Thursday, August 20, 2015

New spotlight shines on old problem of ineffective police disciplinary processes

Police accountability issues have risen to the forefront of public discussion in recent months to a greater extent than at any period in Grits' adult lifetime.  For example, in an Aug. 18 staff editorial, the Houston Chronicle opined:
HPD has developed the reputation of a department where police brutality goes unpunished. In 2013, the Texas Observer ran an award-winning, two-part article titled "Crimes Unpunished," which documents routine problems of officers failing to do their jobs while getting off after unnecessarily resorting to violence.

"Out of 706 complaints about excessive force, HPD disciplined only 15 officers. For 550 shootings, HPD disciplined none," the Observer reported, documenting the statistics from 2007 through 2012.

"The message is clear: Either Houston police almost never abuse their power, or they abuse it with impunity."

These numbers should be troubling not only for civil rights advocates, but also for average Houston taxpayers who want to know that their police department is doing its job correctly. At their core, officers are supposed to serve as lookouts, life preservers and taxis: They either protect people around them, help people in need, or shuttle dangerous people into the criminal justice system. Now Houstonians are paying for inconsistent results.

In his campaign for mayor, state Rep. Sylvester Turner announced a plan Thursday to spend $85 million on 540 more police officers to fill the Houston Police Department's ranks ("Turner would expand police," Page B1, Friday). This follows on Police Chief Charles McClelland's request for $105 million to hire 1,200 new officers.

If Houston is going to hire new cops, then City Hall has to find a way for them to bring a new attitude to policing, as well.

Mayoral candidate Ben Hall, a former city attorney, has called for more body cameras to serve as a check on officers ("Hall plans permanent HPD body cameras," Page B1, Aug. 12). Cameras are a right step, but they haven't proven effective in preventing unnecessary violence from officers. After all, a dashboard camera didn't stop a state trooper from threatening to shoot Sandra Bland with a Taser.

Technology can't fix a broken soul.
Houston PD's disciplinary process is governed by their own special section of the state civil service code (Ch. 143 of the Local Government Code) and thus is largely immune from local intervention. The main influence a strong mayor can have will be budgetary. On the disciplinary front, perhaps the paper should begin polling local legislators to see what they might do to improve the department's ability to hold officers accountable. In the coming months I'll revisit some of the longstanding reform suggestions for the civil service code, some of which date back 20 years in my experience, maybe longer. These are longstanding problems; it's the spotlight that's new.


BexarKat said...

Why is a mere threat to use a Taser on Ms. Bland a major issue? The Trooper was within policy dealing with a non-compliant motorist. A threat is not a "use of." Police officers must retain control of a situation and Bland's case escalated because of her non-compliance with the Trooper's request. It's only a cigarette you say? It could possibly be used as a weapon against the officer. There is absolutely no link between her arrest and her suicide.

Anonymous said...


By your logic the officer was within his rights to shoot and kill Ms. Bland because he feared that he could suffer serious bodily harm as a cigarette "could possibly be used as a weapon against the officer".

Willing to bet that the trooper had stopped numerous bikers but never forced them to disarm by having them remove their pocket knives and placing them on the hood of the cruiser for the duration of the traffic stop.

As for "absolutely no link" between her arrest and her suicide, do you think she would have committed suicide that day if not arrested three days earlier?

You remind me of some cops who think that because the law allows something, that makes it ethically acceptable. The stop was all but over - she was signing the warning - yet the trooper escalated the situation because "he could".

john said...

While I do hate the way police are systematically abusing their neighbors, and it can be their faults for accepting the unionized us-vs.-them mentality; it's not all their faults and they are not the only ones.
The whole "legal" system is more arrogant than incompetent, but aren't they also enable and possibly guided by the government politicians and bureaucrats?
And police are increasingly being used BY that government as a protection, diversion & punitive, mob-like enforcer > In that sense the police have become tools.
While police & legal industry circle the wagons in mostly a protective more; the government additionally seeks to protect their ultimate power to rule the rest of us. Whether "just following orders" or deliberately attempting to cheat the private sector, government layers are out of line and beyond constitutional authority. AS THE INTENDED "OVERSIGHT," THEY OPERATE UNDER VERY LITTLE, THEMSELVES, instead preferring impunity to bias, creating & following evolving verbal policies, in lieu of their constitutional written authority.
Ultimately, their goal of intimidation and fear of threats of violence serving their power to rule is very effective. They dishonor their oaths.

Anonymous said...

"The Trooper was within policy dealing with a non-compliant motorist."

Ummm, not according to his superiors at DPS.