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Harris County Deputies Organization

One more step towards the bail lawsuit settlement

We’re almost there. I know it feels like we’ve been there for awhile and are just waiting for it all to become official, but there were still a few checkpoints to get through first, and this is one of them.

In a move that signals she will likely approve a landmark bail agreement, a federal judge in Houston issued a lengthy opinion Thursday meticulously addressing concerns raised by outside parties to the proposed consent decree that would govern bail practices in Harris County for the next seven years.

The 55-page document from Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal is not the norm in that preliminary approvals at this point in most class action suits usually take up half a page, at most two pages, according to lawyers familiar with typical dockets.

In the opinion, the judge addresses whether the deal was properly negotiated, whether it addressed the needs of all parties and whether the solution was adequate given the potential delays, costs and impact on public safety.

Specifically, she said the plan hit on the key factors required: it addressed the constitutional violations, protected poor defendants, safeguarded the public and reduced the chances that defendants would miss hearings.

While atypical, Rosenthal’s comprehensive memorandum and opinion are in keeping with how the judge runs her office, according to a former law clerk who served in the Houston federal courthouse.

“I’d say this is pretty standard for a judge who is thorough to a fault,” the former clerk said. “It definitely signals ultimate approval, but the point isn’t to telegraph.”

The clerk, who asked to remain anonymous, continued, “It’s simply to respond to the filings in a complete and timely way.”

[…]

Two county commissioners who opposed the resolution — Jack Cagle and Steve Radack — submitted their concerns to the judge along with District Attorney Kim Ogg, the Pasadena police chief and several organizations. The objectors included the Harris County Deputies’ Organization, the Houston Area Police Chiefs Association, the Texas School District Police Chiefs’Association, the Professional Bondsmen of Harris County, Equal Justice Now, Crime Stoppers of Houston, Inc. and the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council.

The parties directly involved in the case then submitted detailed responses to these amicus or “friend of the court” briefs.

Rosenthal said “the amicus briefs and objections do not identify an adequate basis to deny preliminary approval of the proposed settlement and consent decree.”

See here for the background. Ogg, who continues to talk about the imminent settlement in a way that makes one think she’s asking for trouble in her forthcoming primary election, made a statement about how it’s now all up to the judges to make this work. It’s always been all up to the judges, it’s just that in the past they did a lousy job of that. There’s a “final fairness hearing” set for October 21, and I’m guessing we’ll get the officially signed and sanctioned settlement agreement some time after that. I’m ready for this to be over and done.

Sheriff Gonzalez’s staff

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez combines diversity with experience in his braintrust.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

New Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez has tapped a diverse wave of law enforcement veterans to fill his top command staff, sharply increasing the number of minority leaders and naming the first female assistant chief ever in the sheriff’s office.

In his first week as sheriff, Gonzalez named three Latinos, three African-Americans and two Asians to leadership positions, and promoted Debra Schmidt to assistant chief. Another woman, who is African-American, is also among the new leadership.

Ten of those selected for the 15 top command posts are longtime members of the sheriff’s office, a sharp break with the actions of the two previous administrations. One major’s position is not yet filled.

“There are a lot of wonderful, highly skilled, quality individuals within the sheriff’s office,” Gonzalez said. “Part of being a leader is doing that – identifying bright people that can really help, that are smart and capable.”

Before Gonzalez took office Jan. 1, four of the top command staff retired and nine were asked to leave, according to Ryan Sullivan, a sheriff’s office spokesman. Two officers have been retained.

The appointments are the first indication of how Gonzalez will approach the county’s top law enforcement job. His decision to pick department insiders with knowledge about the operations drew immediate praise for boosting morale.

“By selecting a diverse staff internally he has shown he recognizes the experience and cultural knowledge of those deputies within his own office while also understanding the expectations of the diverse community the department serves,” said Lawrence Karson, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Houston-Downtown.

David Cuevas, president of the Harris County Deputies Organization, likewise praised the decision to promote from within.

“Morale has instantly skyrocketed,” Cuevas said. “The consensus around the department is we finally have upward mobility and institutional knowledge in place to move the sheriff’s office forward and into the future. … The rank-and-file see that if they are on a promotional list and take their time, their hard work and leadership is not going to be stifled because people outside are brought into command positions.”

[…]

Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, a Republican, said the moves should help Gonzalez get up to speed quickly on operations at the state’s largest sheriff’s office.

“He is certainly showing he has figured out a way to make up for the fact he hasn’t worked in the sheriff’s office,” he said. “It’s very intelligent of him to take advantage of the vast amount of experience within the department that he doesn’t have yet.”

I presume Steve Radack plays tennis, because that’s quite the backhand he’s got there. Back when Ron Hickman was installing an all white-guy command staff, he responded to criticism about it by saying “Diversity for diversity’s sake is not always effective”, and pointed to his team’s “vast education, experience and devotion to police work”. Turns out, you can have both diversity and experience. Who knew?

What’s that definition of insanity again?

How many times are we going to find ourselves in this same situation before we finally accept that we need to do something different?

go_to_jail

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office has cut funding for law enforcement operations to cover exploding overtime costs at the department’s understaffed jail, a move critics say could harm public safety while failing to address departmentwide staffing issues.

Since March, the department has transferred nearly $8 million to jail operations from other areas in the department largely to cover overtime pay for jailers, which has risen 500 percent in the last two years, county records show.

Sheriff Ron Hickman acknowledges the fiscal strain but said state laws have tied his hands.

“When we steal money from some place in the budget like patrol, we can’t buy cars anymore, or new tires, we have to put that money to pay for the inmates,” he said at a recent town hall meeting in Clear Lake. “I have to (care for inmates). I’m statutorily required. Getting to your house the same day a burglary happens is not a legal requirement. So guess who suffers when we don’t have the funds? Y’all do.”

Monthly overtime costs have risen from $261,472 in mid-March 2014 to nearly $1.4 million by mid-June this year, records show. Overtime costs in May 2015, when Hickman was appointed sheriff, were $328,357.

The budget transfers come as county commissioners have rejected requests from Hickman to bulk up staffing with 376 new positions and after he changed employment policies to prohibit the hiring of jailers younger than 21 in hopes of developing a more mature workforce.

In an interview with the Chronicle, Hickman blamed the spike in overtime to an increased jail population, state requirements on staffing, aging facilities and trouble retaining jailers who can earn better pay with fewer hours elsewhere.

[…]

The Harris County Deputies’ Organization has grown so concerned about staffing and retention issues that the organization has begun filing records requests seeking the department’s manpower plan.

“We’re at a critical shortage when we have a high population of prisoners and we’re forcing people to work overtime and people are fatigued,” [David Cuevas, president of the Harris County Deputies’ Organization,] said.

Emphasis mine. You know what could solve these problems without shifting money around or taking deputies off of patrol or any of those other things mentioned in the story? Having fewer people in jail. In Sheriff Hickman’s defense, there’s not much he can do policy-wise to affect the jail population. He does, however, have the capability, and frankly the obligation, to call on the District Attorney and the criminal court judges to use the power they have to alleviate this problem, which after all is almost entirely of their making. I’d have more sympathy for him if he did that. We know what the problem is, and we know what the solutions are. We just refuse to do them.

Questioning the new Sheriff’s staff

That didn’t take long.

Ron Hickman

Among Ron Hickman’s initial moves as sheriff was filling each of his first eight command posts with white males, a choice critics said shows a lack of vision in a jurisdiction as diverse as Harris County.

These employees range from a major in charge of criminal investigations to an assistant chief who oversees the jail.

Hickman called it insulting to question whether race or gender were considerations in his early staffing assignments.

“I’m still researching the top-level personnel. Given that I haven’t finished assembling it,” he said, “I think it would be unfair for me to say anything.”

However, Adrian Garcia, the county’s first Latino sheriff, called it “unconscionable” that all those on Hickman’s command staff to date are white and male. Garcia resigned to run for mayor of Houston.

Some rumblings of discontent also have begun among the rank and file.

“A lot of African-American deputies have approached me … asking me to say something about this. We are going back to the days of (Sheriff) Tommy Thomas,” said J.M. “Smokie” Phillips Jr., president of the Afro-American Sheriff’s Deputy League. “They are expressing concern that we are going backwards to the old days of racism, the good old boys’ system, discriminatory practices and disparity in treatment.”

Robert Goerlitz, president of the Harris County Deputies Organization, which endorsed Hickman’s appointment, said, “I think the choices are being made more based on ability than based on what race or gender (the individuals) are. It’s detrimental to an organization when you make your decisions based on race or gender.”

The president of the Mexican American Sheriffs Organization, Marty Rocha, declined to weigh in until Hickman completes his assignments.

“We’re going to have to give him the opportunity to set up his command,” Rocha said. “We’re going to wait until he finishes. … It’s not a done deal, and he’s still moving folks back and forth.”

Let’s stipulate up front that the new guy gets to put in his people. That’s expected and understood. Garcia’s people had to know this was coming, and Campos is correct that none of this happens if he had stayed put. And he still has some slots to fill, so this isn’t the end of the story. But come on, you can’t have an all-white-guy command staff at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in 2015. Anyone who claims that the best-qualified candidates in every case so far just happen to be white guys is not in touch with reality. I mean, we all know this, right? Give Sheriff Hickman the benefit of the doubt for now, but let’s keep an eye on this. In the meantime, I agree with Stace: It would be nice to have a Democratic candidate or two announce their intention to run. This is the marquee race now, let’s get it going.

The Sheriff versus the deputies

I continue to be surprised at how antagonistic this relationship has been.

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia on Friday released a long-promised “Bill of Rights” for deputies under investigation by the department, but three deputies’ unions criticized the sheriff for not providing the same protections he enjoyed as a Houston police officer.

They insist Garcia reneged on a campaign pledge to quickly protect the rights of employees during internal investigations, one that helped him secure union support during his successful bid to unseat former Sheriff Tommy Thomas in 2008.

“The way cops look at it is, ‘tell me yes or no, not in between. Don’t lie to me,’ ” said Alberto Rivera, president of the Mexican American Sheriff’s Organization. “The calls I’ve got, my guys are saying this is real watered down. For me, its easy: give us the same thing HPD has. That’s where he’s from.”

The Harris County Deputies Organization characterized the six-page document as “vague, contradictory, misleading.”

“It’s kind of amazing. We’re over a year now (in discussions) and this is the best he can come up with,“ said HCDO president Robert Goerlitz. “Most of what he put out is already in state law, or things that we already have.”

I’ve uploaded a copy of the document, which I received as well, here. I don’t know enough about the particulars to evaluate the claims that both sides are making. As I said, I’m just surprised that this is where we are after a year of Sheriff Garcia being in office.

The Sheriff and the deputies

I had mentioned before that there was some discontent from the Sheriff’s deputies bubbling up, mostly in the form of emails sent to Carl Whitmarsh’s listserv. Earlier today, the following was sent out:

SHERIFF GARCIA, KEEP YOUR PROMISES

A Labor Resolution

Whereas, Houston Police Officer Adrian Garcia enjoyed a Peace Officers Bill of Rights when he worked the streets as an officer; and

Whereas, Candidate Adrian Garcia promised the Harris County Deputies Organization, Local 154, IUPA, a Harris County AFL-CIO affiliate, that if elected he would support and sign a Peace Officers Bill of Rights within the first 90 days of taking office; and

Whereas, Candidate Adrian Garcia also promised the Harris County Deputies Organization that if elected the union would be a part of the transition process; and

Whereas, Candidate Adrian Garcia also promised the Harris County Deputies Organization that if elected he would review all cases pending before the Civil Service Commission to see if any could be resolved prior to a formal civil service hearing; and

Whereas, Candidate Adrian Garcia also promised the Harris County Deputies Organization that if elected he would stand with us in Austin to get favorable bills including a Collective Bargaining Bill and a permanent Peace Officers Bill of Rights; and

Whereas, Candidate Adrian Garcia also promised the Harris County Deputies Organization that if elected he would talk to members of the civil service commission to see if he could get quicker hearings for unresolved cases; and

Whereas, Candidate Adrian Garcia also promised the Harris County Deputies Organization that if elected he would work with us toward adopting a better transfer policy; and

Whereas, once elected SHERIFF ADRIAN GARCIA HAS NOT KEPT ANY OF THESE PROMISES; and

Whereas, once elected Sheriff Adrian Garcia also has proposed a transfer policy that is based on a 25% “oral review” provision that is totally unacceptable; and

Whereas, current state law (Texas Government Code § 614.021 – 614.023) requires internal investigators to give deputies copies of sworn complaints within a reasonable time after the complaint is filed, and Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s internal investigators have not abided by the law;

NOW BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED, that the Harris County AFL-CIO joins with the Harris County Deputies’ Organization to tell Sheriff Garcia that we expect him to keep his promise and to support and sign the un-amended, unadulterated Peace Officers Bill of Rights without further delay; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Harris County AFL-CIO joins with the Deputies’ Organization, tell Sheriff Garcia that we expect him to keep his promises to the union.

This resolution was adopted by the Harris County AFL-CIO on this the 26th day of August, 2009.

I forwarded the email to Alan Bernstein, who is Sheriff Garcia’s public affairs director, asking if Garcia had a response, and a little while later received the following:

Statement of Sheriff Adrian Garcia

August 27, 2009

For most of my 30-year career in public service, and long before holding elective office, I was a Houston police officer union member. The experience informs my understanding of employees’ needs and is the basis for many of the policy changes I am making in the Sheriff’s Office. And while I recognize the primary responsibility employee groups have to aggressively advocate on behalf of their members, as Sheriff I must balance those interests with my commitment to the people of Harris County to restore accountability to the HCSO and regain and protect the public trust.

So when I took office in January, I pledged to improve the operations, management, and transparency of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, and to lead an organization that is accountable both to the public we serve as well as to our employees. Putting into place organizational policies that are consistent, transparent and fair to all employees is vital to achieving that accountability. Thus, it has been a top priority for my administration. My new policies include:

A Fleet Accident Review Board, which includes an employee group representative, assures the fair treatment of deputies involved in fleet accidents and sets a standardized system of review and even-handed penalties, if any. I have removed the automatic probation and its ban on extra jobs because of fleet accidents.

An Administrative Disciplinary Committee, consisting of four majors, which reviews serious allegations against HCSO employees.

Resolution of Complaints – I have redirected existing HCSO resources toward the investigation and resolution of allegations of employee misconduct with a goal of resolving complaints within 180 days.

    An Appeals Process – Two members of my executive team – a major and a civilian – consider appeals of disciplinary actions. The inclusion of a civilian executive adds balance and perspective to the process.

I have also taken steps to create a Corrective Action Manual, which will clearly define appropriate, consistent disciplinary actions for policy violations by all employees, as well as a Peer Review Group, in which employee group representatives will review minor employee infractions. Over the last several months, I have met with supervisors – sworn and civilian – at all levels of this organization to have constructive dialogue, as well as to set my expectations for the treatment of front line employees.

Finally, nearly four months ago I submitted to employee group leaders an Employee Bill of Rights, which will apply to all HCSO employees, sworn and civilian. It clearly enumerates employee rights, as well as investigators’ powers, duties and authority when conducting internal investigations of alleged employee misconduct. It was drafted with considerable input from employee groups; they have accepted 98 percent of it. Our discussions, as fresh as this month, continue so we can reach agreement on the remainder.

I am grateful to the men and women of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office for their continued dedication and hard work, and I remain fully committed to treating all employees with fairness and consistency.

It doesn’t sound nearly as bad as what’s happening in the District Attorney’s office, but it certainly bears watching.

The exodus from the DA’s office

The Chron writes about disgruntlement in the DA’s office.

Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos promised to clean house when she was elected in November and promptly fired seven senior prosecutors. Now other experienced prosecutors, including a member of Lykos’ upper echelon, are leaving, citing a lack of communication and a toxic work environment.

With career prosecutors leaving without being asked, some are worried Lykos is driving away those she’d hoped to keep, leaving the office hurting for experience, institutional memory and mentors for newer prosecutors.

Lykos said there is no problem. Employees leave jobs for a number of reasons, and space at the top gives rising stars room to advance.

“Turnover is normal and it gives younger, eager prosecutors upward mobility,” Lykos said.

Murray Newman, who used to be an assistant DA and who has been one of the biggest critics of Pat Lykos and her office around, hails the story and piles on to it. I obviously have no insider knowledge here, but in fairness it must be noted that there’s always some turmoil when there’s a change at the top of an office like the District Attorney. There’s been a certain amount of disgruntlement at the Sheriff’s office as well, with Robert Goerlitz, the Secretary/Treasurer of the Harris County Deputies Organization being a leading critic – see these two documents, which Goerlitz forwarded to Carl Whitmarsh’s listserv awhile ago, for an example. Having said that, there’s not been anything like the exodus from the HCSO’s office that there has been from the DA’s office. Even to an outsider like me, it seems clear that something different is going on there.

Speaking in political terms, I’d say this is mostly inside baseball until such time as a former employee announces an electoral challenge to Lykos, or current and former ADAs publicly back an opponent to Lykos, much as the deputies’ organizations supported Adrian Garcia over Tommy Thomas last year. Until then, it’s interesting but not really predictive of anything. The next election is a long way off, after all.

On a related note, I’d like to thank Murray for pointing me to the Fake Pat Lykos Twitter feed, and for reminding me again just what a goober HCRP Chair Jared Woodfill is. I guess he hasn’t paid much attention in all those doing it in the Facebook with the Twittering classes the local GOP is teaching.