Friday, August 07, 2020

No Confidence in You': Jingle mocks failures by Austin PD chief

The Austin Justice Coalition and Just Liberty have put out a new jingle and video calling for the ouster of Austin police Chief Brian Manley. Check it out, and please share widely on all social media channels.


I wrote the tune. Gabe Rhodes produced it and played guitar. It was sung by Johnathan Horstmann of Urban Heat (who I thought did a really good job). João Paulo Connolly at the Austin Justice Coalition made the video and his flying cows made me LOL. Hope you like it!

Regular readers are well aware of the #FireManley campaign launched after the murder of Mike Ramos in April, but for those looking for more background, see here. The Austin City Council on June 12th issued a "no confidence" vote regarding Chief Manley, but City Manager Spencer Cronk has steadfastly supported him. That must change. AJC has set up an action alert to send the city manager and council a message telling them Manley must go. Register your opinion today.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Lies, jail deaths, naysaying on police budget cuts, and other stories

Here are a few odds and ends that merit Grits readers' attention while mine is focused elsewhere.

Austin Budget Battles. Grits will wait till the smoke has cleared to discuss the Austin police budget fights which are currently ongoing. Everything right now is a moving target. But if you're following the process, the Austin Chronicle has had by far the best coverage. Frankly, folks who only read the Statesman or watch TV news are currently clueless about the details of the debate, which behind the scenes has been quite intense and more wide ranging than one might imagine from reading MSM coverage. I've been disappointed in Mayor Steve Adler during this process. He lately seems more worried about placating the Greater Austin Crime Commission than actually reforming the police department. After initially supporting a divestment/reinvestment strategy, the mayor has adopted the role of reflexive naysayer and is spearheading efforts to put off budget cuts until later, apparently hoping public sentiment will soften the further away we get from George Floyd's death. Incredibly frustrating.

Nurses indicted over Midland jail death. Six contract nurses at the Midland County Jail have been charged with manslaughter and other, lesser offenses for allegedly falsifying documents in a way that resulted in the death of an inmate. It's incredibly rare for faulty medical care in jails to even be acknowledged by authorities, much less for anyone to catch felony indictments for it. Can't wait to learn the backstory on this one.

Jail deaths and familial rights. Read a heart breaking story out of San Antonio of a young man who died of an overdose in jail and the cruel rules that limited his family's access to him as he lay sick and dying.

When the gang database is full of lies. In California, recent revelations that officers falsely accused people of being gang members in the state's gang database raise questions about Texas' statewide gang database. DPS operates the platoform but exercises no oversight into the veracity of information in it. Grits has little doubt a comprehensive audit would find the same problems with our gang database seen in California.

Who was that masked man? Masks make facial recognition tech less accurate, but the difference is less dramatic than one might expect.

Lies, damn lies, and police affidavits. Police lie. A lot. Slate ponders what if anything can be done about it.

News flash: Crime remains quite low. Here's your periodic reminder that Americans think crime is high when it's really low because the MSM and agenda-driven special interests tout gruesome anecdotes widely and downplay more sanguine, contextual data.

Incarceration vs. Safety. Higher incarceration levels do not result in greater public safety, concludes a Vera Institute report.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Texas Commission on Jail Standards: Sunset considerations

Sunset Commission staff asked to visit with your correspondent with regards to their review of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS), so Grits prepared a few talking points for our visit. Find them below. (See also Grits' writeup of the agency's self evaluation from last fall.)

Hamstrung Oversight. This is another oversight agency, like the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, which plays an important role but has been hamstrung by legislative limitations on their budget and authority. Grits generally views the agency's leadership as competent and well-intended, but also as timid, and perhaps a bit too resigned to its own impotence. Here are several aspects of the agency which are ripe for improvement.

Black Hole of Info Surrounding City Jails. First, it's high time city jails should be brought under the agency's regulation and sufficient inspectors added to their roster to cover them. City jails are unregulated backwaters where people supposedly are only held for Class C misdemeanors for short periods of time. But we have no data nor information about who goes in and out, much less inspection reports or compliance dicta, the way we get for county jails. The difference in transparency between regulated and unregulated facilities is like night and day. Some reports from arrested protesters about city jails were problematic. Let's get some inspectors in there!

Lack of expertise prevents confronting problems. Like the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, TCJS would benefit from building out internal expertise to a) develop standards and b) provide technical assistance to counties struggling with regulation compliance.  But TCJS doesn't necessarily have issue-area experts on staff to develop and administer appropriate training (which anyway, is formally overseen by equally understaffed TCOLE), much less advise counties on particular jail problems. TCJS has three "mental health trainers" for some 250 jails statewide.

The agency's self-evaluation essentially punted on the question of whether it's possible for them to intervene more profoundly in mental-health issues, saying any solution would either be "difficult or unpopular." To me, that's not a good enough reason not to try. Such a comment does not absolve the agency from offering solutions, it just acknowledges why doing so requires courage. Or, viewed more generously, one could argue that their fatalism expressed underscores why the agency needs greater in-house issue-area expertise.

Either way,  Grits believes someone in state government must take leadership on the competency restoration questions which have left thousands of mentally ill Texans stranded in jail. It may as well be TCJS as anyone else. If the agency had experts on staff, perhaps it could develop protocols and regulation for outpatient competency restoration programs to reduce the number of mentally ill people incarcerated. 

More broadly, the agency needs in-house experts to be able to evaluate provision of medical care at jails of all types, including pharmacy. This is too important a function of jails not to regulate, but to regulate it requires having staff qualified to pass judgment on medical decisions. TCJS doesn't have that now.

One-size-fits-all a poor fit for jails. TCJS takes a one-size-fits-all approach, inspecting jails in Houston and Dalhart each once per year. But the Harris County Jail is larger than 20 state prison systems! Larger and also non-compliant jails need more attention than do small or mid-sized facilities, particularly those which are already meeting requirements. Grits recommends boosting inspection capacity to allow for greater interaction with larger facilities and those that are persistently non-compliant, as well as adding the city jails mentioned above.

Agency needs more independence from counties, better sanctions options. The agency's universally acknowledged, fundamental problem is that its board is politically too close to the county-level interests being regulated. This makes the board reticent to use their enforcement powers. While the agency technically could order a non-compliant jails closed and their inmates moved, taking such a step requires expending vast political capital and is probably impossible, both practically and politically, in the case of larger counties. TCJS needs more options for intermediate sanctions short of closure to press counties for compliance.

There have been times when inspectors identified shortcomings and jails lollygagged when it came to fixing problems, encouraging a somewhat common perception that the board would never really do anything punitive besides publish the names of non-compliant counties. An expanded assortment of intermediate sanctions, possibly including daily fines, might spur more energetic compliance.

Notably, the 86th Legislature required facilities run by private contractors to come into compliance more quickly than publicly run ones, according to the TCJS self evaluation. County-run units have a year to come into compliance when an inspection dings them. Privately operated facilities now must come before the TCJS board demonstrating compliance at its next meeting (it meets quarterly). This requirement for quicker resolution should be extended to county-run units. It would help both substantively and with public perception.

Data presentation needs upgrade. On data, TCJS deserves credit for significant and willing transparency. But I do have a few running data complaints I took the opportunity to raise: 1) Their reports on their website are all in pdfs instead of a searchable database, making it cumbersome to analyze data over time. 2) their new monthly jail population report no longer automatically migrates to the historical reports section of their website. So if you don't download it while it's up, once it's taken down  researchers can't access it without an open records request. Starting a couple of years back, historical reports are available; it's only the recent ones that are missing. Finally, 3) few TCJS reports include demographic breakouts, making it impossible to analyze racial disparities.

Ask an expert! Finally, Grits emphasized that I'm no expert on these questions, and most of my interactions with the agency have now been quite a few years ago. I encouraged them to talk to people who deal with TCJS more regularly: in particular Michele Deitch of UT's LBJ School, who is an actual issue-area expert on correctional oversight, and Diana Claitor at the Texas Jail Project, whose group helps jail inmates file grievances. Both have likely forgotten more than I know about TCJS. By comparison, Grits' observations amount to mere impressions from a distance.

Missing analysis on COVID. The one area I'm sure Sunset will address but which I did not involves the agency's role in documenting and coordinating jails' COVID response, challenges posed to the legacy system by the pandemic, and the implications for jail oversight and on long-term jail operations. It's not that there isn't considerable rethinking to do on these questions, I just haven't done any of it. But with COVID "pummeling" county jails across Texas, the implications for jail regulation necessarily must be addressed in the Sunset review.

Monday, August 03, 2020

Test driving the 'Texas Criminal Court Data Dashboard': Extra functionality adds value

The Texas Criminal Court Data Dashboard - a project of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, January Advisors, Microsoft, and Norflet Progress Fund - has expanded its dataset. It now includes court data from Harris, Dallas, Bexar and Travis Counties, and statewide data from the Office of Court Administration going back 10 years.

This lets one do a lot of work. Just as an example, I ran data on less-than-a-gram drug cases for calendar year 2018 for the four counties in question, and for starters, there were major variations in the levels of racial disparity. Black folks were only slightly overrepresented in drug cases in Bexar and Dallas Counties in 2018:
  • Bexar: 10.7% of cases against black people vs. 7.5% of residents.
  • Dallas: 27.7% of cases against black people vs. 23.4% of residents.
By contrast, black folks were over-represented to a far greater degree in drug cases in Harris and especially Travis County:
  • Harris: 37.65% of cases against black people vs. 19.7% of residents.
  • Travis: 28.5% of cases against black people vs. 7.9% of residents
Dismissal rates also varied widely by county in these cases:
  • Harris: 36.7%
  • Dallas: 5%
  • Bexar: 38.8%
  • Travis: 46.4%
The inclusion of dismissal rates by case type adds significant value to these county-level datasets. Grits has discussed before how difficult it has been in the past to access that information.

Average bail amounts also varied widely in less-than-a-gram drug cases in 2018:
  • Harris: $2,500
  • Dallas: $9,597
  • Bexar: $10,000
  • Travis: $7,500
The average defendant age in all four cities was in the mid-thirties.

Examining broader trends from their Office of Court Administration dashboard, while marijuana cases have declined precipitously in recent years, that's not true for felony drug possession in these four counties except for Harris County, which began to see significant-but-not-radical declines in 2018.

Grits' review: The OCA data probably doesn't add much value we couldn't already get from the agency's query system and annual statistical report, which allows for a wider variety of analyses. But the individual county dashboards allow for racial breakdowns by case type and analyses of bail patterns and dismissal rates which have not been possible before without insider data access.

There is no one-stop shopping location for Texas criminal-justice data. But here's a short list of the major sources:

'Citizen Spying Program' revealed in #BlueLeaks documents, Austin Chronicle reported; general ineptitude at fusion centers likely prevents worse abuses

Grits wanted to flag this report from the Austin Chronicle on some of the "BlueLeaks" revelations dumped from, among other agencies, Texas fusion centers. The Chron reported that the documents "reveal a secret citizen spying program that's active in the Austin area and across the country." They plan to follow up with future stories.

Reported the Chron's John Anderson, about 800 so-called Threat Liaison Officers (TLOs) "report suspicious activity or behavior" to the Austin fusion center. TLOs "include sworn law enforcement officers, but also non-sworn government employees as well as private citizens." Some TLOs work as "private security officers with local hotels, malls, large venues, and local semiconductor companies. Others are government employees in 'education,' 'code enforcement,' and 'public works.'" Further, documents alluded to partner organizations in the "military," "hospital systems," and the "faith community."

Texas Civil Rights Project lawyer and fusion center Community Advocate Peter Steffensen told the Chronicle the TLO program creates "a cadre of anonymous, non-law-enforcement citizen informants who, unlike ARIC, are completely unaccountable to the public."

Grits tracked fusion center activities some when they first rolled out, but soon concluded that their ineptitude and irrelevant methods, in practice, trumped the potential civil liberties threats. I more or less feel about them as I did in 2008: "[P]robably the greatest comfort to me about potential abuse of fusion centers is that I don't believe analysts can meaningfully comb through that much data pro-actively, which means their work is reactive and thus largely redundant and worthless. I see them, at least so far, as more a pointless boondoggle than a tangible privacy threat. That could change, though, if we begin to hear evidence these data streams have been abused."

We've seen some of these criticisms before, but now researchers can review primary documentation for themselves. Grits still considers Texas fusion centers more boondoggle than threat. But the potential threat is certainly there, and it grows when hundreds of private informants have access to this information, even if they've signed non-disclosure agreements.

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Drug War Deja Vu: Fort Bend drug interdiction targets black, Latino drivers

At the Houston Chronicle, our pals Eric Dexheimer and St. John Barned Smith (aka, "Sinjin") examine racial disparities in traffic stops by a drug-interdiction task force in Fort Bend County, finding that they overwhelmingly stopped Latino drivers. 
Just under 90 percent of the motorists stopped by Todd Ganey, a Richmond Police Department officer assigned to the team, were Black or Hispanic, according to 2019 records from the Fort Bend Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the task force. Nearly three of every four stops Danny Tondera made last year were of Hispanic drivers.

An analysis of traffic stops made over the past two years by Gillory shows just under 98 percent of the drivers he pulled over were Hispanic. Gillory searched 187 of the vehicles, all but two driven by Hispanics; 94 percent of the time the searches came to nothing.
This was a county drug task force, which was reconstituted after the state's network of 50+ multi-county narcotics task forces was defunded and disbanded by Gov. Rick Perry. This news, combined with recent reports (several of them also by St. John Barned-Smith) about the Houston PD Narcotics Division audit, reminds Grits how little has changed regarding the methods, patterns and practices of routine drug enforcement since Rick Perry shuttered regional-drug task forces in Texas almost 15 years ago.

During the period when we were fighting to abolish and defund Texas drug-task forces - mostly via the ACLU of Texas, what was then the Texas Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (they later dropped the "reform"), and Tulia Friends of Justice, which was organizing family members of the accused (they later dropped the "Tulia") - I produced a pair of reports detailing problems with drug task forces that, when re-read today, sound eerily similar to problems at HPD and the Fort Bend Task Force:
Too Far Off Task describes drug-enforcement practices that would fit right in at the Houston PD Narcotics Division. The second report in particular includes examples that don't differ significantly from the Fort Bend County case study.

Drug enforcement hasn't changed much in two decades, is my takeaway from comparing past iterations of Drug-War scandals with these recent stories.  We didn't fix the fundamental problems after Tulia - racially discriminatory drug enforcement, corrupt informants, asset-forfeiture-driven policing priorities - and so now see them all rear their ugly heads again.