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More on disciplining deputies

Here’s another long Chron story about disciplinary statistics for Harris County Sheriff’s deputies. Reading through it, I felt like there was some context missing.

A Houston Chronicle review of disciplinary records indicates that from 2008 through 2010, more than 200 jail employees were disciplined for various offenses, some serious and others minor. Last year, the Sheriff’s Office disciplined 88 employees working in detention, including jailers, deputies and civilians.

Their offenses included excessive use of force, having sex with inmates, mistakenly releasing dangerous prisoners including suspected drug dealers, sleeping on the job, and even leaving their post to have a 90-minute-long domino game. One jailer destroyed mail sent to prisoners, and another ruined a picture of an inmate’s son by spraying it with cleaning solvent.

[...]

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, in a prepared statement, said his office “employs many dedicated and professional women and men. They are the rule rather than the exception.”

The U.S. Justice Department cited a “flawed” use of force policy in a June 2009 report, adding that “systemic deficiencies” in policies and training for jailers exposed inmates to harm. Investigators found a significant number of instances where jailers used force inappropriately – including hog-tying prisoners or using choke holds – and claimed jail commanders did not interview prisoners or take corrective action.

Garcia said training and the internal complaint process has been improved and that unjustified use of force incidents against prisoners are isolated, adding they have declined during his three years in office.

A review of disciplinary actions in 2011 indicate seven jailers were punished for using excessive force against inmates and another for not reporting using force on a prisoner, the same as seven cases that brought disciplinary action in 2010.

The Sheriff’s Office provided statistics indicating a decrease in the number of jailers assaulted by inmates, as well as a decline in use of force by jailers on prisoners and fewer fights between inmates. There were 130 assaults on jailers by inmates and 3,084 prisoners involved in fights with each other in the jail last year, Garcia said.

“Our policies and practices on staff use of force against inmates take into account that, as the figures indicate, the usually calm and orderly jail environment nevertheless can sometimes be a dangerous place for employees and inmates,” Garcia stated.

If this story seems familiar to you, it’s because the Chron wrote a very similar story on October 30, which I blogged about here. A sample from that story:

A Houston Chronicle review of Sheriff’s Office discipline reports from 2007 to August provides a sobering look into a department plagued by deputies, jailers and civilians accused of violating laws they are charged to enforce and breaking department policies more than 1,200 times in the past four-and-a-half years.

In all, Sheriff Adrian Garcia has fired 81 deputies and jailers from January 2009 through August, considerably more than the 36 employees let go by his predecessor, Tommy Thomas, during 2007 and 2008. Garcia, who took over the department in January 2009, has also suspended 273 employees without pay and given 414 written reprimands.

[...]

[Garcia] said he decided not to examine past disciplinary actions to identify and remove any “bad apples” he inherited when he took office in early 2009. Instead, he felt it was more important to triple his internal affairs unit to reduce a backlog of more than 160 internal affairs complaints pending against deputies when he took office.

The embedded chart was from that earlier story. Note that the data in that story goes back to 2007, and to 2008 in the newer story. What that means is that it’s hard to do an accurate comparison from one Sheriff to another. I don’t know if the data exists for earlier in the Tommy Thomas regime – if you go to the HCSO Internal Affairs page, you can see previous IAD reports, but again they only go as far back as 2007. What was it like before then? We have no idea as far as the numbers go, but I think we have a pretty good hunch nonetheless. Note that Garcia has stepped up IAD investigations to deal with a huge backlog of complaints, a decision for which he was attacked by Stave Radack, so in a sense the increase in disciplinary actions isn’t really on his watch. Note also that that 2009 Justice Department report was based on a visit from 2008, when Thomas was still in charge, and that at Garcia’s direction the use of force policies were changed to be more rigorous. Those facts were curiously unmentioned in the Sunday story. As Grits says, it’s great that this data is available and there are certainly stories to be written about it, but it’s important to remember what the data can’t tell us, because otherwise we’re getting an incomplete picture.

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