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HPD and Ring

We don’t have a Ring doorbell so this doesn’t affect me, but I do find it quite interesting.

The Houston Police Department announced Monday that it is joining Ring’s mobile app, Neighbors, in a move officials hope will reduce crime and improve safety in neighborhoods across the city, even as department officials complain of low staffing levels.

The HPD partnership with Ring, a rapidly growing home surveillance company that sells video doorbells and similar products, would help the police department communicate more effectively in real time with residents as crimes occur, Houston Police Burglary and Theft Division Commander Glenn Yorek said.

“HPD will be able to send alerts to neighbors of crime and safety incidents in real time, request information about local crime and safety from neighbors who opt in to sharing for a particular request, and work with the local community to build trust and to make the community safer,” Yorek said, announcing the partnership at the department’s downtown headquarters Monday morning.

The joint venture is the latest for Ring, a seven-year-old tech startup purchased by Amazon for more than $1 billion in February that has grown exponentially in recent years even as it has weathered criticism over its privacy practices and disputes over claims that its products reduce crime.

[…]

An article in MIT Technology Review reviewed Ring’s findings in the Los Angeles neighborhood and found that burglaries in subsequent years rose to levels higher than in any of the previous seven years.

And In West Valley City, Utah, officials performed a test in two neighborhoods of similar size and levels of crime. Both neighborhoods saw a drop in crime, according to the MIT Technology Review story, but the results were surprising: the neighborhood without the devices saw a more significant drop.

Maria Cuellar, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, said there is not sufficient evidence to say whether Ring devices really reduce crime.

Ring’s study in Los Angeles was problematic because it relied on small sample sizes, Cuellar said, adding that a properly designed study, or more data and analysis, is needed to tell if Ring cameras are really effective at reducing crime.

I think the question about whether smart doorbell/home security systems like Ring have an effect on crime or not will never be settled. The sample sizes are small, there are likely to be regional variations, and so many factors affect crime that isolating one of them is nearly impossible. There still isn’t a consensus answer to the question of why violent crime has declined so precipitously since the mid-90’s; the lead hypothesis has a lot of evidence behind it, but plenty of people remain skeptical, and even its proponents don’t claim it’s the sole reason. As for the privacy concerns, that’s going to be up to everyone’s individual appetite for that kind of risk. I think if I were the type of person to install a Ring, I’d also want to have my local police department be a part of its Neighbors app. I’m not that kind of person, at least not at this time, so my response to this is mostly to shrug. Your mileage may vary.

How many crimes does your police department solve?

Fewer than you think, unfortunately.

go_to_jail

Violent crime in America has been falling for two decades. That’s the good news. The bad news is, when crimes occur, they mostly go unpunished.

In fact, for most major crimes, police don’t even make an arrest or identify a suspect. That’s what police call “clearing” a crime; the “clearance rate” is the percentage of offenses cleared.

In 2013, the national clearance rate for homicide was 64 percent, and it’s far lower for other violent offenses and property crimes.

University of Maryland criminologist Charles Wellford says police have shifted priorities over the decades.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, no one thought that the police should be held responsible for how much crime there was,” Wellford says. Back then, he adds, police focused on calls for service and solving crimes.

In more recent years, he says, police have been pushed to focus more on prevention, which has taken precedence over solving crimes — especially non-violent offenses.

In short, the falling crime rate we’ve enjoyed may come at a cost: police indifference when you report your stereo was stolen.

I admit, that wouldn’t have occurred to me. I would have thought that with less crime, police departments would be more able to solve the crimes that were committed, since there would be less of a workload. I’m not a criminologist and I haven’t read any research on this, but my initial reaction here is to be a little skeptical. In what ways are police departments focused on crime prevention, and what evidence is there that those methods are working? My gut says that police departments these days – really, for the past thirty or so years – have concentrated on drug-related crimes. While I would agree that there’s some ancillary prevention benefit in that, we all know that this comes with a variety of costs. Maybe the national effort to decriminalize some drug offenses will have the benefit of allowing police departments to once again focus on solving the crimes that really do victimize the public.

The article comes with a utility to look up the crime clearance rates in your own community. Here’s what it showed for some of Texas’ biggest cities:

All violent crime Homicide Property crime City 2011 2012 2013 2011 2012 2013 2011 2012 2013 ====================================================================== Houston 46% 39% 37% 90% 70% 76% 13% 12% 11% Abilene 47% 49% 64% 80% 100% 100% 25% 22% 20% Amarillo 40% 45% 48% 60% 100% 44% 18% 19% 22% Austin 49% 49% 57% 93% 87% 100% 12% 12% 13% Beaumont 70% 70% 69% 100% 100% 75% 23% 28% 27% Corpus Christi 54% 53% 45% 67% 63% 100% 20% 23% 19% Dallas 38% 40% 37% 65% 58% 60% 13% 11% 11% El Paso 48% 47% 49% 88% 96% 80% 18% 20% 22% Fort Worth 36% 38% 39% 61% 80% 86% 14% 16% 17% Laredo 80% 80% 79% 64% 88% 100% 20% 24% 28% Lubbock 30% 32% 34% 50% 73% 100% 15% 15% 19% McAllen 56% 66% 38% 50% 100% 0% 20% 22% 16% Midland 66% 68% 59% 100% 75% 40% 22% 25% 27% Plano 54% 51% 47% 80% 100% 100% 22% 22% 19% San Antonio 48% 36% 37% 80% 70% 75% 12% 11% 12% Waco 56% 56% 55% 91% 67% 50% 23% 23% 26%

Note that these are all for the above-named cities’ municipal police departments. I limited myself to cities that I could think of that had a population of at least 100,000. (Galveston, in case you were wondering, has about 48,000 people.) “Violent crime” includes “Murder and non-negligent manslaughter”, which I characterize above as “Homicide”, “Robbery”, and “Aggravated assault”. “Property Crime” includes “Burglary”, “Larceny-theft”, “Motor vehicle theft”, and “Arson”.

Don’t be too mesmerized by the Homicide solve rates for smaller cities. The total annual number for these crimes in cities of, say, 100,000 to 200,000, is often in the single digits. McAllen, for example, had 4 homicides in 2011, one in 2012, and two in 2013. In a few cases, such as Beaumont for 2011 and 2012, the number of murders solved was greater than the number of murders. My guess is that the solved crimes included cold cases, but there was no explanation on the site. I just listed those as 100% to avoid weirdness.

What stands out to me in all this is that generally speaking the smaller cities had much better solve rates for property crimes than the big cities. In Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin, the solve rates for property crimes never topped 13%, but in the smaller cities it ranged from 18% to 28%. Fort Worth and Lubbock were the outliers there, on the low end. I’m not sure what to make of that, but it sure is interesting.

What application does this have to the 2015 Mayor’s race? (You knew I was going to get around to that, I’m sure.) Well, in addition to my wish that the candidates will eventually start to talk about public safety in a more comprehensive way, I’d think that a candidate who promised to have his police force concentrate on solving property crimes might be able to sway a voter or two. Lord knows, the Nextdoor discussion list for the greater Heights area spends a lot of time on break-ins and thefts and the like. Given how many of these crimes do go unsolved today, it seems to me there’s some traction to be gained on this issue. Just a thought.

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.

On pot and prosecutions

I’m sure you’ve heard about President Obama’s remarks that marijuana isn’t really more harmful than alcohol. There’s plenty of evidence to back that assertion, but Harris County DA Devon Anderson strongly disagreed with him anyway.

Zonker

President Barack Obama’s recently published remarks calling marijuana less dangerous than alcohol has prompted Harris County’s District Attorney to release a response today which bolsters her profile as a “law and order” prosecutor.

“I adamantly disagree with the President. According to a 2012 Drug Use and Health survey, marijuana is the number one drug that citizens over the age of 12 are addicted to or abuse. The negative effects of marijuana use on a developing brain can be permanent, and our President is recklessly giving what amounts to parental permission to our most impressionable citizens to break the law. Marijuana is creating deadly situations right here in Harris County,” Devon Anderson said in the news release.

[…]

“I welcome the President to come to Houston to review the same capital murder cases I did just last week that were the result of marijuana drug deals,” Anderson’s statement said. “Maybe then he will see that the most effective way to keep our law-abiding citizens safe is to obey all laws that our legislators put on the books at our State Capitol.”

You can see her full statement here. Again, the evidence is overwhelmingly with President Obama on this, and I’d recommend you read folks like Mark Kleiman for some current research on drugs, alcohol and crime – start with this WaPo interview, or go read his blog, for which he is not the only author. For this particular piece, I’m going to outsource the argument to Mark Bennett. But seriously, in terms of crime and social costs, it’s more correct to say that President Obama understated the case than that he overstated it.

The Chron also asked both Democratic candidates for their reaction. I’ll skip Lloyd Oliver’s rambling answer and go right to the good stuff.

Ogg, a former Harris County prosecutor now in private practice, supports diversion programs for people apprehended with small amounts of pot.

“In 2013, more than 12,000 people were arrested for marijuana and sent to jail in Harris County at a cost of more than $4 million,” she said. “Marijuana is illegal in Texas but jailing offenders in possession of small amounts is a waste of taxpayer dollars. Instead, those funds should be spent prosecuting violent offenders, gang members and thieves. It makes more sense to divert that group of offenders to voluntary work programs that make them more employable and don’t result in license suspensions, time in jail and other factors that cause them to lose their jobs or become less employable.”

[…]

Ogg, the former director of the city of Houston’s anti-gang task force and former executive director of Crime Stoppers of Houston has concluded – after 26 years in public safety work – that tougher marijuana enforcement isn’t what people want.

“They want to be safe. They want our focus and attention on the dangerous criminals,” she said. “There aren’t enough resources in Harris County nor is it fair to make people lose their jobs over minor offenses like possession of marijuana in small quantities.”

Ogg talked about this at length in the interview she did with me. Obviously, I agree with her perspective on this. I think she’ll have a lot of voters on her side for it as well. While I don’t expect anything to happen next session, or the session after that, there will continue to be legislative attempts to dial back penalties for pot smoking. As with many other things, we can get ahead of the curve, or we can scramble to catch up. Seems a pretty clear choice to me.

Dan Patrick is lying about immigration and crime

That’s what the headline to Peggy Fikac’s column should be, but she took the easy way out.

At a forum where statewide candidates strutted their stuff for leading business groups, Sen. Dan Patrick could have focused on pretty much any angle when he talked about immigration.

There is the reality that people working here without documents are woven into the economy. There’s the question of how much responsibility businesses should bear for checking on prospective workers’ immigration status. There is the fact that key business leaders stymied so-called sanctuary city legislation in the 2011 legislative session.

Patrick – locked in a tough GOP primary fight for lieutenant governor in which candidates are positioned – chose to tie it to violent crime.

He pounded the need for border security by citing “hardened criminals we arrested from 2008 to 2012 – not illegals who were here for a job, who got four speeding tickets, but hardened criminals – 141,000 we put in our jails just in four years in Texas.”

“They threaten your family. They threaten your life. They threaten your business. They threaten our state,” he said, adding that they were charged with 447,000 crimes including 2,000 murders and 5,000 rapes.

Violent crime is scary and if you’re a law-abiding person, you’re probably against it, no matter your stand on immigration.

But Patrick’s stark language could seem a counterpoint to concerns that Republicans’ future depends on the party attracting more support from the growing Hispanic population.

Can we put aside the politics of Patrick’s abhorrent assertions and focus for a minute on the fact that he’s lying through his teeth? Let’s start by pointing out that Texas’ total state prison population is about 150,000, with another ten to fifteen thousand state prisoners in county facilities. Are we to believe that over 90% of inmates in state prisons are not just immigrants but undocumented immigrants? Does he have a source for this “statistic”, other than perhaps one of his body cavities?

Patrick’s crime numbers are deeply suspect as well. I don’t know what time frame he has in mind, but for the entire five year period of 2008 through 2012, there were 6223 murders in Texas. According to the Census, foreign-born people made up 16.3% of the population of Texas during that same time period. Are we to believe that 16.3% of the population – at least some of whom are children and elderly folks – committed nearly 65% of the murders in Texas?

There’s no evidence that increased immigration causes an increase in crime. That’s true if you look at historic data, and it’s true if you look only at Mexican immigrants. It is true that second-generation immigrants are more likely to commit crimes than first-generation immigrants, but only at the rate of native-born Americans. Which is to say, they’re about as likely to commit a crime as your average Senator or talk radio host.

By the way, if you go back to that link about the volume of crime in Texas, you might notice that there were half as many murders committed in the state in 2012 as there were in 1979, despite the fact that the overall population of Texas is twice as much now as it was then. The per capita murder rate therefore declined from 16.7 per 100,000 people to 4.4 per 100,000 people. Unless you believe that all native-born Texans must be on the verge of sainthood these days, I don’t see how that is consistent with an immigrant-fueled violent crime wave.

But Dan Patrick doesn’t care about any of that. He’s got an election to win, and if spreading lies helps him win, then that’s what he’ll do. To be fair, he’s hardly alone is spreading this manure around the state, but he’s the most shameless about it. I’ll say again, when Bill Hammond and his business brethren actually oppose this sort of crap, then I’ll believe them when they say they’re pre-immigration reform. In the meantime, even in a story on political tactics, I expect better from Peggy Fikac. None of the links I provided was hard to find. She owed it to her audience to at least reference the truth.

Bite marks

Grits reminds us that not all forensic science is scientific.

I ran across an interesting article documenting critiques of forensic dentistry. In it, bite mark expert Dr. Gregory Golden:

concedes that there’s little scientific research to back claims from forensic odontologists in court — but he hopes to see that change. “What we’re trying to do,” he says, “is to develop proper, unbiased research techniques that take into consideration real-time mechanisms or setups for researching bite marks.”
The problem, he says, is that it’s difficult to conduct realistic studies on how bite marks injure living human flesh. In the past, studies have been conducted on cadavers and anesthetized pigs, with dental models mounted in vice grips. But such studies don’t accurately reflect bites on living human flesh, and Golden adds that “it’s almost impossible to find voluntary subjects offering themselves to be bitten severely enough to be wounded.”

In the meantime, though, he wants to keep drawing  his expert witness fees until the science either justifies or debunks his premises. While it’s understandable that few subjects would be willing to be seriously bitten in service to science, that’s not a good excuse for courts to admit unreliable evidence.

[…]

Unfortunately, as the National Academy of Sciences articulated in a 2009 report, many forensic disciplines aren’t really “science” at all and forensic odontology is one of them. Instead, like tool mark or hair-and-fiber analyses, the method of identification involves subjective comparison, not scientific proof.

Like many people, I suspect, I have gotten most of my information about criminal justice from pop culture – movies, TV shows, mystery and detective books. Needless to say, this provides a distorted view about how things really work. Part of the problem is that writers and fans love all that forensics stuff. Flashy technology, futuristic techniques, genius investigators – we eat it all up. Putting aside all the dramatic license and CSI-style distortion of timelines, excitement levels, and just plain frequency of usefulness, the fact remains that we’re no better at distinguishing the things that have solid scientific basis from those that turn out to be junk. And when we come across stuff like that in one of our favorite shows or books, it’s not like a correction gets issued later, or that we’d hear about it if one did. So people come to believe in these things, people who subsequently serve on juries. I’ve read about the problems with fingerprint analysis for years, and I still have more belief in in than doubt. It’s going to take a long time and a lot of updated information to clear things up.

We must destroy the pensions in order to save them

There’s so much wrong with this I almost don’t know where to begin.

Houston is the Titanic – it certainly looks impressive, but icebergs lie ahead. That’s the image that mayoral candidate Ben Hall drew when he talked to the Houston Chronicle editorial board last week.

No debate here. Like an iceberg on the horizon, public pensions threaten the budget of our booming city. That danger grows because we’re sailing blind – firefighters have refused to open their books to City Hall. How much will taxpayers owe? We don’t know.

It may seem like an issue for accountants, but pension problems have repercussions beyond balanced budgets. Just look at Oakland, Calif. The Bright Side of the Bay spends 75 percent of its budget on police and firefighter compensation. Yet it has cut 200 police officers since 2008, and crime is skyrocketing. The culprit? Growing pensions. In its last budget negotiations, Oakland allocated more funds for veteran officer benefits instead of new hires.

Bigger pensions, fewer officers, more crime.

The lesson for Houston is that policy changes won’t do much to stop criminals if ballooning pension obligations prevent us from hiring brave souls to stand on that thin blue line. Hall brings this issue to the forefront in his five-point plan on crime, which includes stabilizing pension challenges.

Well, at least this answers my question about what pensions have to do with crimefighting. Too bad it’s based on a large pile of unfounded assumptions.

– There’s no clear relationship between the number of officers on the street and levels of reported crime. This holds true all over the world, and it is especially true for homicide rates. The Wikipedia entry for crime in Oakland, which notes that Oakland has only 18 officers per 10,000 residents, includes this sentence at the end: “As of 2010, the city of New Orleans, whose murder rate outpaces that of Oakland, had 48 officers for every 10,000 people.” Oakland’s homicide rate was 26 per 100,000 residents in 2011. For New Orleans in 2010, it was 50 per 100,000. That’s with nearly three times as many police officers per 10,000 residents. By the way, Houston’s homicide rate for 2012, based on the raw numbers, was 9.6 per 100,000 residents.

– Oakland’s pension problems have been there since the very beginning of its pension program over 60 years ago.

By all indications, the city never had a plan to pay for the Police and Fire Retirement System when it was started in 1951.

It had a $38 million hole from the beginning, said Bob Muszar, a retired Oakland police captain and president of the Retired Oakland Police Officers Association. Muszar has spent years researching the pension. He said that by the 1970s, the pension’s shortfall had grown to over $200 million.

So the city, police and firefighters agreed to close the pension to newcomers, which voters approved.

In 1981, the City Council approved a parcel tax, which costs taxpayers about $447 a year on a $283,900 home, the city’s median value.

But that wasn’t enough. In 1985, the city issued $222 million in bonds to cover pension costs. In the following years, the city refinanced those bonds, issued hundreds of millions in new bonds, and refinanced those bonds.

Then in 1998, the city once again refinanced bonds and also entered into a complicated interest-rate swap with Goldman Sachs that now costs the city $4 million a year and expires in 2021. “The more creative they got, it’s almost like they started digging a hole and they got deeper and deeper,” said Muszar, who feels retirees have been scapegoated for the city’s mismanagement of the pension.

Sure is a good thing that kind of scapegoating could never happen here, isn’t it?

– Oh and by the way, while it is true that crime is up in Oakland, it is also up in many cities neighboring Oakland. I’ll leave it to you to calculate the officers per capita and pension situations for each. Point is, there generally isn’t a simple explanation for these things. The causes are complex, interrelated, and sometimes just plain random.

Back to the editorial:

In his meeting last week, Hall said that this means transitioning from pensions to a defined contribution system. Under Mayor Hall, future police, firefighters and municipal workers would have something like a 401(k) – just like everyone else.

“We are going to have to redefine the pension benefits as a defined contribution plan,” Hall said. “No question.”

This change would be admittedly difficult to pull off. Pensions are controlled by the state government in Austin, and some of Houston’s part-time legislators have full-time paychecks from those pensions. But right now the point isn’t accomplishment, it is debate.

So far, Mayor Annise Parker has led the charge against out-of-control pensions. She’s implemented reforms to lower the city’s burden and worked to open pension books so the city knows what it’s paying for. Parker has said she thinks the city can have pension plans that work and opposes switching to defined contribution plans. That is where she, and the debate, stop.

Hall finally lends a voice to those who want to nix future pensions entirely.

Thank God, Bill King finally has a Mayoral candidate he can support. I just wonder if this is what the firefighters thought they were getting when they endorsed Hall. But like Mayor Parker, this is where I get off. Because let’s be clear on something, pension plans generate vastly superior returns than 401K plans. High income workers in the private sector may do better with 401Ks than they would with pension plans, but lower income workers and public employees do better with defined benefit plans. Employers may do better under 401Ks, but that’s because they get to contribute less. Of course, that comes out of the hides of the employees. Not a bad deal for the Bill Kings of the world, who somehow never call upon themselves to make sacrifices for the greater good, but not so good for the affected employees.

Finally, the conflation of the police and firefighters’ pension funds just serves to muddle what the issues actually are. The city’s complaint about the firefighters’ pension fund is that they don’t have any say over how much they have to contribute to it each year. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the firefighters’ pension fund is also one of the best funded in the state.) The city would also like to negotiate over and try to wring some concessions on things like the deferred retirement option (DROP) and automatic cost of living adjustments (COLAs). The city has already gotten most if not all of the concession it sought from the police and municipal employees’ pensions, and if you listen to my interview with CM Costello, you’ll hear him say that the city has largely solved its long-term problems with these pension funds. There are issues in the short to medium term, resulting in no small part from the city’s underpayments to those funds in recent years, but once we’re past that the system is sustainable. Mayor Parker will tell you that if the city can negotiate changes to DROP and get some discretion on COLAs, it will have a handle on the firefighter’ pension fund. Whether you agree with that or you agree with the firefighters, the point is that replacing pensions with 401Ks is hardly necessary. Making bogus comparisons to Oakland or Detroit isn’t helpful.

If we need more courts, we should ask for more courts

I’m not sure why there hasn’t been more of a push to deal with this.

Harris County 1910 courthouse

As Harris County’s population continues to swell, more people means more crimes. And that results in more work for the county’s 22 felony courts.

But no court is busier right now than the 209th, which is overseen by Michael McSpadden, Harris County’s most senior felony court judge. He has a docket of pending cases that eclipses all other felony courts locally.

With a caseload of 1,159, McSpadden has 440 more pending cases than his colleagues’ average of 718, according to a report this month by the Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

Judges and others say the larger the docket, the more every case is slowed down. That means suspects who are lingering in jail and the victims in those cases may wait years for the case to go to trial, plead out or get dismissed.

The correlation between the size of the docket and the quality of justice, however, is a hotly debated question.

[…]

The more than 1,100 cases in his court is a surprising number that even McSpadden says needs to come down.

“This is my 31st year on the bench and when I had one of the better dockets, I was criticized that I might be rushing cases through – putting too much pressure on attorneys to plead cases, which was certainly not true,” McSpadden said last week. “In the past three years, it has built up, and I have no idea why. I don’t think my attorneys are handling cases differently.”

[…]

“The best judge in the criminal courthouse has the highest docket,” said Todd Dupont, president of Houston’s criminal defense lawyer organization. “(McSpadden) doesn’t let fear of the size of his docket dictate the quality of the proceedings, which is where a lot of judges fall short in Harris County.”

Dupont, who practices in front of McSpadden, said the problem in Harris County is that other judges worry too much about docket sizes.

“Historically we have seen judges use that reasoning to encourage people to plead guilty,” Dupont said. “Who cares about the size of the docket? Conversations about dockets are meaningless unless you use it as a tool of oppression, and that’s just mean, and probably illegal.”

[…]

“The bottom line is we haven’t had a new court since 1985, and the filings haven’t slowed down and aren’t going to slow down,” [Presiding Judge Susan] Brown said. She said there is little hope of getting more judges, more courts or more money. “We’re trying to find creative ways to resolve these issues because we’re not going to get any help.”

Although the crime rate has fallen in recent years, the county’s population continues to grow, creating a net increase in criminal cases going through the system.

Since 1985, when Houston’s last criminal district court was created by the Legislature, the number of felony filings has doubled from 22,000 a year to 44,000. Courts that used to see 1,000 cases a year are now scrambling to deal with twice that many.

Well okay then. Maybe there isn’t much hope for getting more judges, but has anyone asked? If the number of felony filings has doubled since the last time there was a new criminal court added, then isn’t that some pretty strong evidence that there’s a need? I recognize that Harris County may not want to have to pay for more judges, but if everyone is so concerned about the quality of justice being dispensed in courtrooms with such overflowing dockets, isn’t it irresponsible not to ask for more judges? Complaining about it isn’t going to change anything. There’s a fundamental disconnect here.

I should note that there is another way to deal with this, one that doesn’t involve a legislative or financial solution, and that’s to file fewer felony cases. Though there was no breakdown of that “22,000 felony filings” number, I’ll bet that a significant fraction of them are drug cases, and that a significant fraction of those are non-violent possession cases, including the infamous “trace cases” that are now being filed as felonies again. As of a few months ago at least, that had not caused an increase in the county jail population, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an effect. We could file fewer such cases as felonies, and we could push the Legislature to reform the laws that make drug possession and other non-violent crimes felonies. Again, though, complaining is not likely to bring about any changes.

Overview on criminal justice legislation from the regular session

I tried to pay attention to as many issues as I could during the legislative session, but no one can keep track of it all. Criminal justice bills were one area that I lagged on. Fortunately, there are people like Scott Henson keeping a close eye on such matters. Here’s his look back at the good and bad criminal justice bills that made it through, or failed to make it through, the 83rd Legislature. He also has a post that categorizes the criminal justice bills by type. Note that HB1790, one of the two bills Grits identifies as “only two bills … aimed at de-incarceration”, was vetoed by Rick Perry. Check them out.

I got those empty prison cell blues

There’s a lot of excess prison capacity around the state, which is a big problem for a lot of communities that once thought building prisons, to be operated by private entities, would be a boon for them.

Just over a decade ago, prisons were a growth industry, and Texas was the undisputed king.

The state corrections system was the largest in the free world, brimming with more than 162,000 convicts at one point. County jails were adding new cells aplenty. And private prisons sprang up like mushrooms after a rainstorm, angling for contracts to hold thousands of illegal immigrants and convicts from other states.

But the prison crown has lost its luster, thanks to falling crime rates and new-found success in rehabilitation. There aren’t enough convicts to fill all the cells built by the state, counties and private contractors who thought the flow of inmates would never end.

The state corrections system now has more than 11,000 empty bunks. One state prison has closed, and two more are on the chopping block. County jails have more than 21,000 empty beds of their own. And those once-flourishing private lockups? Several stand empty, as do at least four of the six former state juvenile prisons that were shuttered two years ago.

Research by the American-Statesman shows that nearly two dozen county and private lockups are now vacant or almost so, as are thousands of bunks in state adult and juvenile prisons.

“The lesson to be learned is that we had a criminal justice system in Texas created to fill prisons, and now we don’t, because we figured out it was too expensive to lock everyone up,” said Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, which cautioned against the prison-building boom during the 1990s. “We built beds to stimulate economic development. That’s over.”

If you’ve been reading Grits for Breakfast, you know that this story isn’t really news, in the sense that the decision to build prisons basically on spec with public money for the benefit of private operators has been shown to be foolish in the extreme for some time now. It’s easy to see today why these decisions worked out so poorly, but even at the time it should have been more clear to more people that this was insane. I get that the cause of the sharp drop in the crime rate nationwide wasn’t well understood at the time a lot of these projects commenced. Crime may have been on the wane, but incarceration certainly wasn’t, not in Texas at least. I get how a lot of these small communities might have thought that building a prison in their town or county to house overflow inmates from Houston or Louisiana or wherever made sense, though perhaps a few of them might have spent more time wondering how many other small communities like them were making the same calculation, and what the upper limit of it all might be. But really, the idea of prisons as a growth industry offends me on such a fundamental level that it’s hard to even read this story. I can’t think of a better description of a society that’s doomed to fail than one in which prisons are a growth industry. I have a certain amount of sympathy for those communities that went down this failed path early on, but a lot less sympathy for those that made this mistake, or may yet make it, in more recent years, but I’m not the least bit unhappy by the overall trend. I hope it continues for many more years to come.

HPD braces for cuts

More than $15 million is going to be cut from HPD’s budget, in part to lost red light camera revenue and in part to the overall budget picture.

The equivalent of more than 100 civilian jobs, including temporary workers, will be eliminated over two years through layoffs and attrition. Chief Charles McClelland has moved to cut overtime, delay two cadet classes, institute a hiring freeze for civilians and deploy officers to administrative duties previously completed by civilians.

Several signature programs of former Mayor Bill White, including SafeClear, a towing program used to clear roadways, and mobility response teams, which were deployed to ease traffic congestion, may be canceled or significantly revised, police and city officials said.

[…]

Mayor Annise Parker insisted the cuts would not damage crime-fighting efforts.

“None of the cuts are going to impact public safety,” she said. “We are consolidating in every city department. … We are not laying off police officers, we are not laying off firefighters.”

City Councilman Mike Sullivan, who said he opposed more than $2 million in cuts to police overtime funding, disputed that claim.

“When you make cuts in the police budget, in staffing, overtime, investigative resources, it’s going to impact the crime rate,” he said. “It will go up. It’s just statistically a proven fact that when we reduce our resources to the police department, crime goes up.”

I don’t accept claims like that without actually seeing the statistics that are being cited to prove it. There’s no clear correlation between the number of police officers in a city and that city’s murder rate, for instance. Surely the Councilman knows someone who has access to, say, the last ten years’ worth of Houston crime data and HPD budget and personnel data. Throw it into an Excel spreadsheet, produce some charts, and then we can talk. It may well be that he’s correct, or it may be that in times of tight budgets HPD shifts its resources away from things that don’t actually have much effect on the crime rate. Who knows? What I’m saying is that this is all objective and testable, so let’s see some numbers.

And if it turns out that CM Sullivan is absolutely correct and that further cuts to HPD’s budget puts us at risk of a spike in the crime rate, we do always have the option of raising revenue so that we don’t have to force HPD to slash its budget. If maintaining some minimum level of staffing at HPD is such a priority, then shouldn’t we find a way to pay for it? And if we’re not willing to find a way to pay for it, then is it really a priority? I know, I know, everybody’s talking about cuts, and maybe there’s some other expenses that could be cut to make room in the budget for more HPD funding. I’m asking again, what is the minimum level of services we’re willing to accept, and how do we intend to pay for it? For that matter, what level of services do we actually want to have, and how do we intend to pay for that? We need to have that conversation before we can sensibly tackle these problems.

We’re #1 in misleading rankings on annoying lists

So what else is new?

Mayor Annise Parker lashed out at an controversial annual study released Monday that placed Houston among the most dangerous cities in the United States with a population of 500,000 or higher.

“Crime Rankings 2010-2011,” published by CQ Press, ranks Houston’s crime as ninth-highest for big cities nationwide, placing it on a list with the likes of Detroit and Columbus, Ohio., although the city has less than half the crimes per capita of those atop the rankings. Violent crime in Houston fell 8 percent during the first half of this year and was on a pace to reach the lowest rate since 2000, records show.

Parker said the data released by CQ Press are flawed because the publisher allows different cities to avoid counting certain crimes. New York does not count any robberies of property less than $1,000, she said, and Chicago frequently is not included in the list because it does not follow the standards requested by the FBI, which compiles the statistics.

“Everybody likes to do rankings of cities, and when we like the results of the rankings, we put them on our websites and when we don’t like the results, we critique them,” Parker said. “It can create a false sense of security or an impression that a particular city has a bad crime situation, and it can have real consequences in terms of economic impact on that city.”

Hey, at least they didn’t say that we’re number one on the list of Cities With The Fattest Criminals. I don’t see any reason to take this sort of thing any more seriously than that.

Perry’s border shenanigans

It’s an election year, and that means it’s time once again for Rick Perry to pay attention to Texas’ border communities, by which I mean “grandstand about drug violence”. I recommend you read these BOR posts for a sense of what’s going on. It’s fascinating to see Perry call in the helicopters while simultaneously making ludicrously false claims about reductions in crime along the border, for which he claims credit. But that’s our Governor for you.

What Katrina crime wave?

So remember how there was this big increase in crime in Houston in the months after Katrina evacuees arrived here? Well, it turns out that the crime data indicates otherwise.

Five criminologists who reviewed crime statistics published a study in the current issue of the Journal of Criminal Justice, and found only a “modest” increase in the murder rates of Houston and Phoenix, and none in San Antonio, three cities that took in thousands of evacuees from storm-ravaged New Orleans.

The researchers did not find an accompanying rise in auto theft and assaults and other crimes, which they said would have been expected if dispossessed evacuees were responsible for a crime hike.

“What we found in Houston was there appears to be an increase in some categories of crime, in particular murder and robbery, during the Katrina time period when the evacuees came to Houston. There was no significant change in rape, aggravated assault, burglary or auto theft,“ said lead author Sean P. Varano, an assistant professor who teaches criminal justice at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.

Varano said the study was conducted to see whether anecdotal information and media reports about a rise in crime caused by Katrina evacuees was real. After the powerful August 2005 hurricane flooded New Orleans, Houston’s population swelled 7 percent as it welcomed nearly 240,000 evacuees, while San Antonio received about 30,000 evacuees and Phoenix 6,000, the study said.

Provocative stuff. I don’t feel qualified to make a real critique of the study or its methods, but I will say that if this is accurate, it would be another example of Katrina survivors being victimized again by rumors being reported as fact and a public that was a little too willing to believe it.

The Mayorals on public safety

Reading this story about the Mayoral candidates and their public safety plans, I have the same questions that I’ve had from the beginning. How do they plan to pay for the things they want to do? Hiring more officers, obviously, isn’t cheap. Neither is buying new technology, to do things like communicate better among themselves and with other agencies. Does this require other agencies to spend more on communications equipment as well, and if so how do you ensure they do so? Similarly, if you want HPD to coordinate better with other law enforcement agencies, how do you ensure that those agencies play along? If your ideas require state or federal funding, how do you make that happen? To a large degree, there’s an element of faith here, that one candidate will do a better job of these things than another. Where do you place your faith? That’s the big question.

Just as a reminder, Annise Parker’s plan for public safety is here, Peter Brown’s is here, and Gene Locke’s is here. While I agree with the assessment that there’s a lot of overlap among them, I also think that there are some pretty sharp differences in what they each would emphasize, and I think that’s at least as important as what bullet points they do or don’t have.

Parker’s first ad

And Annise Parker wins the race to be the first candidate not named Peter Brown to air a TV ad in the Mayor’s race. Here it is:

And my reaction is…eh. That’s more about me than anything else, as public safety-themed ads just don’t move me. I admit that places me squarely in the minority, as it seems this is the issue that concerns most voters this year, but there you have it. I think it’s a pretty good spot as far as these things go – Parker does a good job speaking directly to the audience, highlighting her accomplishments in office, which as the candidate with the most electoral experience is her strength. There’s no razzle-dazzle, but that would have been out of place in an ad like this. I don’t care for the “I won’t raise taxes” bit, as I believe no candidate is in a position to make that promise (not that this has stopped any of them), and I’m not sure what “sports stadiums we don’t need” she plans to fight against, as the city’s part of the Dynamo Stadium deal – purchasing the land – is already done. The swipe at Gene Locke (Parker also won’t support “museums we don’t need”) is subtle enough that I daresay 98% of the people who view the ad will miss it. Frankly, I’d have left most of that stuff out, as I think it clutters up the spot. Greg, who highlights a bit from Parker’s accompanying press release about the ad that explains some of this, agrees with me on this. I’ve put the release beneath the fold.

Overall, I’d give the ad a B. It does what it intends to do, which is associate Parker with public safety, which by being first to air has the side effect of stepping on one of Locke’s main messages, and it leverages her biggest strength, which is her experience. Not the ad I would have written, but there’s probably a good reason they didn’t ask me for that. Stace, musings, Miya and Houston Politics have more. What do you think?

UPDATE: Turns out, according to Campos, that Locke has been running ads on the radio. Like him, I had no idea about this and had not received a release about them, so that’s all I know.

UPDATE: Nancy Sims weighs in.

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Locke’s crimefighting plan

In the past week or so I’ve had several Mayoral candidate issue papers hit my inbox. As there was one from each campaign, I thought I’d try to do a little analysis of each of them. We’ll start today with Gene Locke‘s Seven Point Plan to Keep Houston Safe, which you can see here. Locke’s issues page is a bit light in comparison to his opponents, and this was the first such release I’ve received from his campaign, so it was with no small amount of interest that I took a look. As with Annise Parker’s plan, I’d say the priorities Locke highlights are good ones, ones for which there’s a fairly broad consensus. Not to put too fine a point on it, but six of the seven items Locke highlights can be found in Parker’s plan as well, and almost as many can be found in Peter Brown’s plan as well. That’s what I call a consensus.

(Interestingly, one thing Brown doesn’t mention that Locke and Parker both do is a promise to put more cops on the street. Of course, neither Parker nor Locke say how they plan to pay for those extra cops, so perhaps it’s just as well. And as noted before, while both Locke and Parker support the idea of closing the city’s jail and folding it into the county’s system, Brown opposes the idea. So it’s not all Consensusville here.)

Locke’s page here has fewer details than those of the other candidates, so there’s only so much for an armchair quarterback such as myself to quibble with. One place I really wish he had gone into greater detail is the matter of the city’s jail, for which Locke claims credit as the originator of the idea to close it. The city’s jail has been in the news quite a bit lately, especially with that story from Monday about a possible TIRZ deal with the county to pay for a replacement facility. What does Gene Locke, or Annise Parker or Peter Brown, think about this? Whoever wins in November will inherit this deal that the city makes, so it would be really nice to know where they stand. I figure I’ll get statements from one or more of their campaigns now that I’ve posted this, but frankly this should have been in the story. At this point, getting comments from the three of them on anything newsworthy that Mayor White and/or City Council is doing ought to be standard operating procedure.

The one point of Locke’s plan that’s unique to him is this:

HOMELAND SECURITY With the growing importance of Houston to the economy of the nation and the world, Gene knows we need to take special care to protect institutions like the Port of Houston. Gene will lead the way in developing a regional plan to prevent, protect, respond to, and recover from an act of terrorism or any other type of catastrophic event. Safeguarding our engines of economic development will make Houstonians safer in their homes and communities.

The City of Houston currently has an Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security, while Harris County has an Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management. The former is more focused on crime, while the latter is more about hurricanes, at least going by their web pages. I’d like to know more about what Locke thinks about these current setups, and how his plan enhances or adds to them. I’d also like to know how he sees the role of the federal government in all this, since this clearly falls under the rubric of the DHS. I think this is a good issue to highlight, I just need to hear more.

That’s all I’ve got for this one. I’ve got Parker’s education plan and Brown’s energy plan in the works as well.

Another Mayoral wants Hurtt out

It’s just Roy, so it’s not like this materially affects Chief Harold Hurtt’s status, but still.

“We want police officers to stay,” said Harris County Department of Education Trustee Roy Morales, one of five candidates who talked about crime and other issues at a Houston West Chamber of Commerce forum Tuesday. “They’re dissatisfied right now because of Chief Hurtt and his policies. Under my administration, we will look for a new police chief. We will have a new strategy that will allow these police officers to be part of the process. We will have the strategy of prevention and deterrence rather than reaction.”

Morales’ call for Hurtt’s ouster echoed one by City Controller Annise Parker at an event earlier this month when she said Hurtt has been “ineffective.”

“I don’t believe he’s really ever integrated himself into the larger Houston community,” Parker said in an interview. “Public safety is so essential to everything we do, and we have to have a chief that has his fingers on the pulse of the city.”

Parker said the next chief should come from within the Houston Police Department.

We heard about Parker’s opinion of Chief Hurtt last week. I don’t know what will happen to Chief Hurtt after the election, but I do know he won’t be headed to San Francisco, at least not for a job.

Although the other candidates have stopped short of calling for Hurtt’s departure, all have made public safety a focal point of their campaigns, often calling for similar reforms: more coordination among police agencies and a better use of technology.

On Monday, City Councilman Peter Brown unveiled a proposal that would return the city’s crime-fighting strategy to many of the neighborhood-oriented tactics put in place by former police chief and Mayor Lee Brown. Former City Attorney Gene Locke also has called for such strategies, which often involve developing community ties and neighborhood-tailored strategies for preventing crime.

I received a press release from Council Member Brown about this, which I’ve reproduced beneath the fold. I understand that Chief Hurtt isn’t particularly popular, but given that Houston’s crime rate is down during his tenure, I have to wonder about the efficacy of changing tactics back to what they were before he arrived. Obviously, this is going to be a function of what the next police chief wants to do, which I suppose is a signal that neither Brown nor Locke intends to keep Hurtt around, either. I’d like a fuller understanding of where the candidates think Chief Hurtt has fallen short, and where they think HPD has done so. Anyway, you can see more from Brown here, from Locke here, from Parker here, and from Morales here.

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Tweet it! The cops!

New frontiers in social networking and law enforcement.

Milwaukee’s department is one of a growing number of police and fire agencies turning to social networking Web sites such as Twitter, which lets users send text-message “tweets” to a mass audience in 140 characters or less. The tweets can be read on the Web or on mobile phones within seconds.

Some departments use Twitter to alert people to traffic disruptions, to explain why police are in a certain neighborhood or to offer crime prevention tips. Others encourage leads on more pressing matters: bomb scares, wildfires, school lockdowns and evacuations.

[…]

One risk of Twitter is that anyone can go on the site and claim to be the cops. In March, the Texas attorney general’s office shut down a phony Twitter account called “Austin PD,” which had about 450 followers and used the official city seal.

The culprit has not been arrested, so his or her intent is not yet known. Mainly the tweets were in a joking vein, such as “Warming up my radar gun for SXSW,” a reference to Austin’s South By Southwest music conference.

But the potential for more dangerous misinformation worries Craig Mitnick, founder of Nixle LLC, which offers what it calls a secure “municipal wire” that public agencies can use instead of Twitter to broadcast updates.

Web sites like Twitter or Facebook are “meant for social purposes and not for trusted information,” Mitnick said. “It’s a bombshell waiting to explode.”

[Milwaukee police spokeswoman Anne E.] Schwartz pointed out that anyone concerned about the validity of the Milwaukee police posts on Twitter can call the department, and she said most of its posts direct readers back to the police Web site as well.

I could be wrong, but I think the fake “Austin PD” example will turn out to be an exception. Twitter is sufficiently easy to use that I think most law enforcement agencies will adopt it sooner rather than later. Plus, how hard is it really to verify that a given account is legit? If nothing else, I’d expect that any new law enforcement-related Twitter sighting will get checked out via traditional media, many of whom have enthusiastically jumped on the Twitter bandwagon or by crowdsourcing pretty quickly. I seriously doubt that any copycat attempts will be nearly as successful as “Austin PD” was. There may be value in a product like Nixle – I’m not familiar with it, so I can’t offer a judgment of it – but I think calling Twitter and Facebook a potential bombshell for law enforcement is a serious overbid.

Busy day yesterday

There were a lot of bills passed yesterday by one chamber or the other. My mailbox is full of press releases touting them. I’m going to go ahead and print them beneath the fold as a roundup. A few bills that got notice in the media:

– The Tim Cole Act passed out of the House.

Texans wrongfully convicted of crimes will get a much larger paycheck from the state for their incarceration under a bill tentatively approved by the state House today.

Wrongfully convicted persons currently are paid $50,000 in two installment payments. The new proposal would pay $80,000 per year of wrongful incarceration. An identical measure by Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, is pending in the Senate.

“Think for a few moments about walking in their shoes,” Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, one of the authors of HB 1736, told his colleagues.

[…]

The measure is known as Tim Cole Act to honor a former Texas Tech student wrongfully convicted of sexual assault. Cole died in prison from an asthma attack in 1999 – about halfway through a 25-year sentence.

“This bill cannot make people whole. But we can do better,” Anchia said.

The measure passed on a voice vote without opposition and prompted applause in the chamber.

The record vote on third reading (PDF) was 136-1. I noted Anchia’s bill last month. We’ll see if it passes muster with Governor Perry. Grits has more.

– Ignoring a mandatory evacuation order for a hurricane and then needing a rescue may cost you in the future.

More than 20,000 people stayed on Galveston Island last year despite a mandatory evacuation order as Hurricane Ike approached the Texas coast. Allison Castle, spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Pery, said there were 3,540 rescues in the region by state and local authorities, and the U.S. Coast Guard.

“They have that right to remain if they choose to,” said bill author Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas. “But they stay at their own peril, and they stay with the possibility that if recovery is necessary to preserve their lives, they’d pay the related cost.

“And that’s potentially a lot of money.”

The cost of a helicopter rescue is about $4,400 an hour.

I believe the bill in question is SB12, which passed unanimously on third reading. I agree with the principle of the bill, though I wonder what mechanism will be used to collect the fees from the people who will need such rescues. What if they claim they tried but were unable to get out? There will be an interesting legal battle over this some day, I expect.

– Not a bill, but the Senate budget conferees were announced. No word yet on the House contingent.

There were more bills passed, and we can expect a lot more action in the coming weeks. Click on for the press releases.

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Matt Baker indicted

If you read the Texas Monthly cover story from last March about Waco pastor Matt Baker, who has been accused of killing his wife Kari, whose death had originally been ruled a suicide, you will be interested to hear that a grand jury has now indicted him for that crime. It’s a fascinating story, one from which I came away unsure about what really happened. It’s also a really hard story to read, since the incident that triggered Kari Baker’s presumed suicide was the death from cancer of their young daughter Kassidy. Kassidy was one year old at the time of her death, the same age Audrey was when that issue arrived in my mailbox, and it still hits me just writing these words. Anyway, it’s a worthwhile read, just be prepared for the emotions that will come with it.

Won’t somebody please think of the mollusks?

Oyster offenders, long a scourge of the Texas criminal justice system, may have finally met their match in the Senate. A cautiously hopeful populace waits with, um, baited breath.

City scores another SOB victory

That makes two, and counting.

Houston won a major victory Thursday in its efforts to stamp out sex-related businesses that operate near neighborhoods or turn a blind eye to criminal activity in their facilities.

The city won a unanimous verdict against the El Rondo Motor Lodge, at 8016 Livingston in Sunnyside, in its first attempt to confront in court what Mayor Bill White has called “hot sheet” motels. Police and nearby residents testified throughout the trial, which began Monday, that the hotel was a haven for prostitution, one where condoms were sold at check-in and rooms rented by the hour.

“I am so happy, I don’t know what to do,” said James Nash, pastor of the St. Paul Baptist Church, three blocks from the hotel. “This thing has been a problem for years, one I had approached the owners about myself….We don’t want to put people out of business, but we don’t want this kind of business in our community.”

I have my qualms about the city’s war on strip clubs, but they don’t apply to this. The more the city’s focus is on this kind of business, the better as far as I’m concerned. Houston Politics and Miya have more.

Two immigration stories

Governor Perry writes a letter to the Department of Homeland Security.

Perry asked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano this week to take a series of steps to improve information-sharing between federal, state and local law enforcement. The Homeland Security-related issues “seriously affect public safety in Texas,” Perry wrote earlier this week in a letter to Napolitano.

A spokeswoman for Napolitano, Sara Kuban, said Napolitano would respond directly to Perry and declined to comment on the specific issues raised in the letter.

The governor’s requests include:

  • Giving all Texas jails access to a database that automatically checks suspects’ immigration history. So far, 19 of the 252 jails in the state with electronic fingerprint booking participate in the program, including the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and Houston Police Department.

    Those 19 jails have checked 37,000 people through the database since last fall, and have identified 8,844 with fingerprints on file with immigration officials, according to Perry’s letter.

    Perry specifically cited the case of Wilfido Alfaro, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador who avoided deportation after multiple arrests in Texas and last month shot and critically wounded a Houston Police officer.

  • Requiring ICE officials to notify the state when they deport a foreign national with a Texas driver’s license, which would close a gap that has allowed illegal immigrants to keep valid state identification. For example, according to local investigators, Alfaro had a Texas driver’s license, even though an immigration judge ordered him to leave the country in 2001.
  • Keeping illegal immigrants convicted of crimes in federal custody until their deportation. Perry cited a recent case involving two Cubans convicted of robbery in Florida and dropped by immigration officials at a bus stop in Willacy, Texas, after being released from custody.

Based on a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, immigration officials have about six months to deport or release immigrants after their immigration case is decided. To hold someone longer, the federal government must show that a foreign government will issue the detainee travel documents in the “reasonably foreseeable future” or certify that the person meets stringent criteria to be classified as a danger to society or national interest.

In cases involving immigrants from countries like Cuba, which lacks a repatriation treaty with the U.S., the detainees routinely are released from immigration custody within six months because they cannot be deported.

Other than number three, which raises some Constitutional issues and really needs to be resolved by the US growing up and re-engaging with Cuba, these strike me as perfectly reasonable requests. There’s a big difference between verifying the immigration status of someone who’s already been arrested for something, and verifying the immigration status of someone who’s been pulled over or stopped on the street by the cops for whatever arbitrary reason. Maybe there’s something here I’m not seeing, but offhand I don’t have any objections to the first two items.

The earlier story about DA Pat Lykos’ “no plea bargains unless you confess your immigration status to us” proposal is a different kettle of fish. Mark Bennett gets into some of the problems with this idea, which he also sums up in a simple question, but it’s John Nova Lomax with a truly impressive deconstruction of the Lykos Plan. I can’t really add anything to what he wrote, so go check it out for yourself.

On DNA testing and innocence

I’m glad to hear that District Attorney Pat Lykos is going to examine cases of wrongful conviction in Harris County. I’m sure there are plenty more than the five she plans to highlight, but the fact that she wants to focus attention on the issue and to require DNA testing in cases where it may matter is a welcome change from the past.

“We are going to establish clear policies regarding forensics,” Lykos told the Houston Chronicle recently. “In the (Ricardo) Rachell case, there clearly was forensic evidence and it was not tested and the question is, ‘Well, why not?’ ”

She is expected to release today the first-ever postmortem of a wrongful conviction in Harris County, where DNA evidence has exonerated five men in recent years but — until now — has prompted little dissection of what went wrong.

Lykos’ report will detail the factors that contributed to the conviction of Ricardo Rachell, who last year was cleared of the 2002 sexual assault of an 8-year-old boy for which he was serving a 40-year sentence.

The report will provide guidelines that spell out when prosecutors should order DNA tests and also will call for the creation of a regional crime lab, which Lykos has pushed for since her campaign last year.

[…]

In the Rachell case, Houston Police Department officers collected a rape kit from the victim and reference samples from Rachell in 2002. But that evidence never was tested until last year, when it pointed to another man who committed other assaults while Rachell was in prison. So far, no one from the District Attorney’s Office has been able to say why the evidence was not tested sooner. Lykos will use the Rachell case to push forward a plan to create a regional crime lab.

“You cannot expect a police department, no matter how large, to oversee a crime lab,” Lykos said.

Just so we’re clear here, Lykos’ opponent, former HPD Chief Clarence Bradford, campaigned on these ideas as well, and had outlined many of these issues well before Lykos was a candidate. Still, I’m very glad to see her take this action, as it is long overdue.

In the Rachell case, Houston Police Department officers collected a rape kit from the victim and reference samples from Rachell in 2002. But that evidence never was tested until last year, when it pointed to another man who committed other assaults while Rachell was in prison. So far, no one from the District Attorney’s Office has been able to say why the evidence was not tested sooner. Lykos will use the Rachell case to push forward a plan to create a regional crime lab.

“You cannot expect a police department, no matter how large, to oversee a crime lab,” Lykos said.

That was a Bradford idea, too. Suffice it to say that the time had come for these things.

The article doesn’t quote from any of the innocence activists, so we don’t know yet how this will be received. On its face, it looks good, and should help avoid bad situations. There are other reforms that can and should be implemented, regardless of whether or not the Lege gets around to compelling them, on subjects such as eyewitness identification, and taping interrogations. But this is a good start.

On the matter of taping interrogations, I strongly recommend you read thie Law.com article about an especially egregious case of wrongful conviction in Ohio, in which justice was only (eventually) done because the initial interrogation was recorded, and made it plain to any objective observer that the confession given – by a 12-year-old suspect – was bogus and coerced. I hope it makes you as angry as it made me; be sure to read it all the way to the end for the full impact. Thanks to Grits for the link.

Let’s see those files

This is a good thing.

Working to make good on a campaign promise, recently elected Harris County District Attorney Patricia Lykos agreed on Monday to provide copies of police offense reports to criminal defense lawyers, changing the longstanding practice of allowing attorneys to only take notes from reports.

One of the most divisive issues in the criminal courthouse, defense lawyers often complain about the hours spent taking notes from a document that prosecutors have instant access to, which can include witness statements, photographs and other evidence prosecutors intend to introduce at trial.

Mark Bennett, president of the Houston’s criminal defense lawyers association, gave Lykos high marks for the change in policy.

“It’s an excellent move forward,” Bennett said.

I have to say, I don’t fully understand why this wasn’t always the case. Seems to me this was a petty policy, one designed to hinder the defense bar more than anything else. Good on Pat Lykos for changing that.

Assistant District Attorney Scott Durfee said the release of the actual document requires additional safeguards. Prosecutors are now marking out information that is private under Texas open records law, including Social Security numbers and Texas driver’s license information.

Defense attorneys also have to sign a confidentiality agreement that mandates that the information can be used only for the case at hand. If they don’t sign the agreement, Durfee said, they can work to get the information though a formal discovery process.

I also don’t quite understand the issue here. I mean, if these documents weren’t redacted before, what was to keep a defense attorney from simply jotting down this sensitive information? I don’t object to having this stuff redarcted first as a general rule, assuming that doesn’t turn into a new kind of diversionary tactic, I just don’t see why that wasn’t always the policy if it’s so important now.

Anyway. For a more detailed discussion of the ins and outs of this practice, see Murray Newman and Mark Bennett. May there be more reforms like this coming from the DA’s office soon.

The Riddler goes on a rampage

The Observer looks at a trio of bills by Rep. Debbie Riddle in which she tries to solve the immigration issue all by herself.

Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, is launching a three-pronged attack on non-citizens this session. Prong 1: Hook ‘em at work with HB 48, which would suspend employers’ licenses for “knowingly” employing undocumented workers. Prong 2: Nail ‘em at school with HB 50, which would disqualify undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition.

And then there’s Prong 3, which would, it seems, get ‘em everywhere else. HB 49 would create a Class B misdemeanor (Criminal Trespass by Illegal Aliens) that would effectively authorize local law enforcement to enforce two sections of the federal code governing most immigration law.

Asked if there were a precedent for such a law in other states, Riddle said, “If not, I’m willing to be on the cutting edge and do what’s bold here in Texas.”

[…]

Under HB 49, peace officers, acting on “reasonable suspicion,” could detain people for being undocumented – even if they have not committed another crime. If ICE confirms the detained person is in the U.S. illegally, the peace officer could then make an arrest.

[…]

Constitutionality aside, leaving immigration to the feds has worked out for federal agents and local law enforcers alike, says El Paso Police Chief Gregory Allen. “It’s been pretty clear cut,” Allen says. “I don’t think it should be spread out. ICE doesn’t help us out with our robbery problems or our burglary problems. They’re not cruising our neighborhoods. We shouldn’t be required to help them.”

Riddle’s response? “I don’t think that we should have this hair-splitting of, oh, well, this isn’t my job,” she says. “Citizens don’t really care that much about who is making sure that their security is established in place.”

However, according to Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, burdening local law enforcement with enforcing federal immigration law could negatively impact a police department’s capacity to fight crime, since city police departments already have their hands – and jails – full enforcing current criminal statutes. What’s more, allowing local law officers to arrest illegal immigrants might discourage victims of questionable status from coming forward and reporting crimes, particularly in cases of family violence.

“You’d lose a lot of witnesses. There’d be a lot of crime that would go unreported,” says Acevedo. “I’ll give you an example. We went to a call with domestic violence. Here, a young woman was beaten by a legal resident and his threat to her was, if you call the police, you’re going to get deported.”

There is a precedent for this, and we know from experience that the result is even worse than what Chief Acevedo anticipates. I’m talking about Maricopa County and Sheriff Joe Arpaio, which has been doing exactly what Riddle wants for years. How’s that working out for them?

In Guadalupe, grocery store employees waited in vain for help during an armed robbery.

In Queen Creek, vandalism spread through a neighborhood where Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies rarely patrolled.

In Aguila, people bought guns in the face of rising crime that deputies couldn’t respond to quickly enough.

And in El Mirage, dozens of serious felony cases went uninvestigated.

Response times, arrest rates, investigations and other routine police work throughout Maricopa County have suffered over the past two years as Sheriff Joe Arpaio turned his already short-handed and cash-strapped department into an immigration enforcement agency, a Tribune investigation found.

Read the whole five-part series, which I’ve referenced before, and ask yourself why we’d want to emulate that. I can’t think of any good reason. I’m sure this thing would come with a hefty fiscal note as well, which in these tight budgetary times ought to be enough to give one pause regardless of one’s ideological perspective on the issue. I doubt Riddle cares about that, however – I’m sure she’d be happy to reapportion money from just about anywhere else for this. The bill has been referred to the Criminal Jurisprudence committee, where it will hopefully die a swift and well-deserved death.

CSI: Needs Improvement

Looks like Gil Grissom got out at just the right time.

Crime labs nationwide must be overhauled to prevent the types of mistakes that put innocent people in prison and leave criminals out on the street, researchers have concluded.

A 255-page report from the National Academy of Sciences is urging creation of national standards of training, certification and expertise for forensic criminal work, much of which is currently done on a city or state level.

The report’s authors say the lack of consistent standards raises the possibility that the quality of forensic evidence presented in court can vary unpredictably.

[…]

In particular, the report’s authors point out that, with the lone exception of DNA evidence, similar analysis of bite marks, tool marks, or hair samples, cannot provide a conclusive “match” in the common understanding of the term.

Such evidence can show similarities between a suspect and evidence left at a crime scene, but does not provide absolute certainty.

Peter Neufeld, co-founder of The Innocence Project which helps free wrongly convicted prisoners, said the findings marked nothing less than a “seismic shift” in criminal forensic science.

“It’s going to take a national undertaking, a massive national overhaul, to make our forensic science community sufficiently robust,” argued Neufeld.

Peter Marone, the director of Virginia’s forensic lab, acknowledged “there are some issues that need to be addressed” within the profession, but said by and large the report’s recommendations echo what he and other experts have been saying for years.

“We need better education, we need better standardization, and we do need accredited universities,” he said.

[…]

The NAS report recommends Congress create and fund a new, national institute of forensic science to help establish consistent standard for forensic science, certification of experts, and development of new technology. It also recommends that forensic science work be moved out of the offices of law enforcement agencies to foster more unbiased analysis.

Those recommendations were made for the HPD Crime Lab as well, and were an issue in the District Attorney’s race last year. It’s great to issue a report like this, and I agree it’s a huge shift in how we think about these things, but it’ll be little more than interesting bathroom reading unless there’s a federal funding mechanism to make this happen. It’ll also presumably require action in state legislatures as well, to create the replacement labs. So consider this to be the first step on the thousand-mile journey. Grits has more.

Ed Gonzalez kickoff event

Ed Gonzalez will have a campaign kickoff event for District H next Wednesday, February 11, at Irma’s Restaurant downtown from 5:30 to 7 PM. You can get all the details here (PDF).

We’re rapidly approaching the filing deadline for the May special election, and from there it’s going to be an absolute sprint to the finish line – well, the first finish line – in May. As we know, there are seven declared candidates so far, with two more in the wings. That can all change, but for sure this is going to be a crowded field, and everyone in the running is going to be hard-pressed to get their message out. I’ll do whatever I can to pass along event announcements and other news, and of course I’ll be working on doing interviews with everyone. If you’re a candidate or associated with one, and haven’t contacted me, please do so I can make sure I get your information as well.

Along those lines, the Greater Heights Democratic Club is planning a District H candidate forum for March 19 at 7 PM, location to be determined. They do not have current contact information for Lupe Garcia, Rick Rodriguez, Yolanda Navarro Flores, or Diana Davila Martinez. If you are one of these people or know how to contact one of them, please drop me a note with an email address and/or cell number so Kevin Hoffman and the GHDC folks can get in touch with you. Thanks very much

Finally, I note that Gonzalez was at that Heights crime prevention townhall meeting, and posted a report about it on his blog. So there you have it.

Exonerating the deceased

One of the things Eric Berger focused on in his story about the relevance and importance of Charles Darwin some 200 years after his birth was the rise of DNA and its application to criminology. Today, DNA evidence is as well known for freeing the innocent as it is for convicting the guilty. Sadly, sometimes that evidence comes too late to actually set the wrongly-convicted person free, as is the case with Tim Cole of Lubbock. But that doesn’t make his exoneration any less important. Read his story and think how many others like him there must be.

UPDATE: The Lege pays honor to Timothy Cole. Grits has more.

Heights crime prevention townhall report

Here’s the Chron story on that crime prevention townhall meeting in the Heights that I mentioned the other day.

In response to several recent home invasions and a rash of burglaries in and around Houston Heights, city officials have given the Houston Police Department more money for additional patrols and overtime, Chief Harold Hurtt told a neighborhood meeting Monday night.

“We really do understand your concern, and we are doing everything within our resources to make Houston a safer community,” Hurtt told an overflow crowd in a small meeting room at the Houston Heights public library branch.

Crime in January was down 19 percent in the largely affluent area compared to the same period in 2008, just as crime last year was down compared to 2007, Hurtt said at a town hall meeting sponsored by U.S. Rep Sheila Jackson Lee, who ran the event.

But a significant increase in home burglaries and robberies in January and the publicized home invasions, rare for this part of the city, have increased public concern.

“We’ve had four home invasions since the first of the year ­­— that gets everybody’s attention,” said Capt. Mark Holloway of HPD’s central patrol division, which includes Houston Heights, Woodland Heights and adjacent neighborhoods.

“Robberies are crimes that instill fear in everyone,” he said. “I spoke with the robbery captain today, and he’s utilizing every resource at his disposal to apprehend those responsible.”

Good to hear. It is the home invasions – one in particular that involved an armed robber accosting a man and his child, and firing a couple of shots at them as they made an escape – that has stirred up the most anxiety, going by the neighborhood message boards. There’s been talk about funding constable patrols and other things like that. You can be sure that all the District H candidates will get a thorough vetting on these points as well.

Crime prevention townhall meeting

Another public service announcement: Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee will be holding a townhall meeting on crime prevention in the Heights tomorrow evening, from 5 to 6:30 PM at the Heights library, 1302 Heights Boulevard. HPD Chief Harold Hurtt and Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, among others, have been invited to attend. For other details and to RSVP, please see this flyer (PDF). Thanks very much.

Innocence

Lisa Falkenberg examines what Circuit Judge Jacques L. Wiener Jr. referred to as “the elephant in the room” in granting a stay of execution to Larry Swearingen.

The nation’s highest court hasn’t directly addressed whether a claim of actual innocence can be made in late appeals, so federal appeals courts are left to their own interpretations. The 5th Circuit takes the easy route: it uniformly rejects them.

But, apparently, refreshingly, there’s at least one member of the court who disagrees: Judge Wiener.

In concurring with the stay, he wrote a special statement after Monday’s order to address what he called “the elephant” in the room.

Wiener writes that even though the U.S. Supreme Court never “expressly” recognized the right to claim actual innocence in late appeals, justices have made statements that suggest they view the truly innocent in the same light as the insane or the mentally retarded.

Wiener quotes Justice O’Connor: “I cannot disagree with the fundamental legal principle that executing the innocent is inconsistent with the Constitution.”

One would certainly think.

There’s a very real possibility, Wiener writes, that the lower court to which Swearingen’s case was returned “could view the newly discovered medical expert reports as clear and convincing evidence that he victim in this case could not possibly have been killed by the defendant.”

That would represent a change in how the Court of Criminal Appeals has reacted to such evidence on Swearingen’s behalf previously, but I suppose one can hope. What else can you do?

I should note that when I wrote before about how our state leaders have always maintained that Texas has never executed a provably innocent man, there was already a strong possibility that they are wrong in this belief. There’s the case of Cameron Willingham, executed in 1991 for setting a fire that killed his three children. Except that the forensic science used to prove the charge of arson was based on discredited procedures, and multiple experts who have reviewed the evidence today have all concluded the blaze was accidental. In a matter of propitious timing, the Texas Forensic Science Commission is getting close to rendering a final judgment on the matter.

Fire scientist Craig Beyler has been asked by the Texas Forensic Science Commission to conduct an independent review of the case’s forensic evidence.

“He appears to be one of the pre-eminent people in the fire and arson investigation field,” Samuel Bassett, an Austin attorney and commission member, said of Beyler.

Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization responsible for scores of DNA exonerations, called the hiring of Beyler an “encouraging sign” and said he hoped Beyler would be able to “get to the bottom” of the case that sent Willingham to a lethal injection.

“It’s essential that this matter is resolved for the sake of those who have been wrongly convicted by unreliable arson evidence, as well as those under investigation in new arson cases,” said Scheck, the Innocence Project’s co-director.

[…]

The Forensic Science Commission was created in 2005 to investigate allegations of forensic error and misconduct in the country’s busiest death-penalty state. The Willingham case is its first capital case.

Bassett said he hoped Beyler would be able to complete his review by early April. Beyler will write a report and may make recommendations to the commission.

It is not clear whether Beyler would conclude whether Willingham was innocent. Even if he finds that the science used at the time was flawed, as the other experts have, he may not take the next step and say Texas was wrong to execute Willingham, though that would be the clear implication.

“If [Beyler’s report] is critical of the arson testimony,” said Bassett, “then theoretically it’s possible that could be the basis for a broader conclusion about the original conviction.”

That’s a fine distinction that unfortunately won’t do Cameron Willingham any good, but may perhaps spur the debate forward, and who knows, might even act as a catalyst for Larry Swearingen. The Chicago Tribune was the driving force behind the re-examination of Willingham’s case – you really should read their 2004 story, written ten months after Willingham’s execution, to get the full background. Thanks to Grits for the link to today’s story.