Friday, July 30, 2021

Austin PD teaches cadets US Constitution using material from John-Birch-Society shill

Your correspondent appears to have lost the capacity for surprise or outrage, or this might affect me more. Instead, it mostly makes me feel exhausted and sad to learn that cadets at the Austin police academy are taught a version of constitutional history based on an oft-debunked historical account of America's origins as a Christian Nation, written by a former John-Birch-Society Speakers Bureau member recruited by JBS founder Robert Welch himself. After his death, right-wing talk-show host Glenn Beck discovered one of his books, "The 5,000 Year Leap," and promoted it as a seminal text among early aficionados of the Tea Party movement.

These days, the book and its imagery - particularly the "three-headed eagle," which weirdly also appears in the APD curriculum - has become popular among QAnon-type conspiracy buffs. (I don't know what language to use to apply to such folks!) We also saw it cited during the Texas Legislature's effort to ban "Critical Race Theory." I won't waste my time or yours going through the details of the foolishness being taught, which can be dizzyingly bizarre. See an actual historian's assessment of the book's often dubious and self serving claims; here's another one.

Suffice it to say, "The 5,000 Year Leap" appears to have been the sole source on which the instructor based his review of constitutional history for new Austin PD cadets. My jaded reaction upon discovering this: "Of course it is."*

It's worth recalling how we got here. In December 2019, the Austin City Council told the city manager and police department to perform an audit/review of the police-academy curriculum, declaring problems identified by cadets were so serious they didn't want to have more classes until they were resolved.

Six months later, the city manager and police Chief Brian Manley came back to city council to say 1) they hadn't conducted the audit or begun the review in any way, and 2) they wanted to hold more cadet classes, anyway. By that time, though, George Floyd and Mike Ramos had been killed, cops were firing less-lethal rounds indiscriminately into crowds, and at city budget hearings, the public overwhelmingly backed delaying the police academy until the audit and curriculum review could be conducted.

To be clear: If City Manager Spencer Cronk and Chief Manley had performed the audit when they were instructed, they would only have missed one cadet class and the city council planned to renew them last August. The delay happened because city management DID NOT WANT THIS REVIEW TO OCCUR.

But it did. And the results weren't pretty.

First, several consultants were hired to perform the "audit" piece. They discovered a culture of hazing and violence against cadets, starting with a sadistic "Fight Day" in which instructors beat them up in a boxing ring before they'd had any self-defense training. Women and minorities were especially likely to drop out based on these approaches.

Then, a team assembled to review videos used for training also found quantifiable racial bias and  modeling of selective use of de-escalation tactics (they were used on white suspects but not black ones). Dozens of problematic videos surfaced.

The final step was supposed to be a curriculum review. But the Greater Austin Crime Commission and Republican leaders at Save Austin Now - with the Governor adding a statewide megaphone - hammered the city council to restart the police academy before it could be completed.

So they did, even though advocates opposed it. The strained metaphor going around City Hall was that they could build the plane while they were flying it, which, of course, is not how planes work.

My wife was one of the people appointed to the curriculum review panel, but instructors quickly got far ahead of them and most of what's been taught so far (they've had about six weeks of classes) has not been vetted. 

That includes the history lessons from Mr. Bircher, which has already been taught to the new class of cadets.

Indeed, the review panel might not have taken up that section at all because, with their late start, they're only able to consider a fraction of the curriculum material before it's taught. Because of this, they'd chosen to prioritize the section on search and seizures and the Fourth Amendment. But my very-smart, better half insisted she couldn't evaluate the Fourth Amendment piece without knowing what they'd been taught in the section on the constitution. When the city finally gave that part of the curriculum to her, she was puzzled at what she saw and asked my help figuring out the origins of the strange interpretations being proffered. I reverse-Google-searched the images being used and found they were from "The 5,000 Year Leap."

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, why do we think the Chief and City Manager did not want this review performed? Was it because they knew that cadets were being hazed, physically assaulted, and indoctrinated into spurious, right-wing ideologies? That would certainly explain it. And if they didn't know, why would they oppose the review? And what does such ignorance say about the city's leadership and/or police management?

Manley is gone now and one of his assistants, Joe Chacon, has been named as interim. Likely because he wants the "interim" title removed, Chacon has been more supportive than his predecessor of revamping the academy (although not supportive enough to hold off on more classes until the review is complete). I doubt "The 5,000 Year Leap" will be used again, though w/o greater transparency, something similar could certainly happen down the line.

The effort to revamp the police academy in Austin began years before the George Floyd protests and was necessary regardless of whether people rose up last year. Unfortunately, Gov. Abbott and the local Republican party have chosen to politicize these decisions and dubbed this delay "defunding the police." But the process began long before the protests and was inarguably needed: Bircher history taught to APD cadets is Exhibit 1B for that argument (the hazing and violence against cadets is 1A).

That said, it's accurate the protests are what gave the city council the stomach to stand up to the cops: My belief is that the city council wouldn't have held their ground if it weren't for what amounted to a wide-scale uprising in the streets.

Given what we've discovered about the academy since then, it's a damn good thing they did or this stuff would never have surfaced, much less change.

*I need more vacation time.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

What if any changes to police deployment patterns might reduce violent crime? Hotspot policing vs. ↑ resources for detectives

A friend emailed to ask my opinion of "hotspot" policing tactics being promoted by Houston PD. Here's how I responded:
There are SO many studies on this topic, many of them very micro-focused and not particularly useful, let me give you a big-picture, 50-year overview of the research findings on this.

One of the most robust findings in criminology is that patrol doesn't reduce crime overall or make people feel safer (going back to a major field study in Kansas City in the '70s), and police staffing levels appear to have no relationship either way to crime going up or down.

However, this result didn't sit well with police or their advocates, and in the 1980s, criminologists began to revisit the question, this time shrinking both the geographic areas examined and the time periods considered. Finding a negative result wasn't considered a failure of the tactic, just evidence that the geographic and temporal constraints hadn't been sufficiently narrowed. Eventually, they were able to demonstrate that flooding a neighborhood with police to perform stop and frisks and/or pretext stops correlated to reduced reports of serious crime IN THAT GEOGRAPHIC AREA for whatever period of time they kept it up. There are a bunch of studies out there like that.

However, few of the hotspot studies I've ever seen claim this is anything more than a short-term effect that goes away as soon as police leave.  And most researchers will admit it's likely crime just bleeds into other geographic areas, the way air moves to the sides when you squeeze a balloon.

N.b., generally, what you see when these studies are portrayed in the policy arena is a bait and switch. Cops say "hot spot policing works" then use that to call for increased staffing. But we KNOW increased staffing doesn't correlate to greater safety. The hotspot research is about deployment of EXISTING officers, not an argument for hiring more overall.

Finally, if I were making public-safety recommendations for Houston based on the current data, I wouldn't be focused on patrol or hotspot policing, but beefing up the detective ranks, maybe even AT THE EXPENSE of patrol. Again: The real issues are how officers are deployed, not how many there are. 
There are 200 Narcotics Division detectives at HPD - far more than in homicide. I've argued Narcotics should be entirely disbanded, and those detectives should be moved to investigate 1) homicides and 2) shootings that do NOT result in death. The latter are almost completely ignored but are essentially similar to the murder cases; whether the victim lives or dies has more to do with the EMTs and doctors than the intentions of the shooter. (I'm not generally a fan of the Manhattan Institute, but they recently published a report reaching the same conclusion.) 
So that's the redeployment I think we should be pushing for if the goals are to reduce racial disparities (they're TERRIBLE in Narcotics) while reducing violent crime: Expansion of detective resources to investigate non-fatal shootings. That'd do FAR more to improve safety than anyone would ever claim for hotspot policing.

If you ask what police are actually DOING to reduce crime in hotspot areas, criminologists have no answer. It boils down to what I've dubbed the "Scarecrow Theory" of policing: Their mere, occasional presence wards off potential criminals. But cops aren't deployed theoretically, and as a practical matter, what they do while they're there (if they're deployed to a hotspot and not responding to IRL crime reports) are traffic stops and stop-and-frisks of pedestrians. And most of the people with whom they engage are not and never will be shooters; there's a disconnect between the strategy and the desired results.

I don't consider it some radical position to say homicides and non-fatal shootings should be better investigated: Clearance rates for murder in Houston have declined from 89% in 2011 to 49% last year. And "hotspot" policing would do nothing to change that dynamic.

If the problem you want to solve is violent crime, focus on violent crime. Don't engage in generalized harassment in black and brown neighborhoods then assume reduced murders will somehow be a secondary effect.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Austin PD's "early warning system" is a failed PR stunt, like pretty much all of them

"Early warning systems" for police are one of those ideas that's touted by institutional players in the wake of bad police misconduct episodes - doubling down on the idea that we just need to identify and oust a "few bad apples" - but IRL, your correspondent has never seen one that worked well.

When I was Police Accountability Project Director at ACLU of Texas back in the day, I spent a fair amount of time trying to understand what information might be probative for managers to monitor in an "early warning system," and concluded that 1) there's no consensus about how these programs should operate and 2) in practice, they were touted by officials as a solution but never had real-world impact. As a result, it's not a reform Grits generally recommends.

It's been many years since I've been that deep in the weeds on the topic, but a new Austin city auditor report on their police department's "early intervention system" - known within the department as the "Guidance Advisory Program" (GAP) - confirms my sense that they're essentially worthless. Austin's, the auditor found, "does not effectively identify officers who may need assistance."

As is typical, there has been no local MSM coverage of the audit. (I know, gentle readers, you're shocked at the omission!)

APD's police early-warning system suffers both from over-identification and under-identification. It gathers only three, not-very-probative data points and ignores data used by systems in other cities. The thresholds to trigger review are set too low, so too many officers are identified for intervention and the system has little predictive value. At the same time, many officers meeting thresholds are not identified at all. On use of force (at APD, called "response to resistance), the department failed to identify about a third of officers who should have met the threshold for review. Moreover:

When officers are identified for assistance, the GAP does not connect these officers to existing APD support or wellness services. Also, APD does not track or analyze program trends to evaluate officer or program performance to ensure the GAP is fulfilling its mission. In addition, APD management has not generated true program buy-in and the GAP is not working as intended.

The auditor sampled 60 activations and found supervisors identified no issues 93% of the time, resolved the issue with a conversation 7% of the time, and NEVER created an action plan to correct officer behaviors, even though that's theoretically supposed to be triggered by the system. As a practical matter, they're just not doing anything with the information: 

APD staff said there are no performance metrics reported in relation to the GAP and they have no way to measure the program’s success. In addition, the department is not analyzing results to identify trends or determine if certain officers, assignments, or supervisors need additional support services.

Even an officer triggering the system three times in three quarters based on 45 total use of force incidents was found to have displayed no "pattern" that caused concern. Intervention after 45 incidents wouldn't seem particularly "early" to this writer, but if they're not going to review outliers, anyway, IRL it hardly matters.

The reality is, as the auditors wrote, "APD is not creating an environment of trust and transparency" regarding its responses to officer misconduct, either with officers or the public, and failures of the early warning system are a symptom of that broader problem.

That said, none of the other early warning systems in Texas work well, either. There are no real best practices and as a result, their structures are all over the map. Here's a summary from the report of the information gathered in each one, which varies quite widely.

Dallas' last chief Renee Hall proposed spending nearly a million dollars to revamp their system, with no results so far. The one in Houston tracks 10 different metrics, compared to 3 in Austin, but the Mayor's task force on police reform last year found it ineffective and recommended an upgrade (without specifying details).

I suppose it's possible an "early warning" system could be devised that would fulfill the goal of reducing misconduct, but academic reviews have found little evidence for their effectiveness (if plenty of enthusiasm for giving it the ol' college try). Grits believes their popularity stems largely from their PR value: It's something police chiefs can say they're implementing, improving, etc., that will take the heat off them in the near term because they ostensibly need time to launch a new program. The program never seems to work, though, whether they monitor three data points or 10. Then another scandal happens and suddenly we're revamping the early-warning system again.

Austin doesn't need APD to waste time on this pointless paper shuffling and IMO they should scrap it. If managers want a list of officers who need retraining or intervention, they should ask Farah Muscadin, the head of the Office of Police Oversight, for a list. She knows perfectly well who the problem officers are at this point, even if APD brass isn't paying attention.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Murders in Texas increased 37% statewide in 2020, with Republican-led communities suffering the biggest spikes. But overdose deaths doubled murders. Are we focused on the wrong problems?

Much attention has been given to the nationwide murder spike, but Texans were more than twice as likely to die from a drug overdose in 2020 than to be murdered. And like murders, overdose deaths saw a big increase during the pandemic. "More than 4,000 Texans died of drug overdoses in the year ending Nov. 30, 2020 – a 33% increase compared to the previous year," reported Libby Seline at the Houston Chronicle.

By contrast, DPS reported 1,403 homicides statewide in 2019, and 1,927 in 2020. While that's a big increase - 37% statewide, and not at all concentrated in Austin and Houston, as the Governor would have you believe - it still means overdose deaths are killing far more Texans than murderers.

Republicans are pointing to the murder spike to call for massive increases in police spending and regressive changes to the state's bail system, even though there's  no evidence that higher police department budgets or limits on charitable bail organizations will stop these murders (Abbott's pet projects). 

By contrast, there are proven policies that reduce drug overdose deaths. One is reminded at this point that Gov. Abbott in 2015 vetoed Good Samaritan legislation that would have let people who call 911 when someone overdoses on illegal drugs avoid criminal charges. The following year, 1,257 Texans died from overdoses; since then the number has ballooned to more than 4,000! Local programs launched and funded last year in Austin were aimed directly at reducing overdose deaths, sending paramedics instead of police to respond. (Then-Chief Manley had insisted his officers would not administer naloxone to overdose victims, declaring EMS should play that role.) But before we could see the results, Abbott pushed through a law to punish Austin for its public-safety budget choices. Apparently, some dead sons and daughters are more important to the governor than others.

And what Abbott thinks, regrettably, has a lot more to do with what the MSM deems "news" than the relative death counts. While Seline's story is the first we're hearing of last year's overdose death increase, how many stories have we seen on the murder spike in this or that city, usually based only on a partial year's worth of data, and WITHOUT acknowledging the statewide numbers?

Before this blog post, I've been unable to find anyone reporting Texas' 2020 statewide murder totals in the press: Google the topic and nearly all the stories involve city-level analyses, at most. (To be fair, the statewide "Crime in Texas" report from DPS for 2020 hasn't been published yet; I found the 1,927 number in a DPS report on border crime.)

No matter how you slice it, the statewide murder increase last year was far too big to attribute to Democrat-led cities alone. Even Houston, which saw its murder total spike by more than 100, can't explain more than a fraction of the increase. Like overdoses, this was something that happened everywhere in the state. It would not be unreasonable, in fact, for voters think the governor should be held to account for that. But that hasn't happened because skewed press coverage handed Abbott a megaphone to attack his enemies instead of vetting his claims. To their credit, the Texas Tribune pushed back on this meme, and now, finally, a few outlets are joining in. But the damage has been done.

Some days I think the media beating the drums about homicides while downplaying or ignoring much greater public health/safety risks reveals a partisan agenda; others, I think it's an economic one. Texas' lapdog press may be mostly content to recycle misleading and politicized crime headlines because the MSM's business model has been built on sensationalizing crime for more than a century

But this year, in this election cycle, there's a new level of hyperbole. Governor Abbott and his local acolytes want to blame leaders in Austin for murder increases, but the capital city, with more than a million people living here, had just 19 more murders in 2020 than it did the year before. That's tragic, but by comparison, Texas saw murders increase statewide by 524 last year on the Governor's watch, and Republican-led cities like Fort Worth and Lubbock saw much bigger percentage increases than Austin (e.g.: murders increased 60% in Fort Worth, whose population is slightly smaller than Austin's, from 70 to 112; in Lubbock, which is a quarter of Austin's size, murders spiked 105%, from 20 to 41.)

You'd almost think the demagoguery about Austin was a smokescreen so no one would ask about murder increases statewide under Republican leadership, much less overdose deaths and how much Abbott's policies (and veto) contributed to them. 

In reality, murder and overdose deaths - which increased in both Democratic and Republican-controlled cities and counties - appear to be things which are IRL unaffected by your party of choice. They aren't partisan problems, they don't lend themselves to partisan solutions, and when the media and government leaders insist on considering them through a partisan frame, it makes the situation much more stupid and untenable.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Arguments for Republican bail bill become nonsensical when debating rural jails

I've gotta say, 2021 has been dispiriting on many levels, not the least of which is the partisanship injected into criminal-justice topics turning once-rational individuals into liars and/or idiots.

Over the last week, Just Liberty has been walking around to rural members - almost all Republicans, since the Dems are in Washington, D.C. - discussing the effects of the Governor's bail bill (HB2/SB6/HJR1) on rural jails. (See Grits' testimony to the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on the topic.)

The basic argument is that 97 mostly rural jails, as of July 1st, were already full and contracting to house prisoners outside their facilities. Boosting pretrial detention in HB1 is aimed at supposed problems in Houston, but the laws they want to change would affect all of Texas, and would harm rural counties the worst. 

Most member offices were happy to receive information about how the bail bill would affect jails in their districts. But we received bizarre pushback from the offices most closely involved with the bill: They insisted that the claim pretrial detention would increase was "overstated."

This is bizarre because we didn't make any claim about the scope of the increase, just that there would be one. But staffers working on the bill pushed back to say magistrates forbidden from giving personal bonds could just set bail at $1 and then pretrial detention wouldn't go up.

Which would be fine, except then what's the point of the bill? My understanding was that there is a class of defendants currently being released on personal bonds that Andy Kahan, the Governor, and Joan Huffman think should be held in jail instead. To the extent that the bill achieves that goal, it does so by increasing the scope of pretrial detention. If the bill authors don't mind those same defendants being released on $1 bond, and don't think pretrial detention will go up, I'm not sure what the hell we're doing here.

IRL, no serious person believes that HB1/SB6 would not increase pretrial detention. That's a political stance, not a legitimate policy take. If Republican legislators admitted these thoughtless policies put rural counties in an economic bind, the conflict between this legislation and rural interests would quickly become apparent. Historically, that's one of the axes on which even popular legislation can die at the Texas capitol.

But as long as rural, Republican legislators value attacking Democrats in Houston more than protecting the economic interests of the counties they represent, rural interests will continue to be sacrificed on the altar of the Governor's political ambitions.

To be clear, this isn't just about bail; it's part of a larger trend. Texas' government at this point is broken, driven by national, partisan agendas with little connection to the eclectic, diverse communities that make up this state. I'm sure ignoring rural interests to "own the Dems" on bail seems super clever to the Governor's political consultants, but that's the core of their base: Taking them for granted and even harming them to score partisan points may work out in the near term., but long term it's not great politics.

CREATIVE ASIDE: For handouts at the capitol, I'd created this little booklet with a general discussion of how the bail bill affects rural jails:

Then I created member-specific flyers discussing specific issues in members' districts, including the little orange booklet as insert. Here's the one for Rep. Shelby Slawson:

These pieces are a bit of an experiment: With many offices still hard to reach due to COVID protocols, staffers working remotely, and the rise of Zoom meetings, it's become harder to reach legislators and their staff. Whereas it used to be easy to drop into an office and talk to whomever you needed to speak to, these days you're likely to be asked to schedule a Zoom meeting in a week or just drop off a fact sheet. But I question whether anybody's reading the mountain of 8.5x11 paper being dropped off in member offices, so I'm testing different forms for legislative communications, using methods more commonly associated with movement zines to communicate with offices.

I figure if I'm bored with the 8.5x11 fact sheet format, staffers would likely be completely fed up with it.

Humorously, the missus was skeptical about distributing my "arts and crafts project" in a professional environment, but members' staff loved them and our lobbyist came back wanting more of the individualized versions. People liked them because they're unique, relevant, and personalized. We may be living in the Digital Age, but there's still some room for more creative papercraft in political comms.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Rural counties hurt worst by politicizing bail policy: My testimony against Texas' bail bill

Today your correspondent testified against HB 2 - the Governor's bill attacking judicial discretion in bail setting - in the House Select Constitutional Violations and Remedies Committee, but in 3 minutes couldn't get through it all. So lets post my (mostly prepared) remarks here.


Good morning Mr. Chair, Madame Vice Chair, and esteemed committee members, 

The bill before you as written is bad for Texas.

This is true for many reasons, some of which will or have been raised by others. But I want to talk about how it will boost local jail incarceration rates and put additional upward pressure on property taxes with no particular benefit to public safety, but with many identifiable harms.

As I speak to you today, according to the Commission on Jail Standards, 93 Texas counties are paying to house prisoners outside their county jails to avoid exceeding state overcrowding standards. Nearly all of these are rural and border counties.

A few years ago, the big overcrowding problems were happening in the large counties, and many of you will remember when Harris County was farming out inmates in Louisiana and several of its neighboring counties. Now, the big counties mostly have those problems under control and it’s rural counties feeling the squeeze. And after 2019, they must face these challenges with new limits on property tax revenue.

This legislation will harm counties by increasing pretrial incarceration in cases where judges previously recommended release. For those 93 counties and maybe even more in the wake of this legislation, it will mean more prisoners housed outside the jail for which counties must pay per-diem contract rates.

It’s not some scary thing that judges have discretion to release defendants on bail. They had it when crime was going up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but also when it was going down for 30 years beginning in the ‘90s. That it’s ticked back upward - nationally, it should be emphasized, not just in Houston where they’ve had judicially-mandated bail reform - is no reason to change such a fundamental part of the justice system on the fly.

This bill is completely different from the bills we saw in the regular session. It doesn’t feel like there’s a plan so much as a political agenda, and that never leads to good outcomes in the justice system.

While I’m here I wanted to refer this committee, if you haven’t read it yet, to the Houston Chronicle coverage of the bail system there which you’ve already heard about today. Despite the hair-on-fire quotes from Andy Kahan and the police unions, if you look at the numbers, for a city as large and diverse and Houston, they were really rather modest.

So much of this bill is about limiting personal bonds, but when the Chronicle looked at data since 2013, only 2 people out on personal bonds  had been accused of  violent crimes. 

About 376,000 people were released on bond over this period. 79 went on to kill someone while out on multiple bonds, or 0.02 percent; only 0.01 percent, or, 38 alleged killers, had received multiple felony bonds over the eight years the Chronicle looked at, or an average of just less than 5 per year. In a city of 2.3 million, with a justice system as vast as Houston’s, these are tiny numbers.

The Chronicle and Andy Kahan made much of recent increases in the murder rate, but individual anecdotes aside, statistically those were much larger increases driven mostly by murderers who WEREN’T out on bond.

The Chronicle found that 7 percent of murders during the period they studied involved people out on bail. But that means the overwhelming majority, 93 percent, were committed by people who hadn’t been released on bail. 

If you do this, it’s not going to do squat to reduce Houston’s murder problem and none of you should pretend it will. Lubbock and Fort Worth saw bigger murder spikes, percentage-wise, and they haven’t undergone bail reform at all. This an effort to politicize the justice system and I believe y’all should oppose it.

Thank you for your time.