Wednesday, August 08, 2012

The 'Drone Caucus,' TDCJ's mausoleum of mayhem, and other stories

Here are a few odds and ends I haven't had time to write about but which deserve Grits readers' attention:

Reviewing arson convictions
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram had a story over the weekend about the review of arson cases spurred by the Forensic Science Commission's Todd Willingham investigation. See recent Grits coverage.

Dallas seeks to boost fine revenue from Class C tickets
See coverage from the Dallas News (subscribers only), Texas Watchdog, and the Courthouse News Service of proposals in the City of Dallas to expand revenue from Class C tickets, mostly by limiting judges' discretion in various ways. Here's a link to an interesting briefing (pdf) from an assistant city manager on the subject. See prior Grits coverage.

Punishment for thee but not for me
The head of Austin's police union says punishing officers who engage in misconduct through unpaid suspensions doesn't work. He told the Austin Statesman that "he's an advocate for education-based discipline, under which instead of taking a day or more off work without pay, officers are required to attend classes, training, write a paper or make a presentation that addresses the incorrect behavior." Noting that the number of one-day suspensions has increased in recent years, union President Wayne Vincent said, "Our argument is, if they're still increasing, are all these suspensions changing behavior? ... From the association's standpoint, I think the answer is no." But couldn't you make the same case about DWI or drug arrests, much less Class C tickets issued by police?  Ironic, isn't it, that law enforcement thinks monetary punishments work for petty offenders, but not for themselves?

On public goods and privatizing the courthouse
Travis County Commissioners are considering privatizing the construction and operation of a new county courthouse, bypassing voters to issue $343 million in debt for the project. As a voter, I disapprove of spending that much on capital projects without an opportunity to weigh in (taxes in this town are already way too high.) But there's also a practical question: What if the corporate partner goes bankrupt or pulls out of the deal down the line? That's happened often in so-called "public-private partnerships" involving jails. What makes anyone think it won't happen if courthouse costs exceed initial estimates and become unprofitable for the corporate partner a decade down the line? The criminal justice system is a public good, monopolized by the government, so the "market," as it were, is distorted against the interests of taxpayers. A company can file Chapter 11 and walk away, while taxpayers are on the hook no matter what. Socializing risk and privatizing profits is nearly always a bad idea.

TDCJ's mausoleum of mayhem filling to the brim
The cemetery for indigent prisoners in Huntsville is filling up. Grits wonders whether formal executions or heat-related deaths make up the greater proportion of those buried there? I also wonder how it is that none of these phony-baloney Sci-Fi channel shows (of which there are now a ridiculously large number) about wanna-be ghost hunters hasn't featured this mausoleum of mayhem? Reported UPI, "The cemetery is a virtual checklist of some of the state's most infamous murderers."

TDCJ, illegal immigration, and mission creep
According to the Victoria Advocate, TDCJ deployed COs on horseback and tracking dogs to help DPS search for suspected illegal immigrants. Talk about mission creep! They'll need a lot more staff than they've got if they're going to engage in that sort of activity too often.

Resource on automated license plate readers
The national ACLU has a page up on their project to document use of automated license plate readers and promote regulations on their use. Check it out.

Little oversight of killings by border patrol
Mellissa del Bosque at the Texas Observer has several stories on border-related issues I haven't seen covered in any other state-level media (though one of them spun off from a PBS report in April). First, she brings word of a media collaboration to identify and investigate cases where Border Patrol agents killed unarmed people. PBS' Ray Suarez wrote that "Because border patrol agents are part of the Department of Homeland Security, they are not subjected to the same public scrutiny as police officers who use their weapons. It also questions whether, in the rush to secure the border, agents are being adequately trained. And it raises the question: why aren’t these cases being prosecuted?"

'Civil detention' = pork for private prisons
See coverage from the Observer of a new "civil detention center" in Karnes County which will be run by the GEO Group. Del Bosque wrote that "the Obama administration is trying to take a step toward reform, but it’s really more of the same." I almost agree with that. Grits would have said "the Obama administration is trying to make it look like they're taking a step toward reform, but it’s really more of the same." Immigration detention for several years has been private prison companies biggest cash cow.

The Congressional 'Drone Caucus'? ... Ugh!
Also via del Bosque at the Observer, seven Texas Congressmen are members of the "drone caucus," which was created to promote domestic use of unmanned surveillance drone technology. See their full membership and mission statement.

The economic costs of heightened border security
At the Houston Chronicle, Dudley Althaus last week had a story with massive border security implications, though it's not framed that way, about growing wait times to cross the Texas-Mexico border. Grits has been harping on this point for years: Calls to "close the border" ignore the massive benefits from Texas and the USA's economic relationship with Mexico, particularly with our southern neighbor adding massive Pacific port capacity and many Asian goods coming into Texas via Mexican highway and rail systems. However, "Depending on the hour and the location, crossing cargo from Mexico into Texas and other U.S. border states can take five hours or more." As much as the US (and for that matter, Texas) spends on "border security," the sum is dwarfed by the vast value of goods crossing the border in both directions. The economy benefits most by expanding the flow of goods, services, and arguably labor crossing the border in both directions.


Doug D said...

Grits wrote, "Ironic, isn't it, that law enforcement thinks monetary punishments work for petty offenders, but not for themselves?"

Law enforcement didn't write the laws and ordinances under which petty offenders are fined for their behavior. It was politicians, legislators, and city managers who pushed for monetary punishment, not the police. I've been a cop for a long time and I would love to see petty offenders be forced to make presentations, write papers, and participate in study groups. I know many other cops who feel the same way. How would you propose to implement such a practice without making us the focus of new accusations that we (i.e. first line street officers) are advocates and enforcers for petty offender gulags?

Tom said...

Watch the Drone Caucus head for the doors the first time some local police drone collides with a plane and kills a bunch of folks. Or maybe when someone complains that the drone was hovering over his house while his 15 year old daughter was sunbathing.
Boy, thta's gonna be fun to watch.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

DougD writes, "It was politicians, legislators, and city managers who pushed for monetary punishment, not the police."

True enough, but it's also true that the police unions target any pols who propose alternatives to incarceration as being "soft on crime" when elections roll around. So while I'm sympathetic that some officers would like to do things differently, the institutions giving voice to front-line officers in the political process aren't generally on the same page.

Tom predicts that "someone complains that the drone was hovering over his house while his 15 year old daughter was sunbathing." Notably, that's been an issue with the proliferation of surveillance cameras generally. There was a study out of the UK a few years back (discussed on Grits here) which found "One out of ten women were targeted for 'voyeuristic' reasons by the male camera operators."

Scott in South Austin said...

Regarding the Drone Caucus, I found this article in The Economist to be an excellent primer:

Anonymous said...

A large number of our prisoners are citizens of Mexico (criminals from Mexico). That's where a lot of our taxes goes--to incarcerate and supervise these foreign criminals.

DougD said...

Scott, I thought we were discussing fine-based penalties for petty offenses, not serious offenses worthy of incarceration. It's well known that most union talking heads are sometimes disconnected from the rank and file, especially on political talking points for the front page. That was my point as well but it was you who seemed to be directing your criticism at LE in general based on the public utterances of an Austin-based union head.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

1:35 writes, "A large number of our prisoners are citizens of Mexico (criminals from Mexico)"

A "large number" perhaps, but not a disproportionate number. According to LBB, just 5.3% of Texas prison inmates are Mexican nationals, which is about half their proportion of the population. By any measure, immigrants (legal and illegal, Mexicans and otherwise) commit fewer crimes than U.S. natives across the board.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.

DougD, I'll grant you in some respects that remark may have been a cheap shot, and that the APA rep's views don't necessarily reflect rank and file opinion (not that the rank and file ever steps up to say so). But I do think it's true police union leadership never, ever espouses the views you have here, either on Class Cs nor anything else. For example, when the Texas Lege in 2001 passed a law eliminating arrests for most Class C fine-only misdemeanors (except Ch. 49 violations, as I recall), it was CLEAT and TMPA who went to the mat to get Rick Perry to veto it, calling anyone who disagreed with them soft on crime. Their stance is consistent on both petty and serious offenses, so IMO the comment wasn't TOO much of a stretch. Best,

Old Cop said...

Grits, your piece on TDCJ, illegal immigrants, mission creep, and the Victoria Advocate...brought to mind Victoria County's millionaire Sheriff and his undue emphasis on what he sees as his duty to "homeland security".

T. Michael O'Connor is the founder and presiding member of the South Texas Border Sheriff's Alliance(dedicated to fighting illegal immigration) and the kind of thing you referred to in the news article is an every day occurrance in Victoria County.

The Advocate is full of stories weekly about chases, bailouts, and the inevitable manhunts wherein he calls in the DPS helicopter from Corpus,the dogs and horse troops from TDCJ Beeville or Cuero, his own personal army housed in the basement of one of the Victoria County buildings ("Border Star" to aid in searching, sometimes for days on end, for the illegals that he seems to fear so much.

They have chased suspected "illegals" into the Guadalupe River in the past where theyk have drowned. Now in addition to surplus armored vehicles and military trucks for use in repelling these invaders he has acquired a machinegun outfitted "patrol boat" for use in "border waters". Trouble is, Victoria County doesn't have any.

"Mission Creep" doesnt even begin to cover what is going on in Victoria County and the surrounding area.(It might adequately describe some of the participants though)

Keep up the fight, Amigo.

John C. Key MD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

In addition to your comments about the construction of a new Travis County court house, I would add the problem of the location of the proposed site.
The population center of Austin is near Highland Mall area, Airport blvd., North Lamar, HWYs 290 and 35. The sheriff's office and the tax collector's office are all ready there.
It is more accessible to the general public and is on the urban rail line.

Anonymous said...

Oh no, an "incentive to request a trial." God forbid we have trials. As usual there are a litany of ideas to hassle people into not requesting a trial - like make them come to court more frequently before they get a trial, in expectation that it is cheaper for them to simply dole out the money the government wants.

Similarly, asking for a trial to "see if a witness shows up" is also known as making the state prove its case. That is why the constitution provides that pesky confrontation right.

You could just make most of these tickets into civil infractions (rather than criminal charges) and handle everything that way. But wait, then you couldn't just throw people into jail..... The city wants it both ways --- the ease and 'efficiency' of a civil/administrative system but with the penalties and powers of a criminal system. Sad thing is, they'll probably get it....

john said...

RE: Dallas wants to raise traffic ticket fines.
The whole "moving violations" deception is evil. It's all for the simplest revenue-raising---loosely-defining crimes even without damage or injury, that magically have no redress but citation defect. The bastards.

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