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. 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.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

Amidst many proposals, police reform in Houston seems stalled out

So, here are the basics regarding police reform in Houston so far as I understand them.

The Mayor has created a task force to suggest reforms but no one expects much of it.

Five council members this week came out with a letter demanding 25 reforms, some big (eliminate the 180-day rule and the 48-hour rule), some small (video recording walk-throughs at the scene of police shootings), and some perhaps deviating from the spirit of recent protests ("Mandatory community engagement hours in predominately minority areas for all patrol officers.")

However, two council members who've worked most closely with reformers didn't sign onto the letter and say they want more. They and advocates feel shut out of the process.

And even if the five and the two were working together, that's only seven on a 16 member council (5 at large, 11 districts).

Efforts to re-prioritize the police budget were quashed by the Mayor and police chief. Any "defund the police" agenda must wait until at least 2021. Big ships turn slowly.

Meanwhile, advocates have been completely rebuffed in their demands to at least view negotiations between the City of Houston and the police union over a meet-and-confer contract.  One of the demands from the five council members was to have council representation at the negotiations, but that's not good enough. Advocates' experience in Austin showed that, if no one in the public knows what's going on at that table, it's impossible to influence the outcome.

There are many council members who haven't expressed their views. So that math isn't meant to play the defeatist but to define the starting line. Advocates in Austin didn't start with a unanimous city council supporting them. They worked each office item by item, identifying areas of agreement and surfacing those happy coincidences to develop a package on which every element could win a council majority. At that point, council members' support for the whole package became unanimous. But that didn't occur until the final week before the vote. 

Austin reformers were lucky. They were already fully mobilized before the George-Floyd protests ever began because of the campaign to fire Chief Brian Manley following Mike Ramos' murder. The letter calling for Manley's ouster basically consisted of a recitation of years' worth of policy disappointments on many different fronts, collectively articulating a broad-based reform agenda, but in the negative: Here's what he won't let us do. So when the opportunity came to influence the budget, a) there were talented people ready to throw in to identify real-world cuts and changes from that agenda that could be implemented right now, and b) many organizations were already onboard with the major parts of it because they'd signed the Fire-Manley letter.

Knowing all that went into achieving Austin's budget cuts and related reforms, it's not surprising to me that few other cities went as big. It wouldn't have happened here if Brian Manley weren't near-universally distrusted and hadn't rallied his foes before the George-Floyd protests ever began. And still, even in Austin, most of the change remains in front of us and could easily be derailed in the coming year or three. 

Houston activists missed a few opportunities this summer, but that's okay. The Mayor certainly didn't help, and there wasn't much of a path without him. Changing public-safety culture in America is a long-term process. One can only do what can be done now and plan to do more later. Now, they should be pushing hard to build support on council for open police contract meetings - a call for transparency around what is actually a huge vendor-contract, and should be of interest to a wide range of Council members - so advocates can observe those and begin planning to make a much bigger stab at reforms next year. Some of the changes on the council members' 25-item list are great, but shouldn't divert anyone's eyes from the prize.

The protests gave police reform a sense of extreme immediacy, but to actually achieve the goals involves settling in for the long haul. These tepid, toe-in-the-water proposals don't yet represent the full panoply of reforms needed in Houston, but players are all trying to gauge interest. If the elections come and go and the political temperature still seems fine, maybe more of them will be ready to dive into the deep end on budget and contract votes down the line.

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Early Texans couldn't get enough slave patrols, but didn't want to pay for them.

A bit more on slave patrols, which county commissioners courts were authorized to enact in the 1st Texas Legislature in 1846, the year after Texas became a state. We've discussed these antebellum slave-catcher patrol operations briefly: Created by county commissioners courts, comprised of local districts, sometimes many of them, with 4-6 officers in each. But I wanted to know more about them. Here are some related anecdotes from early Texas newspapers in the 1840s and '50s, found online at the University of North Texas' excellent "Portal to Texas History" site.

In 1858, during a legislative debate, state Representative Powell from Montgomery County implied some Texans felt the slave patrollers weren't doing much on the job. He attributed this to slave catchers for whom the work was just a paycheck but who had no connection to slave-owner culture and values: "Heretofore patrols have been appointed by the County Courts, and they have frequently been men who felt no responsibility resting on them, who rode when it suited their convenience and who, when it did not, did not know their duties or if they ever knew, did not perform them." He thought volunteers from slave owning families would be better connected to the slave systems and thus more effective at their duties. (State Gazette, May 1, 1858)

At the same time, and somewhat contradictory to his earlier holding, Mr. Powell argued against giving slave patrollers minimum work requirements: "[W]hen there is no occasion, why force a man to serve 12 hours in the week? Why compel a man who lives in the beat on which he serves, and who knows every plantation and negro in it, to take an oath to perform certain duties when he is satisfied that there is no necessity in it?" Why shouldn't the cop hang out all morning in the donut shop? He knows his beat best! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The concern that layabouts and loafers might draw a paycheck was a whitewashed version of the bigger fear over staffing slave patrols: their brutality and cruelty. One of the main arguments against them in the first place had been the caliber of men drawn to the profession.
Mr. Jones of Galveston hoped the bill would not pass. He had lived in slave-holding country, and had seen the evil of such a law. he said that persons who made application to act as patrols under the law, who availed themselves of the powers granted to them to maraud about the country and commit such outrages as would make him blush to name in the House. He said that owners of negroes could take care of themselves and if they were required to be answerable for the damages committed by them, there would be little need of patrols under such a law as this. (Austin Daily Bulletin, January 17, 1842)
Debates over creating slave patrols sometimes mirrored modern crime debates: in particular, the issues of runaway slaves and crime were openly conflated when there was no logical link, using fear of crime to gin up fear of black people and vice versa. For instance, on April 9, 1856, the Houston Weekly Telegraph editorialized on behalf of local patrols, blaming a supposed rise in burglaries on unsupervised black people:

It has become a notorious and patent fact that burglaries are becoming more and more frequent  in our city, and as it is almost next to impossible to detect the guilty parties after the commission of the offence, we propose to call attention to such portions of our statute law as seem best calculated to serve as preventives.

The first thing that strikes an attentive observer on his arrival in Houston is the immense latitude allowed to the negroes. No matter what time of night you pass through the streets, you are sure to meet parties of negroes who go where they please, unquestioned and irresponsible. Such a thing as a "pass" is unheard of and we doubt if they are even furnished. In certain quarters of the city there are large congregations of negroes, who hire their own time, and who live entirely free from the supervision of any white man. Speaking candidly and impartially, there is more insolence among the negroes of Houston and more careless conduct than in any other city or town South of Mason and Dixon's line.

Of course, this state of affairs, this immunity from all question, affords the negroes great opportunities for theft, and in many instances, familiar to our citizens,they have not been backward in taking advantage of it. If the negroes are made sure of, if we are certain that it is not our slaves who are engaged in these burglarious practices, it then greatly reduces the number of persons liable to suspicion, and affords greater opportunity for detecting the robber.

We have laws enough on this subject but they have become a dead letter. It is a mockery of legislation to enact and re-enact but to do nothing towards enforcing. The law is sufficiently stringent and efficient - the 2653 article of Hartley's Digest, under the 'act to provide for the appointment of patrol,' says 'that 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 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.' The first section of the act provides for the appointment of the patrol by the County Court 'upon application.'

Something must be done in this matter. Our property is not safe and it naturally suggests itself: are not our persons in danger? We trust the matter of allowing negroes to be about the streets without permission will receive the serious attention of our citizens.

While I'm loving the use of the word "burglarious," Grits cannot endorse the totalitarian calculus being performed here. The assumption is that "We suspect all black people and some white people of being thieves. If we suppress all black people and keep them off the streets, then if thefts continue, we'll know it's white people doing it and our list of suspects will get smaller." Such thinking cannot survive any thoughtful moral assessment, much less cost-benefit analysis, but the logic seemed inescapable to the writer, and no doubt many of his readers.

Slave patrols were designed to enforce apartheid and thwart the Underground Railroad to Mexico, not for general crime prevention. Using tools created for the one problem to apply to the other lies at the root of many 21st century criminal-justice conundrums

For most white Texans, patrols were controversial not because of their brutality but because they were expensive. In 1851, Bexar County employed 108 people covering 18 districts across the county. Grits has yet to find records of slave patrol districts from other counties, so I have no idea to estimate a statewide count, much less how much they were paid. But if Bexar County's numbers are indicative, these were easily the largest local law enforcement outfits in the state during the 1840s and '50s. No Sheriff or Constable had that many staff.

Sometimes people wanted cities to create their own patrols, expanding capacity beyond the county system. However, paying so many people became a political barrier to patrol deployment. Many thought the work should be left to professionals. Others considered the expense an excuse for not doing it and called for volunteer-driven patrols, though these seemed to have often been short-term projects, for a month or two. The May 1, 1856 edition of The San Antonio Texan described a meeting debating creation of a volunteer city patrol in addition to the county patrol

The ordinance concerning the organization of a city patrol was passed near a month ago and thus far it has had a charming effect; for since its passages, but two thefts, during the night, have come to our knowledge, and in both instances the malefactors were apprehended and the property recovered. 

Some are opposed to the system and express a desire for the city to tax the citizens and hire a patrol; but most of these persons have little or no taxable property. 

The intention of the city council was, to try this plan for a month, and if it seemed not to answer the purpose intended, or if there should be need for it no longer, to stop it for the present. 

We believe at the end of the month it will not be needed longer, for the present - such has already been its effect in removing rowdies and quieting our city.

Some jurisdictions gave the City Marshal's office the slave patrol job. But they don't appear to have staffed them as liberally, relying instead on volunteers and the cooperation of the public. The Indianola City Council in 1859 created a 9 o'clock curfew for any negro or slave, requiring a written permit from a master, owner or employer to be off their premises, reported the August 13, 1859 Indianola Courier. Instead of patrol officers, though, the City Marshal was charged with apprehending and jailing "any negro or slave offending against" this ordinance, although "it shall also be lawful for any free white person so take up or apprehend any such negro or slave so offending, and to deliver any such negro or slave into the custody of the marshal."

Black folks caught by the patrol received between 10 and 39 lashes, for which the master had to pay the City Marshal a fee of $2. The same 39-lash/$2 punishment would be applied to "each and every negro and slave caught playing cards or any gambling game" in Indianola.

It would be too strong to say Texas law enforcement originated with slave patrols. County Sheriffs were around during the Republic and mandated in the new 1845 state constitution one year before patrols were authorized. Plus, both Sheriffs and early City Marshals had broader duties (often related to fee collection) than patrol officers, which was generally a part-time job.

But I think it's fair to say that 1) slave patrols were the largest law enforcement systems in antebellum Texas, bigger than Sheriffs or any local police force, 2) prior to the Civil War, slave patrols were the only law-enforcement officers reported to perform patrol functions in any jurisdiction, and 3) antebellum law enforcement was deeply intertwined with the slave-patrol apparatus, with contemporary media commonly conflating crime prevention and suppression of black people.

This post is part of an ongoing series, see related Grits coverage:

Republic of Texas passed law against being free and black

Even before slave patrols, the Republic of Texas approved a statute in 1840 dictating that free black people who emigrated to Texas would be given ten days notice, then arrested and forcibly removed from the state. 
if any free persons of color shall emigrate to this Republic, it shall be the duty of the sheriff, or any one of the constables of the county to which such emigration shall be made, to arrest such free person of color, after giving him ten day's notice, and bring him before the Chief Justice of the county, or Judge of the district; and it shall be the duty of the Chief Justice, or Judge of the district, before whom such free person of color may be brought, to receive the bond of such free person of color in the sum of one thousand dollars, with the security of a citizen, to be approved by him, conditioned for the removal of such free person of color out of the limits of the Republic.

There's something they didn't teach us in that 7th grade Texas history class!