Thursday, August 19, 2021

#SandraBland Act data used to identify Texas' most aggressive, small-town speed traps

Everybody hates speed traps. There are few things more annoying than driving along a state highway at 70 mph then having it ratchet down to 35 mph in a matter of a few hundred yards while a cop hides behind some billboard waiting to pounce.

Our pals Eric Dexheimer and St. John Barned-Smith at the Houston Chronicle have performed a great mitzvah by analyzing traffic stop data from Texas' Sandra Bland Act to identify the most prolific Texas speed traps

They found 21 small town agencies giving out more than 500 tickets per officer per year, making up up to 40% of municipal budgets. Anti-speed-trap laws passed by the Legislature, they found, are riddled with loopholes and seldom enforced.

Remarkably, "It doesn’t take many officers to affect a small city’s bottom line. Wells didn’t have an active police force in 2017 and collected less than $10,000 in fines. When it reactivated the department a year later, fine collections rose to $592,865." 

Another example: "In Riesel, Chief Danny Krumnow is adamant: When his two officers aren’t working other calls, they better be working traffic. State data show about 87 percent of motorists stopped last year drove away with a ticket. Municipal court fines last year made up more than half of the town’s general fund." Perhaps unsurprisingly:

Many of the state’s most aggressive traffic enforcers shared key characteristics: small towns situated on busy high-speed thoroughfares where the speed limit quickly drops from highway to local-street speeds — or even lower where school zones intersect roads. Virtually all of the departments had fewer than a dozen officers.

Your correspondent was quoted in the story, citing data first published in this blog post back in April. Because no MSM news outlet has covered it, most people even in law enforcement don't realize traffic enforcement in Texas has plummeted over the last decade, with the number of tickets given declining by more than half from 2008 to 2020. (Notably, non-traffic citations declined by a similar amount over the same period.)

The logic of traffic enforcement is that it improves safety by decreasing traffic violations. But Texas' experience doesn't reflect such a trend. Over the same period, traffic fatalities per mile driven in Texas fluctuated year by year, but ended up slightly lower overall and certainly evinced no large bump in fatalities.

As I asked at the time, "If radically less traffic enforcement seems to have no noticeable impact on traffic fatalities, what precisely were we doing it for?"

The Houston Chronicle story provides at least a partial answer, particularly for small towns: Revenue. Indeed, "In Wells, in East Texas, the chief’s report at every city council meeting consists of a tally of traffic stops and tickets written." That's apparently the only "public safety" metric they care about.

I'd made a comment to the reporters I figured would be controversial: 

Others say departments whose officers can afford to spend so much time writing tickets signal a jurisdiction that is over-policed. “These are cops who don’t seem to have much police work to do,” said Henson

But the cops they interviewed corroborated that assessment:

In Gregory, a city of 2,000 across the bay from Corpus Christi whose officers are some of the state’s most prolific ticket-writers, Chief Tony Cano said there was some truth to that.

“Our number of call-outs is low, so I guess you could say they have more opportunity to work traffic,” he said. Although “officers are not encouraged to write tickets, that’s what they do. I’ve seen the numbers and I’m like, whoa, those are high.”

If only he were in a position to do something about it! (smdh)

Grits welcomes this new analysis, and not only because I dislike speed traps and cops who prioritize revenue generation over crime fighting. It also represents the first time data from Texas' Sandra Bland Act has been used in an analysis not focused on racial disparities.

The Sandra Bland data should be a gold mine for law-enforcement research providing extremely detailed information about what goes on at traffic stops at a granular level, allowing robust analyses that to my knowledge couldn't be performed in any other state. But no academic researchers have latched onto the dataset, and before now, MSM reporters who analyzed it were solely focused on racial disparities. That's an important aspect of the new data,  but it's by no means the only analysis that can be done with it. 

I'm hopeful this article opens the door to more such uses: You can't manage what you don't measure, the saying goes, but the flip side is measurements don't matter if managers don't use them to seek improvements. Identifying speed traps is only one of many useful analyses the Sandra Bland Act data newly allows. But it's a good start.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Bring on Austin's police staffing debate: Proposal to hire 400-800 new cops would require budget tradeoffs the public won't support

In Austin, the Republican-led group that ran a successful ballot initiative criminalizing homelessness has put another one on the ballot for November that would require the city to hire hundreds more police officers. Their main backers so far are the police unions, who're salivating at the prospect of hundreds of new dues-paying members. Backers think the folks who voted to criminalize homelessness will now support a vast expansion of the police force.

Grits isn't so sure. I think they've overreached. And the biggest reason is the budget math, which has been called "irresponsible" but may be straight-up "impossible" without massive tax increases the Legislature has forbidden via municipal revenue caps. 

Yesterday, the city council put the Save Austin Now initiative on the November ballot and the financial services department released an estimate of the proposal's cost. There's some fuzzy language in the measure using undefined terms, so it's a range: To meet the requirements of the initiative, Austin would need to hire somewhere between 400-800 more police officers than it employs today, at a cost of $54 million per year on the low end to $120 million on the high end.

The difference arises in part because the initiative calls for officers to have 35% "community engagement" time. Currently, they have about 1% "community engagement" time, based on definitions the city has used in the past. But the phrase is sometimes used interchangeably with "uncommitted time," which includes things like checking email or restroom breaks, not necessarily "community engagement." The low estimate assumes the latter definition; the high-end estimate assumes the former.

Courts may eventually decide which definition to use. But even on the low end, increasing the budget by $54 million per year - given legislative revenue caps - would force draconian cuts

The other factors driving the cost estimates are wage increases and the size of Austin's population. The $54 million figure assumes lower population growth and police wage increases than we've witnessed in recent years. Grits believes that figure is probably too low and the real number will be closer to the high end of the range.

SAN suggests all this could be paid for by eliminating money spent on homelessness. But even if you closed all the shelters and eliminated every service to that group (which doesn't sound particularly wise), it wouldn't raise nearly enough money. Money for recent expenditures purchasing hotels to get folks off the street came from the feds as part of the COVID stimulus: That's one-time money, not an ongoing revenue stream from which the city can pay salaries. 

The truth is, you can't get to $54 million per year without cutting things the public STRONGLY supports: The entire budget for the city's animal shelters is about $10 million, for example. You could eliminate them entirely and still not be 1/5 of the way there.

Thanks in large part to the 40% of the city budget already spent on police, the overwhelming part of the city budget arrives at city council every year fully baked in: The amount they have for discretionary budget choices is generally in the low seven figures: a few million dollars. $54 million in new spending can't be done without closing things most Austinites don't want to eliminate.

This is the police unions and the Republican party doubling down on their anti-homeless ballot initiative this spring, but Grits predicts they'll find this a much harder sell. For starters, they did the last one during the legislative session when most of the criminal-justice reform advocates in town were focused on fighting bad bills at the Legislature. SAN outspent their opposition by more than 15-1 and the opposition campaign was led by inexperienced folks with nonprofit backgrounds who'd never run a campaign before.

This time, they'll find groups like the Austin Justice Coalition and its allies more fully engaged in the fight. A new PAC was formed to oppose the measure and experienced campaign staff has been hired, so don't expect the fundraising gap to be nearly as significant. And whereas the Mayor and most city council members stayed out of the homeless fight, the outlandish budgetary issues ensure they'll be vocally opposed to this one.

Local TV news has been SAN's biggest ally, giving their leadership a platform to spread misinformation with impunity. (The local FOX station has the SAN leader on frequently to "debate" different folks but the supposed debate moderator never fact checks his lies: It's really pretty embarrassing.) That's the biggest risk of this thing passing; if they let SAN pretend Austin can hire hundreds of new police with no budget tradeoffs, people might be duped into backing something they otherwise wouldn't support.

But the upgraded opposition campaign means there will be somebody out there informing the public besides local TV news. It's not going down like Prop B, where the opposition didn't have resources to counter the message.

Indeed, Grits welcomes this debate and am near-giddy that SAN has framed it this way: The anti-homeless initiative passed because West Austin was mad about public camping and wanted homeless folks out of their sight line. Now, the policy discussion shifts to the real-world tradeoffs involved in spending so much new money: A very different debate.

Prop B passing left the impression that Austinites oppose criminal-justice reform. Defeating this measure will reverse that false meme and perhaps give local media a chance to reboot their sycophantic cop coverage.

Monday, August 02, 2021

In what world are mask mandates too draconian but COVID justifies massive law enforcement deployments and new detention camps for migrants? Oh yeah: Greg Abbott's Texas

I was lookin' for a job when I found this one.
Don't need the work like you need the work done.

                                                       - Todd Snider

Given that he has forbidden local governments in Texas from requiring masks in public spaces, Gov. Abbott's executive order telling Texas DPS troopers to arrest people suspected of being a) migrants and b) who could possibly be carrying COVID reeks of hypocrisy nearly as great as the constitutional crisis he has created. 

The Biden Administration has asked federal courts to intervene. Lets' hope sanity prevails.

Grits has said before, I believe the 87th Texas Legislature featured the ascendance of a brand American fascism that had heretofore been constrained by business and libertarian factions in the Texas GOP. But 2020 saw Allen West win the state GOP chairmanship and immediately begin courting QAnon types in the party ("We Are The Storm"), giving voice to far right-wing populists to whom mainstream politicians in Texas had heretofore refused to pander.

Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick evince no such compunctions. With West now challenging the Governor in the primary, he has taken to using COVID as justification for draconian immigration stances that make no sense as either labor or public-health policy, but please the anti-immigrant fringe among his base to no end. 

All this is especially hypocritical because Texas elites courted illegal immigration for generations, preferring to have a large body of second-class citizens with fungible rights performing some of the most grueling and dangerous work in the state.

Shut down immigration, illegal or otherwise, and the result is severe labor shortages in industries that rely on those workers: agriculture in rural areas; construction and hospitality in the cities. We've heard Gov. Abbott and really the entire Republican message machine blaming these shortages on lazy workers and too-generous unemployment checks, but immigration policy is almost certainly the more direct cause. Labor shortages increasingly appear to be structural, and expanded immigration is one of the only solutions on the table. Maybe the only one. From the perspective of Texas Chamber of Commerce types who in past generations were considered "conservative," the state is cutting off its economic nose to spite its slightly-more-brown face.

The other problem is all this is being done under the Governor's "emergency" powers, which foolishly empower him to override any law or upend any legislative budget decision once he's declared an "emergency" (as evinced by taking $250 million from the prison system for wall building). The Legislature has become nearly irrelevant in Texas (so it's just as well the Democrats are gone, anyway, lest they contribute to any pretense of legitimacy). No matter what they do, the Governor can apparently turn around and do something else as soon as session ends, redirecting money and personnel however he sees fit.

The law enables him to essentially operate as a dictator, and Greg Abbott is beginning to do just that.