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Lawsuit filed over untested rape kits

This could be a big deal.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roadside drug tests

Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.

go_to_jail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harris County crime lab experiencing DNA testing backlog

These things do happen.

I want one of these

Never miss a chance to embed the DNA Robot

Expanded testing for property crimes has helped create a backlog of more than 4,600 DNA cases in the Harris County crime lab, straining its ability to complete the processing of such evidence for sexual assaults and even homicide cases in a timely manner.

Officials with the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences say a relentless uptick in property crime, robbery and assault cases has stretched the lab’s resources. The spikes can be traced in part to the lab’s own push in recent years to expand its forensic operations and offer law enforcement agencies more DNA testing for property crimes.

The lab serves more than 60 law enforcement agencies, which rely on it to process DNA evidence as part of criminal investigations. Officials are particularly concerned about how the backlog has affected sexual assault cases, which they’ve pledged to make a priority as the cases have recently taken longer to finish.

Sexual assault cases took on average of 172 days to complete in 2015, far from the county’s 60-day goal and the roughly 60 to 90 days that they took from 2009 to 2013 The average for homicides and death investigations is now 238 days, though it is more difficult to set a benchmark in such cases because evidence often comes in piecemeal over time.

The backlog – defined by county lab officials as containing any case that has not been completed – has set off a debate over how to prioritize DNA testing in the short term and handle lesser offenses such as property crimes in the long term.

[…]

[Crime Lab Director Roger] Kahn said the lab already has essentially halted analyses of DNA in some property crimes. Last July, the institute said it would suspend “touch DNA” analysis – such as testing for microscopic skin cells containing DNA that naturally rub off on objects – for almost all property crimes.

The moves have contributed to a drop in the number of sexual assault cases that take more than 60 days to complete: after reaching 252 in January, that number was 148 last month, Kahn said.

He stressed that the high numbers are also in part because of new protocols to reanalyze some cases that have samples containing multiple people’s DNA. These, he said, can often be the most complex cases.

All this being said, Kahn acknowledged that the turnaround times are too high.

He said lab officials are looking at halting some analyses of assault and robbery cases. The lab is also planning to work with sexual assault nurse examiners to better identify samples to analyze in such cases, and is weighing other possible workflow improvements.

For their part, county commissioners on Tuesday approved the crime lab’s move to apply for a National Institute of Justice grant of more than $645,000 that would help its DNA division – the Forensic Genetic Laboratory – reduce the backlog. It has applied for and received the same grant since 2005.

Commissioners also approved a roughly $100,000 contract to outsource some property-crime testing to a private company, Bode Cellmark Forensics, an uncommon move but one that the county has made in the past.

[…]

It’s unclear what will happen to property crime cases, and possibly robbery and assault cases, that the county crime lab may set aside to focus on sexual assaults and homicides. Kahn said the lab works closely with law enforcement and the district attorney’s office to prioritize cases, even those involving property crimes.

At Wednesday’s meeting, District Attorney Devon Anderson questioned whether the lab should be making decisions of what types of cases to prioritize.

Sheriff Ron Hickman said telling the public that the county lab had the technology to solve crimes, but couldn’t use it because of lack of resources, would not “play well.”

“How do you get to say, ‘No?'” Hickman said.

Kahn said the current focus is on sexual assault cases. Then lab officials, with other public officials, will determine how best to use the lab’s resources.

There’s a lot there and I don’t want to make too big a deal over it. Both DA Anderson and Sheriff Hickman raise good questions, for which they deserve better answers than “we’ll figure it out later”. If this is a matter of resources, then Commissioners Court needs to address that. The County Crime Lab serves multiple cities in addition to the county, so it’s not just their own business that’s being affected.

We can’t discuss the Harris County crime lab without mentioning the Houston lab and the ongoing debate over whether the two should merge. I’ve noted before that there are questions about how the county handles crime lab issues and how the city’s needs would be accounted for. This situation highlights those concerns. As the story notes, the city’s crime lab has its own backlog issues, though they are smaller and seem to be on track towards resolution. I’m just pointing this out to note that there are questions to answer before anything can go forward. If you want this to go forward, which is certainly a reasonable thing, those questions need to be addressed. It’s not insurmountable, but it’s not nothing and shouldn’t be treated as nothing.

The pros and cons of merging the crime labs

The calls to merge the city and county crime labs are back, but not everyone likes the idea.

Merging Houston’s and Harris County’s crime labs, an idea that was rejected several years ago by the city’s mayor when forensic work was shifted from the police department to a new independent agency, is getting a fresh look by local officials eager to save money and avoid duplication.

All of the members of the Harris County Commissioners Court are renewing calls for the county to take over forensic work from the city lab, and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said last week that he is interested in pursuing either a merger or further partnership with the county, in contrast to his predecessor.

Yet some at the city’s forensic science center are loathe to forego its independent structure. They wonder whether a shakeup for a lab only just pulling away from its troubled history would cause more harm than good.

“I think cooperation between the two organizations is entirely possible,” said Peter Stout, chief operating officer of the Houston Forensic Science Center. “But merger? I’m not sure whether the citizens are going to get the benefit from that on a timeline that makes sense. And they risk backing up on demonstrable progress that we’ve made to this point.”

Even so, Turner has asked his chief development officer to explore what such a move would entail as county staffers examine potential funding and governance for such a venture and how it might affect the time it takes to process evidence.

“How much volume do they have at the City of Houston? What would have to take place as (to) not only the amount of space, but how would we merge?” are among the other questions, county budget director Bill Jackson said.

[…]

Despite mounting political enthusiasm for a joint venture, however, several city forensic science officials were skeptical of the idea, noting the logistical challenges of a merger they characterized as financially and scientifically risky.

“We’re not producing a widget here,” said David Leach, the group’s chief financial officer. “We’re producing a service which is helping protect the citizens. So, how much are you willing to risk?”

Such an endeavor would require negotiations over governance and funding rooted in the politically touchy question of control.

“What’s the structure going to look like? How’s that going to work? Who’s going to fund it? What are the working cultures of the two labs like? You could end up with two groups of employees with different working philosophies,” said William King, a criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University.

The county’s Institute of Forensic Sciences now reports to county commissioners, the county’s governing board. None of the staff work for law enforcement.

The Houston Forensic Science Center, on the other hand, is overseen by a board of directors appointed by the mayor. About four of 10 staffers are city employees, either HPD officers or civilians.

Governance was among the sticking points after a civil grand jury recommended consolidating the crime labs for the city of Los Angeles and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, said Barry Fisher, former director of their sheriff’s crime lab.

The move could have had potential savings of nearly $3 million, according to the grand jury. But they kept their operations separate, Fisher said, calling the prospect of the county taking over city police forensic work a “deal breaker.”

“Sheriff’s and LAPD management indicated that they did not believe it was feasible to consolidate the two agencies’ crime lab services into a single agency,” according to a 2010 audit of the project. “They believed that differences in forensic policies, possible conflicts over operations and prioritization of cases, and additional administrative requirements made consolidating the services unworkable.”

Fisher said city leaders worried about their ability to prioritize cases if they had to compete with other jurisdictions for crime lab services. Instead the city and county work together in the same building in a partnership with a local university, which has produced other benefits, Fisher said.

“There’s interaction on a regular, daily basis,” he said. “I’ve watched people who are working on a particularly difficult, high-profile case walk over to somebody in the other lab, the city lab, and say ‘What do you think about this?’ ”

Governance was the main reason why Mayor Parker declined to pursue a joint crime lab. She also noted in the exit interview she did with me that the projected savings from a joint operation would be minimal. Be that as it may, this Chron story from last July illustrates the concern over governance:

The thieves leave invisible evidence on kitchen countertops, china cabinets, garage doors and steering wheels that can lead to their undoing: microscopic skin cells that contain their DNA.

In Harris County, these “touch DNA” samples have in recent years identified hundreds of suspects in home burglaries and car break-ins that would have been nearly unsolvable without them.

But now the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences has sent out a memo to the 69 law enforcement agencies it serves suspending touch DNA analysis due to diminished resources and burgeoning demand.

Officials were forced to temporarily halt the service, ironically, because testing for touch DNA has been so successful.

“We didn’t anticipate this remarkable growth and what law enforcement has done to embrace DNA testing services in general,” said Dr. Roger Kahn, the forensic institute’s crime laboratory director. “We need to reassess our service levels in order to keep up.”

The suspension will not affect the Houston Police Department, which relies on the city’s crime lab to perform DNA analysis. The Houston Forensic Science Center began performing DNA analysis in some property crime cases after the city cleared HPD’s backlog of thousands of rape kits awaiting DNA testing.

But the county crime lab’s suspension of the cutting-edge forensic testing, which it took the initiative to offer eight years ago, could impact property crime investigations for dozens of law enforcement agencies.

It’s a matter of how things get prioritized, and who gets to decide what those priorities are. Houston and HPD would be the biggest customer in a joint crime lab, but not the only one. What happens when the city has a disagreement with a decision the joint crime lab makes? Or when the city feels its needs are not being adequately met? These are not insurmountable problems, but they do have to be addressed before it makes sense to get hitched. If and when they are worked out to the point that everyone feels their needs can be met, then it makes sense to proceed. Until then, I understand why the city is reluctant to give up something that is working for them.

Turner names interim HPD chief

Congratulations, Chief Montalvo.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commissioners Court to get deposed

This ought to be interesting.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and all four county commissioners are scheduled to be deposed Monday in a federal lawsuit filed by former Houston Police Department crime lab supervisors who said they experienced retaliation after exposing problems with a mobile DUI testing program.

Amanda Culbertson and Jorge Wong say the Harris County District Attorney’s Office and county commissioners colluded in having them fired after they revealed problems in HPD’s breath-alcohol testing vehicles, known as “BAT vans.”

At the time of the terminations, Culbertson and Wong were working at a Lone Star College laboratory that supervised under-the-influence testing for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. They say they lost their jobs when commissioners voted to cancel the Lone Star contract.

While working as analysts for HPD, Culbertson and Wong exposed problems with the BAT vans that complicated DUI prosecutions.

In retaliation, their 2012 lawsuit says, former Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos and Assistant District Attorney Rachel Palmer lobbied commissioners to cancel the county’s long-standing contract with their employer, Lone Star. The county subsequently signed a more costly deal for lab work with the Texas Department of Public Safety.

In September, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes authorized the depositions of commissioners El Franco Lee, Jack Morman, Steve Radack and Jack Cagle as well as Emmett and his criminal justice adviser Doug Adkinson. The judge also limited each inquiry to one hour.

[…]

HPD began using the BAT vans in 2008. Into early 2011, Culbertson reported temperature and electrical irregularities with instruments that could influence the integrity of tests, the lawsuit said.

In May 2011, Culbertson testified in a DUI trial that she could not verify a device had been working properly during a test. In July 2011 testimony, she said she could not trust the accuracy of a van analysis. That same month, Palmer, the assistant district attorney, wrote a memo to a supervisor in which she concluded that Culbertson “could not be trusted to testify in a breath test” and that she was “gravely concerned” about Culbertson’s ability to “testify fairly” in the future.

Culbertson and Wong resigned from HPD in 2011 to become technical supervisors at Lone Star.

In the fall of 2011, the college’s contract of nearly three decades with the county – which had been renewed annually – was terminated in favor of a more expensive DPS deal. Culbertson and Wong were fired by Lone Star in October 2011, shortly after the commissioners transferred the testing business.

Hughes dismissed the lawsuit in August 2013, but that decision was reversed by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in June. All claims against Lykos have been dismissed or settled, and all claims against Palmer have been tossed.

See here and here for some background. As I’ve said before, I haven’t followed this story closely enough to have a firm about about it, but as having all five members of the Court deposed in a lawsuit is an unprecedented situation, I figured it was worth noting. The Press has more.

Lawsuit against county by former crime lab supervisor partially reinstated

It’s a bit of a convoluted story.

A federal appeals court has reinstated portions of a lawsuit filed by two former Houston Police Department crime lab supervisors who contended that Harris County prosecutors retaliated against them after they exposed problems with the city’s breath-alcohol testing vans, or “BAT vans.”

In a 36-page opinion issued on Monday, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals remanded some claims asserted in the 2012 lawsuit filed by Amanda Culbertson and Jorge Wong back to a Houston federal trial court.

Most of the original lawsuit, which was largely dismissed on the pleadings before any substantial discovery such as depositions, now returns to U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes for further consideration and a possible trial.

[…]

The original lawsuit alleged that the lab supervisors lost their jobs after raising concerns about the reliability of tests conducted by HPD’s breath-alcohol testing vehicles because of a retaliatory campaign by then-Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos and Assistant District Attorney Rachel Palmer.

Houston began using the mobile instruments in 2008. By mid-2009, Culbertson began to notice temperature and electrical irregularities with vans that could influence the integrity of tests, the lawsuit said. Culbertson and Wong expressed concerns about problems that could have led to test inaccuracies into early 2011.

In May 2011, Culbertson testified in a trial that she could not verify that an instrument had been working during a test. She testified in a July 2011 case that she could not trust the accuracy of a van analysis.

That same month, Palmer wrote a memo to a supervisor in which she concluded that Culbertson “could not be trusted to testify in any breath test” and that she was “gravely concerned” about Culbertson’s ability to “testify fairly” in the future.

See here for the background. Culbertson and Wong then resigned from HPD and went to work for Lone Star College, which at the time had a contract with Harris County to supervise breath-alcohol testing for the Sheriff’s office. That contract then got terminated, Culbertson and Wong got fired, and the lawsuit was filed. The Fifth Circuit determined that Judge Hughes erred in dismissing the suit against the county (former DA Lykos settled in 2013 and is no longer a party to the litigation), so back to district court it goes. I don’t have anything clever to say about it, it’s just that this was a nasty little piece of business when it happened, and it serves as a reminder that not all of the problems with the HPD crime lab were the city’s responsibility. I’d guess that a settlement of the lawsuit is the most likely outcome at this point, but we’ll see. Hair Balls has a lot more details, as well as a copy of the Fifth Circuit’s decision, so go read that story if you’re still confused.

More on the new Crime Lab boss

Meet Dr. Daniel Garner, the CEO and president of the Houston Forensic Science Center.

Dr. Daniel Garner

Daniel Garner was ready to drift quietly into retirement after decades on the forefront in the field of forensic science.

The last part of his career had the 66-year-old on the go, traveling to foreign countries for the U.S. Department of Justice, helping to revamp struggling crime labs, sometimes in nations enduring political and economic hardships. Just on the short list, Garner helped build a crime lab in Kosovo from scratch, trained more than 1,000 forensic experts in Colombia in how to properly present evidence in court and helped make improvements in the Sri Lankan forensic laboratory that gained it an international accreditation.

While the work was rewarding, it was also hectic. Often he traveled in armed security details, had to undergo vaccinations and dealt with foreign authorities who searched his hotel room, suspicious of his visit to their country.

So when he gave his notice in 2012, he was ready to go.

He and his wife left Washington, D.C., for a small town on the outer banks of North Carolina. The couple started shopping for a home, preferably one near the river that would be perfect for a small pier. Garner imagined relaxing on the deck of his bobbing sailboat and taking in the local galleries during the town’s art walks.

Then, just months into his retirement, Garner was lured back to work as director of the Houston Forensic Science Center, the reincarnation of the once-beleaguered Houston Police Department crime lab.

The new lab is based on a concept that seems simple, but is revolutionary in the field: the lab will operate independently of law enforcement. If the model succeeds, Garner said, it could be a blueprint for crime labs across the country, letting labs operate with greater independence and away from the shadow of law enforcement influence.

“I know there are a lot of people watching Houston to see how this works,” he said. “It’s an extremely unique model and I wanted to be apart of it.”

Dr. Garner was hired a year ago to direct the HFSC, but as far as I know this is the first real story about his experience and background. He’s got an impressive resume, that’s for sure. I have a lot of hope for this project, so it’s good to know it’s in good hands.

Construction of joint processing center and forensics facility approved to begin

Good.

I want one of these

DNA robot pictures never get old

Several major building projects – including a state-of-the-art facility for the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences and a voter-approved jail inmate processing center – officially are in the pipeline after Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved a $305 million capital improvement program.

[…]

At the top of the list is the $100 million city-county inmate processing center, which will be built across the street from the main county jail. The 254,000-square-foot facility is expected to help expedite inmate booking by allowing some to bypass certain time-consuming processes.

The county and city of Houston are splitting the cost to build the facility, which will allow the city to shutter its two aging jails when it opens in about three years. The county will contribute $70 million with a bond issue narrowly approved by voters last November; the city will provide $30 million.

Construction will begin this fall.

A $65 million building for the Institute of Forensic Sciences, which will break ground this fall, will house the county medical examiner and the county’s crime lab. Construction is expected to take two and a half years, said John Blount, director of architecture and engineering.

See here, here, and here for the background on the processing center. One of those links mentions that construction for the processing center is expected to take about three years. The Institute of Forensics Science is the county’s new crime lab facility. It was approved for construction back in 2012, and a separate DNA forensics lab is already open.

HPD’s good, bad, and ugly

The good news is that the testing of backlogged rape kits has led to the identification of a serial rapist in Houston.

Houston police on Tuesday for the first time identified a criminal suspect – a possible serial rapist – from testing of sexual assault kits that once gathered dust in the police property room.

HPD sex crime investigators said Herman Ray Whitfield Jr., 43, has been charged with four counts of aggravated sexual assault going back to 1992, and said he may have had more victims.One of his victims, police said, was a 12-year-old.

The identity comes one year after two independent labs began processing about 10,000 cases, including 6,600 untested sexual assault kits, that were stored in the HPD property room. The city turned to an outside lab after DNA testing at HPD’s crime lab was suspended when an independent audit revealed shoddy forensic work.

In February, Houston Police Department brass said partial results of a DNA testing had not resulted in any false arrests. And while HPD confirmed the testing had led to a number of arrests, they would not reveal the exact number or identify any suspects.

“I don’t think it’s surprising. You have thousands of untested rape kits, and when you start testing them you’re going to start making connections,” said Mark Bennett, a veteran Houston criminal defense attorney.

“If there are rape victims who wouldn’t have been raped if the authorities had done their jobs properly, we should all be outraged by that.”

[…]

Whitfield was sentenced in 1994 to 30 years in prison for kidnapping and served 12 years before being paroled in 2006, [Sgt. John] Colburn said.

He confirmed the evidence in the sexual assault cases was developed by DNA testing by the independent labs.

From 2006 to 2009, Whitfield was living near Airport Boulevard and Texas 288 in the Sunnyside area but had several different addresses before being sent back to prison in 2009 on a parole violation, according to officer Holly Whillock.

At some point during his parole, Whitfield’s DNA was entered into a national database, allowing police to later link him to the four local cases, Colburn said.

His victims ranged from 12 to 30.

Three of the assaults occurred before he went to prison: Dec. 15, 1992, 4300 block of Alvin; Feb. 16, 1993, 4300 block of Alvin; and Aug. 30, 1993, 4400 block of Wilmington.

The other charge stems from an attack on June 11, 2008, in the 4300 block of Wilmington. In that case, police released a composite sketch of the attacker, based upon the victim’s description.

Grits was the first to publish about this, and he notes that there will likely be more such identifications when all is said and done. It’s great that this criminal will be held responsible for his rapes, hopefully to the tune of a life sentence, but as Mark Bennett said in the story, the fact that he wasn’t tied to those crimes before now is a tragedy and an outrage. The failures of HPD’s crime lab are well known, but there has been plenty of other bad news for HPD in recent weeks, all of which led to this blistering editorial in the Chron, in which they call for a third-party investigator to do a thorough examination of HPD’s practices.

It seems like a month can’t go by without HPD landing itself in another controversy. There were two HPD lieutenants who retired, with full benefits, amid allegations of sexual harassment. The crime lab faces an internal investigation after reports that a former employee did not follow proper procedures over the last two years. This comes on the tail of untested evidence, faked results, inaccurate fingerprinting and contaminated blood tests. We thought those days were over.

HPD has also yet to properly address a lauded two-part article by Texas Observer writer Emily DePrang documenting rampant and unpunished police brutality in Houston. Nor has HPD taken significant steps to address police shootings, even after a series of articles by Chronicle reporter James Pinkerton revealed that a quarter of civilians shot by HPD over the past five years had been unarmed.

Now we’re learning that the homicide division simply ignored stacks of cases and failed to keep track of documents. The problems go all the way to the top: City Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a former police sergeant, kept homicide case files after leaving the force (“Council member imposes penalty on self,” Page A1, Thursday). Because of this incompetence, a man charged with murder now sits out of reach in Honduras. How many other murderers roam free because Houston’s police officers refused to do their jobs?

Neither Mayor Annise Parker nor District Attorney Devon Anderson should be satisfied with HPD’s performance. The department’s failures undermine its reliability in the courts and its trustworthiness in the hearts of citizens. All of Houston suffers when HPD falls down on the job, yet it seems like officers get off with a slap on the wrist.

See here and here for those two Observer stories by Emily DePrang; I’ve got links to the Chron stories about shootings here. I’d like to see this be an issue in the DA’s race and in next year’s Mayoral race. Frankly, given that DePrang’s stories were published last summer, it should have been an issue in the 2013 Mayor’s race. Instead of his half-baked reform ideas, Ben Hall should have been all over HPD’s discipline problems and used them to attack Mayor Parker hammer and tong. Sure, a lot of this stuff predates her, and institutional change is hard, but hey, the buck stops here. Every Mayoral wannabe next year needs to be pressed on this. It’s embarrassing, it’s unacceptable, and it needs to stop.

HPD crime lab update

The man who wrote the report detailing all of the HPD crime lab’s problems was back to give a progress report on how things look now.

Michael Bromwich

Houston police managers at the once-shuttered crime lab have failed to re-examine tests on DNA, blood and most other forensic evidence on a random basis to ensure the results are accurate, according to a follow-up report by the nationally known forensic expert hired to investigate the facility.

The crime lab, under Houston Police Department management, continues to outsource several integral testing services common for the lab, including a type of firearms testing that determines how far a gun was from a target when it was fired, Michael Bromwich’s report noted. That information is crucial in the investigation of officer-involved shootings.

But overall, Bromwich concluded, HPD has done a “responsible job” implementing many recommendations he made in 2007 following an extensive, two-year investigation after the lab was closed due to flawed testing procedures and practices.

“We were very encouraged with what we saw in our review of the crime lab,” Bromwich said this past week. “The most pronounced improvement was the quality of senior managers in the lab.”

Bromwich also said the city’s lab, at the police headquarters building at 1200 Travis, is not big enough for the current workload and needs a “significant” amount of additional space. City leaders said they have no plan to move the facility, although some on City Council favor merging operations with a new forensic center being built by Harris County.

[…]

Bromwich was hired by the board of the Houston Forensic Science Local Government Corp. , with the help of a $75,000 grant from a Houston foundation, to determine if changes his team suggested in 2007 have been implemented.

“There is still room for improvement … we think with the right resources devoted to it, and the right leadership, the lab can improve still more,” Bromwich said.

The TL;DR version of this story is “Much better now. Some things still need to be done. More money is needed to get those things done.” The original report is still here, if you’ve never looked at it or want to refresh your memory. Merging the HPD lab with the new Harris County facility would likely help resolve a number of the remaining issues from the Bromwich report. Mayor Parker has been adamant that she wants the Harris County lab to be fully independent of the District Attorney’s office before she will let that happen. I continue to believe there’s room for a solution to be worked out. I’d love to see it happen before her term in office ends.

Clearing the rape kit backlog is producing results

Very promising results.

Private forensic laboratories hired to clear the Houston Police Department’s untested DNA evidence – including a decades-old rape kit backlog – have identified potential offenders in a third of the cases where sufficient DNA samples were found, according to a HPD report.

[…]

Since the HPD lab resumed operations about six years ago, the city has spent millions to outsource DNA evidence testing to reduce the backlog, including $2.1 million in federal money in 2010 and 2011. That money was used, in part, to study why the kits had not been tested.

Last year’s multimillion-dollar clearance project to bulk outsource the cases came more than a year after HPD officials began an inventory of the sexual assault kits in their property room to determine how many had not been tested.

The two private labs have received 9,500 cases, and completed testing in nearly 6,200, according to the HPD report. Of those completed, sufficient evidence was found in 1,268, about a third of the 3,760 cases that have undergone HPD review to ensure the DNA evidence meets federal standards.

The remaining 2,492 cases reviewed did not find any results useful to investigators, the report states. Another 2,410 of the cases where testing was completed are still in HPD review.

See here and here for the background. If the same ratio of useful results holds true for the 2400 cases still being reviewed by HPD, then Houston will have had a higher success rate than some other cities when they finally cleared their backlogs. That doesn’t mean we should expect a thousand or more arrests – going by prior experience, we may see arrests in ten percent of these cases – but still, every single one will be good news. And of course, there are other possibilities.

Bob Wicoff, with the Harris County public defenders office, said the forensic testing could possibly result in exonerations of people wrongly convicted of a crime, or lead to the apprehension of guilty parties.

“There could be some exonerations out of this, but it’s too early to say,” said Wicoff, who represented two Harris County men who were wrongly convicted and imprisoned for rape. “That’s the whole point of doing the testing – its to identify unknown DNA.”

I’ll be surprised if there isn’t at least one exoneration out of all this. The experience we’ve seen elsewhere strongly suggests that one or more innocent men will be identified as a result of this work. That too is very good news, and it will be doubly so if the real rapist gets caught as well.

Anthony Robinson named to crime lab LGC

Excellent choice.

Anthony Robinson

Anthony Robinson

The latest appointment to the city’s crime lab oversight board brings a unique perspective to the post.

Anthony Robinson spent 10 years in prison for a rape he did not commit before being exonerated by the kind of DNA testing the proposed new crime lab will perform.

“I am very sensitive to the errors made by the defense bar in the use, misuse, or failure to properly use forensics, particular when the evidence is presented (or not presented) by the state,” Robinson wrote in an email from Beijing, where he had traveled on business. “Science is objective when properly performed and utilized.”

The City Council approved his appointment by Mayor Annise Parker on Wednesday.

Parker said Robinson’s appointment to the board of Houston Forensic Science LGC Inc., the local government corporation created by the City Council last year to develop a crime lab independent of the Houston Police Department, was based on more than just his compelling personal history.

“He’s going to be an even better board member because he has skills as an attorney and his being very familiar with the criminal justice system,” she said. “And community contacts and ties, as well.”

My interview with Robinson from his campaign for District D is here. He’s an impressive person, and he will be an insightful and much-needed voice on the crime lab’s board. Well done.

What’s on the agenda for Mayor Parker in her third term

Now that Mayor Parker has been safely re-elected, with a better-than-expected margin, what does she plan to do from here?

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

A triumphant Parker on Tuesday lauded her “decisive” victory but quickly shifted her focus to the coming two years, listing her third-term priorities as jobs, economic development, rebuilding streets and drainage, and financial accountability.

“There are no quick fixes. We’re rebuilding Houston for the decades, and we’re doing it right,” she said. “My election is over, but the work is going to get much tougher. … The next two years starts tonight.”

Parker had said for weeks she expected to avoid a runoff, and lately has acted the part, saying Monday she intended immediately to place controversial items before the City Council.

An ordinance targeting wage theft should be on the Nov. 13 agenda, she said, with a measure restricting payday and auto title lenders shortly to follow. Both items were discussed by council committees earlier this year before disappearing in favor of bland agendas during the campaign.

The council also should vote on a controversial item rewriting regulations for food trucks before year’s end, Parker said.

She said she also wants to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance similar to an item recently passed in San Antonio that prohibited bias against gay and transgender residents in city employment, contracting and appointments, and in housing and places of public accommodation.

Parker also has said she wants to expand curbside recycling service to every home in Houston, to finish an effort to reduce chronic homelessness, and to give Houston voters a chance to change the city’s term-limits structure, likely from three two-year terms to two four-year terms. She singled out homelessness and the Bayou Greenways initiative, a voter-approved effort to string trails along all the city’s bayous, Tuesday night.

Parker also has highlighted pending projects: the city is halfway through moving its crime lab from the Houston Police Department to an independent lab; voters’ narrow approval of a joint city-county inmate processing center on Tuesday will let the city shutter its two aging jails.

The mayor twice has failed to persuade the Texas Legislature to give her local negotiating authority with the city’s firefighter pension system; she will get another crack at it in 2015.

Another reform Parker said she wants to tackle is increasing water conservation in Houston, saying “we are one of the most profligate users of water of any city in Texas, and that has to change.”

A lot of this should be familiar. The wage theft ordinance was brought up in August to a skeptical Council committee, and the Mayor promised to bring it up on October 23. Payday lending is a to do items due to legislative inaction. The call for a more comprehensive non-discrimination ordinance was a recent addition that came in the wake of San Antonio passing its more muscular NDO. The crime lab and closure of the city jails are long-term projects that will move forward. It will be interesting to see where Council is on some of these, and it may be better for a couple of them to wait until the runoffs resolve themselves and bring them up next year. Finally, on the subject of water usage, there’s a lot we could do to affect that.

The one cautionary note I would strike is on term limits. You know how I feel about term limits, so I’m not going to go into that. My concern is that this necessarily means a change to the city charter, and that implies the possibility of a larger can of worms being opened. Which, maybe Mayor Parker would welcome, I don’t know. I personally have a hard time shaking the feeling that the goal of this exercise is to curtail the power of the Mayor one way or another – I have a hard time seeing us move to a City Manager form of government, but things like giving Council members the power to propose agenda items are in play. Which, again, may be something the Mayor wants to discuss, and even if it isn’t may be a good thing for the rest of us to talk about. I’ve said I’m open to the conversation, and I am. Doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about the possible ways it could go.

One more thing:

Parker said Tuesday she would not be a candidate for any office in 2016.

That was made in the context of speculation that the Mayor’s current agenda for Council might presage a run for statewide office. I don’t know what the Mayor’s plans are for life post-Mayorship, but I can say with a reasonable degree of confidence that of course she wouldn’t be a candidate for office in 2016. What office would she run for? The only statewide positions are Railroad Commissioner and judicial seats, and unless she wants to move out west and run against Steve Radack, the only county office that might fit would be Tax Assessor. The question to ask is whether she might be a candidate for office in 2018, and even I would have to admit that’s way too far off to really care about right now. Let’s see how these next two years go, and we’ll figure it out from there.

Rape kit backlog eliminated

More good news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet the new Crime Lab boss

He sounds impressive.

The fuzzy process of shifting the city of Houston’s crime lab from the Houston Police Department to an independent board got a little clearer Wednesday with the hiring of a president and CEO for the new operation.

The appointed board of the city’s year-old forensic science corporation selected Dr. Daniel Garner after a six-month search. Garner, whose hiring was announced at a press conference Wednesday, is coming off a U.S. Department of Justice effort to improve global forensics that took him to labs in 30 countries on five continents. He formerly was president of Cellmark Diagnostics Inc. and managed the forensics lab for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

“Dr. Garner is assessing what our needs are. There are areas in the lab that are centers of excellence. There are other areas in forensics that need some work, frankly,” said Scott Hochberg, who chairs the city forensics board. “We need to identify those and appropriate the budget to those. We’re looking forward to moving forward with creating the best municipal crime lab and regional crime lab in the country.”

Next, Hochberg said, Garner will hire three supporting managers and the board will continue figuring out how legally to make the transition from the police department.

See here and here for some background. The Houston Forensic Science Local Government Corporation has been moving in a positive direction since its creation, and this looks like another good step. I’m eager to see how they ultimately operate. In the meantime, we got a little bit more information about the long-discussed but so far not proposed possibility of the city and the county joining forces:

[Mayor Annise] Parker has said the city lab must make more progress before merger talks, and has said the county lab is not sufficiently independent of the Harris County Commissioners Court or the District Attorney’s Office.

Commissioners Court members have said they set the institute’s budget, but that it answers to its accrediting agencies, not the court. The sooner the city expresses an interest in joining, county officials have said, the better; the county is designing its new forensics tower.

“We’re in very fruitful discussions with Harris County about a joint (inmate) processing center; we are working closely on everything from Buffalo Bayou to building new libraries,” Parker said Wednesday. “I don’t think this will be any different. When we determine it makes financial and logistical sense to work together, we will do that, but I can’t give you a timeline.”

Well, at least they’re talking. Relations between the city and the county have never been better, so if this is going to happen, sometime soon would be nice.

It sure is nice to budget when you have money

Mayor Parker has released her FY2014 budget, and it’s great news for those of you that have been waiting for their single-stream recycling bin.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

More than 100,000 Houston homes will be added to the city’s single-stream recycling program by this fall, doubling the number of households receiving the 96-gallon green bins.

About 35,000 homes will receive single-stream service via the wheeled containers in July, allowing curbside recycling of glass, newspapers, magazines, cans, cardboard and plastic. Another 70,000 homes will be added in October.

Today, 28 percent of Houston homes have single-stream, and 26 percent use 18-gallon tubs, in which glass is not allowed. Another 46 percent do not have curbside recycling. The $7.8 million plan would expand single-stream service to about 55 percent of the city’s households, Mayor Annise Parker said. Of the initial 35,000 homes, a Solid Waste Department spokeswoman said, 15,000 will be first-time recyclers and 20,000 will upgrade from the 18-gallon tubs.

“To be a little more than halfway there is a great milestone,” Solid Waste Management Director Harry Hayes said, adding he anticipates a $500,000 savings in waste diverted from landfills.

The announcement came as Mayor Annise Parker rolled out her budget for the 2014 fiscal year, which starts July 1. The proposed budget, which must be approved by City Council, is $4.5 billion, including enterprise funds such as the aviation department and utility systems, and represents a 6.4 percent increase over the current fiscal year.

The proposed general fund budget, supported chiefly by property and sales taxes, is $2.2 billion, an increase of 4.9 percent over the current budget, but just 2.4 percent over projected spending for the current year.

Most of the spending increases – 51 percent – are driven by contracts with the city municipal, police and fire unions and each group’s pension board. Another 8.4 percent will go to rising health care costs.

The Mayor’s press release on the budget is here. Expanded recycling is the big deal, but there are a lot of other goodies in there as well. Some highlights include the completion of the rape kit backlog; $2.2 million to fund operations of the city’s new public safety radio project, which is about harmonizing communications with Harris County and other entities; the creation of the Forensic Transition Special Fund to keep separate and account for costs related to the Houston Forensic Science LGC; an extra $693K for BARC; and for the first time ever, a line item for infrastructure maintenance, renewal and replacement. The release also notes that all services that were cut two years ago will be restored if they have not already been. Like I said, ain’t it great to have the money for the things you need?

UPDATE: From the Texas Campaign for the Environment and my inbox:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

May 15, 2013

Contact: Tyson Sowell (713) 337-4192 (office) or (217) 418-9415 (cell)

Environmentalists Applaud Recycling Expansion But Opposed to City’s “Recycling Scheme”

HOUSTON–Environmentalists applaud Mayor Parker’s Fiscal Year 2014 Budget Proposal that would expand curbside recycling to 100,000 households, while also urging her office to let curbside recycling work before adopting unproven waste schemes. The proposed expansion of single-stream recycling, separation of recyclables in one cart and garbage in another cart, is the single largest expansion of curbside recycling in the City of Houston’s history.

“We are very happy to hear a renewed commitment to the expansion of single-stream recycling,” Tyson Sowell, Program Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment said. “Over the previous years, the city has said that they cannot expand curbside recycling due to budget constraints. We’re glad to see that they have decided to make recycling a priority.”

The proposed curbside expansion comes on the heels of recent negative public reaction towards the Mayor’s proposal to build a “dirty MRF (materials recovery facility)”.

The “dirty MRF” would cost an estimated $100 million, and would sort recyclables and garbage that have been combined or sorted by residents and collected in one truck. Texas Campaign for the Environment (TCE) says that similar facilities in other communities and have failed to achieve high recycling rates.

“Houstonians want to recycle and we want real recycling. The announced expansion is a direct result of thousands of letters written by Houstonians to the mayor and city council members asking for real recycling, not some magic system that will not work,” Mr. Sowell said. “Houstonians get it. They understand that dirty MRFs do not work because of contamination issues. They understand that paper is ruined when you place your coffee grounds on top of it. Hopefully this is a sign that the City of Houston understands this now, as well, and will allow real recycling to work.”

Currently, the city services 375,000 households with garbage collection services. Of those 375,000 households, 170,000 households do not have curbside recycling available to them. The proposed expansion would cut the number to those without curbside recycling to 135,000 households at the start of fiscal year 2014 and cut it again to 70,000 by the end of fiscal year 2014.

Mr. Sowell says that the next step is for the city to commit to similar expansions of recycling for the next two fiscal years so that everyone will have single-stream curbside recycling by 2016 and for the city to abandon the “dirty MRF” idea.

Mayor Parker kicks off her campaign

It’s the time of the season for Mayor Parker, who has a serious challenger this time, but also a stronger hand to play.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

In her tenure, Parker has given teeth to the city’s historic preservation rules, broken a deadlock with Harris County to help build the Dynamo stadium, gave scandal-ridden Metro new leaders and revised key city codes governing parking and development, the latter of which had languished for six years.

She gave priority in city contracting to local firms, moved to make the troubled city crime lab independent from Houston Police Department, opened a facility to divert drunks from city jails and saw passage of a plan to erase a decades-long backlog of untested rape kits.

Parker oversaw a successful $410 million bond election last fall, and in 2010 welcomed voters’ approval of Rebuild Houston, an ambitious infrastructure renewal program.

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said all signs favor Parker, whose only fear should be a low turnout that could see a small group swing the results. Jones said Parker lately has been able to focus on her own plans instead of inherited ills, such as replacing the Metro regime, scrambling to defer pension costs and dealing with legal wrangling over an inflexible red-light camera contract after voters banned the cameras in 2010.

“Bill White left her with a lot of messes to clean up. That, combined with a very tight budget as a result of the recession, led to a difficult first two years,” Jones said. “The second term has been much smoother sailing. The voter mood is going to be much more positive as people go to the polls this fall, and there’s going to be less of a tendency to want to cast a protest vote against the mayor than there was in 2011.”

Perhaps easing the incumbent’s road is the mood of the 16-member City Council, which lately has been more amenable than in recent years. A new convention center hotel, in which the city will invest $138 million, a rewrite of the city’s affirmative action policy and a law allowing motorists to be cited for failing to give cyclists and joggers a wide enough berth all passed without even a “tag,” the one-week delay typical on complex, controversial or high-profile topics.

The difference between the Mayor’s first term and the second is night and day. The first term was all about defense, which is to say all about things she had to deal with rather than things she wanted to deal with. That’s what her second term has been all about, and while she got a lot done in each term it’s much easier to build a campaign around offense. I’ve thought all along that she’d be in better shape this time around, and I still think that. A stronger opponent in 2011 and she’d have been in a runoff. She could still have a tough race this year, but at least the wind isn’t in her face.

The bit about Council is worth noting as well. Part of this is good luck on her part. Two of her biggest antagonists, Jolanda Jones and Mike Sullivan, are no longer on Council. The third, CO Bradford, was appointed Vice Mayor Pro Tem and has largely been a team player ever since. Her main thorn in the side is Helena Brown, and it’s hard to say that’s been a bad development for her since it’s a lot easier to look reasonable and accomplished opposite the likes of CM Brown. Basically, not only has the Mayor had the money to restore or enhance city services, the ability to move her own agenda forward, and a Council that has worked with her a lot more than it has worked against her. If she doesn’t feel better about this campaign than the last one, she ought to.

She entered the 2011 election with an approval rating of 47 percent, the lowest of any mayor in decades, narrowly avoiding a runoff despite spending $2.3 million and facing five poorly-funded unknowns. Political observers had said Parker needed a decisive win to prevent a challenge this year, and 50.8 percent of the vote was not it.

Enter Ben Hall, a wealthy lawyer capable of financing his own campaign who served as City Attorney from 1992 to 1994. Hall says city taxes and fees are driving residents to the suburbs. He says Parker lacks vision and wastes time tinkering with smartphone apps and food trucks while Houston misses opportunities for international business growth.

“A mayor must do more than simply balance a budget,” Hall has said. “We need more than just a manager, we need a leader.”

University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said there may be some truth in Hall’s statements, but he said these are not significant enough to ignite anti-incumbent passions, adding that Hall’s message has lacked the specificity voters need to choose him over Parker.

“Motivations for mayoral elections are more about tremendous things that have gone wrong as opposed to more or less a tweak to what’s going right,” Rottinghaus said. “He’s got to make a really compelling case as to why things need to be changed, and as of yet, I’m not sure we’ve seen that.”

Hall has made criticism of Parker’s vision, or lack of it, a main point of his campaign. That’s certainly a valid line of attack, but as I’ve said before, Hall’s own vision isn’t apparent. Rottinghaus makes a good point as well, in that generally speaking when trying to knock off an incumbent, you have to give people a reason to fire that incumbent before you can convince them that you’re a viable alternative. The case to fire the Mayor is harder to make when times are good and things are getting done. Plus, I think people generally like the Mayor. She has her share of opponents to be sure, but it’s not like we’re inundated with anti-Parker chatter. Her biggest challenge is going to be making sure that the people who do like her get out to vote. If I were her, I’d want turnout to exceed 2011’s anemic levels. Complacency is her enemy. Work that ground game and don’t settle for a small voter universe. In the meantime, I’ll be very interested to see what the June campaign finance reports look like, not just for how much each candidate raises but also for who is giving to whom. Parker has always had a broad fundraising base, and she starts out with a fair amount of cash. Hall can write his own check, but having his own broad base and getting support from sources that have given to Parker before would be a strong statement on his part. We’ll see how that goes.

Where does the crime lab go from here?

Now that there’s a plan in place to clear the longstanding crime lab backlog, the question is what should we expect from the crime lab going forward?

Scott Hochberg

“It’s sort of hard to build a house when you’re trying to dig yourself out of a hole,” said Scott Hochberg, chairman of the Houston Forensic Science Local Government Corp., a nine-member independent-appointed board formed by Mayor Annise Parker last year to take over the city’s forensic operations from Houston Police Department. “So getting back to ground level is a good place to start.”

Police officials are optimistic that by the time backlog testing is completed, in an estimated 14 months, control of the city’s forensic testing will largely fall under LGC authority, rather than HPD. Whether more property crimes – which accounted for just 3 percent of evidence the crime lab tested over the last two years – will be included will likely be the decision of the board, said HPD Executive Assistant Chief Timothy Oettmeier.

“We’d like to be in a position to look at the LGC and say ‘You know what, because we got rid of this humongous backlog that maybe we’ve got enough capacity to start processing some of that stuff,’ ” said Oettmeier, emphasizing that HPD will only play a supporting role for recommendations in crime lab functions once the LGC takes over.

[…]

The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, which serves 37 area law enforcement agencies, has been testing touch DNA in property crimes cases. When testing for touch DNA, the forensics institute has a 70 to 75 percent success rate for matches to crime suspects in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, a national database used to store DNA profiles, said agency spokeswoman Tricia Bentley.

Oettmeier said collection of touch DNA is contingent upon the number of crime scene unit personnel on staff to gather evidence. He said crime evidence collection is another part of forensics that HPD would like to hand over to crime lab.

“It’s unfortunate that we aren’t farther along in this area than we should be,” Oettmeier said. “But we’ve been carrying around this anchor with all of these problems for so long that we finally have a break and we’re going to take advantage of that.”

See here and here for more about the Houston Forensic Science Local Government Corporation (LGC). I too would like to see more done with property crime cases, including “touch DNA” testing. I also think moving crime evidence collection under the auspices of the LGC and away from HPD makes sense. What would you add to this that isn’t in the story?

In praise of CODIS

We’re catching more crooks thanks to DNA. Not exactly an earth-shattering revelation, but it’s always nice to have some numbers.

I want one of these

The number of Texas crimes solved after a suspect’s DNA matched with offenders’ DNA samples stored in the national repository known as CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) recently passed the 10,000th mark.

The state averaged only about 200 matches a year during the first five years after the database was created in 1996. That number leaped to an average 1,000 hits a year for the next 10 years. In just the last 11 months, the number of matches has nearly doubled to 1,943, records show.

[…]

Harris County now processes an average of 400 cases a month, compared to about a dozen cases in the past, said the lab’s director, Dr. Roger Kahn, explaining how automation has replaced the tedious repetitive tasks once done by human hands.

The number of samples of offenders’ DNA stored in Texas’ database also has mushroomed to more than 660,000. Texas law requires all registered sex offenders, felons sent to prison or placed on community supervision, and juveniles committed to Texas’ juvenile justice system to submit a DNA specimen.

“The more samples in the pool, the greater opportunity for a match,” said Skylor Hearn, who oversees the crime lab that manages the state’s database. “There is a degree of recidivism in (the) criminal world, and we’re catching up to them.”

At the same time, the ability to make a match is increasing because DNA profiles can be developed from material that’s often invisible to the eye.

“Originally, we required a blood stain the size of quarter. Now it’s not visible. A dandruff flake is enough; just touching something leaves behind cells that can be enough. The systems are much more sensitive,” Kahn said.

Harris County also has a special “CSI-style” seven-member team that it can dispatch to collect potential DNA from sensitive murder scenes.

That last bit is somewhat of a commercial for the Harris County crime lab, which as you know is getting a new facility soon, but what the heck. Keep up the good work, y’all.

Using DNA analysis is often associated with innocence and exoneration these days, and for good reason. It’s important to remember that every time DNA absolves someone who had been convicted of a crime, it also points a finger at the real perpetrator. For every innocent person in jail, there is some number of guilty people who aren’t in jail. (Some may be in jail for other reasons, or they may be dead, or as with some questionable arson cases, there may have been no crime in the first place.) None of those exonerations, and subsequent arrests of the real criminals, would have been possible if the original DNA evidence had been destroyed upon conviction, as prosecutors like now-former Williamson County DA John Bradley have advocated. If he had gotten his way in the Michael Morton case, not only would Morton still be incarcerated, but a man who is now also suspected in the murder of at least one other woman would still be walking free. Think about that. And while you do, be sure to read Pam Colloff’s outstanding two-part story in the November and December editions of Texas Monthly about the Michael Morton saga. If you don’t have a tear in your eye, and a belly full of outrage, by the ending, you should consider talking to your doctor. See also Grits’ interview with Colloff for more.

Former HPD lab supervisor files sues Lykos, county

Here’s a nice little going away present for District Attorney Pat Lykos.

DA Pat Lykos

Two former Houston Police Department crime lab supervisors have filed a federal lawsuit against Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos, saying the county’s top prosecutor retaliated against them after they spoke out about problems with HPD’s breath-alcohol testing vans.

The lawsuit, filed Monday, was brought against Lykos, prosecutor Rachel Palmer and Harris County by Amanda Culbertson and Jorge Wong, identified as “citizen whistle-blowers” in the lawsuit.

Among several allegations, the lawsuit says that officials with the DA’s office retaliated against Culbertson and Wong by lobbying the Harris County Commissioner’s Court to cancel a contract with a local private laboratory, where the two found jobs after leaving HPD.

The lawsuit also alleges that retaliatory actions taken by Lykos and Palmer included harming Culbertson and Wong’s reputations and putting their licenses as technical supervisors for the state’s breath-alcohol testing program at stake.

Culbertson and Wong said the retaliation began after they expressed concerns about the reliability of tests conducted in HPD’s breath-alcohol testing vans.

“It’s important for citizens to be able to speak openly and publicly about matters of public concern, such as problems with the (breath-alcohol testing) vans and problems with the crime lab,” said attorney Scott Cook, who represents Culbertson and Wong. “That is the heart of the First Amendment.”

I didn’t follow this saga very closely, so let me refer you to some other people who did:

Grits for Breakfast

Paul Kennedy

Murray Newman

See also this Grits post, in which he makes the point that breathalyzers and their efficacy should be under the purview of the Forensic Science Commission but aren’t, and this Big Jolly post, which has video from the plaintiffs’ press conference and a copy of their statements and the lawsuit itself. I’m sure there’s more but that’s plenty for now. I’m also sure Murray’s prediction that this will move along slowly is accurate. Anyone in the peanut gallery want to add something to this?

City-county cooperation

It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?

At 9:27 p.m. on Election Day, when it was clear a Metro referendum crucial to both of their road-building budgets had passed, Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack’s phone buzzed with a text message from Houston Mayor Annise Parker: “Maybe we can tackle world peace next.”

The note hinted at the unlikeliness of their pact. As recently as August, before the cooperative push for a “yes” vote on the Metro referendum, the bombastic Radack, long a city critic, could be counted among the anti-Parker crowd.

And while it is not world peace, this political odd couple’s new alliance could spur progress on several languishing projects, most notably a joint city-county inmate processing center that first was proposed in the 1990s.

Over his steak salad, her bowl of chili and two iced teas at Tony’s last Wednesday, Parker and Radack decided movement could come on the processing center as early as next month, perhaps in the form of a clear plan presented to Commissioners Court and City Council.

“The processing facility is something that’s been brewing for a very long time. We need some resolution,” Parker said. “Commissioner Radack was previously in law enforcement, and he understands these issues. He’s interested in taking some lead on it in the county.”

Radack, a former Houston policeman and county constable, already has talked to other members of Commissioners Court and the county’s top budget and social services directors about moving forward.

“There’s a strong possibility we can help a lot of people, like the mentally ill,” Radack said. “I think we can operate much more efficiently, save taxpayers’ money, and do a better job. That potential is there. It’s time to seize the opportunity and get it going.”

It all sounds good, and this is certainly a sensible project. They’re also continuing to talk about jointly doing a crime lab that is independent of HPD – the city’s crime lab proposal is still a theoretical entity at this point – and about dealing with the city’s great backlog of rape kits. If all this comes together, it would be a pretty nice legacy for Parker no matter what happens in next year’s election.

Council approves Mayor’s crime lab plan

It’s a done deal.

City Council has appointed a nine-member board to oversee the city’s crime lab, the first step in yanking it from police department control and setting up a publicly funded non-profit corporation to do evidence testing.

The vote was 15-2.

[…]

Though Council members supported the mayor’s proposal to try to insulate the crime lab from pressure from police, prosecutors and politicians, some raised questions about the city’s plan to go it alone when the county is about to build its own forensics tower.

“There’s so many areas the city and county can save taxpayers money, and this is one of them,” said Councilman Jack Christie, who voted no. Councilwoman Helena Brown, the other no vote, called the plan “a political stunt” that wastes taxpayer money by failing to cooperate with the county.

See here and here for some background. The concern about going solo instead of joining forces with Harris County is a legitimate one, even when expressed in typically Brownian fashion. As Mayor Parker noted in her press release, nothing about this precludes future expansion of the LGC to accommodate Harris County’s participation, and talks with the county are still going on. There is a difference of vision here, however, so that eventual cooperation could take a long time. I don’t think it would have made sense to continue on with the HPD lab as is and defer dealing with those 6,600 untested rape kits until everyone got onto the same page. I say it’s better to move forward now and work through the disagreements along the way. This is a big step and a long overdue one. Hair Balls has more.

Meet your Crime Lab board

Mayor Parker has recommended nine people be appointed by Council to the governing board for the proposed Houston Forensic Science Local Government Corporation (LGC).

Rep. Scott Hochberg

“The people I have selected have varied backgrounds in science, law enforcement, public policy, business and defense of the accused,” said Mayor Parker.  “Their perspective will be invaluable as we proceed forward toward my goal of a crime lab that is truly independent from law enforcement, prosecutors and political influence.  I said we would get this done during my second term in office and we remain on track to meet that timeline.”

The mayor is recommending the following for the board of director’s:

  • The Honorable Scott Hochberg, Texas House of Representatives, District 137
    (The mayor is recommending Representative Hochberg for chair of the board.)
  • Enrique V. Barrera, Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, Rice University
  • Willie E. B. Blackmon, retired, Judge Advocate, United State Air Force
  • Nicole B. Ca′sarez, Professor, Communication Department, University of St. Thomas
  • Donna Fujimoto Cole, Founder, Cole Chemical and Distributing, Inc.
  • Art Contreras, retired United States Marshal, Southern District of Texas
  • Marcia Johnson, Professor, Thurgood Marshall School of Law
  • Catherine Lamboley, retired, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, Shell Oil Company
  • Sandra Guerra Thompson, Professor, University of Houston Law Center

Once created, the Houston Forensic Science Center LGC will oversee operation of an independent center providing the city and area communities with accurate and timely analysis of forensic evidence and related services.

You pretty much can’t go wrong with Hochberg. He’s a great choice for this. Everyone else is a lawyer, scientist, or law enforcement type, which should be satisfactory to Council. I think they’ll do a good job and I look forward to them getting started.

The Mayor’s 2013 budget

What a difference a year – and better sales tax receipts and a better real estate market – makes. Mayor Parker has unveiled her budget for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, and it promises no service cuts, no layoffs, and no tax increase.

Mayor Annise Parker

Last year, the city issued 764 pink slips and cut services as budget officials grappled with a projected $100 million shortfall. Projected growth of city property and sales tax fuel an expected increase of $78 million in general fund income for the coming fiscal year.

Parker’s budget proposes spending all of the increase and tapping the city’s reserve account for $25 million. She’s proposing buying several new things with that money:

  • Offering single-stream recycling – the big rolling green barrels instead of the handheld bins – to at least 30,000 more Houston homes.
  • Increasing staffing hours on the city’s 311 help line to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The one-stop line for reporting potholes, getting city service schedules, checking up on your speeding tickets and accessing scores of other city services currently operates 14 hours a day.
  • Putting $2 million into the operation of a sobering center the city hopes to open later this year. Police will have the option of bringing people they detain for public intoxication to the center instead of jail.
  • $5 million for forensic services. It is to be used for improved crime lab operations by a new independent board of directors the mayor hopes to install or on reducing the backlog of untested rape kits.

The police department budget alone is proposed to grow, by $58 million. Much of the police spending increase is explained by built-in increases in pension contributions, health benefits, seniority raises and fuel costs.

Here’s the Mayor’s press release on the budget, which has more details. Looking at this reminds me why I believe that it may be harder for someone to defeat Parker in 2013 than it might have been to do in 2011. The expansion of curbside recycling, which seemed unlikely to happen previously because of the Mayor’s reluctance to seek a garbage collection fee, is the sort of thing that will make voters happy. The sobering center, which has now been approved by Council, will save the city money and will enable it to reach the Mayor’s goal of getting the city out of the jail business. The money for forensic services is a step towards another of the Mayor’s goals, which she addressed in her inaugural speech. Whether or not the city can work out the governance issues with Harris County, getting that done would be a huge accomplishment. My point is that by the time the 2013 campaign starts up, she’ll have a lot more positive things to point to, something that’s a lot harder to do when you’re cutting $100 million from your budget. It’s not a panacea and there are no guarantees, but I do think any potential challengers may find that the road next year is rockier than they thought it might be in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 elections. The environment just isn’t going to be the same.

There’s still a lot to do before we even start thinking about 2013 elections, and first up is Council’s turn to examine and attempt to modify the budget. I’m sure everyone will have their own priorities. And I can’t let this go without noting the following:

Councilwoman Helena Brown alone opposed city funding for the [sobering] center.

“The project can be better accomplished by the private sector,” she said. She also emphasized her opposition to excessive spending and said the sobering center is “like a slow cancer that will contribute to the death of the city.”

And so she voted against an action that will save the city a couple million bucks a year because she opposes excessive spending. We need a new word, to denote when something passes unanimously except for CM Brown who voted against it for reasons only she can understand. Leave your suggestions in the comments. Stace has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the full Chron story on the sobering center.

Groundbreaking on the county’s new DNA forensics lab

Cool.

Be careful moving that robot

Harris County officials on Tuesday broke ground on a new forensic genetics laboratory, to open later this year, which will let county scientists test DNA evidence in a growing number of cases.

The 15,000-square-foot facility, on Holcombe in the Texas Medical Center, could be considered the little brother of a new Institute of Forensic Sciences the county plans to begin building elsewhere in the Medical Center late next year. Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved $7 million for design work on the nine-story tower that will allow the institute to expand the rest of its services, including autopsies.

[…]

Dr. Luis Sanchez, the chief medical examiner, said the expansion also will let his staff further an effort with Baylor College of Medicine to investigate genetic causes for sudden death among infants and young adults, as well as add more fellowships for doctoral students.

See here and here for some background. What really interested me about this story, other than the chance to post that DNA robot picture again, was this:

The county’s move to expand its lab comes as city leaders look at plans to spin off Houston’s troubled crime lab. Mayor Annise Parker has proposed removing the city’s crime lab from the Houston Police Department and placing it under an appointed board.

Parker has said she welcomes county participation in her plan, but that seems unlikely.

County Judge Ed Emmett has called the idea a “nonstarter.”

That’s a much more pessimistic tone than what we had heard before from Judge Emmett. In February, when Mayor Parker unveiled her plan for the city’s crime lab, the Chron quoted Emmett as follows:

County Judge Ed Emmett said that although the city and county are on separate tracks right now, Parker’s proposal ultimately could make it easier for the two governments to come together.

“By having the LGC, it opens up more options for how the city can approach forensic science, including partnering with the Institute of Forensic Sciences,” Emmett said.

I was curious to know if something had changed, so I asked him. Judge Emmett told me that he didn’t intend for that to sound particularly negative. He and Mayor Parker have talked about this, many times and on friendly terms. He said it basically comes down to this: The city was approached several times, but didn’t want to sign on with the county when the money was carved out to build the new IFS lab, so the county finally just went forward at that time. The Mayor then unveiled her plans calling for a lab overseen by an appointed board. That was pretty much where the two sides kind of agreed to go their separate ways, because the county was not about to spend its money and build a new state-of-the-art lab and then have it overseen by a board appointed by the city and its interests. Judge Emmett said that as it is, the county’s lab is reviewed, overseen and accredited by six separate accrediting agencies.

He went on to add that this doesn’t mean there may not be some sort of agreement between the city and the county in the future, but it’s safe to say that the county is going forward with its own plans at this point. The city is welcome to join if it and the county find a format with which they are comfortable, but the county is not going to cede supervision of its nationally recognized forensics facilities to another government agency.

This is me speaking now. My interpretation is that the sticking point is the composition of the local government corporation, which would be appointed by the Mayor and approved by Council. I would presume that this is not necessarily the last word in how that is done, but even if it is there’s no reason to believe that the LGC couldn’t contract some operations to the county, or that there couldn’t be some kind of joint venture for some aspect of this. Judge Emmett may be closing one door, but there are still windows open. As I’ve said before, it makes too much sense for there not to be some kind of collaboration, it’s just a matter of what form it takes.

Bromwich on the Mayor’s crime lab proposal

Michael Bromwich, the author of the report that laid out all of the problems with HPD’s crime lab, expresses his approval of Mayor Parker’s proposal for an independent crime lab.

Mayor Annise Parker and her administration have proposed removing the city of Houston’s crime lab from the Houston Police Department, where it has resided since the 1950s. This major step toward obtaining independence for the crime lab – free from the influence of the police department, prosecutors and political leaders – would place Houston in the vanguard of the movement to create appropriate structures for conducting forensic science in the criminal justice system. Her proposal carries the promise of improving both the reality and appearance of the way forensic science is conducted in Houston. Although implementing this vision will involve significant challenges, the proposal deserves serious consideration.

[…]

The core of the mayor’s proposal is to sever the crime lab from HPD and political leaders and entrust its oversight to a local government corporation governed by an independent board of directors. This board would set policy, ensure institutional independence and integrity, and oversee sound fiscal management. The board would be guided by an advisory committee, whose members would have significant expertise in forensic science. This structure is conceptually sound: The challenge would be in ensuring the competence of the outside directors, and the level of engagement of the members of the advisory committee

Although the mayor’s proposal to separate the crime lab from the police department and reduce the risk of political influence on its operations is fundamentally sound, aspects of it merit careful examination and discussion. No reform worth doing is free from thorny questions of implementation. While on first blush, the fee-for-service model that is being proposed is attractive, it raises questions about the incentives such a system creates – for example, preference may be given to scientific work that generates the most revenue rather than work that is most important for the fair administration of justice.

Such issues are not insoluble, but they do require careful study and consideration. To her credit, Mayor Parker is advancing a bold and serious proposal to improve the quality of forensic science, and therefore the quality of justice, administered by the city of Houston. It deserves a thoughtful and constructive reception.

Bromwich called the Mayor’s proposal to make the crime lab independent “fully consistent with a comprehensive and widely acclaimed National Academy of Science review of forensic science, published in 2009, that recommended that public forensic labs be independent from police departments and prosecutors”. That’s a pretty nice endorsement from the fellow who wrote the comprehensive report on all the things that were wrong with the crime lab. Now this is only one person’s opinion, and as he notes there are still a lot of details to be worked out. We don’t know how or if the city will resolve its differences with Harris County, and there’s always the possibility of politics gumming up the works to some extent. But let’s be honest, if Bromwich had been critical of the Mayor’s proposal, that would be significant. The fact that he’s laudatory should be significant as well.

More details on the city’s crime lab plan

It’s starting to come into focus.

An independent crime lab could cost nearly 20 percent more than the current police-run operation, a high-level Parker administration official told a City Council committee this week.

Andy Icken, the mayor’s chief development officer, who is overseeing the project, said the annual budget of $22.8 million could rise to $27 million in its first years after its separation from the police department as it attempts to tackle a backlog of thousands of untested rape kits.

I don’t know about you, but I’d consider it money well spent to reduce that backlog of untested rape kits. As noted in the story, the crime lab isn’t being touted as a money-saver, but obviously the price tag is always an issue. I would think that as long as future costs are not projected to rise too much, this should not be insurmountable.

On Monday, Icken and [City Attorney David] Feldman unveiled what the board would look like. It would have five members: someone who understands the judicial system, someone with law enforcement experience, a criminal defense attorney, a forensics expert and someone with a finance background.

The Parker administration is looking for those people now and plans to come to the council in April with the local government corporation plan and five board nominees.

This structure would still allow the city to join forces with the county in their spiffy new building if the governance issue can be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Since the county’s lab has excess capacity, if not an excess of cash, that might help reduce that rape kit backlog faster, which in turn might help keep the cost down. I have to believe the city and county will eventually work that out – it just makes too much sense not to. Stranger things have happened, though.

Meet the Houston Regional Forensic Science Center

Mayor Parker has revealed her vision for an independent regional crime lab.

Mayor Annise Parker proposed on Wednesday taking control of the city’s crime lab away from the police department and handing it to an independent seven-member board with expertise in forensic science and fiscal management.

“I clearly prefer to have our forensics sciences not under the influence of police, prosecution or politics,” Parker said.

There are no details yet on where the crime lab would be located or how to come up with what a written report identified as the “significant” start-up costs for a new crime lab.

[…]

Parker proposes forming a local government corporation — a hybrid of sorts between a non-profit organization and a government agency — that would become the new employer of 188 police and civilian employees who currently work for the police department’s crime lab. The city envisions that the seven-member board would include a representative from the Innocence Project, the organization that uses DNA testing to exonerate the wrongfully convicted.

Parker herself would appoint the board members. Council would confirm them.

City Attorney David Feldman explained that such a board, because members could only be removed for wrongdoing, would be more independent than the county medical examiner, who is an at-will employee of Commissioners Court.

The LGC is the key to understanding the proposal, as it is the reason why the lab would be independent in a way that the county’s lab would not, at least as the Mayor sees it. The Chron story from before the announcement discusses that point.

Criminal justice advocates praised Parker’s push for independence.

“We definitely see it as a much-needed step to ensuring that people are not wrongfully convicted,” said Ana Yáñez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, which advocates for human and civil rights and protecting public safety. “Independence is key.”

The city and county have disagreed on what independence means. County officials insist that although Commissioners Court has the power to appoint the director of its Institute for Forensic Sciences and to set its budget, the operation runs independently of the sheriff and the district attorney. Parker has said that to hand over the city’s crime lab work to the county “simply substitutes one government master for another government master.”

[…]

The mayor’s plan does not preclude merging operations with the county, [spokesperson Janice] Evans said.

“In fact, we hope we can reach agreement on something that would include more entities than the city,” she said. The local government corporation board Parker envisions would have the power to broker deals with other jurisdictions.

County Judge Ed Emmett said that although the city and county are on separate tracks right now, Parker’s proposal ultimately could make it easier for the two governments to come together.

“By having the LGC, it opens up more options for how the city can approach forensic science, including partnering with the Institute of Forensic Sciences,” Emmett said.

That’s what most people would surely like to see happen. It makes the most sense in terms of cost and complexity. We’ll see what happens as more of the details get filled in. According to the post-presentation story, the proposal won’t come up for a vote before next month, so there’s time for things to be tweaked. You can see the Mayor’s presentation here. Backstory on the city and county’s efforts so far can be found here, here, here, here, and here. Stace has more.

County approves building new forensics lab

The Institute of Forensic Sciences is getting a new home.

I want one of these

Commissioners Court on Tuesday gave staff the go-ahead to finalize a land deal with the Texas Medical Center that would give the county 2.79 acres at the northeast corner of Old Spanish Trail and Bertner.

The deal would require construction to begin on the new nine-story Institute of Forensic Sciences facility within two years; Art Storey, the county’s director of public infrastructure, said he plans to start in December 2013.

“Harris County is running out of its own capacity,” said District Attorney Pat Lykos. who urged the court to move forward. “It’s absolutely essential to the administration of justice that Commissioners Court did what they did today,” the district attorney declared.

[…]

The county’s new facility will handle autopsies and evidence testing. A separate county facility for DNA testing is expected to open elsewhere in the Medical Center, at 2450 Holcombe, this year.

See here for some background. This has been referred to as a “regional” crime lab, but so far the county and the city are not yet on the same page; in recent weeks, Mayor Parker has spoken about the possibility of going a different direction than the county. This story doesn’t shed any new light on that.

County officials on Tuesday said they hope the city eventually will join them, though all stressed the county lab must expand to meet growing demand, regardless of the city’s plan.

“There’s been this discussion of yet another regional crime lab, and we already have the capability of doing that,” County Judge Ed Emmett said.

[…]

“As Mayor Parker stated in her inaugural address, her goal is to create an independent crime lab that can handle all of the city’s forensic needs,” said Parker spokeswoman Jessica Michan. “We’ll continue our dialogue with Harris County to, hopefully, achieve that goal together.”

There are common interests, but as yet not a common vision. Maybe by the time this thing is built we’ll have it all figured out.

More on the crime lab and the city jail

Here we have some more information about Mayor Parker’s plans for the crime lab, though it’s still not really clear where this is going.

Parker wants to make the lab independent of HPD and the city, overseen instead by a local government board similar to the Port of Houston Authority, whose members are jointly appointed by the city, county and other local municipalities. Mayoral spokeswoman Janice Evans said a proposal may come before City Council this spring.

County leaders say their Institute of Forensic Sciences already is independent, free from law enforcement influence. They point to its respected work and lack of a case backlog.

Parker, however, said the city lab’s future is not with Harris County.

“The area that I’m in control of is to have an independent crime lab,” the mayor said Wednesday. “If that can become a regional crime lab where the county is a full participant, I’d love to see that happen. Sending all our work over to Harris County simply substitutes one government master for another government master.”

County Judge Ed Emmett said the apparent disagreement seems to be a concern over “whose name is on the door,” and said he hopes that can be overcome.

“This is a perfect opportunity to consolidate a government service,” Emmett declared. “If they want to go off and duplicate services by creating it somewhere else – fine, but we’re going to move forward with a world-class Institute of Forensic Sciences.”

I’m not sure I understand this. I can see where the Mayor is coming from, and if her belief is that the city would be more of a tenant to the county in the Institute of Forensic Sciences than a partner with them then her reluctance makes some sense, but I think Judge Emmett makes a strong point. If this boils down to an issue of governance, it’s worth trying to work out. If it’s more fundamental than that, then I’ll need to learn more about what the city’s vision is, and how much it will cost compared to what we’re doing now and what we could be doing with the IFS.

Then there’s the city’s jail, which have had their own problems of late.

Parker said the city jails could be phased out even without the type of joint processing center that bond voters rejected in 2007.

The city is negotiating to buy a property that would be used a “sobering center” to divert some inmates from the jail.

“If someone just needs a place to sleep it off, sober up, maybe get connected to some social-service help, we think we can accommodate that,” Parker said.

Services, Evans said, could include help for the mentally ill, whom Parker said also must be diverted from jail. Such steps could reduce the city jail population enough to allow the remaining inmates to be handed to the county, the mayor said.

Keeping the mentally ill out of jail has long been a topic of discussion at the county, Emmett said, but the problem likely will take an expensive facility to solve.

I like this idea, though we’ll have to see what a “sobering center” is and how it differs in function and cost from the jail. Philosophically, it’s the right direction, as is the principle of diverting the mentally ill from the jail to other facilities that can actually help them. Whether it truly requires an “expensive facility” or not remains to be seen, but I think this has a decent chance of being a viable alternative to that. Grits has more.

Inauguration Day 2012

Mayor Annise Parker

Tuesday was Inauguration Day for Mayor Annise Parker, City Controller Ronald Green, and all 16 members of Houston City Council.

Annise D. Parker began her second term as mayor of Houston on Monday with a commitment to bring more jobs to the city and to tackle an ambitious to-do list that includes progress on public employee pensions, an independent crime lab, getting out of the jail business and alleviating homelessness.

Immediately before her inaugural speech, she swore in the 16-member City Council, whose support she needs to implement her agenda. Seven of them are new. Afterward, several of the new members pledged to work with the Democratic mayor to solve problems.

“My philosophy is: potholes, not partisans, ” said Republican At-Large 5 Councilman Jack Christie.

Remember when the runoffs were a “strong repudiation” of the Parker administration? Yes, I know, new CM Helena Brown has sworn to be her arch-nemesis, but I daresay that from the Mayor’s perspective, getting Christie in return on the trade isn’t the worst deal ever.

The new council members, however, have yet to flesh out their positions on how to solve those problems, and Parker’s speech was a broad sketch of what needs to be done, not a policy address.

Parker relied instead on the optimism of Inauguration Day to put forward the idea that history is on the city’s side and that Houston residents will build what a recent magazine article called “one of the world’s next great cities” with audacity, a can-docharacter and a willingness to invest in their community even during tough economic times. She paid tribute to Houston as a city that got its unlikely start on a mosquito-ridden prairie, pioneered the artificial heart and played a central role in space exploration.

“Everything we have done as a city has been a matter of vision and will, of taking what we have and deciding what we want, setting an impossible goal, and then creating it,” Parker said.

The full text of the Mayor’s inaugural address is here. The policy-related stuff is as follows:

My number one job for the next two years is to continue to bring more jobs to Houston. We will expand the programs we have already started to stimulate small business with access to loans and training. We will continue the Hire Houston First policy. We will work tirelessly to increase our role as the energy capital of the world and a world leader in the next high tech industrial revolution.

Hard times prompt us to chart the latitude and longitude of who we are. Hard times test our character. The economy still dominates every conversation, and colors everything we do. Too many Houstonians are struggling to find jobs, to make ends meet. Our city workforce has also felt that pain. City employees have been furloughed, and more than 750 were laid off. We are doing more with less.

But …

We did not raise taxes. We did not mortgage our future with debt. We did not compromise public safety. We did not lay off a single firefighter or police officer. Many of our civilian employees stepped up and volunteered additional furlough days to help save the jobs of their colleagues.

We took bold steps to address our aging infrastructure – finally recovering the full cost of this precious asset, emphasizing conservation, and setting aside funds to complete long neglected maintenance. In doing the responsible thing, we unknowingly prepared ourselves to be able to respond to the worst drought in our history.

And I cannot envision voters in any other city in America, in the midst of a recession, doing the right thing, the prudent thing, and creating the funding to invest in critically needed flooding and drainage infrastructure. This is a visionary step akin to that in the 1950’s and 60s which created lakes Conroe and Houston and secured the water rights which sustain us today, or the commitment to set aside land and other incentives to encourage medical institutions to locate together and so lead to the largest medical complex in the world.

As we navigated this city through the toughest economy in generations, I built my administration on 5 pillars, and focused the work of the city around them:

Jobs and sustainable development,
Fiscal responsibility,
Infrastructure,
Public safety,
Quality of life.

Those will remain our strengths – there is progress yet to be made on pension security for both the city and our retirees, an independent regional crime lab, phasing out the city jail and progress against homelessness – these are challenges we are committed to address and have already begun.

Seems like a good idea to remind people that the city is actually going to do something with the money collected from the drainage fee. I’d recommend doing a lot more of that over the next two years. Still no more details about the crime lab. Calling it “an independent regional crime lab” sure sounds like the original city-county jointly funded proposal to me, which makes me wonder what the deal was in that KHOU story. The one item here that’s less familiar is “progress against homelessness”, which I presume refers to the announcement from late November about a partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). I presume we’ll hear more about this in the coming months.

I was not able to attend the inauguration, so I don’t have any personal impressions to share. If you were there, what did you think? Houston Politics has more.

Crime lab update

One way or another, Mayor Parker says we will have a new crime lab in 2012.

After years of scandal, the police department will no longer run Houston’s crime lab, Mayor Annise Parker said Wednesday.

The promise is among the initiatives she will elaborate on next week during her inauguration speech. Parker was reelected in November and will begin her second term in January.

But during an interview Wednesday with KHOU 11 News, Parker stressed that the city would have an “independent” crime lab by the end of 2012.

[…]

Currently, the lab is downtown at police headquarters in the 1200 block of Travis. The mayor is still deciding where the new one would be located and how much it would cost.

“This is not at all an effort to save money,” Parker said. “This is about an effort to achieve objective justice. And when you consider that longstanding problems in the crime lab have cost the City of Houston millions and millions of dollars to fix, this is not something where we can cheap out.”

There’s long been talk of a regional crime lab – an option Parker said she preferred—but the city and the county haven’t agreed on how to pay for it.

See here for some background on where the city/county partnership stands. That option certainly seems like the most sensible one, but as long as there are people like Steve Radack out there making life difficult, it can’t be a bad idea to explore other possibilities. We’ll see what the Mayor has to say about this in her inauguration speech tomorrow; I’ll have a copy of that to add afterward.

The city and county would like to cooperate, but…

…it’s hard to do when there’s no money to do it with.

City and county officials have not met for months to discuss a joint booking facility, long touted as a way to save taxpayers money. It would get the city out of the jail business and filter frequent fliers out of the incarceration pipeline by putting social service representatives at the entrance and exit doors to the county jail.

At a meeting last month at which Commissioners Court approved a plan to transform the county crime lab into a regional one, county officials spoke of their frustration that the city still has not agreed on terms for participation, despite the Houston Police Department’s well-publicized and costly troubles with its own crime lab.

[…]

A booking center is on the city’s funded building projects list but not on the county’s. Harris County voters rejected a $195 million bond measure for a jail and booking center in 2007, on the same ballot that they signed off on five other major public projects costing tens of millions of dollars each. The city would have contributed $32 million to that plan. The offer still stands, said Andy Icken, the city’s chief development officer.

“If the county came to me tomorrow and said, ‘We’re ready to go for a bond issue and work on the processing center,’ we’re prepared to work with them,” Icken said.

On the crime lab, the tables are turned. County voters approved $80 million for a crime lab on the same ballot in which they rejected the jail and booking center. In this case, it is the city that does not have the money.

The recession also forced both governments into months of budget crisis management and has made long-term planning difficult.

“It’s really not that there’s disagreement. It’s that these things have not made it to the front burner in light of other issues that are going on,” [County Judge Ed] Emmett said.

I don’t even know what to say about this. I’m sure that most people, when they think about governments “tightening its belt” to “live within its means” during bad times, they imagine “fat” being cut out of the budget, because of course every budget has “fat” (which is clearly labeled as such) in it. Long term stuff like this doesn’t cross their minds, but the truth is that “saving” a few dollars now by foregoing or postponing needed investments winds up costing a bunch more in the long term. We do this all the time, because these are the easiest expenses to cut back on, but every time we do we’re just passing the cost on down the line.

The financial squeeze also plays out against the backdrop of a traditional divide between city and county.

The county and city, by state law, have differing missions, offer disparate services and have varying authority to fund and achieve those. The governance is equally different, with the city ruled by a strong mayor and 14-member council, and the county run by a five-member commissioners court in which four members have considerable control over their individual precincts.

On a larger and more philosophical level, the way we do local government really doesn’t make much sense, either. Many of the needs we have are regional, spanning multiple jurisdictions, which makes finding and funding solutions for them a lot harder than it needs to be. Issues of transportation, air quality, crime, and so on don’t stop at arbitrary geographical borders, but the ability to deal with them often does, which is what leads to things like the city of Houston threatening to sue manufacturing plants elsewhere in Harris County, and the state Legislature stepping in with a bill to prevent them from doing so. If we had to do it all again from scratch, a regional government that grew and adapted with a growing population as it spreads out all over the place would have a lot of appeal. But that ain’t going to happen any time soon.