Friday, October 02, 2020

Houston Mayor's Policing Task Force Recap, Part 2: "Let the 'good cops' speak!," toward a functional police-oversight system, changes to use of force and bodycam policies needed, and building trust through transparency

Here's Part 2 of Grits' tripartite, annotated analysis of the new report from the Houston Mayor's Task Force on Policing Reform. See Part 1 here.

Improving Complaint Process: Allow anonymous complaints to let 'good cops' speak up
The Task Force recommended several important improvements to the complaint process, including allowing complaints online. "Currently, people can submit complaints in person at any police substation, at the Internal Affairs/Central Intake Office or at community organizations," said the report, though we learn later the procedures for community organizations to take complaints have "fallen into disuse." They suggest translating and accepting complaint forms in multiple languages ("Houston residents speak over 145 languages"), and hiring staff to better communicate with complainants.

They did not recommend going so far as Austin did to allow anonymous complaints. A missed opportunity, but something that could still be proposed. They should also publish de-identified versions of complaints, whether or not they're sustained, as Austin has begun to do. This would require amending the union contract or changing state law.

A few years ago, Grits might not have considered anonymous complaints a hill worth dying on. But my wife did, along with the good folks at the Austin Justice Coalition. And a funny thing happened when Austin implemented that policy: Cops started using the system! Moreover, they often identified misconduct that civilians could never glimpse to report. (Truly, you can't predict how reforms will turn out IRL until you implement them.)

For this reason, allowing anonymous complaints in Austin has been a much greater boon to accountability than your correspondent would have thought: If Houston really wants the "good cops" to have a voice, that's the best way to do it. Investigators will determine whether complainants are credible based on whether their information holds up. The identity of the complainant shouldn't matter, anyway, if the allegations are true. Give good cops a forum where they can speak up, and some of them will!

Make Independent Police Oversight Board more functional
Several recommendations were simply aimed at directly confronting the fact that the Independent Police Oversight Board (IPOB) in Houston has been coopted by anti-reform forces. They quoted a former board member declaring, "far too many Board members are uncritical boosters of the police and policing, sometimes shamelessly so, which hinders their ability to fairly evaluate officer conduct." Further, 
IPOB members’ recent support of the four HPD officers who shot Houston resident, Nicolas Chavez, 21 times confirms our belief that the IPOB’s culture must be fundamentally overhauled. It is distressing to the Task Force that the civilians put in place to hold officers accountable would defend these officers’ actions when even the Chief of Police himself said that he “cannot defend [the officers’] actions” and deemed their use of force “not objectively reasonable.”
They recommended replacing the current IPOB chair and panel chairs, instituting staggered terms to ensure leadership doesn't stagnate. Grits doesn't mind this but considers it a situational change: When good leaders are appointed who are committed to the board's mission, long tenure isn't a problem and may yield benefits. Staggered terms are more little-d democratic but also assumes leadership will be bad and need replacing. The Mayor could also just begin to appoint people committed to the agency's mission.

Hard to argue with giving the board more information and training, giving them 30 days instead of 15 to review files, requiring Internal Affairs staff to be more responsive, improving their website, nor appointing a deputy at the Inspector General's office dedicated to HPD and the IPOB. And requiring the Chief to respond to IPOB reform recommendations (in writing, please, and on a time table - say, 30 or 45 days) can only be a good thing.

Whether to expand the IPOB by ten members is another question and depends on what the city decides should be the agency's mission. The Task Force has suggested it should perform an "investigative" role. But as Grits pointed out in Part 1, there's no place in the disciplinary process for the results of such an investigation to have an influence.

One recommendation would be quite welcome but seems like a longshot: "Past IPOB members have shared that the recommendations from the IAD 'feel like narratives or advocacy pieces written on behalf of and defending police'" The Task Force recommended that IAD produce "Objective reports" with "a more balanced perspective that duly contemplates the actions of both sides." Don't hold your breath, says Grits. This is the argument for having an independent Police Monitor staff the board. You're simply not going to get "balanced" or "objective" from IAD.

Body Worn Cameras: Make footage public and punish cops who turn them off
The Task Force wants universal use of body-worn cameras and would like video promptly released, especially in critical incidents, "without redaction." HPD has authority to do that now and could choose to create a policy for releasing video, as Austin has done. But in Houston, the discretion lies entirely with the Chief, who resists releasing video when it makes the department look bad.

IPOB members complained that some cases lacked BWC footage because officers didn't turn on their devices. They believed that routine "forgetfulness should not be tolerated" and HPD should "make clear ... discipline is required for an officer not turning on his or her BWC." Grits would add this should be a per se violation. If the footage isn't captured, the excuse doesn't matter. I can't tell you how tired I am of hearing about "equipment malfunctions" that can't be replicated.

The Task Force also recommended HPD invest in dashcams for their vehicles, and Grits agrees. Body cams have some weird and problematic issues surrounding how people interpret video information that can be balanced by a view of the whole scene. E.g., the bodycam view of the suspect struggling may make more sense when you see a wider shot of the officer assaulting them. According to the task force, only 12% of HPD squad cars are equipped with dashcams.

The Task Force recommended that facial recognition software never be used with BWCs. Grits would add it should also not be used with stationary cameras operated around town by police, nor on third-party video to which the department has access (e.g., through the DPS fusion center), unless it's part of a probable-cause-based investigation.

Use of Force: Less of it, please
I feel sorry for our friends at Campaign Zero, but the flak they caught over their #8cantwait campaign was justified. Their asks were too small for the moment and too easily fudged. The Task Force began its use of force section by invoking the campaign to say Houston PD had already implemented the #8cantwait reforms. Grits hasn't gone through HPD policies to verify that, but in any event, it's not a high bar.

The Task Force went on to recommend a complete ban on no-knock warrants; Chief Acevedo's reform had been to require his personal sign off. Grits is with the task force: I'd prefer a complete ban (statewide, not just in Houston).

The Task Force also recommended updating and consolidating deescalation and use of force policies. Grits would have gone further. In the proposed Texas George Floyd Act, Houston state Rep. Senfronia Thompson has recommended, as she has in the past, changing state law to limit the use of deadly force in ways that comport with national best practices. HPD should change its policies to comply with that standard, not adjust its policies around the current statutory framework. HPD can and should set higher expectations for its officers than the rather low bar in current state law.

Grits doesn't particularly care about a requirement that officers have this or that number of hours of higher education. There are many people, as the late humorist Jerry Clower used to say, who've been educated beyond their intelligence.

Nor do I think we need to designate "high crime areas" and only send cops in pairs to those neighborhoods. The Task Force suggests that, "Based on the duty to intercede policy, multiple officers are more likely to hold one another accountable and prevent an officer from using force without cause." In theory, that could be true, and I wish I weren't so jaded as to no longer believe that would be the result. But I don't. 

Rather, Grits believes such thinking contributes to a set of assumptions and pre-programmed responses in neighborhoods pre-judged as dangerous that I don't consider valid, healthy nor proper. Don't treat black folks like animals who cops can only approach  in twos. If your officers say they're too scared to patrol alone, find different ones.

The recommendation for an "early warning system" has been tried many times but the threshold to trigger a warning is almost always set too high and the bad guys are missed. If HPD does this, it should perform a massive data experiment testing various EWS protocols (honestly, dozens wouldn't be over the top) over the course of several years. Police managers should begin a process that will let them know 3-5 years from now what the best EWS system is for Houston: Don't assume you know on the front end.

'Rebuilding trust through transparency'
Among the most exciting recommendations related to opening up the process to give the public and reformers a better sense of what's going on: You can't manage what you can't measure, after all.

So I was happy to see the recommendation for "a public database of complaints against officers, sustained and unsustained," as well as more formalized, public reporting of disciplinary actions against officers. With efforts afoot to create use of force databases among constables and possibly the sheriff, we could soon have much more information about use of force in the Bayou City than would ever have been possible before.

Attentive readers may recall that, when the first round of Sandra-Bland-Act data was released, Houston PD used force at traffic stops more often than any other agency in the state, according to its self-reported data. So we definitely need more granular data if anyone's going to figure out how to reduce those totals, which probably surprised even HPD managers.

Grits is interested in the idea of "performance-based audits of patrol and investigative functions," but really want to understand better what are the best performance metrics by which to judge those duties. For investigative functions, "clearance rates" is probably the best one. But for patrol? I'm beginning to think a big part of the problem with 21st century policing is that we don't have a firm grasp of exactly what cops should be doing in that function or how to measure success, much less identify failure.

The various policy adjustments suggested in the "respectful, equitable policing" section all seem reasonable with this caveat: Culture eats policy for breakfast. So changing these policies - even ones like authorizing citations instead of arrest for pot and driving with an expired license - doesn't guarantee officers' behavior will change in the field. That requires buy in from police management.

Finally, I'm loving that the Task Force recommended that Houston join Harris County in pulling out of the OmniBase program. The state should end it altogether. This is Texas' program for turning traffic-ticket debt into warrants and it's optional for localities. Thanks to the good work of the Texas Fair Defense Project (particularly Emily Gerrick, who's been dogged on the subject), and Texas Appleseed, more cities are beginning to realize they aren't required to suck drivers into a seemingly endless cycle of jail and debt. It'd be huge if Houston opted out.

Tomorrow: In Part 3, I'll take up mental-health first response, decriminalizing prostitution, training, officer health and wellness, and offer some big-picture reflections on the Task Force's proposals.


  1. Anonymous complaints: Unless you advocate using anonymous complaints against the rest of us to draw up warrants, this is a bad idea. Approximately 80% of existing complaints against HPD officers come from other officers and this has been the case for decades. The belief that some mystical thin blue line prevents or inhibits cops from ratting out their own is just not plausible except for the occasional policy violation. If someone has a legitimate complaint against a cop, they should be willing to put their name behind it, and that notion is supported by our current political leaders in Austin on both sides of the political spectrum.

    Independent Police Oversight Board: The problem with appoints according to some self appointed reformists is that those appointed tend to be at least leaning in favor of police. The proposed solution by such activists is that they be pointed instead, refusing to see that replacing one set of biases with another is at least as problematic. Too many of them have an axe to grind and would act accordingly per their own comments. Those neutral to police wouldn't likely care to invest the amount of time and energy but at least that is an avenue worth considering. The details of the Chavez shooting made for compelling "split the baby" advocacy to some, the cop union providing plenty of supporting data to convince the bulk of the board to advocate less discipline.

    Things like demanding IA be more responsive sound good on paper but last minute requests on a late Friday afternoon still won't be looked at until the following week unless you designate specific sergeants to the task, which then translates into those individuals who have not worked on a case to come up with nuanced answers quickly, probably resulting in worse results. Extending the time may help but that depends on the individual board members because many sit on cases until the last minute now, extending the deadlines would just push that back further.

    Body Cameras: "If the footage isn't captured, the excuse doesn't matter." I don't think that would appeal to managers or politicians expecting fairness. Grits' level of being tired aside, I don't think many arbitrators or judges would appreciate the reasoning either, better to adopt a technological solution where they come on with the emergency equipment or when someone is assigned a service call, if not expect the dispatcher to activate them remotely. They are still fairly new and I doubt most of us would remember to turn them on when about to face a potentially deadly situation, the fact that they generally absolve the officer of wrong doing over 90% of the time should make cops want them on regardless. All footage should stream to the cloud though and be available, consider it a cost of privacy when you use public services such as police to eliminate redaction or editing.

    Use of Force/2 cops per car: I'm a believer that someone needs to play Monday morning quarterback but other than training for de-escalation and making it a goal, others can handle that because there is no way to instill a "you getting hurt comes with the job" mentality needed to appease the activists, my clients notwithstanding. The idea behind sending 2 cops in a car is safety and the safer they feel, the less reason they will have to shoot. If a location or neighborhood is particularly prone to violent encounters, the cops will probably know it already unless they are new or less experienced, the junior officers are much more likely to shoot in such places. Their policy requires them to wait for backup for certain calls, backup can take a long time and officers might feel pressured to try and handle the service call on their own which can/has led to problems that a 2 cop car would have reduced greatly.

  2. The biggest reason for the violence associated with police interactions is fear. Fear of police causes many to lash out verbally and sometimes physically at officers who are only trying to serve the community where they work. Fear of that violence causes officers to assume that every encounter with citizens will result in their being wounded or killed. To break that cycle of fear we need to build familiarity. If you know and trust each other, there is no fear. How can that be achieved in a large urban sprawl?

  3. @8:06, your extended commentary is full of red herrings. Allowing anonymous complaints to initiate employment reviews is a FAR cry from using them to "draw up warrants" for arrest. Grow up.

    On IPOB, read the quotes from the task force on its members' biases. In reality, it's the opposite of what you say.

    On bodycams, it's not just me being tired, it's the Task Force, Austin's police monitor, etc.. The excuse is too convenient and too frequently used, and waiting for future tech solutions is unacceptable. They'll turn the cameras on the day they know they'll be punished if they don't.

    On sending officers in pairs, show me evidence that that reduces police violence and you may convince me. Try to tell me that having two cops means one of them will be ethical and report the other is just pissing on my shoes and telling me it's raining. Too often that looks like the episode when the cop who shot Mike Ramos, in an earlier case, filed a false police report corroborating misinformation from a veteran officer. (He later flipped and testified for the state, so wasn't held accountable.)

  4. Grits, Anon 8:06 here. The premise is similar when you start taking anonymous complaints seriously, something prohibited by state law at the moment. Most complaints against HPD officers come from other officers and they are not anonymous now. If there's any serious concern over retaliation, they don't seem to show it but were that the case, just how far do you think an action against a cop would go before the accused figured out who made the accusation?

    On IPOB, do you honestly think the activists will be appeased with anyone other than their cronies, if not themselves, are on the board? I concur that the current board leans a bit one way but replacing them with people that are far, far the opposite is not a good solution either.

    Body Cameras: I think all footage should be directly uploaded to the cloud, unedited, for the public to see. That is a lot more transparent than anything you've come up with but I still think using a guilt unless proven innocence will result in a whole lot of backlash. You suspect malfeasance then prove it.

    2 cops per car: Ask HPD for their internal reports on using 2 officers per car. I don't think it automatically lowers police violence any more than I automatically think it greatly reduces violence against cops but it reduces the ability of a singular officer getting to dictate the narrative should he shoot someone, also lowering the ability to use deadly force because she/he is afraid. The city counters with the number of report calls or low risk service calls amounting to the super majority of calls, also the need for coverage when there are under 500 cops patrolling in excess of 650 square miles on a given night.

  5. RE: anonymous complaints. Austin is doing it and the sky hasn't fallen. And the premise is not the same. The threshold for having your employer review your conduct is different than for criminal prosecution. No different from a "complaint box" in a retail business. Austin has always had a fair number of complaints from officers, as well; now they have more.

    Re: IPOB, yes, I think you're being cynical and reformers are acting with greater good faith than you give them credit for. Appoint people who aren't pro-police shills and who understand their *job* is a watchdog for the agency, not a lapdog. Then people will trust them.

    I'm all for 100% bodycam transparency (so long as its indexed so it's usable). It's just that the current terms of debate are far from that. On this we agree.

    What would these "internal reports" on 2 cops in a car tell me? That's barely enough detail to ask for them, and if you know, it'd be easier if you'd just tell us. You're Anon here, anyway.