Thursday, June 10, 2021

Expungements for old weapons charges under Texas' new unlicensed-carry law could be widespread, but likely initially limited

Much have been made of the public-safety implications of Texas passing unlicensed-open-carry legislation (HB 1927) in the wake of mass shootings in El Paso, Odessa, and Sutherland Springs. But little attention has been paid to a provision in the bill allowing expunctions for past convictions for unlicensed carrying of a weapon (UCW, Penal Code 49.02). Rep. Senfronia Thompson added the amendment in the House, Charles Schwertner stripped it off in the Senate, then a narrower version was adopted in conference committee, expunging only UCW cases.

Even so, this is the most common weapons-related offense. In 2018, more than 13,000 Texans were arrested for UCW or some other weapons charge - about 48.3 weapons arrests for every 100,000 people.

Projecting backward, hundreds of thousands of people have likely been arrested for unlawfully carrying a weapon over the years, and now all those cases can be expunged.

Will they? That's another question. It's not automatic. People must file an ex parte petition with a district court to have their old conviction reviewed for possible expungement. So they'll need to hire a lawyer or possess the gumption to strike out on their own to tackle the job. Some will; most won't.

I'd love to see some advocacy group create a form ex parte petitioners could use to ask the court to expunge their old cases. (Hey, Texas Fair Defense Project and/or Civil Rights Corps, y'all up for this?) Prosecutors have historically fought expungement petitions - particularly on weapons charges - because they want to be able to use people's past crimes to seek enhancements or argue for harsher sentencing. But they don't have much grounds to oppose expungement in these cases; the law is pretty clear.

In the long, run, though, if legislators think these old convictions should be expunged, they should instruct it be done as a class. This provision will help a few folks but will mostly remain a symbolic gesture unless lawyers are paid to process the cases or expungement is made automatic.

Thursday, June 03, 2021

New TX homeless ban creates unfunded mandates for cities: Costs downplayed during #txlege process but cities must foot bill to store homeless belongings and can't limit arrests to ↓ costs

A Joint Memo From the Unintended Consequences and Unfunded Mandates Departments:

Now that the Texas Legislature has passed HB 1925 criminalizing homelessness (or more specifically, criminalizing cooking or sleeping under a blanket outside), cities must figure out how to implement the new law, which restricts their ability to limit arrests through policy.

Here's the catch: The statute requires police who arrest homeless people under this statute to take custody of their belongings and store them without a fee while they're in jail. Here's the relevant provision:


It's unclear if they must store people's stuff when arresting for unpaid warrants based on Class C tickets under HB 1925. If not, it would defeat the purpose of the provision: It's inevitable most folks who receive these tickets won't be able to pay.

Regardless, the bill forbids cities from establishing policies that limit these arrests, so if and when costs start racking up, the Lege will have taken away their ability to limit this expense.

Let's get down to brass tacks: Where will police take their belongings and what procedures will be put in place for them to be able to retrieve them later? Will they get a receipt? Where will police take their stuff? Who will be in charge of it while folks are jailed? How will  people retrieve it later and what happens when folks don't have good ID?

These are not idle questions: Most police evidence rooms are already overflowing (e.g., see this audit of the Denton PD evidence room, which is stuffed to the gills.) When I was policy director at the Innocence Project of Texas, evidence-room shortcomings emerged as a significant, hidden flaw generating all sorts of problems throughout the justice system: Evidence lost or damaged, guns stolen, DNA gone bad because it was kept at room temperature (that last one we fixed via legislation). The volume of stuff they keep track of boggles the mind, and housing all the earthly belongings of every homeless person arrested is going to overwhelm them.

So cities must create new systems, and probably find new locations, to store belongings of HB 1925 arrestees, but despite these extra costs, are forbidden from setting policies that limit these arrests/costs.

This is an unfunded mandate on cities and one assumes an unintended consequence, since the problem was barely-if-at-all discussed during the legislative process.

OTOH, if we're honest, the bill wasn't written to be good public policy or workable for cities, it was written to punish Austin and virtue-signal to the middle class against homeless people. They're doing it because they believe demonizing societal outcasts plays well in the suburbs, and it appears to be true, at least for the moment.

But whatever "signal" the new law sends to voters, it also lards new costs and responsibilities on cities big and small which they're both ill-prepared for and forbidden from managing. I called this an "unintended consequence" earlier, but that's probably generous. Governor Abbott and the Texas Legislature view putting the screws to cities as a legislative feature, not a bug.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Fascism Unsheathed: Let's be very clear about what just happened at the #txlege

For many years, your correspondent has sought to work in a bipartisan fashion at the Texas Legislature on criminal-justice reform, and I've taken a lot of crap from folks on the left for working closely with Republicans who are sometimes, shall we say, less than ardently committed to the project. 

Beyond the simple math of needing Republican votes in a red state to pass bills, my response has been that more moderate, pro-social elements in the GOP needed to be affirmed and bolstered. The GOP base in Texas includes totalitarian, racist elements which lately have been swirling in a near-policy-free furor of anger and resentment. By engaging with libertarian factions and more compassionate elements in the religious wing of the party, I've argued in innumerable trainings and funder conversations, the criminal-justice reform movement in Texas was attempting to "blunt the spear tip of American fascism."

In 2021, the spear tip was unsheathed and thrust deep into the body politic: A combination of the pandemic, President Trump's defeat, and the January 6th insurrection seem to have finally awakened the beast. This was the year the far-right wing of the party finally got its wish list they'd been denied in the 20 years since Republicans took power in Texas: The entire legislative session was about abortion, guns, jingoism, and "backing the blue." Compassionate conservatism and non-gun-themed libertarianism were more or less banned from the building, or at least the eastern wing.

The Texas House, with a larger, more ideologically diverse membership, retains a broader array of Republicans that still includes some "small government" and/or "compassionate" types. They managed to pass several significant criminal justice reform bills, but virtually nothing of consequence made it through the senate. Reforms with overwhelmingly positive, bipartisan polling numbers like reducing marijuana penalties and ending arrest/jail for Class C non-jailable traffic offenses could never even get committee hearings on the eastern side of the building. Instead Sen. Joan Huffman wasted weeks on a failed effort to gerrymander appellate courts to rescind recent Democratic gains.

Some of this lurch toward totalitarianism was overt and ham-handed, perhaps most notably legislation to require sports teams to play the Star Spangled Banner. More insidious were attempts to control historical narratives about race and slavery in Texas schools and museums. These efforts were as shameful as they were transparently authoritarian. We're just a step or two away from parading historians through the streets in dunce caps. 

Perhaps the most subtly fascist influence radiating out of this session was HB 1900, ostensibly punishing cities that "defund police." Large cities and counties henceforth must prioritize spending on law enforcement, leaving roads, parks, social services, or any other traditional municipal functions to wither in a time of massive urban growth. 

Grits believes the purpose here is both political and dystopian: Texas' large cities are now almost all (but Fort Worth) run by Democrats. So the Governor and his allies aim to make cities un-manageable, then blame Democrats for mismanaging them. Given the state's largely lapdog political press, I understand why he thinks he'll be able to control that narrative and redirect blame. He's probably right.

It's a valid and effective political strategy, even if it's nonsensical bordering on asinine as public policy.*

If HB 1900 is enforced, it will be incredibly harmful: All large Texas cities have for years already prioritized police spending over other municipal functions which have languished and at this point require investment this bill will prevent. 

Now, new spending must go first to the cops, and with municipal revenue caps installed last session, that pretty much precludes spending on anything else. This exacerbates the problem of which police chiefs have complained for years: that they're being tasked to solve social problems for which they're ill equipped. Nowhere is that dynamic more clear than in the statewide homeless ban, which criminalizes cooking or sleeping outside under a blanket. Poor people evicted from their homes? Send police. Mental illness untreated? Send police. Veterans with addiction and/or PTSD who can't hold a job and end up on the streets? Send police. Elderly people forced to live in tents because inadequate social security checks won't cover escalating rents? Send police. I can't think of a clearer definition of authoritarianism. 

Not only does the legislation criminalize poverty and punish it with unreasonable penalties (fining homeless people is a fool's errand and jailing them for sleeping accomplishes nothing), it begins the process of de-linking law enforcement from civilian control. HB 1925 prevents cities from setting policies for police departments' enforcement priorities regarding homelessness, making them over time both ever-more extravagantly funded (thanks to HB 1900) and increasingly unaccountable to the cities paying their bills.

Who knows how far we'll head down that path? But history generally views with disapprobation those periods when the armed agents of the state are left free to abandon the public weal and act in their own interests. The Roman legions, for example, were prone to deposing emperors who asked them to pound swords into ploughshares. Law enforcement interests in Texas behave the same way, which is why Emperor Abbott panders to them so incessantly.

Grits see this as a camel's nose under the tent, mandating cities fund police departments to the exclusion of other priorities while eviscerating cities' policy-setting role and leaving the cops as independent actors. Well-funded, unaccountable law enforcement acting as independent agents outside of civilian control is the sort of situation that makes me use a harsh term like "fascist." The net sum of all these policies taken together aims Texas' largest jurisdictions squarely in that direction.

Indeed, this year it became evident that police reform of even the smallest sort cannot occur in Texas while Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick remain in office. Both of them defer almost completely to police-union interests on criminal-justice policy. Even the "Sunset" bill for the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement could not pass. Legislators wanted to create a "blue-ribbon commission" to study reforming the police licensing agency, but police unions don't want reforms proposed and so killed the bill outright. 

Of roughly eight different bills making up the Texas George Floyd Act package, only one (banning chokeholds) made it through in anything close to the original, filed version. Another, the "duties" to intervene and render aid, passed in a form that will almost certainly guarantee no interventions and very little aid. 

Two years ago, I wrote that 2019 was a "killing field" for criminal-justice reform bills; this year was worse. This time, law enforcement wasn't just killing off reform proposals, they were ascendant, insisting their interests be prioritized above all other public-policy goals or community values. And Texas state leadership all but fell over themselves giving them everything they wanted.

This blog and Just Liberty, the group I work for, focus a lot on wonky minutiae in order to identify narrow reforms both parties can support. But we can't wonk our way out of this political moment: What's at stake is nothing less than the soul of the state and arguably, given national implications of Texas' role in the GOP and the electoral college, the future of the American political experiment.

Texans of good will: Today, you're living through the American equivalent of the Weimar Republic and history has placed us at the epicenter of far-right-wing ascendance in American politics. Behave accordingly. We may not get another chance.

*More than asinine, to channel Stephen A. Smith, this is assi-ten, ass-eleven ...

Friday, May 21, 2021

On the Myth of Prison Closures Generating Cost Savings: How TDCJ can ↓ prisoners by 20% and still see costs rise nine figures per biennium

From the earliest days your correspondent first showed up at the Texas Legislature, I've been grumpy about how they score "fiscal notes" related to bills increasing incarceration. Dr. Tony Fabelo and I used to go round about this when he led the Criminal Justice Policy Council.

Bills that increase incarceration are deemed to have no significant cost, even though every additional prisoner requires supervision, food, healthcare, etc.. And bills that decrease incarceration weren't deemed to generate budget reductions on the grounds that no real money was saved unless the state closed prison units and could save money on guard salaries.

So, for years, bills increasing incarceration were treated in the state budget as freebies while bills reducing incarceration received no credit from budget writers. 

Then, in 2013, Texas finally broke through and reduced incarceration enough to begin closing units. Since that time we've closed about a dozen of them. And yet, every session, TDCJ's budget goes up and up.

It turned out to be a myth that closing prison units would reduce the budget. Frankly, your correspondent is as surprised as anyone, though with 20/20 hindsight it's easy to see why.

Texas has reduced its prison population by about 20 percent, but most of that reduction has come among prisoners with shorter sentences. Meanwhile, the big cost drivers at TDCJ are 1) healthcare for elderly prisoners and 2) deferred maintenance on old units.

So, even with the lowest prisoner population in the 21st century and a dozen units shuttered, TDCJ's latest budget includes huge, nine-figure increases:


Turns out, elderly prisoner's healthcare costs and deferred maintenance are bottomless pits and reducing prisoner numbers hasn't slowed them down much at all. Whenever costs are reduced from prison closures, there's a massive backlog of expenses they want to spend that money on, so the budget never goes down. Prison closures could theoretically be targeted to units with the highest maintenance costs. But there are other factors like terrific staffing shortages at certain rural units that also drive closure decisions.

It's now clear TDCJ's budget growth can't be contained without reducing incarceration among the cohort with the longest sentences. The Life Without Parole cohort has exploded since 2005, and thousands more prisoners in their senior years face decades-long sentences that could conceivably keep them there until their deaths.

Many Texans might think that's okay for murderers, sex offenders, and others with especially long sentences. But those cohorts also have among the lowest recidivism rates among releasees (they've typically long-ago aged out of crime, and most murders are one-offs). And here's the catch: Medicare doesn't pay for prisoner healthcare, so if Texas chooses to keep them incarcerated, it must pay 100% of costs for long-term and ultimately end-of-life care. 

That said, this is a surmountable problem using mechanisms available under current law. With the exception of those with LWOP sentences (who're mostly not elderly yet, anyway, though they'll contribute to the problem soon enough), some 60 percent of TDCJ prisoners are eligible to be paroled immediately. Indeed, some 15,000 of them have already been approved for release but remain incarcerated because TDCJ only provides treatment services post-approval. Legislation to move the treatment timeline up passed the Texas House but the Lt. Governor as of this writing has refused to refer the bill to committee.

So for the time being, expect Texas prison costs to keep ballooning: Looking at the bills still moving in the waning days of the 87th Legislature, the state doesn't appear poised to change any of the dynamics causing it.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Might "anti-defund" legislation demilitarize and redefine 21st century policing? On the predictable if unintended consequences of micromanaging city budget decisions

Grits has been thinking about "defund the police" legislation (HB 1900) at the Texas Legislature, which seeks to punish Austin's budget decisions from last year shifting money from police to EMS and making the crime lab and 911 call center independent. The bill would punish cities that reduce police budgets unless the overall budget reduces by the same proportion. If the overall budget increases, the police budget must increase to retain its prior, overall percentage of spending. In other words, henceforth, in cities with more than 250,000 population, every new investment in roads, parks, housing, infrastructure, mental health, addiction treatment, homeless services,  etc., would have to be matched with increases to the police budget.

On its face, this would bind Texas cities' hands and make them all but unmanageable. After all, the biggest problems they face stem from the fact that their predecessors over-invested in police, jails, and prisons to confront social problems instead of investing in other solutions (e.g., mass transit, mental-health-and-addiction services, transitional housing and services for the homeless).

I believe that's the goal: A feature, not a bug. Governor Abbott intends to make Texas cities unmanageable and then blame Democrats for mismanaging them. If Republicans ever regained control of these jurisdictions, his office would cease to enforce the "defund" strictures (it's 100% at his discretion), and I wouldn't expect these requirements to ever be imposed on Republican-led cities, even though several of them in recent years have reduced their police-department budgets.

But for large cities which for the foreseeable future are governed by Democrats, this creates a conundrum. Big-city police chiefs have been complaining for the past decade that their officers are being asked to impose criminal-justice solutions to what are essentially social and healthcare problems they're ill-equipped to handle. Now, though, the Legislature is poised to insist cities can only confront these problems with police: A full-blown Catch 22 from a management perspective. They're leaving cities with no good options to address urban problems, which again, Grits believes is the point.

That said, I also believe this ham-handed attempt to bludgeon city leaders underestimates the variety of tools at their disposal and the wide array of methods available for cities to get around any strictures.

I'm sure there are many options, but here's my first thought: If the anti-defund bill passes, cities should begin to deploy unarmed officer cohorts whose primary functions fulfill the needs they'd otherwise fund in other parts of the budget.

Anyone who's traveled to the UK has seen unarmed police officers ably enforcing the laws as surely as American cops do with guns, and when they're needed there are special armed squads which can be called out or beat officers can be armed in a pinch. 

Here, though, Grits suspects squads of unarmed officers might be deployed much differently. For example, using money diverted from the police budget, Austin has begun having EMS respond to certain mental-health calls, with impressive early successes. If they're not allowed to expand that going forward because money must be spent on police, that won't obviate the need for non-carceral solutions to untreated mental illness. 

So what should they do? No one but fools think Texas can arrest its way out of these problems. And once legislators go home (without having expanded Medicaid, I should add, which might pay for non-carceral mental-health treatment), cities will still have to confront these issues with whatever tools are left in their toolbox. 

Consider the possibilities of unarmed social-or-health workers with a badge but no gun responding to homeless and mental health calls, possibly working closely with or even for the expanded EMS cohort recently created for mental-health first response and various city service providers. Whereas past protocols put officers in charge when they were on site with EMS, those roles could just as easily be reversed, particularly for the squad of unarmed officers whose primary role isn't arrest-and-incarcerate.

Such a program could include specialized recruitment and training to get people with relevant backgrounds in health care or social services who want to, say, work with the homeless or the mentally ill but don't want to carry a gun, enforce traffic laws, fire bean-bag rounds at protesters, etc..

These unarmed officers could always call their armed colleagues if needed but would primarily be deployed at tasks where it's not. Over time, cities could identify other activities where unarmed officers could fill roles that, in a more rationally governed state, might not normally be associated with law enforcement. But if cities are only allowed to fund cops, don't be surprised if the definition of "cop" inevitably expands.

The governor and his allies intend to box cities in, but I suspect they're making a strategic error. There's a bit of common military advice dating to Sun Tzu: Never completely surround an enemy's army; surround them on three sides and leave open the path you want them to take. The "defund" legislation does the opposite, attempting to surround cities completely and give them no path at all to move forward. Sun Tzu counseled that this could lead to either a) desperation and a bloodbath or b) creative tactics by the enemy that exploit one's army's overreach.

The latter is where I think this is headed: The Legislature meets only once every two years while city councils meet all the time and deploy vast bureaucracies to find ways to bypass legal barriers erected at the capitol. There will be several obvious workarounds, but here's a starting point: If the "punish defunders" legislation passes, Grits believes it will mark the beginning of a transformation of the definition of "police officer" as cities deploy services under the policing banner to confront problems they're not allowed to pay for in other parts of the budget.

If cities can only spend money on cops but the problems they must confront are only tangentially crime-related, inevitably they will begin to adjust what police do to deploy the only resources at their disposal at the biggest problems facing their constituents.

If I'm right, the "defund" legislation could have an unintended consequence of rapidly altering the definition of what it means to be a "police officer" in this state. How ironic would it be if this train wreck of a policy, promoted in the name of defending law enforcement, ends up being the trigger that launches its devolution into a less militarized, more service-focused 21st-century institution?

That outcome's not inevitable - the police unions would fight it, just as the Roman legions resisted pounding their swords into ploughshares - but Grits wouldn't be surprised: As the prophets foretold: The arc of history is long, but bends toward justice.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Austin PD failed to define 'resistance' that justifies use of force, made up 'unique' category of force vs. suspects who're 'fixing to' resist

In 2008, Austin PD changed its "use of force" policy to  a "response to resistance" policy, enacting a "Dynamic Resistance Response Model" (DRRM) developed by national experts with the aim of "helping officers to prevail against allegations of excessive use of force," according to a new report from Austin's Office of Police Oversight.

But unlike other agencies that use a "response to resistance" model, the Austin Police Department's General Orders do not define "resistance," much less outline what force may be used by officers in response.

Instead, resistance is used as a catch all and defined as anything that would justify use of force by a "reasonable" officer. This is language from a US Supreme Court case, Graham v. Connor. 

Grits should mention here: I've been reading technical, bureaucratic, legal, and academic writing on police use-of-force issues for about 25 years. Part One of this memo vis a vis response to resistance, providing both legal and conceptual frameworks for understanding the issue, may be the single most clear, cogent, well-written discussion of the topic I've ever seen. Good job, Farah Muscadin!

She outlines how American police department policies broadly regulate police use of force in one of two ways: the "just be reasonable" approach or the "continuum" approach. The DRRM purports to employ a continuum and APD touts the various resistance categories frequently in its rhetoric surrounding use of force. But Muscadin revealed that the actual APD General Orders do not employ a use-of-force continuum. Instead, they merely say officers' actions will be judged based on whether they're "reasonable," but give no guidance as to details.

Muscadin recommended defining "resistance" and detailing a use-of-force continuum similar to other departments which have adopted the DRRM.

Perhaps most remarkably, though, Muscadin revealed that Austin PD has created an additional type of "resistance" - "preparatory resistance" - which appears to be unique among US policing agencies. 

Most agencies that use DRRM use four categories of resistance: Passive, Defensive, Active, and Aggressive. Some use different language, but the concept is the same: Passive resistance is being non-responsive; defensive is trying to get away; active is engaging in combat with the officer; aggressive are situations putting life and limb at risk.

The threshold between when it's acceptable to use force against a suspect more or less falls between "passive" and "defensive."

But Austin has inserted a fifth category between those two: "Preparatory resistance," defined as when the suspect is "preparing to" offer greater resistance but hasn't yet. (Think of it as "fixing-to" resistance, as in, "the suspect was fixing to resist, so I tazed him.") The OPO reviewed 15 other agencies' use of force policies, including nine that used DRRM, plus state of Texas standards and the original research on which the approach is based, and Austin's use of this "preparatory resistance" category appears to be both "unique" and unjustified. Muscadin recommended getting rid of it entirely. 

This analysis raises two, immediate questions: First, will the City launch a community-driven process, as Muscadin suggested, to "finalize definitions" for various "resistance" categories and to debate the appropriate police responses and policies for each? It's been nearly a month since her report came out and we haven't heard a peep from city or police officials about it. They've all been too busy pushing to relaunch the police academy.

Which brings us to the second issue: If APD hasn't even defined "resistance" in their "response to resistance" policy, and it turns out the policy is a hodge podge that makes up terminology and conflates differing approaches to police use of force standards, is the agency really ready to begin training on it three weeks from now? What do they train on if they haven't even defined "resistance"? When do they tell officers to respond with force?

I don't know. I'm pretty sure they don't know. (Before Muscadin's report, nobody was raising these issues.) But it's another reason to think the city was premature to relaunch the police academy without finishing the publicly accountable makeover reformers were promised last year.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

A #cjreform update for 'The Devil's Dictionary'

"The Devil's Dictionary" by Ambrose Bierce remains one of my all-time favorite satirical works. But it's become increasingly dated over time, centered as it was on political questions of his day (1880 to 1911) as opposed to those which preoccupy us now.

Your correspondent focuses mostly on criminal-justice reform, and it's evident upon even a sideways glance that terminology from that field largely escaped Bierce's comic gaze. He did refer to prisons as the purview of the "stone wall, the political parasite and the moral instructor," which I love (even if, today, the first two features have largely eclipsed the third), and police as "An armed force for protection and participation." 

His definition of "arrest " - "[f]ormally to detain one accused of unusualness" - remains as valid today as when he wrote it. And in the wake of the passage of anti-homeless legislation in the Texas House, Grits particularly appreciated Bierce's definition of "distance" as "The only thing that the rich are willing for the poor to call theirs, and keep." But many justice terms were omitted.

Grits thought it might be a fun project to suggest a few new definitions that remedy this longstanding defect. It may turn out to be a recurring effort or just a Sunday-morning one off - we'll see how it goes - but here are a few offhand suggestions. Please feel free to try your hand at others in the comments.

Bail: The process by which society separates wealthy criminals it tolerates from the poor ones it doesn't.

Crime: Written artifacts of political deference from the past. In American democracy, a "crime" is one of several thousand things (no one knows for sure how many) which at some point in history offended the eyes or pocketbook of a person to whom legislators were beholden.

Clearance rates: A rarely-discussed measurement of police incompetence.

Police unions: The armed agents of the state organized in such a way as to maximally intimidate their employers.

Police associations: A euphemism adopted by police-labor leaders who despise both unions and progressivism while desiring the benefits of both.

Police beat (journalism): A sinecure for stenographers.

Meet and confer: An economic process by which slumbering taxpayers are fleeced behind closed doors, waking in their bare skin at the start of the following budget cycle after the wool has already been sent to market and future proceeds have been assigned.

Less lethal: Lethal. (See also, "a little bit pregnant.")

Reform: The point at which vectors emerging from the most disappointing outcome and the best possible one converge.

Response to resistance: When police use violence.

Resistance: Any action by a private person contrary to a police officer's desire, expectation, or demand, whether legal, reasonable, or otherwise.

Officer-involved shooting: Police are "involved" in officer-involved shootings in the same sense the term is used to describe one's bacon-and-egg breakfast: The chicken is involved; the pig is committed. Just reversed.

N.b., this is a work of satire. Comments from humorless scolds will either be deleted or mercilessly mocked, depending on my mood.

Friday, May 07, 2021

Five Observations and a Prediction: Why police budget hikes could become a thing of the past in Texas if HB 1900 becomes law

In no particular order, here are five observations and a prediction about a week filled with losses for the Texas criminal-justice reform movement at the Texas Legislature and in San Antonio and Austin.

#1: Policy fights now head to the courts

Every policy fight can and frequently does play out in an array of venues and the legislative process is only one of them. Some of the legislative losses this week are on topics - more restrictive detention policies from bail reform, limiting prosecutor discretion on new anti-homeless laws and arrested protesters, dictating home-rule-cities' budget prerogatives, etc. - that Grits expects to be litigated as soon as they're implemented. Some of it will stand, some of it won't. ¿Quien sabe? E.g., Austin changed its homeless arrest policy after federal court rulings deemed similar laws in California unconstitutional. Once it's changed back, those precedents will now be litigated here. Hell, if it's extended statewide, litigants can cherry pick which judge they want to bring it before. Right now, debates at the Texas Legislature on everything from bail to homelessness to abortion have become rather unhinged from and not particularly cognizant of nor in any way aligned with federal court rulings governing the same topics. Sign of the times, I guess: Picking needless fights on every front. I can't always tell if it's intentional or they just don't know any better. Little of both, probably.

#2: Ex Post Facto: Know the term

The "defund the police" legislation which will likely pass the Texas House today is a rather blatant example of an "ex post facto law" banned in Art. 1, Sec. 16 of the Texas Constitution and Art. 1, Sections 9 and 10 of the US Constitution. House Parliamentarians don't rule on constitutional issues (with few exceptions, they stick to interpreting the House rules), but IRL, courts do. And the originalist history of the ban on "ex post facto laws" is well established: While more commonly used today in terms of criminal law, it was created so that governments couldn't arbitrarily invalidate budgeting and spending decisions.

#3: The push to disconnect policing from policy makers

An oddity of both the anti-homeless legislation in the Texas Legislature and Prop B approved by Austin voters is the proposal to divorce law enforcement decision making from the policy making bodies that set their budgets and supposedly provide oversight. The state legislation would extend this to prosecutors, limiting prosecutor discretion in Class C cases against the homeless and creating a bizarre situation where prosecutors have more discretion to be lenient to murderers than the poorest of the poor. There are long-term implications for divorcing the armed agents of the state from the control of legitimate democratically-elected policymaking authorities: Examples are numerous, dating at least to the Roman legions' repeated usurpations of the Imperial Senate and various emperors in ancient times. That's more or less how your correspondent views the police-union cabals to whom legislators are kowtowing, and it's hard to see much good coming from disconnecting those folks from the constraints of civil authority.

#4: Why the folks shouting "Back the Blue" don't mind risking cops' lives

The most remarkable thing about this week was that MANY of the same legislators who've been crowing "Back the Blue" for months ignored widespread warnings from law enforcement to pass unlicensed-carry gun legislation. And I mean didn't give a damn: Lip service paid, then vote the other way on a party line, with cops telling them openly, in numbers, "this puts us at risk." Pairing that with the "defund the police" debate on the House floor, one witnessed legislators touting near the top of their lungs that cops deserve absolute deference, then in nearly the next breath insisting the cops were overstating the risks they faced because they were intimidated by some kind of woke, Big Government liberalism from the cities. It was bizarre, and only makes sense if one assumes the love of police is conditional on their political utility. Tbh, I always have, but this made it obvious and nearly inarguable.

#5: A craven betrayal

The word that keeps coming to Grits' mind for the Austin city council restarting cadet classes without demanding a reformed curriculum is "craven." They promised there'd be community participation in the process and then plowed forward without it. And while they added an amendment to the item requiring a report from the City Manager on the progress of curriculum change before the new class starts (June 7), the amendment created no process to halt the class if the curriculum isn't ready. That's because the council majority DOES NOT CARE ABOUT REFORMING THE ACADEMY. It was a promise several of them made when they were running for re-election. But now that they're safely back in their seats, having secured all the support they needed from grassroots reformers in their districts, they don't mind screwing over the Chas Moores and Meme Styles of the world: West Austin brings more votes. Adding insult to injury, most of the key, Austin police-reform leaders skipped the meeting at City Hall to show up at the Legislature and try to fight the "defund" bill, scheduled for the same day on the House floor. No good deed goes unpunished. This was a betrayal and your correspondent won't soon forget it.

Prediction: If "Anti-Defund the Police" bill passes, police budget hikes are a thing of the past

The Legislature gets to write the laws, but even they are not immune from the Law of Unintended Consequences.  I don't think legislators have considered the incentives they're putting in place in HB 1900 punishing cities that "defund" police department (by which in Austin's case they mean delaying cadet classes by one year). Going forward, cities that increase police spending can never again lower it. But they often need to do so. Now, cities will decline to spend more, knowing they won't be allowed to spend less. Bill authors even rejected amendments so that overtime for one-off special events - like a Super Bowl weekend in Houston - would be counted against them the following year. If I'm right about the new incentives facing city councils under this legislation, the result will be to suppress police spending instead of bolster it. I predict that if HB 1900 becomes law, when we look back five years from now the growth rate in police budgets will have flattened, not rallied.

Indeed, the most delicious irony may well come if HB 1900 ends up itself defunding the police! 

Wealthy communities without much police presence have for decades coveted caps on utility rates and property taxes. Some of them also want de-annexation (the recent Austin lakeside de-annexation dispute a case in point). They don't see police much and most of their thinking on this is based more on ideological and partisan predilections than a hard-nosed assessment of self interest.  HB 1900 could well create a "run on the bank" with voters at both ends of the spectrum showing up to defund the police, reallocate hundreds of millions of dollars, and trigger revenue caps and de-annexations that could change fundamentally how cities are constructed and managed in Texas.

Is that the intent of the legislation? No, the intent is to "own the libs." And the libs don't want to be "owned." Other than that, very few under the Pink Dome have thought through the implications of this legislation at all. And it shows.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Academy relaunch premature until Austin PD eschews hazing culture

The Austin City Council today will consider relaunching its police academy after it was shuttered amidst allegations of cadet hazing and a "culture of violence." 

We've now seen numerous unflattering assessments of the academy, but none more damning than the report from Kroll and Associates. They found the academy uses a "predominantly paramilitary model," has been "reluctant to incorporate a lot of community/civilian input," and remains "distrustful of non-police personnel."

Notably, a majority of both APD brass and the Academy leadership told consultants they don't agree with critiques of paramilitary approaches to policing and don't intend to change: "APD leadership has expressed its belief to Kroll that a paramilitary structure is an essential component of police culture." wrote the consultants. They want to continue group punishments and "stress-based" techniques (this is a cop euphemism for screaming at cadets.)

So APD brass fundamentally disagrees with and is bucking the new direction City Council wants to go, but we're being told "trust us" and asked to move forward, anyway. Honestly, they must think we're suckers: Don't piss on my shoes and tell me it's raining.

City Manager Spencer Cronk has done everything in his power to avoid revamping the academy significantly, last year pressuring the council to move forward without assessing the problem. Then, when they made him perform several "audits" of the academy essentially against his will, they corroborated all the allegations and then some. But in response, Cronk began pushing to relaunch the academy before the problems have been addressed, which leads us to today's vote.

The biggest concern with launching the academy now is that past pedagogical approaches were abusive toward cadets and drove out qualified candidates who chose not to endure these methods. Grits has written about the department's:

strange obsession with perpetuating a culture of hazing and brutality toward cadets, despite evidence this approach drives away women and black people.

Perhaps most telling to this observer, Kroll criticized APD's use of a "Fight Day" at the beginning of the academy, in which martial-arts instructors beat up cadets in a boxing ring before they've received any self defense training. After public criticisms, "Fight Day" was relabeled "Will to Win," but it's still the same program. Exit interviews indicate this practice significantly harms retention rates in particular for women and black men.

The reason given for Fight Day is that if officers are assaulted on the job, they should have experienced being in a fight before to know what to expect. But when Kroll asked why it couldn't be done at the end of the academy, after cadets had been trained in self-defense techniques, "APD personnel were unable to provide a persuasive rationale."

Your correspondent believes it's because they prefer to fight defenseless cadets instead of trained ones. The purpose is hazing, not training. Kroll's questions exposed a culture of bullying and hazing that can't be defended on pedagogical grounds.
When these audits were commissioned, the Mayor and City Council promised there would be a collaborative, community process to develop a new curriculum. But on a Zoom call my wife attended last night, advocates invited to the first meeting of that process - the night before the vote to reopen - were given no curriculum to review and told the list of course topics hadn't yet been finalized. In other words, they're just getting started and have barely checked in with community folks, much less secured their buy in.

Even more concerning, officials on the call confirmed Kroll's assessment that Austin PD brass continue to back hazing techniques at the academy and don't want to give up "stress-based" training practices which have been abandoned by the majority of American law enforcement. (According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 23% of US police academies use a primarily "stress-based" approach like APD.)

Those are some big, unanswered questions! This is why the City Council had originally pushed off a new cadet class until the new fiscal year in October: It's been obvious for many months that the curriculum could not be revamped in time to launch a new class in June. Rather than fulfill their promise of a collaborative process with the community, City Council now wants to renege and launch classes prematurely: The analogy floating around City Hall is that they'll finish building the plane while they're flying it. But that's not how planes work.

More than anything, this is just poor management: Launching a new training regimen before it's been developed or vetted and moving forward without a plan.

Monday, May 03, 2021

The #TexasGeorgeFloydAct: What component bills are still moving in the #txlege homestretch?

Over the weekend, your correspondent put together an update on the status of all the various bills that make up the Texas George Floyd Act for the 65-group coalition promoting them, so let's re-post it here for Grits readers who may be interested. There are four weeks to go in the legislative session, so all these bills are in the make-or-break home stretch.

The Texas George Floyd Act, as distinct from federal legislation by the same name, fundamentally has eight component parts. These have also been broken up into individual, stand-alone legislation, and six of the eight have passed at least one chamber in the Texas Legislature and still have a chance to pass in 2021:

GFA Components:
Ban arrests for traffic offenses
Ban chokeholds
Improve use-of-force standards
Duty to render aid
Duty to intervene
Qualified immunity
Disciplinary matrix
Corroboration in drug cases

Here’s a list of individual bills still moving as of May 2, 2021, along with a summation of what’s not:

HB 830: Banning Class C arrests. This bill was scaled back in committee to ban arrests only for traffic offenses in the Transportation Code. Still, this change would have eliminated roughly 95% of the 64,000 arrests at Texas traffic stops in 2019. The bill passed the Texas House with a bipartisan vote of 113-18, including 57 Democrats and 56 Republicans. It has yet to be referred to committee in the senate.

SB 69: Banning chokeholds and neck restraints by police unless it “is necessary to prevent serious bodily injury to or the death of the officer or another person.” The bill passed the Senate unanimously and is not yet scheduled for a hearing in the House.

HB 833: Improving use of force standards to require an imminent threat. This legislation did not make it out of the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee and probably can no longer pass this session.

SB 2212: Duty to render aid. This legislation passed out of the senate unanimously, but could be improved to clear up some ambiguity around when the duty is triggered. Officers should render aid unless there’s an “imminent threat.” Alternatively, their duty to render aid to injured members of the public should be the same as when a police officer is injured. It has been referred to the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee and there will be a public hearing May 5th.

SB 68: Duty to intervene. This legislation requires law enforcement to intervene when they witness excessive force when a list of four qualifying factors are met. We believe meeting any of these factors justifies intervention and the bill need modest amendment to achieve its goals. The bill is scheduled for a hearing in the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee on May 5th.

HB 614: Qualified Immunity: Creating a new cause of action for civil rights violations that bypasses qualified immunity was one of the most prominent demands in the original Texas George Floyd Act. But it has received the most pushback of all and has not moved in either chamber.

HB 829: Creating a disciplinary matrix to ensure fair punishment. In civil service cities, a common excuse for arbitrators overturning police-officer discipline is punishment that differs from other cases. This bill requires those departments to have a disciplinary matrix specifying presumed punishments, and tells arbitrators punishments within those ranges must be presumed reasonable. This will make it easier for chiefs to fire bad cops and make it stick. This bill has yet to be referred to committee in the senate.

HB 834: Corroboration of police testimony in drug cases. This legislation reacts to George Floyd’s conviction based on the testimony of corrupt Houston narcotics officer Gerald Goines in a case with a fabricated informant. This is another bill that passed out of the Texas House with solid bipartisan support, this legislation enjoyed support in the lower chamber from the Sheriffs Association of Texas and the Texas Police Chiefs Association. This bill has yet to be referred to committee in the senate.

***

For more background, check out the special, two-part podcast from Just Liberty on the Texas George Floyd Act: Here's Part One and Part Two.

UPDATE (5/5): The three senate bills discussed above all passed out of the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee today (SB 69 was added via a rules suspension) with support from the police unions but tepid backing from police-reform advocates, several of whom testified "on" rather than "for" the legislation. The duty to render aid bill lets officers delay assistance until the scene is fully secured, whatever that means. (For my money, Grits thinks they should be taught to "render aid" with the same alacrity and preconditions as if it were an officer who's wounded.) Meanwhile the duty to intervene applies only to excessive force, not other types of misconduct (e.g., fabricating informants, as allegedly happened in George Floyd's Houston drug case). The original Texas-George-Floyd-Act versions were broader. These are probably still an improvement over current law, barely, but the lowest-possible-impact versions of such improvements. With that said, the same committee earlier passed a governor-and-police-union-backed mandate for training on duties to render aid and intervene that the Attorney General says don't currently exist (the police unions disagree). So putting these duties formally on the books is important. But the versions passed by the senate are pretty weak tea.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Unions fighting police reforms up at #txlege on Thursday

Three bills scheduled for votes on Thursday on the floor of the Texas House are all stand-alone parts of the Texas George Floyd Act: HBs 829, HB 830, and HB 834, and all by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson.

HB 829 requires civil-service cities to create a disciplinary matrix to keep arbitrators from overturning punishment so often.

HB 830 forbids arrests for Class C violations of the Transportation Code.

HB 834 requires corroboration for police officer testimony to secure a drug conviction.

For the most part, we've heard all the union's arguments before. (See links for HBs 830 and 834 for more background on those bills.) But the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas put out a flyer critical of HB 829 which deserves special attention, as it's focused on a less-high-profile topic than the other two. Here's what CLEAT's distributing against the bill: 

Let's respond to the issues raised one by one.

1. CLEAT argues that Texas’ police civil service statute has not been changed since 2005 and decisions about departmental discipline have been left to local union negotiations, which they prefer.

It’s true the Legislature has not revisited the police civil-service statute for many years. Since that time, we’ve had plenty of opportunities to observe how those 2005 revisions played out in the real world. In Fort Worth, about half of fired officers get back on the force. In San Antonio, 70% of fired officers are reinstated. Notoriously, one San Antonio officer was reinstated after being fired for feeding feces between two pieces of bread to a homeless person. Police chiefs need authority to fire officers under such circumstances. HB 829 is a moderate effort to resolve this problem, giving officers, departments, and the public greater certainty about which punishments are reasonable. While the police chiefs association has suggested getting rid of arbitration altogether, Chairwoman Thompson’s bill keeps arbitration and simply provides arbitrators more guidance.

2. CLEAT argues that HB 829 would “severely limit the discretion of cities to negotiate these issues with their officers back home.”

This is disingenuous. The main thing that currently limits cities’ discretion to strengthen disciplinary processes is that, if the only way to do it is through local meet and confer agreements, the unions will never agree. If unions won’t sign off on a police contract, its provisions cannot take effect. It’s inappropriate to limit police discipline through union negotiations. That should be left to local policy and state law. Certainly no government employee union should have veto power over accountability reforms affecting their profession.

3. CLEAT claims the law would offend “the vote of the people who adopted civil service in the first place.”

This argument lacks context. Texas cities mostly adopted civil service in the 1940s and 1950s. The provisions they’re saying the law would change were not in place when voters adopted Chapter 143 of the Local Government Code, but were added many decades afterward at the unions’ behest. If it was okay to change the rules post hoc in 2005, Chairwoman Thompson should be able to do it now.

***

The other two bills up Thursday have received more attention and will likely draw more natural support on the House floor. HB 829, though, is a more deep-in-the-weeds technical issue which has flown relatively under the radar. Here's hoping all three of them move onto the senate without any hiccups.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Assessing status of police-reform bills as #txlege reaches inflection point

The Texas Tribune published a story in the wake of the Derek Chauvin verdict interviewing families of police brutality victims pushing for the Texas George Floyd Act. While that omnibus legislation appears stalled, as we've discussed in two recent, special podcast episodes, it has also been broken up into a number of different bills, some of which are still wending their way through the process.

Portrait of George Floyd by Nia Palmer
We're now at an inflection point in the Texas legislative process: Bills that are out of committee and moving at this point are still "alive" and could possibly pass. Those that never made it out of committee are largely dead, though conceivably some could be brought back as amendments to other bills. Let's run through the main police-accountability bills still moving.

HB 830 (S. Thompson) passed out of the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee and was included on House Speaker Dade Phelan's list of priority bills. The committee substitute of that legislation would ban all arrests for Class C traffic offenses, which Grits estimates would prevent more than 80% of Class-C arrests overall. This reform is long overdue; this is its third session hitting the House floor. The provision is in both party platforms and should get done this time.

HB 834 (S. Thompson) cleared the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and is in Calendars: This bill requires corroboration for testimony by police officers in undercover drug cases, a reform that could have changed George Floyd's entire life (he never got his notice to vacate his old drug case due to Gerald Goines.) 

HB 829 (S. Thompson), which passed out of the Urban Affairs Committee, would require police departments to create a disciplinary matrix articulating acceptable punishments for various types of misconduct: The reform is aimed at preventing arbitrators from overturning disciplinary decisions by police chiefs.

In the Senate, two bills have passed over to the House that include provisions from the George Floyd Act: SB 2212 (West) creating a duty to render aid, and HB 68 (Miles) creating a duty to intervene/report when officers witness excessive force. Both of these include stronger language than the governor's proposed language on the topic, which is contained in HB 3712 by Ed Thompson (not Senfronia). And both potentially are life saving improvements.

What's not here? Stricter use of force standards from HB 833, the chokehold ban in HB 831, and qualified immunity provisions in the original HB 88. The reforms that are moving are important. But some ideas that should have been easy are stuck, like requiring departments to have de-escalation policies. And some ideas are very big and getting their first real attention at the Lege, like limiting the situations where lethal force is authorized.

With the likelihood growing that the Legislature won't enact Sunset reforms at the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, the bills above that are moving appear to be the main chance we have for improving police accountability this session. Even if everything described here passes, Texas will have a lot more to do.

In the scheme of things, most of these besides HB 830 are relatively small bills. And the prospect for sentencing reform seems dim, with hundreds of new crimes and penalty enhancements having been proposed. By contrast, New Mexico just legalized recreational pot. Colorado created a state civil rights cause of action free from qualified immunity. Red states like Oklahoma and Utah have reduced low-level drug possession from felonies to misdemeanors. And bills still moving in Texas pale compared to the most comprehensive police-reform packages in other states.

That's the context in which Grits recently characterized most of the criminal-justice bills besides HB 830 and the bail legislation as "small potatoes" in the Dallas Morning News. In the scheme of things, it's hard to argue Texas' reforms still moving aren't relatively small time. Sure, compared to the killing field that faced criminal-justice legislation two years ago, these are significant proposals. But compared to the rest of the country, Texas' reform legislation isn't particularly remarkable. The state has fallen a few steps behind the national reform curve, when 12-15 years ago we were ahead of it.

UPDATE: Adding one more piece from the Texas George Floyd Act, HB 831 (S. Thompson) banning chokeholds passed out of the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee today.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

With chances for TCOLE Sunset legislation withering, bill heard to expand agency's authority to kick bad cops out of the profession

Your correspondent is beginning to despair that the 87th Texas Legislature may come and go without meaningful reform a the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, the state's police-and-jailer-licensing agency.

The TCOLE Sunset bill - which drew attention because of an especially harsh critique by Sunset staff calling it a broken system that's failing to achieve its mission - is now languishing with others in House Calendars and appears likely to be pushed off for two years. Instead the Calendars Committee sent forward HB 1600, which has already passed the House and will be heard this afternoon in the Senate Administration Committee. That bill pushes off the Sunset process for TCOLE, the Commission on Jail Standards, and numerous other agencies.

Legislation in the Senate to expand TCOLE's powers has yet to get a hearing, but this afternoon, better late than never, the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee will hear HB 3654 by Rodriguez which would beef up the agency's authority to de-certify peace-officer licenses for misconduct.

Regular readers know that, currently, TCOLE can only de-certify an officer’s license if he or she a) is convicted of a felony or certain, specified misdemeanors, or b) has been dishonorably discharged by not one but two different agencies. HB 3654 broadens the circumstances under which TCOLE can suspend licenses, directing the agency to develop rules governing when officers’ licenses may be revoked when the officer’s continued licensing would constitute a “threat to the public welfare.”

Under the bill, the agency would develop rules articulating when officers’ licenses may be revoked on the following grounds:
1) lack of competence

2) illegal drug use or addiction

3) lack of truthfulness in court proceedings, offense reports (unless recanted within 10 days), or employment applications,

4) making a false entry into court records,

5) evidence tampering

6) cheating on promotions exams

7) insubordination

8) discriminatory conduct

9) pattern of excessive force

10) pattern of abuse of official capacity

11) pattern of sexual harassment/misconduct

12) pattern of inappropriate relationships with persons in custody

13) pattern of misuse of information obtained as a result of employment as a peace officer
That'd be a massive and much-needed expansion of TCOLE's authority and would require a significant expansion of staff to fulfill those duties. It's also a list laden with negotiation-fodder; the bill could be scaled back considerably and still be quite a significant improvement.

The bill attempts to mitigate that to some extent by increasing the fee peace officers and jailers pay when their licenses are commissioned. But regular readers know these are among the only licensees in the state who do not pay regular licensing fees to cover the administrative bureaucracy of the agency that regulates them, the way, doctors, lawyers, hairdressers, or plumbers do. Make me Philosopher King and I'd make police officers and jailers pay annual or periodic fees to cover the costs of their licensing regulation. That's how it works for every other class of licensed workers and doing so would eliminate the "fiscal note."

This bill is starting pretty late in the process to make it all the way through in 2021, but it's an opening salvo in a discussion about how TCOLE's authority needs to be expanded. And some of these ideas could see their way into amendments tacked onto other legislation. KXAN-TV has lately been covering related topics, see here and here.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Deeply rooted problems at Austin's police academy justified one-year recruitment delay

So much misinformation has been cast about so frequently regarding the City of Austin's budget and supposedly "defunding the police" that many political actors involved appear to have come to believe their own bullshit. Legislation purporting to punish cities that reduce police budgets, including HB 1900 by Goldman, are sitting in Calendars and could pop out at any time.

In the Texas Senate, Democrats cratered; all but 2 voted in favor of "anti-defund" legislation. So the idea has so far sailed through the political process without being thoroughly debated or vetted. 

Here's what's missing from discussions at the capitol:

First, the full extent of Austin's budget cut was 4.6%, almost all of which stemmed from delaying the cadet classes for a year. (As a point of comparison, when Texas faced budget shortfalls in 2017, the Legislature cut the Department of Public Safety budget by 4%.)

The reason for delaying cadet classes in Austin wasn't to "defund" the department, despite calls in the street to do so. Instead, it was the logical next step in an ongoing accountability effort. The prior December, long before last summer's protests, the City Council had ordered the city manager and police department to conduct an audit to vet problems at the police academy which had been raised by former cadets over several years. The audit was due last June, but APD and the city manager showed up at the appointed time to say, "We haven't done the work you requested, but we want to restart cadet classes, anyway."

By this time, the George-Floyd protests were in full swing and city council members stood their ground, telling the city manager to perform the audit as directed and revamp the cadet-class curriculum before proceeding with another one.

If City Manager Spencer Cronk had performed the audit when he was supposed to, Austin would have only missed one academy class

Instead, he didn't start until the City Council gave him a hard "no" on new cadet classes, and the results didn't come out until earlier this year. The "audit" occurred in multiple parts which came out in January and February. All of them showed major problems with the academy that required complete reworking.

A review of videos used at the academy found consistent, systemic bias:

People of color seldom benefited from crisis intervention or deescalation strategies from officers in videos. Instead, a strong emphasis on gaining compliance and control over all else from communities of color often led to rapid escalation with often violent and even deadly results for minor infractions. In contrast, white community members were most often extended grace and understanding. Opportunities for story-telling and building empathy was almost exclusively given to white men.

A review by the Equity Office found a culture of violence and hazing within the department.

And outside policing experts at Kroll and Associates also identified a strange obsession with perpetuating a culture of hazing and brutality toward cadets, despite evidence this approach drives away women and black people.

Perhaps most telling to this observer, Kroll criticized APD's use of a "Fight Day" at the beginning of the academy, in which martial-arts instructors beat up cadets in a boxing ring before they've received any self defense training. After public criticisms, "Fight Day" was relabeled "Will to Win," but it's still the same program, though supposedly performed at lesser intensity. Exit interviews indicate this practice significantly harms retention rates in particular for women and black men.

The reason given for Fight Day is that if officers are assaulted on the job, they should have experienced being in a fight before to know what to expect. But when Kroll asked why it couldn't be done at the end of the academy, after cadets had been trained in self-defense techniques, "APD personnel were unable to provide a persuasive rationale."

Your correspondent believes it's because they prefer to fight defenseless cadets instead of trained ones. The purpose is hazing, not training. Kroll's questions exposed a culture of bullying and hazing that can't be defended on pedagogical grounds.

They also found department leaders were openly resistant to changing hazing routines at the academy, declaring they were pivotal to its team building mission. 

These problems hadn't even been identified until a few weeks ago. But the police union, the Greater Austin Crime Commission, and their allies have insisted Austin PD should plow forward with a new cadet class before APD has demonstrated that they have fixed what's wrong with it first. They'd prefer to launch a new cadet class in June and repair the plane while it's flying, as it were. By contrast, local police-reform advocates prefer to take a few months to develop a new curriculum that comports with community standards and launch a new academy in the new fiscal year, which begins in October.

So the difference between the cops and reform advocates in Austin amounts to "Do we start a cadet class in six weeks or six months from now." And on that small difference, politicians have built a huge inverted pyramid of bullshit.

Neither the Governor nor Austin's legislative critics acknowledge this context for "cuts" to the budget. They want to pretend the budget cut was an attack on law enforcement when really it was part of an ongoing process that had begun long before the protests to reform what we now know are deeply rooted problems at this particular police academy. Whether state officials ever acknowledge it in public debates, and whether or not Austin is punished for it, it really did have to happen.

The other big "cuts" to Austin PD involved shifting functions like the 911 call center and the forensic lab out of the department, to better serve all emergency response and improve criminal investigation. The city could end up spending more money on those functions once they're more professionally operated. Quality doesn't come cheap. But bills to punish Austin don't "count" more money spent on scientists or emergency med techs or 911 dispatchers as public safety money. Which is why you can be sure that none of this is really about public safety. 

The police unions have thrown in with Republicans, and Republicans have long seen Texas' Democratically controlled cities as the electoral problem they must solve to stay in power. As a consequence, police are helping Republicans attack their Democratic opponents. In Austin it's the budget. In Houston it's the new wave of Democratic judges and the hot topic is bail. Everywhere the core argument is the same: Democrats can't run cities, so the Republican state leadership must step in. If Democrats want to retain control over their cities, they are going to find some backbone and stand up for what's true, including real public safety and the authority of local officials to run their own cities.

Texas Republicans may no longer believe in local control, but Texans still do.

Sheriff's deputy resigned amidst child molestation charges, murdered three people this weekend, but still technically eligible to work in Texas law enforcement

In many other states, former Travis County Sheriff's Deputy Stephen Broderick would have lost his peace officer's license last year. He was allowed to resign in lieu of being fired amidst child molestation allegations, but like so many others before him, he remained eligible under Texas law to be hired at one of Texas' 2,500+ other law enforcement agencies.

He probably would have, too, if he hadn't allegedly murdered three people in Austin this weekend then gone on the lam. (UPDATE: He has since been arrested.)

His story shows why the Sunset Advisory Commission's report on the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement declared the agency's licensing process "broken." Sunset described a "fragmented, outdated system with poor accountability, lack of statewide standards, and inadequate training." The agency simply has no statutory authority to kick bad cops out of the profession.

Over a five year period, Sunset staff reported, more than 2,800 officers were dishonorably discharged from their agencies; TCOLE decertified only nine of them. More than a quarter of these officers get re-hired.

The reason: current law requires they be dishonorably discharged TWICE before losing their license. There's no good reason why once isn't enough. There's already an appeals process in place if extenuating circumstances exist.

Similarly, TCOLE may only decertify officers for alleged crimes if they're convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor that relates to their job (a nebulous, ill-defined distinction). So sustained allegations of child abuse that don't result in prosecution aren't enough to decertify someone in Texas, even if they're fired or resign over it. Broderick's case makes that clear. Even now that he's murdered three people. TCOLE doesn't have authority to remove his license unless he's convicted.

The TCOLE Sunset legislation so far addresses none of these issues, Grits reported recently. But HB 8 (Pacheco), which is scheduled for a House floor vote on Wednesday, represents the police union's "solution" to the problem.

This bill 1) requires disclosure of police personnel files of fired officers to any new agency that hires them, and 2) makes those records closed to the public.

The assumption appears to be that agencies won't hire officers if they know about misconduct in their past, but both history and data tell us that's not universally true. We've seen plenty of anecdotal examples of bad cops getting hired somewhere else. And as mentioned, Sunset staff reported that more than one in four dishonorably discharged officers get rehired every year. 

Moreover, the closed records provisions in HB 8 are over-broad. Personnel files presently are only confidential at the 73-or-so agencies covered under Ch. 143 of the Local Government Code. At all other 2,500+ agencies, including every county sheriff in the state - personnel files are subject to the Texas Public Information Act. HB 8 should be amended to ensure only records from Ch. 143 agencies are closed; this ostensible reform bill shouldn't become a vehicle to diminish transparency around police misconduct.

HB 8 is a baby step, at best, and may be a step backward if it diminishes transparency around police misconduct. Texas needs to do much more to make police licensing in this state anything more than a fig leaf for police misconduct and ultimately, a bad joke.