Thursday, July 13, 2017

Blain: 'What does actual police reform look like?'

Charles Blain of the Restore Justice project at Empower Texans has a column in The Hill posing the question, "What does actual police reform look like? More training and more oversight." Blain represents the grassroots conservative wing of the party represented by the Freedom Caucus in the Texas House and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the senate. So what does police reform look like from that perspective?

For starters, he wants more "purposeful training."
In some states, like New York, California, and North Carolina, obtaining a barber’s license requires more hours of training than to become a sworn officer 
In Louisiana becoming an officer takes less training than becoming a manicurist.
Blain also suggests that, "local governments should fully embrace independent police oversight boards giving civilians have a voice in policing." Further, "Out of 18,000 police departments in the country, only about 200 have an independent or civilian oversight board," he lamented. Blain offered up this unusual (for a conservative) discussion of the benefits of a civilian review board:
Two persistent problems on many oversight boards are the scope of authority entrusted to them and the requirements for civilians to participate. 
In Texas alone, the scope of authority for boards in major cities spans across the spectrum. In San Antonio, the Chief’s Advisory Action Board has the ability to interview officers before making a recommendation for disciplinary action to the chief. 
Dallas’ review board is authorized to hire investigators, take sworn testimony, and subpoena witnesses. Houston’s operates largely in private and only takes cases referred to them by the internal affairs bureau of the department. 
Many of the boards require members to have extensive background in policing, law, or criminal justice, which excludes much of the community whose concerns they are meant to address. 
Civilian boards need power, resources and autonomy to be as effective as possible.
Blain embraced body cameras. And although he recognizes the public policy problems with how they've been implemented, including in Texas, he punted on prescribing what good policies might look like:
Policies determine when the officer has the discretion to turn the camera on or off, how regularly it must be charged, if the data on it is subject to public information, the officer’s ability to review it prior to making a statement on an incident, chain of custody for the camera, and policy regarding data retention and manipulation just to name a few. 
Without a sound policy, body worn and dash cameras don’t serve their intended purpose.
He recommended customizable apps to facilitate public engagement, and use of ShotSpotter technology to identify the sources of gunshots.

Grits appreciates Mr. Blain's taking a first stab at thinking through policies that might constitute "actual police reform." But your correspondent would be remiss if I didn't point out that "actual" reform must go further than these proposals or it will be ineffective and fail.

For starters, Grits simply disagrees that civilian review boards can ever be an effective check on police misconduct no matter what their structure. I'm unaware of any such review board anywhere in the country which has achieved the goals of reform activists who got them created. (When I was Police Accountability Project Director of the ACLU of Texas from 2000 to 2006, this was basically my beat.)

Think about it: What does the public demand when an officer shoots someone improperly or engages in misconduct? His or her termination or reprimand. Yet those are precisely the things civilian review boards cannot do. At most they only advise and that advice is routinely and easily ignored because the structure of the police disciplinary process insulates decision makers from being accountable for outcomes - they can typically only be held accountable for complying with the process. Civilian review boards are structurally not capable of satisfying public concern over these issues and may help provide political cover for misconduct when they are weak and ineffectual, which is all the time.

The power to discipline and fire police officers cannot be wrested from departments and even if  it could, that would be a bad idea. Instead, management's ability to enforce rules must be strengthened at the expense of labor. Even when one does not fully trust police management, the best play for police accountability activists is to seek to empower them vis a vis the union.

Re: Training. More is fine, but what's really needed is for police department policies to change to emphasize deescalation, then to retrain on those policies. More training on the sort of cowboy-style shoot-em-up methods taught by a lot of modern training consultants isn't going to help much. Policies and practices must change, then more training will help.

On body cameras, the transparency/privacy questions must be answered because, as presently constituted in Texas, body camera footage for the most part is secret unless a law enforcement agency decides releasing it will somehow help them, thanks to a terrible law passed by Sen. Royce West in 2015. Texas must roll back that thicket of thick-headedness before body cameras will be a true reform measure here.

Finally, some of the most important police accountability measures needed aren't broached in Blain's column. In a column in 2011, Grits identified a few of them:
Transparency: Independent, aggressive press oversight, as a practical matter, is MUCH more effective than any civilian oversight mechanism I've ever heard of, anywhere. Civil service cities like Houston have most of their disciplinary records closed unless officers are severely disciplined (more than two days suspension), and then only summary information is public. So, for example, in Dallas or El Paso, which never opted into the civil service code, reporters get a LOT more information on police misconduct than Houston or other civil service cities, and it really shows in their coverage, particularly at the Dallas News. Easily the most effective change to improve police oversight in Houston and other civil service cities, without costing the taxpayers a dime, would simply be to re-open police disciplinary files; hundreds of non-civil service cities and every Texas Sheriff operate just fine under the Public Information Act, and so would civil service cities if they were brought back under its umbrella. 
Another key, too-often neglected transparency issue: Former Harris County DA Johnny Holmes and the Texas Supreme Court, abetted by the Legislature after the fact, gutted the Law Enforcement exception (Govt Code 552.108) to the Public Information Act in Holmes v. Morales. State Rep. Harold Dutton still carries a bill (see here) every session to change the standard back to what it what from the inception of the Open Records Act until that episode. This change was pivotal, casting a thick blanket of secrecy over information which had been public for decades. If we don't fix the transparency problem - both reinvigorating the law enforcement exception and re-opening disciplinary files in civil service cities - IMO all other "solutions" will founder. 
Accounting for Misconduct in Promotions: Then-state Rep. Chuy Hinojosa filed a bill back in 2001 that never went anywhere but which would have required sustained misconduct to be counted against officers when considering them for promotions, see here. I've always thought that would give a lot more oomph to internal disciplinary decisions than is currently the case and potentially play a big preventive role. 
Bolstering Disciplinary Decisions: The biggest problem with the civil service code regarding police misconduct at Texas police departments is that, too often, fired officers too often don't stay fired. The state could require civil service cities to have a "Uniform Disciplinary Matrix," which is a pre-set array of punishments available for different types of misconduct. This helps prevent arbitrators from overturning punishments when they comply with the disciplinary matrix, including indefinite suspensions/terminations, establishing what's a reasonable punishment as a matter of policy instead of letting the arbitrator make an arbitrary determination after the fact in each case. (See the discussion here.)
There are also an array of special protections in for misbehaving officers in the state civil service code which need to be reformed. And additional provisions limiting accountability are sprinkled throughout meet and confer agreements between local municipalities and police unions. These are all important sites for reform work.

There are other ideas which Blain could have mentioned, including one Restore Justice supported during the legislative session: Eliminating arrests for Class C non-jailable offenses. Arrests are dangerous for both officers and suspects and this reform would reduce their number by more than ten percent.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it's more complete than Mr. Blain's offering in The Hill. There's no sense in limiting the array of possible reforms on the front end, nor in repeating mistakes of the past. See the solutions page at Campaign Zero for more reform ideas.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Time for a national police force with federally enforced training standards? The consolidation of computer databases, training centers, equipment vendors and redundant layers of management and other considerations might well pay for a truly comprehensive national health system---18,000 police forces is patently ridiculous.

Now consider the savings to be realized in prison systems where vacancy rates would bankruptcy even the cheesiest motel chain.