Monday, January 02, 2017

How Houston police officers are (not) held accountable for bad shoots

The Houston Chronicle's Lise Olsen and her colleague James Pinkerton have been pulling back the curtain on Houston PD police shootings over the past year. We've known for a while that HPD officers are almost never indicted for shooting people no matter what the circumstance, even when the officers' story blatantly contradicts known facts. Now we know that Houston officers are rarely disciplined in such cases, even when grave errors lead to deaths of unarmed victims. From Olsen's 12/29 story:
Only five of 40 cases involving police shootings of unarmed individuals since 2010 have resulted in disciplinary action against officers after police chiefs found that they violated policy, a new Chronicle analysis shows. None of the officers were criminally charged, and none of the disciplinary actions were announced to the public. Because the department's internal affairs probes are cloaked in confidentiality, the analysis required cross-matching data from the city, HPD and the Harris County District Attorney's Office. 
All five officers were disciplined for policy violations that occurred when they shot people while off-duty. 
One failed to train with the weapon he used to shoot an innocent man. Another exhibited a lack of "sound judgment" by shooting a fleeing man in the back while working an unapproved security job out-of-uniform. A third had been repeatedly disciplined for working an unauthorized apartment security job when he confronted and killed a wrecker driver. The fourth was found to have been intoxicated at the time he shot two people, among other policy violations. Still, as in all other intentional shootings, these were determined to have been "justified."
Even when disciplinary actions were taken, they seemed aimed more at providing cover for the shooter than punishing misconduct. Check out this example:
Officer Christopher Slater, who fired his weapon across a busy street and hit an unarmed 29-year-old, Gerard Barnett, in the back of the leg. Federal court records in a related civil rights lawsuit show the officer gave different versions of why he shot Barnett. The officer initially claimed Barnett had pointed a weapon at him. No gun was found, and Barnett's hands bore no sign of having fired a weapon. Still, the officer insisted someone else must have picked up the gun after Barnett fell. 
After interviewing suspects and reviewing surveillance video, HPD's own investigators concluded Barnett was an innocent bystander. Video cameras and other witness statements indicate that Barnett had been filling up a car with gas at a Citgo station when shots rang out and he ran to get out of the line of fire, according to documents made public in a related federal court case. 
Slater received a written reprimand in February 2010 - but only because he had "failed to qualify" with the gun he used by not practicing often enough at the department's firing range, his personnel file shows. In 2013, the city of Houston approved a rare $90,000 settlement for the man he shot. 
Despite that settlement, the Houston Police Department has never updated its account of the April 2009 shooting that claims Barnett pointed a weapon at Slater, who was off-duty and out-of uniform at the time of the incident. 
Barnett, reached by phone, said most of the settlement money went to pay a lawyer who finally agreed to take his case. Barnett has been able to work but has never been able to afford surgery. The officer's bullet remains embedded in his thigh.
Olsen highlighted the recent testimony of an expert witness who "analyzed 670 internal affairs reviews of HPD officers who had discharged their weapons between 2006 and 2016." He testified that, "HPD investigators relied too heavily on statements given by officers who'd been coached what to say by union lawyers," she reported.

Another recent Olsen story highlighted that, even though Harris County does not prosecute police officers for bad shoots, other jurisdictions are beginning to do so. That article opened:
Prosecutors in all but one of Texas' biggest counties have launched a spate of police officer prosecutions in the shootings of unarmed or mentally ill people over the past three years that parallels a similar rise in police prosecutions nationwide. 
Harris County, which leads the state in police shootings by a wide margin, is the exception. Prosecutors have presented evidence in more than 200 officer-involved shootings to grand juries that happened here since 2012. One of every five individuals shot by police was unarmed. But in every case, the officer was not indicted, records show.
One HPD officer cited was drunk when he shot an unarmed man but that fact was never presented to the grand jury by the DA's office.

Olsen's story goes on to demonstrate how difficult it is to secure convictions in cases against police officers, which nationally succeed only about a half of the time. "Out of the 78 police officers charged with murder or manslaughter in shooting-related prosecutions tracked since 2005, only 27 officers were convicted; 29 were acquitted or had charges dismissed; 22 cases remain pending as of November," according to an academic Olsen quoted who tracks them. Considering police kill nearly 1,000 people per year nationally, those are paltry numbers.

This fact bite in part shows favoritism toward police by prosecutors, but it's also a function of the plea-mill system into which the modern criminal justice system has devolved. For the most part, prosecutors don't try cases any longer - they cut deals and dismiss the hard ones. And these are hard ones. Police union attorneys are always willing to roll the dice with a jury, hoping sympathy for the profession will trump the facts. It's a smart strategy: Often, it does. 

Great coverage of an important issue. For more reporting on shootings of unarmed people, see the Chron's Unarmed series as well as Grits contributor Eva Ruth Moravec's Point of Impact series.


Phelps said...

You can't even go after the bastards as racketeering, because they aren't making any money at it. The degenerate bastards are murdering people just through a combination of bloodlust and incompetence.

Anonymous said...

"...these were determined to have been 'justified.'"
Who at the HPD determined that these were "justified". Is there a personally accountable moron to blame?

"...the Houston Police Department has never updated its account of the April 2009 shooting..."
Who at the HPD failed to update the account? Again, is there a personally accountable idiot to blame?

If names aren't provided, then there's no one to blame, no accountability, and problems aren't addressed. We need action verbs, not passive verbs.

Let's assume that the nameless idiots and morons serve at the leisure of the Police Chiefs. We could then blame the Police Chiefs...

From July 9, 2006,
" 2004, the hottest issue facing the newcomer [Police Chief Harold Hurtt] was a surge in questionable shootings of unarmed suspects by Houston officers..."

Did he curtail the problems? Nope.

From, April 15, 2010,
New HPD Chief McClelland no stranger to obstacles

McClelland said he will expend considerable shoe leather around town to let people know his administration will be open and transparent.

“And when we mess up, we're going to fess up, and we're going to clean up.”

Did he do what he stated he was going to do? Nope.

Of course, when these Police Chiefs retire all the problems that occurred on their watch magically disappear. No accountability for past errors or blunders for them.

But a whole lotta racial tension and dead civilians remain.

Anonymous said...

While I agree drunk cops shouldn't be shooting people, when did the standard for firearm use accept the standard for driving on public roads? And Grits points out all the time regarding the need for independent investigations in stuff like this, after all, who is to say that the officers investigating their own people are any more credible than the shooting officer is? Do we assign levels of credibility based on whether they tell us what we want to hear?

Anonymous 2:39, chief McClelland also publicly stated that he had personally reviewed every single use of the tasers and found that not a single use was suspect. But the way their dept is set up, whoever is chief has to sign off on every disciplinary act of consequence before it becomes official and as I understand it, almost every member of the current command staff is scheduled to leave this fiscal year per their new chief. Maybe we should pass a law tying all pension benefits for those in positions of power to their resolution of matters taking place under their reign?

Anonymous said...

See also last night's 60 Minutes episode about how the dramatic increase in homicides in Chicago correlates with the significant reduction in police/citizen encounters. And it's not surprising. I think most people with even a modicum of common sense can figure out who is going to fill the vacuum created by the unilateral draw down by the police from high crime areas as a consequence of the BLM movement.

Anonymous said...

I'd be curious to know, Grits, what percentage of ordinary citizens who use deadly force and claim self defense are prosecuted and/or convicted after the legislature passed the "stand your ground" law. I would almost be willing to bet that the statistics are not that different from the stats for officer involved shootings.

Anonymous said...

If you think cops are out-of-control now just wait until Trump directs his attorney general to stop the justice department from investigating questionable shoots. Cops are about to become so emboldened under Trump that there will be a record number of killings of unarmed citizens.

But all is not lost. Trump's policies will actually have the unintended consequence of forcing police reform since cops will now be so kill-crazy that they will be murdering whites at a record pace, and when they murder 8-year-old white kids the country will finally have had enough and demand radical changes.

Anonymous said...

@835, I bet the citizen shootings are investigated far more thoroughly than the police shootings.

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:35, you just lost your bet. I'm living proof.

Anonymous said...

Citizens are scrutinized quite harshly when they claim self defense. There have been probably a dozen that I'm aware of where the shooter was convicted and received prison for his actions. One of the most publicized cases was recently overturned and retried. It's a convoluted case but was fascinating because the shooters life was in fact in danger at the moment he pulled the trigger, but only because he placed himself in that position, and jurors ruled that you cannot menace someone then kill them when they attack you. Of course there have been plenty of off-duty Houston cops who killed under similar circumstances who weren't charged:

Anonymous said...

We never learn the truth about these cases til the fed civil rights lawyers get access to everything exempted by TPIA. That's the easiest reform to increase transparency in the whole phenomena of officer shootings. Just set some time limits and release the records in days after officer involved shootings.

Phelps said...

If you think cops are out-of-control now just wait until Trump directs his attorney general to stop the justice department from investigating questionable shoots. Cops are about to become so emboldened under Trump that there will be a record number of killings of unarmed citizens.

The Feds don't investigate these shootings already. If you have these deranged ideas about what the trump that lives in your head is going to do, why didn't you speak up sometime in the last 8 (or 240) years?

Anonymous said...

As the "fear" among law enforcement grows with the negative exposure to routine killings, expect the "fear" continuum to increase.

Anonymous said...

"Trump's policies will actually have the unintended consequence of forcing police reform since cops will now be so kill-crazy that they will be murdering whites at a record pace".

Horse shit. If 62,000 cops who were convicted of child sex crimes in the short time span of just 4-years hasn't forced comprehensive police reform then nothing will:

It all lies in the psychological testing of officer applicants. It is more difficult to obtain employment as a janitor at a fortune 500 company than it is to become a cop. Most law enforcement agencies don't administer any psych tests, and most require only a 6-week training course. It is more difficult and requires more training to become a manicurist in most states than it is to become a cop. If no one gives a shit about this then they won't care when the bodies begin piling up.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:26, if the only source you can cite is your Facebook page, your argument fails.

Miketrials said...

"you can't even go after the bastards as racketeering"

Why not? Think you can establish that the IA "investigators" are sweeping things under the rug to further and advance the interests of the RICO, the HPD, and to advance their own positions within the RICO, as well as those of the superiors who fail to train and supervise? Don't these "justified" findings save $$$ for the HPD, and that's making money, isn't it?

I remember a lot of big fancy Houston law firms interviewing at my law school. Cannot any of them find the social conscience to take on the HPD? Ones in DC and NYC etc seem to be able to do so>

Phelps said...

Racketeering isn't that simple. RICO is very, very complicated and technical. A RICO enterprise requires both a secret entity that carries out the crime and a public entity that carries out legitimate business. This is all one entity, and the only predicate act is murder -- which the state won't call murder.

If you can't get them for the murder, you sure as hell can't apply RICO.

Anonymous said...

@10:21, you would lose that bet every time. Police shootings are investigated by multiple bodies of government and in great detail while most defense shootings by the rest of us are typically given a cursory look unless one becomes a political football, at least in Texas.

@7:02, given the hundreds of cases he supposedly reviewed, not a single person I've ever met believed his claim, especially given his observed reading comprehension skills. He may have glanced at some of the executive summaries but that is as far as I think he ever went.

@6:08, Perhaps you are speaking of places other than Texas because what you say only applies locally under the circumstances you mention where someone claiming self defense put themselves in harm's way so the only reason they needed to defend themselves stemmed out of their own stupidity. The difference with regard to most police in that sense is that they are required to put themselves in harm's way much of the time, a point raised by a number of folks in Austin during the legislative session. As such, an officer may be caught between a rock and a hard place, the expectations he not be a "coward" against the alternative of letting a fleeing felon get away.

@9:26, you sound more like a lunatic every time you post those lies on your facebook page.

In general, most of you seem clueless to the inner workings of HPD's internal affairs division. Here's a clue that apparently even the reporters from the OP out of the Chronicle don't appear to know. Most cases are driven by the verbiage of the written complaint, a sergeant assigned to each case who does a fact finding mission based on allotted time. Cases of very minor consequence are handed off to station investigations, including things like an officer swearing, more than a few officers eating together, or uniform cleanliness issues.

Cases involving criminal activity, racial accusations, or major policy violations stay with the "big" IAD, no matter what facts are found, a supervisor of higher rank can order the sergeant to "dig deeper" until some preconceived outcome is determined. There are typically 5 or more layers of review before the police chief signs off on any investigation, the initial findings of no consequence as those of higher rank often demand changes be made, facts be interpreted a specific way, and other facts completely disregarded.

So the assertion that IAD investigators all march in lock step, are involved in conspiracies, or even approach the requirements of a RICO case are not only laughable but demonstrably false. In Houston, reporters rely so heavily on those few case files they obtain "by hook or by crook" from sources, they act like the words were written on stone and came from the mountaintop when the initial findings were often 180 degrees different. Granted, there are times an officer gets a pass on something he should have been fired over but in far more cases an officer is burned over "conduct not alleged" where some minor policy violation is used to tarnish his reputation when the bigger accusation is proven to be false, completely unlikely, or there just being no way to verify the accusation at all. He said/she said cases will never have an outcome that people agree with; the officer left with a tarnished record while the accuser demanding "justice" without sufficient evidence to pass scrutiny.