Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Want to improve police oversight? Settle in for the long haul

The "Independent Police Oversight Board" for the Houston Police Department arguably represents a worst-case scenario when it comes to reform efforts: It took years for advocates to install and, by providing a veneer of meaningless oversight, probably does more to obscure episodes of police misconduct than illuminate problems.

OTOH, it also represents a common path for police-reform efforts: Indeed, I've never seen it work otherwise. Seldom does the first wave of reforms installed achieve their goals because police have been so powerful over the years, they usually can keep the most important changes from happening. So frequently a second round of reform is needed, maybe a third, once the board has been installed, operated for a few years, and its shortcomings become clear. 

In H-Town, they are now clear. Houston city council members have suggested an aggressive reform package aimed at improving oversight and empowering the board. Mayor Sylvester Turner appointed a task force to propose its own reforms, which are significant but not as aggressive as the council members wanted. (That said, the mayor doesn't always back the findings of his various task forces.)

There is no short-term fix on these questions. It always takes years, potentially decades, never weeks or months. Ask Johnny Mata, who's been at this work for more than four decades, was involved in getting the board created initially, and now spends his waking hours trying to improve it.

We see this at the Legislature: They passed the initial law requiring gathering of racial-profiling data in 2001, didn't begin collecting the reports from departments statewide until 2009, and finally acknowledged the data's shortcomings and made it more robust in 2017. Even then, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement screwed up implementation of the 2017 legislation, failing to collect racial breakdowns for most of the so-called "racial profiling" dataset. It's being fixed now and by 2021 - twenty years after Texas' racial profiling law first passed! - Texas' data will be robust enough to identify discriminatory practices.

Your correspondent spent five years involved in a campaign culminating in creation of Austin's Police Monitor and review board around the turn of the century; after the police union gutted it in closed-door negotiations, the system was a disaster, and we weren't able to fix the biggest problems until 18 years later, when the Austin Justice Coalition won changes to the police-union contract. It's still far from perfect, but it did significantly expand complaint intake, putting it in civilian hands and providing de-identified, public accounts of alleged misconduct. We now see written reprimands in addition to cases where officers are suspended, thanks to changes in APD's 2018 contract.

So, we're getting useful information out of the process and the Office of Police Oversight has become an occasional counterweight to the police union and anti-reform police administrators who'd prefer to avoid the topic.

That's far from the vision of an independent board that investigates and punishes officers outside of law enforcement's purview. But it's not clear to me anyone has completely dis-empowered the police hierarchy in departmental discipline, anywhere, nor am I certain it's a good idea. Police management may frequently disappoint when it comes to punishing misconduct, but they're 1) closest to the problem and 2) the only ones empowered under state law to do it (at least, for Ch. 143 civil service cities like Austin and Houston). 

Grits has come to believe that empowering police managers to manage personnel is a necessary pre-requisite to holding them accountable, as counter-intuitive as that may seem. I may believe Austin Police Chief Brian Manley should be fired, but I generally want his position to become more empowered within the disciplinary process, at least when it comes to his ability to punish and fire wrong-doers among his officers.

Making sure that, when a bad cop is fired, they don't repeatedly get back on the force is an important aspect of cleaning up a department. For the time being, state law forbids empowering a civilian review board to take over that task in Houston or Austin, and the chance of Greg Abbott or Dan Patrick approving legislation to change that fall somewhere along the shady line between "slim" and "none."

Protesters this summer wanted things "now," but as budget battles nearly everywhere but Austin proved, police reform doesn't typically happen on a "now" timeline. And even in Austin, what really happened is a process was created that will take years to fully implement.

So yes, by all means, fight for police reform. But settle in for the long haul.

Monday, September 28, 2020

From the archives: Primer on police-union politics and contracts

In 2017, Just Liberty's former Policy Coordinator, Sukyi McMahon, who now works for the Columbia University Justice Lab, created three, short videos based on Reasonably Suspicious podcast segments that constitute a primer for reformers on police-union politics and debates surrounding their labor contracts. Lately, I've received inquiries on the topic from folks in other cities looking at what Austin did this summer, so I thought it worthwhile to re-up this little-discussed background to the recent budget fights:

Related material: Interview with CLEAT's Ron DeLord; interview with DeLord, CLEAT's Chris Perkins and Chas Moore of the Austin Justice Coalition on Austin's 2018 union contract fight. Finally, here's Grits' analysis of the new leverage gained by reformers as a result of winning in 2018. Without that victory as a precursor, what happened in August would not have been possible.

Debtors Prison Blues: Homeless rack up tens of thousands of tickets and warrants that everyone knows they can't pay

In a fine story last month on the history of homelessness policy in Texas, the Texas Observer's Gus Bova included some data on local, Class C homeless citations from Texas big cities that I wanted to record for future use. For starters, here in the state capital:

Records obtained by the Observer show that between January 2000 and May 2020, nearly 53,000 citations were issued under [Austin's] ordinances—75 percent of which turned into warrants. The municipal court would not provide data for years prior to 2000. The records show a spike between 2013 and 2015, a period accounting for some 24,000 citations. In summer 2018, when the city council first suggested it would repeal the rules, enforcement fell sharply. And since last June, when the ordinances were revised, tickets have slowed to a trickle: Only 125 have been issued through May, with 34 percent becoming warrants.

 In Dallas:

Records obtained by the Observer show that Dallas, which maintains a ban on sleeping in public, has issued more than 38,000 sleeping citations since 1998, with more than half resulting in warrants. Ticketing has continued through the pandemic. Dallas also restricts panhandling and, in 2016, re-created 1994 by clearing out a massive encampment under I-45.

And in Houston:

Houston, meanwhile, bans sitting or lying down during the day in designated areas, which the city has been expanding from downtown to more neighborhoods for 18 years. Since 2007, the Bayou City has issued nearly 25,000 citations for sitting and lying—on top of enforcing bans on camping, panhandling, and restrictions on sharing food with the homeless. San Antonio also maintains a set of anti-homeless laws, including a ban on “soliciting from occupants of vehicles” that’s led to 35,000 citations and 11,000 warrants since 2001.

Regular readers may recall that your correspondent commissioned some theme music, titled, "Debtors Prison Blues," for a campaign on Class C warrants for which funding didn't pan out. These data bring that audio to mind:

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Massive police response over anti-cop bumper stickers, public opinion and #BlackLivesMatter, deep policing history, and other stories

Let's clear a few browser tabs and run down a few links Grits wanted to record and other items that may interest Grits readers.

2-hour standoff  in middle of Austin after driver pulled over for anti-cop bumper stickers: Some 80 cops and 40 DPS vehicles swarmed the Congress Ave. bridge in Austin to surround a 24-year old headshop employee and her Chihuahua with anti-police bumper stickers on her car, reported the Intercept. Notably this episode - which lasted at least a couple of hours and ended with a bomb-squad robot breaking the window of her car and two Bearcats crushing her bumpers - happened within rock throwing distance of the Austin Statesman newsroom, which didn't report it. Thank heavens the Intercept reporter happened to be jogging by!

#MeToo @ Falls County Sheriff: The elected Falls County Sheriff was arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting a City of Marlin employee. Falls County is southeast of Waco, adjacent to McLennan County. Notably Sheriff Ricky Scaman, "was sued twice in the last two years by former employees who claimed he subjected them to unwanted sexual advances and harassment. Both lawsuits have since been settled, court documents state."

TX parole caseloads analyzed: This may get its own blog post soon, but I wanted to record the link for the new TDCJ parole officer caseload study. For more background on related topics, see state auditor reports from 2010 and 2008.

Competing hypotheses on why crime rises after protests: We misunderstood "the Ferguson effect," say researchers. Police weren't pulling back from communities, which some have blamed for the reported, recent crime spike. Rather, communities were pulling back from police. That makes sense, but I'd also add that perceived crime spikes after Ferguson, which some commentators tried to blame on the protesters, turned out to be overblown and overhyped. Grits won't be surprised if that turns out to be true for 2020 as well, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. MORE: Regarding the current, perceived crime spike: Murders are up this year; other violent crime as well as property crime are down, reported the New York Times. Moreover, "The F.B.I. on Monday reported a tiny decrease (0.2 percent) in the nation’s murder rate in 2019. The U.S. violent crime rate fell slightly for the fourth straight year in this official report, and the property crime rate fell for the 18th straight year, to the lowest level since 1963." There's your "law and order" crisis.

Trib shows it's possible to accurately describe Austin budget cuts; why can't other media pull it off? So much press coverage of the Austin police budget cuts has misrepresented them, repeating the Governor's spurious claim that they cut $150 million, or one-third of the budget, when the actual cuts were $20 million and the rest are duties being re-organized. In recent coverage of the Dallas City Council's budget vote, the Texas Tribune demonstrated that it's actually possible to describe the cuts accurately:

The movement gained traction in Austin, where city councilmembers in August voted to immediately cut about $20 million, or 5%, from its police department and redirect those funds to things like violence prevention, housing and mental health services. Another $130 million was put into transitional funds that will allow several of the department's traditional duties to remain funded while officials work out which responsibilities to keep under law enforcement and which to move out from under police oversight.

Now, was that so hard?

Minneapolis depolicing initiative falling apart: The Minneapolis city council's bold defund-the-police declaration is being clawed back in the face of real-world limitations, reported the New York Times. Reading this, I must say I feel like Austin is in a much better position to implement and sustain the reforms we've begun. Despite propaganda from change opponents, most of the reforms in Austin had been discussed for years and were fairly well developed when the opportunity for change finally came. Couple this with the fact that Austin groups were already mobilized before George Floyd died in a campaign to oust the local police chief, and the Texas capital was uniquely positioned to take advantage of the opportunity this budget cycle.

We certainly had folks in Austin, as in Minneapolis, telling the city council: Cut half the budget, it's your job to figure out where. But the reason change happened here was that advocates came forward with well-developed alternative plans that could be reasonably, pragmatically implemented. That appears not to have happened in the Twin Cities.

Public opinion and Black Lives Matter: BLM's popularity is down from its lofty peaks, with a majority of white folks now expressing disapproval. Here are the crosstabs for a NY Times/Sienna College poll from Texas (beginning p. 23 of the pdf). See especially the age breakdown on Q19 polling BLM - old people are driving disapproval. (Worth mentioning, though, BLM polled higher in Austin than the rest of the state.) Also notable was Q29 on whether COVID or "riots" were a bigger problem. The former has killed more than 15,000 people in Texas; the number killed in "riots" has been in the low single digits; yet 2/3 of white people thought "maintaining law and order" was a bigger priority than combating the virus (Q28). Wow. That said, Grits sees a lot of this as campaign driven, based on the Trumpian "American carnage" themes that Republican pols all down the food chain feel pressured to adopt. Whether that pressure continues after the election will depend on the outcome. If it doesn't work for the GOP, it could be abandoned as quickly as it was ginned up. 

Deep Policing History from the Windy City: Just to be able to find it again, I wanted to record a link to this remarkable 600+ page report on race riots in Chicago in 1919. Found it while researching historic public opinion on crime and now want to go back and read the whole thing. This is a remarkable document. Drop in anywhere and its findings seem relevant, almost current. Especially interesting to me were Chapter 9 on public opinion around race and crime and Chapter 7 regarding early efforts to analyze policing quantitatively. This document strikes me as impressive and important as the Kerner Commission report 5 decades hence. Certainly its central warnings and recommendations went just as unheeded.

Prof: Americans need 'universal education of the development of American policing'. Grits was pleased to see TSU Prof. Howard Henderson in the Texas Observer endorsing the sort of historical perspective Grits has been seeking in recent research on slave patrols and early Texas policing:

We just didn’t wake up here today and find ourselves in this disarray. This came out of centuries of degradation and oppression. The police are an offshoot of the overseer on the plantation and the slave patrols. The institution of slavery and its control of minorities directly parallels with early American policing. Right after slavery, they arrested Black people for petty crimes and then leased them back out to the plantation. This history of race and policing in America is deep, and we do ourselves a disservice by just glossing over it. A lot of the laws that we have today are derivatives of Jim Crow legislation. Look at the number of white police officers who were members of the Ku Klux Klan. It was just a common relationship at the time.

You’ve seen several policymakers say that they don’t see policing as racist, and yet you can rattle off probably 10 statistical points to prove otherwise. I think we’ve got to start with universal education of the development of American policing. We’ve also got to move beyond the point where the police are infallible. We’re taught from a very young age that they can do no wrong, that they’re the problem solvers of all social ills. And the reality is that they’re not. They’re human. They make mistakes. And they’ve created an institution that does not openly express their errors. It’s a system that is designed to support that misconduct.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Slave patrols as apartheid enforcers in addition to chasing runaways

When your correspondent began researching the history of Texas slave patrols, I considered them mainly a way the government collaborated with slave owners to control black people and punish them for violating rules. But it turns out, slave patrols were as much about enforcing apartheid as protecting property rights, and they were empowered to arrest white folks for various co-mingling considered inappropriate.

Grits' slave-patrol research homed in on Guadalupe County, in large part because records there have been preserved. I'm not the only one to take advantage of that serendipity. In Mark Gretchen's remarkable 2009 genealogical volume, "Slave Transactions of Guadalupe County, Texas," he included a comprehensive list of slavery-related criminal charges from Guadalupe County criminal court records. Almost all (20 out of 28) involved white defendants, not black ones.

To an extent, this should come as no surprise. Slave patrols were empowered to punish black people without judicial oversight. State law authorized them to give slaves up to 25 lashes for violations, and in some places like San Antonio or Indianola, the law authorized slave patrollers to give up to 39 lashes. Indeed, noted Gretchen, "by 1860, the only two sentences provided for convicted slaves in the Texas penal code were death and whipping." White folks, however, had to be taken before a judge.

Most of the slavery-related indictments against white folks in Guadalupe County were eventually dismissed or resulted in an acquittal. Even so, then, as today, you might beat the rap but you couldn't beat the ride. Those folks were still arrested by the patrol and conveyed to authorities, even if formal punishment seldom followed.

For example, Joel E. White was indicted in 1850 for purchasing a horse for $20 from a slave named Lawrence without receiving permission from his owner, Manuel Flores, who fought in the Battle of San Jacinto and was a brother-in-law of the town's namesake, Juan Seguin. The case was dismissed. 

Ernst Schram was indicted for purchasing a cowhide from a slave without written consent of his owner, Samuel Millet, one of the larger slave owners in town who would later perish in the Civil War. 

Otto Wupperman was indicted for purchasing a bushel of potatoes for a dollar from a "copper colored" negro named Henry who belonged to Andew Herron, a wealthy Presbyterian minister and one of the town's larger slaveholders. Herron owned 22 slaves at the time of the incident. 

Gustav Thiessen and Louis Hipp were both indicted for selling spirits to slaves, with charges later dismissed.

Thomas Wilson stood trial for allegedly harboring a runaway slave named Maria, the only slave owned by a local named William A. Farris. The jury returned a Not Guilty verdict in May 1856.

A couple of cases against white folks resulted in convictions and a $50 fine: James W. Fennell was indicted in 1863 for "Placing Slaves in Charge of a Farm or Stocke Ranch," while Thomas J. Perryman that same year was indicted for "Keeping Slaves on a Farm Detached From His House." In both cases, the slaveholder failed to keep a free white man on the premises to govern them. Ironically, the law forbidding slaves from living in a detached dwelling was passed in 1858 by H.E. McCullough, the state senator from Guadalupe County.

That these are the only two cases against white people resulting in a final conviction and punishment tells us that allowing black people to live and work independently was taken especially seriously by authorities.

However, the most common charges against white folks were things like "Permitting Slave To Hire Time" and "Hiring Slaves To Slaves." The law allowed slaves to work for wages only in a limited way. Grits was unaware of this limited proletarianism afforded slaves in Texas and have never seen it discussed before. Turns out, after 1846, slaves could hire out their own time one day per week or a full week during the Christmas holidays. Beyond that, their owners could theoretically be prosecuted for letting them earn their own money.

The year 1856 saw seven such cases. In the only instance resulting in a conviction, John M. Anderson was convicted and fined one cent: He appealed and the Texas Supreme Court overturned the conviction and dismissed the case. Apparently, prosecutors took this as a sign that all such cases were doomed. No more charges for "Permitting Slave To Hire Time" were recorded  in Guadalupe County after that episode.

Only one case in the records involved a white man accused of abusing a slave. Clinton DeWitt was the son of Green DeWitt, empressario of the famous DeWitt Colony, and a well-known sadist. In 1847 he was indicted for "Unreasonably Abusing a Slave," though charges were eventually dismissed. Dewitt was later killed by his brother in law, shot to death while he was beating his wife with a bullwhip. 

The brother-in-law, Tom Frazier, escaped but was later brought to trial for the murder in 1886. An unnamed former slave testified he was not the killer: "No, this man is not Tom Frazier. The Tom Frazier I knew is much younger and if the Tom Frazier I knew had not killed Clinton E. DeWitt, I was going to kill him." The jury acquitted Mr. Frazier.

All of the slaves indicted were for either assault or murder, including a slave named Dina indicted for throwing a rock at a white woman. If she'd been convicted, it would have resulted in a death sentence, but a jury found her "Not Guilty" in December 1859.

A slave named Jack was convicted of murder for killing his pregnant wife with an axe because she had informed on Jack to his master regarding some transgression, for which the master intended to beat him. Jack was considered a well-liked, gentle person known for making wooden toys for children in exchange for food, and his crime produced quite the local scandal. Some 1,500 people attended his hanging on the banks of the Guadalupe River and his owner was paid a portion of his $1,200 value to compensate for his lost property.

Except for these few criminal charges involving violence, the record remains silent on punishments issued to black folks, most of which were almost certainly imposed by the patrols without judicial oversight. Across the street from the courthouse in Seguin stands an old tree dubbed "The Whipping Oak" with a metal ring embedded in the wood for attaching the shackles of the person to be lashed. After the Texas Legislature ended corporal punishment for white people in 1848, only black folks would have been beaten there. We can only guess at the volume and intensity of those events: The historical record remains silent on the matter.

These records expand our understanding of Texas slave patrols by emphasizing their authority over white people as well as slaves. Maintaining racial separation and preventing black people from living independently were as much goals of the patrol as preventing runaways.

See prior, related Grits posts:

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Governor hopes pro-police push will distract from COVID failures

The Governor today held a press conference calling for a half-dozen new laws aimed at increasing penalties for protester violence and people who harm cops. Thing is, Texas already did this in 2015 after the Ferguson protests, boosting penalties for assaulting police officers and requiring high school students to watch a video teaching them how not to make police angry (I kid you not: they did that because it would offend cops to tell them not to shoot the kids - Democrat Royce West carried the legislation).

At this point, shouldn't MSM coverage of Governor Greg Abbott's slew of press conferences on Austin's police budget openly acknowledge that it's just a campaign ploy?

How else to explain that Greg Abbott has suggested more legislative proposals in just a few weeks aimed at attacking Austin for its budget vote than he has all year responding to the COVID-19 virus, which has killed some 15,000 Texans and counting?

We know nothing about the governor's legislative agenda on COVID, much less why he hasn't released $6 billion in federal aid related to the virus. But we've seen him hold press conferences calling for freezing Austin property taxes, de-annexing Austin suburbs, having the Department of Public Safety take over APD, asking lawmakers to sign a pusillanimous pledge, and now increasing a bunch of criminal penalties that were mostly increased already in 2015. Who really thinks any of this is state government's biggest priority right now?

One of his proposals would make Texas' "rioting" offense a felony. Grits has previously written about the dark origins of that overbroad law in the anti-civil-rights backlash from the '60s. That statute should be repealed, not made harsher. 

The MSM are reporting the presser straight, but how often can they run the same content without acknowledging the larger reality? The real news isn't "Greg Abbott makes legislative proposal." It's "Greg Abbott continues PR tactics to distract from COVID." Headlines focused on the actual contents of his proposal are missing the real story.

MORE: To their credit, the Texas Tribune portrayed this story in electoral terms. So it's not impossible for MSM reporters to cover these issues more credibly; it's a choice when they fail do so.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Taking the easy way out: When they choose, Austin cops take the lowest risk assignments and spend lots of time on them

Looking at the 911 call center data discussed in the last post, a notable data point jumps out: When Austin police officers self assign themselves to an activity, they appear to choose the most low-risk, anodyne tasks and spend longer at those than they do ones they're assigned by 911 dispatchers. Technically these are not "calls," in that they are activities that an officer chooses to do and then puts into the "call" system independently of dispatch. They represent about a third of "call" activity.

Here we see that most officer-initiated calls are for Priority 3 incidents, which are defined as "life or property not at risk; immediate response not req'd."

Then the same web page tells us that officers spend more time on these than other types of calls (time in minutes).

So when officers self assign, they mostly take low-risk calls that didn't really require anyone to respond and then spend more time on them than they do on more serious endeavors. Got it.

Perhaps removing the 911 call center from control of the police department (as Houston has already done, btw) will help impose more discipline on how officers spend their time. Honestly, these aren't liberal/conservative questions so much as good-government/managerial ones.

Justice data poorly calibrated to researchers' needs

At a Austin City Council's Public Safety Committee meeting yesterday discussing 911 call data, the Police Department's Chief Data Officer, Jonathan Kringen, reiterated an observation that Grits has made several times over the years: "this data system is built to try to manage an activity. It's not actually built to support researcher analysis." 

That's the biggest problem with most criminal-justice number crunching: Data is collected at points when the bureaucracy either interacts with other government systems or makes decisions about individuals being processed. But those data serve the needs of government tracking, they can't explain the causes of crime or explore dynamics that occurred prior to government intervention. In general, we don't measure the things needed to answer the most critical questions about public safety because the data is collected for different purposes.

As Kringen explained, "there are many things in the data that the way they are set up are functional and they serve the operational need, but they don't actually serve the analytic function that should come thereafter to help figure out what best practices should be."

Amen, brother.

Here are a couple of related academic discussions about the paucity of useful criminal-justice data. The latter article argues that, "Blind trust in the police, fear of a powerful police lobby, and a law enforcement culture of secrecy and insulation results in a serious information failure."

Here's the power point presentation Austin city staff gave to the committee, video of their Zoom call, and here's a data dashboard providing various analyses of APD 911 data. Grits may dig deeper into these dashboards later.

RelatedThree quarters of Austin PD 911 responses went to non-crime situations: National experts analyze Austin PD data for clues on how officers spend their time

COVID deadlier in Texas prisons than jails

Grits must give credit where it's due: County jails in Texas have done an impressive job, relatively speaking, of containing the coronavirus in their facilities. As of yesterday, there had been eight confirmed deaths and five more suspected deaths linked to COVID-19.

When I say "relatively," I mainly mean relative to TDCJ, which has struggled mightily with the virus by comparison. Their last update was September 9th, nearly two weeks ago, at which time:

In total there have been 199,571 offenders and 65,835 employees tested for COVID-19. Of those tested, 21,440 offenders and 4,554 staff have tested positive for COVID-19 in both symptomatic and asymptomatic testing. There have been 18,724 offenders and 3,477 employees who have recovered. There have been 151 offender deaths connected to COVID 19 with an additional 39 under investigation. There have been 20 employee line of duty deaths from COVID-19.

More staff have died in Texas prisons than inmates have died in county jails. Texas' prison system is just more than twice the size, population-wise, of the county-jail population, so having more than ten-fold the number of inmate deaths is a big deal.

Grits doesn't know if Texas county jails (and by extension TCJS) are doing an exceptional job or if TDCJ is doing a bad one. To what extent does this relate to judges identifying vulnerable members of the pretrial population and diverting them from incarceration (the parole board refused to do so)? No way to tell from the available data. I also don't know whether this pattern of prisons having a bigger problem than jails holds true in other states. Certainly, most of TDCJ's deaths arise from just a handful of units, so maybe the problem is more isolated, even, than just prisons vs. jails. Regardless, that's quite a difference.

UPDATE: Death rates in Venezuala prisons doubled this year due to COVID, according to this report. By comparison, Texas prisons average just more than 400 inmate deaths per year, so if we had 151-190 extra inmate deaths in about seven months, making a back-of-the-envelope calculation, we may be looking at a 70-80% increase in prison death rates in Texas because of the virus. I'll try to hunt down the data to make this comparison more directly.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Can police patrol function be separated from racist slaver legacy? Maybe not

Did early policing begin with slave patrols?

In Texas, slave patrols were established (just) after the creation of more traditional law enforcement offices like Sheriffs, Constables, and City Marshals (the early Texan name for what would become municipal police chiefs). But slavery began late here and lasted less than 50 years. In other states, particularly in the Carolinas, patrols preceded those forms. That's why you hear people say American policing originated with slave patrols. Some places, it did.

Here, though, the two systems were originally separate: parallel but intertwined. Patrols captured slaves and arrested white folks who interacted with them (they were authorized by state law to give the slaves up to 25 lashes; white folks were taken before a magistrate). Patrols took people they arrested, black or white, to the Sheriff to be held and either returned to their owner or made to stand trial. Runaways might even find themselves sold at auction in a "foreign market," though I haven't yet figured out exactly what that means. Sheriffs were in charge of that process.

After the Civil War, municipal police departments (then called City Marshals) began undertaking their own patrols, starting in Austin and Houston. It was at this point that historians attribute those cities with first adopting the practices of a "modern" police department, by which they appear to mean the combination of patrols, distinctive uniforms, and a military-style hierarchy (e.g., sergeants, lieutenants, captains, etc.).

Before then, Sheriffs and City Marshals operated more under what I've dubbed a "customer service" model: Waiting for victims to complain about crimes then investigating rather than combing the streets proactively. So adopting patrol practices was the biggest change in what officers actually did with their time day to day, leaving aside what they wore or how management was organized.

This is the next element Grits needs to research and it's turning out to be more difficult than one might expect. I've found a formula for researching Texas slave patrols: At least for counties with intact, early commissioners court minutes, it's possible to identify the number of districts and the names of patrolmen appointed, then research those individuals for more detail. But I've yet to find a similarly simple, one-stop approach for early police departments, which leaves one with reading early newspaper accounts.

My central hypothesis bubbling up from this research (with a bit more evidence, it will graduate to "theory"): Patrol practices grafted onto policing after the Civil War are a holdover of slave patrol methods and both were aimed at suppressing black people and enforcing apartheid. The discriminatory parts of policing mostly stem from this patrol function, with traffic and drug enforcement being the most glaring, modern examples.

In Grits' experience, black folks' biggest complaint with police isn't that, when they report crime, cops investigate. In fact, the opposite is true. Murders and rapes are too often downplayed in black neighborhoods by police departments seeking to avoid a reputation for crime. (The TV show The Wire offered exceptional portrayals of this sort of stat manipulation.)

IRL, black communities in America are both over-policed and under-policed: Over-policed on petty stuff, on traffic violations, stop and frisk, unpaid fines, vagrancy, etc., but also abandoned by police when more serious crimes arise. That's particularly true for crimes of murder, where clearance rates have plummeted over the decades and cases linger for years, not to mention sexual assault, which historically have been under-enforced everywhere.

To me, this dynamic is the legacy of law enforcement's historical reliance on patrols, which in Texas date back to an 1846 statute passed during the first legislative session after becoming a state. Under the patrol model, policing on behalf of victims gave way to an institutional agenda of enforcing petty statutes, limiting freedom, and projecting an implicit message reinforcing central state power over the individual. That led to abuses then and arguably still does today.

So, abolish police? Grits isn't quite there yet. But abolishing patrol? (Or even deploying short-term patrols tactically as opposed to making them the central, organizing principle underlying police departments?) That might be an idea whose time has come.

See prior, related Grits posts:

Saturday, September 19, 2020

A Texan Huck Finn, Proletarian Slaves, Dreaming of Mexico, and the Habeas Revelation: Lessons from runaway slave stories

One of the items on my research checklist regarding slave patrols and early Texas policing was to examine newspaper items on runaway slaves from Guadalupe County (and perhaps others going forward) in order to identify anecdotes that a) humanize the history I'm reading in old commissioners court records and b) clarify the role and functions of slave patrols in Texas vis a vis the more traditional law enforcement apparatus, like Sheriffs or City Marshals (Texas' precursors to modern police departments). Luckily, some of this legwork has been done by Kyle Ainsworth and his students at the Runaway Slave Project at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches. Let's go through the notices they've compiled from Guadalupe County both to record the stories and see if they provide further research avenues. You're basically just seeing my raw notes here, but it's as good a place to put them as any.

A Texan Huck Finn

My favorite of these stories I think of as Texas' Huck Finn. According to The Texan Mercury, a paper out of Seguin, in 1853 a young German boy stole a horse and apparently helped a runaway slave to escape. They were captured, likely by the slave patrol, and brought to the Sheriff to be held. But they broke free and fled again, possibly together headed to Mexico. The short article was published on 10/8/1853 and used the incident to editorialize in favor of the county constructing a proper jail less prone to escapes. Research followups: Check district court for "German boy's" horse thieving case. Also: Find out when the first Guadalupe County Jail was constructed and look at public debate surrounding it. 

Dreams of Mexico: The Destination

According to the 9/9/1854 Texas State Gazette, one runaway slave from Guadalupe County drowned and three more were captured trying to cross the Rio Grande. The Austin paper blamed the existence of Mexicans living in white people's midst: "It is daily becoming more difficult for the slaves to get into Mexico, and by a little timely exertion in clearing our country of rascally peons, we think the planter in Texas will be more secure in his slave property than most other Southern states." Research angle: Perhaps border sheriff records on captured slaves could be fruitful? Were there patrols in border counties? Was there pressure from slave holding counties to enforce south-bound border and what was local law enforcement's enthusiasm level? Idk. For that matter, I want to know more about free, black communities in Mexico. Hoping this item on the reading list will fill in some of the gaps.

Anti-Mexican sentiment among slavers

The same issue of the Texas State Gazette reported on a public meeting in which locals agreed to collectively offer $250 reward for capture of escaped slaves. Slave owners were so obsessed with the idea that their property might flee to Mexico, the group voted to recommend banning "peons," by which they mean vagrant or unemployed Mexicans, from Guadalupe County outright. Presumably they believed black people couldn't walk south without a guide, though there is evidence that Mexicans near the border helped runaway slaves survive the desert and get across the river, typically for a fee. Sometimes passage across the river was exchanged for indentured servitude with Mexican hacendados. Finally, and most ominously, the group in Guadalupe County "provide[d] for a standing committee of twenty discreet men to enforce the resolution." To me, that sounds like people planning for vigilante violence against Mexicans. Reported the Gazette:

The peons, to which this meeting refers, have no reference to the permanent Mexican citizens, many of whom are worthy men and generally esteemed, but to a vagrant class--a lazy, thievish horde of lazaroni (editors note: OMG!! most original homeless slur I've heard in months!), who in many instances are fugitives from justice in Mexico, highway robbers, horse and cattle thieves, and idle vagabonds, who prowl about our western country with but little visible occupation or pursuit. Indeed, many of the robberies and murders attributed to Indians have been the work of this class of men. A new trade has been opened up to them, in aiding the escape of slaves. They scruple at nothing, and a few dollars from a negro is sufficient to secure their services. If a summary punishment is visited upon them, it is certainly what they may well expect from our incensed countrymen; and in the absence of a prompt and efficient remedy through the laws, this abuse will be corrected by the citizens themselves as a matter of self-preservation. 

Guadalupe County's resolutions inspired similar ones in Bexar County, and a statewide slaveholder convention was announced for Oct. 2, 1854 in Gonzales to discuss the matter. Runaway slaves were treated like they required quarantine: "All slaves brought back from Mexico are to be sent off to a foreign market and disposed of, and up to that time, they are to be closely guarded and not permitted to associate or converse with other negroes."  Research notes: Need to find out more about this slaveholder gathering: Check newsclips, secondary sources. Also, are there records of runaways disposed of in "foreign markets"? How would one research this? Idk. 

Proletarian slaves in Texas

On 7/1/1854, the Texan Mercury mocked the notion that a slave named Alfred belonging to a local "mercantile firm," was caught in public in possession of hundreds of dollars and his employer said it was his. As an aside, Alfred may have been an example of black folks working in an economic scenario I'd never considered before launching this research: Slaves who hired themselves out for pay and gave master a cut, but lived independently like a proletarian. Newspapers complained of this practice in every large Texas town (see, e.g., this Austin case study), so it was as widespread as it was scorned by white supremacist absolutists. They thought  it would give other black folks ideas and foster an inappropriate sense of equality and independence among them. In 1856, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in a Guadalupe County case that slave owners could not be prosecuted for allowing their slaves to accept employment. In my estimation, this practice arose because slavery as a business model didn't work as well in the cities as on the plantations. The economic incentives to let slaves hire themselves out probably drove the decision more than some urban libertarianism. More money with less hassle and responsibility? I'm guessing some urban slaveowners said "Sign me up!"

More runaway examples

On July 11, 1859, a slave named Oben belonging to Guadalupe County slave owner James George was reported captured in Bexar County, likely by the patrol, and taken to the Sheriff to be held. Followup: Check George in GC Slave Transactions book.

On January 25, 1862, a slave named George, reportedly belonging to a slave owner who'd left town the prior year, was captured by the patrol and incarcerated in the Guadalupe County Jail.

Habeas! Of course!

As Bexar County is next on the list, I was interested to discover this habeas corpus case which may be instructive: A dark-skinned Mexican woman was captured by a slave patrol and accused of being a runaway without evidence, though witnesses supported her story. Research notes: How hadn't I considered habeas corpus cases as a source for anecdotes? I love 19th century habeas cases! Will have to consider how to identify those. Maybe a start is this database of black Texans with cases before the Texas Supreme Court in that era. Another tedious but potentially fruitful research path.

Charity Ashley: Free but for (a terrible, horrific) choice

Finally, a bit more detail on the story of Charity Ashley, the free black woman with five children who chose to re-enter slavery and take on a new master in the late 1850s. (Texas banned free blacks during the Republic and as a state passed coercive legislation aimed at forcing them back into slavery.) I found a brief mention of her decision in the commissioners court minutes, which referenced a District Court hearing I still need to research. Anyway, according to the 1850 census, Ms. Ashley was born in South Carolina and at that time was 36 years old, making her roughly 44 when she reportedly sought out a local patroller as her new master for her and her five kids. Though it doesn't mention her or her family, the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise in 1996 ran an historical profile of George Holloman, the slaver and patrolman who became her new master. 

Ashley and her children were listed in 1850 as living at the same dwelling as the families of John A.M. Boyd and William King, but separately under their own name, not as property. I wondered on Twitter, "What arrangement led her to be staying there? How did she make a living? How did she come to be free and why was she living in Texas w/o a husband? When the state decided to coerce free blacks back into slavery, why didn't she choose Boyd or King as masters?" If she was already in Seguin with five kids by 1850, Ms. Ashley was a relatively long-time resident by the time she chose a master, and probably one of the few free, black people in town. So many questions! I can't wait to see the district court file in her case, assuming it still exists 170+ years later.

A Forgotten Precursor to Secession

Professor Ainsworth from SFA tells me slave patrols ramped up following the little-known "Texas Troubles" in 1860. Certainly, in 1862, the Legislature expanded the patrol requirement to mandate weekly rather than monthly outings, according to Randolph Campbell's "Empire for Slavery." But  some Texas cities may also have created patrols, if sometimes short-term. Occasionally, antebellum Texas witnessed the activation of informal, pre-Klan vigilante networks. There's no way to know the overlap, if any, between those mobs/posses and patrol membership. But things could erupt quickly. 

The all-but-forgotten episode referenced by Prof. Ainsworth involved white Texans misinterpreting a series of fires caused by a faulty batch of matches as evidence of Negro insurrection and arson. This was false, but up to 100 or more black folks and several white (alleged) abolitionists were lynched or otherwise murdered in the aftermath. Dubbed the "Texas Troubles," the incident with the faulty matches was a more important, proximate cause of Southern insurrection fears when they seceded than Nat Turner's rebellion decades prior. But today they're mostly forgotten.

Slaves foraged for food during Civil War shortages

I haven't yet found Texas slave narratives that mentioned patrols. But I did see a passage that presented the hardships facing slaves in Texas during the Civil War period.
During the Civil War time were very hard. I have known slaves to pull up tobacco stalks and smoke chip them and use okra seed for coffee; [to] build pens in the woods and catch turkeys. [They would] lay poles on top, dig a hole under the bottom of the pen, and drop corn fifty steps leading up to the pen. The turkeys would go in. After they eat they would never look down. Deer would have a regular place to jump in the filed. Slaves would set a stob and sharpening [the] upper end and sometimes catch a deer. Father did the weaving during the Civil War. I imagine seeing him dashing the sickle right and left, the women carding and spinning.

See prior, related Grits posts:

Friday, September 18, 2020

Slave Patrol Research Update and Request for Research Advice

Just a quick update on my Guadalupe County slave-patrol research. Many thanks to Kyle Ainsworth of the Runaway Slave Project at Stephen F. Austin University for the tip. This is the first time I've been able to see primary source material regarding IRL slave patrols in Texas.

Grits found in commissioners court minutes that slave patrol members were being appointed at least twice per year with individual appointees' names listed (albeit in hard-to-read, handwritten script). At first there were three districts covering Guadalupe County, each with a "captain" and four privates. Eventually, there were as many as 13 districts and 65 patrolmen. I went through and copied all references I could find for patrol appointments from 1847 through 1865.

I also discovered an amazing book on Slave Transactions in Guadalupe County, Texas by Mark Gretchen which identifies all the slaveholders from Guadalupe County, includes short bios for some of them, and vetted court records from all of them. I took phone pics of entries for about three dozen patrollers while I was there. When I got home, I found the book online and ordered it, overpaying for a very out of print and unavailable volume. (Still cheaper than traveling out of town and paying courthouse rates for copies.)

So here are my next research steps: 1) Transcribe data from slaver charts from my phone photos, 2) Make a comprehensive list of Guadalupe-County slave-patrol participants from handwritten commissioners court minutes, 3) Cross reference slave patrol list with Slave Transactions book for leads and spell checks for names, 4) Review runaway slave notices related to Guadalupe County, 5) Search slave-patrol name list on Google, Confederate soldier databases, and early Texas newspapers, and 6) make one more trip to Seguin to research people on the slave-patrol list in other county records, and to perform more informed library work.

All this may take a country minute.

It looks like Bexar County has similar records, so I'll head down there as soon as they let me and we'll try to repeat the process. Montgomery County is another place where a) I have reason to believe patrols existed and b) they appear to have extant and available commissioners court records. So that could be the next stop if this continues. Pam Colloff wants me to make a book of it; we'll see if I take the project that far.

Regardless, my working theory behind this research is that finding data and facts, while important, aren't as useful as identifying stories that resonate.

It's one thing to say the Guadalupe County patrol increased in size from three districts of five men each in 1847 to 13 such districts in 1857. It's another to consider the story of Charity Ashley, a free black woman with five children, and the coercive state legislation that caused her to choose 32-year-old George B. Hollamon - a patrolman and himself already owner of three slaves who would later become conscript officer for the Confederate Army - as master of her and her five children. What caused her to make that decision rather than, say, heading down to Mexico and living free with thousands of other black expats?

I don't know the answer to that question. But it's a more interesting one than how many patrolmen were there, how much and how often were they paid, etc.. 

Similarly, consider the story of a German boy who, like Huck Finn in Mark Twain's fiction two decades later, helped a runaway slave steal a horse and escape. They were captured, possibly by the county patrol, but then escaped the Guadalupe County Sheriff's custody and were last seen on their way toward the Rio Grande. I'm dying to know what happened to them. (Following up on court records for this case, Charity Ashley, and maybe others is the reason I'll probably need one, final research trip to Seguin before wrapping up.)

Individual, stories will always be a more reliable source of human interest than just analyzing pay slips. So finding lists of names gives the opportunity to tap into individual stories that help bring the research to life. That's the hope, anyway. The process can feel like searching for needles in haystacks.

Regardless, that's where I'm at with this project, gentle readers. I tell you in this much detail because I'm asking y'all for advice: Based on the records described, do folks have advice for sources that might help flesh out anecdotes about people involved? Except for rare instances like Charity Ashley (who had a district court case I still need to review), stories from black folks' perspective are incredibly rare. So is detail about exactly what happened out in the field when the slave patrols rode. How can I find more?

Help me think about how to research this. All of the slave narratives from Texas I've seen involved people who were slaves as children, usually interviewed by the Works Project Administration decades later in the 1930s or '40s. Not much detail about patrols from that perspective.

I haven't completely run into dead ends yet, but am starting to do so based mainly on the paucity of available records. Step up, Grits readers, and help me craft a path to tell these stories!

Until then, here's a Twitter feed encapsulating research so far on slave patrols and early Texas policing. And here are links to everything else I've written on this topic so far:

Monday, September 14, 2020

Texas 'poor farm' history

Just compiling this in one place so I can find it all again. 

The Portal to Texas History has a copy of records from a "Poor Farm" in Travis County from 1890-1900; see 2015 Statesman coverage here. Also, this index of early Travis County Commissioner Court records includes numerous references to the county poor farm. The commissioners court records indexed are here.

See this prior Grits post for more background on Texas poor farms, and this longer, academic analysis from Southwestern Historical Quarterly. 

Here's a 2011 account of poor farms in Anderson County.  In Denton County, the poor farm didn't close until after World War II. Weatherford College leases the old Parker County poor farm for agricultural purposes. Collin County had one in McKinney. Hunt County had one as well. A poor farm operated in Erath County until a tornado destroyed it in 1935. In Grayson County, the poor-farm population was dominated by the mentally infirm.

In Kaufman County, the poor farm "also provided barracks for jail inmates" and once housed an "epidemic camp." It was the last of its kind. The final residents didn't leave that facility until the 1970s.

Anachronistic constitutional language authorizing Texas poor farms was removed from the state constitution in 2017.

Dallas chief resigns; Manley remains: WTF?

Grits should have mentioned Dallas police Chief Renee Hall's resignation in yesterday's post about the Dallas budget, but it seemed like a separate topic. She wasn't resigning over budget cuts, like the chief in Seattle. Rather, she left after a half dozen city council members declared they'd lost confidence in her leadership, largely as a result of a tone-deaf after action report that seemed to pre-exonerate officers for misconduct while overstating protester "violence." I wrote at the time:
In a way, I empathize with [Chief Hall]. 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.

That said, if at any time over the last several months you'd told me they were replacing Brian Manley with Renee Hall, Grits would have taken that trade in a heartbeat. At least she did an after-action report! Austin hasn't seen one.

Viewed from afar, Chief Hall has appeared more open to the sorts of proposals put forward in Austin's 2020 budget than our own apparently un-fireable Chief-for-Life. For example, when the city and the Meadows Foundation proposed having mental-health professionals take the lead instead of cops on certain calls in a Dallas pilot program, even Sen. John Cornyn supported the idea. Chief Hall cooperated and helped figure out ways to make it work.

By contrast, APD under Chief Manley did everything they could to thwart and minimize a similar program in Austin, which ended up serving hardly any people. This year, the city council doubled down on the idea, overruling the chief's explicit and implicit objections. The new budget uses savings from delayed cadet classes to staff up extra paramedics to handle the mental-health and addiction caseloads, as well as separating the 911 call center from police control to keep officers from being sent to every scene.

Hall's departure highlights the difficulties old-school police chiefs are having coming to grips with the new, post-George-Floyd political reality. When what used to be veto power becomes advice ignored, we've seen life-long cops around the country take it as insulting and walk away from the chief's job. We've yet to see if a new crop of reformist chiefs step up or if departments keep recycling the same names from one city to the next.

Gee, I wonder what it's like to have your opinion ignored by decision makers? Well before George Floyd died, dozens of Austin groups called for Brian Manley's ouster, and we still can't get rid of him!

In many ways - whether regarding police accountability, bail reform, budgeting, arrest policies for marijuana, or other matters - law enforcement leaders appear unprepared to accept civilian leadership, or at least that's a theme that keeps cropping up. That's 100% what led to Brian Manley's troubles in Austin. The council would pass resolutions, directives, budget riders, you name it, and he continually kicked the reform can down the road. Finally, well before the George Floyd protests began, a huge swath of the community wanted him gone. I bet Spencer Cronk wishes he'd swapped Manley for Chief Hall back in April!

Chief Hall wasn't perfect. Her department's response to protests this summer was regrettably violent and ham handed and she seemed to be less of a reformer than perhaps "reform-tolerant." Grits didn't view her as a champion of change in Dallas, but neither was she its biggest opponent. (That would be the police union.)

Still, that Renee Hall is gone in Dallas and Chief Manley - a much more energetic reform opponent - remains in charge of the Austin Police Department speaks to the unpredictable nature of protest movements. How officialdom reacts can be quite localized and based on a handful of individuals' personal decisions. That's true both of Chief Hall's decision to leave and also Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk's decision to stake his own tenure on Chief Manley after the City Council issued a unanimous "no confidence" vote criticizing his leadership.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

In Dallas, #DefundThePolice becomes epithet to describe any cut, even amidst COVID revenue shortfalls

Debates over "defunding the police" became even sillier this week with Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson trotting out the phrase to oppose a $7 million cut to police overtime that's almost trivial in the scheme of a) the overall Dallas police budget and b) COVID-driven revenue shortfalls.

Because our friends in the MSM can't keep from saying Austin "cut" a third of its police budget when the IRL cuts were less than 5 percent, Grits can almost understand the public's confusion over whether cuts are a good thing. They've been repeatedly lied to, after all. If Austin had done what the governor and police unions pretend they did, it could be alarming. But it's just not true.

In Dallas, though, Mayor Johnson is using "defund the police" as an epithet to characterize a far smaller cut that only affects a few million dollars in police overtime. (As an aside, this comes as the press airs headlines about DPD officers scamming the overtime system.)

In the wake of that dramatic 13-2 loss, the Big D Mayor could have considered that politics is the art of compromise, understand that he'll have to work with these 13 council members going forward, and simply accepted the L. Instead, he's doubled down, echoing GOP talking points and earning enthusiastic Republican praise, while isolating himself from council members who said his comments were "insulting" and accused him of "grandstanding." 

The net result of this pointless display was to invite Greg Abbott to include Dallas in his attacks on Austin, and siding with him instead of the city. Viewed generously, I guess, at least we know Mayor Johnson is not letting his re-election prospects dictate policy positions. He's in the process of alienating big chunks of Democratic base that he may later discover he needs.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Police complaints and the politics of public-safety budgets

Just to see what was there, yesterday Grits went through recent, formal complaints against Austin police officers from protests last month, as compiled by the Office of Police Oversight. For highlights with links to the complaints, see this Twitter thread. This is information that was made public as a result of the Austin Justice Coalition's victory in the 2018 police-union contract fight.

Until recently, no one could see this information unless 1) the complaint was sustained and 2) the officer was suspended. That's still true in most other Texas cities under the state civil service code. Under the contract in Austin, however, formal complaints processed by the OPO are public (though de-identified - officer names and badge numbers are redacted).

A notable one: An APD sergeant alleged that a lieutenant ordered her to illegally alter officer time sheets related to protest events. Another officer complained of "racial slurs" and derisive comments from an APD Detective about black people.

And then there were numerous allegations of police violence against protesters. Somebody pepper sprayed. Somebody punched. Somebody shot in the face with a 40mm foam baton round. Video of an officer in a "state of rage." These were all from protests in the days leading up to the city council's police-budget vote on August 12th. But it's not like more bad stuff hasn't happened since.

Grits thought these were worth mentioning because the goals of reform and the true importance of ongoing public safety debates are being lost in a sea of election-season silliness. It was episodes like the ones described by these complainants, officer and civilian both, that brought us here, but the coverage of Governor Abbott's earned-media electioneering seldom brings the debate back to its roots.

Coverage of the governor's various proposals over the last week woefully lacked context: Despite eye-popping headlines and repeated statements by reporters that Austin cut $150 million from its police budget, the actual cuts - as in deleted dollars - amounted to less than 5% of the department's budget, about 4.7% or around $20 million. By contrast, the Governor wants to cut at least five percent from healthcare and safety net programs in the middle of a pandemic/depression. With more than 14,000 Texans already dead from COVID this year, it's hard not to see that as a far graver threat to public safety than cuts to Austin's police force, which incidentally resulted in no officer layoffs.

Regardless, I can't keep track of all the governor's strategies to attack Austin for its budget cutting, much less how he justifies them. First he declared he'd mandate property tax relief for Austin and any other city that "defunded the police," whatever one means by that Rorschach test of a phrase. Then he declared he'd de-annex parts of those cities that had been included over the last 30 years, thus in Austin's case disempowering local voters most supportive of the Governor's position. In other words, his solution is to remove voters who oppose the council's agenda in order to ... let them win?

Former state representatives Terry Keel and Ron Wilson have proposed that Texas DPS take over the Austin Police Department. This one makes me giggle a little bit, tbh. DPS doesn't remotely want that responsibility! (They briefly took over Austin's DNA lab, then declared the staff unteachable and shuttered it instead of fixing it.) And the Austin Police Association types blustering against the city council today would wish to their unlucky stars they were back under the city budget the first time they came to the Texas Legislature asking for a pay hike. Good luck convincing legislators to pay Austin cops far higher wages than their local officers!

It's clear the governor is looking for ways to punish Austin, but these inchoate and profoundly un-conservative suggestions (until now, most Texas conservatives thought property-tax relief/freezes were a good thing, not a punishment for liberals) make little sense as policy. They're just election fodder; red meat for the base.

To me, though, Abbott is misreading his state-level base in an attempt to coordinate messaging with national Republican campaign themes. More than a few long-time Texas conservatives find themselves torn between Trumpian touts of "American carnage" and their traditional values of smaller government and local control. The state punishing local government for budget cutting flies in the face of GOP messaging since before Reagan. It's one thing to pivot from those views, but it's being done without explanation beyond "the Democrats are so scary we must abandon our principles."

Some conservatives believe that; others do not. Even if those who don't remain quiet during election season, one wonders about the wisdom of a party abandoning the guiding foundations of its four-decade ideological base in order to prevail in a single campaign cycle.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Podcast: Update from the March on Washington, slave patrols and Texas policing, the politics of police budgets, and other stories

In the September 2020 episode of Just Liberty's Reasonably Suspicious podcast, the Austin Justice Coalition's Chas Moore substitutes for Mandy to co-host with Scott Henson. 

This month, we discuss:
  • The March on Washington and protesters' theory of change (0:45)
  • Slave patrols and the history of Texas policing (9:15)
  • The politics of Austin's police budget cuts (31:46)
In the Last Hurrah segment (42:25), Chas and I took up:
  • Austin PD's 911 call data analyzed
  • Dallas Chief under fire in protest aftermath
  • Texas' George Floyd Act
Find a transcript below the jump. Enjoy!

Harris County bail trends belie demagoguery from police, DA

When it comes to crime, trends trump anecdotes for managers but anecdotes trump trends for the press.

That's Grits' takeaway from the report from federal monitors analyzing reforms generated by Harris County's misdemeanor bail litigation. For the last year we've seen Houston's police chief and the local police union engaging in near-continuous demagoguery over bail reform, claiming it had caused a rampant crime spree. Now it's evident that's not true.

One of the difficulties when debating criminal-justice topics is that the system is so vast that you can find an anecdote for anything, whether you prefer stories of salvation or damnation. So it's good that the monitors' report took a global view. Reported the Texas Tribune:
The report found the rate of new criminal complaints filed against misdemeanor defendants in Harris County within a year of their initial arrest had not changed since the reforms were implemented in early 2019.

The report also found the gap between white and Black defendants being released before trial narrowed under the county’s new system. Before the lawsuit, white people were more likely to bond out of jail before trial than Black people. Data on Hispanic defendants is unavailable.

See also Houston Chronicle coverage. Monitors found that, "recidivism is stable or declining across the entire time period from 2015-2019 for each of the 90, 180, and 365-day time periods." Moreover, "we do not see any change during the 2015 to 2019 time period regarding repeat offenses that are felonies."

Will we now see a wave of Houston TV news stories going back to their old reporting and correcting the stream of misimpressions they've left by uncritically quoting the police chief and union boss spinning anecdotes to mislead the public? Almost certainly not. In fact, if those two held a press conference tomorrow doing the same thing, it'd be covered without caveat or contradiction, just like before.

Perusing the rest of the report, a monitor's analysis of 560 cases set for either personal or cash bond found the DA opposed to the bond set in a majority of cases - 290.  (See chart, pp. 11-12.)

Further, despite criticisms of Harris County misdemeanor judges for releasing people on bond too liberally, the monitors found that "real judgment is being exercised whether there is a pressing public safety need to detain the individual." Their support for this assertion: "[I]n some cases (59 of the 579 cases examined), the CCCL judges later modified pretrial conditions set by the hearing officers, denying or granting a personal bond; finding that bond conditions were violated; and/or raising or lowering the bond amount."

In addition to expanded personal bonds, monitors observed "a substantial reduction in the initial bond amount set" over time since the rule change. In particular, "the initial bond amount was nearly always $500 or more before 2019, but the initial bond amount of $100 or less became much more common after the adoption of Rule 9 in 2019."

Another interesting change: As a result of monitors' discussions with hearing officers, they determined that often the basis for magistration decisions was not adequately explained in the forms. It turned out, the electronic form only gave space to include two lines of text. The form was expanded to allow explanations up to 1,000 words, and hearing officers empirically have begun to expand their analysis. Over time, this could lead to a lot more information about how and why pretrial-detention decisions are made, an area which has largely been a black box since time immemorial. Still, the monitors say:

the practice has improved, but it is still not always apparent what the clear and convincing evidence is to support a particular pre-trial condition. In conversations with representatives of the Public Defender’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office, we learned that both prosecutors and defense attorneys would benefit from opinions that provide clear recitations of the facts supporting the clear and convincing standard for decisions on the choice of bond conditions, a person’s ability to pay a secured bond, and whether the decision reflects a need to protect the public safety.

Monitors remain concerned that many decisions are still issued despite the:

absence of a statement of the evidence that meets the clear and convincing standard for a particular pretrial condition; the lack of explanation for the choice of a particular amount of financial bond; the need for explicit findings of ability to pay, consistent with the Consent Decree definition of indigency; and the need for an explicit finding, based on clear and convincing evidence, that detention is necessary if the person cannot afford the amount required

While jail stays have reduced for most misdemeanor defendants under the new system, for a few, detention periods have significantly increased. "[W]hile a large majority (at least 75%) of misdemeanor arrestees in the past two years have experienced fewer jail days than before the ODonnell lawsuit, others continue to experience relatively lengthy jail stays, driving up average detention length and costs." The monitors will examine this topic in more detail in future reports: "because jail stays are ... a significant driver of cost, more investigation is needed to understand the reasons for lengthy pretrial stays for some individuals arrested."

However, it turns out the biggest expense from incarcerating misdemeanants comes from the "$800 cost per misdemeanor booking drives costs to rise and fall in accordance with the number of people arrested." That's much higher than Grits had understood booking costs to be, and in terms of fiscal costs, it's revelatory. Every arrest avoided saves the county the $800 booking cost, plus whatever additional incarceration costs may be incurred. That's no small sum! Monitors suggested that, "jail costs associated with the number of bookings can potentially be contained by reducing the number of arrests through alternatives such as citations, diversion, or community treatment alternatives." 

That said, "While these early findings are orienting, the data is not yet in a form for jail costs to be fully examined." Look for this topic to be revisited in future reports.

This report describes promising progress and is a welcome antidote to demagogic local media coverage based on anecdotal complaints from the DA and police. Demonstrating these more sanguine trends won't stop the press or those officials from focusing on salacious anecdotes. But perhaps these reports can give the courts and county confidence to look past all the Chicken Little rhetoric and stay the course. Things are improving.