Monday, August 31, 2020

Houston's early police chiefs: The Thief, the Chief Who Wouldn't Be Fired (sound familiar?), and the Mysterious Disappearance of John Proudfoot

Here's an update on my search for the history of early Texas police chiefs. As it turns out, there is a book-length history of the Houston Police Department, a high-end vanity piece commissioned by the Houston Police Officers Union, written by Mitchel Roth and Tom Kennedy. On the questions I've been asking - what is the relationship between slave catching and antebellum policing or Jim Crow enforcement after the war? - it's of scarce little use. But it gives us a few more details about these early characters.

Houston's first "police chief": The head of the entity that became today's Houston police department was originally called the City Marshal. The first one was Daniel Busby, twice elected to the position beginning in 1841. But in 1843, he was investigated by city officials and found to have stolen fee money ($317.52) he was charged with collecting. Busby "acceded to the request for his resignation" but was not prosecuted. As a nod to their union patrons, Roth and Kennedy observed that "this was the first official evidence of a disciplinary action in HPD history."

Also as a result of this disgraceful launch, and in light of the complexities of the fee-gathering functions inherent in law-enforcement's mid-19th century role, later City Marshals were required to post a $2,500 bond when assuming the job to indemnify the city.

Stay Icy: I'd wanted to know more about Isaac C. Lord (or possibly Irvin Capers Lord), who went by his awesome initials, I.C. Lord (I love this name. Can he see the Lord? Is the Lord cold? Is the Lord unruffled during high pressure situations? You can take it so many ways!). Lord is the person credited with turning HPD into a "proper" police force patrolling the streets in recognizable uniforms. Reportedly, "it was Lord’s proudest boast that he never carried a gun while acting as a peace officer."

The Mysterious Disappearance of John Proudfoot: But in the process I should mention another early Houston law enforcement stalwart with an amazingly great name who's going on my research list: John Proudfoot. He was elected City Marshal in 1860 and left in 1863 to go fight for the Confederate army, leaving I.C. Lord with the job. After the war, Proudfoot did not challenge his protege, who'd been reelected already as City Marshal in his own right. Proudfoot instead ran for Sheriff and won in 1866. Then, I.C. Lord was appointed interim Sheriff after Proudfoot "mysteriously disappeared, most probably as a result of foul play." Other online sources I could find gave no additional information beyond saying he disappeared. A 154-year old Unsolved Mystery! I knew nothing about John Proudfoot before the last week, and now I want to know everything about him.

Making Friends: Anyway, Lord returned to his City Marshal's post in 1867, and here's where things get interesting. He had already, for reasons unknown, pissed off the local black population. The authors tell us Lord was shot in the head during a "racial disturbance" which "reflected the hostility and confusion that existed between newly freed slaves and the populace." Whatever that means.

Showdown with the Union military: Then, Brevet Major General J.J. Reynolds became military commander of Texas and ordered I.C. Lord, along with a half dozen aldermen and several other officials, to leave their jobs so he could appoint their replacements. This wasn't happening just in Houston, but also to Confederate loyalists across the South who remained in pivotal public posts.

Lord at first declined to go. Finally, Reynolds named A.K. Taylor City Marshal and formally relieved Lord of his duties. Lord's refusal to abide by this order caused a near-race war! Roth and Kennedy report that "'the loyal League Negroes' openly threatened to attack, sack, and burn the city" if he did not step down, "But this threat was turned back after a mob of armed whites came forward to protect the city." This inspired Lord to tell newspaper reporters of his "determination not to give up until the Board of Aldermen ordered him."

The authors don't tell us who the "League Negroes" were (I'm going to assume bowling league), nor reference them any other time throughout the book, so for the moment we'll have to leave that intriguing episode there. But it sounds like the town nearly erupted over Lord's refusal to leave.

Awkward! A local newspaper observed that this left police "in a quandary. They have two police chiefs." He eventually relented, but his temporary standoff with the Union military commander earned Lord, who as far as I can tell did not serve in the Confederate Army, the admiration and approbation of Reconstruction opponents and Lost-Cause revanchists for the rest of his lengthy political career. In 1875, the first local election after Richard Coke's disputed ascension to governor signaled the end of Reconstruction in Texas, I.C. Lord was elected Houston Mayor, capping a long career during which he also found time to sire 16 children!

Regardless, these events tell us that the man credited with turning HPD into a "proper" police force suffered an incredibly hostile, occasionally violent relationship with the black community in Houston in the years following the Civil War. Keep in mind, we're talking about a very small town, roughly the size of Dalhart, today. Houston had fewer than 10,000 people in the 1870 census, up from just under 5,000 in 1860. So this was an up-close-and-personal sort of dislike.

I'm sure there are more to these stories but I'm writing them up bit by bit as I run across sources. More soon on the next installment of "Early Texas Police Chiefs."

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Manley: "Oh, no! I have the same number of officers I did yesterday! Must make radical cuts to popular units to maintain patrol at current levels"

Austin Police Chief Brian Manley's disingenuous response to modest budget cuts (and major disempowering of him) demonstrates why, long before the George-Floyd protests began, a wide array of local community groups beyond criminal-justice reformers had called for his ouster.

Manley petulantly reacted to the council's new budget by presenting a plan to slash popular units and assigning those cops to patrol, claiming he was forced to do so to address 911 and traffic enforcement. This is a lie. I'd say it's silly, and it is, except that it has serious consequences because the local media takes his lies seriously and promotes them as "news." (Looking at you, Ryan Autullo and Tony Plohetstki!) That's the problematic part. All the insiders know what's really going on.

IRL, nothing changed for police management thanks to Austin's new budget. Several key units like the crime lab, Internal Affairs, and the 911 call center are being taken from the department's control, but none of that would affect patrol. Shortly after the new budget takes effect, there will be significantly more EMS staff in place to handle 911 calls that police admit should be handed off, so the budget decisions actually reduce pressure on patrol to respond to 911.

The only actual "cuts," $21 million, come from delaying the police academy. But it was already delayed until the department can finish an (overdue) audit and revamp problematic training practices. Just reviewing video will take months. I've not spoken to anyone who thinks a new curriculum can be developed before next year. Once a new training program is ready, cadet classes are eight months long. 

So APD wouldn't have had any new officers this fiscal year even if city council had granted them a spring cadet class. The idea that a vote in August necessitated radical staffing changes before the budget even takes effect on October 1st just isn't credible. There were no layoffs. APD has and will have the same number of staff that they did before. 

Finally, other units are being reevaluated, but that doesn't necessarily mean the jobs are on the chopping block. In fact, that process could free up officers. For example, it's possible the mounted unit could be disbanded because stabling the horses is too expensive. But I haven't heard anybody say those cops should be fired. Similarly, using park rangers instead of APD to address park safety doesn't necessarily mean police will be lose their jobs. It could, or those officers could become park rangers, or they could be absorbed back into the force to perform other tasks. Those decisions have yet to be made but for now, those officers are still on the force.

Because there are other initiatives being launched to try to peel tasks away from APD to reduce the need for more officers, it's not clear whether we'll need those extra officers from the mounted unit or park police in the long haul. But alternative programs may take time to ramp up and City Council has left themselves plenty of flexibility if they need to keep them.

Staffing isn't the problem. Crappy management is the problem. Brian Manley should be fired. And if he won't do it, so should Spencer Cronk. It's time Austin had a police chief who's willing to collaborate with the City Council and not make specious staffing changes to embarrass them.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Slave catching the dominant, early Texas law enforcement apparatus

Upon learning of Austin PD's racist, early history, Grits has been digging in a little to Texas' early law-enforcement agencies to discover if others have similar roots. This is a first installment, merely an initial inquiry, on a topic I want to delve into more deeply over time. So if it seems incomplete, it is. Please bear with me. If you're not satisfied in the end, you can have a full refund.

Rangers not Texas' earliest law enforcement. Some might think the Texas Rangers were the state's earliest police officers, and certainly it's true Stephen F. Austin first commissioned the group in 1823. But that was done as a private landowner; he paid the men out of pocket. And for decades the Rangers were financed largely by real-estate interests, with the Legislature chipping in to get them to fight Indians. Texas Rangers weren't funded by the Legislature as a permanent force until 1874.

Slave catching dominated early Texas security apparatus. In antebellum Texas, the big security problem about which officials were most concerned was slaves escaping to Mexico. In 1846, almost immediately after we were granted statehood, the Texas Legislature directed county courts to form local slave patrols covering specific districts. This appears to be the earliest instance of security personnel using "patrol" tactics, though their scope of authority was limited to capturing human chattel. Here's a copy of the 1846 statute authorizing Texas' first slave patrols.

The statute required, "the county court of every county and five men shall upon application, when necessary, appoint a patrol detachment to consist of one captain and not more than five privates nor less than three, for each or any district or company division in the county, whose term of service shall be three months from the time of their appointment: Provided, that one half of the patrol appointed shall be owners of slaves, or their substitutes." So slave owners had to be half of the five-person patrol. Got it.

Patrols were required at least once a month to visit "the negro quarters and all other places in said district, where it may be suspected that slaves are improperly or unlawfully assembled." In 1862, when many adult men were away fighting and fears of black flight to Mexico grew to their zenith, the Legislature expanded the patrol requirement to weekly, according to Randolph Campbell's "Empire for Slavery".

Further, these slave  patrols were empowered to impose summary punishment on black folks when they caught them: "whenever a detachment, or part of one, may find any slave or slaves off the plantation or other premises of his, her or their master, mistress, or employer, strolling about (!) without a pass or other written permission from some person authorized to give the same, said detachment, or part thereof, may give to every slave so offending, any number of lashes not exceeding twenty-five. May search." 

An amendment to lower the maximum number of lashes from 25 to 15 failed. Because, you know, unauthorized "strolling" can be a dangerous thing.

White men could be ordered into service of the slave catchers to pursue runaways or else be "fined a sum not less than five nor more than twenty dollars, for each and every failure or refusal." But that's small potatoes compared to the punishment for engaging in an interracial relationship: one to five years hard labor in the penitentiary:

Beyond the 25 lashes for unauthorized "strolling while black" in state law, local policies could be even harsher.
Bexar County created 'Slave Patrols' and San Antonio passed slave laws that regulated 'the conduct of slaves, free people of color and whites according to the wishes of the planters.' In the City’s ordinance, Section 16 said, 'That it shall be the duty of the Marshal or assistant Marshal upon written request of the owner, or person having legal charge and control of any slave, to whip such slave, not to exceed thirty-nine lashes, upon the bare back, for which he shall be entitled to receive from such owner or person having such charge and control, the sum of one, dollar, to be paid upon the presentation of such request.
I can't tell if a person in San Antonio who'd already received 25 lashes under the police officer's discretion might also receive 39 lashes at the behest of their owner, for which the police officer receives a dollar. But even raising the question shows what a bizarre and twisted law-enforcement culture we're dealing with here.

In some states, slave patrols were also about broader security concerns: "The patrols were sometimes linked with compulsory local militia units intended to protect white settlers from Native Americans, foreign invasion, and other hostile threats. The militia model was used, for example, in South Carolina and Virginia." But not in Texas: "In other places, such as North Carolina and Texas, county courts were charged with forming local committees that were responsible for creating slave patrols to cover their territory."

That's not to say slave catchers targeted only black people; they also were empowered to act against white folks who abetted runaways:
In 1848 laws were passed by the state legislature aimed at punishing those who might help escaping slaves. Anyone helping slaves plan a rebellion would be punished with death. Ship captains assisting runaways would receive from two to ten years in the penitentiary. Anyone who would steal or entice away a slave from his or her owner would receive three to fifteen years of hard labor. Free persons of color who aided a slave in escaping would receive from three to five years in the penitentiary
In larger towns, the slave-catcher apparatus could be quite extensive, especially compared to the meager resources allotted to City Marshals. "San Antonio had slave catchers and patrols in the 1840s, 1850s and beyond, and were given official status as a result of the Texas legislature authorizing slave catchers on May 9, 1846. There were at least 18 official [slave] catcher districts ... in the Bexar County area, and an untold number of racist vigilante slave catchers." According to the statute, each of these districts must contain 4-6 officers, but initially, all 18 in Bexar included six. So that's a sizable security force patrolling black neighborhoods in the Alamo City.

Like some totalitarian dystopia, "a bell that rang at 9:00 pm [in San Antonio which] meant that all blacks had to be off the street at that time or face lashings and jail time." So SA's 108 officers in 18 slave-catcher districts needed only wait until after 9 p.m. then they could arrest every black person in sight.

Grits wants to learn more about these early slave patrols in the Republic of Texas and early-statehood era. If readers know of any sources, please advise. I'm also interested in exploring more deeply the origin stories of the earliest Texas law enforcement agencies. By contrast, they appeared to be relatively small.

Earliest Texas police departments. While Grits cannot claim to have performed a comprehensive search, among local departments (excluding Sheriffs, who have a separate history) the Nacogdoches Police Department, established in 1837, was the oldest police force in Texas your correspondent can identify. I don't know much about their origins, but this description of NPD vice enforcement 1870-1915 provides a window into the racialized nature of 19th century policing in Texas' oldest town.

The city of Galveston was chartered in 1838, and that same year the city established a police department and named a local saloon owner city marshal. According to the GPD 2012 annual report, by 1867, they had 30 officers. This may be overstated, though, as a Twitter commenter provided evidence tha GPD force was still all volunteer and quite small as late as 1861. Grits has yet to identify either the relationship between Galveston PD and early slave catching duties mandated by the Legislature in 1846, nor how GPD's description of the department jibes with the newspaper account of a volunteer force. 

Next, in 1841, the city of Houston hired Daniel Busley as "City Marshal" to run the agency that would become the Houston police department. According to the Houston Police Retired Officers Association, " the Houston Police Department has operated continuously under the governing body of Houston’s elected city official since January 9, 1841." I want to know more about Mr. Busley; he's a mystery so far.

According to that same source, "The office of City Marshal became an elected position in 1843, and the police salaries were paid from town revenues. Records of police duties are vary sparse and the city secretary’s minutes of alderman meetings with the elected mayors are missing from 1846 to October 1865. So, there are no official police records surviving until after the Civil War. Records from 1867 show there were 18 Houston police officers including the elected city marshal."

Beginning in 1866, Isaac C. Lord was credited with turning the Houston City Marshal's office into a "proper" police department. Lord designed their first uniforms and possibly their first badges. Admired locally for his revanchist, pro-Confederate stances, "Lord established a code of conduct and bravely resisted the Union's military control by refusing to give way to an appointed marshal as a replacement." After he was City Marshal, Lord became Houston Mayor in 1875. Similar to Mr. Busley, the internet is virtually bereft of information about Isaac Lord. We'll need to seek out other sources to know what he was about.  

Houston officially transformed the City Marshal's office into a "police department" in 1910, along with many promises of professionalization and reform. They ran though a number of police chiefs over the next few years before, in 1917, the Camp Logan Mutiny erupted. In this amazing and little-discussed episode, black, American soldiers stationed in Houston during World War I mutinied and marched on the Houston Police Department downtown in reaction to incidents of discrimination and police brutality. These were mostly northern black men who had never before had to submit to the indignities and abuses of Jim-Crow apartheid. Several were killed in the fighting and 19 soldiers were hanged after the fact.

This established Houston's reputation as a dangerous place for black folks. A few years later, sitting one county over in the Central Unit in Sugar Land Texas, Leadbelly would pen the words to Midnight Special, "If you're ever in Houston, you better walk right. You better not gamble and you better not fight. 'Cause the Sheriff will arrest you and his boys will bring you down. And you can bet your bottom dollar, you're penitentiary bound."

We've already discussed how the Austin PD was created in 1865 to sweep free black people from the streets after the Civil War freed them. That's what got me thinking about these questions. In Austin:
The Town Marshal system ended in 1924 and was officially replaced by the Austin Police Department. Moreover, the position of head of police also changed from an elected office to one appointed by the mayor. After spending a year in the basement of the county courthouse, the police department moved from City Hall into new quarters at the recently built municipal building in 1938 (its original location being the corner of Bois d’Arc [7th] and Colorado streets)"

It should be mentioned, for quite a while, not a ton of policing was needed. Here's a view of the capitol from the north taken in 1892

Other Texas police agencies weren't founded until a little later. In San Antonio, the Union military provided street-level policing for several years after the Civil War ended, then the Texas Rangers took over before John Dobbins became City Marshal in 1873 and created what was then considered a modern police department. I have so far found virtually nothing about John Dobbins, but will keep looking.

In 1917, SAPD formally became a "police department," began using 8 hour shifts, and in general attempted to professionalize operations. Part of me would love to see case studies of them and Houston, which supposedly transformed its PD in 1910 but couldn't escape a disastrous incident in 1917.

Fort Worth offers us Texas' earliest recorded example of "defunding the police." They created a marshal's office with four employees in 1873 led by E.M. Terrell, but defunded and disbanded it after just one month in operation. Terrell hung on a little longer by himself, then quit. A couple of other men held the job, then the department was re-established in 1876 with "Longhair" John Courtright at the lead, though he only had two employees. I know virtually nothing about these people. Need more research.

Dallas didn't get a police chief (J.C. Arnold) until 1881, in part because it wasn't much of a town before then. It's easy to forget that, as big as Big D is today, back then just a few thousand people lived there. I have found no indication whether there were racial motivations behind the creation of Dallas PD, but we'll dig into it further and see.

El Paso PD may have begun in 1884, but early records including newspaper accounts  were lost in a fire. Much cannot be known about the early days of Sun City law enforcement.

I'm writing this as much or more for me than y'all: I'll be adding to this outline as research continues on the earliest days of Texas law enforcement. I find it fascinating, and hope you do, too.

MORE: On Early Houston Police Chiefs.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Why does the number of Texas police shootings keep increasing?

Here's one for the Suspicious Mysteries segment on the podcast: Why have police shootings in Texas continued to rise when police contacts with criminals and the public are way down?

Just a few years ago, Grits highlighted reports that police shootings had increased over the course of the prior decade. Now, the Texas Justice Initiative analyzed police shooting reports and found that they continued to rise from calendar-years 2016 through 2019.

All of this is happening during a period when traffic enforcement has plummeted compared to not very long ago. The number of fine-only criminal cases filed in municipal courts (Class C misdemeanors) statewide has dropped to well below 1990 levels, when Texas' population was 17 million compared to 30 million now. (See p. 20 of the latest OCA Statistical report.) Overall arrests statewide peaked in 2009 and have declined since then.

Couple these reduced contacts with the public with crime drops across the board since the '90s and the growth of Texas' police force to 80,000 officers, their numbers swelling every day, and the overall picture emerges over the last three decades that ever-more officers are responding to less and less crime.

What do cops do instead? A recent analysis of Austin patrol calls found that 2/3 of officer time was spent responding to non-crimes, often because there was no one else available.

This is not inevitable just because it's how it happens now. When Austin decided to go one year without a police academy, it did so in the context of these long-term trends, with an eye toward more efficient use of its police force. Maybe they'll succeed, maybe not. But this sort of large-scale government waste rooted in mission creep is generally something conservatives criticize. It's an oddity to me that evaluating and then cutting the police budget has become this partisan heresy conservatives are supposed to abhor.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Racism and the origins of Austin policing: A history lesson for the governor

Governor Abbott is upset that a Texas school teacher compared police officers to Klansmen. My guess is that there's more to the story than is being bandied about in social media, but Abbott tweeted:

A teacher in a Texas public school comparing police officers to the KKK is beyond unacceptable.

It’s the opposite of what must be taught.

The teacher should be fired.

Grits is here to push back on "the opposite of what must be taught." If we're going to be honest about the history of policing in Austin and in Texas, it's impossible to avoid its racialized nature.

Last year, as the Austin City Council debated arrests for Class C misdemeanors, Dr. Kevin Foster, a Black Studies professor from UT-Austin, offered up some more-widely-known-than-acknowledged history about the origins of the Austin Police Department while testifying on behalf on Grassroots Leadership.

In the 1860s, when Texas was an exceedingly dangerous place for African Americans, Austin happened to be less so. As a result, African Americans migrated in and joined the black population that was already present. They came seeking safety, autonomy and opportunity. This is why we had Kincheonville, Clarksville, Robertson Hill, Wheatsville, Gregorytown, Red River, Reyna Branch, and a dozen other freedmen communities – each with an autonomous school and church.

And then we messed up. Our response to the Black presence was to build a police force, criminalize Blacks, and control them. In June 1865, the mayor and city council met to deal with “the fact that a large number of Negroes turned loose by their owners are congregating in and about Austin, as also perhaps desperate white men, making it necessary to organize a police force to deal with them.”

And how did we put our new force to use? Council immediately passed an ordinance to deal with “all able-bodied Negroes who have abandoned the service of their employers, for the purpose of idleness, or who are found loitering or rambling about, or idly wandering about the streets or other public thoroughfares.” Today we no longer whip the idle or lease them to the lowest bidder, as we did then, but we do still saddle people with debts that make their escape from homelessness less likely. And we do, by the way, still disproportionately target Black folk.

That history, where the Austin PD was created specifically to enforce new laws aimed at black people after Lincoln freed the slaves, isn't so distant from the roots of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan, despite the governor's protestations. As late as 1959, the department only employed seven black officers, none of whom were empowered to arrest white people.

Don't get me wrong, I think comparing 2020 police officers to Klansmen is unfair and misleading. But a knee on your neck is a knee on your neck, whether the person on top of you is wearing a badge or a hood. Let's not mislead about that, either.

MORE: I got an angry email from a cop who should know better (election season makes people crazy!), so please let me clarify. The point of this post isn't to accuse any peace officer today of racist intent based on what happened in 1865. I can't know your heart and don't care about saving your soul. My point was to acknowledge that, like the Klan and the 1873 state constitution, the Austin Police Department is one of numerous institutions created after the Civil War in Texas for the primary purpose of suppressing black people and denying them basic human rights. That's not an opinion, it's the recorded reason APD was created.

This should come as no surprise. It's why Texas seceded. It's the hidden history underlying everything every Texas 7th grader is taught about the state. (For non-Texans, that's when every kid here takes a year-long Texas history class with a textbook fatter than a Catholic Bible.) Does that mean that's the only thing police do? Of course not.  But in Austin, and probably many other Texas towns, it's why they were created and, to a greater extent than one may care to admit, that history remains embedded in current policies and practices.

To the extent the complaint is institutional racism, not individual intent, how can police confront those embedded harms? On that score, let me recommend Yale law prof Monica Bell's excellent "Anti-Segregation Policing," out in June, which argued that cops enforce segregation by policing neighborhood borders and constructing neighborhood reputations as "high crime" or "racist," all of which rings true for Austin. For Bell, "urban policing involves daily reiteration of definitions of geographic spaces as bounded and racially marked, thus perpetuating residential segregation." Grits intended to write something longer about Bell's article later on, and may still, but mention it here in hopes my unhappy correspondent will read it and perhaps think about the job in new ways.

Grits doesn't pretend to have all the answers, but we won't find them by ignoring history.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

What lessons arise from international perspective on anti-police brutality work?

In my lifetime, the struggle against racism has become internationalized. But only recently has the liberal critique of racism so emphatically extended to include police brutality.

In the George-Floyd era, even though police reform is inherently connected to a broader, national zeitgeist, the work remains inherently local. This makes me wonder, is there anything useful about connecting anti-police brutality work across international lines? Or does the inherently local nature of municipal police forces in the United States require localized solutions? It's clear many of the same issues crop up across the globe, Bill of Rights or no.

The New York Times recently published an article about police brutality in India, citing hundreds of in-custody killings, largely of Muslims and low-caste Hindu. See this disturbing report for more detail.

In the Philippines, the War on Drugs has morphed into a war on the poor.

Mexican police corruption is well known but their police brutality until lately has been less widely discussed. E.g., in Mexico this year, "local police officers in Jalisco state egregiously beat to death Giovanni L√≥pez for allegedly not wearing a face mask as bystanders pleaded with the police to release him," reported the Brookings Institute. Human Rights Watch has called on Mexico to overhaul its police forces.

In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2018, an anti-police brutality activist elected to the local city council named Marielle Franco was murdered, probably by police. (Some activities dubbed "police brutality" in Brazil come closer to death-squads than the sorts of in-the-line-of-duty episodes that dominate American headlines.)

Chinese law enforcement has notoriously been hard on religious and ethnic minorities and, lately, Hong Kong dissidents.

Grits could add more examples, those are just a sampling.

It would be a major task just to identify and contact individual humans across the globe who work on police brutality related human-rights topics. They're an eclectic bunch, and the loudest voice isn't always the most important one. Grits might be able to find people who knew people who knew Mexican anti-police brutality activists. Maybe. But Brazil? India? China? Me and the folks with whom I work are at best a full six degrees of separation from anyone on the front lines there.

And once you identify those folks, then what? It seems like conversation might identify commonalities and differences. But does that imply the need for a big international conference, with all the logistical and financial barriers that entails? Or just the world's most confusing, translator-driven Zoom call? It's hard to imagine how that would work in the COVID era.

Would such a gathering identify a common cause or emphasize hidden differences? If the latter, who are the leaders capable of overcoming such differences?

For that matter, would engaging local leaders in international topics become a distraction since most police reform is local? Would the probably-large philanthropic investment required to bring together a global summit of anti-police brutality advocates be better spent funding local projects? Maybe so.

Journalism could help fill the knowledge gap - and those would be cool reporting gigs! - but there aren't many publications with that sort of global reach. Still, when I read stories like the ones linked above, I want to know more. What arguments are locals making; what's their opposition saying? How does local geography relate to their base and their data? How is everyone resourced? Who are the volunteers and donors and what do they hope to achieve?

I want to understand how people facing often much-more-grave situations in Mexico or Brazil or India are reacting to this moment, the pressures confronting them, and what opportunities they see that we're missing. But it's not just something you can Google.

These are the sorts of things I think about on a Sunday morning.

"It just happened so quick" Backstory from my wife on Austin's long-awaited police budget cuts and not at all a commentary on my love life

On Facebook, my lovely and brilliant better half, Kathy Mitchell, offered up a response to critics of the Austin police budget cuts who just think it was all too sudden. Go read it.

Her main point is likely obvious to regular readers of this modest opuscule: Nearly all the budget cuts and organizational changes in the Austin budget revisions were years in the making, not knee-jerk reactions to recent protests. The protests changed the politics at city council to let a bunch of things happen at once. But if you were involved in any of the issues on the ground, none of it was "sudden."

For example, while no officers were laid off as a result of budget cuts, and APD will have the same number of officers in its employ on October 1st, when the budget takes effect, as it will the day before, the budget does assume the department will hold no new cadet classes in the coming fiscal year.

Did they do that because protesters chanted "Defund the police!" outside their homes? That certainly gave them political motivation. But it was last December when the Austin City Council voted to delay the next cadet academy to give a consultant time to evaluate its programming. That consultant later quit and her evaluations were all unflattering. The December vote in turn reacted to longstanding problems with the training academy that local advocates have been pushing to change. Indeed, when the decision was made in late April to ask the city manager to fire Chief Brian Manley, one of the stated reasons was a lack of confidence that the department would meaningfully alter how it trains young officers under his purview. 

Then, the George-Floyd protests empowered local-reform-movement allies on the City Council to delay the next academy until the curriculum is evaluated and transformed away from its "warrior cop" mentality evinced now. Otherwise, we're recruiting more officers to send through a problematic system. But change at that scale takes time. The department has yet to produce a promised audit of the training academy and, once that's out, it will then take time to develop a new curriculum.

Any reduction in total force would come from regular retirements and attrition (and generate significant savings, one might add). But it's a temporary thing; the City Council delayed cadet classes for a year, they didn't abandon them forever.

The city manager had hoped to rush through superficial curriculum changes, but that train has slowed and, behind the scenes, few honestly imagine the evaluation could be completed, much less new curricula developed, before next spring, assuming all goes well. Even if it were possible to begin a class toward the end of the fiscal year, a cadet class takes eight months, so no new officers would come onboard until FY22, at the earliest. Because: math. Almost all of the $21 million in savings comes from the delayed cadet classes.

The point is, this didn't just happen overnight; it was already in the works before George Floyd died, but the longer delay didn't have its votes on council until after protests in May and June. That's just one example, Kathy runs through many others. Another Facebook post runs through the absurdist economics behind housing the 14 horses for the Austin PD mounted unit, determining it would cost less to rent each horse a luxury hotel room downtown for the next five years than it would to build a proposed urban barn for them, the cost of which has blown far past past bond budgets.

Down the line, each of the big changes in the Austin budget has a unique, often years-long history. Removing the crime lab from APD was first suggested after mismanagement on Art Acevedo's watch caused the DNA lab to founder, leading the Department of Public Safety to take over the lab then close it. Austin hired an Ivy-League think tank called the Quattrone Center to examine the question and they recommended options for making the lab independent. That's also a national best practice suggested in 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences and is a reform prominently promoted by the national Innocence Project. The Houston Forensic Science Center removed crime lab services from police purview and may do the same for evidence processing.

The 911 call center is another. Regular readers know that, last year, the city council agreed to spend money on a program to divert mental-health calls from police to medical personnel. But upon implementation, only a few people were diverted. Meanwhile, we now know that 2/3 of Austin PD officer patrol time is spent responding to non-criminal complaints. Smart people in and out of local government have spent a lot of time trying to figure out why that is. The problem is cultural: 911 sends cops to everything. Making it independent lets the city merge it with 311 and put people in charge of  deployment decisions whose conception of public safety is broader than "send a cop."

I could go on; see Kathy's post for more. But the broader point remains: None of these changes are sudden or arose in reaction to recent protests. Each had been proposed before and has its own history. That even goes for Council Member Jimmy Flannigan's last-minute proposal to tear down the 7th Street police headquarters to create a "gateway" to East Austin. The police headquarters are old, outdated, awkwardly located, inconvenient for officers who mostly live in the suburbs, and police brass have long considered it inadequate to their needs. 

In a different context, if the proposal wasn't so laden with symbolic zeal, police might have been happy to embrace the idea of literally blowing up the police department and rebuilding substations elsewhere. Heck, they might still, making lemonade out of lemons. Regardless, that doesn't mean Austin won't hold a big party on Demolition Day.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Dallas police chief receives lesson on post-#GeorgeFloyd political landscape

The Public Safety Committee at the Dallas City Council this week lambasted the city's first black-woman chief over DPD's 85-page "after action report" following the George Floyd protests, reported the Dallas News. Watch the videos embedded in that story, some of the council members were remarkably angry.

Council members called the report called one-sided and biased, as well as "absolutely disingenuous and not fair." Repeatedly, council members said they'd "lost trust" in her leadership. Ouch! They're not wrong about the report's one-sidedness, but reading it, even those harsh criticisms don't convey the smug, self-satisfied tone of the document. "Oblivious" is the word I'd use to describe it.

The most notable thing about DPD's narrative of events was that it routinely described unnamed protesters engaging in violence or attacking officers in forceful, direct language. But violence by police against protesters was described in the passive voice: just something that happened, not something police did to anybody. The juxtaposition was striking.

Also striking: The "lessons learned" by Dallas PD in the report were largely benign and self congratulating. Well, gosh darn it, I shouldn't have tried quite so hard or cared quite so much.

Add to that, at least two members of the Public Safety Committee said they were personally present at events described and heatedly disputed the report's accounts. Further, council members said episodes of police violence that were widely documented in social-media video were ignored or downplayed, while the account is filled with unverifiable threats (e.g., a protester downtown with a rifle hunting cops) that never came to pass.

My takeaway from this remarkable episode: Chief Renee Hall's "lessons learned" list needs to expand.  Like her counterparts in Austin and Seattle, the political earth moved underneath her feet and she clearly failed to receive the memo.

In a way, I empathize with her. Generations of white male chiefs in Dallas have gotten away with feeding the council and the press a load of horse shit and insisting they eat it. They always have done so before. Now a black woman is chief and they're going to hold her accountable?

But as my octogenarian father likes to say, "Fair is a place where they judge pigs." The George-Floyd protests were a polarizing experience for everyone involved and the DPD report came off as one-sided, defensive, and tone deaf. 

Not very long ago, it would have been enough.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Houston civiliain-review fail, docs vs. 'less-lethal' munitions, Ranger revisionism, and other stories

Let's clear a few browser tabs and share a few odds and ends that deserve Grits readers attention:

FBI called to investigate SAPD use of force: The San Antonio police chief requested the FBI investigate after a pair of excessive force incidents, including one where an officer placed his knee on an arrestee's neck while he was handcuffed and not resisting. Regular readers know that some 70 percent of SAPD officers fired by the chief end up back on the force thanks to the arbitration process under the Texas civil service code.

Civilian review board in Houston not working: The "Independent Police Oversight Board" in Houston is an abject failure, says a long-time member in his resignation letter. Not only is the board disempowered by its fundamental structure and limits on its authority, mayoral appointments to the body have also hindered oversight: "far too many Board members are uncritical boosters of the police and policing, sometimes shamelessly so, which hinders their ability to fairly evaluate officer conduct."

First case overturned based on corrupt narc's dubious testimony. A man named Otis Mallett has had his old drug conviction cleared because the sole testimony against him came from Gerald Goines, a corrupt Houston PD narcotics officer who may have set up scores of innocent defendants including, potentially, Houston native George Floyd, who was murdered by police in Minneapolis. His was the first of some 160 cases identified by District Attorney Kim Ogg that relied solely on Goines' testimony to secure a conviction.

Firing of deputy upheld for assisting with murder: "A Harris County law enforcement board on Wednesday upheld the firing of a former sheriff’s deputy who helped restrain a man as her husband choked him to death outside of a Houston-area Denny’s restaurant," reported the Houston Chronicle. Her husband was convicted of murder as a result of the off-duty incident, so she's definitely getting off light.

Docs say limit "less lethal" munitions use: Doctors from the Dell-Seton medical school in Austin warned in the New England Journal of Medicine against law enforcement's use of "less lethal" munitions against protesters, saying injuries they cause can be more severe than frequently portrayed. 

Ranger Revisionism: I'm glad the Texas Rangers' history of violent repression is now getting more attention thanks to the new book by former Dallas News reporter Doug Swanson. The Rangers are an odd lot. Often portrayed as the creme de la creme of Texas law enforcement, in practice they have long struggled to update their practices and culture to the modern era. Some 50 years ago, a state advisory commission to the US Commission on Civil Rights recommended they be disbanded "because they had engendered 'fear and bitterness' among Mexican‐Americans." I don't expect either the Legislature or the baseball team in Arlington to change their names in the wake of these renewed complaints. But the debates are a welcome antidote to often hagiographic histories of the Rangers in the past.

School cops unneeded for safety, worsen school-to-prison pipeline: A new study finds that school resource officers worsen the school-to-prison pipleline and that all the additional safety benefits from SROs may be had by calling in outside help in case of emergency. SROs failed to prevent mass shootings at schools, researchers found. 

Community based crime reduction: As we discuss alternative ways to promote public safety beyond police, it's worth mentioning that community-based nonprofits focused on violence prevention have a strong track record of reducing crime.

Video conferencing in courts lowers failure-to-appear rates: The flip side to arguments against holding trials and other criminal procedures on Zoom: Apparently courts using video proceedings have lower failure to appear rates.

Study finds MSM coverage absolves police violence: This blog has long argued that the mainstream media covers police violence in ways that absolve and abet the most  egregious police behaviors. A decade ago this study analyzed coverage from 23 outlets and found that "Newspaper coverage of police-perpetrated homicides may reflect and promote public and official tolerance for police violence." In particular, "Most articles, subtly drawing upon iconic images of police professionals and vigilantes, cast victims of police killings as physical and social threats and situate police actions within legitimate institutional roles." (I know a 10-year old study isn't "news," but flagging it here so I can find it again.)

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Police evidence rooms another function we don't need cops to perform

We've been lately discussing functions of police that don't require a badge or gun to perform that might reasonably be removed from law enforcement's purview, and Grits can't believe I hadn't considered the evidence room!

In H-Town, the independent Houston Forensic Science Center will consolidate evidence management for both city and county law enforcement, including taking over evidence management from HPD, they reported in their latest newsletter:

Property rooms have historically been managed and overseen by law enforcement. But with greater demand on police and more emphasis on community policing and engagement, removing this high-risk, low-reward enterprise from their responsibility will allow them to focus on the jobs they were hired and trained to accomplish, namely serving and protecting the community.

“This is not about assigning blame. This is about improving parts of the justice system that have the broadest impact on all stakeholders,” Dr. Stout said.

“Evidence handling impacts everyone and everything from law enforcement to crime laboratories to prosecutors, courts, defendants and victims. It is time to ask the hard question of whether this is in fact a law enforcement function or if all parties would be better served placing that logistical responsibility elsewhere in the system.”

HFSC CEO Peter Stout added in his own letter:

property management is a high-risk component of the justice system. I see the nationwide struggle with implications of property management issues. In my mind, that means the obligation to pursue making this work for the entire system outweighs the prospect of the painful, hard work it will require. 

In terms of why potentially HFSC: Part of it is ease and convenience. HFSC is already independently structured with a board of directors whose bylaws allow for an expansion to include representatives from the county. HFSC has learned from hard experience what it takes to combine services and move oversight. To gain additional efficiencies that will have a significant impact on all lab operations we must tackle the weaknesses in evidence. That brings us to why property? HFSC, like every other part of the justice system, is enormously dependent on quality evidence to ensure the integrity of subsequent analysis. The testing we do is only as good as the evidence we receive. Labs, prosecutors and the courts bear the bulk of the “cost” of poor evidence quality. As the reliance on scientific results has grown, the interrelation between laboratory, crime scene investigation and evidence handling has become acutely apparent. Ever increasingly, once officers tag and bag an item it is no longer simply THEIR evidence. It moves to the lab, to the courts, to the prosecutors, to the defense. Historically, property management and evidence handling functions have been placed under the purview of law enforcement. Maybe now is the time to ask the question: is it the right place for this function? 

This blog has covered evidence-room failings for years, particularly in Houston. More than a decade ago Grits reported the head of the national professional association for property-room managers comparing them to "black holes" and declaring they were treated in most departments like a "red-headed stepchild." 

We've seen DNA evidence ruined and potentially innocent defendants remain incarcerated because DNA was unavailable for testing, as well as biological evidence spoiled before crime-lab analysts could work their way through years-long backlogs to test it. With the advent of so-called "touch DNA," evidence management all of a sudden has become a rigorous and complicated business. You can't just leave it to the cop assigned there because the brass didn't want them on the streets. Or, I guess you can, and agencies surely have, but it's not a great idea.

Historically, property-room assignments have sometimes been used as punishment within the police bureaucracy. But evidence handling is a complicated and supremely important task that deserves professionalization. Everyone relies on the property room: Not just police but also crime labs, prosecutors, trial courts, appellate courts, the press, researchers, historians. The validity of evidence is central to the public's acceptance of outcomes in the courtroom, underlying the very foundational basis for trust in the judicial system. 

When Grits was policy director at the Innocence Project of Texas, I got to work on legislation setting minimum standards governing DNA evidence management by police property rooms. That experience opened my eyes to the more widespread flaws: DNA posed unique challenges to police evidence managers, but they also weren't performing the basics well. Handing it off to civilians makes tons of sense.

This is one of those areas, like crime labs, where spinning off evidence rooms may not necessarily result in cost savings. Last I was told, the evidence rooms at every major PD in Texas suffered from sometimes-severe space shortages in addition to fumbling with the massive logistics of the job. An audit last year of the Denton PD property room found they were stuffed to the gills and "averaged about a 39% disposal rate over the last ten years," constantly struggling to make room for new evidence. Exacerbating the problem, Denton didn't have adequate destruction documentation, a deficiency which presents "an unacceptably high risk of theft."

In a place as big as Harris County serving so many different agencies, they'll need substantial facilities and computerized, probably RFID or bar-code-based inventory systems to manage the volume. It may cost more in the short term to do it well. But the long-term costs of doing it badly are too high to bear.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Abbott: Punish cities that won't maximize police spending

Today, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott proposed legislation to cap revenue for cities that reduce police-department budgets.

Grits finds this bizarre on several levels. First, I thought conservatives believed revenue caps were a good thing, not a sanction applied to liberal cities for doing something they don't like.

Indeed, I'm old enough to remember when conservatives favored less spending and smaller government. Now the governor wants to punish cities that reduce spending. We've passed all the way through the looking glass, it seems.

Austin cut its police budget by less than five percent. By contrast, Gov. Abbott, the Lt. Governor and the House Speaker recently told state agencies they all must cut their budgets by 5% because of declining tax revenue in the COVID era. Isn't what's good for the goose good for the gander?

Finally, cities around the state face budget shortfalls because of COVID.  Politico reported recently, "Nearly half of 258 police chiefs and sheriffs surveyed by the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum in July said they were experiencing or expected to see budget cuts in the upcoming fiscal year, most in the 5-10 percent range." In Texas, revenue caps the Legislature already approved add to that pressure.

"Austin bashing" is one thing - folks in the capital city have come to expect that - but are you really going to punish every small town that must cut its police budget because tax revenue declined thanks to the virus?

Ten years ago, Texas Republicans were all about "less government" and "local control." Now Abbott wants to micromanage municipal budgets to keep spending high. This debate is becoming downright surreal.

Spurious arguments against ATX budget cuts show backlash weaker than expected

Grits certainly expected a backlash, but somehow I didn't anticipate the reaction to Austin's police budget cuts and transfers to be so, well, stupid.

As discussed the other day, the Austin City Council cut $21 million out of a $440 million budget, or less than 5%. They transferred several functions, including the crime lab and the Internal Affairs division, out of the department. And they created a process to evaluate nearly $50 million in additional police functions that may still be discontinued, adjusted, or transferred to other agencies.

The group Voices of Austin - part of the baby-boomer backlash against reform this blog has discussed before - issued a mass email pretending all the items on the transfer and re-evaluate list were simply being immediately cut. Yes, it would be irresponsible if the City Council had simply eliminated the city's crime lab or its 911-call center. But that didn't happen. So what should we take from that assessment except that VoA thinks Austinites are ignorant enough to fall for blatant lies and craven demagoguery?

Some GOP critics, like the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Chuck Devore, want to pretend that $100,000 in transportation services to abortion clinics in a different part of the budget (this is Austin, after all) discredits adjustments to the police budget. Certainly, if you're the type of person for whom the abortion battles are the end-all-be-all of politics, and you already consider yourself pro-life, you won't like that $100,000 expenditure. But it's a tiny fraction of the more than $1 billion city budget and for all intents and purposes, unrelated to the policing debate.

Devore goes on to complain that $6.5 million of the reinvestment funds will go to house homeless people, then pivots to launch an embittered screed against homeless folks living on the streets:

downtown Austin has become like a ghost town due to COVID, as white-collar professionals do much of their work remotely, only making quick trips into the city for key meetings. This has left Austin’s burgeoning homeless population short on people to ask for money. The result is increasingly dystopian, as the homeless frequently outnumber office workers on the sidewalk—with the latter trying to find a place to eat that’s still open or quickly making their way to the parking garage, while the former call after them for drug and alcohol money.
To the extent that's true (and it's in fact quite exaggerated), Grits would think one would want homeless people housed elsewhere to provide these office workers some relief. But somehow, freeing up $6.5 million to confront exactly the problem he's complaining about is a bad thing. Go figure.

At this point, critics are just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. I'm guessing, in the state's most liberal city, the abortion attacks won't draw the sort of widespread ire for which the naysayers are hoping. And the homelessness fight in this town is over. Devore's and VoA's allies at the local GOP failed to get enough signatures for their much-ballyhooed ballot initiative, and recent polling indicates a plurality of Austinites (48-40) think the city council is moving the city in the right direction.

Here's the reality these critics failed to confront. Unlike in, say, Seattle, Austin's new budget does not lay off a single officer. It delays new cadet classes until a just-launched evaluation of the curriculum at the police academy can be completed and changes implemented. The problems at the academy are real and significant; there's no way they'll complete the curriculum revamping in time to hold a new cadet class soon, anyway. All the city council did was acknowledge that fact and adjust the budget accordingly. 

In recent years, the department has asked the council to budget scores of new positions they knew they couldn't fill because cadet classes kept coming up short. So there were already about 150 unfilled positions at the department, and the city council declined to add another 30 empty slots to mix. They're not eliminating officers, though the department may downsize slightly via attrition. 

If this had been another city department like Public Works, eliminating vacant positions which had gone unfilled for years with little prospect for filling them would be entirely uncontroversial.

Oddly, Devore's blog post included a graphic that, to me, emphasizes the extent to which crime rates  and force size are at most only loosely related:

I can't vouch for these numbers, but let's assume they're correct: Houston and Dallas have quite a few more officers per 100,000 people than Austin. Do you think they'd be interested in swapping crime rates?

The fact is, many different elements combine to determine crime rates and the role of the police isn't as big a factor as the union and their champions would like to pretend. The reasons Austin is safer than Houston have little to do with policing (our last chief is now their chief) and much more to do with economic and cultural factors with which law enforcement has little involvement.

The total cut to APD's budget comes to less than 5%, with no layoffs. By contrast, Texas' Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Speaker of the House recently ordered all state agencies to slash 5% from their budgets, as happens nearly every time revenue comes up short. Those agencies are told to make up the difference by trimming fat and a reducing inefficiencies. But when the city of Austin does the same thing at the police department, the sky is falling and all the fiscal conservatives are opposed to budget cutting. Somehow, it doesn't seem credible.

Despite all the weeping and gnashing of teeth, in the scheme of things the unremittingly stupid nature of the backlash is good news. I expected it to be more substantive and less whiny. And it would be, if the critics had valid arguments to lean on. It's pretty clear they don't.

Monday, August 17, 2020

What's in Texas' proposed 'George Floyd Act'?

Last week, while your correspondent was focused on Austin's budget battles, in Houston the Texas Legislature's Black Caucus unveiled what's been dubbed the "George Floyd Act," which will be carried in the House by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson and in the upper chamber by Sen. Royce West. See initial coverage:

Readers may recall that Grits had suggested several reforms that one might reasonably include in such an eponymous bill that related to George Floyd's story, and some of those ideas made it into the legislation. Those include reforming use of force standards to narrow when violence may be used, and instilling a requirement that force be proportionate to the circumstances. The bill would also codify a "duty to intervene" for police officers, and require corroboration for police testimony in drug cases. 

In addition to the "duty to intervene," the bill would establish a "duty" for officers to identify themselves unless it's "impracticable" to do so, and create a "duty to render aid" when people are injured in their custody.

Another key element in the proposed George Floyd Act: The bill would create a new cause of action in Texas for civil-rights violations and eliminate the doctrine of "qualified immunity," an invention of the federal courts, for state-level civil-rights suits. Colorado became the first state to pass such a law in June. This is an element about which George Floyd's family was particularly passionate, say advocates who've spoken to them.

With a couple of exceptions, most of the changes Grits had suggested to the state-civil-service code governing disciplinary processes were not included in the bill, except for a requirement that agencies have a "disciplinary matrix" defining allowed punishments for various types of misconduct. This is a reform your correspondent has been promoting for years and has been identified as a key corrective to arbitrators overturning chief's decisions to fire police officers - if the punishment falls within a prescribed range, arbitrators must consider it per se reasonable. 

The bill also includes takes up unfinished business from the 2017 Sandra Bland Act. A passage stripped out of that bill would have eliminated most arrests for Class C misdemeanors, then in 2019 legislation to that effect was famously shot down by police unions and their allies. That language has been included in this legislation, although I'd also expect one or more bills to be filed focused exclusively on that subject.

The proposed George Floyd Act does not address many of the issues related to police disciplinary processes under the state civil service code, but I'm told some of the items Grits had recommended on that front may be proposed in stand-alone legislation.

The Texas Legislature doesn't convene until January, and even then the bill can't be taken up until March unless Gov. Greg Abbott declares it an emergency item. Many of these ideas have been proposed in the past, which raises the question, have the terms of debate changed sufficiently in recent months to overcome police-union opposition? (Unions are virtually the only critics of most of these reforms.) No  one can say for sure, but Grits will be excited to find out.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Austin cuts police budget, makes Internal Affairs and 911 independent, launches re-imagining

Honestly, Grits never thought this day would come.

The City of Austin just approved a budget cutting more than $20 million from police, shifting functions totaling ~$80 million (including Internal Affairs, the 911 call center, and the forensics lab) out of the department, and committed to "re-imagining" how they spend another $50 million. (See this reporter's Twitter thread for details.) The council declined to cut another ~$20 million advocates had identified for immediate reductions.

As sort of a symbolic cherry on top, Councilmember Jimmy Flannigan added an amendment calling for demolition of the Austin PD headquarters, freeing up valuable downtown real estate and using the land to create a new "gateway to East Austin." This I can promise you: The day that building falls, Austin's going to have a BIG party!

Elsewhere in Texas, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio have all increased police budgets in the wake of the George-Floyd protests, and few other cities except Seattle have enacted IRL budget reductions. So this is a big deal. In a quarter century tracking Austin' police budget, not only have I never seen it go down, it's the first time in ages we haven't seen year-over-year increases.

Some advocates have expressed disappointment that cuts weren't deeper. But for anyone who's ever been involved in the city budget process, what just happened was nothing short of momentous.

Though the city budget on paper tops a billion dollars, typically, it comes to the city council pre-baked, with at most a few million dollars available for discretionary spending on anything, public-safety-related or otherwise. So actually cutting more than $20 million and spending it on other government functions represents a remarkable turn of events. The Austin Justice Coalition's Chas Moore opined in an email after the vote:
The $20-plus million in immediate divestment is of course less than we hoped Council could cut. But it was enough to fund a big expansion of EMS services, fully fund alternative first responders for mental health related calls, provide a much needed shelter for victims of family violence, increase homeless services, offer programs to support people trying to reintegrate after incarceration, add new violence prevention services and give harm reduction a chance to help people struggling with addiction
Not a bad day's work! 

Some of the functions being moved out of the police department will also make a big difference. For starters, separating the Internal Affairs division investigating police misconduct will boost their independence and reduce administrators' ability to corrupt the disciplinary process. This would have been a major victory if it'd been the only thing that happened!

Similarly, removing the 911 call center from APD could turn out to be a pivotal moment. Right now, nearly everyone who calls 911 has a police officer sent in response, even though nearly 80% of calls aren't related to crime at all, and patrol officers spend 2/3 of their time on non-crime-related activities. To the extent that new management deploys different resources in response to 911 calls, over time this could result in significantly reducing Austin's policing footprint. Said Chas Moore, "There is no doubt that we send police to calls where we don’t need them because the police department runs the call center."

Ending the department's contract for license-plate readers is a huge blow against police surveillance. It's a small thing in the context of budget numbers, but significant in terms of eliminating problematic police practices. The readers are primarily used to troll for traffic warrants, arresting people for unpaid ticket debt or using them to justify non-consensual searches. These techniques have been implicated in racial disparities in APD drug enforcement and exacerbating debtors-prison practices.

Finally, long-time Grits readers know that making the crime lab independent is an important reform touted by the national Innocence Project and experts at the National Academy of Sciences. Again, simply achieving that much would have been a significant accomplishment in and of itself, but the achievement almost gets lost amidst other changes in the budget.

While the city cut less than many advocates had called for, I must admit, this result exceeded Grits' expectations. On Twitter, I suggested that perhaps the City Manager did us a favor by not firing police Chief Brian Manley. "After their unanimous 'no confidence' vote, it gave the [City Council] the freedom to ignore and disempower him."

Regardless, politics is the art of the possible and none of this would have been possible just a few months ago. This was only the first step in a long process, but today was a big day.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Cuts for cops, prison cells that won't lock, protesters punished but not prosecuted, the relationship between urban planning and police violence, and other stories

Here are a few odds and ends that merit Grits readers' attention:

Budget Cuts for Austin Cops: Possibly as early as today, the Austin City Council is poised to cut funding to law enforcement by more than $23 million and remove numerous functions out from under the police department. The most controversial measure would eliminate new cadet classes for fiscal year 2021 so that training can be revamped before bringing more officers onboard. KUT had the best coverage so far, along with The Appeal.  Chief Brian Manley is fighting the changes but he's a flawed messenger. Despite widespread calls to "defund the police," Austin appears to be the only major city in Texas and one of the only large towns nationwide to reduce the police department budget significantly. Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio are all increasing police budgets.

Many Texas Prison-Cell Doors Don't Lock: The Marshall Project's Keri Blakinger reported that the locks on cells in many Texas prisons are easily defeated with materials like cardboard and bar soap. It's been this way for years. Normally, incentives to avoid punishment and basic institutional norms keep prisoners from leaving their cells. But long-term COVID lockdowns are pushing people to the brink and causing more episodes. At the Briscoe Unit in July, "dozens of prisoners swarmed a day room and took a 21-year-old guard hostage for more than two hours." To Grits, this story speaks to the illusion of "control" and the extent mass incarceration only works if imprisoned people cooperate. 

Punished but not prosecuted: Cops misusing so-called "less lethal" munitions has been a recurring theme of this summer of protest. The Dallas News captured the moment when a riot-gear-clad shot improperly shot a protester with a pepper-ball gun on the side of the road. "Combined with other photographs and witness accounts, the image tells the story of how police stormed peaceful protesters who, in the end, were not prosecuted for anything." MORE: DPD Internal Affairs is now investigating the episode, reported the Dallas News.

On the nexus between urban planning and police violence: To what extent does urban planning encourage aggressive, racist policing? “Historically, planners have been responsible for manifestations of institutional racism including redlining and the construction of freeways and toxic industrial development in poor and Black and Brown neighborhoods, among many others,” according to a letter to the planners' professional association. In a poignant example, the family of Breonna Taylor out of Louisville think her death implicates that town's land-use policies and priorities. "A lawsuit filed on behalf of Taylor’s family accuses the city of engaging in aggressive police tactics in pursuit of a redevelopment project." Said the complaint: “The origin of Breonna’s home being raided by police starts with a political need to clear out a street for a large real estate development project and finishes with a newly formed, rogue police unit violating all levels of policy, protocol and policing standards.”

'A Sense of Home in Prison?': I enjoyed this essay on the "sensory experience" of prison, check it out.

Abolitionist Horizons: We've heard a lot of debate over what people really mean when they call for abolishing police, since so few of the necessary, prerequisite services exist now to supplant them. I've read two pieces this week that contribute significantly to that debate. The first is a 2017 piece from the Boston Review by Tracy Meares arguing that policing should be reimagined as a "public good," to use economists' jargon. That framework makes it easier to identify vectors along which public safety can be pursued outside of a law-enforcement paradigm, avoiding the tautological reasoning that causes police to be deployed in response to every social problem. Grits also liked the framing in this article of working toward an "abolitionist horizon." Identifying abolition as a goal can help determine next steps, even if everyone acknowledges the next steps won't achieve that goal. The future we're working for in many ways hasn't even been imagined yet. As Grits said on the podcast recently, things got this bad because of bad laws and policies passed over several decades, there's no magic bullet that will solve the problem overnight.

Empowering Sex Workers to Prevent Violence: There has been much written lately about non-policing alternatives to responding to violence, so Grits was interested to learn of a radical program in Nicaragua in which sex workers have been empowered by the judiciary as dispute mediators. There's a documentary film from 2017 about the program, but I can't figure out where/how to access it. I'd definitely like to learn more.

Jailbreak(s): I want someone to make a movie based on Veneida/Vernieda Smith's early life. Grits ran across her story researching jail breaks after reading the Keri Blakinger story on prison locks linked above.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Don't be fooled by the shiny new object of online jury trials

This guest blog post was authored by Kathryn Dyer, clinical professor at UT Law’s Criminal Defense Clinic (for identification purposes only) and long-time public defender.

Tomorrow, Travis County will hold what is being billed as “the nation’s first binding criminal jury trial held via video conference,” i.e. trial by Zoom. The case, which is for a speeding ticket, is considered “low-level” because as a Class C misdemeanor in Texas it does not carry the possibility of jail time as punishment and will be appealable to a county court. For this reason, Travis County Justice of the Peace Nicholas Chu thinks it’s a good place to start virtual jury trials since in-person jury trials are generally suspended (the Texas Supreme Court has basically banned in-person jury trials until October 1, a deadline that’s been extended multiple times during the pandemic). David Slayton at the Office of Court Administration sees the start of virtual jury trials in Texas as an indication that Texas is “leading the way.” 

This trial brings us into a brave new world, and it is disturbing how little dissent and concern it is garnering. In-person interaction with the jury and witnesses are essential to mounting a zealous defense under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Sixth Amendment provides people charged with crimes numerous protections, meant to be critical checks on the government’s power to take you from society and put you in prison, including the rights to a public trial by an impartial jury and the right to confront your accuser.

Imagine the feeling you get when you stand up to speak in front of a room full of people, whether at a conference, a funeral, or even jury duty. That feeling you get – it might be a pit in your stomach, sweat on your hands, or the slight trip over the words as you say them – is a critical tool lawyers use throughout a criminal trial.  

This is key to empaneling an impartial jury. At the beginning of a trial, lawyers question potential jurors to determine whether there are biases that make a person ineligible to serve as a fair juror. In-person questioning allows the lawyers and judge to determine whether a person would be able to fulfill that duty, including by picking up on verbal answers and non-verbal clues. 

During the trial, the person charged has a right to confront witnesses, and at least two of the reasons behind the Confrontation Clause require this be in-person: the witness accusing must be able to look the person accused in the eye, and in many cases make an identification; and the jury is required to make a credibility determination about witnesses. 

The credibility determination that the jury will make comes, in part, from the witness being under pressure to tell the truth. The witness is sworn to tell the truth under oath in front of the judge, jury, and person charged. It requires the witness testify from memory about what they saw. When a witness is testifying over an online platform, with a click of a button, they can turn off the video image of the person they are accusing, the judge, or the public. A witness can read a script behind the computer, read or refer to notes, or otherwise pre-write their testimony.

Other Sixth Amendment rights are also hindered by virtual jury trials, including the right to put on a defense. During a trial, lawyers and clients regularly confer with each other about what is happening and next steps. On an online platform, each player is on their own island with almost no ability to privately communicate while maintaining attorney-client privilege. Further, lawyers on both sides need to make objections to prevent impermissible questions, answers, or evidence. That is nearly impossible to do in real time over a virtual platform because of mute buttons, delays in video feeds, and the like.

Further, the digital divide will mean the “haves,” those technologically able to access trials and jury duty, will be able to participate effectively, and the “have nots,” those without such access, will not. Jury service and public observation require the technological capability to stream the trial without interruption using high speed internet. According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 10% of Americans do not use the internet, and over 25% do not have access to home broadband internet. This produces yet another barrier to serving on juries and observing public trials, bedrocks of this country’s legal system.

Even if Travis County has agreed to provide iPads for those potential jurors without proper equipment, not everyone has high-speed internet access or a room that is completely private as required. We saw that in the first virtual jury trial (notably, a non-binding civil matter where liberty was not at issue), there were distractions from the case and even a person who walked away from the proceedings to take a phone call.

Finally, research shows that people charged with crimes are treated more harshly when they appear via video instead of in person. When jurors, judges, and witnesses don’t have the ability to look each other in the eye, we can expect harsher, less fair outcomes.

Innovation should not replace constitutional bedrocks. The right to a speedy, public trial must innovate in the time of a pandemic, but not to eliminate the in-person jury trial. It is about making adjustments to ensure safe, in-person jury trials occur without forgoing fundamental rights.