Thursday, November 19, 2020

On police oversight and union obstructionism: Why Houston and SA oversight systems are terrible and remembering that time the police unions sent Nelson Wolff a dead rat

Two items related to police oversight merit Grits readers' attention:

First, the Kinder Institute at Rice University analyzed police oversight systems in Texas in a new report. The ones in Houston and San Antonio stood out as being especially worthless. San Antonio's review board reports to the police chief; Houston's reports to the mayor. Neither are achieving their missions and provide little if any added value when it comes to holding police accountable or promoting policy changes to reduce police violence.

They found that Fort Worth, Dallas, and Austin more closely align with national best practices on police oversight. All three have been recently revamped. Fort Worth created a police monitor with no board; Austin and Dallas have hybrid models with both police monitors and review boards, though neither has yet gotten up and running fully.

See initial coverage from the SA Express News and Houston public radio and an op ed from the authors

As always, budgets reveal underlying values: The SA and Houston boards have $0 budgets; Fort Worth and Dallas' monitors have budgets in the mid-six figures; after a recent expansion, Austin's Officer of Police Oversight has a $3.4 million budget, Kinder reported.

The document declines to recommend which model is best, in part because the systems in Fort Worth, Dallas, and Austin were too new to be evaluated. But they found those three oversight systems were much closer to national best practices than SA or Houston.

Grits would suggest Austin's system has accomplished the most so far, but it's hard to know whether to attribute that to the structure or the fact that they enjoy FAR more staff and resources. Fort Worth's (brand new) monitor might do more if their budget were increased five fold.

Anyway, the document provides a good, much-needed introduction and overview to police oversight systems in Texas. I learned a lot from it.

Meanwhile, former San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley has an interview in Texas Monthly promoting a new book she's written about negotiating the SA police contract with the union, whom she dubs "greedy bastards." I've ordered the book and may review it later, but the interview is fascinating. For starters,  she emphasized that police unions' power in Texas is an outlier:

The police and fire unions, in San Antonio and elsewhere in Texas, are a powerful political force. Thanks to laws passed by the legislature in the 1980s, these unions are allowed to endorse political candidates, contribute money to them, and provide lots of volunteers for their campaigns. As a city manager for thirty years, in places like Phoenix and Kalamazoo, I’d never encountered a situation where police officers and firefighters could be this actively involved in picking the officials who would decide their compensation and discipline.

Sculley described some of the dirty tricks employed by the union:

It’s a classic protection racket, and it can get ugly. When Nelson [Wolff, the county judge for Bexar County, which includes San Antonio] wouldn’t take political contributions from one of the unions, they sent him a fancy gift basket with a dead rat in it. During negotiations on the police contract, some officers would tail members of our negotiating committee when they were driving, in what we assumed was an effort at intimidation.

And she criticized the civil service rules in terms which will be familiar to any regular Grits reader:

Under terms of the police contract, disciplinary actions are subject to strict limitations. They can be appealed and many are. Often suspensions are reduced to written reprimands. When an officer is accused of misconduct, he gets 48 hours to get his story straight before being interviewed by internal affairs investigators. No civilian suspect gets that. The police chief cannot base his discipline on that officer’s entire personnel file, or it will get overturned in the arbitration process. If the officer hasn’t made the same mistake within two years, his record before then is off-limits. We might have a five-page list of infractions in the officer’s file, and less than a half page of that is admissible in arbitration.

If the officer is successful in concealing his or her misconduct for a while, and the chief doesn’t learn about it within 180 days of it happening, he’s not allowed to impose any disciplinary action. That’s what happened with the officer who served a shit sandwich to a homeless man.

We’ve fired officers for beating up unarmed suspects, having sex with suspects, and when the officers have appealed, we’ve been forced to take them back.
I've heard these sorts of stories for years behind the scenes, but never expected a former city manager to put them down in a memoir! Can't wait to read her book.


Gadfly said...

Grits, you didn't note the "icing on the cake" re this being about police and fire UNIONS:

"The daughter of a labor leader, Sculley has chronicled her experiences with the police and fire unions ..."

Emphasis added.

Anonymous said...

“Union” is probably the most over used word in the post. Most Texas law enforcement “unions” that you speak of are actually “associations” so “association” is most appropriate. Unions are good as are associations.

Anonymous said...

When a workers collective sends you a dead rat in the mail does it really matter what you call their little jackboot club?

I'll stop misusing words when they stop misusing literally everything.

Anonymous said...

So Grits does post Anonymously, “I’ll stop misusing words when they stop...”?

Anonymous said...

Unions are only bad for law enforcement and firefighters, but good for everyone else? Still a unique concept as the Democratic Party and those mainly represented by said party generally support unions and organized labor.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Nope, 8:51, that's not me. I put my name on my comments here.

@8:59, I'd say law enforcement and the military. I'm fine with firefighters organizing. They're not armed agents of the state; that's the relevant distinction.

Anonymous said...

Grits, have you ever compared the law enforcement complaint process to any other organization’s internal complaint process? It seems that we keep comparing the internal process to a criminal one where they are actually separate to the point that anything turned up in the internal investigation can’t be used in the criminal one?
Also, any idea what percentage of agencies investigate their own on the criminal side? Maybe an improvement to TCOLE (referencing your last post) would be to have the replaced licensing agency manage a more discrete breakdown of the difference between the two types of investigations to make it more obvious to an outside observer and guarantee that criminal complaints aren’t investigated by someone’s buddies.