Friday, January 15, 2021

When the jail is full, Sheriff, what you gonna do?

Grits noticed the bad news that the Harris County Jail population has ballooned back up near capacity, as reported by Gabby Banks at the Houston Chronicle. Rather than a detailed policy analysis, which I've been offering up on this blog for a decade-and-a-half when it comes to the Harris County Jail, let's change things up on a Friday afternoon and present a few lines of verse, instead:

When the jail is full, Oh Sheriff, what you gonna do?

The cops they keep on bringing them but the courts don't pass them through.

Crime is low, arrests are down, but the seams are bustin' through.

Say, when the jail is full, Sheriff, then what you gonna do?


My cousin the jailer says their numbers' sinking low. 

The state says 1 to 48, but it's harder than they know.

'Cause COVID stopped the jury trials so teeming multitudes

Now wait out the winter months behind those bars so rude.


Oh, when the jail is full Sheriff, hey, what you gonna do?

I hear dozens of jailers are now out. Is it the flu?

And all this so some lawyers can feign verisimilitude,

Instead of just releasing folks till their day in court is due.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Just the (fake) facts, ma'am: Police unions promote alternative reality on new anti-reform site

Several police unions have joined together to create a new website called Texas Police Facts aiming to convince the Texas Legislature there's no need for police reform in 2021. Regular readers won't be surprised to learn the site elides core issues and misrepresents key facts.

Take, for example, the "FACT" they cite to say "claims that minorities are substantially more likely to be contacted by the police are inaccurate." As evidence, they point to this research brief from the DOJ's Bureau of Justice Statistics, but even a cursory examination shows it doesn't back up their contention.

Check out Tbls 3 and 4 of the report: Turns out, black folks are overrepresented in police-initiated contacts; whites are over-represented in crime reporting. Further, "Blacks were more likely to be pulled over in traffic stops than whites and Hispanics." So the linked source directly contradicts their claim.

Another "FACT": "In Texas, law enforcement officers proven to be unfit for the job cannot jump from agency to agency," they declare, claiming TCOLE's F-5 report ensures agencies are "aware of previous misconduct."

In reality, according to the TX Sunset Commission, "the F-5 process has only resulted in nine license revocations in the last five fiscal years, despite TCOLE receiving notice of over 2,800 dishonorable discharges during the same time." The other 2,791+ officers could all get law enforcement jobs elsewhere in the state, and many did. A recent study of Florida police found 3% of officers previously had been fired from other law-enforcement jobs.

Here's another one: "FACT: In Texas, law enforcement agencies CAN get rid of bad cops." Somebody tell that to the San Antonio Police Department, where 70% of cops fired get reinstated through arbitration, including a guy who fed a sandwich made of feces to a homeless man as a "joke."

Another "FACT" presented was that "Police use force or threat of force in less than 2% of all interactions with civilians." But given that police have MILLIONS of interactions with the public per year, that's a lot of force being used!

On their "Resources" page, they point to a study claiming police exhibit no bias in shootings which was later retracted for inadequate methodology and overstated conclusions.

They include links to several data sources with which Grits readers will be familiar, but cherrypick information from them, including the Texas Justice Initiative on deaths in custody and racial profiling data from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.

In particular, racial profiling reports have documented much more widespread use of arrests for Class C misdemeanors than police have admitted in the past. Unions for years claimed such arrests were extremely rare and only used on dangerous people. But we now know police arrested 64,100 people for Class Cs at traffic stops in 2019, meaning more folks are arrested for fine-only offenses in Texas than for marijuana possession!

Indeed, according to said racial profiling data, Houston police officers use force at traffic stops far more than other, comparable agencies - e.g., 18x more than their counterparts at the San Antonio PD.

Grits could keep going, but you get the point.

On Twitter, your correspondent opined, "This website and the police unions who sponsored it are using cherry-picked evidence as drunks use lamp posts ... for support rather than illumination. I hope our friends at the #txlege see through it."

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Roundup: Texas police-reform news, bail update, jury trials during COVID, and other stories

Lets' clear a few browser tabs with a roundup of recent items that may have escaped Texans' attention while our Attorney General was in Washington D.C. inciting mayhem.

Dallas bail lawsuit to move forward. Bail litigation in Dallas can move forward to trial after a 5th Circuit decision, but the array of potential remedies has been narrowed. See Dallas News coverage. More on this soon. In related news, Tarrant County announced they'd begin using a new risk-assessment instrument when setting bail. Such mechanisms have been criticized for perpetuating past discriminatory patterns, but Tarrant insists the tool "won't be racially biased."

Cops who must document pointing their guns do so less often. Dallas PD has a policy requiring officers to document every time they unholster and point their gun, whether or not they fire it. An academic study of the program found that the policy reduces the likelihood suspects will be shot by mistake without increasing dangers to police officers.

Changing stories. A Lamarque police officer initially said Joshua Feast had pointed a gun at him before the officer shot and killed him last month. But bodycam footage was released showing Feast, while armed, did not point his gun at the officer and was shot in the back while running away. This is incredibly common. Even when shootings are legally justified, the details that come out later often don't match the initial stories. Over time, this pattern degrades trust in law enforcement. Thank heavens for bodycam and bystander video, or the false stories would go unchallenged.

Police oversight in Houston. See coverage of the push for improved civilian oversight at Houston PD from Community Impact, and more background from Grits coverage of Sylvester Turner's task force on police reform.

Chicano Squad. Speaking of Houston PD, our pal Eva Moravec helped report and produce a new podcast on the "Chicano Squad" created at HPD in the wake of the murder of Joe Campos Torres. Give it a listen.

SA Chief, union boss, collaborate to oppose reform. When it comes to opposing accountability reforms, the chief and the union at San Antonio PD are singing from the same hymnal. The chief and the union boss told straight-up lies about advocates, falsely claiming they were misrepresenting themselves as police officers while gathering signatures. There's little doubt if they had any evidence this were true, arrests would have already been made. (Noted the Express-News, "While impersonating a public servant is a felony under the Texas Penal Code, McManus said he is not aware of a criminal investigation into the allegations, nor has he directed his officers to look into it.") Also, Chief McManus's claim that problems can be solved at the bargaining table is completely disingenuous. If it were true, they'd already have been solved. The former San Antonio city manager has explained why the union boss standing next to the chief telling lies is the main reason that won't work. If you're looking for detail on what activists are ACTUALLY proposing in San Antonio, check out this recent podcast interview, starting around the 45:30 mark.

Officers speak up on colleague's misconduct. In Texas, police officers have no duty to intervene when their colleagues engage in misconduct. But a Duncanville police officer has been suspended after several of his fellow officers reported him. No details available about what was alleged, but I'm glad to hear about officers stepping up, even if it's not legally required. 

Lessons unlearned. A lawsuit has been filed in Fort Worth after police raided and ransacked the home of an elderly, black couple last year. Notably, a review of use of force policies last year at FWPD found that "Department policies emphasize the sanctity of human life, procedural justice, and de-escalation. Our review found that officers’ conduct in the community does not uniformly adhere to these policies." This episode seems to corroborate that finding.

Early warnings. Dallas has paid a consultant to set up an early warning system to identify problem officers who need additional training or discipline. Frankly, I've never seen a truly effective early warning system at a police department. All the systems I've seen set the thresholds for a warning so high that they aren't really effective. No word on what metrics this consultant will use; Grits would have to know that before assessing whether this is a meaningful reform, however well intended it may be.

3% of Florida cops previously fired. The phrase "wandering officers" refers to cops who're fired and get a job at another agency despite a history of misconduct. A new academic study of Florida police found about 3% of officers statewide had previously been fired. "[R]esults suggest that wandering officers may pose serious risks, particularly given how difficult it is to fire a police officer." Notably, Grits has written about this phenomenon in the past, but using the term common in law enforcement for these officers: "Gypsy cops." Over the years, I've come to realize that phrase's racist implications vis a vis the Roma people, so I'm glad to learn more neutral terminology. I wish I'd never used the other.

CO shows off new law TX should emulate. Grits has discussed how the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement lacks authority to decertify officers who engage in extreme misconduct unless they're convicted of a felony. Last year, Colorado changed their law to allow such decertifications, and the first officers recently lost their licenses. Texas should follow their lead.

COVID and jury trials. Brazos County officials knew a defendant had contracted COVID but didn't tell him until after conducting a jury trial in which others were exposed, reported the Texas Tribune. With defendants sitting endlessly in jail awaiting trial, it's not clear what the right solution is, but the backlog of cases is getting serious:

In 2019, about 186 Texas jury trials were held in civil and criminal cases in an average week, according to the state Office of Court Administration. From March until June of 2020, that number went to zero. ...

From June through September, a total of 25 criminal jury trials — ranging from traffic violations to murder cases — were fully conducted under this supervision, the court administration office reported. That’s less than one-fifth of the Texas criminal cases tried by a jury in an average week in 2019.

The changing face of auto theft. Auto thefts have increased during the pandemic, reported the New York Times, but with a new pattern: Most vehicles are taken for short distances and are eventually found and returned, whereas in years past they may have been stripped for parts. Police suggest theives are using stolen cars for short-term rides in lieu of Uber, etc.. Some of this is because people leave their cars running or leave their key fob in the cupholder, while in other cases, thieves use tech to amplify the key fob tech from a distance. Key fob tech has always been hack-able, but the methods for doing so appear to be disseminating more widely 

For the reading list: Here's an academic paper for Grits' reading list on the dynamic relationship between COVID and family-violence risk factors.

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Shocking allegations of hazing and a 'culture of violence' at Austin's police academy

Last month, Grits argued that Austin's police academy needs stem to stern revision and Mayor Steve Adler's push to re-open it in March is premature until the results of several, ongoing audit components are complete and the scope of needed revisions becomes clear.

Just before the New Year's holiday, the city released the first of these audits from its Equity Office, and it was a scathing and unabashed take down of the APD training process. The report "recommends that City leaders suspend all cadet classes until APD leadership and Equity Office officials can develop and implement an equity-driven action plan that reforms and rebuilds APD’s Training division, including the training academy."

Among the biggest complaints was a culture of violence and hazing within the academy. "Interviews with former cadets revealed an academy culture that prioritizes physical aggression  above all else. Multiple cadets stated that training staff subjected them to hours of grueling  physical and psychological stress drills, refusing water to dehydrated cadets and engaging in other dangerous practices."

Training isn't just grueling, but demeaning and regressive: “In multiple interviews, cadets confirmed the narrative that an APD trainer asked a new cadet why they wanted to be a police officer, interrupting the cadet’s response by saying 'If you tell me you want to help people, I will punch you in the face.'”

The Equity Office conducted an event to include community perspectives on training materials. "Community members raised additional concerns at the depiction of an increasingly hostile and aggressive public in APD training materials," expressing worry that "this message will only make officers more violent and aggressive when they interact with the community."

If the training materials risk making officers more "hostile and aggressive," how much more so does telling recruits they'll be punched in the face if they say they want to help people? In this case, the cadet interviews corroborated and bolstered community complaints. Later this month, the audit of all the  videos used in APD training will be released, and through the grapevine your correspondent has heard that these auditors will raise similar concerns.

The most severe portions of the training appear to have no relationship to preparing officers for any real-world tasks they will perform:

According to interview respondents, many of the academy’s trainers rely overwhelmingly on  “violent”, “brutal”, “traumatizing” practices designed to “manufacture soldiers” rather than  produce community-driven law enforcement professionals adept at de-escalation. Trainers place  cadets in dangerous, demoralizing, and inhumane exercises with “zero regard for the health and  safety of cadets.” Multiple cadets stated that they and their colleagues had been screamed at or  punished for checking on one another or drinking water during intense physical drills, which last for hours in sweltering summer heat. Multiple cadets confirmed that they were deprived of water  during extended physical drills in extreme heat. Data provided by APD confirms that a troubling  number of cadets were treated for heat exhaustion and dehydration during the academy. Multiple cadets expressed that even though they hydrated heavily at home, as advised by APD training  staff during orientation, it was impossible to avoid dehydration when training staff refused to  allow them water during these extended physical drills. Cadets could not identify a plausible  real-world scenario during which they would be deprived of access to water in extreme heat for  extended periods of time. Multiple cadets expressed that this deprivation was rooted in nothing more than cruelty and had no basis in the reality faced by police officers. Some narratives,  corroborated by multiple respondents, are simply too violent to understand how they were ever  allowed to occur, including many cadets being forced to resign or risk serious injury in the face  of seemingly endless “hazing” and “abuse.”

Interviews revealed that cadets were subjected to so-called "smoking sessions," which are:

unscripted, unscheduled physical and psychological  stress drills that instructors instigate without notice. According to multiple interviews, these  smoking sessions are often used as collective punishment for individual violations, though their  use is just as frequently unexplainable. Some respondents indicated that Training division staff  seemed to enjoy putting cadets through the stress drills, which often go on for hours during the  summer heat. Multiple respondents claimed that cadets are refused water during these stress  drills, that instructors punish cadets for looking at one another (even if checking the condition of  fellow cadets), and that medical staff are not posted close enough to the cadets to assess  symptoms of dehydration or heat stroke. Multiple respondents witnessed instructors refuse water  and fail to render aid to cadets who were visibly suffering symptoms of dehydration. It is well documented that these practices resulted in multiple serious injuries to cadets.

The report suggested APD trainers were harsher, even, than at military boot camps and prioritized "brutality and aggression":

The academy’s training staff employ dangerous training tactics that  have been described by cadets with military backgrounds as “worse than anything I went through  in [US military training].” Multiple former cadets allege that the academy is driven purely by  brutality and that physical aggression is the primary quality that trainers seek when promoting  cadets toward graduation. The Training division’s practices and culture are driving highly qualified candidates to leave the academy, depriving Austin of the diverse, community-driven police force that City leaders and residents envision.

Nationally, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 23 percent of training academies have curricula which is all or mostly stress-based, as is clearly the case in Austin. That means more than three quarters of training academies have eschewed that approach, but Austin PD clings to it.

The Equity Office highlighted the wastefulness of stress-based "teaching," separate and apart from the moral and ethical problems with it:

What benefit is it to eliminate brilliant candidates for the sake of maintaining  a battlefield mindset? How much money is spent recruiting these bright, capable, highly educated, successful and diverse candidates, bringing them through a months-long recruiting  process, vetting them intensely, dedicating an unknown number of personnel hours to interviews  and investigations -- only to have them driven out of the academy by a culture of brutality,  militarism and violence? What benefit is it to subject highly-qualified, diverse, committed cadets  to training that is more intense than some military training programs? 

That to me is the best argument for putting off a new academy until training can be revamped. With such high dropout rates and a terrible, regressive pedagogical approach, it makes no sense to hold another class until all the problems have been identified and fixed. 

The "culture of violence" identified at the academy wasn't the only regressive aspect of police training. Given the number of homeless people in this town, it's remarkable (and sad) to read that "Multiple former cadets in separate, individual interviews confirmed that training staff made negative comments  toward individuals experiencing homelessness and told cadets that if they are 'having a slow day,' they could seek out someone experiencing homelessness as an easy target for various citations." The city council has taken steps to limit those citations, but it's clear they're running up against a deeply engrained culture within the department.

Whether as a result of this violent culture or because of other factors, the department is failing at its diversity goals. In fact, "The Training division’s leadership failed to produce  any measurable standards for ensuring equitable practices. The division’s self-assessment  identified one Black employee out of 57."

Overall, black recruits were more likely to drop out of the academy. "Data provided by APD highlighted further disparities in  graduation rates, with 81.6% of white male cadets graduating the academy compared to 48.5% of  Black male cadets."

Black cadets were also more likely to be injured during training.

According to data provided by APD, at least 509 injuries occurred during the APD training academy between 2015 and 2020. Of the cadets who were injured and included in this data, 348 (68.37%) were white, 85 (16.7%) were Hispanic, 57 (11.2%) were Black, and 19 (3.73%) were Asian. While the percentage of injuries sustained by white cadets reflects the percentage of white candidates that graduate from the academy, the percentage of injuries sustained by Black cadets (11.2%) is more than twice the percentage of Black cadets that graduate (5.19%). APD’s data illustrates inequitable outcomes for Black cadets who enroll in the APD training academy. Black cadets in APD’s training academy are underrepresented when compared to the population of Austin, less likely than their peers to graduate from the academy, and more likely to be injured during APD’s training academy than any other race.

This reminds me of research showing white folks think young black people are older, more mature, and potentially more threatening than they are. Is violence used more harshly against black cadets because of these implicit biases, for explicitly biased reasons, or for some other cause? Regardless, the violence-centered pedagogical approach is clearly thwarting diversity goals.

Finally, the report corroborated complaints of APD leadership bucking and slow walking reforms, identifying the biggest barrier to fixing the identified problems as, "Lack of political will among APD leadership at many levels threatens meaningful change."

This report should put an end to discussions of restarting the police academy any time soon, and certainly by March, as Mayor Steve Adler had suggested. We're only just beginning to understand the depths of problems at the academy, which start with agency leadership. They won't be fixed overnight.