Friday, August 24, 2018

Harris Sheriff's captain providing cover for Balch Springs shooter, the TX bail-reform roller coaster, and other stories

Here are a few odds and ends for Grits readers to chew on headed into the weekend:

Harris Sheriff's captain providing cover for Balch Springs shooter
A Harris County Sheriff's captain testified as an expert witness for the defense in the trial of Roy Oliver, the Balch Springs police officer who shot a fleeing, unarmed 9th grader to death in a nationally publicized episode that got Oliver fired and indicted. One wonders, does this mean we may expect the Harris County Sheriff's office to take a less strict view on when its officers may shoot at fleeing, unarmed suspects? The Dallas News reported that the Harris County Sheriff's captain, Jay Oliver Coons, "reviews use-of-force cases at the sheriff's department." Does Sheriff Ed Gonzalez agree that the shooting of Jordan Edwards was justified and it would be okay if his deputies did the same thing, or has his captain's testimony gone off the reservation? Inquiring minds want to know ...

Bail-reform roller coaster
August saw bail reform efforts take a gut-wrenching roller coaster ride. First, Gov. Greg Abbott joined legislative and judicial reformers in supporting bail reform, suggesting the bill be named after a murdered state trooper.  But then the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals unexpectedly gutted the order governing Harris County bail policies, reneging on critiques of detention policies that discriminated based on defendants' wealth. Instead, they insisted that such discrimination is okay as long as defendants receive individualized hearings. That relieves some pressure on the Texas Legislature to pass bail reform, but does so just at the moment state leaders appeared to be reaching consensus on what bipartisan reforms might look like. Who knows where the issue goes from here?

Felony record not a bar to council candidacy
The Austin city clerk this week agreed that Lewis Conway, Jr., is eligible to run for office because, despite a quarter-century-old manslaughter conviction for stabbing to death a man who allegedly stole his drug stash. Conway is  now "off paper," having completed his parole requirements and regained his right to vote. The Texas Tribune reported that, "Conway's success Tuesday is unique for one big reason: He's a convicted felon." But "unique" is not the right word because in 2014, Bexar County elected a former drug dealer with a felony conviction as its District Attorney, so the precedent was already set. As with Conway, local officials and opposing candidates declined to challenge Nico Lahood's candidacy in a much higher-stakes race. Grits congratulates Conway on affirming that precedent, and I'm plesased he'll be on the ballot.

Management inattention to crime lab at Austin PD backfiring
Austin PD crime lab's DNA section may remain shuttered for many more years, judging by a report that the city may continue using an outside DNA lab through 2022. Although public debates and the local media have downplayed the culpability of APD managers, the unfortunate truth is that under the previous chief, Art Acevedo, the department largely ignored its civilian functions like crime-scene techs, victim services, and the crime lab. Instead, they focused every extra dollar on expanding the number of and pay going to officers on patrol. Just weeks after Acevedo left to take the reins at Houston PD, the crime lab debacle blew up under his successor's watch. Current Chief Brian Manley was one of Acevedo's commanders and has similarly prioritized budgets for sworn staff over improving the agency's civilian functions. Despite that, the city council could locate no other candidates to even consider; apparently Manley was the only qualified guy they could find. (There's no "Rooney Rule" for police chiefs; after Dallas hired a black woman as chief, for example, there clearly were no other minority candidates anywhere who might be worthy of consideration, hence Austin considered none [/sarcasm].) So I'm not surprised that officials expect the situation to linger on. APD hasn't prioritized its civilian functions in many years and it's hard to view Manley's hiring as anything more or less than an affirmation of the status quo.

DPS suggests closing license centers as long lines loom
As headlines continue about long lines at DPS driver license centers, the agency has suggested closing 87 smaller offices - many of which have only one employee and/or low customer volumes - in order to consolidate resources at the centers with long lines. That could be the right management move, but politically, Grits predicts it will be a non-starter. A few may be closed, but I'd be surprised if the number of closures reached double digits, much less 87. And anyway, closing small facilities won't solve the bigger problems exacerbating long lines at the DPS megacenters, which have more to do with legislative policy than agency-level logistics.

Junk science challenges proliferating
Many so-called "forensic sciences" are really non-scientific, subjective comparisons made by cops, not scientists, argued an editorial at The Legal Intelligencer. That was the reason Texas created a new form of habeas corpus writ - discussed recently in the Texas Tribune in the context of shaken-baby cases - to allow redress when the legal system bases convictions on junk science. The writ is also currently being used to challenge the validity of bite mark evidence as well as blood spatters, a topic Grits delved into in an interview with ProPublica reporter Pam Colloff (read her latest) for the podcast that will be out next week.  RELATED: Top ten junk forensic sciences challenged in Texas.

Cohen doesn't cotton to FIRST-STEP opposition
Check out Right on Crime Director Derek Cohen's rebuttal to U.S. Senator Tom Cotton regarding the latter man's opposition to the FIRST-STEP Act and sentencing reform. Wrote Cohen, "We started Right on Crime in 2010 to advance policies that protect both the taxpayer and their pocketbook, and the outcomes of no government program is above scrutiny. Prisons are a vital contributor to our public safety, but are only one of many tools is our toolbox." In recent days, we've seen President Trump first embrace the bill and then reportedly back off until after the election. From this remove, Grits can't tell who in D.C. is serious about reform or what chances it has in the current political environment. Whatever is the case now could change with the next presidential tweet. But I do know that reformers' opposition to the bill was ill-considered and based on partisan considerations, not #cjreform principles. Passing moderate bipartisan reform is clearly better than doing nothing, which is the alternative.

1 comment:

Unethical Alex said...

RE: Management inattention to crime lab at Austin PD backfiring

Chief Acevedo may have been delinquent, but there were plenty of other Agencies of "checks-and-balances" that failed. And, IMO, they have a much greater responsibility for the failure. And not only did these Agencies of "checks-and-balances" fail to report the problems inside the APD DNA unit, but they actively (and criminally) covered-up the problems.

The accreditation agency ASCLD-LAB and the annual auditors repeatedly gave passing grades to the crime lab operations. After all, they would have had a greater insight for reliable and scientific lab practices, right? Are they accountable? Was anyone fired? Should their auditing reports now be considered fraudulent?

TxDPS, also responsible for accreditation oversight of Texas crime lab, was not blamed. Of course, D. Pat Johnson is known for rubber-stamping "accreditation" for every Tom-Dick-and-Harry backwoods lab that asks for one. He knew about the problems at the ADP crime lab when they were first reported in 2010? Did he even go to the lab? Did he perform an investigation?

And the Texas Rangers? Why did they perform an investigation at the APD lab in 2010? Are they scientists? Why were they asked? This leadership is laughable.

And, of course, who could forget about the Forensic Science Commission? I wish I could. They ate the shit sandwich fed to them by the Texas Rangers' and the APD Management's 2010 Reports of "nothing to see here." The FSC had one clearly defined responsibility, and they failed spectacularly.

What is the remedy for those Agencies that create fraudulent reports or are incompetent at their jobs?

Chief Acevedo moved to another city before he could be reprimanded. What about those leaders and Commissioners still around who failed the forensics community? How do we prevent this from happening again (or again, and again, and again...because we know it will)?