Monday, October 31, 2016

Police pension bailouts, dreaming of Oklahoma, and other nightmarish scenarios on Halloween

A few things, while I've got you:

Lab delays spur boost in Nueces Co. personal bond use
In Corpus Christi, prosecutors have enacted a standardized policy of offering personal bonds to defendants charged in synthetic marijuana cases, mainly because of crime lab delays. The most likely reason for the shift: "The time it takes to get test results on the substances has been longer than the maximum allowed sentences. Possessing synthetic marijuana is a class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. Test results from the Department of Public Safety labs have been taking about nine months to a year to get back." They should keep close track of outcomes with these defendants, it will create a natural experiment to compare them with defendants convicted before they changed the policy.

With the chairmen of the House Criminal Jurisprudence and Calendars Committees both residing in Nueces, perhaps this news will place more pressure on the Lege to either adequately fund crime labs or adjust sentences to reduce pressure on them. Honestly, the whole crime lab system - at DPS and otherwise - is at the breaking point. Numerous disciplines have come under attack as fundamentally non-scientific, and even disciplines like toxicology with a more sound scientific basis are overwhelmed by volume and undercut by attempts to perform them on the cheap, as evidenced by the following item.

News flash: Bad field tests cause false drug convictions (and not just in Houston)
ProPublica has a great piece on the use of scientifically flawed "field tests" for drugs used in Las Vegas, NV, following up on important NY Times coverage earlier this year of the use of the same type of $2 tests in Houston. Both are must-read pieces of journalism for anyone interested in the topic. In Houston, this topic plays directly into debates in the DA's race over racial disparities in drug enforcement, as 59 percent of defendants falsely accused and convicted based on false positive from cheap field tests were black. They also pump up the state's "exoneration" numbers, ensuring that Texas will lead the nation in disproven false convictions for years to come just based on what's come out of Houston alone. The thing is, we know that EVERYONE who uses these field tests likely accuse innocent people, not just those in Houston or Vegas. These stories show us the tip of a much larger iceberg.

Requests for police pension bailouts pit cops vs. anti-tax conservatives
Increasingly it's clear that police pensions are a latent but fully primed flash point between anti-taxation Republicans in the Legislature, more liberal city councils, and local police unions. In Dallas, the pension us oversubscribed with too-generous benefits, has engaged in a series of flawed, risky real estate deals, and is losing money hand over fist. The fund in Houston isn't much better. In those and ten other Texas cities, local control of police and fire pensions has been wrested away by the Legislature and vested into independent bodies on which cities have a voice but unions (and the Lege) have ultimate control. Lately, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation's Josh McGee has been pounding away at the fundamental fiscal insolvency of these funds, mos recently in this excellent short report written with Paulina Diaz on the Dallas police and firefighters' pension. Their bottom line assessment of the crisis in Dallas: "The city’s public pension debt has doubled in less than two years due to inadequate funding, irresponsible benefit enhancements, and poor investment decisions. The total unfunded liability is now at least $4 billion—and the plans do not have enough money to pay for nearly half of the retirement benefits workers have already earned."

All these pension funds want bailouts either from local or state taxpayers, putting the police and firefighters unions directly in conflict with low-or-no-tax conservatives around the state, not just in the Tea Party wing of the GOP but also among establishment Chamber of Commerce types who abhor large tax hikes. Police and firefighters are among the last employees who receive defined benefit pensions instead of defined contributions (typically in 401ks) like most everybody else. They'll claim the sky will fall if that's changed, but the truth is, as the Arnold Foundation report ably demonstrates, the sky will fall if nothing changes. MORE: The Texas Public Policy Foundation is holding an event on public employee pensions in Austin next week.

Dreaming of Oklahoma, and other unlikely scenarios
Grits never thought the day would come when I could write this, but part of me is a little envious of Oklahoma, or I should say Oklahoma reformers. They've put drug sentencing reductions on the ballot and therefore can have a conversation about the idea's merits directly with the voters instead of filtering reform through the legislative process, with the resulting compromises, delays and special-interest interventions that inevitably entails. OTOH, Grits was doing this work in the '90s, so I can remember an era when I was quite grateful Texas didn't have initiative and referendum. The tough-on-crime crowd could and would have proposed, and voters would likely have passed, much worse stuff, even, than actually got through, except in a venue where opponents have had no way to oppose, modify, counter or coopt the details of the proposals.

So while the prospect of ballot initiatives is tempting - and while part of me wishes we could similarly test Texas voters' views on criminal justice reform more directly than just polling, which generally shows support for the main reforms presently on the table, but whose results haven't been tested by the gauntlet of special-interest attacks which face a ballot initiative of this sort - I'm still glad Texas doesn't have initiative and referendum and would oppose it here if it were seriously suggested. If I were in Oklahoma, though, right about now I'd be busting my hump to help Questions 780 and 781 pass. Good luck to them.

Piling on CCA CoreCivic
In response to federal prison contracts being rescinded and surprisingly successful divestment campaigns aimed at reducing their capital, Corrections Corporation of America, the private prison operator, has rebranded and renamed itself as CoreCivic. According to this source, "Last month, CCA fired 12 percent of its corporate workforce to deal with sharply dropping investment—largely thanks to growing pressure campaigns to divest from private prisons." Here's the company's press release. Not to pile on, but I should mention several of the private prison facilities Grits has argued should be prioritized for closure by the Texas Legislature in 2017 are CCA CoreCivic units.


Anonymous said...

Awww grits..where are your annual Halloween sex offender roundup stories? I was looking forward to them all month. They are very informative..I am being serious!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Except you already know what I would say! :)

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know if these bad field tests are still being used by cops today in Texas?
Is there a scientific investigation going on?
Or is this yet another attempt at procrastination induced memory loss on the public (e.g. BAT Van breathalyzer testing in Houston)?

Anonymous said...

Dallas made huge real estate investments that fell through, no responsible pension fund ever putting so much of a fund into a risky endeavor such as that. As a result, they found out why doing so is a bad idea. Houston employees, on the other hand, are yet again prepared to give back billions in concessions despite the bulk of the problem being with how former mayor White forced two of their three pensions into accepting funding schemes where the city started off paying less than half of what was owed, only slowly increasing the funds each year.

These are markedly different scenarios and in Houston at least, no cries have been made for the feds, state or local taxpayers to come in with a bailout. Given the new proposal includes a method to further lower pensions if market returns do not meet newly lowered ROI requirements, the expectations are that a great many employees will leave sooner than previously anticipated, much like how retirements for their cops more than tripled under the last cuts. Listen to the talking points issued by the Arnold Foundation as you see fit, the organization long established as anti-public pension, but unless other major cities such as Austin, San Antonio, Fort Worth, and other major cities continue to pay better from cradle to grave, the results of the saying "you get what you pay for" will almost certainly play out.

Houston's independent manpower study already showed how much difficulty they have had finding qualified cops and retaining them, the lowering of standards showing a direct correlation with an increase in shootings and other uses of force. As manpower goes even lower, there is no reason to suggest that it won't further expand their ability to use the time tested "I was in fear of my life", much more believable in a department losing a great deal of manpower. I hope I'm wrong but the brain drain associated with major compensation cuts is very real in any profession, their mayor unable to hire a permanent police or fire chief for almost a year now indicative of the direction they are headed.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"the lowering of standards showing a direct correlation with an increase in shootings and other uses of force"

@3:24, please provide a citation for this contention. Is that in the "manpower study" to which you refer? Is it online?

The data in the Arnold Foundation report linked in the story isn't much different from the assessment in the Dallas News, at the end of the day, and the same situation is playing out in cities all over the country. Police unions in the past were so powerful they could demand more in benefits than taxpayers could reasonably pay, they just shifted the debt into the future. Now the bill for those promises is coming due and the politicians who made them are naturally long gone. That's the gist of all police pension problems in every city. The other distinctions are minor by comparison, IMO not "markedly different."

When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging. Every other category of worker you can name except politicians has had to shift from defined benefit to defined contribution pension plans. The profession of policing will survive the change, just like the rest of the American economy didn't fall apart when it happened to much-more-numerous civilian workers.

Anonymous said...

@3:18 said:

"Does anyone know if these bad field tests are still being used by cops today in Texas? Is there a scientific investigation going on?"

1) Yes, the field tests are still being used.

2) They are not "bad" field tests. They are simply tests, all of which have a false positive (and a false negative) error rate. The problem is not with the tests per se. The problem is with the people who use a test result without understanding what the test result actually means (versus what they think it means). A similar thing happens with many medical doctors who do not understand how to translate the result of a clinical test (which also has false positive and false negative error rates) into a probability that a patient has a disease/condition.

3) There is not an "investigation" that I am aware of. You might think that the Texas Forensic Science Commission would take this up. But, it is statutorily outside the scope of what they can investigate as a "complaint" because it is a crime scene discipline (which is excepted under the Commission's authorizing legislation). The Commission could take it up as a research activity, but that would be for informational purposes only. There have been quite a few scientific studies done on the issue of false positives in field tests. So the information is already out there in a form that is at least as persuasive as any report the Commission might issue.

Anonymous said...

Anon 3:24 (cont'd):

In terms of police, your primary focus, I know enough from the past to understand that cuts may not hurt in places like Austin but in lower paying communities, few candidates the public wants are going to take such jobs when other places pay 30k or more higher. Once other cities get as much scrutiny from the Arnold Foundation hacks as Houston has, Dallas only now coming of interest to them given the investment scams of late, people may change compensation in their communities too but until they catch up in cuts, the low cost leaders are going to have all the problems I mentioned and more. As a citizen, I am willing to pay more to have the added police necessary to establish a real community policing effort over the older reactive style but you can't do that without enough people to answer calls for help and cover the basics.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@4:17, they ARE "bad" field tests. Their false positive rates are too high. Agreed on your number 3.

So, 3:24, there is no cite for you contention on shootings? Departments are different, but the 12 with state-regulated police and fire pensions arent the tiny ones paying a pittance. And anyway, pay much more than benefits drives employment and you're conflating them. I don't think there's much evidence that switching to defined contribution plans harmed employment in other industries, I doubt it would here, either.

Anonymous said...

Grits, some of the responses seem to be disappearing. Is everything okay?

Anonymous said...

For the nerds, re: Bad Field Tests