Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Houston Police Department scrutinized by national media on officer-involved shootings

National media has recently turned its attention to police-involved shootings in Houston, particularly shootings involving unarmed persons. A couple weeks back, in a collaboration with the radio show This American Life, the New York Times reported on an incident from last August at the St. Joseph Medical Center in Houston, where a young man experiencing a mental health crisis was shot by two off-duty Houston police officers working as security guards at the hospital.

And just this morning, the New York Times published an article, “Lack of Videos Hampers Inquiries into Houston Police Shootings,” which highlighted “questionable shootings” in Houston over the past decade, none of which “led to either the criminal prosecution of an officer or significant disciple by the department.” The Times reported that since 2005, Houston police have shot 268 people, 111 of them fatally. And Houston police have “shot at” 460, of whom nearly one in five was unarmed.

While the hook in today’s New York Times’ article was attributing the lack of national attention on the Houston police force to the lack of videos of the shootings, the substance of the article is really in its drawing attention to the grim statistics concerning police shootings in Houston. The data I have collected since the new officer-involved shooting reporting law came into effect in September 2015 bears out the Times’ findings and puts race into even sharper focus.

Of the fourteen police-involved shooting incidents that have been reported by the Houston Police Department, thirteen (93%) of the people shot were non-white – ten Black males (71%) and three Hispanic/Latino males (21%). To put that into perspective, 46% of people shot by police in the rest of Texas since September 2015 were non-white, with 16% Black, 29% Hispanic/Latino, and 1% “Other.” No other jurisdictions saw such high percentages of Black people shot as in Houston, including agencies in counties with comparable demographics, such as Tarrant and Dallas counties.

The people shot by Houston police officers also tended to be younger. Three of the fourteen were juveniles (one 15-year-old and two sixteen-year-olds) and the median age was 22. Nine of the ten Black males shot by Houston police were under the age of 25. Compare that to the rest of Texas, where the median age of people shot by police was 32.

A higher percentage of Houston police officers involved in shootings were white when compared to the rest of the state. Of the fourteen Houston police officers involved in shootings, eleven (79%) were white. In shootings in the rest of the state, 61% of the officers involved were white.

Finally, one aspect unique to Houston incidents is the use of robbery stings, which haven’t come up in reports from other agencies. Five of the fourteen people shot by Houston police were confronted in two robbery sting operations, and three of the people shot were killed. These incidents took place in public places and in broad daylight, which could also the increase the chance of a bystander being injured or killed. It seems these operations endanger the lives of not only the people confronted by police, but also the officers involved and the general public.

Related coverage: The Houston Chronicle has been reporting on and mapping HPD officer-involved shootings here.

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