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Charles McClelland

Rape kit backlog lawsuit dismissed

Interesting.

A federal judge has dismissed a 2017 lawsuit two rape victims filed against Houston’s current mayor and police chief and five sets of predecessors, among others, for allowing a backlog of rape kits to accumulate over decades without being tested, arguing that failure ensured the plaintiffs’ attackers were on the street when they otherwise could have been behind bars.

Both women were raped by serial offenders whose DNA had long been in police databases, but who went unidentified until Houston paid two private laboratories to erase its backlog of more than 6,000 untested kits in 2013 and 2014.

The plaintiffs sought damages, saying city officials violated their rights to due process and equal protection, and that officials illegally took her property and violated her personal privacy and dignity under the Fourth Amendment.

U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore dismissed the case, saying the suit had not been filed quickly enough and that the plaintiffs’ claims did not cover rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

See here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s press release. Not clear at this time if the plaintiffs intend to appeal the ruling, but that’s always a possibility. The city is working to eliminate another backlog, and I very much hope that includes a more long-range plan to prevent backlogs from occurring in the future. The city – and the county, and the state, and Congress – should not need to be coerced into doing this properly.

Lawsuit filed over untested rape kits

This could be a big deal.

A former Houston woman is suing the City of Houston and a long list of current and former mayors and police chiefs for failing to investigate a backlog of more than 6,000 untested rape kits, and not identifying her attacker as a man who had been in a national police database for decades.

In one of several cases brought by victims against officials around the country in recent years, the victim of a 2011 sexual assault in Houston claims in a federal civil rights lawsuit this week that her perpetrator could have been apprehended and prosecuted for earlier crimes if officials had kept on top of the massive backlog of DNA samples in the city’s possession.

DeJenay Beckwith, 35, who now lives in Milam County, contends city officials failed to pursue a serial offender in her case, or investigate rape kits for other victims, because they don’t take women or child victims seriously. She is seeking damages, saying city officials violated her rights to due process and equal protection, and officials illegally took her property and violated her personal privacy and dignity under the Fourth Amendment.

[…]

Houston tackled the backlog of rape kits in early 2013 under former Mayor Annise Parker and ex-Chief Charles McClelland, drawing on $4 million in federal grants to outsource DNA testing with private forensic labs. Parker led the initiative to remove the crime lab from HPD management in April 2014 – although it remains in the HPD headquarters building – after the creation of an independent city-funded lab now overseen by civilian forensic experts.

According to court documents, Beckwith met her assailant on April 2, 2011, when he pretended to be a mechanic and offered to fix her broken down car. He asked to come inside her Southwest Houston home for a glass of water.

According to the lawsuit, he proceeded to throw her to the floor, strike her repeatedly and rape her. She chased him on foot, and a neighbor joined the chase, but he escaped in his car.

A rape kit taken at Memorial Hermann Southwest as a result of her police report was taken to the city’s crime lab.

Beckwith’s lawyers say the kit went untested for five years. During that time, she got one phone call from a detective who wanted to know what she was doing wandering on Bissonnet when she met her assailant, implying she was a prostitute and saying, “These things happen.”

The detective discouraged her from filing a report, telling her it was unlikely the suspect would be caught, according to the lawsuit.

She next heard from Houston police in 2016, when they contacted her to say they tested the DNA and they had a suspect. She later learned the man’s name was David Lee Cooper. Cooper had prior sexual assault convictions, including one from 2002 involving minor child. His DNA had been in the Combined DNA Index System, known as CODIS and managed by the FBI, since 1991.

The details of what happened to Ms. Beckwith are awful and troubling, and if the account of what the detective told her is accurate, I hope he’s no longer in that job. It’s too late to do anything to help Ms. Beckwith in any meaningful way, but we sure can get to the bottom of why this all happened and take steps to make sure it never happens again. The Press and ThinkProgress have more.

Mayor Turner picks Austin PD Chief for HPD

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

In a sweeping announcement, Mayor Sylvester Turner named four new department directors and a reappointment Thursday. Pending City Council confirmation, Art Acevedo of Austin will assume the position of police chief and El Paso’s Samuel Pena will take over the fire department.

“Acting Police Chief Martha Montalvo and Acting Fire Chief Rodney West have performed exemplary in dealing with some challenges and we are indebted to them for their service,” said Mayor Turner. “I had said all along that once we reached solution to our pension problems, I would move quickly to fill key positions. This is the team that will carry us into 2017 and beyond. We are going to build upon the successes of 2016 and be even more transformative, innovative and responsive.”

Acevedo has served as Austin’s police chief since 2007. His 30 years of law enforcement experience began as a field patrol officer in East Los Angeles. In Austin, he oversaw a department with more than 2,400 sworn officers and support personnel and a $370 million annual budget. He joined the department at a time when relations with minorities were strained due to questionable police shootings. He has been credited for a commitment to police legitimacy, accountability and community policing and engagement. His accomplishments include creating a special investigative unit to criminally investigate officer involved shootings and a new disciplinary matrix. Acevedo holds a Bachelor of Science in Public Administration from the University of La Verne, is a graduate of the FBI’s National Executive Institute and speaks fluent Spanish.

Pena joined the El Paso Fire Department in 1995 and then rose through the ranks to the position of fire chief, which he has held since 2013. He has previous experience as a fire fighter, paramedic, media spokesperson, advanced medical coordinator, Combined Search and Rescue Team member, Hazardous Materials & Special Rescue Task Force member and academy training chief. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice and a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from the University of Texas at El Paso. He is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force where he served for four years as an air control specialist. Like Acevedo, he is fluent in Spanish.

The mayor also announced that he has selected Judge Elaine Marshall to be the new presiding judge of Houston Municipal Courts, Tom McCasland as the permanent director of the Department of Housing and Community Development and the reappointment of Phyllis Frye to another term as a municipal court judge.

The Statesman was the first to report on Acevedo’s hiring. Here’s the reaction from Austin:

During his tenure in Austin, Acevedo has flirted with several other major Texas cities, including Fort Worth, Dallas and San Antonio. Thirteen months ago, he withdrew from San Antonio’s hiring process and received a 5 percent pay raise and a new separation agreement should he be fired in Austin.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler released the following statement about Acevedo: “Houston is getting a world-class police chief. Chief Acevedo has made our community safer and closer and he is trusted and much loved by so many. Austin is losing a moral and joyous leader and I’m losing a friend.

“Losing Art Acevedo is a huge deal and replacing him will be a daunting task, in part because he gave so much of himself to his job and his community. But Austin is a safe city with a strong police force and we’ll have talented applicants to take his place. We’ll shortly have a new city manager and a new police chief, and this gives Austin a unique opportunity to enter a new era in our history.”

Here’s the Chron story, which is from before the afternoon press conference announcing the hires, and thus doesn’t have anything that isn’t in the press release or the Statesman story. All appointments need to be confirmed by Council, and they will be on the agenda for the November 30 meeting.

Fire Chief was the other big hire. Here’s the Chron story for that.

El Paso Fire Chief Samuel Peña has been tapped as Houston’s new fire chief, replacing Interim Fire Chief Rodney West, sources said Thursday.

Peña, 45, has led El Paso’s fire department for three years.

If approved by City Council, he would come to Houston in the midst of a contentious fire pension negotiation and as firefighters continue to voice concern about aging facilities and calls for new equipment.

Houston’s fire union stressed those challenges Thursday while urging Peña to stand up to City Hall officials.

“Job one for Chief Peña will be to better balance his obligations at City Hall against those he will have to the 4,000 firefighters who have earned his support,” the union said in a statement. We urge Chief Peña to challenge City Hall to commit to the ‘shared sacrifice’ imposed upon us by sensibly addressing the declining condition of the (Houston Fire Department) fleet and facilities, a too-often adversarial command staff and stalled contract negotiations.”

That was also pre-press conference. I’m sure we’ll get reactions and quotes shortly. The Austin Chronicle, the Press, Texas Leftist, Trib have more.

UPDATE: Here’s the updated Chron story:

Acevedo and Peña, who head smaller departments, said they look forward to the challenge of leading Houston’s public safety agencies, both the fifth largest in the nation.

“I am proud to be here in the city of Houston, and remember that criminals are the only ones who need to be afraid of the police,” Acevedo said in Spanish. “If you’re a victim … or a witness, come forward. We’re at your service.”

Peña comes from a department that responds to about 76,000 calls a year. In Houston he will see about four times that number and Thursday he said he anticipated a steep learning curve.

“I’m going to be drinking from the proverbial fire hose for a while, learning the processes and really getting to know the command staff, sitting down with the associations and the rank and file to find out what their priorities are, from their perspective, before we make any wholesale changes,” the 47-year-old said.

[..]

Acevedo, 52, inherits the difficult task of policing a rapidly growing city more than twice Austin’s size with a police staffing shortage and a tight city budget.

The city also is seeking to gain legislative approval for a pension reform deal that already prompted three top Houston Police Department chiefs to file retirement paperwork.

Acevedo asked the agency to have his back.

“I can just say this to the men and women of the Houston police department: I love cops. I love policing,” Acevedo said. “Just give me the chance to show you what the mayor saw in me.”

Phil Hilder, a criminal defense attorney and member of the city’s Independent Police Oversight Board, welcomed the selection of Austin’s chief.

“He has a very progressive history at the Austin Police Department and has been very responsive to community concerns and is open-minded to innovations and new ideas in policing,” said Hilder, who has also served as a federal prosecutor. “Policing is moving in a rapid direction, embracing new technologies which will require somebody at the helm who will embrace those innovations, in terms of training and to keep the community informed about where policing is going.”

Acevedo was known as an outgoing, progressive leader in Austin but weathered internal criticism over his handling of police shootings. Most recently, he fired the officer involved in the fatal shooting of unarmed 17-year-old David Joseph. The police union accused Acevedo of an “unjust and politically motivated firing.”

McClelland, Houston’s former police chief, warned of the obstacles the outsider could face.

“With community relations on the forefront, any outside police chief is going to have significant challenges … learning all the internal operations and managers and who are your talented folks in your organizations,” he said.

“He certainly was the right fit in Austin. …That kind of liberal progressive town, I think he was a good fit [there]. Houston is not Austin – we know that. How well he’ll do here, I don’t know.”

U.S. Marshal Gary Blankinship, a former Houston police officer and union president who has known Acevedo for a long time, described him as “very personable,” but also a resolute manager.

Acevedo’s police officers and federal marshals worked together in the recent arrest in Houston of one of three men charged with the attempted assassination of Austin District Judge Julie Kocurek in November 2015, Blankinship said.

“He’s very qualified to be the police chief of Houston – I wish him well and look forward to working with him,” said Blankinship.

Welcome to Houston, gentlemen. I too wish you all the best in your new jobs.

We now have data about police shootings of civilians

The Chron reviews the first year’s worth of data.

Rep. Eric Johnson

Rep. Eric Johnson

Texas police reported shooting 159 people in the first year that the state tracked such cases under a groundbreaking new law. Officers in Houston shot 31 of them – compared to eight in San Antonio and Dallas and five apiece in Fort Worth and Austin.

Houston’s share of officer-involved shootings has been disproportionate – even when considering its size as the state’s largest city – compared to other Texas police departments.

The last year of incidents here involved dozens of tragic scenarios, from shootouts with heavily armed criminals to shootings of unarmed civilians. An unarmed man was shot after he was pushed into an off-duty HPD officer working security at a bar. A man with a gun who his wife later said had gone out to “look for his horse” was shot and killed by two Houston officers. A mentally ill veteran who opened fire on a neighborhood on Memorial Day weekend and shot seven was killed by a Houston SWAT sniper.

Each incident should be examined separately and no conclusions should be drawn from numbers alone, said former Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland, whose former agency was involved in most Houston cases. Police agencies differ in patrol strategies, policies and frequency of violent arrests, and the data should prompt further study of the actions of officers and suspects alike, he said.

“All of us in law enforcement and the media must get this right for the public,” he said. “A department’s entire reputation and relationship with its community may rest on this single issue.”

While many shootings involved armed clashes between civilians and police, some of the most troubling episodes revealed in the new Texas records involved officers shooting juveniles or killing unarmed adults suffering a mental health crisis. Statewide, 20 percent of those shot in the last year were unarmed.

[…]

In 2015, Rep. Eric Johnson, an African-American Democrat from Dallas, was so troubled by the debate over disproportionate use of force against minorities that he championed a reform to gather more information about all officer-involved shootings. Johnson sought to pass a law because of his own experiences “as an African-American male who notices that we have an interesting – statistically speaking – relationship with law enforcement.”

He initially sought to collect more data but later agreed to omit identifying information about officers and to require reports when police are shot by civilians.

“If you’re going to collect data on shootings, then be fair,” said Charley Wilkison, executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. “Did the officer believe the person had a gun? Was the officer in a struggle? We didn’t want this to turn into a ‘gotcha’ aimed directly at officers.”

Officers reported killing 71 people and injuring 88 in the first year. And that data already shows that something Johnson suspected is true: 28 percent of those shot were African-American, though African- Americans make up only about 12 percent of Texas’ population. Of the rest, 28 percent were Hispanic and 43 were Anglo, according to reports filed by police.

During the same period, 21 law enforcement officers were reported shot by civilians, and the fatal shootings of two other officers went unreported to the state. Including those two, at least seven were killed – five died in Dallas after an African-American sniper opened fire just after a peaceful Black Lives Matter march in Johnson’s hometown. The shooter, an Afghanistan war veteran, was killed too.

Racial disparities also show up in the state’s in-custody death reports. According to research by Amanda Woog at the University of Texas, 27 percent of the 1,118 people who died in police custody in Texas from 2005-2015 were African-American.

“While this data cannot tell us why these numbers have increased so drastically, it does alert us to the problem of increasing fatalities in police encounters in Texas,” Woog said. “Without such data, the national conversation around people dying in police custody – in particular black people – has been largely anecdotal. This data helps inform the conversation, revealing an alarming trend.”

Thanks in part to Rep. Johnson’s bill and to investigative efforts like those by Amanda Woog and the Texas Tribune, we now know a lot more about civilian deaths at the hands of law enforcement than we did before. (We should have known this stuff years ago, but we didn’t. Better late than never.) With this knowledge, one hopes we can gain the understanding to reduce those numbers. Some of this was unavoidable, but some of it was not, and it’s on us to learn which was which so that we can learn what we should be doing and what we should not be. Like with body cameras and recorded interrogations, this is for everyone’s good.

HPD wants control of crime scene forensics for officer-involved shootings

No.

HoustonSeal

Houston’s acting Police Chief Martha Montalvo, with the support of the powerful Houston Police Officers Union, has made a behind-closed-doors bid to take back control over the troubled Crime Scene Unit from the city’s independent forensic science lab.

The Crime Scene Unit is small but critical – its technicians gather and photograph evidence from all homicides, including incidents in which police officers use deadly force against civilians.

Montalvo’s move comes in the wake of a highly critical audit by three outside experts who concluded in July that crime scene investigators need increased independence from the Houston Police Department – not less – to objectively gather evidence in shootings involving HPD officers.

The audit focused on eight recent officer-involved shootings in 2016 and concluded that crime scene analysts had in some cases been influenced in their evidence collection decisions by statements made by other officers at the shooting scene. The audit found that analysts had failed to properly collect evidence, including bullets, photos and samples, and needed more training. The unit is currently made up of a mix of sworn officers, who are members of the police union, and civilian lab employees overseen by a civilian director.

Montalvo proposed taking back control over the unit at a private meeting earlier this summer with Nicole Casarez, a prominent criminal defense attorney who heads the advisory board of the independent crime lab, the Houston Forensic Science Center. Ray Hunt, the police union president, attended the meeting and fully supported the change. It’s on hold while lab operations undergo larger efficiency review ordered by Mayor Sylvester Turner, according to statements city officials have provided to lab board members.

“We have been in ongoing discussions with the Houston Forensic Science Center on HPD possibly taking back the Crime Scene Unit personnel, many of who are HPD officers who collect evidence,” Montalvo said Friday. “We’ve discussed some concerns on our end to help improve time efficiency on some crime scenes. It is important to note we continue to meet regularly, share dialogue on the matter and continue to have a good, positive working relationship among our agencies.”

The unit was split off from HPD two years ago when the department’s crime lab became independent – a change that at the time had the full support of former HPD Chief Charles McClelland as a way to build up public confidence in the quality of that lab, which had been involved in multiple scandals related to huge backlogs, untested rape kits and poor forensics.

McClelland, in an interview, said he did not think returning the unit to HPD was a good idea. “I don’t think it would build confidence in the public’s mind – absolutely not,” he said. “To solve the issue is to have extremely well-trained evidence technicians that are independent of HPD. … It doesn’t take an HPD officer to be an evidence technician – I think we can all agree on that.”

Casarez and other crime lab officials have said in interviews that returning the unit to HPD would likely hamper efforts to win its accreditation – and could undermine public confidence in the independence of the new lab itself, particularly in light of the recent audit.

McClelland and Casarez are correct, Montalvo and Hunt are wrong. Forensic investigations and evidence collections in general should be done by techs who are independent of law enforcement, so that no one has any reason to doubt their objectivity. This is doubly true for cases where police officers are being investigated, for the same reason why body cameras and recorded investigations benefit the police as much as they benefit the public. I hope Mayor Turner stands firm on this. Grits has more.

Roadside drug tests

Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.

go_to_jail

A Houston police officer pulled Barry Demings over as he headed to work in Beaumont and plucked a spot of white powder off the floorboard of Demings’ year-old Ford Explorer.

Demings had just detailed the SUV – and wondered later if a speck of soap upended his life.

“I never even saw it,” he said, explaining how the officer dropped the speck into a small test kit and said “it came back for cocaine.”

Demings was charged with felony drug possession based on the results of the primitive test that costs about $2 and has been found to have a high error rate. He was told he could face a sentence as long as 30 years based on old prior convictions – no one mentioned waiting for a crime lab to verify the officer’s roadside result.

He insisted he was innocent but got scared and accepted a plea deal. He lost his job, his girlfriend and his Explorer. Upon release, he decided to leave Texas behind forever.

In 2015 – seven years later – the Harris County District Attorney’s Office notified him that Houston’s crime lab found no cocaine in the sample. He filed a writ of habeus corpus with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and was finally exonerated.

He is among 298 people convicted of drug possession even though crime lab tests later found no controlled substances in the samples, according to a far-reaching audit of drug cases by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. So far, 131 of them, like Demings, have had their convictions overturned in cases that go back to 2004. About 100 other cases remain under review for potential dismissal.

In all 298 cases, prosecutors accepted both felony and misdemeanor plea deals before lab tests were performed. The $2 roadside tests, which officers use to help establish probable cause for an arrest, cannot be used at trial as evidence under Texas law.

[…]

The Harris County audit of drug possession convictions and related lab results going back to 2004 was launched in 2014 by Inger Chandler, an assistant district attorney in charge of the DA’s conviction integrity unit, after a reporter from the Austin American-Statesman called her about reversals of several drug convictions by the Court of Criminal Appeals.

The following year, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson changed her policies and directed prosecutors generally to stop accepting guilty pleas in felony drug cases before receiving lab reports confirming the evidence. Plea deals are still accepted prior to lab testing in misdemeanor drug cases, and in some felony cases in which jailed defendants can qualify for probation.

The forensic evidence problems uncovered by Chandler’s unit began around 2005, when Houston’s city crime lab – then overseen by HPD – lost several staff members and simultaneously saw a huge increase in drug cases, which created a backlog.

Lab officials implemented a triage system for drug testing with the DA’s office: Drug cases slated to go to trial would get processed first. For defendants who had accepted plea deals, the crime lab would later go back and test samples, often months or years after the guilty plea had been entered.

Chandler’s audit of wrongful convictions has been possible because the Houston Forensic Science Center, formerly HPD’s crime lab, preserved and tested the evidence even in the plea deal cases.

“We were keeping the evidence, and with the agreement with the District Attorney’s Office that we would continue to process even if it was pled,” said James Miller, manager of the center’s controlled substances section. “Because we both understood there was always the possibility that the substance may not actually be illegal.”

So far, prosecutors have identified and examined 456 flawed cases. Of those, 298 people had been convicted despite having no illegal controlled substances in their possession at all. In 29 of the 298 wrongful convictions, there had been no filing for relief because a defendant declined to pursue the case or faced other legal obstacles.

In other cases among the 456, the types or quantities of controlled substances were misidentified or there was too little evidence left to perform a confirmatory test.

About 78 percent of the 456 flawed cases came from the Houston Police Department, which still uses roadside tests that were developed in the 1970s. Chemicals in small vials turn colors when exposed to cocaine and other illegal drugs but can be easily misinterpreted by officers and can have high false positives, Miller and other experts said.

Emphasis mine. This article is a followup to a much longer ProPublica piece that explored the history and background of these roadside tests; another story, about the chemist who created these kits in 1973, is here. You should read them both – I don’t know about you, but I had no idea about any of this before now. We could have a debate about whether it’s reasonable for police officers to conduct roadside drug tests like this, but the high error rate for this test, which hasn’t been updated sine the 70s, makes it a particularly poor reason to hold people in jail or encourage them to plead out on a charge that is based on a crime that may never have existed. The point, again and again and again, is that there are way too many people in our jails who should not be there. The cost of this, both to the people who have been subjected to this and to us taxpayers who foot the bill for it, is unacceptable. When are we going to do something about it?

On finding the next HPD Chief

I don’t know about this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner has chosen to select Houston’s next police chief through a private executive search firm, taking the position that the applications and résumés of job candidates do not have to be made available through the Texas Public Information Act.

The process stands in stark contrast to that used by his predecessor, Annise Parker, who in 2010 released the applications of 26 candidates for police chief in response to a records request.

“I am not going to conduct this process in the media,” Turner said via email Friday. “I didn’t do that with the searches for a new city attorney, the Flood Czar, the Education Director and other positions within my administration. My goal is to find the best candidate for the job and you don’t get the best candidate when the search is conducted in the media, especially if the publicity could endanger an applicant’s current position. It will be done on my time line. In the meantime, HPD is operating quite well under the very capable leadership of Acting Police Chief Martha Montalvo.”

The mayor’s spokeswoman, Janice Evans, said the search for a new chief is being handled by a six-member transition team along with the executive search firm of Russell Reynolds Associates. She declined to provide any records on the city’s arrangements with the firm, saying its services are being provided at no cost and without a contract.

Civil rights activists and open records advocates have been sharply critical of what they see as Turner’s lack of transparency, which comes as they are demanding a new chief to reform police operations.

“This is not a transparent process they are using,” said Houston attorney Joe Larsen, who heads the review committee of the nonprofit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “Besides the mayor, the chief of police is one of the most important positions in the city, and all the stakeholders should be aware of what’s going on.”

Larsen said the city has a legal responsibility not only to provide records it has but also records it controls.

[…]

After the Chronicle made a similar open records request for chief applicants this year, Turner’s staff first sought an attorney general’s opinion to allow them to withhold the information. The city later withdrew its AG request, saying it had no records of any kind relating to applicants for the chief’s job.

“The city does not have any responsive information,” said Evans, Turner’s director of communications. “As was the case with the City Attorney, this is being handled as part of the transition process.”

[…]

C.O. “Brad” Bradford, a former City Council member and Houston police chief under two mayors, said he doesn’t see a downside to Turner withholding the list of candidates as long as the finalists are disclosed after an appointment is made.

“Once the mayor nominates someone for council approval, then that’s when the questions should start – what was the process used to nominate this person, and who the other candidates were,” Bradford said.

“Now is not the time to do it.”

Bradford said that before he was appointed chief in 1997, then-Mayor Bob Lanier announced the names of 12 candidates from within HPD and four from outside the department who were vying for the position.

“I recall when 12 of us were competing, there were some nasty things that happened,” he said.

The story notes that Mayor Parker released applications of candidates who had been screened by a nonprofit group back in 2010 when now-retired Chief McClelland was hired. The story doesn’t say whether those applications, which were disclosed as the result of an open records request they made, came to them before or after McClelland was hired. If it’s the latter, then I think the distinction Bradford draws is a reasonable one. It can get awkward for some job applicants to be known to be looking elsewhere, which can cause some potential candidates to shy away from applying for a job if they know their status as an applicant will be made known. Disclosing the names of just the finalists for the job sounds like an acceptable compromise. On the other hand, it’s seldom wrong to err on the side of disclosure in matters involving the public interest, and there’s nothing untoward about people asking questions about who the candidates are for HPD Chief. Perhaps a full accounting of what we will know and when we will know it will suffice for now. We do need to know more than what we currently do.

Turner names interim HPD chief

Congratulations, Chief Montalvo.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has tapped 36-year Houston Police Department veteran Martha Montalvo to lead the department while his team conducts a nationwide search for a new permanent chief.

Montalvo, 56, has served as chief of staff to outgoing Chief Charles McClelland and has held the rank of executive assistant chief since 2004, the first Hispanic woman to serve in that capacity in HPD history. On Thursday, she became the department’s first Hispanic chief.

“Chief Montalvo has a wealth of experience that will serve the department and the citizens of Houston well,” Turner said.

“She also understands that all city departments will need to share the sacrifice in balancing the budget for the coming fiscal year. I look forward to working with her on solutions that will generate the cost savings we need without impacting the police protections our citizens deserve,” Turner added.

[…]

Montalvo said the announcement was an emotional moment for her, recognizing that she has become the first Hispanic chief in the department’s history.

“The message I want to get across is that the opportunities exist if you work hard, and just don’t give up,” she said. “It’s possible. The department in 35 years has changed quite a lot, and I’m an example of that.”

[…]

A native of Ecuador who immigrated to Houston with her parents at age 5, Montalvo was raised on the city’s east side, became a United States citizen at 18 and entered the police academy in 1980.

She has worked in the patrol, communications, training, jail and homicide divisions, and was promoted to assistant chief in 1998 and executive assistant chief in 2004.

Montalvo oversaw the implementation and operation of red-light cameras, which voters banned by referendum in 2010. She developed the Crime Analysis System Enhancement, an information system containing mapping software with crime and prevention applications.

Montalvo also was responsible for overseeing the department’s troubled fingerprint analysis lab from 2004 to 2008.

Audits showed HPD failed to update equipment, provide adequate training or communicate effectively with lab staff, leading to a 2009 scandal over workers making technical errors in analyzing prints; three employees were put on leave and one resigned, and consultants were hired to take the lab over.

That last bit is a tad disquieting. I can’t say I followed that story, so I don’t know how the blame for that was apportioned. In any event, the story indicates that while Mayor Turner has a national search going on for a new chief (with no specific deadline for naming one), he is supposedly leaning towards choosing from within, so Chief Montalvo would seem to have the inside track. We’ll see when the search team presents its recommendations. Best of luck in your new gig, Chief Montalvo. The Mayor’s press release is here, and the Press has more.

HPD Chief McClelland to retire

From the inbox:

Chief McClelland

Mayor Sylvester Turner today announced that he has accepted the retirement of Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland, effective February 26, 2016. McClelland was sworn in as a police officer in September 1977. He rose through the ranks at HPD and was sworn in by former Mayor Annise Parker as police chief on April 14, 2010.

“I want to thank Chief McClelland for his 39 years of service to the City,” said Mayor Turner. “He is a respected figure in the community who has served this city well and has many accomplishments of which to be proud. The city’s crime rate during his tenure is lower than it was for the previous six years and citizen complaints filed against our officers are at a record low.”

Chief McClelland managed the fifth largest police agency in the nation with a budget of more than $825 million and a staff of 5200 sworn officers and 1200 civilian employees. Whether it is creating new programs aimed at encouraging positive interaction with Houston’s youth, organizing a town hall where residents have the opportunity to ask questions or simply sharing a cup of coffee with residents, Chief McClelland made it a point to focus on taking HPD to the community it serves.

When asked what he considers his proudest accomplishments, he cites the lower crime rate, HPD’s stewardship of its financial resources and improved community relations. He is also very personally proud of having been able to convince former Mayor Parker and City Council to name HPD headquarters after Officer Edward A. Thomas, one of HPD’s first African American officers and the department’s longest serving officer.

This is a decision that was reached after much personal thought and consultation with my family,” said McClelland. “It was not an easy decision, but I know it is the right decision for me personally. I am leaving HPD in a better place than it was six years ago.”

Mayor Turner has not yet selected an interim chief. That decision will be made in the coming days.

And then will follow the search for a full-time Chief, which will take longer, and which will have a significant effect on Mayor Turner’s ability to push through reforms in how HPD operates. It will be interesting to see whether the Mayor prioritizes looking for a successor from within or without, and what kind of input he gets from Council. My best wishes to Chief McClelland as he prepares to begin the next chapter of his life. The Chron and the Press have more.

When should body camera video be released?

HPD is still working on it.

As the Houston Police Department begins rolling out body cameras among the rank and file, Chief Charles A. McClelland said the department is changing its policy governing how and when HPD releases videos collected by the devices.

“If we have a body camera video that’s an officer-involved shooting or complaint against one of our officers, if we have completed the administrative investigation, which looks for policy and procedure and training violations, and we have completed the criminal investigation, meaning the case went to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, I’m going to release it,” McClelland said Thursday. “I’m not going to hold it in anticipation of civil litigation.”

The shift reflects the uncharted waters many departments find themselves in as they roll out the new devices and how law enforcement is responding to the scrutiny they have faced in the last year over how they use force against civilians.

McClelland said the department is still seeking guidance from the Office of the Attorney General about when the department could release videos – particularly when a grand jury declines to indict an officer involved in a shooting.

“We need to get some clarity on that,” he said, explaining that state law only allows for videos to be released after a shooting has been fully adjudicated. A no-bill is not necessarily a final adjudication, he said, adding that while the department would likely be releasing videos sooner, the entire process could still take six months to a year before they ended up being released.

See here, here, and here for the background. I laid out my general issues in that last link. We do need the legal questions clarified, but the underlying goal here has to be transparency. The point of the cameras is for everyone to feel that information they need is available to them.

Would you like to sit in armed or unarmed?

From Houstonia:

Imagine it’s a Saturday afternoon. You stop into Whataburger to pick up lunch with your kids in tow, the only thing on your mind remembering which kid doesn’t want ketchup on his burger, which kid only wants ketchup on his burger, and whether you want to add jalapenõs to your own. You place your order and are pulling out your wallet to pay when a man walks in with a Sig Sauer strapped to his belt. He’s not in any kind of uniform; he’s not wearing a badge. He’s just a guy with his gun, and you’re just a guy with his kids. Are you okay with this scenario? Maybe so. Or maybe you can’t understand why a guy would need to bring his gun into a fast-food restaurant, and you decide to leave without your burgers.

Whataburger has long bet that a good portion of its customers belong to the latter group, hence its company-wide policy against open carry, which has been legal for years in other states where the chain operates, from Arizona to Arkansas. In advance of the new statewide law that goes into effect in Texas this January 1—the much-discussed House Bill 910 that makes Texas the 45th state to allow residents to openly carry and display their handguns—the Corpus Christi–based company recently reiterated that policy.

[…]

The thing is, there’s still a great deal of confusion surrounding the impending changes, as business associations large and small, reluctant to enter the quagmire of gun control politics, have been slow to provide guidance to private entities that may want to ban open carry. (The Greater Houston Restaurant Association didn’t even return Houstonia’s requests for comment.) As a result, getting those signs up in the first place is proving tougher than expected.

And in fact, rules for the necessary signage are complicated. “Business owners that want to ban guns from their property must post a new sign that adheres to strict wording, colors and text size,” says Terry McBurney, president of the Greater Montgomery County Restaurant Association, one of the few restaurant associations to provide assistance in advance of the new gun laws. Those colors, the Texas Department of Public Safety mandates, must be contrasting. The lettering must be block, and at least one-inch high, for maximum legibility, with the notice in both English and Spanish, posted “conspicuously” at the entrance to the business itself. Any sign that isn’t absolutely perfect, down to the letter, will be null and void.

I would note that State Rep. Diego Bernal of San Antonio has taken it upon himself to help businesses who want to opt out on open carry by printing signs that conform to all of the mandated requirements, which he is providing free of charge. Perhaps one or more of our local legislators could follow that example – I’m sure plenty of businesses would appreciate it. Regardless, I wonder how long it will take before some establishments use open carry as a marketing tool, catering to whatever side they think represents a bigger opportunity for them. I feel reasonably confident saying that there will be more than a few establishments in my neighborhood that feature these signs, and that more than a few of them will not be shy about advertising themselves as such. Should be fascinating to watch.

On a tangential matter:

During a panel [recently] addressing Texas’s new open-carry law, Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson, and City Attorney Donna Edmunson encouraged citizens to ask as many questions as possible.

Mostly, they asked McClelland and Anderson to consider a myriad of hypothetical situations.

For example, many asked, what if you’re just sitting on a bench at a park with your gun in your holster, and some concerned “mad mom” calls the police on you because she and her kids are alarmed by the very presence of your gun? Are the police really going to detain you and ask that you show your CHL even though you’re just sitting on the bench eating a ham sandwich? Isn’t that a bit invasive?

The resounding answer from McClelland and Anderson, to all of the above types of questions, was basically this: we understand your concerns, but you’re just going to have to deal with it.

Chances are, they explained, you’re going to come across a CHL holder openly carrying his or her gun inside of a Walmart, a Taco Bell, a JCPenny (not a Whataburger, which already said it’s not going to allow guns inside). And chances are, for CHL holders, a police officer is going to ask you to show your license once someone’s kids get scared and they call 911, and you’ll just have to comply, because that’s the law—even if you’re just sitting on a bench eating a sandwich.

This is going to be so much fun, isn’t it? There are already plenty of disagreements about what this law means and what if any restrictions can be legally enforced in various places. I suspect the courts are going to be very busy next year, and the Lege will be back to revisit this in 2017.

Council approves body camera contract

Moving forward.

City Council approved a $3.4 million contract Wednesday to equip Houston Police Department officers with body-worn cameras despite some lingering concerns that key pieces of the city’s policy for the equipment have not been finalized.

Councilmen Mike Laster, C.O. Bradford and Michael Kubosh along with councilwoman Brenda Stardig voted against the contract with the selected company, Watchguard. Officials hope the cameras will provide transparency and evidence in resident-officer interactions, particularly when force is used.

The four council members who voted against the contract said they supported outfitting officers with the cameras, but that they were either concerned that community groups had not been included in the broader body camera discussion or were frustrated that the city’s policy for storing the video data had not yet been finalized.

Mayor Annise Parker said the plan was to split the body camera program up into three parts: the equipment, the protocol for using the equipment and a storage plan. But she said the camera procurement was sound and the best price for the city.

“My only concern about this whole process is the police department being the police department was, ‘We’re the police experts, we’re going to …’ They don’t always think about the fact – and the chief acknowledged it – that this is a highly sensitized issue right now and a lot of scrutiny,” Parker said. “They could have done a little more up-front public information, although I’ll point out there were some council members today who … collective amnesia.”

A committee meeting on Thursday will tackle the question of whether footage from the cameras should be stored in-house or with a third party, a more costly option but one that proponents say would alleviate concerns about video being tampered with or edited.

There are more questions than that that need to be answered. I’m sure there’s time to get those questions answered before the body cameras are fully deployed, and if this was the deal that was on offer, then it needed to be completed. This process does need to move along, but let’s remember that it is a process, and it’s an ongoing one.

Meanwhile on a related note, this interview with Chief McClelland about the need for criminal justice reform is well worth reading. A sample:

How have previous policing policies affected Houston and how might this new response change that?

There are many who believe the criminal justice system is broken. I’m certainly not one to believe it’s broken – it’s producing the results it’s designed to produce. If we want different results, that’s why the system must be reformed. Because it’s doing exactly what it was designed to do. When we have mandatory sentencing laws [for] minor crime offenses, drug offenses, for people who are really not the greatest threat to community safety, and who are using massive amounts of law enforcement resources, there has to be a better way.

And criminal justice reform and what we’re speaking about in our group… to reduce crime and incarceration – we believe we can do both – if we put more resources into substance abuse treatment, treatment of folks suffering from some form of mental illness and also to reduce the homeless population. Because if you think about it – some of people we arrest on a regular and routine, and very frequent, basis for minor crimes – We are sentencing these people to life sentences – but they’re serving just 3-4 days at a time. Those suffering from intoxication, mental illness, homelessness – they commit a minor crime [and] they only stay in jail 2-3 days at a time, but they are being arrested quite frequently. And over a lifetime, we’re sentencing them to a life sentence – they’re just serving it 2-3 days at a time.

It just doesn’t get to the root cause of the problem or the issue the person is suffering from.

Now let me make this very clear – people who pose the greatest threats to our neighborhoods and our communities, especially those who are violent – and repeat violent offenders, we need to lock those people up for long periods of time, and some of those individuals need to be locked up for the rest of their natural lives. But that’s a very, very small portion of folks who make up the criminal justice system, because an overwhelming number – 90 percent of folks who go to prison get released at some point in time.

But if a person has nothing to be released to – no family structure – no opportunity for legitimate employment – no education, no job skills – the system is almost guaranteeing you’re going to get involved in some illegal activity and go back to prison.

Also, the empirical data clearly has shown that the earlier one contacts the criminal justice system, such as a juvenile, the chances increase two- and three-fold you will go to jail or prison.

So if we can prevent the initial contact from occurring, we reduce the likelihood a great deal that you’ll ever be arrested and put into the system.

Lots there for us all, including the next Mayor and police chief, to think about. Go take a look and see what you think.

Turner’s police plan

Time to look at a major policy proposal, from Mayoral candidate Sylvester Turner.

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

Mayoral candidate Sylvester Turner unveiled a plan Thursday to expand the Houston Police Department by 540 officers by 2020, an effort he said is needed to help police better engage the communities they serve and to improve trust between some neighborhoods and the department.

Turner said he would pay for the estimated $85 million “Partners in Safety” plan by seeking, “as quickly as I can,” voter approval to alter the city’s decade-old revenue cap to allow more public safety spending.

[…]

In his announcement, Turner did not criticize Police Chief Charles McClelland or term-limited Mayor Annise Parker’s management, but he said the city’s police officers are stretched too thin to exit their patrol cars and do the sort of engagement that is needed.

“In the last several years, the enemy to community policing has been the lack of resources,” Turner said. “When you have 5,300 police officers and that number has remained stagnant over the last 10 years, more people coming into the city, the city’s even more diverse, it’s very difficult to have effective and adequate community policing.”

The department employed 5,470 officers in 1998, and is projected to operate this budget year with about 5,260, despite enormous population growth during that time.

Turner’s proposal also includes fully funding the body camera initiative, the first phase of which is scheduled to launch this year, along with enhanced cultural and de-escalation training for officers, greater public input and more youth outreach efforts. Turner also backs offering police officers, as well as firefighters and municipal workers, incentives to live inside city limits. A similar proposal to lure officers to high-crime neighborhoods is being developed by the Parker administration.

You can see the full plan here. I like the community engagement and de-escalation training aspects of it, and I support the body-cameras-for-all aspect. I’m glad that it at least acknowledges the noninvestigations report, but I still want to see my questions get addressed before I get on board with any expansion of HPD. The amount of money Turner says will be needed to achieve this expansion is $20 million less than what Chief McClelland asked for, which he says can be done by eliminating reassignments, overtime, and some other costs.

As far as amending the revenue cap to help pay for this, I’ll note that the cap hit this year is $53 million, so there’s still a gap to cover, at a time when other action will be needed to deal with forthcoming budget shortfalls. (As you know, I’d like to see the revenue cap lifted entirely, but I freely admit that amending it to pay for cops is a much easier sell.) I want to see a comprehensive review of HPD’s (and HFD’s) budget to see what savings might be achieved there before we talk about any expansions there or cuts elsewhere. We greatly increased the size of HPD in the 90s under Bob Lanier because crime rates had been increasing nationally for thirty years. Since then, crime has been on a 20-year decline, and violent crime around the country is at its lowest levels in 50 years. No one could have known that was about to happen in the 90s, but we know where we are now. How many cops do we really need? What do we really want them to focus on? I appreciate Turner’s effort – there’s a lot there that I do like – but I’m still waiting for these questions to be part of the discussion.

There are too many questions that need to be answered before we can talk about expanding HPD

Chief McClelland is going to have to start answering them if he wants support for increasing HPD’s budget.

Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland last year asked City Council for $105 million over five years to hire hundreds of new officers, a request that came on the heels of a report that showed his department leaves thousands of cases uninvestigated because of lack of personnel.

Seven months after McClelland first sounded the alarm about staffing, he reminded City Council of the request at a budget hearing in May.

“We’re not in crisis in the sense that I’m saying that something bad, really, really bad is going to happen in this city if I don’t have more staffing immediately,” McClelland said. “But I can’t do the extra things when people call me up and say ‘Chief, can you put in more extra patrols in my neighborhood,’ there is no extra. It’s death by a thousand cuts. It’s just a slow, slow bleed.”

HPD has said current staffing levels have left the department struggling with quick response times to serious crimes, the ability to send two officers out on dangerous calls for service – a top priority for union leaders and a national best practice – and regularly performing traffic enforcement, among other challenges.

But McClelland’s plan is just that without political backing and significantly more funding, and he has picked up little of either heading into the fiscal year that starts July 1. Mayor Annise Parker’s proposed budget does not fully realize McClelland’s request, nor have most City Council members pushed for immediate action.

McClelland’s hiring plan calls for the city to fund five cadet classes per year for a projected net increase of 590 officers by 2020. Even that $105 million plan still would not produce the same citizens-per-officer ratio HPD had in 1998, nor would it staff the police academy to its maximum capacity of seven cadet classes per year, but it would be a start, the chief said.

The so-called Justex report HPD commissioned said that the city has about 5,300 officers to police a population of 2.2 million. That is less than half the size of the police force in Chicago, a city of 2.7 million with 11,900 officers. In Dallas, there are about 3,500 officers for 1.2 million residents. But experts caution that there is no magic police-to-population ratio – the geography and density of cities varies widely and so, too, do staffing needs.

Term-limited Parker said that because she will leave office at the end of the year, any mammoth investment in police personnel would best be left to her successor. She proposes to fund four cadet classes.

“I think that every council member understands exactly what the staffing issue is in police and fire, and I think everyone of us would like to see more officers hired,” Parker said. “But we also understand that in order to do that with the way the revenues are currently it would mean wholesale cuts in other programs. One third of our general fund budget – one third – goes straight to the Houston police department, so no one can say that we don’t prioritize public safety.”

[…]

Councilman C.O. Bradford, a former HPD chief, said he was sympathetic to neighborhood complaints and McClelland’s request. But he isn’t prepared to fund more HPD staff without first reviewing how officers are currently deployed, he said.

“It’s time they entered a paradigm shift,” Bradford said. “We have technology today that we didn’t back then. We need more foot and bike patrols. We should have officers doing that in neighborhoods and in places that are well suited for it. We still have a lot to talk about before we spend any more money.”

See here for some background. For once, I agree completely with CM Bradford. I’ve said this all before, so you know how I feel. I’ve yet to see Chief McClelland address any of the issues that plenty of people including myself have brought up. That’s the starting point for this discussion. When and if we get there, we can go from there. Until then, I do not support spending more money on HPD.

Early returns on body cameras are positive

So far so good.

The majority of 100 Houston Police Department officers who have field tested body cameras over a recent two-month period called it a positive experience, though many expressed concern that the technology could endanger officer safety or be used by superiors to discipline them, according to an internal report obtained this week by the Houston Chronicle.

That technology is expected to be adopted department-wide beginning this summer as a way to increase police accountability.

[…]

In one case, a body camera video later helped confirm the validity of an on-scene confession, the survey showed.

In all, 72 officers who responded to the survey rated the body camera experience either very positive, positive or somewhat positive. Only 7 officers found the experience unacceptable, according to the report.

Some officers complained they felt reluctant to use necessary force on suspects -or even forceful language – for fear of being accused by superiors of abusive behavior. Others said they were distracted by the camera, reacted more slowly instead of relying on their “natural reactions,” or even placed themselves in a dangerous position during a traffic stop to get a better camera angle on the scene.

“Having to remember to activate a camera when engaging in a foot pursuit, ending a car chase or approaching a vehicle in a traffic stop reduces focus on the task at hand,” said one officer surveyed.

But it’s still unclear when officers will have to turn on – or off -those cameras, and HPD has refused to release a draft policy it’s developing.

Several officers complained about “vague guidelines” for use of their test cameras. That same complaint is also being raised by two Houston attorneys defending two different residents whose arrests were recorded with the cameras.

A copy of the report is at the story link. I’ll say again, we do need to know how HPD plans to use these things. We’re almost at the time for the planned rollout, so any day now would be nice. In the meantime, the Lege is moving on a bill that would “create a statewide grant program to fund training, the purchase of equipment and the cost of implementing the policy that would draw upon federal funds”. As such, if Houston is having a positive experience with body cameras, then there’s good hope the rest of the state can as well.

HPD to get a pay raise

Mayor Parker and the police union agree to a new contract.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

The Houston Police Department hopes a new union contract that targets raises primarily to younger officers will ward off recruiting struggles that have forced it to offer bonuses to cadets.

The agreement, which Mayor Annise Parker and Houston Police Officers Union president Ray Hunt announced Monday, is aimed at helping HPD compete with peer agencies.

“The fact that we’ve been having to pay hiring bonuses as the economy picked up means that some folks were making economic decisions,” Parker said. “We need to make sure we’re competitive across all ranks, and we need to focus on those, particularly, entry-level officers, to make sure that we have a continuing influx of new talent into the Houston Police Department.”

The deal would give the department an across-the-board 4 percent raise this year, at a cost to the city of about $13 million. That would be followed by two years of varied raises, intended to bring the various ranks in line with peer agencies, at an average cost of $16 million per year. Most notably, starting this June, probationary officers would get $42,000, up from $35,160 today, a bill of about $849,000 in the next fiscal year.

In 2018, the last year of the contract, all police officers would get a flat 3.5 percent raise, at a cost of $12 million. Union members will vote through Friday, and, if they approve the deal, City Council will consider it Feb. 18.

The Mayor’s press release is here. As noted in the story, this is a separate issue from the call by HPD Chief McClelland to hire hundreds more officers to deal with HPD’s backlogs, about which I remain skeptical. Normally I’d say that I’d expect this deal to be ratified, but after the recent HFD contract rejection I’ll wait and see. Mostly, I’m interested to hear what frequent commenter Steven Houston thinks of this. I’m also looking forward to what Council and the scads of Mayoral candidates will have to say about it.

2015 Mayoral manifesto: Public safety

Preliminaries
Transportation

When I first started thinking about this series a couple of months ago, this section was all going to be about the budget. We’ve covered this ground before – public safety is about 65% of the total city budget, yet it’s always “off limits” for consideration when there are shortfalls. It’s always the rest of the budget that gets the axe when cuts have to be made. Politically, I doubt anyone thinks they can lose votes by being “for” public safety and against any cuts to it. I’m not advocating cuts, I’m advocating the same level of scrutiny and due diligence for the public safety budget as for the rest of the budget.

Just at an abstract level, it’s impossible to believe that a hundreds-of-millions of dollars budget involving thousands of people, hundreds of departments, and multiple layers of management could not be refined and made more efficient. Here in Houston we have the specific example of thousands of uninvestigated criminal cases, for which as far as I can tell there still hasn’t been a reckoning by HPD. Chief McClelland’s response has been to ask for more money to hire more officers. My response to that is that we need to know a lot more about how the money HPD gets now is being spent. Maybe we do need more cops, and maybe we do need to spend more money on HPD. But that can’t be the default answer. We need to know more about how things are being done now. Only then can we know what we should be doing differently.

Public safety includes the fire department as well, and HFD has its own issues. Twice in the last five years HFD has exceeded its budget due to greater than expected overtime expenditures, caused at least in part by the way vacation time is scheduled. As crime has gone down nationally, so have the number of fires. The vast majority of calls to HFD are EMT calls, not fire calls. As with HPD, it is fair to ask, are we making the best use of our resources, and getting the best value for our tax dollars? I want a Mayor who will not be afraid to ask those questions.

One place where there appears to be general consensus is with body cameras. Everybody wants them, and thanks to a grant from the District Attorney, we have a plan to outfit HPD, Sheriff’s deputies, and constables with them. This is great, but it’s a first step. What will be the rules for their usage? How accessible will the video data be, and who will have access to it? What will HPD’s discipline policy be towards officers who fail to use them properly? Do we have a plan to get cameras for Metro cops? Let’s hear some details.

The discipline policies and practices for HPD in general need a long, hard look. It’s very rare for officers to be punished for excessive force complaints, even in the face of overwhelming (and sometimes video) evidence. Between 2007 and 2012, according to HPD records, officers killed citizens in 109 shootings. Every killing was ruled justified. The process needs an overhaul, and more public involvement. I want to hear Mayoral candidates address these issues, and not just give me the same paeans and platitudes we’ve gotten in past campaigns.

Note that I haven’t said anything about pensions. I don’t see the need to, since we’re not going to be able to avoid hearing about them from the candidates. The issue is central to the candidacies of at least two of the hopefuls so far. What any of them might promise to do that Mayor Parker hasn’t already tried, especially given the lack of interest by the Legislature in getting involved, is an open question. I’m sure they’ll tell us something.

Everyone agrees that something needs to be done about the city’s criminal justice complex. Everyone also agrees that it will be hella expensive to do something about it. One possible way to reduce the cost might be to rent instead of repairing or rebuilding, but not everyone is happy with that option. Given that this is almost certainly an item that will wind up on the next Mayor’s to do list, it would be nice to know what they think the current Mayor should do about it.

Mayor Parker recently said that “we need a complete rethinking of the nation’s drug laws”. What do the Mayoral candidates think about that? Will they push for HPD to use its authority to write citations for low level drug offenses instead of making arrests?

It seems likely that some form of “sanctuary cities” legislation will be signed into law this session. That will require local police forces to inquire about the immigration status of someone detained or arrested by a police officer or risk losing state funds. Who among the Mayoral candidates will be willing to speak out against this? Will anyone promise to at least investigate the possibility of filing a federal lawsuit to overturn such a law if one is enacted?

Finally, there was a lot of talk in the 2009 Mayor’s race about getting the various law enforcement agencies that operate in and around Houston to work together better. There’s been some progress on this, most notably in the area of radio communications, but overall it’s been a low profile issue. Where do the current crop of candidates see room for improvement on this? To tie this back to an earlier point, one large police force in Houston that isn’t in line to get body cameras yet is the Metro police force. Do the candidates have an opinion about that?

One more of these entries to go. Let me know what you think.

Now what do we do with those body cameras?

KPRC addresses an important question.

HPD has been running a pilot program regarding body cameras for more than a year. 100 officers are currently wearing a body camera. The department has yet to finalize a policy on the use of these cameras and the retention of video.

As it stands now, each officer is responsible for turning on the camera and recording an incident and then downloading the video and the end of every shift. Each camera records up to four hours of video.

HPD officers wearing these cameras are also required to check a series of categories indicating what type of incidents they recorded during a shift. HPD officials said “use of force” incidents are flagged in the system and the video is immediately reviewed.

HPD is not deleting any video at this point. HPD also has not given a specific time frame as to when these cameras will be implemented depart wide.

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia put 38 body cameras on the streets and is still crafting policy. Garcia has said he wants a full implementation within 90 days. Garcia’s is also experimenting with different types of cameras that can be mounted on the head, chest or shoulder.

Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen began a pilot program 5 months ago with three cameras. Rosen says the cameras are deployed during all tactical assignments and when high risk warrants are served.

Rosen’s office is also experimenting with different types of cameras and whether an officer will be responsible for turning on the cameras or a having system where the cameras are turned on automatically during a call. The Precinct 1 Constable’s is saving all video for 90 days unless part of a complaint or criminal case.

“I think it’s also going to help the public understand what we go through on a daily basis, the split second decisions law enforcement has to make,” said Rosen. “The public has to have confidence in its police.”

See here and here for some background. I hope HPD finalizes its policies soon. I would prefer for there to be clear rules about when cameras are to be in operation, with clear and enforceable consequences for not following those rules. We also need to know who will have access to the data, how long it will be kept, and what the process will be for requesting a specific video or set of videos. I’m sure there are some best practices out there that can be copied, so copy away. This has the potential to do a lot of good, but we have to do it right and ensure that everyone has confidence in it.

Mayor Parker wants body cameras for HPD

Good.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Houston won’t wait for federal funding before buying body cameras for all of the city’s uniformed police officers, Mayor Annise Parker said Wednesday, as activists launched a petition drive for an ordinance essentially mandating the mayor’s plans.

Both the mayor and police chief have announced their commitment to body cameras designed to record all interactions between officers and the public, even though the innovation is expected to cost around $7-million during a severe city budget deficit. Houston plans to apply for some of the federal funding proposed by President Obama earlier in the week, the mayor said, but the city plans to invest in its camera program before Washington’s money flows through the pipeline.

“We are absolutely going to apply, as is every other big police department across the United States, for body cams,” Parker said. “Actually, not every police department will want to go that route, because you have to have the policy in place, you have to have the ability to store the records from the body cams. But we’ve had our pilot up, we know what we want in the cameras. We have a good initial policy that we’re going to roll forward.”

The mayor hopes grants and law enforcement foundations will bankroll about half of the expected expense.

“As the national debate on body cams becomes more robust, I think you’re going to see more interest,” Parker said.

See here for the background. Activists are pushing for an ordinance to require body cameras on the grounds that while the current Mayor and police chief support them, the Mayor we get next year and the chief he or she appoints might not be so supportive. You might think that after the travesty in Staten Island with Eric Garner that body cameras aren’t what they’re hyped up to be, but that isn’t the case. They will do a lot of good, for the public and for the police. Let’s get this done.

A “Mike Brown Law” for Houston

From the inbox:

COMMUNITY TOWN HALL 12/4 TO DEMAND MIKE BROWN LAW

HOUSTON- Hundreds plan to attend a town hall organized by Houston Justice, a grassroots activist group aimed at local criminal justice reform. The first goal is to pass necessary legislation to adopt the Mike Brown Law that requires body cams for on duty police officers in Houston. Houston Police Department Chief Charles McClelland has already come out in publicly in support of the measure (link to Houston Chronicle story), but with a $140 Million deficit looming at city hall, the group is proactively demanding commitment from Houston City Council.

“Recent events have caused an awakening in our community, our first goal is to pass the Mike Brown Law at Houston City Hall,” said Durrel Douglas, an activist with Houston Justice. “With our energy we will pass an ordinance funding mandatory body cams for police (petition here) and increase diversity on grand juries. We will balance the scales of justice in Harris County,” concluded Douglas. According to a recent Gallup Poll, 24% of African American males said they had been treated unfairly in dealings with police in the last 30 days.

The activist group is holding a town hall this Thursday where next steps will be planned and attendees will have an opportunity to voice their opinions, apply to be grand jurors in Harris County and register to vote.

TOWN HALL

Who: Houston Justice Coalition
What: Community Town Hall, Planning Session
When: Thursday, December 4, 2014 6:30 PM
Where: El Dorado Ballroom
2310 Elgin
Houston, Texas 77004

See these two posts for some background on HPD and body cameras, and this Chron story from last week for Chied McClelland’s most recent statement in support of them. McClelland has already made a request to Council for up to $8 million to buy and deploy these cameras. We need to determine a funding source for that and make it happen, and along the way we need to figure out what the rules will be for keeping and accessing the video footage they will generate. I kind of like the suggestion made in the comments here by Steven Houston to make it all (with some limited exceptions) publicly available. Whether that’s feasible or not, let’s move forward with this. There’s a lot to be done to ensure accountability and restore the faith of all of the public in police work, and this is a key first step.

UPDATE: Here’s a Chron story about another town hall event, which took place yesterday. I don’t think we can have too many of these right now.

McClelland wants more money for more cops

And I want some answers before we go along with this request.

Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland asked city leaders Tuesday for an additional $105 million over five years to hire hundreds of new officers as part of a plan to shore up divisions where thousands of crimes are never investigated and bolster traffic enforcement as automobile collisions citywide are rising.

McClelland’s request comes as Mayor Annise Parker is searching for cuts to address an estimated $120 million budget deficit for the fiscal year that begins next July 1. Rising pension and debt costs, along with a voter-approved cap on city revenues, are fueling the city’s looming budget problems.

Executive assistant chief Timothy Oettmeier said HPD is proposing hiring 540 additional officers over the next five years, part of a 10-year plan to add 1,200 officers to investigative and patrol divisions. The staff increase would include new officers and hiring civilians to free up officers for field work.

Oettmeier said HPD was “enormously sensitive” to the budget situation and is using the hiring plan as a way to start a discussion. “What we’re simply saying is we need additional personnel, but given the current economic climate, can we sit down and figure out how to proceed at a time that’s appropriate for everybody,” Oettmeier said.

[…]

This summer, two independent police research groups hired to analyze HPD’s staffing noted that the department’s division commanders reported they had more than 20,000 crimes with workable leads that were not investigated due to a lack of manpower. That figure included burglaries and thefts, hit-and-run crashes and assaults.

Crime statistics provided to the committee showed HPD’s clearance rate for theft, burglary and auto theft was 11 percent last year.

[Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union] blamed a 44 percent clearance rate for rapes on low staffing, adding that HPD has seven detectives working adult sex crimes, compared to 15 deployed by the Austin Police Department.

“There’s no question that we’re struggling in some of the investigative divisions,” Oettmeier said, responding to the union.

I’ve expressed my opinion on that no-investigations report before, and the questions I raised then have not been addressed, as far as I know. I am not willing to spend more money on hiring officers until we get some answers to how well HPD uses the budget and resources it has now. We may well need to hire more officers, and to increase the pay we offer to them. I’m perfectly willing to accept that possibility, and the possibility that we will need to spend more money on police, but I am not willing to accept anyone’s word for it. Show me how HPD has performed in comparison to its own recent past and to other large city police forces, and then we can talk staffing levels. I don’t think I’m asking for too much here.

Body cameras for HPD

I’ll be very interested to see how this goes.

Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland is asking City Hall for $8 million to equip 3,500 police officers over three years with small body cameras to record encounters between law enforcement and residents as a way of improving accountability and transparency.

Last December, McClelland announced a pilot program that fitted 100 officers with the recording devices at a cost of $2,500 per officer, explaining that body cameras were more likely to record officers’ contact with residents than dashboard cameras in patrol cars.

[…]

Proponents of body cameras – roughly the size of a pager that can be clipped to the front of a uniform shirt- say the technology can be key in lowering use of force by police and citizen complaints. However, the effort to equip additional officers with the devices faces uncertainty as Mayor Annise Parker’s administration acknowledged Wednesday it is having trouble finding money to pay for the project.

Amin Alehashem, director and staff attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project office in Houston, called the proposed camera expansion a “huge victory for transparency” in assessing the actions of local law enforcement.

“Often times a lot of what happens with interactions on the street between an officer and an individual ends up being a ‘he said, she said’ altercation,” Alehashem said. “It’s great if we have cameras there. For the criminal process, it will allow juries in the future to see what happened and make up their mind as far as guilt or innocence of the individual or even the officer.”

Capt. Mike Skillern, who heads HPD’s gang unit and is involved in testing the cameras, said his fellow officers act “a little more professionally” when wearing the devices.

Obviously, there’s a sense of urgency for the adoption of this kind of technology in the wake of Ferguson. There are questions about how these cameras will be used, in particular how available the data will be, but these are a better option than dashboard cams, which are often not facing the right direction to capture what’s happening, and don’t have audio either. As with video recording interrogations, having these cameras in wide use will protect both the public and the police, since unfounded complaints can be dispatched easily. Having a clear record of what happens when there’s a violent confrontation, especially a shooting, should help restore some trust. I hope a funding source can be identified and the potential of this technology can be fully exploited. See Grits and Hair Balls for more.

Ogg challenges Anderson’s handling of Ryan Chandler investigation

This gets a little complicated, so stay with me.

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg

A county prosecutor who was engaged to fired Houston homicide detective Sgt. Ryan Chandler emailed him an office database search of all his cases as he was under investigation for possible criminal prosecution, according to documents released Thursday by district attorney candidate Kim Ogg.

Assistant District Attorney Inger Hampton sent Chandler an email Feb. 18 with a seven-page attachment that listed criminal cases Chandler handled from 2000 to 2014. The search of the DA’s office database was sent after Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson recused her office from the Chandler investigation on Jan. 7, and asked a judge to seal the motion to keep Chandler from knowing he was under investigation.

Chandler was fired in early April after Chief Charles McClelland disciplined him and seven other homicide division investigators and supervisors for not properly investigating nearly two dozen deaths.

Anderson’s office issued a statement late Thursday saying that while the information provided to Chandler by Hampton was public, its release violated policy and the matter is being reviewed. A phone message left with Hampton’s office Thursday was not returned.

“Inger Hampton’s email to Sergeant Chandler … only involved the release of public information; however her actions were contrary to office policy and as a result, Hampton is subject to internal discipline for this violation,” said a statement from Harris County DA spokesman Jeff McShan.

Ogg is asking Anderson to release information on the transfer of the case to Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon, who for years was head of legal services at the Houston Police Officers’ Union.

[…]

At a press conference Thursday, Ogg questioned Anderson’s decision on Jan. 7 to refer Chandler’s criminal case to Montgomery County, and her refusal to unseal the motion she made to the Harris County chief administrative judge when she requested the transfer. Ogg said former prosecutors and defense attorneys in Harris County are frequently appointed as special prosecutors.

Montgomery County prosecutors said they decided the criminal allegations against Chandler of tampering with a governmental recordwere the type usually dealt with administratively by the police department. Chandler was accused of criminal conduct by HPD for falsifying a report claiming he had referred an April 1, 2011, fatal shooting of an armed robber to the DA’s office for presentation to a county grand jury. Another HPD detective presented the case to the grand jury in September 2013, after an internal investigation began into Chandler’s work.

“We thoroughly looked at and evaluated the Ryan Chandler matter, and it didn’t rise to the level of a criminal offense,” said Phil Grant, Montgomery County first assistant district attorney. “I’m the one who made the decision, and Brent’s former association with HPOU never entered into those deliberations.”

As a bit of background, Chandler is in the process of seeking to get his job back; after a second day of testimony the hearing was put on hold till September.

Here’s the press release Ogg put out for her news conference at which she made these charges, and here’s the executive summary of the report put together by Wayne Dolcefino (yes, that Wayne Dolcefino). I was at the news conference, and these are the points Ogg made:

  • Ryan Chandler’s disciplinary letter of firing indicated that he falsified official reports and lied to the IAD investigators. The former is likely to be a crime – tampering with an official document – and it is what needed to be investigated.
  • Chandler’s engagement and subsequent marriage to Assistant DA Inger Hampton creates a conflict of interest. Normally under these circumstances, there’s a process that is followed that involves the Administrative Judge for the region that in this case includes Harris County, and out of that comes a judge assigned to the case who can then appoint an attorney pro tem, which is the fancy term for “special prosecutor”. Such a special prosecutor is usually appointed from the county where the case originated. Ogg stressed that there are hundreds of qualified attorneys in Harris County who can do this kind of work, and said there have been ten or twelve who have done it recently for various cases.
  • In this case, a Harris County district court judge (we don’t know who for sure) was asked by the DA’s office to appoint Montgomery County DA Brett Ligon as the attorney pro tem. Ligon, as the story notes, is the former counsel for the Houston Police Officer’s Union, which is representing Chandler in the appeal of his firing. Ligon is also a client of consultant Allen Blakemore, as is Devon Anderson, and the HPOU donated money to Mike Anderson’s campaign in 2012.
  • The motion made to appoint Ligon as attorney pro tem was sealed. Ogg wants all documents related to that motion unsealed, which among other things will tell us the name of the judge that acted on it.
  • Ogg also raised concerns about the DA’s office not notifying defense attorneys about the Chandler investigation as is required by law, and in fact did not inform other prosecutors about it in a timely manner. Rather than summarize the evidence Ogg put forth for this, I suggest you read page 4 of the executive summary for a timeline.

From the last page of that document, here’s what Ogg is demanding:

On May 12th,Dolcefino Consulting filed a request under the Texas Public Information Act for letters to victims and Brady letters to defendants and their legal counsel on behalf of the Ogg campaign. Documents released by the District Attorney’s office show none of the letters were written until after the demand for public disclosure filed by Dolcefino Consulting.

The Harris County District Attorney’s office has not released e-mail communication between Inger Hampton and Chandler they deem “personal”. That should immediately happen.

In addition, Anderson should unseal any documents detailing her request for a prosecutor pro-tem, and call on Montgomery County District Attorney Ligon to release documents detailing the “investigation by his office”.

Anderson should also be required to detail for the public what steps she has taken to investigate the actions of Hampton and to internally investigate other personal relationships between prosecutors and testifying police witnesses that give rise to conflicts of interest and report the results to the public.

Most importantly, the District Attorney should have to explain her failure to notify victims, her lapse in notifying defendants, and her failure to warn her own prosecutors.

So there you have it. Anderson for her part released this statement via Blakemore that denies Ogg’s allegations and asserts that “Sergeant Chandler’s activities have undergone the scrutiny of HPD Internal Affairs Division, and an investigation by a Special Prosecutor appointed by the Administrative Judge of the Harris County Criminal District Courts”, but it doesn’t get into any specifics. I’ve got paper copies of the rest of the documents that Ogg provided, but I don’t have electronic versions at this time. There’s a lot here, and we’ll see if anything more comes out. KHOU has more.

We need more context to the HPD no-investigations issue

Regular commenter Steven Houston left this feedback on my “More reaction to the HPD no-investigations report” post. It raises some good points and helped me focus my thinking on a couple of things, so I wanted to reproduce it and react to it here.

I’ve commented on this issue for years, including a number of comments on this very blog, but here is a quick attempt to answer a few points raised above.

1) A proper investigation, one that can ultimately lead to prosecution, can take dozens of hours. Unlike television shows written by those who have never served in a law enforcement capacity, no big city police departments throw unlimited resources to solve the latest crime within an hour TV slot. As I read it, the mentioned staffing report cites a need for a small number of additional investigators simply to review the cases coming in, not actually investigating them. Divide those 20k cases up by the 27 more employees cited and tell me you really thought they were to be solving actual crimes… (and hint: unlike the rape kits left untested, this number of cases left un-investigated was not the sum total of years, but simply those coming in during a small period of time).

2) Contrary to the assertion, patrol officers do solve a lot of cases simply by being out in the field as things happen. Who eventually takes credit for the collar/bust can be an interesting display of politics but many crimes come down to both parties still present at the crime scene which allows the street officer to make an arrest (subject to approval by the ADA working the intake phones). HPD even initiated a group of street officers allowed to delve further into investigating crimes “in the now” to great success with a small number of officers but office politics have kept the unit small since many councilmen demand better response times over real efforts to solve crimes.

3) A case can have a limited solvability factor like a suspect wearing a white t-shirt and blue jeans, black hair, and Latino features which might help limit the suspects in a crime occurring in River Oaks but does little to narrow down the field in the Gulfton area. Further, while anything at all in the suspect field of a report might come across as a solvability factor for an official report, many victims appear to have superior mental telepathy abilities as they “know” the crime was committed by a certain person yet cannot come up with any reason why (or simply refuse to disclose said reason).

4) If you want HPD to handle every level of service thrown upon it, you are going to need to triple their staffing. They are not particularly effective as social workers yet many calls for help amount to just that. Others call them because they see ghosts, hear noises in the attic, think a particular man looks suspicious simply because of his race, and a myriad of other things like people calling for rides, civil disputes, or even matters that many major departments stopped investigating years ago like minor fender benders. The idea behind “neighborhood oriented policing” (NOP) requires tremendous amounts of manpower establishing and maintaining community relationships, a large number of local politicians and police command staff expecting such as written in their own documents.

5) Unlike other major cities, Houston drastically cut civilian support positions some years back to save money, requiring much of the red tape and paperwork to be handled by classified officers at far greater expense. This was because no one was willing to lay off police or firemen, the kiss of death for any statewide run for office. Since term limits were put into effect, most city politicians have felt a greater need to look to their personal future in a higher office; amazing that the biggest and most vocal backers of term limits live in the county but failed to press their program any further. In any case, it makes no sense to stick a uniformed officer in the role of desk clerk for 3x the pay (even if both are vastly underpaid compared to peers in other cities) but the natural result of offering minor rate cuts and kicking debt loads into the future.

6) Studies by outside firms are used when no one wants to take responsibility for practices established long ago. It also lends credibility to the drive to change something as outside “experts” supposedly know more than those walking the walk (the Dilbert cartoon routinely pokes a lot of holes in this theory for good reason). If some officer bounces from call to call his entire shift five days a week most of the year, he can tell you the same thing for free but no one listens because he has a personal stake in the matter. On any given day in Houston, there are any number of geographic “beats” that do not have a single assigned officer because staffing is so bad, officers from other parts of town are expected to answer calls in them when they get around to it.

7) The use of organizations such as Crime Stoppers is a great idea except that there are not enough employees to generate the information needed. It’s just fine for Rania to suggest investigators drop everything to provide her group with information but every week sees a big new pile of cases assigned to each investigator that has to be gone over. There is no overtime available to spend a day or two combing cases for those that her group might help with so other than high profile work, it won’t happen unless those investigators are allowed to (and credited for) doing so. Under current staffing, most investigative divisions are like assembly lines and the tremendous responses generated by Crime Stoppers typically involve a huge noise to signal ratio that can make the best of intentions fall far short.

8) The budget increases of the past ten years are largely attributable to the raises of the late 1990′s that were supposed to bring the department closer to their peers in other major cities. As HPD went on a hiring spree in the early 1990′s, those officers are now hitting their peak earning years, most direct compensation pushed to their later years. They are still woefully underpaid compared to peers in other cities, especially in terms of pensions and salaries, but as in everything else, there is a delay factor at work here. As those officers die off or retire, the total cost of officers will decline since their union sold out newer employees much like their pension system did ten years ago; newer employees getting fewer days off for less total compensation.

Need more???

I greatly appreciate the feedback. There are two things I want to focus on here. One is the “crimes with workable leads that were not investigated” number that has gotten so much attention. Obviously, even crimes with workable leads require time and resources to pursue, and in the absence of sufficient amounts of one or the other, some investigations will get prioritized over others. I don’t think any reasonable person will have trouble grasping that or coming to terms with it. The real problem here is that we have a number – “20,000 burglary, theft, assault and hit-and-run cases with workable leads [that] were not investigated in 2013” – that currently exists in a vacuum. Have we always had this number of workable but uninvestigated crimes? What was that number in 2012, 2011, and so on, back to let’s say 2003? Has it gone up, gone down, or stayed about the same? Even that isn’t sufficient, since we know that population has increased and crime overall has decreased. What’s the ratio of workable but uninvestigated crimes to population and to the number of those crimes committed? Has that gone up, gone down, or stayed the same?

If there is some background level of workable but uninvestigated crimes in Houston and we’ve always lived with it – even if we perhaps weren’t fully aware of it – then that changes the nature of this issue. But even if we find that this background level has stayed the same or gone down in recent years, that still doesn’t tell us enough. Do other cities of comparable size to Houston have the same problem? If we find that our level is significantly higher than in other cities, then even if our level has been coming down, there’s still a problem and we need to figure out how to do better. Whether that means more cops, better management, better investigative procedures, something else, or some combination is what we’ll need to decide.

Now it may be that we won’t have accurate data for this. I have no idea if “workable but uninvestigated crimes” is a thing that police departments routinely track. It may be that the only reason we know that number for this year is because there was a study going on. If we don’t have solid data, we’ll have to make our best guess based on data we do have available to us. The bottom line is that I think we can all agree that police departments would ideally investigate all of the crimes for which they have some information on which to go. Is the fact that this did not happen in Houston in 2013 “normal” based on our history and the experiences of similar cities, or not? If it is, then we need to accept that, and if we want to change that we’ll need to accept that it will cost some money. If it’s not, then we need to understand why. But we can’t do either of these until we know if it’s “normal” or not. That’s the real question we need to answer about those “workable but uninvestigated crimes”.

The other item I want to focus on is one for which there had better be accurate data, and that has to do with payroll and the increasing size of the HPD budget. I have no doubt, as Steven asserts, that some of the increase in HPD’s budget comes from the raises and hirings of the 1990s. Surely we can do better than saying it’s “largely attributable” to those factors, however. How much of it is attributable to that? We should absolutely have this data available going back ten years or more, so let’s see it. To whatever extent that it’s true, we need to accept that and deal with it. To whatever extent that it’s not, we need to understand what the other factors are, and deal with them. This should be easy enough for an HPD budget analyst to produce – maybe they can have it ready for when Chief McClelland makes his staffing recommendations to Mayor Parker. I don’t think that’s asking for too much.

More reaction to the HPD no-investigations report

I’m not the only one that wasn’t impressed by Chief McClelland’s response.

[Burglary victim Heather] Heinke’s experience is not unusual in the nation’s fourth-largest city. A recent HPD staffing study says that 15,000 burglaries and thefts, 3,000 hit-and-run crashes and 3,000 assaults were simply set aside last year without a follow-up investigation. Houston police commanders told researchers they didn’t have enough staff to review the cases, even those with promising leads.

“It seems like (crime has) increased, and to (the point of) not being able to leave your home in a peaceful state of mind,” Heinke said. “You kind of feel helpless … you feel you’re out there exposed, like you’re out there on your own.”

The report’s finding that thousands of crimes aren’t being fully investigated, although it may not be unique to Houston as a major city, has angered citizens, civil rights groups and victims and surprised some City Council members. The disclosure came shortly after the Police Department in April disciplined eight homicide detectives for either ignoring or conducting shoddy investigations into nearly two dozen deaths.

[…]

The tally of unworked cases came as no surprise to former Houston police investigators, former Police Chief C.O. Bradford and union officials.

They described a daily triage by Houston police lieutenants and sergeants, who review reports of new crimes and determine which have no leads or “solvability factors.” Then, the supervisors assign what they consider the most solvable and egregious crimes to investigators. The others, despite having leads, are simply “suspended” and may be investigated if they are linked to another crime.

Mike Knox, a former gang investigator for the Police Department, said he’s surprised there were only 15,000 burglary and theft cases that were not investigated.

“I’m sure HPD would love to investigate every single case, but we just don’t have the manpower and money to do that. So we go after the ones who are doing the most harm,” Knox said.

Bradford, who resigned as chief in 2003 and now serves as a city councilman, noted there are fewer police on the force today than when he was in command.

“There’s not enough personnel,” he said. “You only have so many investigators in the burglary and theft division.”

The researchers hired to study HPD’s staffing noted that while Houston has a lower staffing ratio than many large city police departments, such data is relevant but not all-telling. Major cities in the Northeast that have urban centers that developed “vertically,” and are denser, have traditionally had higher ratios of police officers. Southwestern cities that have developed horizontally are less dense and tend to have lower ratios.

Houston’s police-to-citizen ratio of 2.3 officers for every 1,000 residents is lower than those of Chicago (4.7), New York City (5.1), Detroit (4.4.) and Washington, D.C. (6.3.).

Rania Mankarious, executive director of Crime Stoppers of Houston, said she is frustrated that more investigators don’t call on the nonprofit agency to help them solve cases. HPD is the agency’s major sponsor, but she said some investigators don’t want to go through the “hassle” of providing information about unsolved cases.

Others are not familiar with the services provided by Crime Stoppers, which have led to the solving of 30,000 felony cases in three decades of operation.

“I’m angry in the sense that we’re a free resource, this is all we do, and we need to be utilized,” Mankarious said, adding that cash rewards paid for information are funded by probation fees.

See here and here for the background. Let’s be clear that since the report talks about the need for more investigators – 27 is the number cited – the officers-to-citizens ratio isn’t particularly useful. Uniformed officers aren’t the one charged with investigating crimes. Obviously, most investigators will start out as uniformed officers, and I’m happy to have a discussion about what needs to be done to promote more investigators to help close that gap. But let’s keep our eye on the ball.

I guess I’m just skeptical about the calls for vastly increasing the size of HPD. I’m going to need some questions answered before I buy into any of that. If crime is declining, as he report states, why hasn’t HPD been able to keep up? How long has this problem of not investigating cases with “workable leads” been going on? Has there ever been a time when that wasn’t a problem? If so, what has changed since then? If not, why have we never talked about it before now? Surely we didn’t need a third party consultant to point that out if it’s always been the case. HPD’s budget has increased considerably in recent years. What is the money being spent on? What assurances do we have that the parallel problems in the homicide division won’t recur? It would be nice if when all this gets to City Council if someone on Council would drop the deference and do their best Jolanda Jones impersonation. Ask questions like a defense attorney. Let’s really understand what’s going on before we start proposing solutions.

McClelland’s response

I have to say, I’m not impressed.

Defending his department’s failure to investigate thousands of crimes last year, Police Chief Charles McClelland on Thursday said the understaffed Houston Police Department does not and should not have a goal of aggressively probing every crime reported to it.

“We work violent crimes first. If someone steals your trash can or your lawn mower out of your garage, there are no witnesses, there’s no evidence, there’s nothing for a detective to follow up on, it’s not assigned,” McClelland, a 37-year veteran of HPD, told City Council members during a budget hearing. “There has never been a time that I have been employed there that the Houston Police Department has had the capacity to investigate every crime that’s been reported to the agency.”

[…]

The chief bristled at the idea that his agency should be expected to throw manpower at all 1.2 million annual calls for service and stressed that his command team knew it had too few officers long before the report was released.

“If you read the work demands analysis, it only recommends 100 additional detectives; the greatest staffing recommendation is for patrol,” McClelland said. “A hundred more detectives will not give the capacity to work 20,000 cases. They’re very minor crimes. I don’t want to dismiss that if someone was a victim of crime, but they are.”

McClelland said he has read the 207-page document and has asked his executive team members to do the same. The chiefs will meet to discuss the report soon, he said, then will present staffing recommendations to Mayor Annise Parker.

“It’s something we know cannot be resolved in one budget year or two budget years,” he said, “but we do have to put a plan in place to address it.”

[…]

HPD is budgeting for 5,305 classified officers in the new fiscal year, a rate of 246 officers per 100,000 people. Comparing Houston to the nation’s 10 largest cities that rate of police staffing falls roughly in the middle, well behind Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, but solidly ahead of cities such as San Antonio and San Diego, according to 2012 FBI data.

Within Texas, Houston falls similarly in the middle. Dallas has 283 officers per 100,000 people. The rate in Austin is 204; in San Antonio, it is 166.

The original story said these were cases “with workable leads”, so Chief McClelland’s statement about “there are no witnesses, there’s no evidence, there’s nothing for a detective to follow up on, it’s not assigned” is disingenuous. I’ve no doubt that all police departments prioritize, but on the surface this looks and sounds really bad. One way to demonstrate that maybe it isn’t as bad as it looks would be to provide comparisons to other large urban police departments. I suspect that’s outside the scope of this report, however. It would still bee interesting to know. It would also be interesting to know what HPD is prioritizing over these cases, since Chief McClelland refers to working violent crimes first. The main problem with that statement is that we know that HPD has also had an issue with homicide cases not being worked. One presumes those are the highest priority cases. All of which is to say, what’s going on in the department? Claims of short-staffing may be accurate, but they only go so far, especially for a department that has seen its funding go up by more than fifty percent over the past decade. I hope the Chief’s executive team members read that report very closely.

Now, for sure we’re going to have a debate about staffing levels at HPD, and how its resources are being deployed. Just keep in mind those statistics cited above regarding the relative number of officers in Houston compared to other cities. In terms of cops per population, we’re in the middle of the pack, not near or at the bottom. Maybe we do need more cops, or maybe we just need to use the ones we have more efficiently. And that much-ballyhooed report itself adds some context, on pages 27 and 28:

The appendix at the end of the report contains a number of benchmarks comparing Houston to other state and national jurisdictions in several crime categories. First is a comparison of 2012 FBI UCR violent and property crime data benchmarking Houston’s crime and department staffing levels against San Antonio, Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth in order to make baseline crime comparisons. Of the five cities, Houston had the highest violent crime rate but fell in the middle for property crime rates.

Staffing comparisons were made to benchmark Houston’s sworn, civilian, and combined staffing against the same four state and five national jurisdictions using 2012 UCR data. For each agency, the percentage of each department’s sworn and civilian personnel is shown.

Next, 2012 UCR data was used to compare Houston’s crime and staffing levels against those of five relatively similar police departments nationally: Philadelphia, PA; Phoenix, AZ; Memphis, TN; Washington, DC; and Baltimore, MD. Compared nationally against other large cities, Houston had the second-lowest violent crime rate but the second-highest property crime rate.

Lastly, crime trend analysis was performed for the City of Houston by reviewing FBI Part I UCR data. We analyzed violent crime and property crime rates (including rates per thousand), and analyzed each of the four individual violent crime categories (homicide, rape, aggravated assault and robbery) and three individual property crime categories (burglary, larceny/theft, and auto theft) over a 10-year period. Both violent crime and property crime rates show a downward trend.

You can see the charts they reference in the first appendix, starting on page 149. To cut to the chase, from 2003 to 2012, the violent crime rate in Houston has dropped from 11.8 per 1000 residents to 9.9 per 1000, and the property crime rate has fallen from 58.8 to 49.5. The amount of crime isn’t increasing, despite some gloom and doom predictions a few years ago. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think we could and should be doing better with the resources we’ve got.

But let’s stipulate that some more resources are needed. What should we prioritize?

McClelland stressed that recruiting is a struggle for the agency, in part because HPD’s starting salary is lower than those of other Texas police agencies. Council recently approved a $5,000 bonus for new cadets. The last class before the bonus started with 30 applicants, he said, and has dropped to about 25. Another class starting in the coming days – after the bonus was implemented – will begin with about 70 cadets, he said.

The chief’s view was echoed by Officer Doug Griffith, of the Houston Police Officers’ Union.

“A 24-year-old Marine coming here could care less if we have a botanical gardens or Uber or anything else,” he said, referring to issues the council has discussed in recent weeks. “What they want is starting salary, and until we get them up to match other cities in this state, we’re not going to get them. We need y’alls help. This is a crisis we’re going to have to work through.”

I’ll grant the salary problems for hiring cadets, but if the report says we only need 100 more detectives, why not start with that? That would cost a lot less than 800 patrol officers, and would likely have a much greater effect on solving these unworked crimes. Patrol officers aren’t there to solve crimes, after all. Texas Leftist and Campos have more.

Those uninvestigated criminal cases

To say the least, this is big news.

The Houston Police Department, already reeling from a scandal involving shoddy work in its homicide unit, was dealt another blow Monday when a report revealed that some 20,000 burglary, theft, assault and hit-and-run cases with workable leads were not investigated in 2013.

The authors of the city-commissioned study surveyed HPD division commanders who revealed “excessively high numbers of cases with leads that were not investigated in 2013 due to a lack of personnel.”

The report noted that 15,000 burglaries and thefts, 3,000 assaults and nearly 3,000 hit-and-runs were not investigated last year. The data was based on monthly HPD management reports of cases with workable leads.

The study’s findings arrived at a critical time for HPD. The Houston Chronicle on Sunday reported on almost two dozen homicide cases dating back a decade that were barely investigated by HPD detectives. That scandal erupted earlier in the year when eight detectives were disciplined for their lack of work on the cases.

HPD Chief Charles McClelland had not completed reading the new 200-page study late Monday, but is expected to comment in the next day or two, said spokesman John Cannon.

[…]

The $150,000 study released Monday was conducted by the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum and Justex Systems Inc., a consulting firm co-directed by Larry Hoover, a professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University.

It was requested by City Councilman and former HPD Chief C.O. Bradford in July 2010, but was delayed by the city’s recent budget shortage.

“When we have tens of thousands of cases with solvability factors, with leads, where suspects could be arrested, that simply shouldn’t be happening in the city,” Bradford said. “I am not shocked, because we don’t have the personnel to do it.” Bradford said he favors hiring 1,500 new officers, but said 800 – at a cost of $80 million – would be a starting point. HPD currently has 5,100 officers

Mayor Annise Parker said her administration has taken a number of steps to have more of the city’s officers investigating crimes, but added that “massive” funding is on the horizon.

“We investigate everything we have the capacity to investigate,” Parker said. “We need more police officers. The only way we can have more police officers is to have more tax revenue to pay for them. We have done an extraordinarily good job of utilizing every resource, putting more officers back on the street, doing all these really innovative things to maximize it, but ultimately, that’s just kept us treading water.”

A copy of the large report is here. I’m sure a lot of people will be reading it. I’ll get to it as I can in my copious free time.

The main thing to come out of this is likely to be calls for hiring more officers. With a Mayoral election on the horizon, you can hear the calls already. I’m just going to say this for now, and bear in mind that I haven’t read the report yet. I’m sure that there are some deadweight members of HPD just as we recently learned there were in the Homicide division. I’m sure that in the nine-figure Public Safety budget there are some questionable expenditures and opportunities for optimization, especially since that part of the budget has been basically untouchable despite the recent shortfalls. But I’m also sure that we’re not going to efficiency our way to a solution here. Whether you think HPD needs 1,500 new officers or could get by just fine with some smaller number of new hires, doing that kind of hiring is going to cost a lot of money. How exactly do we plan to pay for that? Even without the near-term bumps in the road that we face, and even if you believe that the non-Public Safety portion of the budget still has some readily identifiable waste in it after the great cutbacks of 2010, we don’t have $80 million plus lying around to spend on increasing HPD’s workforce. I don’t see how you can get there without at least rolling back the Bill White property tax rate cuts, if not raising the rate beyond that. Politicians love to talk about making “tough decisions”, well, here’s one that someone needs to make. I will take proposals to add staff to HPD seriously when I see an accompanying proposal for how to pay for it. Calling for solutions is easy. Coming up with solutions, then fighting for them if they’re not immediately received with hurrahs and hosannas, that’s what separates the contenders from the pretenders. Lisa Falkenberg has more.

Murder by numbers 2013

The beginning of the new year means a look back at the homicide count for the previous year.

Homicides are up in unincorporated Harris County, where the Sheriff’s Office is reporting a nearly 20 percent uptick in 2013, preliminary year-end statistics show.

Killings in 2013 totaled 91 as of Tuesday – the second-highest tally in the past five years, and about a 19.7 percent increase from 2012, according to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

Authorities said the 2013 figure appears to have been driven by a cluster of cases involving multiple victims.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia cited a Nov. 9 case at a Cypress house party where two high school students were fatally shot and 19 others were wounded. He also recalled an incident Nov. 20 in which a gunman shot five people at a northwest Harris County apartment complex. Three died.

“We don’t see that as a particular pattern,” Garcia said of the multi-victim cases. “These are just circumstances that have occurred this year and we hope they never repeat themselves.”

In Houston, preliminary data showed the homicide count was down from 2012, which ended with 217.

As of Dec. 20, the Houston Police Department recorded 199 slayings compared with 207 for the same time last year, according to Homicide Division Capt. Dwayne Ready. HPD’s latest reports show about a 3.8 percent decrease.

If the 2013 total remains below 217, it would be the second lowest since 1965, when 139 people were killed, HPD officials said. The lowest since that date was in 2011, which had 198.

[…]

Violent crime overall has been trending down for several years, both nationally and locally. By and large, crime experts say that violent crime has been experiencing slight fluctuations rather than sharp increases and decreases.

Phillip Lyons, a criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University, said those decreasing figures may now be leveling off, showing some stabilization in crime statistics.

“We are at that point, where it seems as though there is overall stability, and that obviously means there are going to be some places that are reporting higher numbers than last year and other places that are reporting lower numbers than last year,” Lyons noted. “It all essentially averages out to not much change.”

See here and here for the previous installments of this story. I basically agree with Prof. Lyons, there really isn’t much happening here. The uptick in unincorporated Harris County is likely just statistical noise. If it goes up for a few years in a row, that may be something. A one year bump that isn’t that big in absolute terms and even smaller in per capita terms is not.

Here’s the sidebar to the story with numbers from the past five years:

Annual number of homicides in Houston and unincorporated Harris County in recent years:

City of Houston:

2009: 287

2010: 269

2011: 198

2012: 217

2013: 199 (As of Dec. 20, 2013)

Unincorporated Harris County

2009: 93

2010: 74

2011: 69

2012: 76

2013: 91 (As of Dec. 31, 2013)

If unincorporated Harris is up over 100 for the next couple of years that may be worrisome, but again keep in mind that the overall population there is rising, too. This chart would be a lot more meaningful if it included the number of homicides per 100,000 residents, as that is a number that will be better to compare over time. Consider the statement above about how 199 murders in Houston would be the second lowest since 1965 when there had been 139. Well, the population in Houston in 1965 would have been less than half what it is today, so 199 murders in 2013 is therefore significantly less – back of the envelope, it would have been about 14 per 100,000 in 1965 (I’m assuming a population halfway between the 1960 and 1970 Census numbers, which would be about one million) but only about 9.5 per 100,000 in 2013 (assuming a population of 2.1 million). Putting it that way, the total number of homicides in Houston was probably as low as it has ever been in a much longer time frame. When was the last time you heard someone say that?

Police cameras

It’s disappointing that Houston lags behind other cities in using dashboard cameras in police cars, but I am glad to see we are trying to catch up.

Houston police have fewer dashboard cameras than any major Texas law enforcement agency, providing them with little of the recorded evidence that other departments have to determine whether an officer violated procedures or laws.

Just 5 percent of the Houston Police Department’s fleet of nearly 4,000 vehicles feature dashboard cameras, compared to the Dallas Police Department’s 55 percent, the highest of the six largest law enforcement agencies in the state.

A recent Houston Chronicle investigation showed more than one-fourth of civilians shot by HPD from 2008 to 2012 were unarmed, and apparently none of the 121 shootings in that time frame were captured by dash cameras.

HPD Chief Charles McClelland this month announced a program to test 100 small cameras worn on the front of officers’ uniforms, saying this newer technology has made dash cameras obsolete. He did not address the future of HPD’s dashboard cameras.

Policing experts say cameras – mounted in cars or uniforms – are critical to public confidence in law enforcement.

“They are absolutely a benefit. They tell a story,” said professor Geoffrey Alpert, who teaches criminology at the University of South Carolina and is a national expert on policing. “If you have a suspect saying one thing, and the officer another thing, and if you don’t have an electronic witness, you don’t know who’s telling the truth.”

Alpert said research has found that dash cameras support the officer’s account 90 percent of the time, although he notes they are expensive for cities to purchase and operate.

Austin police have installed digital cameras in 38 percent of the department’s 1,335 vehicles. Other agencies with more dash cameras than HPD include Fort Worth, El Paso, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. The Dallas Police Department, the state’s second largest police agency with 3,500 officers, has installed dashboard camera systems in 960 of its 1,757 vehicles, according to an open records request.

There’s really no good argument against having these cameras. They cost money, sure, but they’re a great investment because they provide an indisputably objective account of what happened when police interact with civilians. The case for dashboard cams is the same as the case for recording interrogations, though for reasons I’ve never quite understood there’s more resistance to the latter. I am curious about the proposed use of officer cams instead of dashboard cams, mostly because the officer cams – uniform cams? – are new and don’t have a record of use that we can examine like the dashboard cams do. I can see how the officer cams might provide a better view than static dashboard cams, but I can also imagine a scenario where an officer that might want to obscure what he’s doing could facilitate that by the way he positions himself or angles his body. It’s important to make sure the cams can’t be interfered with.

It’s also important to make sure the operation of the cams is not optional or at the discretion of the officers involved.

Fort Worth police have equipped about one-quarter of their 1,227 vehicles with dashboard cameras. Police union officials there say the biggest problem is officers who forget to turn the cameras on.

“Here’s the deal. If it saves you on one multimillion dollar lawsuit, it would be worth it,” said Sgt. Stephen Hall, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association.

McClelland, the HPD chief, said the 100 body cameras to be used in a pilot program – including hardware, software and digital storage – costs $2,500 each.

Equipping all 3,000 HPD officers who are first responders would be a significant investment, McClelland said. Using the figures provided by the chief, the cost would be about $7.5 million.

He said anecdotal reports from other departments indicate body cameras have resulted in fewer complaints against officers, along with more convictions in criminal courts.

McClelland said the new technology will also offer “a measure of protection for our police officers against false allegations” and defense in civil litigation.

“This just allows us to have our own video, without being edited by the public or someone’s cellphone video they want to chop up and only show bits of pieces, only the bad parts that they think where maybe it makes the officer look bad and makes them look good,” McClelland said.

Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, said the cameras must be turned on and off by the officer, who in many situations will instead focus on making an arrest.

“We’re not scared of what the cameras are going to capture, we are fearful that an officer is going to fail to turn it on at a very quickly evolving scene and people are automatically going to think that officer is trying to hide something,” Hunt said.

Which is why it shouldn’t be up to the officers to remember to turn them on. They should either be always on or automatically activated whenever an officer exits the police vehicle. People will have confidence in them only if they know they will always be able to review the video. The first time video isn’t available when there’s been a confrontation between an officer and a civilian, people will have questions. The second time it happens, people will have doubts. If we want this to work and get the maximum benefit from these cameras, they have to be always on when we need them. If they’re not designed that way, they’re not ready to be used. Grits, who is a fan of the officer cams, has more.

More security cameras coming

You’re being recorded, like it or not.

Houston is adding 180 downtown surveillance cameras despite shrinking national security grants and research showing that video feeds only sometimes improve public safety.

By early next year, the Houston Police Department will have nearly 1,000 camera feeds available. Most record public areas around downtown, stadiums and event spaces like the George R. Brown Convention Center and the Theater District.

“With all the homeland security requirements that we have – we have more critical infrastructure to protect than New York City – we can’t do it without video,” said HPD Chief Charles McClelland.

Federal Homeland Security grants first issued in 2003 sparked a rush in many American cities to expand video surveillance networks in an attempt to deter or help apprehend terrorists. With cameras in place and police agencies collaborating at unprecedented levels, local departments also have used the video networks to combat local crime amid shrinking patrol budgets in many cities.

“We see the federal government handing out lots of money for anti-terrorism programs, but it actually ends up being used against parole violators and to issue traffic tickets,” said David Maass, spokesman for the civil rights advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation.

City Councilman C.O. Bradford, a former Houston police chief, said the technology is necessary for modern police work.

“It is almost professional malpractice not to have technology deployed in public areas where you know large groups of people are going to gather on a regular basis,” Bradford said earlier this month after the City Council approved grant funding for 180 new cameras downtown.

Nancy La Vigne, a justice policy researcher with the nonprofit Urban Institute, said cameras can help but never replace officers patrolling a beat.

“You need that human interaction,” La Vigne said.

She pointed to her 2011 study, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, analyzing local use of surveillance networks. Her findings showed the effects on crime and cost benefits varied widely.

The city of Houston has had downtown cameras since 2007, and cameras in other parts of the city more recently. (We also have a lot of traffic monitoring cameras, but they don’t appear to be part of this discussion.) It would be nice if we could get some objective data about their effectiveness in Houston, if only so we could know where they might be best deployed going forward. Unfortunately, all we’ve got is anecdotal information. How can we know if we’re using these things to their best advantage, or if we’re even using them effectively at all, without some kind of metrics in place? I’d feel better about this expenditure if someone could show me some numbers.

Bradford calls for review of HPD oversight

He’s right that something needs to be done to ensure that people feel confident in the system.

CM C.O. "Brad" Bradford

CM C.O. “Brad” Bradford

Houston City Councilman and former Police Chief C.O. “Brad” Bradford said citizens have lost faith in the city’s oversight of the use of force by police officers, and it’s time for a discussion on how to restore confidence in the system.

Bradford was responding to a series of Houston Chronicle stories about the shooting of more than 100 civilians by the Houston Police Department from 2008 to 2012. More than a quarter of those shot were unarmed. All of those cases were reviewed by Harris County grand juries, and none have resulted in charges against officers.

“If citizens don’t trust (the oversight) or have faith in it, you’ve got to go to Plan B – whatever Plan B should be,” said Bradford, who was HPD chief from 1997 to 2004. “I think some process has to be established which improves the trust that citizens have in our process which reviews use of force.

“It’s not the review process that I think citizens have a concern with, it’s the understanding and the transparency of that review process,” he said.

[…]

Mayor Annise Parker supported the process used by HPD to investigate shootings but said she wanted to see the number of shootings decline.

“We do an excellent job of investigating, and I think we do an excellent job of learning from those shootings every time one happens to try and prevent them in the future,” Parker said. “I wish we could bring the number down, and we’re constantly working to bring that number down.”

McClelland, in a news conference Thursday, stressed that state law allows officers to use deadly force on a suspect, even if it turns out the person was unarmed.

“That’s unfortunate and it’s a tragedy, but it doesn’t mean it falls outside of the law or outside policy and training,” said McClelland.

The three articles in question are these:

Civilians caught in the line of fire

Christmas Day turns deadly

Grand jury’s role in police shootings draws scrutiny

Grits has an excerpt from the first story. The genesis of all this is Emily dePrang’s two-part story in the Texas Observer from the summer about the disciplinary process at HPD, Crimes Unpunished and The Horror Every Day. Start with those two, then read the Chron stories.

The latter Chron story, about the use of a shooting simulator by grand juries that investigate HPD shootings, a practice that was not widely known even among Criminal District Court judges, is provocative and yet another issue that needs to be aired during the District Attorney race. That story also notes that state law grants a lot of latitude to anyone, not just cops, who use deadly force in situations where they feel their lives or safety are at risk – “stand your ground” laws, in other words. Putting aside those concerns, the disciplinary process at HPD is in serious need of reform, and the Chron stories also raise questions about the level of firearm training HPD officers receive. I don’t know what “Plan B” looks like, either, but I agree with CM Bradford that we need to find a better way.

Rape kit backlog eliminated

More good news.

For the first time in its history, the Houston Police Department doesn’t have a backlog of rape kits that haven’t been tested.

The backlog, which at one point totalled 6,600 untested rape kits, was eliminated by sending the kits to outside labs, Chief Charles McClelland said.

“There is no backlog regarding DNA (evidence) and sexual assault kits,” said McClelland, adding that lab results are beginning to arrive back at the police department and criminal investigations will be updated if usable evidence is found.

The police department used federal grants and city funding to pay for processing the rape kits, in addition to testing evidence in other pending cases for possible DNA, the chief said. Rape kits are the informal term for biological samples as well as physical evidence gathered from victims of sexual assaults, which are later processed to see if they match the DNA of a suspect.

Police officials say they have the laboratory capacity, both inside HPD and in outside labs, to keep a backlog from developing.

It was back in March that Council unanimously approved a plan by Mayor Parker to allocate funds to clear the backlog by sending all of the kits to two outside labs. I presume what this story really means is that as of now all of the kits have been physically transferred from HPD’s possession to those two labs. The fact that HPD is now able to process all of the DNA evidence it collects in a timely manner so that no new backlogs develop is at least as big a deal as the clearing of the backlog that had existed for so many years.

Past critics of the department’s forensic services, including the city’s largest police union, say they expect the crime lab not to ever lag behind again.

“Under this chief and mayor, it better be sustainable because they made it very clear to the (assistant) chief who took over that position that it is not going to happen again,” said Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officer’s Union. “I’m very confident, under this administration, that there won’t be a backlog. That is something that has to happen – you can’t get behind.”

Assistant Chief Matt Slinkard said that HPD investigators receive about 1,000 new sexual assault cases each year, and these cases are also being sent to a pair of outside laboratories. Other criminal cases needing forensic testing are being processed in the HPD lab.

This is a big deal and an accomplishment of which Mayor Parker should be justifiably proud. It will make the transition to the new crime lab structure much smoother, and it means that the new crime lab can be more aggressive about pursuing and analyzing DNA evidence in property crime cases. All in all, a very good day for the city.

Red light camera tickets begin again tomorrow

Drive appropriately. You have been warned.

Houston police will begin issuing red-light camera citations Sunday at 50 intersections around the city, the latest maneuver in a protracted court battle over the controversial but lucrative traffic surveillance system.

Police Chief Charles McClelland has decided to start with a “clean slate,“ explaining he will not issue citations to red-light runners who were recorded after the cameras were turned back on July 9. Mayor Annise Parker ordered the cameras to resume recording after a federal judge struck down the November referendum that saw 53 percent of voters reject the program.

“We have been working very hard to make sure our infrastructure is put back in place, and we are up and running and ready to go,” McClelland said Thursday. “As of 12:01 (a.m.), July 24, the Houston Police Department will start back issuing citations to motorists who run red lights at intersections that have digital red-light cameras.”

McClelland also said an existing contract with the red-light camera vendor allows the city to expand the system, and he plans to add more cameras in the future.

Okay, look. I voted for the cameras. I thought that the election should not have been held, on the grounds that Judge Hughes cited in his ruling. I agree with the decision to turn the cameras back on pending a ruling on what the city’s contractual obligations are. (Any word from Judge Hughes on this yet? The hearing to hash that out was on Wednesday.) But this? No. Even mentioning the possibility of maybe adding more cameras some time down the line can be charitably described as a really lousy idea. The fire’s plenty hot right now, please don’t go adding any fuel to it.

McClelland repeated his strong support of red-light cameras for a Police Department that was forced in recent weeks to cut $40 million from the current year’s budget and lay off 154 civilian employees.

The chief noted that traffic enforcement is a core service the department must provide, but without technology such as surveillance cameras he would be forced to pull officers off of neighborhood patrols.

“The camera can work 24 hours a day, seven days a week,“ McClelland said. “The camera does not complain about it being cold or hot. The camera can work in the rain, and the camera does not submit an overtime slip.”

I know everyone’s tired of re-litigating the same issues we argued over ad nauseum last year, but if you’re going to do it anyway, I recommend embracing the budgetary aspect of this, and de-emphasizing the safety aspect. At least everyone agrees that the cameras make the city some money, so the dispute is over whether it’s worth it, not whether it’s true. It’s at least theoretically possible that some people who voted against the cameras because they didn’t buy the safety argument or just didn’t like the idea of having them might be willing to accept them as an alternative to cutting the police budget. Or not – everyone may just be too sick of the whole damn thing by now to be persuaded of anything – but I don’t think anyone’s mind can be changed by the safety argument at this point, so what the hell.

More on the red light camera return

Here’s the Chron story about the reinstatement of the red light cameras. A couple of points that need to be made:

Wednesday’s announcement provoked the full fury of Paul Kubosh, a lawyer who helped lead the petition drive to get the cameras banned. When reached for comment, he did not even wait for a question. “Start typing!” he said, and launched into a rant criticizing the decision.

“The mayor is going to ask for your vote in November. How can you possibly give her your vote when she does not respect yours?” Kubosh said. “She is not following the will of the citizens of Houston, she is following her own conscience.”

Kubosh repeated his accusation that the city shopped the suit in federal court in hopes of an unfavorable ruling that would compel it to turn the cameras back on.

[…]

Parker made the announcement flanked by Police Chief Charles McClelland and Fire Chief Terry Garrison, who both insisted that the cameras make the streets safer. Gary Blankinship, president of the Houston Police Officers Union, agreed.

“It’s good news because they reduce injuries,” Blankinship said. “The data clearly shows that serious injury accidents are reduced in those intersections when the cameras are there.”

Given that the issue is why the cameras were turned back on after the voters rejected them, the question about safety is completely beside the point. That issue was extensively debated last year, and the pro-camera forces lost. You can believe whatever you want about red light cameras and safety – the data is at best inconclusive, and nobody’s mind is going to be changed by another rehashing of the same arguments. In my opinion, bringing this up at all undermines the Mayor’s stated reason for turning the cameras back on, which is that we are basically forced to do so pending the appeal of the judge’s ruling, because it is a reminder of the losing campaign for the cameras.

As for Kubosh’s ranting, the irony is that if you accept the judge’s ruling – which is right here and is quite clear and concise and really ought to be read by everyone expressing an opinion about it – Mayor Parker should not have urged Council members to vote to put this referendum on the ballot in the first place. She should have told them to vote against it and provoked the fight we are now having last August. It was at the insistence of Mayor Parker and City Attorney David Feldman that Council “supinely ignored – over the voices of some of its members – their responsibility”. If the Mayor ever chooses to directly respond to Kubosh, that should be the first thing she points out.

Now of course not everyone – certainly not most camera opponents – accept the ruling. When it gets appealed, and I do believe the appeal will be allowed to proceed, we’ll get to argue about why Judge Hughes was right or wrong to rule as he did. Some people, including Kubosh and a few of my commenters, have argued that it never should have been Judge Hughes to rule at all, that this case should have been heard by a state judge and not a federal one. I’m not qualified to address that point, but having read the ruling I don’t see why a state judge would have seen it any differently. I recommend you look at JJ’s comment, which addresses that issue, among others. If someone would like to explain to my non-lawyer self why the federal court was the wrong venue, I’d love to hear it. In the meantime, I’ll say again – read the ruling. It’s the only thing that’s relevant at this point.

UPDATE: Today’s Chron story discusses the choices the city faced after the election:

The city of Houston might have been able to shut off its red-light cameras within four months of voters demanding it in last November’s elections, but the Parker administration opted not to use an escape clause that would have meant more than $3 million in continuing costs while the clock ran out.

Eight months later, the city continues to grapple in court with the company that operates the cameras and contends that damages could reach $20 million over the life of the contract if the controversial devices are not reactivated.

Faced with that potential liability, Mayor Annise Parker declared on Wednesday that the cameras soon would resume issuing citations.

Instead of using its four-month escape clause in November, the city declared that the election immediately voided the contract and ordered Scottsdale, Ariz.-based American Traffic Solutions to shut off the cameras within days. Litigation ensued, of course.

And we know how that went. I’m going to step out on a limb here and suggest that people’s opinion of the city’s decision will correlate pretty tightly with their opinion of the cameras in the first place.