Wednesday, July 01, 2020

A primer for new, local police-reform advocates in Texas

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, 
committed, citizens can change the world. 
Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” 
- Margaret Mead

On the Reasonably Suspicious podcast this week, the Austin Justice Coalition's Chas Moore and I talked about the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests across Texas, including in small towns and parts of the state without a significant history of civil-rights activism. In particular, we discussed how local reformers in smaller jurisdictions outside the big cities might go about seeking change.

Let's take a moment to elaborate on this theme and suggest how local Texas advocates might go about seeking police reform, wherever they live. As discussed on the podcast, police reform is a long-term project. There are no quick fixes, either #8cantwait or otherwise. OTOH, there's no time like the present to start. The advice below is somewhat prescriptive and intended for folks launching their political efforts in an environment where no prior infrastructure exists.

Identify basic priorities
You don't have to decide everything at once, but it helps to have some starting goals that relate to your local situation to organize around. Police will be quick to tell you, "we already do that" whenever you demand something, so always measure their words against their actions. See below for how to research individual cases of police misconduct. Once you've reviewed the details of police shootings in your area (some of this is online and easy to look up) there may be more specific demands that emerge from those cases. But here are a few ideas Texas-based advocates might consider as near-term goals:
  • divest money from the department and use it to fund alternatives for mental illness, drug addiction, homelessness, etc..
  • change use of force policies to emphasize de-escalation and proportionality
  • demand the department collect and regularly release data on all use of force episodes
  • stop arresting people over Class C misdemeanors, which under Texas law are punishable only by fines, not jail time (this is something Republicans and Democrats both have in their state party platforms but police unions oppose)
  • stop arresting people over Class B misdemeanors for which officers have discretion to write citations (including driving with invalid license, marijuana possession, and several less common offenses). Some agencies implemented this because of COVID; the policy should be made permanent.
  • eliminate unnecessary military equipment
I could think of dozens of other possibilities, but these all seem to coincide with the zeitgeist of the moment. The common theme is reducing use of force both by changing force policies and scaling back the departmental footprint to limit when force might be used. They're all reasonable suggestions that can't be dismissed as radical or anti-cop. (For some folks, Grits acknowledges, that may make them too moderate.) And of course they're just a starting point. Inevitably, all local agendas will diverge in their particulars if advocates are doing their jobs well.

Research local cases
The best advocacy campaigns involve storytelling. When stories have a compelling "moral" and it supports your agenda, they can frame the terms of debate in a way that data and logic can never quite accomplish. While the narrative surrounding George Floyd's death in Minnesota may have launched the recent protests, local police understandably will insist that criticisms of their officers be rooted in local history. So, how do you find local stories? Here's how to get started.

Texas maintains records about all police shootings, deadly or not, since 2016. A separate database compiles reports on all deaths in custody, including deaths in police custody and in prisons and county jails, going back to the 1980s. Research these to identify problematic examples. (For analysis of these datasets, visit the Texas Justice Initiative.) Once you get victim names, search local media archives, as well as social media outlets, to see what if anything was published about them. Have any family members been particularly outspoken? You may want to talk to them.

File Public Information Act requests with the police department for police misconduct records. If you're in a jurisdiction which has adopted the state civil service code (Chapter 143 of the Local Government Code - about 73 agencies), then you'll only get summary information on cases where an officer was suspended without pay. In most jurisdictions, though, you'll be able to get information about lesser punishments like written or oral reprimands as well as complaints against officers.

Your local Texas police department is required to publish an annual racial profiling report on traffic stops, including data on searches, arrests, and use of force. Top-line data is posted here and a more detailed version is available from your police department. Beginning next year, all this data should be broken out along racial categories and the report will be much more probative when it comes to statistically demonstrating discrimination. Currently, because of a state-agency screwup, the data doesn't break out all the after-stop activities by race. But it still provides clues about the department's traffic-enforcement program and unique data on use of force at traffic stops. 

Your local department almost certainly requires officers to file a report when they use force on suspects, though this information isn't readily available. Try to find out the name of that report from your department's General Orders (see below) or by asking the Public Information Office or personal contacts on the police force. Ask for all documents fitting that description under the Public Information Act for some time period - maybe the past 2-5 years. They may want to give you de-identified versions that don't list the names off victims or officers. While it's better to have full information, don't pass up the chance to compile top-line data on use of force incidents - you never know what patterns you'll find.

Go to the county courthouse and search the police department's name in civil court records to identify any lawsuits alleging police misconduct. Also search the names of individual officers who shot people or who you've identified as allegedly engaging in excessive use of force. If you find such cases, read the documents, including the original complaint, the city's response, and any subsequent filings or rulings. Contact the plaintiffs' attorneys involved and talk to them. Maybe they have more information than was in the original complaint or can help suggest policy reforms that might have prevented what happened to their client. They may also be a conduit to the victim's family.

Finally, when it comes to police shootings and civil-rights violations, it can pay to research deep history. Incidents that occurred thirty years ago will still resonate deeply with people from that generation. And providing deep historical context can buttress contemporary criticisms and help avoid having examples dismissed as simply involving one "bad apple." I'd recommend visiting your local library and asking for help researching older cases. So many papers and magazines have gone out of business, you may need the librarians' assistance to find historical examples. Sometimes, black-owned papers covered such incidents when the major dailies did not, or else provided more detailed, supplemental coverage. Don't neglect them. This is not as big a priority as the contemporary research. But if someone in your group is interested in pursuing this historical angle, the context such research provides can be incredibly fruitful.

Seek Allies
Identify local allies who can help with the cause. Who was involved in organizing local protests? Did any particular organizations make a special effort to turn their people out? Were there local pastors who supported the demonstrations? Student groups from area colleges? Did anyone at the protests pass around a petition? Compile a list of all local supporters you can identify.

Before diving into public-policy questions, you'll want to contact these most vocal, committed supporters and meet with as many as possible (these days, probably via a Zoom call) to develop alliances and hash out a preliminary plan. You don't have to all work together on everything, but you should at least know who each other are and have each other's contact information. If you create some sort of formal coalition, great! But even if you don't, you want communication channels to be established and open. Meet with everybody you can reach and begin the dialogue.

Did any politicians make public statements supportive of the protests or police reform generally? Go talk to them! Ask them what they intend to do on these topics. Are they open to community suggestions? Ask them which of their colleagues are sympathetic and which are hostile. Ask them who they know in the community who supports reform efforts, and who besides the police unions make up the opposition. Ask them about the police budget and what opportunities they see for divestment/reinvestment in the city's budget. Finally, make sure you get to know staff members of any politician allies and get their numbers in your cell phone. To get things done, you'll need those relationships.

Police departments are governed by city managers, mayors, and city councils. Get contributions and expenditure reports for your local city council from the city clerk and see if any donors pop up who supported local demonstrations. If so, go talk to them about supporting your effort; ask their advice about how to sway the council member(s) they supported.

Meet police and press
Who in the local media covered the protests? Who covers the local crime and courts beats? You'll want to develop relationships with those individuals: get to know them and make sure they have your cell number. These folks likely spend most of their time printing whatever the police tell them so you may need to remind them from time to time, as Susan Chira at the Marshall Project pithily observed, that "'police said' is not shorthand for 'the truth.'"

Finally, when you have done your research, established your alliances, introduced yourself to local politicians and the media, and identified a local agenda that's unique to your department, it's time to introduce yourself to the police chief and have a conversation with the head of the police union. Run through your goals and priorities. Ask if there's anything on your list they won't fight, or could even support. Keep initial conversations focused on the issues, don't discuss strategies, research, etc.. These folks likely will never be your allies. But you're getting into their business and are going to be interacting with them, so it will pay to make a personal connection. If they offer up "reforms" they might agree to that aren't on your list, take it under advisement and go research them. Police are practiced at sidelining reformers with change words that don't result in change. Make sure you're getting things that are meaningful.*

Engage in the budget process
A central demand coming out of the June 2020 protests has been to reduce spending on police and shift resources to social-service-oriented approaches to solving problems like addiction, mental illness, or homelessness. 

Most cities are developing their municipal budgets over the summer, so it's a good time to dip your toe into that stream. Keep in mind, though, that this is a long-term effort. The city manager or mayor (depending on the city's form of government) has been working on the budget for months. Your initial foray into this process will likely involve a steep learning curve. However, staying engaged year over year going forward will dramatically increase your chances of success.

First, most Texas cities post the budget on the internet. Download the budget and review the police department detail. Find out when the city council will take public testimony on budgets; if you can, watch prior budget hearings online and plan to attend those discussions going forward. Ask allies on the council to share copies of "backup" materials on the public-safety budget, or ask for this information with an open-records request.

To identify things cops are doing that could be done by someone else, you need to know how local police are currently spending their time. In larger towns, the city may have paid for a "time study" analyzing how much time officers spend on various duties. Ask for data on how much overtime the department pays for and what officers are doing during those extra hours. 

Most important, identify whomever is operating your local 911 call center and ask for data on police calls in your jurisdiction under the Public Information Act. Use this information to identify things the cops are doing that potentially could be handled by someone else. How many calls are for non-criminal activities like accident reporting, moving stalled vehicles, or enforcing local ordinances related to noise, un-mowed grass, etc.? Are there particular addresses that police visit repeatedly? Consider them one by one and try to imagine alternative solutions to the problems drawing police there. Can those solutions be scaled up?

How many calls involve mental-health situations that might be better handled by social workers or mental-health professionals? Can that number be discerned from the 911 data? If not, what new data would need to be gathered to answer that question? (Maybe gathering it can become one of your demands.)

To the extent possible, research how local police respond to mental-health calls, including suicide attempts, and seek out case studies. Compile examples of people who were arrested or hospitalized against their will when police responded to a "wellness check" or suicide attempt. Local criminal-defense attorneys or family support groups may be able to provide more stories. If you want to argue police shouldn't handle these calls, it's important to have a clear sense of what's happening now when they do.

Are there local organizations providing homeless services? Talk to their leaders to get a sense of the local department's relationship to them and their clients. These folks may have useful suggestions for alternative means of solving their clients' problems that don't involve cycling them through the justice system. (If your community has a significant homeless population, expect housing to be a big place where money from the police budget should be diverted.) They may also be aware of hidden examples of police abuse.

Reach out to your local Sheriff and ask to speak to the jail commander. If we weren't all in COVID lockdown, I'd suggest you ask for a jail tour, which could give you a chance to talk and ask questions. But it's still worth a conversation. What proportion of people entering the jail suffer from mental-health problems? Addiction problems? What are the big drivers in their pharmacy budget? How does the jail interact with ICE? What is their policy when suspects come into the jail suffering injuries inflicted by police?

There will be a relatively small number of people, often homeless, who cycle in and out of the jail at particularly high rates (many Texas jailers refer to these folks as "frequent flyers"). Targeting these folks with support services can be one of the quickest ways to reduce problematic police interactions. What information does the jail have about this group and what services might prevent them from ending up in jail as often? 

Once you've done this research, with your allies, put on your thinking cap and identify alternative means to address the problems you've discovered. Some of these, like diverting "wellness checks" and routine mental-health calls to civilian agencies, or providing housing for homeless folks, may be common across departments. Others may suggest solutions specific to your locale. Brainstorm. Be creative. You're re-imagining the future, don't assume the best solution will be handed to you by an expert. Once you've educated yourselves on the local situation, you may find low hanging fruit that officials have ignored or never considered. In fact, you probably will. Keep your eyes open and your brain turned on.

Changing the Rules
The rules that govern your local police department are called their "General Orders." A few departments claim their use of force policies are secret law-enforcement information not subject to the Public Information Act, but most agencies have long made them public. They're probably online. If not, just ask for them. Now read them, with a particular focus on use of force and officer discipline. Also pay attention to all the various reports/documentation required and data that's collected: If they're collecting it, you can often ask for it under the Public Information Act.

Use of force policy is really a combination of constitutional law, state statutes, and local policies in the General Orders. Departments can and frequently do have narrower policies on use of force than the ceiling suggested by constitutional law. If yours doesn't, it's your job to do the narrowing! If you've never thought deeply about these questions before, let me suggest these for background reading:
There are all sorts of carve outs you can seek on use of force policy: No chokeholds, no hogtying, no shooting at a moving vehicle, limits on less-lethal rounds, etc.. But don't neglect the central thrust of the policy, especially on deadly force: It should only be allowed in response to an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury and should never be used on someone running or driving away.

The other big terrain of contention involves rules about disciplinary processes - when and how departments punish officers for misconduct. If your agency has adopted the state civil service code (Local Government Code Chapter 143), those statutes provide an officer-friendly baseline for its disciplinary rules that makes it very hard to fire officers and very easy for them to get back on the force.

Does your department have a collective bargaining agreement (known in Texas as a "meet and confer" contract) with the local police union? If so, get a copy. (Most agencies don't have one but many larger towns do.) Sometimes those documents alter the Ch. 143 baseline on police discipline. Plus you'll learn a lot about your department you've never considered before. These contracts are negotiated every few years, find out when yours comes up again. 

If you're new to thinking about police use of force or disciplinary processes, Campaign Zero has some good suggestions for model policies. For those looking to get deeper into the weeds, the book by HRW (below) is dated on its face, but in Texas none of the relevant laws or practices have changed since it was written and its findings are highly relevant to current-day disciplinary practices in the Lone Star State.
Rushin's article examines contracts from hundreds of departments to identify trends and common problems with police disciplinary practices. The Armacost offering was included because it gives a good sense of the inevitable dynamic surrounding debates over police violence and allows readers to predict law enforcement's response and plan for it. There's a predictable playbook to how police unions, in particular, react when reforms are proposed or their officers are accused of misconduct, and it's worth taking a moment to understand that dynamic before walking headlong into the buzzsaw.

When the Austin Justice Coalition began to address these topics, they went through a period where their policy team essentially conducted a reading group to bring everyone up to speed, reading the General Orders, relevant Supreme-Court cases, law-review articles, the state civil-service code, their local police-union contract, and other relevant documents. This generated a critical mass of individuals educated enough to think through the issues and suggest alternative solutions. The group's demands grew organically from there.

What reforms you ask for at the local level will be a function of 1) the research you perform, 2) allies' agendas, and 3) the political power of your opposition. Only those directly involved can assess the political reality on the ground regarding what's possible. Maybe only a little; maybe more than you think. But you never know till you try.

Plug in with state work
Finally, I'd be remiss not to say that the Texas Legislature meets every two years, beginning again in January 2021, and quite a few of these issues, including the state civil service code governing police disciplinary processes, are likely to become the subject of legislation next year. 

We've just witnessed what arguably is the largest social movement in America in more than 50 years. It included a surge of advocacy everywhere in the state, including outside the big cities. If that new interest sustains and, over the next few years, local justice-reform advocates pop up in grassroots efforts around the state, it could easily transform the terms of debate at the Texas Legislature and beyond.

Many local advocates will discover that the Chapter 143 strictures are a primary barrier to holding bad cops accountable. (In San Antonio, an arbitrator just put a guy back on the force who'd used the N-word repeatedly when handcuffing a suspect.)  Connecting with state-level reform groups working at the capitol, helping sway your local legislators and providing case studies for hearings, etc., can be incredibly useful for all involved. Some local problems can only be resolved by changing state law.


My email is in this blog's right-hand column just below the Terry Allen quote. If you're a Texan trying to engage in this sort of organizing, reach out and Grits will be happy to provide technical assistance to the extent I can be helpful.

The public is ahead of the politicians on these topics, and many advocates are several steps ahead of the public. It's fine to show up and say you want to abolish or defund the police, but understand that's not where public opinion is at, especially among office holders who came up in the pre-George-Floyd era. That doesn't mean you can't have an influence. Where pols want to take more aggressive positions, the development of new local organizations can give them a path and political cover. Where they prefer to dig in their heels, reform groups can pressure for change and provide a pool of alternative leadership that locals may choose down the line.

The important thing to remember is this is a long-term project. You can't win overnight, but you can lose quickly and get shut out of the game. So if you're just starting a police-accountability group in the current moment, your mindset should embrace building for the future. A political mentor of mine loved the story of the two bulls, father and son, standing at the top of a hill overlooking a herd of cows. The son declared, excitedly, "Hey Dad, let's run down the hill and fuck one of those cows. The father replied, "No son, let's walk down the hill and fuck them all." 

That should be the goal here. We got to this moment of mass incarceration and rampant overpolicing via hundreds of bad policies enacted over many decades.  It's going to take time and a lot of work to unearth and reverse them all, much less to envision and implement a more effective path toward solving all the myriad social problems police have been assigned to address. And it's not just a big-city project. It's something that needs to happen everywhere.

*"Tell no lies," admonished Cabral. "Claim no easy victories."

No comments: