Saturday, December 12, 2020

Galveston has a Civilian Review Board that's somewhere on the spectrum from lame to non-existent

Grits earlier mentioned the report from the Kinder Institute at Rice analyzing civilian oversight systems in Texas. The one in San Antonio, they noted, was so obscure that members of the public calling for oversight didn't know it existed. The SA board was the only one of those studied by the Kinder Institute which wasn't independent of the police department.

Grits learned today, though, that their list was incomplete. Galveston has a civilian review board which analyzes the sufficiency of Internal Affairs investigations into serious police misconduct. But the Galveston's board is overtly designed as an advisory committee to the chief, not as an independent oversight body. I spent a little time in the Galveston Daily News archives to research them further.

The board was created in 2008 and touted as a boon to transparency. But the police union fought it tooth and nail from the beginning. Wrote Galveston-Daily News publisher Dolph Tillotson in 2008 in response to their shenanigans:

My old friend John Bertolino and other members of the Galveston police union are at it again.

They’re demonstrating — again — that if they can’t win a fight on its merits they’ll resort quickly to fighting dirty to threats intimidation and scare tactics.

That rings familiar. Indeed, Tillotson's assessment of union opposition to civilian oversight in 2008 could have been said in 2020 about police-union demagoguery in Austin, Houston, and elsewhere across the state and nation: "Then and now the effort to embarrass and intimidate was just a way to distract Galveston voters from the real issue — the behavior of the police." That's essentially an evergreen quote.

The union continued to undermine Galveston's board over the years until finally the City Council suspended it in December 2019 in response to supposed privacy concerns. The board was reinstated in February with new requirements:

The city council approved changes that will require board members to get the consent of officers to review their personnel files, prohibit board access to information designated confidential and make the board’s recommendations an open record.

The changes also require the board’s meetings to be posted by the city secretary’s office, as other city committees are, and make attendance by anyone other than city staff or board members subject to police chief approval.
In a nutshell, they increased deference to officers, limited the board's access to personnel files, prohibited board members from discussing police misconduct (outside of official, written recommendations), and limited attendance of CRB meetings to people approved by the chief. In essence, they gutted what was already a weak, ineffective system. OTOH, because it only investigated cases given to them by the police chief, the board hadn't had much work lately to begin with:
By the time it was suspended last year, the board seemingly had not had a publicly posted meeting since 2014, despite being required to meet four times a year and provide quarterly reports to the city manager and the city council. The board would only meet when it had a specific investigation to review.
It's regrettable all this came down in the months prior to last year's George Floyd protests. If changes to Galveston's Civilian Review Board had been made in July instead of February, one imagines the outcome could have been different. As things stand, it's basically an example of what not to do.

Indeed, I can't tell if the board is even meeting. Its last posted agenda was prepared by a police lieutenant in March 2018 and included the line item "Review 2017 cases." If they've done anything since then, their website doesn't reflect it.

The area around here is governed by an array of small agencies - Galveston, League City, Texas City, Hitchcock, and Santa Fe, plus the county sheriff - and even if oversight of policing on the island were to improve, the decentralized nature of Texas policing would limit its effectiveness. Civilian oversight in Galveston should be better, but more thought needs to be given to how oversight systems might function in heterogenous jurisdictions like Galveston county, much less like Harris County, which contains some 60+ law enforcement agencies.


Sam said...

I can find a Galveston Municipal Police Association, but not a ‘union’ via my google search. Can you please provide a link to said ‘union’?

Gunny Thompson said...

From Unfiltered and Uncensored Minds of Independent Minds of 3rd Grade Dropouts:

Grits, your experience and efforts are respected by many of us in the community. My concerns are that we are routinely distracted by those who which to maintain the status quo.

If we believe that unelected civilian review boards will provide any simulation of justice, we are spitting in the wind. review boards and Tx Local Government Code 147 are considered special laws that are prohibited by the constitution, Article 3, Section 56, as is intended to prevent the granting of special privileges and to secure uniformity of law throughout the State. Please see In Miller v El Paso County T, 370, 150 S.W. 2D 1000, 1941. 

A court of inquiry is a criminal proceeding authorized by and conducted according to Chapter 52 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. Which provides for judicial transparency.

Anonymous said...

If it engages in collective bargaining it's a union no matter what you call it...

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Sam, "police association" is euphemism for union. Go here for CLEAT's Ron DeLord describing the historical reasons for the differing terminology, dating back to the Boston police strike in 1919.

Anonymous said...

Civilian review boards generally don't work because "regular" citizen appointees get co-opted by the cops, who "train" the appointees with pro-police information and videos. It is difficult to find appointees who haven't been in law enforcement and who are knowledgeable about law enforcement (and, therefore, skeptical about the usual excuses).

Courts of inquiry merely produce yet another white paper about what happened in a given incident. They do not have the authority to indict and it's highly unlikely that their work will ever lead to indictment.

If you want change, you have to change the police union contract -- and that means establishing a political power base to rival law enforcement unions, who routinely organize their members to give campaign contributions, engage in phone-banking and block-walking, and otherwise help elect their supporters to city councils.