Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Houston PD should shut down Narcotics Division based on problems revealed in (redacted) audit

Readers of this blog know Grits is a solutions-oriented guy, so stick with me because I've got one here.

The audit of the Houston PD Narcotics Division was finally released last week, albeit with officer names annoyingly redacted.

Sam Walker, an old-school criminologist from the University of Nebraska who's seen a lot of dysfunctional agencies in his day, declared that, “The number and variety of errors looks like an operation completely out of control,” reported St. John Barned-Smith in the Houston Chronicle.

State Rep. Gene Wu held a press conference to decry the redactions and declare the audit a "whitewash." But for a whitewash, I thought it aired a lot of dirty departmental laundry. 

Having now read the document, IMO Sam Walker called it: What we learned was that the Houston narcotics squad was an essentially unsupervised. No one was watching the store.

This audit doesn't provide a smoking gun to prove that other officers in the division abused their positions in the way Gerald Goines and Stephen Bryant allegedly did. But it showed that, if that were the case, processes were so lax that supervisors likely would never have caught them. Houston narcotics officers have grown accustomed to operating in a system with virtually no meaningful oversight over their work.

The HPD narcotics division includes about 175 officers broken out into squads of 8-12 officers. The audit analyzed cases from the two officers at the center of the inquiry - Gerald Goines and Stephen Bryant - as well as batches of cases from several other squads, revealing hundreds of problems with the casework.

It's filled with juicy tidbits, especially about Goines and Bryant. Goines most common casework error should have been a red flag: "failed to tag the drugs into the evidence box at the end of his shift 48% of the time."

Goines and Bryant also both routinely committed to informant payments without supervisory approval and got payments approved after the fact, which takes the supervisor out of the decision making loop and is contrary to policy.

About a third of the time, case files included no "Case Review Sheets." This is subtly important because it's how the police bureaucracy exercises supervisory control over the casework. Both a sergeant and a lieutenant are supposed to sign off on that document to ensure the investigation's completeness. But a third of the time, it doesn't exist. This was true across squads, to a greater or only slightly lesser extent.

When the casework was there, some squads had more than 25% of their cases dinged for lack of "thoroughness." Reports and case tracking were routinely late - sometimes many months late. 

The whole thing was a byzantine mess revealing few systems in place that anyone felt obliged to adhere to, and an overweening focus on the lowest level drug busts, mainly in black and brown communities. If you're a cop in the Narcotics Division and weren't doing crappy work, you likely were sitting next to someone who was and never said anything. There's not much to salvage here.

So here's my solution: Why not simply eliminate the HPD Narcotics Division altogether? Absorb those officers into other work (we're always hearing HPD is short-staffed, anyway) and stop pursuing low-level buy-bust cases in minority neighborhoods as a primary enforcement strategy. 

There's strong evidence that drug enforcement in Houston is discriminatory. The datasets aren't exactly a match because some drug arrests are made outside of the Narcotics Division. (See the correction below.) But according to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition's Harris County data dashboard, between Jan. 1, 2016 and May 2018 (the last month available), Houston PD was responsible for charges against nearly 1,000 people with possession of a controlled substance either less than a gram (904) or one to four grams (87). Of those, 75.78% of the cases involved black defendants. 

Indeed, these days, when you send people to prison for a drug crime, you're risking their exposure to the COVID 19 virus. We've already seen examples of Texans sent to prison for short, treatment-focused sentences who died of COVID while they're there.

Grits' advice to Mayor Turner and Chief Acevedo: Cut your losses. Trying to solve the management problems demonstrated in this audit would require shifting more cops away from police work and toward paper pushing, and for what? Who imagines that these penny-ante drug cases are contributing significantly to public safety? Better instead to eliminate that division and focus on other, less corruption-prone public-safety strategies with a better record of success. 

When you find yourself at the bottom of a hole, Will Rogers quipped, the first thing to do is stop digging. That advice resonates here. Between hundreds of innocent people set up over faulty field tests or narcotics officers making up informants in cases (including potentially George Floyd's!), drug enforcement in Houston has been a constant source of managerial grief  and heartache.  Why not just have those 175 officers spend their time doing something else? Why not?

CORRECTION: Thanks to Dr. Katharine Neill Harris, a drug-policy researcher from Rice University, for catching an error. In querying TCJC's Harris County Criminal Justice data dashboard, I somehow dramatically understated the volume of drug arrests in Houston. From January 1st 2016 to December 31st, 2018, there were in fact 15,754 possession cases made by Houston PD for less than four grams. Of those, 56.5 percent of defendants were black, according to the TCJC dashboard. Grits apologizes for the mistake. Not sure what happened there.


Solomon Kane said...

Thanks for another good posting. Just in case you were not aware, whenever I try to post to Facebook it says, "URL Blocked: Could not scrape URL because it has been blocked."

Gunny Thompson said...

From Unfiltered Minds of Independent Thinkers of the 3rd Grade Dropout Section:

"To Kill A Dog, you can't just kill Fleas On A Dog!!"

The solutions offered are suggesting that if this one thing is corrected, then all problems will correct themselves. That will not happen in our lifetime. When implemented in 1947, Local Government code 1269m (now 143) violates the city's sovereign and created a forth form of government, prohibited by Texas Constitution. "That Dog Won't Hunt"


"The supreme, absolute, and uncontrollable power by which an independent state is governed and from which all specific political powers are derived; the intentional independence of a state, combined with the right and power of regulating its internal affairs without foreign interference.

Sovereignty is the power of a state to do everything necessary to govern itself, such as making, executing, and applying laws; imposing and collecting taxes; making war and peace; and forming treaties or engaging in commerce with foreign nations.
The individual states of the United States do not possess the powers of external sovereignty, such as the right to deport undesirable persons, but each does have certain attributes of internal sovereignty, such as the power to regulate the acquisition and transfer of property within its borders. The sovereignty of a state is determined with reference to the U.S. Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land."

You can't fix something that is unlawful. To begin resolving the problem, you first must dissolve 143

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I have no idea what I've done to piss off Facebook. I got on the site today for the first time in years and sent a message to customer service asking "WTF did I do to y'all?" We'll see what they say. My content seems pretty anodyne compared to some of the stuff they approve.