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Harold Hurtt

Hail to the (interim) Chief

As expected, HPD Chief Harold Hurtt has quietly slipped out the door in advance of Mayor-Elect Annise Parker taking the reins of the city. Until she names his replacement, here’s who will fill in.

Executive Assistant Chief C.A. McClelland will take over the reins at HPD, at least until Mayor-elect Annise Parker formally chooses the department’s next chief.

McClelland, 54, got the acting promotion because his name was next on a rotating list of executive assistant chiefs who fill in when the chief’s office is temporarily vacant — whether for vacation, illness, or any other reason, officials said.

“He (McClelland) was not chosen by either the mayor or the mayor-elect to be the interim chief,” said Patrick Trahan, a spokesman for White.

Doesn’t mean McClelland couldn’t be a contender for the job, but his is not a name that has been dropped as a potential successor.

Houston Police Officers’ Union president Gary Blankinship said rank-and-file officers are solidly behind Parker’s pledge to name an HPD officer to the top spot.

“I don’t think we can afford to lose six months to a year letting someone learn the job,” Blankinship said. “There are critical decisions that need to be made right now.”

Blankinship predicts Parker will make her decision by the end of January if not sooner.

“I know she considers that a very important appointment. I think she’s going to be very serious and do her due diligence. I also think she’ll move very quickly,” Blankinship said.

You may recall that Blankinship and the HPOU were not supporters of Parker; in fact, they all but accused her of plotting to hand the city over to the crooks during the runoff campaign. Funny how quickly bygones can become bygones, isn’t it?

Search for the Chief

More speculation about who will replace Harold Hurtt as HPD chief.

Gary Blankinship, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, and other officers said they’ve heard Timothy N. Oettmeier, 57, Vicki L. King, 48, and Kirk A. Munden, 49, all assistant chiefs, mentioned as possible candidates to replace Harold Hurtt, who announced his resignation on Tuesday.

Hurtt plans to step down on Dec. 30, two days before Parker takes office.

Oettmeier, who joined the Police Department in September 1973, heads three commands, including information services, special support services and tactical support.

King, who became an HPD officer in November 1985, heads the tactical support command, which includes special operations, tactical operations, traffic enforcement, air support and vehicular crimes.

Munden, who joined HPD in May 1981, oversees operation of the department’s 14 patrol areas across the city.

Parker’s spokeswoman said the mayor-elect has not singled anyone out.

“She does not have anyone in the back of her mind,” said Janice Evans-Davis. “She wants her own person over there, someone who truly understands HPD, and someone who is truly committed to changing the way we do policing.”

Two of those names have been previously mentioned as possibilities. Whoever it is, I hope he or she has a good plan to clean up the latest mess within the crime lab, as well as a plan to lobby the Lege and Commissioners Court to create and fund an independent regional crime lab. The next chief will certainly have plenty to do.

Chief Hurtt to step down

We all knew this was coming.

Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt is planning to resign at the end of the year, two days before Mayor-elect Annise Parker takes office.

Hurtt, who has been Houston police chief for almost six years, confirmed this evening that he told his command staff today that he intends to resign Dec. 30 because a new mayor is taking office.

This is no surprise, as Parker has been saying for months now that she intended to replace Hurtt. KHOU suggests a couple of possible replacements.

Parker is expected to promote from within the ranks. Sources tell 11 News the frontrunners include assistant chiefs Tim Ottmeyer and Vicki King.

“That’s an honor that I haven’t been visited about but to serve with the men and women of the Houston Police Department in any capacity is truly an honor,” King said.

We’ll know soon enough.

Parker’s crimefighting plan

Tis the season for Mayoral candidates to send out position papers on various issues. I’ve gotten a couple in my mailbox in the past few days and want to spend a little time examining them. First up is Annise Parker’s Plan For 21st Century Policing In Houston. My thoughts on this are as follows.

– I’m in general agreement with the priorities Parker lays out in this document. I daresay I’d feel the same way about Peter Brown or Gene Locke’s as well – I don’t think there’s a whole lot of dispute about the big picture, in that everyone wants more police, better use of technology, better bang for the buck, better coordination among local law enforcement agencies, et cetera. The devil, as always, is in the details. Which leads me to the first point of discussion.

– Like most candidates, Parker wants to increase the size of HPD, but doesn’t go into any detail about the cost:

I will protect the police department budget in this economic downturn.

We learned a hard lesson when the city closed down the police academy to save money during the last major economic downturn in the 1980s. It took years to recover from that mistake. As Mayor, I will do everything in my power to maintain and, if possible, increase the police budget.

Protecting our law enforcement budget without raising taxes is a difficult but necessary balancing act. My 12 years as a City Councilmember and as Controller have prepared me for the challenge. I have a track record of fiscal responsibility, using tough audits to cut millions of dollars in fraud and waste – money that is now funding priorities like police, firefighters, after-school programs and economic development.

Parker goes on to say that she wants to add more cops to the force. There’s broad consensus for that, though given that Houston’s crime rate is down, it’s not clear to me how much more is really needed. Be that as it may, the fact remains that due to pension and salary outlays we’re budgeting a lot more for HPD these days without a significant increase in the size of the force. Adding in more officers will add to these costs, possibly a lot. I don’t know how much you can realistically hope to pay for without putting a tax increase, or at least a new revenue stream, on the table. If we want more police, we need to be willing to pay for it. I’ve heard the “waste, fraud, and abuse” mantra my whole life, and I don’t have a whole lot of faith in it. I believe in Parker’s financial acumen, but I think that only gets us so far.

– Like just about every candidate I’ve interviewed, Parker wants HPD to work more efficiently with other local law enforcement agencies.

I will direct my police chief to develop and implement a plan to better coordinate and cooperate with other local law enforcement agencies.

Dozens of law enforcement agencies have jurisdiction over parts of Houston. Their officers are certified peace officers who can enforce the law. All of our budgets are under stress. It is imperative that we improve coordination among these agencies.

If you’re being robbed, you don’t care whether it is HPD, a sheriff’s deputy or a constable who comes to your aid – as long as they have a badge and a gun and they can keep you safe.

In order to do this, agencies must be able to talk directly to each other. The city has invested in a radio system that will allow many law enforcement agencies to communicate with each other. But the obstacles to improving coordination among law enforcement agencies are less about a lack of technology and more about a lack of leadership and priorities. That’s why I will direct my chief to come up with a plan to work cooperatively with other agencies, and I will personally reach out to other jurisdictions to make it happen.

Again, it’s clear there’s broad consensus on this, and I’ve no doubt that better use of technology can help. What I want to know, though, is what incentive the other agencies – the Sheriff, the constables, Metro, HISD, whoever else – have to cooperate with HPD. The implication of Parker’s scenario is that someone other than an HPD officer could be the first responder. What do we have to offer to them to make that kind of cooperation with us worth their time and resources? I feel like I’ve heard people talk about this for a long time, and beyond the question of radio incompatibilities, it’s not clear to me what’s preventing this from happening now. What do these other agencies think about this?

– I’m totally down with the idea of an independent crime lab, and I agree there’s momentum at the county level to get that done. Funding is always an issue, and I wonder if we may need legislative action as well. If that’s the case, what can we do before the 2011 legislative session, and how can we grease the skids in advance to ensure that the necessary bills get through the process?

– The idea to contract with Harris County for jail services and ultimately eliminate the city’s lockup facility is one place where there isn’t a consensus – Parker and Locke support this concept, Brown opposes it. As I said before, it should be a simple enough matter to ask the county to give us an estimate, and from there we can see if there is a savings to be realized or not. Certainly, we will need to wait until the county gets its jail overcrowding issues under control, and I remain optimistic that this can be done, or at least mostly done, without building a new jail.

– Parker, who is known to be no fan of HPD Chief Harold Hurtt, talks at length about what qualities she wants in the replacement she’ll hire for him. One quality I hope this person will have is a willingness to implement better witness ID procedures, as well as video recording interrogations, which is something he or she will have to do over the objections of one of the unions. I do not understand HPOU’s intransigence on this, and I see it as an economic issue as well as a moral one. Never mind the fact that every innocent person that gets convicted means one more guilty person is free to roam the streets.

– I don’t see anything in Parker’s plan that touches on the subject of immigration, in particular the matter of the 287(g) program, which has come up frequently in the campaign. Not that Parker’s position on this isn’t known, or inconsistent with the other candidates’ positions, I was just a little surprised to see it not get mentioned in this document.

– Finally, I want to stress again that I’m generally in agreement with Parker’s principles here. I obviously have some questions about how she hopes to implement some of her ideas, but that certainly doesn’t mean I think they’re unworthy ideas. I also don’t think there’s anything unusual in the approach of being heavy on goals and light on detailed steps for achieving them; given that several of these ideas would require the cooperation of other governmental bodies and/or non-City of Houston officials, one can’t really be specific about the actions you’ll want or need them to take at this point. These are just my thoughts about these ideas.

I’m working on Peter Brown’s traffic plan next. In the meantime, read Miya’s report from the Young Leaders Mayoral forum on Tuesday night.

Another Mayoral wants Hurtt out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(more…)

Parker wants to boot Hurtt

And the Mayoral campaign just got a little more interesting.

Mayoral candidate Annise Parker has plans get rid of Police Chief Harold Hurtt if she’s elected.

“I will replace the police chief. I think he’s ineffective,” Parker told the Houston Property Rights Association at a luncheon on Friday. “He doesn’t…” Parker was interrupted by someone in the crowd before she could elaborate. (Hair Balls wasn’t at the luncheon, but we listened to a recording of it.)

That’s all Parker said about Hurtt, but it seems she feels strongly about finding a new chief because her comment was almost unsolicited.

I suppose that’s not too surprising. It is fairly standard for a new Mayor to install his or her own people in the appointed positions like HPD Chief. Hurtt clearly sees the writing on the wall, as he’s publicly spoken about his future, including his job prospects. Still, it’s interesting to see a candidate step out on a limb like that, and it’s even more so when it includes an implied criticism of Mayor White, who’s kind of the 800-pound gorilla in this race. Isiah Carey has more.

Mattress Mack is watching you

Be sure to smile for the cameras if you visit the Westchase District.

A West Houston nonprofit group on Tuesday applied for city permission to install the first of a dozen security cameras it plans to purchase to reduce crime in the affluent neighborhood.

Images from the cameras will be fed to the Houston Police Department as part of an ongoing city initiative to assemble a network of hundreds of security cameras to monitor public streets, stadiums, freeways and the Port of Houston.

Calling it a prime example of a private-public partnership for public safety, HPD Assistant Chief Vickie King said the westside initiative is allowed by city ordinance.

“Communities who want to install cameras that capture movements on the public right of way may do so, so long as private property is shielded from view,” she said.

The proposed camera system was introduced Tuesday by Houston businessman Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale and his wife, Linda, who live in an apartment at the Westside Tennis and Fitness Center, which they own. McIngvale said he became a fan of camera-surveillance technology because it quickly ended auto thefts and burglaries after he installed them at his furniture business.

“Police are stretched on their budgets, so it’s something we wanted to do as merchants,” said McIngvale, a member of the nonprofit Operation Westside Success, which is raising money for the system. “We’ve got a big economic stake in this, and it’s up to us to make our neighborhoods better.”

Dennis Storemski, director of the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security, said the city has 25 surveillance cameras in the central business district and is using federal grants to tie into state highway-department cameras on Houston freeways, as well as cameras monitoring the Houston Ship Channel and port facilities.

Yes, I remember when the existing downtown cameras became more ubiquitous. At the time, the goal was given as crime reduction as well as better response to emergency calls. While the former is clearly a goal of the Westchase cameras, it’s interesting to note that wasn’t mentioned here as a function of the downtown cameras. Not sure if that reflects an official shift or just the vagaries of editing, but I thought it was worth pointing out. I also rememher that some folks got all freaked out by the downtown cameras, which were an initiative of HPD Chief Harold Hurtt, who is not mentioned in this story. I wonder if there will be a similar reaction to this.

James Murphy, general manager of the Westchase District, said cameras the improvement district installed on private property outside restaurants and shopping malls led to a dramatic reduction in crime.

“We have 11 cameras we’re using, and it’s fantastic,” Murphy said. “We’ve reduced parking-lot crime in those locations 70 percent on average, and in some areas more. We’re talking about auto theft, auto break-ins and robberies.”

Somewhat serendipitously, this story appeared a day after this one, about a study on the CCTV cameras in London.

The use of closed-circuit television in city and town centres and public housing estates does not have a significant effect on crime, according to Home Office-funded research to be distributed to all police forces in England and Wales this summer.

The review of 44 research studies on CCTV schemes by the Campbell Collaboration found that they do have a modest impact on crime overall but are at their most effective in cutting vehicle crime in car parks, especially when used alongside improved lighting and the introduction of security guards.

That seems to jibe with the Westchase experience. As long as they don’t see the cameras as a panacea, they ought to get some benefit from them. Thanks to Grits for the link.

Regional crime lab

This has been talked about for some time, and not unexpectedly it’s starting to move forward.

After years of scandal at crime labs across the state, local officials have proposed opening a regional lab based at the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Previous debacles include three Houston exonerations, which occurred because of flawed forensics, questions about conditions at state labs and concerns about mounting backlogs of cases never tested.

To restore public confidence in the Houston Police Department, Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos and Police Chief Harold Hurtt plan to halt DNA testing at HPD and use the regional lab, which could grow to serve the entire Houston-Galveston Area Council region.

Some small counties see no need for a new facility. They already use outside labs such as those operated by the Department of Public Safety.

“It is more wishful thinking than a reality to think that the 13-county region would want to be involved,” said Judge A.G. Jamison, of Colorado County, who chairs the Houston-Galveston Area Council. “There is zero interest in our county.”

However, larger players, such as HPD and DPS, support the proposal. DPS analyzes DNA at its Houston lab but cannot keep up with requests for testing. Last year, DPS’ local lab received more than 1,700 cases with DNA evidence. It completed work on just 1,040, and the total backlog of cases exceeds 1,200 cases.

“There is plenty of forensic DNA demand,” said Tela Mange, a DPS spokeswoman.

The idea of creating an independent regional crime lab has been discussed since the first signs of problems at the HPD crime lab, where the DNA division was shuttered in 2002 after auditors uncovered widespread problems with the quality of work.

Plans gained new momentum in recent months with the election of Lykos.

Three things:

1. Not to sound cranky, but this idea was a plank in C.O. Bradford’s platform for District Attorney as well. As with many other changes Lykos has been implementing since her election, Bradford was speaking about them before she was even a candidate. I’m glad to see this happening, but these plans would be going forward regardless.

2. While I agree with this concept, there are many questions that need to be settled. What jurisdiction would this lab have? Would it operate independently, or would it be aligned with the prosecution, as it the default now? What governance would it have? Maybe we’re too early in the process to have the answers to these questions, but those answers will determine whether this is indeed better than what we have now or not.

3. And of course, there’s the matter of funding. Will the creation and/or funding of this lab require legislative intervention? If so, it may already be too late for this session, though perhaps a budget appropriation is still doable. I realize nothing could really have been done until a new DA was in place, but that does make it hard to get something going in a timely fashion.

I’m not asking these questions because I’m skeptical of this idea. I like this idea, and I want to see it done right. I just want to know more about what they have on the drawing board.

Your eyes may deceive you

The Chron covers a report by the Justice Project about faulty eyewitness testimony and the many wrongful convictions to which it has led.

Most wrongful convictions in Texas stem from mistaken eyewitness identifications, errors that experts say could have been avoided — or even eliminated — with more sophisticated lineup techniques, according to a report released Wednesday.

Since 1994, DNA evidence has exonerated 39 men convicted in Texas of crimes ranging from kidnapping to murder, according to a report Wednesday by the Justice Project, a nonprofit focused on criminal justice reform.

Six of the cases occurred in Harris County. Each was investigated by the Houston Police Department. Each was built on flawed eyewitness evidence.

“Eyewitness identification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions in Texas and across the country,” said Edwin Colfax, Texas director of the Justice Project, which analyzed the factors that contributed to the wrongful convictions.

“But of law enforcement agencies across Texas, only a tiny fraction have any written policies for these critical investigative procedures and only a tiny fraction have implemented best practices,” he said.

[…]

The Justice Project report calls on law enforcement agencies to adopt several procedures, such as documenting the entire lineup process and having an uninvolved or “blind” officer conduct a lineup. It also recommends that witnesses see suspects’ photos one after another rather than at the same time in an array.

There are numerous bills that have been filed to address these points, many by State Sen. Rodney Ellis. The main opposition comes from police departments and District Attorneys, in some cases on grounds of disagreement as to what best practices are, and in some cases on grounds of pigheadedness.

Grits has a link to the full report. He also notes that the wrongful conviction figures are understated:

Ironically, by focusing solely on DNA exonerations, such analyses understate the real number of innocent Texans who’ve been exonerated – 35 were pardoned from the Tulia drug stings, 24 innocents were set up in the Dallas “fake drug” scandal, and another dozen or so were set up by a lying informant in Hearne, an event about which a major motion picture will be released next month.

Add those to the 39 DNA cases the Justice Project examines and the number of recent exonerations easily tops 100. (And it would not be difficult for some law student to spend some quality time on Westlaw to add to the list.)

If even some of the bills that address these issues get passed, it will be a huge step forward. For more on problems with eyewitness identification, Grits has you covered.

Not everybody isn’t hiring

The downturn in the economy has created an opportunity for the Houston Police Department to bolster its ranks.

A year ago, the Houston Police Department could barely muster enough recruits to fill a 70-seat academy class. Now with 1,000 applicants in the pipeline, HPD is benefiting from the nation’s [worsening] economy, and so are several other police agencies in the Houston region.

Since September, HPD has seen a steady uptick in applications, jumping from 280 to nearly 800 last month, according to police records. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office also has seen a noticeable increase in the number of recruits taking the initial hiring test. The department usually draws about 50 people, but the number has doubled in the past few months, sheriff’s officials said.

“I think a lot of people know that government jobs are a place where they can get pretty steady employment and the benefits are good,” said Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt.

The ample applicant pool is a major turnaround from a couple of years ago when many agencies struggled to find qualified recruits and had to compete with each other to attract potential officers. Last year, HPD began offering $12,000 bonuses to lure candidates to its academy.

Hurtt’s goal to boost the city’s police ranks by more than 1,000 officers by 2010 will likely be much easier to reach.

The story notes that other area law enforcement agencies, such as various Sheriff’s offices, are seeing a boost in applicants as well. I imagine it’s the same for other public service sectors, such as prison guards, teachers, and government. It’s also probably good for military recruiting.

Heights crime prevention townhall report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crime prevention townhall meeting

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