Friday, February 25, 2011

Solutions and non-solutions to police brutality in Houston and elsewhere

In Houston, police brutality incidents caught on video have spurred calls for a civilian review board (with "supboena power," of course), or perhaps a police monitor like we have here in Austin. But Paul Kennedy rightly wonders:
I don't know what the solution is. A civilian review board sounds nice - but in reality, do they really do any good? The boards tend to be made up of politically-connected folks who don't really want to go out on a limb. Even if you give the board subpoena power, what would you accomplish? Would the board be tasked with seeking out the truth - and forgoing criminal prosecution? Would the board's job be to uncover evidence and turn it over the the DA's office? Would members of the board have any idea what they were doing?
He's right. So-called "civilian oversight" accomplishes little. What's really needed is to strengthen police administrators' ability to deal with misconduct in their ranks, whereas right now in Houston and 70+ other civil service cities they're too often hamstrung, their authority over personnel too easily second guessed, and their termination decisions too often overturned. Civilian oversight can't accomplish much when the agency's own administrative oversight remains ineffective. In other words, if the chief can't fire bad cops, as a practical matter "oversight" adds nothing to the equation.

From 2000 through 2006 I was director of ACLU of Texas' Police Accountability Project, and before that was among the founders of a PAC created to push for the establishment of "civilian oversight" in Austin, a campaign that resulted in the establishment of Austin's Police Monitor office. In all the years I've worked on the issue, I've never seen nor heard of a civilian review board, anywhere, that worked as advertised, effected meaningful change or satisfied those that advocated for it. Ditto for "police monitors" like in Austin. I've come to believe they're largely a waste of time and divert activists, media, officialdom and public attention generally from issues where focused attention might produce more meaningful reform.

What would work? And since the Legislature is in session, what could the Lege do?

Transparency: Independent, aggressive press oversight, as a practical matter, is MUCH more effective than any civilian oversight mechanism I've ever heard of, anywhere.  Civil service cities like Houston have most of their disciplinary records closed unless officers are severely disciplined (more than two days suspension), and then only summary information is public. So, for example, in Dallas or El Paso, which never opted into the civil service code, reporters get a LOT more information on police misconduct than Houston or other civil service cities, and it really shows in their coverage, particularly at the Dallas News. Easily the most effective change to improve police oversight in Houston and other civil service cities, without costing the taxpayers a dime, would simply be to re-open police disciplinary files; hundreds of non-civil service cities and every Texas Sheriff operate just fine under the Public Information Act, and so would civil service cities if they were brought back under its umbrella.

Another key, too-often neglected transparency issue: Former Harris County DA Johnny Holmes and the Texas Supreme Court, abetted by the Legislature after the fact, gutted the Law Enforcement exception (Govt Code 552.108) to the Public Information Act in Holmes v. Morales. State Rep. Harold Dutton still carries a bill (see here) every session to change the standard back to what it what from the inception of the Open Records Act until that episode. This change was pivotal, casting a thick blanket of secrecy over information which had been public for decades. If we don't fix the transparency problem - both reinvigorating the law enforcement exception and re-opening disciplinary files in civil service cities - IMO all other "solutions" will founder.

Accounting for Misconduct in Promotions: Then-state Rep. Chuy Hinojosa filed a bill back in 2001 that never went anywhere but which would have required sustained misconduct to be counted against officers when considering them for promotions, see here. I've always thought that would give a lot more oomph to internal disciplinary decisions than is currently the case and potentially play a big preventive role.

Bolstering Disciplinary Decisions: The biggest problem with the civil service code regarding police misconduct at Texas police departments is that, too often, fired officers too often don't stay fired. The state could require civil service cities to have a "Uniform Disciplinary Matrix," which is a pre-set array of punishments available for different types of misconduct. This helps prevent arbitrators from overturning punishments when they comply with the disciplinary matrix, including indefinite suspensions/terminations, establishing what's a reasonable punishment as a matter of policy instead of letting the arbitrator make an arbitrary determination after the fact in each case. (See the discussion here.)

Those are all things the Legislature could do to reduce police misconduct in Houston and other civil service cities with no fiscal note, and without resorting to dysfunctional non-solutions like a civilian review board. And ironically, a GOP dominated Legislature might be just the group to do it, since the main special interest promoting secrecy are public employee unions (who thanks to the brouhaha in Wisconsin have become movement conservatives' whipping boy of the day). All those Democrats who just got ousted in the Texas House would never in a million years have stood up to the police unions to re-impose transparency, but it wouldn't surprise me if some of the Tea Party types might.


Anonymous said...

Police brutality is a crime. Civilian review boards will not solvve it. There is no solution to it just as there is no solution to citizens committing crimes.

Excessive use of force and section 1983 violations are initial training and continuing in-service training topics.

Just start filing criminal charges just like they did in Dallas yesterday and prosecute officers who go over the top with force.

And kudos to the DPD officer who reported the officer's over the top conduct.

Grits said "What's really needed is to strengthen police administrators' ability to deal with misconduct in their ranks, whereas right now in Houston and 70+ other civil service cities they're too often hamstrung, their authority over personnel too easily second guessed, and their termination decisions too often overturned."

Hamstrung? They hamstring themselves by not filing criminal charges. Again start filing criminal charges. Successful prosecutions against an officer will cause TCLEOSE to revoke that officer license.

Except as provided by subsection (a) of this section, the commission may revoke the license of a person who is either convicted of a misdemeanor offense or placed on deferred adjudication community supervision for a misdemeanor or felony offense, if the offense directly relates to the duties and responsibilities of any related office held by that person. In determining whether a criminal offense directly relates to such office, the commission shall, under this subsection, consider:
(1) the nature and seriousness of the crime;
(2) the relationship of the crime to the purpose for requiring a license for such office;
(3) the extent to which a license might offer an opportunity to engage in further criminal activity of the same type as that in which the person previously had been involved; and
(4) the relationship of the crime to the ability, capacity, or fitness required to perform the duties and discharge the responsibilities of such office.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Police brutality is a crime."

Texas is "Tuff on Crime," but not necessarily that crime. ;)

I agree with you in principle, but I also think police chiefs in civil service cities need more tools to get rid of bad actors in the department and/or keep them from getting promoted to high ranks. What the DAs do is what the DAs do, but police administrators need to be able to run their departments.

Anonymous said...

Wow! What's up with all the hate against public employees these days? Whether it's the teachers in Wisconsin or the police officers in Texas, it sure does seem to have become fashionable lately to castigate all of those who perform vital public services.

Anonymous said...

8:16 hate has nothing to do with prosecuting someone in an entrusted positionr for excessive force.

The post was not about teachers but since you brought it up, if it were in Texas, how would it work for you as a taxpayer to pay out millions for these taechers to attend a protest rally?

Anonymous said...

Well police officers are just as necessary as teachers. And it seems like you anti-labor types are more than happy to let a few bad apples spoil the whole bunch. Police officers, like teachers, are in positions where they frequently rub people the wrong way. The collective bargaining and civil service protections they've earned over the years are designed, among other things, to protect them against bogus allegations motivated by spite or vindictiveness. Maybe when you tea party types drive all the good and dedicated public servants out of their jobs under the guise of these so-called "reforms" you'll be happy. But I wonder who you'll be left with performing these vital public services!

Anonymous said...

8:16 and 8:56 There you go again. Teaparty type? No a retired Texas peace officer who happens to believe there should be no exception when it comes to prosecuting a police officer accused of excessive force.

One other thing.....I don't believe there is any place for organized labor as it relates to law enforcement, garbage collection, education, etc at taxpayers expense. If my taxpayer money is being used to pay you, show your ass up for work.

Hook Em Horns said...

"Police brutality is a crime."

Truer words were never spoken. It is almost impossible to find a D.A. or Deputy D.A. who will effectively prosecute a cop. Yes there are exceptions but the rule is "the cops walk." Even if you prosecute, the judges in Texas frequently side with law enforcement. It's hard to get a grand jury to return indictments against peace officers.

This is a system that we have allowed to be created in our names. It's not going anywhere. My advice, sue the police and municipalities in civil court. Criminal prosecution, most of the time, is a pipe dream.

PAPA said...

STOP the INSANITY! Until they are convicted and become a long term Citizen of the Jail/Prison Society Communities inside the razorwire fences it is not going to stop. GET REAL PEOPLE, the guru brut corrupt lawenforcers-breakers get their jollies each day taking someone down.Ask one of them that is inside the razorwire fences that have had to face the reality of their wrongs and they will tell you that their thrill was to get up each day and go to work to see who they could take down.This has to do with their macho eqos running wild as being untouchable and needing to feed that desire to brutalize a person.Put them in prison instead of this slap on the wrist will shut this stuff down plus get in their pocket where they have to pay the medical cost that they created by brutalizing someone (there I go again, cost them something will shut it down). Why do you think God allowed the Cell Phone Cameras to be invented so this corruption could be exposed.Now it is up to the Law Makers to enforced the Constituation and Bill of Rights for each person and that includes politicans that break the law, that includes lawyers, judges, district attorneys, police, sheriffs, etc. including this ability to enter courtrooms full of lieing tongues coming from witnesses, judges, attorney's, district attorneys not to mention the lawsuits filed each day full of nothing but lies and corruption coming from the legal injustices.It is time to hold people responsible and accountable to do what their jobs require while holding the person personally accountable for breaking the laws of this land.

Anonymous said...

Sure, maybe it's time to let citizens run amuck and start prosecuting all your local police, fire and services workers. Certainly makes sense to me. But you might want to get some bottled water stockpiled first.

DEWEY said...

How about making a list of offiers available to the public similar to the "sex offender" list? The public could go to a computer, type in a name, and see what the officer has bee accused of, and the outcome.The only problem is, who would compile the list?

Anonymous said...

A society that make war on it's police, had better make friends with it's criminals

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Nobody's "making war" on police, 10:25. A tiny handful of officers are responsible for the majority of misconduct. Changing the rules as I described would never affect most cops.

Now, what DOES speak ill of police more broadly are situations when the "good cops" fail to speak up about brutality or corruption, as in the case in Houston where nobody out of a dozen cops shown on video reported the beating given a suspect. But in general, it's a misonception that criticizing police misconduct when it happens is the same as attacking police as a whole. That stance may help you justify failing to personally confront such questions, but it discounts neither the legitimacy of the complaints nor the need to remedy them to sustain the police's legitimacy in the public eye.

Anonymous said...

How about creating a database of lawyers that have a disciplinary history. Wouldn't take up more than a megabyte. And they're trusted with a whole heck of a lot more than your life.

Anonymous said...

8:16, 8:56, 8:37 & 10:25,

These time stamps are the only connection to the dribble left behind in an failed attempt to high-jack one of the best GFB Post of all time.

Instead of talking directly to the dip shit or dipped in shit Anon. I'll high-jack their goofy comments so the rest of you can enjoy the Post and its solutions offered up by Grits & others.

Where do we start? Well, 8:16 begins with Wow! so that means someone was running about 15 minutes late for class. Then she promtly jumps back in at 8:56, so that means that someone played hooky and or snuck off to the lil girls room to get in the last word.

Then the very first thing she does the next day is log on to GFB at 8:37 and babbles some off the wall crap. I can't bring myself to re-read it. Then we can see that she took a break at 10:25 to make it look like she never left.

What we have here is failure to launch, someone grew some tiny hairs and thought we all should see, feel and see them again. Since others took time to correct and re-correct the high-jacker, I'll ask everyone to read and re-read the Post and see that it contians worthy and real workable solutions to a solvable problem.

Grits for Mayor!

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Re: Police Brutality, Those That Enable It & Those Of Us That Pay For It -

In Egypt, all it took was ‘one’ too many bad cop episodes (despite there being no video) and the public at large said F--- -T. They turned their rage on the Police Stations and then the President was run out of town on a rail for ignoring/enabling.

In California, all it took was ‘one’ too many Black/African American crack-heads getting beat down in order for Blacks/African Americans & Mexicans/Hispanics to target Whites/Cauccasians, Asians/Orientals and Police/Po-Po Stations clean across America, until they ran out of crack. Some stopped after learning that some of the cops were black themselves. The crack head (former) became famous & will make money from the Documentary airing tonight. In year or two he'll run for office.

Anyone that's doesn't think that cops of ‘all’ races, routinely beat citizens of ‘all’ races, hasn't been to *I'm afraid that the next time the American public at large experiences ‘one’ too many, it'll involve humans from ‘all’ races and it won't be pretty.

We talked this to death and now it’s just a matter of time before we the people are forced to take a sick day or vacation day to obtain permits to utilize: sit-ins, walkouts, marchs, petitions & not get anywhere.

Or (in addition to Grits' lists) we can try to ‘Vote’ this away by ‘Refusing’ to vote at all 'until' a candidate says he/she we'll address it or resign within 6 months. We could start to ‘Recall’ those in office (today right now) that refuse to address it. We could do nothing and see where it gets us.

In closing, a crime is crime and a cover up is a cover up. Those that choose to stick their heads in the sand and ignore crimes & foster cover-ups have knowingly and willingly conspired with criminals. Sorry-so-long and I'll second that Grits for Mayor! nod. Thanks.

Matthew Venhaus said...

In El Paso, a local news station requested internal affairs records from the police department via the FOI Act. They were quoted a fee of $7600 for the information, it appears mostly because of a poor record keeping system. So open records aren't always that open.