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.