Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Reimagining History at the Austin Police Academy

For the past year, Austin has deployed a group of community folks and city staff to analyze the curriculum at the police academy and suggest reforms: It's not going well.

The community reviews material, makes recommendations, but little gets implemented. It seems at this point like the goal is to stall until interest dies down and no one notices that nothing ever got changed.

A case in point is a section on constitutional history that Grits wrote about last year. It turned out, the instructor largely based the curriculum on a book by a John Birch Society propagandist who authored a nutball history called "The 5,000 Year Leap" which was popularized after his death by right-wing broadcaster Glen Beck.

This text makes a variety of unusual claims, pretending the Founding Fathers intended to create a Bible-based government (no "separation of church and state" here) and that the Jamestown settlement represented the birth of free markets and private enterprise. Jamestown, of course, was a company town, the company was owned by a king, and the economy was built on slavery and indentured servitude. But the author, Cleon Skousen, was never one to let facts get in the way of a good, neo-fascist narrative.

My wife is on the review committee and she asked your correspondent to assess this section when it first came up in 2021. Grits quickly discovered that some of the weird, faux history came from the Skousen book, including various jingoistic graphics that I located via a Google Image search.

Grits purchased a copy of  "The 5,000 Year Leap" and it's a piece of work. Much of it was just strange, fundamentalist rambling and little of it is relevant to policing. Skousen concocted 28 "principles" he claimed the Founding Fathers adhered to, but they're his creation, and more a reflection of the views of the hard-right edge of modern religious conservatives than any consensus held by the founders.

The latest version of the Austin police academy training eliminated much of the most explicit, ideological aspects from the book but kept the focus on pre-Constitutional history Skousen promoted, leaving the new version an odd and decontextualized shell of its former self.

The city staffer assigned to lead the review, Anne Kringen, pulled this course from the committee's review list last year, saying they wanted to make changes and come back with a better version. But before the review could occur, the same instructor taught this similar but stripped down version to cadets. 

Cadets were once again taught obscure details about colonial history, starting with the birth of free markets in Jamestown and emphasizing selected aspects of the Articles of Confederation and the Connecticut Compromise, but not the aspects you might expect. The lesson plan and power point contained no mention of slavery, the 3/5ths Compromise, the Fugitive Slave Act, gender-and-property-requirements for voting, or any discussion of the interests of southern slave owners which dominated that document's formulation. 

Just before the curriculum was taught this summer, they asked a UT law prof, Andrea Marsh, to assist. She was called in at the last minute and not in any way involved in developing the history section taught to cadets. Andrea taught the final part of the constitution section, which is quite straightforward, accurate, and easily the only useful or valid part of any training cadets received on this topic. 

Kringen did not inform Andrea why she was brought in, did not tell her about concerns with the John-Birch-Society-themed historiography, and never mentioned Cleon Skousen or "The 5,000 Year Leap." Andrea told my wife she found the history "weird" and didn't understand why it was being taught to cadets.

When Kringen was asked why this was still going on, her response bordered on gaslighting. She claimed Andrea had performed an "evaluation" of the APD instructor's teaching, which was patently false. Andrea sat in on the class the day he taught, but had no input into the content and did not perform any kind of "evaluation." Moreover, because she wasn't told about the concerns with sourcing or the Bircher orientation of the instruction material, she had no context to understand what she was hearing, though she certainly could tell it had little to do with policing.

Kringen told the group it was "unfair to disregard Andrea’s evaluation and my decision to get her perspective and share it with the committee by characterizing it as being an attempt to validate anything." But again, Andrea made no "evaluation." She just sat through a "weird" lecture that seemed irrelevant and inappropriate to teach to cadets.

Kringen tacitly acknowledged this, saying Andrea thought, "some of the time spent on history could be better utilized. Her suggestion to improve the class would be to reduce the time spent on pre-Constitutional history and focus more on the [state-licensing-agency-required] bullet points." Of course, getting rid of the "weird" history rooted in Bircher ideology and focusing on actual police training was what the committee asked for a year ago. But that was not done.

Kringen still insists the same instructor should continue to teach the class and, in practice, completely defers to instructors as to what changes should be made to the curriculum. At this point, it's fair to say nothing substantive can or will change as long as that's the process.

I don't know Kringen so Grits cannot say whether this is an example of overt bad faith on her part or if she is simply disempowered in the process and police-department brass won't let her fix what's wrong. But it doesn't really matter which it is, the results are the same.

If the curriculum review can't get this fixed, it's hard to imagine anything will change regarding police training in Austin.

Clearly, that's exactly how the Austin PD brass wants it.

Monday, July 04, 2022

#CJreform Movement Poorly Positioned to Confront Re-Criminalized Abortion

During my three decades working on criminal-justice reform, when abortion came up, your correspondent always took the attitude, "That's someone else's job." Not anymore. As of last week, abortion became a criminal-justice issue in Texas, full stop.

The US Supreme Court's abandonment of Roe vs. Wade -- combined with a decision last year by Greg Abbott and the Texas Legislature to re-affirm criminal statutes on abortion from the 1925 Penal Code, if and when Roe ever fell --  suddenly have dumped the abortion question back into the realm of criminal law. 

SCOTUS decided Roe v. Wade when I was four years old, so I've never known a world in which the criminal courts managed women's reproductive choices. Thus it's easy to forget that the Wade in Roe v. Wade was Henry Wade, the Dallas County District Attorney,* and that for a century-plus before that, both obtaining and assisting with an abortion were crimes for which people were arrested by police, charged by prosecutors, sentenced by juries, and imprisoned in the same facilities as murderers and thieves.

Statutes banning assisted or intentional miscarriages were on the books in Texas from at least 1854, before being updated to include the word "abortion" in 1907 and then codified into the Penal Code in 1925. Attorney Doug Gladden goes through that statutory history here

Gladden identified 40 abortion convictions in Texas appellate records: 24 before 1925, 16 of which were reversed, and 16 from 1925 to 1971, of which five were reversed. Some cases may not have been appealed, and records may not be complete, but even so, this tells us abortion statutes weren't frequently enforced. 

What they did do was prevent most legitimate, trained doctors from performing them. In Greenville, for example, in 1905, a black doctor was arrested for performing an abortion on an 18-year old girl. In 1907, a physician was prosecuted in Haskell, TX, for performing an abortion on his 13-year old sister-in-law, who had been raped. In El Paso,  Dr. Andrea Reum, whose husband was also a medical doctor, was prosecuted after performing an abortion on a young black woman. She was a rich society lady who wore fashionable gowns and diamonds while incarcerated in the county jail. 

The earliest case I found reported in Texas newspapers was n 1890 in Comanche, when a medical doctor was arrested for performing an abortion. Charges were later dismissed when the victim refused to testify.

Such episodes were widely publicized in the press and sent a message to physicians that performing abortions would cost them their licenses. In 1919, the Legislature passed HB 235 making that official, requiring license cancellation by the state medical board for any physician found to have given a criminal abortion.

The Amarillo Globe News in 1960 cited local physicians' concerns that the abortion ban forced women to have "do it yourself" abortions, and reported that most women seeking the procedure were married.

Forbidding safe abortions didn't mean women wouldn't pursue unsafe ones, en masse. By the time of Roe v. Wade, the practice had become widespread. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, in 1966 an estimated one million women had criminal abortions, and 8,000 of them died as a result.

By contrast, in 2021, the Guttmacher Institute estimates about 930,000 women had safe, medical abortions, though the US population is much larger than in 1966. So legalizing abortion empirically didn't make their number increase; it only made things safer and less threatening for women and the nurses and physicians brave enough to help them.

If it's true that abortions were more prevalent under a criminal sanctions regime, from a policy perspective, re-criminalizing greatly increases the harm without achieving the desired result.

The other big intersection of criminal law and abortion rights in the wake of the Dobbs opinion arises for women under supervision of the justice system: Either out on bail or on probation or parole. Whether these women will be allowed to leave their jurisdiction to get an abortion will be decided on a judge-by-judge basis: Some will routinely allow it; some never will. This will create a patchwork of policies as well as massive incentive for defendants to lie to the courts and abscond.

Presently, because this hasn't been an issue the criminal-justice system dealt with in more than a half century, there's no criminal-justice reform group obviously well-situated to confront these questions. The ACLU will step up, one assumes, but they're being pulled in a million directions and don't have a winning track record on these topics. Meanwhile, abortion-rights groups who one would anticipate would be most aggressive haven't dealt with the justice system in a half century and will have a steep learning curve. Grits fears that neither the abortion rights movement nor the #cjreform movement are well-positioned to confront what's coming next.

MORE: A slightly expanded/edited version of this post was published in The Texas Observer.

* An earlier version of this blog post said Henry Wade was Harris County DA. He was DA in Dallas County. I regret the error.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Custodians of History: Old prosecutor files include marginalized voices usually excluded from public media and discourse

Conversations about crime data and police and prosecutor files most frequently pertain to the news of the moment: Did bail reform cause crime to increase? Was this or that police officer held accountable? Are black folks disproportionately stopped for traffic offenses?

But lately your correspondent has undertaken a research project reminding me that these records have much greater value than just informing policy debates of the moment. In many cases, they're the only records available involving important historical people and events. District Attorney and police agencies are among the earliest, continuously operating government departments, and case files are a rich source of detailed, local information.

This is especially important when mainstream information sources about marginalized people are scarce. For example, in New York City, prosecutor records were used to document the early 20th century exploits of an undercover policewoman investigating abortion doctors. Wrote one of the authors of that investigation:
These files record the lives of marginalized populations, often silenced in the historical record. Poor New Yorkers, women, immigrants, queer residents, and people of color, whose lives might have evaded contemporary published material but whose voices appear -- albeit refracted through the justice system -- in these archives.
We're finding that's true in the historical stories I'm researching centered in East Austin. Researching black history in Texas from the 1920s and '30s is a tremendous slog: only a few editions of the main black newspapers remain, and the white press largely ignored black news, sports, and culture. But many of these same people interacted all too frequently with the justice system. To the extent their voices can still be discovered at all, often it's only "refracted" through that ignominious but invaluable lens.

After 75 years, Texas state law eliminates most confidentiality restrictions and discretionary authority to withhold release on criminal records, making them technically public. But most DA's offices don't treat them that way. Here in Travis County, my wife and I recently filed an open records request for files from the early 1940s. The Travis County DAO initially replied that they intended to deny disclosure under all the "discretionary" exceptions they could identify. 

We appealed the matter, pointing out that the Public Information Act doesn't afford them any of those discretionary exceptions. The DA agreed, and supposedly we'll get those records soon. But what's really needed is for prosecutors to develop written policies about record retention and release, then to migrate files to local archivists better trained to handle and preserve them. 

What kind of records are we talking about? Certainly, it differs case by case. But we have lots of examples because, in 2009, then-Travis-County-District-Attorney Ronnie Earle transferred 35 boxes of records, mostly from the 1940s and 1970s, to the Travis County Archivist, which also retains old records for the constables offices, the probation department, and other county law enforcement agencies.

The transfer of these 35 boxes appears to have been a one off. The archivist said there was something in the database about concerns that the files were deteriorating wherever the DAO stored them before. Regardless, they're now all sitting on a shelf at the archivist's office on Airport Blvd.

Kathy and I went to review several of these boxes to see if they contained files related to the now-long-deceased people I was researching. They did not. But Kathy noticed these documents in an unrelated case in which prosecutors adamantly struck black jurors in red pen:

Here's another example:


I'm not a lawyer, but I'm pretty sure these aren't Batson-approved jury-selection practices. After I posted these photos on Twitter, I got an email from the Travis County DA's first assistant saying she'd referred it to their Conviction Integrity Unit! Bully for them.

This naturally spurred my curiosity. This was a case I was neither looking for nor familiar with, but I'd snapped a photo of the caption and cause number:


It turned out to involve a man named Arthur Raven and a codefendant, Audrey McDonald, and would have been an extremely high-profile case. (Long-time readers will recognize a pattern: the higher-profile the case, the more likely somebody cuts corners to secure a conviction, as with this jury-selection process.)

Raven, a white man, was the first football coach at Reagan High School when it opened in 1965 and from the beginning was highly successful, winning three 4A state championships in 1967, '68, and '70. Reagan was a predominantly black high school, built to replace the old L.C. Anderson HS, which closed in 1971. After his third state title, Austin ISD elevated Raven to become athletic director district-wide.

His son, Arthur Jr., was a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper. In 1972, he  attempted to capitalize on name recognition from his father's success to run for Sheriff against 20-year incumbent T.O. Lang. Lang was a "Shivercrat," a conservative Democrat who'd spent World War II as Austin PD's liaison with the FBI hunting subversives. After the war in the late '40s, he was an APD homicide detective before running for office.

To this day, no one ever held that position longer and, after two decades, lots of people thought it was someone else's turn.

Also running against Lang in 1972 was Raymond Frank, a leftie reformer attempting to capitalize on the same momentum that ousted a wave of right-wing Texas Democrats at the Legislature following the Sharpstown banking scandal. Insiders blamed Raven, Jr., when he split the traditional law-enforcement vote, allowing Frank to push Lang into a runoff. Lang lost. And his allies were furious.

Once in office, District Attorney Robert O. Smith almost immediately turned his sights on Frank. A grand jury under his direction issued a report critical of the new Sheriff. Frank turned around and accused Smith of corruption and manipulating the grand jury.

Arthur Raven, Sr., was accused of coercing prostitution while all this was going on, but convicted of a lesser, misdemeanor charge while the jury acquitted his codefendant. We didn't read the whole prosecutor's file, just this portion concerning jury selection. But news accounts say Raven took the stand in his own defense, testifying most of the day as the defense's only witness. Your correspondent hasn't done enough research to form an independent opinion, but Raven certainly thought he was being railroaded.

Was Smith retaliating against the old ball coach because his son's campaign helped the DA's nemesis get into power? Grits has no first-hand knowledge. But I bet I'm not the first person to imagine so.

To be clear: I haven't read the file and just snapped a few photos and read a few news clips. I don't know who was in the right in these controversies, whether Arthur Raven, Sr., was guilty, or if his prosecution was politically motivated. But this glimpse into the historical record shows how important these old files can be to interpreting past events. Knowing prosecutors went to unethical lengths to exclude black people from Raven's jury is an important part of that story that would remain hidden if one relied only on news accounts.

In 2009, Ronnie Earle (God rest his soul) thought it was fine to make records from the 1970s public at the Travis County Archivist. That policy should be formalized. It's a waste of scarce resources at the District Attorney's office for lawyers to review every request. Better to pass that task along to library-science professionals employed precisely to perform these tasks.

I'm looking forward to receiving the records we requested, which I have no doubt will answer a long list of nagging questions surrounding the historical research Grits has been working on.

Once we get them, the next step is for the DA's office -- eventually, for every DA's office -- to develop written policies for retention and release of historical records. We hear a lot about police and prosecutors as custodians of public safety. They should also be recognized as custodians of history, and behave as such.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

In 1950s, Austin removed lights and sirens from police cars: Result was award winning traffic safety record

Speeding with light and sirens is among the most dangerous things police officers do on the job, and about as likely to get officers or civilians killed as gunplay. Over the last couple of decades, this blog has documented efforts to reduce those deaths via policy tweaks and new technology.

But in the 1950s, Austin police took an even more drastic step to reduce police-vehicle accidents: Grits was today years old when I learned that, in the 1950s, the Austin Police Department removed lights and sirens from its police cars to encourage better driving by its officers. 

It worked. Accidents involving officers plummeted and the city won a national safety award for its vehicle fleet.

In an Austin Statesman article dated December 27, 1955 titled, "Siren, light removal makes police unhappy," the paper reported that "removal of the sirens and red lights has materially reduced accidents involving police cars rushing to other smashups or speeding to the scene of a crime."

Police Captain George Rogers, head of the department's traffic bureau, said "it was a very important factor" in Austin's winning of the 1955 fleet traffic safety award.

The award - presented by the National Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Safety Council - recognizes the Austin police department's fleet safety record as the best in the nation.

They began removing lights and sirens as they replaced old patrol cars starting in 1953. According to Captain Rogers, "Some of the boys got it in their heads that because they had sirens everyone would get out of their way, but of course that's not true. We figured we could save equipment by removing them, and we have."

Rogers noted that since July only two police cars have been involved in accidents - a substantial better showing than in the past.

[City Manager Terrell] Blodgett put it this way: "We did it to reduce accidents. We felt that the few seconds saved (because of sirens) were not worth the chances of accident and injuries.

"Rank and file" grumbled about the change, but for at least a few years, it stuck. 

I can't tell precisely when lights and sirens made it back onto Austin police cars. But in 1971, the Legislature passed a state law mandating that "an emergency vehicle on an emergency call must use red lights and a siren." Not long thereafter, two Austin police cars were totaled when they hit each other driving with lights and sirens to a non-emergency call. One of the officers was seriously injured. Reported the Statesman at the time:

At one time, the Austin police force did not have plainly marked patrol cars and only had a small red light which an officer placed on the dashboard of the unit when stopping another car.

No car was equipped with sirens at that time. ("New police Code 3 policy requires sirens, red lights," Austin American Statesman, Dec. 28, 1971)

This is a shockingly forward thinking policy prescription for the 1950s and I'm amazed police brass were willing to stand up to the rank and file to enact it. Less surprising are the facts that a) it undeniably reduced accidents and saved lives and b) eventually the city succumbed to pressure from the "rank and file" to change it back.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Not that anyone cares, but "violent victimizations" were actually down last year

Your correspondent has not been writing here recently because I'm in the process of evaluating the continued effectiveness of making fact-based arguments on public-policy topics. Texas politics no longer seems to value facts, so I'm not sure what benefit there is from discussing them. Hewing to them just makes one a target and causes one's enemies to believe the opposite out of some twisted, oppositional principle.

And yet, facts persist. Sigh. Let's talk about one that nobody in the political class wants to believe, and that will certainly only bring Grits grief for even mentioning: The just-released National Crime Victimization Survey - one of the two main measurements of crime in the United States - found that, "From 2019 to 2020, the total violent victimization rate declined 22%, from 21.0 to 16.4 victimizations per 1,000 persons age 12 or older." Burglaries and trespassing complaints declined, the survey found. And the decline was especially pronounced among youth age 12-17, for whom violent victimizations decreased 51%.

Does that jibe with the breathless news coverage about crime you've read in the last year? Of course not. The decline in violent victimization won't attract viewers/readers the same way as "Be afraid, killers on the loose," so it won't be reported. Compare this to how the increase in murders played out in the press last year.

As John Pfaff observed on Twitter, this news reinforces the extent to which the reported crime increase being touted near-daily in the press has been largely about homicides. Assaults and violent victimizations overall were down last year, according to this metric, particularly in suburban areas. Simple assaults were down, but also more serious ones. Firearm victimizations, which in this survey includes pointing a firearm as well as firing one, declined from 481,950 in 2019 to 350,460 in 2020. Burglaries were down 19%.

The NCVS is one of two main, national crime measurements in the United States. The "Uniform Crime Reports" (UCR) count crimes reported to law enforcement agencies, while the NCVS surveys crime victims to include crime victims who didn't report to police.

The NCVS is especially important right now because of changes to UCR data. Without going too deep in the weeds, the feds are shifting to an incident-based reporting system that supposedly is more accurate but results in data that's not an apples-to-apples comparison to what was reported before. Plus, many smaller agencies haven't yet made the switch. So for the next few years, it will be problematic to judge crime trends based on these data: They'll be establishing a new baseline that's not comparable to the old numbers.

The NCVS, by contrast, is still performed as it was in the past, though in-person interviews were halted last year for a time bc of COVID. Moreover, the story it tells corroborates UCR data on crime beyond homicides: News reporters and criminologists have puzzled that murders increased but reports of other types of violent crime went down. The NCVS confirms that crime victims simply were victimized less, not just that reporting went down because of distrust of police (or whatever reason one wants to assign).

So many in law enforcement have taken the recent murder spike as an excuse for a money grab, there's little reason to hope public policy might adjust to reflect actual, in-real-life crime data. So Grits offers up the NCVS analysis without any real belief that it will convince anybody of anything. Everyone will just look at it for evidence that confirms their priors, cherrypick that, and move on.

In the context of declining violent crime victimization, it's worth revisiting recent research from Dr. Bill Spelman at the UT LBJ School. He analyzed the major risks of death for Austinites and found murder was a far less salient risk than traffic deaths, suicides, or drug overdoses.

Anyone truly concerned about "public safety" in this town would, by any reasonable measure, be chiefly concerned with the causes of death on the right-hand side of this chart. But we spend most of our time in city politics and a majority of the city budget on the causes on the left hand side. It's exhausting. And stupid. And I don't know if it can or will ever change.

A good start would be for Austinites to vote against Prop A. Early voting is going on right now and election day is next Tuesday. But if you've read this far, you're probably already a Prop A opponent. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

More police won't help with Austin's biggest public-safety threats

Let's talk for a moment about public safety in Austin.

The argument for Prop A - the GOP-backed initiative to force the city of Austin to hire 500+ more police officers - is premised on the notion that Texas' capital has become uniquely dangerous as a result of the city council's anti-law enforcement policies. Local media have doubled down on this meme, touting Austin's "record" number of homicides while downplaying the fact that we're now a city of a million people and the record was set 40 years ago. 

How journalists present this information tells us more about them than whether Austin is a safe town. You can run with the scary headline, "Austin hits all-time murder record," or the equally accurate, "Austin has slightly more murders than when it was a much smaller town 40 years ago." The former may work better as clickbait (which is why they do it - hi, Tony Plohetski!) but the latter, contextualized account gives a more accurate sense of the threat.

Though you wouldn't know it from the local media's framing, the murder spike in Austin last year tracked nationwide trends and other Texas cities - including Republican-led communities like Fort Worth and Lubbock - saw even greater increases. So the notion that the murder spike resulted from Austin-specific policies or local attitudes toward police are dubious at best: Nobody thinks Lubbock's city council is anti-police, and they saw a 105% increase in homicides last year.

Even if you think crime is a problem, there's strong evidence hiring more police won't help. The question of whether hiring more police reduces crime has been intensively studied for decades with consistent findings, according to a 2013 metastudy analyzing hundreds of research findings over 40 years. Those researchers concluded, "This line of research has exhausted its utility. Changing policing strategy is likely to have a greater impact on crime than adding more police."

Prof. Bill Spelman, a criminologist and former Austin city council member, now retired from UT's LBJ School, made similar assertions on local Fox news this week. He pointed to the lack of correlation between police staffing size and homicide increases last year, noting that departments of all sizes saw murder spikes, including agencies with high and low staffing ratios alike.

Indeed, Prop A arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of the safety risks faced by the public. Murders are a scary way to die, but in Austin they're an incredibly uncommon one. By comparison, more than one thousand Austinites have died from COVID in the past year and a half. Prof. Spelman analyzed the various death risks in Austin and compared them to national averages. Here's what he found:

Austinites are far less likely to die from murders than other Americans, but we're not doing nearly so well on drug overdoses and suicide. In fact, former Austin Police Chief Brian Manley refused to allow police officers to carry donated Narcan to prevent overdose deaths, declaring that providing medical care was EMS's job. His successor, Joe Chacon, reversed that policy earlier this year, but police in Austin have not until VERY recently considered drug overdoses their problem.

Austin PD has also resisted efforts to send mental-health workers to suicide calls. The city funded a pilot to have teams led by medical professionals handle most of these cases, but after the first year, few real-world calls had been diverted.

Suicides and drug overdoses aren't areas where police play a meaningful role and increasing their number won't prevent deaths by those causes.

Similarly, there's little evidence increased policing will reduce traffic deaths. Statewide in Texas, traffic enforcement decreased by more than half since 2008, during a period when the population and miles driven boomed. And yet, accidents-per-mile driven fluctuated over this period then declined: There's been no apparent public-safety detriment from most traffic tickets going away.

Indeed, in Austin, in particular, the biggest sources of traffic deaths stem from flaws in traffic engineering. This city has until recently prioritized automobile traffic over bikes and pedestrians, so when those groups interact with cars, it often doesn't end well. Public-works improvement like segregated bike lanes and pedestrian tunnels will do more to prevent these deaths than hiring extra cops. But ironically, Prop A would prevent such spending by forcing the city to prioritize hiring police.

For that reason, on traffic, Prop A arguably makes Austin less safe.

Spelman's research re-frames the public-safety question more broadly to include ALL the threats people face, not just scary murderers. And as soon as one considers that broader question, the murders don't seem so scary. They're terrible events happening to small numbers of folks, but their existence shouldn't cause us to de-prioritize responses to threats that pose equally grave danger to far more people.

Friday, September 03, 2021

Politics explains oddities and strange bedfellows in Harris County bail debate

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg issued a 56-page report disputing the findings of federal bail monitors overseeing the settlement agreement between plaintiffs and the county.

Her arguments are so disingenuous, it's a bit tiresome to go through them for rebuttal. But since the Houston Chronicle editorial board recently anointed themselves the DA's PR agents, it's worth at least pointing out her most egregious misstatements. 

The biggest one is a common misrepresentation that you rarely see people claim in writing; it's always something whispered behind the scenes, until now. Ogg claimed: 
“Bail reform” has not been confined to misdemeanors, but has been implemented, in practice, for felony defendants at every level, even repeat violent offenders charged with some of Harris County's most notorious and deadly crimes, including, but not limited to murders and capital murders.
This is inarguably, factually, a lie. Not an overstatement. Not an alternative point of view. Not a difference of opinion. A bold-faced lie by someone who should know better. It's something opponents of bail reform say over and over, but when you dig into the stories, the person inevitably paid cash to get out. The Houston Chronicle looked at more than 200 murders committed by people out on bail since 2013. Less than 1% involved someone out on personal bond.

Regardless, over and over we see personal bonds blamed for crimes committed by people who paid to get out. On the floor of the Texas Senate this summer, Joan Huffman told her colleagues during the first special session that five people who were out on bond had been charged with murders in Houston since that body had adjourned. But it turned out, none of them were out on a personal bond. All of them had paid to be released and their cases wouldn't be affected by the bill. 

By contrast, misdemeanor bail reform involved the use of personal bonds, and misstatements like this are why the Legislature focused on banning them. But that won't affect "repeat violent offenders charged with some of Harris County's most notorious and deadly crimes." It's just not true, no matter how often it's repeated, including by Republicans I respect.

Ogg's central argument is that the number of crimes committed by people out on bail is increasing in Houston. Which is true -- and also far more people are currently awaiting trial than just a few years ago. She frames the discussion in a way that elides that key fact, knowledge of which might lead to different conclusions. Her key "findings" were presented as follows:
  • Re-offending by criminal defendants who have been released on bail is up.
  • Bond failures by criminal defendants are up.
  • Violent offenses committed by defendants free on bail is up.
As an improv comic might say, "Yes, and ..."

None of that is because Houston judges are hesitant to jail people. 

Here's what's really going on, and anybody who's not focused on these specific problems isn't shooting straight with you about wanting to reduce crimes by people out on bail: In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, flooded courthouses created a court backlog that increased the number of people out on bail three-fold, from a little over 30,000 people on bail to more than 90,000, reported the Houston Chronicle recently. COVID exacerbated these delays, while the latest COVID spike has heightened pressure to decarcerate local jails as a growing public health imperative

Harris County's criminal case backlogs could take years to work through unless, as Elizabeth Rossi and Amanda Woog suggested earlier this week on Grits,  the District Attorney begins using her discretion to dismiss broad classes of lower-level cases en masse.

Until then, one would expect the number of crimes committed by people on bail to increase as long as the number of people on bail is increasing.

That said, here's one more datapoint in defense of the federal monitors Ogg is ostensibly criticizing. By the data in her report, the number of crimes committed by this cohort (people out on bail) increased LESS than did the total number released pretrial. So she's complaining that the numerator in a fraction went up without telling you the denominator went up even more. I realize some people go to law school because they're not good at math, but even in that context, this is a little extreme. Her whole memo is based on such preconceptions.

In fact, there's evidence that, faced with a significant problem of the number of people out on bail tripling in a short period of time, judges did a pretty good job of vetting cases. Since the number of people out on bail tripled but the number of crimes committed by that cohort increased less than that, in aggregate, judges seem to have been making the best public-safety oriented decisions they could in response to a bad situation. 

In Texas politics, however, no good deed ever goes unpunished.

Grits believes the DA's complaints and indeed, the entire Texas bail-reform debate, can't be understood outside of a highly politicized context. Between County Judge Lina Hidalgo (who hasn't approved Ogg's open-ended budget requests) and recently elected Democratic Houston judges, some of whom supported her more progressive primary opponents last go round, Ogg and the governor find themselves, at least in the short term, with common enemies. I'm not saying it's planned; more like she's taking potshots, looks up, and all of a sudden she and the Governor are shooting at the same targets. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, etc..

Regardless, there's no way for Harris County to incarcerate its way out of court backlogs. It's a practical impossibility and from a perspective of responsible governance, absurd to demand it. But that's the simplistic vision of "justice" and "safety" that Ogg, Andy Kahan, and Governor Abbott would have you buy into.

If Ogg were working with other Harris County officials to problem solve by getting rid of the backlog, judges might give more credence to her requests for higher bail on actual "repeat violent offenders." And perhaps she'd get a more welcoming reception in her budget asks at the commissioners court. 

But some prosecutors believe it's never their place to negotiate. They see their role as either "I get my way or I'll fight you." That's what we're seeing with Kim Ogg, and it's a severe disappointment.

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Prosecuting crimes of poverty isn't the same as combating a "crime wave"

The following is a guest blog post co-authored by Elizabeth Rossi of Civil Rights Corps and Amanda Woog of the Texas Fair Defense Project. Their organizations are among the civil rights groups involved in bail litigation against Harris County. Related: this discussion of the District Attorney's claims to be fighting a "crime wave" in Houston harken to this analysis of media coverage of crime and jails from a century ago. Sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Chronicle’s recent editorial “How Harris County prosecutors are trying to stop Houston’s crime wave,” casts District Attorney Kim Ogg’s office as engaged in some heroic task of ferreting out the County’s most dangerous “criminals,” when in fact the DA is funneling millions of dollars toward the prosecution of poor people charged with crimes of poverty. Without a shred of evidence, the Chronicle adopted the DA’s party line, asserting that “more prosecutions means more justice and a safer community.”

Expert research -- including some paid for by the County -- shows that's not true.

The County hired national experts at the Justice Management Institute last summer to address exactly this question. JMI assessed the backlog and concluded that the safest and most fiscally responsible solution to the backlog would be “to dismiss all non-violent felony cases older than nine months,” with certain exceptions for cases like DWI, so that the DAO could devote its resources to prosecuting violent cases. The experts at JMI pointed out that only 42% of all felony cases (not just “violent” crimes) closed in 2019 resulted in a conviction. The other 58% resulted in dismissal, deferred adjudication, or acquittal. And even among the 42% of cases that resulted in conviction, the majority involved people who were released immediately into the community on probation. The idea that the DAO is rescuing Houston from a “crime wave” by prosecuting years-old theft-by-check cases and other poverty crimes is laughable.

But the Chronicle ignores this information.

The paper also ignores a recent academic study by researchers finding that non-prosecution of low-level offenses can lead to less crime without any negative effects on public safety. Ogg has offered no answer to these findings. And now she is asking for millions of dollars more to fund 22 additional prosecutors to conduct intakes -- which will bring even more people into the broken system, exacerbating a problem that Ogg created.

The DAO is to blame for this tragedy. Ogg has enormous discretion to decide whom to prosecute, and most of the cases that Ogg is now begging for resources to resolve shouldn’t even be in the system. Evidence and research show that expanding the wasteful punishment bureaucracy through initiatives like the DA’s “triage” program does nothing for public safety, but does a lot to expand the government’s control over and surveillance of poor people and Black and Brown people, exacerbating poverty, separating families, and making it more difficult for people to find jobs and housing - all conditions that tend to increase future crime, not decrease it.

Ultimately the Chronicle piece is hailing prosecutors as heroes for solving a problem that they created and that they can end without spending a single penny more. Ogg doesn’t need more money to do her job. Instead, Harris County needs to invest that money in proven solutions to public safety issues-- programs like violence interruption, mental health, youth programs, non-carceral crisis response, streetlights, and other interventions that prevent harm before it occurs -- and should stop spending millions of taxpayer dollars for the DAO to prosecute crimes of poverty from 2016.

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Time for the Texas #cjreform movement to get back to basics

Your correspondent hasn't been writing on Grits during the latest special session because it wasn't a time when Texas state leaders were willing to listen to reasoned argument, and this humble opuscule has little else to offer.

As I wrote after the regular session ended, it's important to be clear about what's happening here: Without exaggeration, we're witnessing the spearpoint of American fascism piercing the body politic in Texas. One is not proving Godwin's Law by observing this, it's just a fact.

Abortion laws based on mass snitching regimens that read like something out of The Handmaid's Tale. Gun statutes that appear to have been authored by Yosemite Sam. More border wall building, this time with DPS troopers making petty arrests for trespassing and mass magistrations being held in county-jail parking lots. Making the bail system harder on poor people. Homelessness rendered a crime. High spending levels for police mandated. Dozens and dozens of new crimes (including a first-degree felony for doctors performing unauthorized abortions). And everything including new voting restrictions done in a highly partisan, often retaliatory fashion.

Republicans were angry and much of what passed this year was done to punish their opposition for daring challenge them in swing districts or publicly talk about negative impacts from their policies.

Grits largely blames the Governor and Dan Patrick. Speaker Dade Phelan appeared well-intentioned, but the rookie Speaker was steamrolled by the other two and, in the end, was afraid to exercise his power in ways that would displease either of them.

As the poet long ago lamented, the best lacked all conviction while the worst were full of passionate intensity.

At the state level, it's only going to get worse before it gets better. The only way to stop what's happening is for Republicans to pay an electoral price. That can't happen until November 2022, and conventional wisdom says it won't, even then.

Republicans should be vulnerable, having utterly vacated the political center, but Democrats have so far fielded no credible candidates to challenge them, and proved with their failure to hold their quorum break that the party is devoid not just of strategic thinking but fundamentally of an identity as a coherent group. Republicans are united around a dystopic, right-wing ideology that is unworkable and harmful but at least consistent. The Democratic field brings to mind Will Rogers' observation more than a century ago: "I belong to no organized political party: I'm a Democrat."

At the local level, there are more opportunities. A lot of the energy from protests last year continues to animate less high-profile but still significant changes, particularly surrounding mental-health first response and addiction. Local groups are beginning to focus on police contracts, which by their nature are long-term fights that may not see results for many years, but which alter the terms of debate locally. And shifting the culture of policing is still on the table in a variety of ways.

None of this will happen quickly. But we can already see a desire to divert people out of the local jails during COVID, especially when their problem is primarily mental health, housing or addiction, starting to align with those trying to get police out of the social-services business. Where those collaborations flower, local work can produce big changes for people in the real world, even in the current political climate. That's where the criminal-justice reform movement should focus now. Unless and until statewide Republicans - particularly Abbott and Patrick - lose at the ballot box, there's nothing to do at the state level anymore but play defense against the bad stuff.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

#SandraBland Act data used to identify Texas' most aggressive, small-town speed traps

Everybody hates speed traps. There are few things more annoying than driving along a state highway at 70 mph then having it ratchet down to 35 mph in a matter of a few hundred yards while a cop hides behind some billboard waiting to pounce.

Our pals Eric Dexheimer and St. John Barned-Smith at the Houston Chronicle have performed a great mitzvah by analyzing traffic stop data from Texas' Sandra Bland Act to identify the most prolific Texas speed traps

They found 21 small town agencies giving out more than 500 tickets per officer per year, making up up to 40% of municipal budgets. Anti-speed-trap laws passed by the Legislature, they found, are riddled with loopholes and seldom enforced.

Remarkably, "It doesn’t take many officers to affect a small city’s bottom line. Wells didn’t have an active police force in 2017 and collected less than $10,000 in fines. When it reactivated the department a year later, fine collections rose to $592,865." 

Another example: "In Riesel, Chief Danny Krumnow is adamant: When his two officers aren’t working other calls, they better be working traffic. State data show about 87 percent of motorists stopped last year drove away with a ticket. Municipal court fines last year made up more than half of the town’s general fund." Perhaps unsurprisingly:

Many of the state’s most aggressive traffic enforcers shared key characteristics: small towns situated on busy high-speed thoroughfares where the speed limit quickly drops from highway to local-street speeds — or even lower where school zones intersect roads. Virtually all of the departments had fewer than a dozen officers.

Your correspondent was quoted in the story, citing data first published in this blog post back in April. Because no MSM news outlet has covered it, most people even in law enforcement don't realize traffic enforcement in Texas has plummeted over the last decade, with the number of tickets given declining by more than half from 2008 to 2020. (Notably, non-traffic citations declined by a similar amount over the same period.)

The logic of traffic enforcement is that it improves safety by decreasing traffic violations. But Texas' experience doesn't reflect such a trend. Over the same period, traffic fatalities per mile driven in Texas fluctuated year by year, but ended up slightly lower overall and certainly evinced no large bump in fatalities.

As I asked at the time, "If radically less traffic enforcement seems to have no noticeable impact on traffic fatalities, what precisely were we doing it for?"

The Houston Chronicle story provides at least a partial answer, particularly for small towns: Revenue. Indeed, "In Wells, in East Texas, the chief’s report at every city council meeting consists of a tally of traffic stops and tickets written." That's apparently the only "public safety" metric they care about.

I'd made a comment to the reporters I figured would be controversial: 

Others say departments whose officers can afford to spend so much time writing tickets signal a jurisdiction that is over-policed. “These are cops who don’t seem to have much police work to do,” said Henson

But the cops they interviewed corroborated that assessment:

In Gregory, a city of 2,000 across the bay from Corpus Christi whose officers are some of the state’s most prolific ticket-writers, Chief Tony Cano said there was some truth to that.

“Our number of call-outs is low, so I guess you could say they have more opportunity to work traffic,” he said. Although “officers are not encouraged to write tickets, that’s what they do. I’ve seen the numbers and I’m like, whoa, those are high.”

If only he were in a position to do something about it! (smdh)

Grits welcomes this new analysis, and not only because I dislike speed traps and cops who prioritize revenue generation over crime fighting. It also represents the first time data from Texas' Sandra Bland Act has been used in an analysis not focused on racial disparities.

The Sandra Bland data should be a gold mine for law-enforcement research providing extremely detailed information about what goes on at traffic stops at a granular level, allowing robust analyses that to my knowledge couldn't be performed in any other state. But no academic researchers have latched onto the dataset, and before now, MSM reporters who analyzed it were solely focused on racial disparities. That's an important aspect of the new data,  but it's by no means the only analysis that can be done with it. 

I'm hopeful this article opens the door to more such uses: You can't manage what you don't measure, the saying goes, but the flip side is measurements don't matter if managers don't use them to seek improvements. Identifying speed traps is only one of many useful analyses the Sandra Bland Act data newly allows. But it's a good start.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Bring on Austin's police staffing debate: Proposal to hire 400-800 new cops would require budget tradeoffs the public won't support

In Austin, the Republican-led group that ran a successful ballot initiative criminalizing homelessness has put another one on the ballot for November that would require the city to hire hundreds more police officers. Their main backers so far are the police unions, who're salivating at the prospect of hundreds of new dues-paying members. Backers think the folks who voted to criminalize homelessness will now support a vast expansion of the police force.

Grits isn't so sure. I think they've overreached. And the biggest reason is the budget math, which has been called "irresponsible" but may be straight-up "impossible" without massive tax increases the Legislature has forbidden via municipal revenue caps. 

Yesterday, the city council put the Save Austin Now initiative on the November ballot and the financial services department released an estimate of the proposal's cost. There's some fuzzy language in the measure using undefined terms, so it's a range: To meet the requirements of the initiative, Austin would need to hire somewhere between 400-800 more police officers than it employs today, at a cost of $54 million per year on the low end to $120 million on the high end.

The difference arises in part because the initiative calls for officers to have 35% "community engagement" time. Currently, they have about 1% "community engagement" time, based on definitions the city has used in the past. But the phrase is sometimes used interchangeably with "uncommitted time," which includes things like checking email or restroom breaks, not necessarily "community engagement." The low estimate assumes the latter definition; the high-end estimate assumes the former.

Courts may eventually decide which definition to use. But even on the low end, increasing the budget by $54 million per year - given legislative revenue caps - would force draconian cuts

The other factors driving the cost estimates are wage increases and the size of Austin's population. The $54 million figure assumes lower population growth and police wage increases than we've witnessed in recent years. Grits believes that figure is probably too low and the real number will be closer to the high end of the range.

SAN suggests all this could be paid for by eliminating money spent on homelessness. But even if you closed all the shelters and eliminated every service to that group (which doesn't sound particularly wise), it wouldn't raise nearly enough money. Money for recent expenditures purchasing hotels to get folks off the street came from the feds as part of the COVID stimulus: That's one-time money, not an ongoing revenue stream from which the city can pay salaries. 

The truth is, you can't get to $54 million per year without cutting things the public STRONGLY supports: The entire budget for the city's animal shelters is about $10 million, for example. You could eliminate them entirely and still not be 1/5 of the way there.

Thanks in large part to the 40% of the city budget already spent on police, the overwhelming part of the city budget arrives at city council every year fully baked in: The amount they have for discretionary budget choices is generally in the low seven figures: a few million dollars. $54 million in new spending can't be done without closing things most Austinites don't want to eliminate.

This is the police unions and the Republican party doubling down on their anti-homeless ballot initiative this spring, but Grits predicts they'll find this a much harder sell. For starters, they did the last one during the legislative session when most of the criminal-justice reform advocates in town were focused on fighting bad bills at the Legislature. SAN outspent their opposition by more than 15-1 and the opposition campaign was led by inexperienced folks with nonprofit backgrounds who'd never run a campaign before.

This time, they'll find groups like the Austin Justice Coalition and its allies more fully engaged in the fight. A new PAC was formed to oppose the measure and experienced campaign staff has been hired, so don't expect the fundraising gap to be nearly as significant. And whereas the Mayor and most city council members stayed out of the homeless fight, the outlandish budgetary issues ensure they'll be vocally opposed to this one.

Local TV news has been SAN's biggest ally, giving their leadership a platform to spread misinformation with impunity. (The local FOX station has the SAN leader on frequently to "debate" different folks but the supposed debate moderator never fact checks his lies: It's really pretty embarrassing.) That's the biggest risk of this thing passing; if they let SAN pretend Austin can hire hundreds of new police with no budget tradeoffs, people might be duped into backing something they otherwise wouldn't support.

But the upgraded opposition campaign means there will be somebody out there informing the public besides local TV news. It's not going down like Prop B, where the opposition didn't have resources to counter the message.

Indeed, Grits welcomes this debate and am near-giddy that SAN has framed it this way: The anti-homeless initiative passed because West Austin was mad about public camping and wanted homeless folks out of their sight line. Now, the policy discussion shifts to the real-world tradeoffs involved in spending so much new money: A very different debate.

Prop B passing left the impression that Austinites oppose criminal-justice reform. Defeating this measure will reverse that false meme and perhaps give local media a chance to reboot their sycophantic cop coverage.

Monday, August 02, 2021

In what world are mask mandates too draconian but COVID justifies massive law enforcement deployments and new detention camps for migrants? Oh yeah: Greg Abbott's Texas


I was lookin' for a job when I found this one.
Don't need the work like you need the work done.

                                                       - Todd Snider

Given that he has forbidden local governments in Texas from requiring masks in public spaces, Gov. Abbott's executive order telling Texas DPS troopers to arrest people suspected of being a) migrants and b) who could possibly be carrying COVID reeks of hypocrisy nearly as great as the constitutional crisis he has created. 

The Biden Administration has asked federal courts to intervene. Lets' hope sanity prevails.

Grits has said before, I believe the 87th Texas Legislature featured the ascendance of a brand American fascism that had heretofore been constrained by business and libertarian factions in the Texas GOP. But 2020 saw Allen West win the state GOP chairmanship and immediately begin courting QAnon types in the party ("We Are The Storm"), giving voice to far right-wing populists to whom mainstream politicians in Texas had heretofore refused to pander.

Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick evince no such compunctions. With West now challenging the Governor in the primary, he has taken to using COVID as justification for draconian immigration stances that make no sense as either labor or public-health policy, but please the anti-immigrant fringe among his base to no end. 

All this is especially hypocritical because Texas elites courted illegal immigration for generations, preferring to have a large body of second-class citizens with fungible rights performing some of the most grueling and dangerous work in the state.

Shut down immigration, illegal or otherwise, and the result is severe labor shortages in industries that rely on those workers: agriculture in rural areas; construction and hospitality in the cities. We've heard Gov. Abbott and really the entire Republican message machine blaming these shortages on lazy workers and too-generous unemployment checks, but immigration policy is almost certainly the more direct cause. Labor shortages increasingly appear to be structural, and expanded immigration is one of the only solutions on the table. Maybe the only one. From the perspective of Texas Chamber of Commerce types who in past generations were considered "conservative," the state is cutting off its economic nose to spite its slightly-more-brown face.

The other problem is all this is being done under the Governor's "emergency" powers, which foolishly empower him to override any law or upend any legislative budget decision once he's declared an "emergency" (as evinced by taking $250 million from the prison system for wall building). The Legislature has become nearly irrelevant in Texas (so it's just as well the Democrats are gone, anyway, lest they contribute to any pretense of legitimacy). No matter what they do, the Governor can apparently turn around and do something else as soon as session ends, redirecting money and personnel however he sees fit.

The law enables him to essentially operate as a dictator, and Greg Abbott is beginning to do just that.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Austin PD teaches cadets US Constitution using material from John-Birch-Society shill

Your correspondent appears to have lost the capacity for surprise or outrage, or this might affect me more. Instead, it mostly makes me feel exhausted and sad to learn that cadets at the Austin police academy are taught a version of constitutional history based on an oft-debunked historical account of America's origins as a Christian Nation, written by a former John-Birch-Society Speakers Bureau member recruited by JBS founder Robert Welch himself. After his death, right-wing talk-show host Glenn Beck discovered one of his books, "The 5,000 Year Leap," and promoted it as a seminal text among early aficionados of the Tea Party movement.

These days, the book and its imagery - particularly the "three-headed eagle," which weirdly also appears in the APD curriculum - has become popular among QAnon-type conspiracy buffs. (I don't know what language to use to apply to such folks!) We also saw it cited during the Texas Legislature's effort to ban "Critical Race Theory." I won't waste my time or yours going through the details of the foolishness being taught, which can be dizzyingly bizarre. See an actual historian's assessment of the book's often dubious and self serving claims; here's another one.

Suffice it to say, "The 5,000 Year Leap" appears to have been the sole source on which the instructor based his review of constitutional history for new Austin PD cadets. My jaded reaction upon discovering this: "Of course it is."*

It's worth recalling how we got here. In December 2019, the Austin City Council told the city manager and police department to perform an audit/review of the police-academy curriculum, declaring problems identified by cadets were so serious they didn't want to have more classes until they were resolved.

Six months later, the city manager and police Chief Brian Manley came back to city council to say 1) they hadn't conducted the audit or begun the review in any way, and 2) they wanted to hold more cadet classes, anyway. By that time, though, George Floyd and Mike Ramos had been killed, cops were firing less-lethal rounds indiscriminately into crowds, and at city budget hearings, the public overwhelmingly backed delaying the police academy until the audit and curriculum review could be conducted.

To be clear: If City Manager Spencer Cronk and Chief Manley had performed the audit when they were instructed, they would only have missed one cadet class and the city council planned to renew them last August. The delay happened because city management DID NOT WANT THIS REVIEW TO OCCUR.

But it did. And the results weren't pretty.

First, several consultants were hired to perform the "audit" piece. They discovered a culture of hazing and violence against cadets, starting with a sadistic "Fight Day" in which instructors beat them up in a boxing ring before they'd had any self-defense training. Women and minorities were especially likely to drop out based on these approaches.

Then, a team assembled to review videos used for training also found quantifiable racial bias and  modeling of selective use of de-escalation tactics (they were used on white suspects but not black ones). Dozens of problematic videos surfaced.

The final step was supposed to be a curriculum review. But the Greater Austin Crime Commission and Republican leaders at Save Austin Now - with the Governor adding a statewide megaphone - hammered the city council to restart the police academy before it could be completed.

So they did, even though advocates opposed it. The strained metaphor going around City Hall was that they could build the plane while they were flying it, which, of course, is not how planes work.

My wife was one of the people appointed to the curriculum review panel, but instructors quickly got far ahead of them and most of what's been taught so far (they've had about six weeks of classes) has not been vetted. 

That includes the history lessons from Mr. Bircher, which has already been taught to the new class of cadets.

Indeed, the review panel might not have taken up that section at all because, with their late start, they're only able to consider a fraction of the curriculum material before it's taught. Because of this, they'd chosen to prioritize the section on search and seizures and the Fourth Amendment. But my very-smart, better half insisted she couldn't evaluate the Fourth Amendment piece without knowing what they'd been taught in the section on the constitution. When the city finally gave that part of the curriculum to her, she was puzzled at what she saw and asked my help figuring out the origins of the strange interpretations being proffered. I reverse-Google-searched the images being used and found they were from "The 5,000 Year Leap."

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, why do we think the Chief and City Manager did not want this review performed? Was it because they knew that cadets were being hazed, physically assaulted, and indoctrinated into spurious, right-wing ideologies? That would certainly explain it. And if they didn't know, why would they oppose the review? And what does such ignorance say about the city's leadership and/or police management?

Manley is gone now and one of his assistants, Joe Chacon, has been named as interim. Likely because he wants the "interim" title removed, Chacon has been more supportive than his predecessor of revamping the academy (although not supportive enough to hold off on more classes until the review is complete). I doubt "The 5,000 Year Leap" will be used again, though w/o greater transparency, something similar could certainly happen down the line.

The effort to revamp the police academy in Austin began years before the George Floyd protests and was necessary regardless of whether people rose up last year. Unfortunately, Gov. Abbott and the local Republican party have chosen to politicize these decisions and dubbed this delay "defunding the police." But the process began long before the protests and was inarguably needed: Bircher history taught to APD cadets is Exhibit 1B for that argument (the hazing and violence against cadets is 1A).

That said, it's accurate the protests are what gave the city council the stomach to stand up to the cops: My belief is that the city council wouldn't have held their ground if it weren't for what amounted to a wide-scale uprising in the streets.

Given what we've discovered about the academy since then, it's a damn good thing they did or this stuff would never have surfaced, much less change.

*I need more vacation time.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

What if any changes to police deployment patterns might reduce violent crime? Hotspot policing vs. ↑ resources for detectives

A friend emailed to ask my opinion of "hotspot" policing tactics being promoted by Houston PD. Here's how I responded:
There are SO many studies on this topic, many of them very micro-focused and not particularly useful, let me give you a big-picture, 50-year overview of the research findings on this.

One of the most robust findings in criminology is that patrol doesn't reduce crime overall or make people feel safer (going back to a major field study in Kansas City in the '70s), and police staffing levels appear to have no relationship either way to crime going up or down.

However, this result didn't sit well with police or their advocates, and in the 1980s, criminologists began to revisit the question, this time shrinking both the geographic areas examined and the time periods considered. Finding a negative result wasn't considered a failure of the tactic, just evidence that the geographic and temporal constraints hadn't been sufficiently narrowed. Eventually, they were able to demonstrate that flooding a neighborhood with police to perform stop and frisks and/or pretext stops correlated to reduced reports of serious crime IN THAT GEOGRAPHIC AREA for whatever period of time they kept it up. There are a bunch of studies out there like that.

However, few of the hotspot studies I've ever seen claim this is anything more than a short-term effect that goes away as soon as police leave.  And most researchers will admit it's likely crime just bleeds into other geographic areas, the way air moves to the sides when you squeeze a balloon.

N.b., generally, what you see when these studies are portrayed in the policy arena is a bait and switch. Cops say "hot spot policing works" then use that to call for increased staffing. But we KNOW increased staffing doesn't correlate to greater safety. The hotspot research is about deployment of EXISTING officers, not an argument for hiring more overall.

Finally, if I were making public-safety recommendations for Houston based on the current data, I wouldn't be focused on patrol or hotspot policing, but beefing up the detective ranks, maybe even AT THE EXPENSE of patrol. Again: The real issues are how officers are deployed, not how many there are. 
There are 200 Narcotics Division detectives at HPD - far more than in homicide. I've argued Narcotics should be entirely disbanded, and those detectives should be moved to investigate 1) homicides and 2) shootings that do NOT result in death. The latter are almost completely ignored but are essentially similar to the murder cases; whether the victim lives or dies has more to do with the EMTs and doctors than the intentions of the shooter. (I'm not generally a fan of the Manhattan Institute, but they recently published a report reaching the same conclusion.) 
So that's the redeployment I think we should be pushing for if the goals are to reduce racial disparities (they're TERRIBLE in Narcotics) while reducing violent crime: Expansion of detective resources to investigate non-fatal shootings. That'd do FAR more to improve safety than anyone would ever claim for hotspot policing.

If you ask what police are actually DOING to reduce crime in hotspot areas, criminologists have no answer. It boils down to what I've dubbed the "Scarecrow Theory" of policing: Their mere, occasional presence wards off potential criminals. But cops aren't deployed theoretically, and as a practical matter, what they do while they're there (if they're deployed to a hotspot and not responding to IRL crime reports) are traffic stops and stop-and-frisks of pedestrians. And most of the people with whom they engage are not and never will be shooters; there's a disconnect between the strategy and the desired results.

I don't consider it some radical position to say homicides and non-fatal shootings should be better investigated: Clearance rates for murder in Houston have declined from 89% in 2011 to 49% last year. And "hotspot" policing would do nothing to change that dynamic.

If the problem you want to solve is violent crime, focus on violent crime. Don't engage in generalized harassment in black and brown neighborhoods then assume reduced murders will somehow be a secondary effect.