In the Harris County bail settlement, 85% of misdemeanor defendants will be released without a bail determination hearing of any sort. Where that's not possible, IMO risk assessments are superior to judges making the determination on their own, at least until someone convinces me otherwise.

*Violent crime rates among black folks have been declining dramatically in recent years, falling at greater rates, even, than overall crime declines. But the rates remain higher than other racial categories. According to the 2017 National Crime Victimization Survey, "Based on victims reports, there were about four fifths as many white [violent-crime] offenders as the percentage of whites in the population, [and] about twice as many black offenders as the percentage of blacks in the population." Because most victims of violent crime are attacked by someone of the same race, this also translates into more black victims"For the year 2015, blacks represented 13 percent of the nation’s population, yet accounted for 51 percent of all homicide victims." This dynamic is a source of some but by no means all of the disparities attributed to risk assessments.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Policing policy, forensic follies, the high cost of treating Hep C in prison, and other stories

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

Lawsuit seeking Hep C treatment could come with BIG pricetag
More than 18,000 Texas prison inmates have been diagnosed with Hepatitis C - almost certainly an undercount since TDCJ does not do comprehensive testing - but only a tiny handful receive treatment. The Houston Chronicle reported on a new federal lawsuit demanding they receive treatment, which could cost up to $63,000 per person. See prior Grits coverage and video of testimony from 2014 regarding Hep C treatment in TDCJ.

Conservative think tank takes on police unions
In a significant development, the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation published a new report criticizing police unions for undermining police accountability reforms. In Texas, conservative politicians in the 21st century have largely kowtowed to these groups. Maybe the state's leading conservative think tank can convince them that's a bad approach. In related news, in St. Louis, prosecutors voted last December to join the local police union in response to the election of a new, reform-minded DA. This academic article makes the case that "This complete and public union of prosecutorial and police interests represents a collapse not only of prosecutorial ethical standards, but also a very real threat against democratically elected prosecutors who would seek to enact the reforms that their constituents desire."

Deep data dive for Big D and H-Town
The project by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and January Advisors to publish "data dashboards" for Harris and Dallas Counties' arrest, dismissal, and conviction information allows for important analyses that have never been possible before from publicly available data. They just published this overview of the project, which includes links to the dashboards and a description of what's there.

Handful of police-officer indictments in Dallas stand out
The Dallas DA's office has indicted four police officers for murder in three years, with two of them convicted. The trial for another, Amber Guyger, begins Monday. Notably, the indictments came under both Republican and Democratic District Attorneys. The Dallas News has a story describing how rare this is at other agencies. Even in Dallas, only one officer was indicted this year out of 50 (!) officer involved shootings taken to grand juries. Despite the rarity of such developments, the head of the local police union was quoted saying the indictments were evidence of anti-police bias.

DPS out of Dallas, with mixed reviews
The Department of Public Safety has ended its deployment in Dallas launched by the governor earlier this year. According to an item from the Houston Chronicle's Austin bureau, "The influx of state troopers drew criticism from some residents and a city councilman, who called for the operation’s end after hearing complaints that enforcement was unfairly targeting people of color, The Dallas Morning News reported. In August, two troopers fatally shot a Dallas man who the agency said pulled a handgun after a traffic stop, the News reported." Despite these criticisms, DPS Col. Steve McCraw declared the operation a success, declaring  "Certainly there's been some that don't appreciate it, usually the ones that are arrested or have relatives arrested, and we understand that." That seems like an odd assertion when one of the most vocal critics is a city council member.

DNA analyst resigned over high-profile error
Grits had missed the news in August that a DNA examiner resigned at the Forensic Science Commission after a report by her employer found that she had testified incorrectly in a high-profile murder case in which a UT student was strangled, declaring the defendants' DNA could be excluded when that was not true. (She worked for DPS at the time she gave the testimony.) Though she told FSC investigators she "misspoke," she did so TEN times. The commission found that her error constituted professional "negligence," but not "misconduct." Whether or not there was any bad intention behind the mistake, it highlights the difficulties and pitfalls of interpreting DNA mixture evidence, which is more subjective and less definitive than one-to-one DNA matching.

Can refined patrol strategies free up more officer time?
A criminologist at UT-Dallas developed an algorithm to help the Carrollton PD refine its patrol strategies so officers waste less time in their vehicles. Notably, the recent staffing study for Dallas PD similarly recommended refining patrol routes to free up officer time spent driving long distances.

Does EMS need tactical teams? Montgomery County thinks so
The Montgomery County Hospital District has created a tactical team to join local police on SWAT raids. One paramedic said he joined the team because "There was more of the excitement appeal."

Alternative to police response for mental health, homelessness, substance abuse
Regular readers know that Austin recently funded a new program to have medical personnel respond to some mental-health calls instead of police. At the same time, the city has been engulfed in a debate over how to confront homelessness. A program out of Oregon called CAHOOTS demonstrates an approach that could address both issues with a non-police response. Medical teams in a van respond to mental health crises and provide services to people suffering from substance abuse or homelessness, leaving law enforcement out of the equation. That's a great idea.

Okies boost parole rates
Parole rates in Oklahoma are up 41 percent from last year, and commutations (which previously almost never happened) are up 1,300 percent, reported the Tulsa World. Texas parole rates remain stagnant in recent years at around 35 percent. Most offenders in Texas prisons are parole-eligible and could be released today if the parole board agreed.

Policing practices parsed in Congress
The US House Judiciary Committee held a four-hour oversight hearing this week on policing practices. Watch it here.

The public's cognitive dissonance over forensic science
A new academic analysis finds that the public is losing faith in the accuracy of forensic science, but still believe forensics over other types of evidence. As evidence of this cognitive dissonance, "Respondents still believe that forensic evidence is a key part of a criminal case with nearly 40% of respondents believing that the absence of forensic evidence is sufficient for a prosecutor to drop the case and that the presence of forensic evidence, even if other forms of evidence suggest that the defendant is not guilty, is enough to convict the defendant." (Emphasis added.)

A new constituency for  pot legalization?
Should convenience-store owners become marijuana legalization proponents? It might boost their sales. A academic analysis published in February found that legalizing recreational pot use resulted in increased junk food sales.

The eugenicist who gave us fingerprint identification
I didn't know that the original creator of fingerprint identification in the 19th century was also the enthusiastic progenitor of the eugenics movement. It doesn't sound like the fingerprint discipline has changed much since he first convinced Scotland Yard to undertake it.

The criminogenic effect of police stops on black and Latino boys
A study published in April found that "the frequency of police stops [of black and Latino teenage boys] predicted more frequent engagement in delinquent behavior 6, 12, and 18 mo later, whereas delinquent behavior did not predict subsequent reports of police stops." In other words, police stopping minority youth was predictive of future delinquency, but self-reported engagement in delinquency was NOT predictive of police stops! The implication is that proactive policing strategies like stop-and-frisk may actually cause juvenile crime instead of deterring it.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Initial thoughts on the Great Austin Homelessness Debate

Yesterday, more than 150 people spoke to the Austin City Council on proposed revisions to their homeless decriminalization ordinance passed in June. (See initial MSM coverage here and here.) They won't finally vote until tomorrow, but here are a few initial thoughts:
  • Despite the local media clambering onto the bandwagon of NIMBY opposition and the local GOP calling for re-criminalization, Austinites supporting decriminalization made up the majority of speakers. Those voices hadn't been portrayed much in local press coverage, but there were quite a few more of them than critics.
  • Numerous local organizations - almost none of whose positions had been covered in the intensive press buildup to the hearing - formally supported the city council's decrim position. Here's a list Just Liberty compiled of those groups and presented to the council.
  • Most of the opposition to the June decrim ordinance came from white folks over 50. With few exceptions, they pretty much all made the same argument: we don't want to see homeless people or their stuff in public, don't want to pay for services for them, and we fear for the safety of our women-folk. A few critics did say they supported work by charity organizations like Mobile Loaves and Fishes, but ignored that the groups they praised disagree with their position on the decrim ordinance. 
  • About 30-40 decrim opponents arrived wearing blue shirts that said "Take Back Austin." A representative of that organization declared that they'd formed three weeks ago and already had 3,000 members. Apparently, this bunch want to take Austin back from the city's majority, since decrim supporters outnumbered critics and only about 1% of their alleged membership showed up.
  • Notably, despite the local GOP's ill-advised entry into the fray, Take Back Austin doesn't even represent the views of all conservatives. I was there  recently when a representative from that group came and pitched their petition at a meeting of Texans for Accountable Government, a liberty-minded conservative activist group. His comments alienated most of the room and he left without an endorsement.
  • Many decrim critics were incredibly angry and rude - especially for the first hour or so, people would holler out and interrupt speakers from the other side, or talk loudly among themselves when someone was speaking with whom they disagreed. I thought their behavior discredited them nearly as much as their lack of sound arguments. The mayor demonstrated extreme patience in not kicking out the worst offenders.
  • A UT-Austin group called SafeHorns has been one of the most oft-quoted critics of the city council during this debate, claiming to speak for UT students. But this week Student Government at UT-Austin voted to support the city council's decrim measures. And nearly all of the young people who spoke were against rolling back the council's June ordinance. So it's now clear those few voices given an out-sized platform by local media don't necessarily speak for the whole student body.
  • By contrast, decrim supporters included folks across the age spectrum, but skewed younger, much more diverse, were more solutions-oriented, and endorsed a greater variety of more nuanced perspectives.
  • Chas Moore from the Austin Justice Coalition read city council the riot act, emphasizing that only seven percent of Austin's population is black but around 40% of homeless people are. He suggested (and IMO it's almost certainly true) that that's a big, underlying cause of the opposition.
  • Grits also appreciated that several white women addressed the "protect our women" trope, describing how that meme had been used to justify racial discrimination and even lynchings throughout American history. I was grateful someone confronted that head on, it was a necessary antidote to some of the Jim-Crow-esque rhetoric being casually thrown around.
  • The role of Class C misdemeanor enforcement came up a lot. When homeless folks were ticketed for sitting or lying under the old regime, they couldn't pay so the tickets would turn into warrants. Then later, they'd be arrested and, when they got out of jail, all their belongings had been stolen or confiscated by police. A woman described the agony of losing every family photo she owned that way. (That was the only time I genuinely teared up. My family photos are among my most precious belongings.)
  • Testimony from homeless people was generally excellent. A consistent story from the pre-decrim days involved being rousted while sleeping, told to move from where they were, but having no place to go. People described being robbed or having belongings confiscated because they couldn't leave their stuff even to apply for a job. Others emphasized the inability to find a place to shower, to find transportation even to apply for services. A theme from decrim supporters that resonated throughout the day was that, if council wanted to know what homeless people need to improve their lot, somebody should ask them instead of just listening to the angriest voices in the room.
  • One of the few things nearly everyone agreed on was that the rising cost of living in Austin was driving much of the homelessness problem. Republicans in the room wanted to attribute that to taxes, but in truth, most of it is driven by the market. Californians sell their Bay-Area two-bedroom for $1.2 million then show up in Austin and drive up local prices. (E.g., I live in a house that my wife and I rented for $190 a month in the 1990s, before buying it from the landlord in '96 for $40k at the nadir of the Savings and Loan bust. Today, it's on the tax rolls for more than $450k. Sure, our taxes are higher, but that's not the main thing making Austin un-affordable.) Calls for emergency rent subsidies and grant subsidies to promote home ownership were some of the more interesting suggestions that cropped up on this score.
As a white homeowner over 50 who's now lived in Austin for 34 years, Grits couldn't really understand the over-the-top animosity coming from others who share my subject position. I spend a fair amount of time downtown and there are homeless folks in my neighborhood. I simply don't see the wave of new problems described by the loud, angry "Take Back" crowd throughout the day. I see a few more homeless people now - mostly camping under overpasses more openly - but I haven't witnessed any new issues that public restrooms, showers and trash-pickup services wouldn't resolve.

Moreover, most of the things critics say drive their concerns with homeless people - trespassing on private property, physically attacking or intimidating people, urinating or masturbating in public - are still illegal. Nothing about the ordinance legalizing sitting and lying down in public changed that, so many of the complaints frankly seem disingenuous.

Comments from councilmembers seemed to indicate that there are sufficient votes to resist the more draconian rollbacks of the decrim ordinance being suggested, but there's no way to tell for sure until the City Council votes tomorrow. Here's hoping they stick to their guns and do the right thing.

UPDATE: For now, the city council rejected reinstatement of the no-sit/no-lie ordinance. Four backed expanding the ordinance even further than it went before the law was changed in June. Five including the mayor endorsed less expansive changes that would reinstate it only around homeless shelters, aiming to address people congregating outside the downtown homeless shelter and a new one being built in South Austin. And two - who in the end, won the day - said the council was being reactive and should give the city's new homeless coordinator who was just hired time to assess the situation and make a recommendation. The council agreed to hold a work session in October to discuss matters further. (Ugh. :/)

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The Art of Deflection: HPD chief shows how to blame judges for policing failures

Police chiefs in Harris County continue to attack bail reform - most recently Houston police chief Art Acevedo - but the examples given never seem to bear out their complaints. Acevedo yesterday went on local TV to blame judges for releasing a defendant who later ended up shooting a police officer with his own gun after a struggle.

His comments came at the scene of an unrelated police shooting near a school where the suspect was killed, and the chief attempted to conflate the cases. In the Fox26 news story, he succeeded in conflating them; the article was so poorly constructed, I had to go to other sources to figure out what the hell he was talking about. Reported Fox26:
Acevedo threatened to call out judges who grant bond to violent offenders while speaking at the scene of an officer involved shooting on South Gessner Monday. The shooting happened as one of his officer [sic] is recovering from being shot Thursday by a suspect who was out on bond. 
Court records show that suspect—Brandon Bell, 17—paid zero dollars to bond out of jail two weeks ago after allegedly carjacking a woman at gunpoint. 
"If you lived in a high crime area and you knew that these judges were gonna let a violent criminal go in one door and within a matter of hours or a day or two get out on a low bond, do you want to testify against them?" asked Acevedo.
Brandon Bell was NOT the shooter at the school where Acevedo gave the comments, but you really can't tell from the story until the final line, when the reporter finally named the deceased.

It turns out, however, there's more to Mr. Bell's story than the chief is letting on: "In Brandon Bell's case, records show he bonded out on a misdemeanor trespassing charge September 3, before investigators could collect enough evidence to charge him with felony aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon."

So think about what's being said: Acevedo crows to the media that Bell was let out on a personal bond for carjacking, and the reporter dutifully repeats the claim. But she already knows that's not exactly true, and buried the counterfactual at the bottom of the story. His officers hadn't filed the carjacking charges when he was released, only misdemeanor trespassing!

How long should courts hold misdemeanor defendants to let police investigate them for crimes with which they haven't been charged? On what basis should they have detained the 17-year old, who in most other states would have been charged as a juvenile?

In America, police don't get to arrest people and hold them in jail when they are unable to supply probable cause the person committed an offense. And if they'd presented evidence against Mr. Bell in the carjacking incident, he'd have been charged with a felony and remained in jail. The failure to do so is the only reason he wasn't held longer.

The judge who bonded the guy out told the reporter:
Judge Darrell Jordan who approved Bell's bond told Fox 26 he was just following Texas law. 
"If there is a trespassing case or something like that—then that person will be released on a general order bond," said Jordan. "The bond amount will say $100, but they pay nothing."
Even if Bell had been required to pay the $100, that's not going to keep anybody off the streets for long. The real issue is Houston PD and the DA's office hadn't charged him with anything more serious, even though he'd allegedly committed a carjacking. Two weeks later, the kid shot a police officer.

This is pure deflection, blaming judges for Houston PD's own failures.

MORE: For those interested in more detail, Don Hooper of the Houston Conservative Forum posted the police affidavit on Twitter alleging Mr. Bell engaged in carjacking, and proceeded to argue the details of the episode (contentiously) with a cop. The complainant recognized the carjacker at the scene, and a robbery detective conducted a photo array on the same day in which she identified him again. But police didn't file the affidavit alleging the carjacking charge until Sept. 9th, after Bell had already been released. How is this the judge's fault, again?