Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

HPD

Police raid Jared Woodfill’s office

Oh, my.

Authorities on Monday raided the law office of former Harris County Republican Party chairman Jared Woodfill.

Investigators with the Harris County District Attorney’s office wheeled carts of documents from Woodfill’s office at 3 Riverway at least an hour after they arrived.

[…]

Woodfill is the subject of two separate formal complaints — one to the State Bar of Texas and the other to the Houston Police Department. In both complaints, Woodfill is accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from clients’ trust accounts.

In the criminal complaint, filed in March 2017, Richard Rodriguez accused Woodfill’s firm of stealing more than $300,000 from a divorce trust account. Rodriguez said Monday he believed the search was related to his complaint.

Oh, my, my.

Documents show Woodfill was reprimanded by the state bar two months ago for failure to take reasonable action in another divorce case.

The state bar, which oversees lawyers, ordered him to take classes in billing, trust accounts or law practice management.

All of that on top of two other civil cases in which opponents recently demanded Woodfill pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid fees.

It’s too early to say what all this is about. We don’t even know for certain that Woodfill himself is the subject of any investigation. But, um, none of this looks great.

Speed kills

Good long read from the Chron about our dangerous roads and highways. There’s too much to cover here, so I just want to focus on the why we all speed so much.

Houston drivers likely speed, at least in part, because they believe no one with authority is paying attention.

A Chronicle analysis of municipal court data shows that Houston-area law enforcement’s largest agencies are deploying fewer officers for road enforcement and ticketing fewer drivers, even as fatalities increased in the past two years and the area grows in population.

Houston police officers ticketed 41 percent fewer drivers in 2017 than they did in 2012, even as the number of vehicle miles traveled in Houston grew 23 percent.

That reflects a national trend of less traffic enforcement, according to Hersman, the former chairwoman of the NTSB. Federal statistics show that the share of people coming into contact with police through a traffic stop dropped about 11 percentage points from 2002 to 2011.

“We certainly understand what law enforcement is being asked to do and what they deal with, but the reality is fatalities are going up on our roadways,” Hersman said. “What we are seeing nationwide is law enforcement is not doing traffic enforcement.”

Harris County sheriff’s deputies, for example, issued 28 percent fewer speeding tickets in 2017 than they did in 2015, even though the county gained 100,000 people during that period. Houston police officers issued 16 percent fewer speeding tickets in 2017 than in 2015. Texas Department of Public Safety Troopers operating within the greater Houston region are the exception; they issued 11 percent more tickets for speeding than they did in 2015.

I mostly travel on I-10 these days, and I do see (usually unmarked) patrol cars on the shoulders, and occasionally a pulled-over vehicle getting cited. But this is the exception, and there’s nothing quite like the joy of being tailgated when you’re already doing over 70 on a road with a speed limit of 60. I don’t have any solutions to offer here – we could reduce speeding and the mayhem that accompanies it with higher levels of patrol, but of course that’s going to require more patrol officers, and that’s not in the cards. I just miss working in a part of town where I didn’t have to take highways to get to the office.

How many police forces do we need?

It’s an age-old question.

Harris County could save millions of dollars a year by consolidating overlapping law enforcement agencies, from sharing technological resources to reallocating duties from constables to the sheriff’s department, according to a report by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University.

The report, which was released Thursday, revives several decades-old ideas to combine resources between law enforcement agencies in Harris County, despite likely opposition from the agencies and county government, which would have the ultimate authority in enacting many of the proposed changes.

[…]

Kinder studied the 60 law enforcement agencies that form a patchwork of separate but sometimes overlapping patrols within Harris County, including the sheriff’s office, the Houston Police Department, constables’ offices, school district police departments and smaller municipal police departments. Those agencies spend a combined $1.6 billion per year on law enforcement, according to the report.

“We do have a system that, for all intents and purposes, is working fairly well,” Kinder researcher Kyle Shelton said. “But there are clearly places where there are overlaps and places where we could see what efficiencies would work.”

Among ideas included in the report are a merger of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s police department with the Houston Police Department, and the consolidation of smaller municipal police departments into a larger network.

One of the report’s most aggressive ideas to consolidate would be to move patrol duties from the eight Harris County constables’ offices to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

Political opposition to that idea would be too difficult to overcome because agencies would have to cede governing power, [County Commissioner Steve] Radack said.

“People can study it and study it and study it, but I can assure you … the people that are really familiar with this are all going to say, no” said Radack, who was formerly the Precinct 5 constable.

You can see the report here. Two points I would add: One, this is not limited to Harris County. Two, the list above leaves out police departments associated with universities, community colleges, and medical schools. There’s a lot of law enforcement agencies out there.

I find it interesting that the main argument against any sort of consolidation is that there would be political opposition to it, as Commissioner Radack notes. I don’t doubt that he’s right, but it’s not a reason, it’s a justification. Some reforms would require legislative assistance – Constables are constitutional offices, after all – while others shouldn’t need anything more than various entities working together. I’m pretty sure that there’s a dollar figure that could be attached to each recommendation in that report. Maybe if we start talking about it, we can decide what if any of these ideas are really worth pursuing, even in the face of political opposition.

The city has its own bail lawsuit

It’s not going well.

Houston city officials intentionally destroyed evidence, wiping crucial data from the computer drives of top police commanders that is potentially relevant to a lawsuit about the detention of suspects beyond the 48-hour deadline for a magistrate hearing, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt’s rare ruling last week means that if the case goes to trial, jurors will receive an “adverse instruction” about the records destruction. The jury must infer as fact that authorities destroyed evidence, knowingly and routinely detained people more than 48 hours without a probable cause hearing, and acted with deliberate indifference to the fact that they were violating defendants’ constitutional rights, the judge ruled.

The judge did not accuse the city of destroying evidence specifically to help it gain an advantage in the lawsuit, but the action is a blow to any defense the city could mount.

[…]

The 2016 class-action lawsuit challenged the city’s treatment of thousands of people jailed for days after warrantless arrests between January 2014 and December 2016. The complaint accuses officials of false imprisonment and alleges that they violated defendants’ constitutional rights to equal protection and a determination of probable cause by a judge. The case was brought by Civil Rights Corps and the Texas Fair Defense Project — the groups that led the landmark suit challenging Harris County’s bail practices — and lawyers from the Houston firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP.

The suit was filed after the January 2016 arrests of Juan Hernandez, who was held 49 hours before seeing a magistrate on an assault charge, and James Dossett, who spent 59 hours in custody before facing a hearing officer via videolink on a charge of possession of a controlled substance. After a week in custody, Hernandez pleaded guilty. Authorities ultimately dropped the charges against Dossett when police failed to prove he had drugs.

The lawsuit also cites arrests in which defendants were held for more than 10 days before receiving a probable cause hearing. Overcrowding at the county jail creates a bottleneck at the city facility, the suit said.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers argued that the city had a “broad, longstanding, and consistent policy of refusing to release warrantless arrestees” even when more than 48 hours had passed since their arrests, and that the city failed to provide thousands of records relevant to this policy and practice.

See here for some background, and here for an earlier Chron story (embedded in this one and the basis of that post) on the subject. I’m appalled by what’s in this story, which I don’t think can be adequately explained by simple incompetence on the city’s part. There needs to be a serious investigation of who was responsible for what, and consequences to follow. This is unacceptable at every level. The city needs to throw itself on the mercy of the court and make an extremely generous settlement offer to the defendants.

Rape kit backlog lawsuit dismissed

Interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

Council discusses firefighter pay parity proposal

It will cost some money if it passes.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said Thursday that his firefighters deserve raises, but he would be hard-pressed to maintain his department budget without reducing his ranks if voters approve a measure granting firefighters “pay parity” with police.

“This is not a scare tactic,” Peña told a city council committee. “They’re simple numbers. In order to deliver the expected service this community wants we’re going to have to do restructuring. Even at that, I won’t be able to meet the entire gap.”

Peña’s comments were in response to questions during a city council committee meeting Thursday in regard to a proposed “pay parity” measure the Houston firefighters union wants to appear on the November ballot.

Others, including city officials, business leaders and police union members, told the committee that passage of the parity measure would force the city to cut services and lay off workers and could risk a credit downgrade for City Hall.

[…]

The firefighters union wants the referendum on the November ballot, but Turner said he will let the council choose the election date at its Aug. 8 meeting. The deadline for getting something on the November ballot is Aug. 20.

Turner this week said the committee hearing was intended to be informational.

“When you’re talking to your constituents and they ask you approximately how much this will cost, I’d like to think you’ll want to have an answer,” he told the council Wednesday.

See here for some background, and here for an earlier story about the Council meeting, which was not the very special meeting that failed to reach a quorum. The firefighters are correct that Council has a duty to out the measure on the ballot, and to do it any later than this November would justifiably be seen as another stall for time. Their complaints about Council discussing the price tag rings hollow to me, given 1) the lack of clarity of how a pay parity proposal would be implemented; 2) the experience of other cities that have done this; 3) the potential impact on pension costs; and 4) the city’s overall financial picture. You know how I feel about this, and let me note again the certainty that someone will file suit over the ballot language no matter how the vote goes. I agree with Campos that the fight over this issue will be contentious, with the police department and the Greater Houston Partnership siding with the city against the firefighters. It’s not great to contemplate, but it’s pretty much baked in at this point. We’ll see what Council does on August 8.

The revenue cap and the police

It’s something. Not what I want, but something.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner used his third State of the City speech to call — again — for the city to be able to collect more revenue than allowed by the property tax cap voters imposed 14 years ago, this time floating the idea of collecting extra dollars specifically for public safety.

Turner had taken a similar line during the 2015 campaign, then moved to advocating for a full repeal of the cap during much of his first two years in office. He backed away from placing such a request on last November’s ballot, however, fearing it would imperil the $1 billion bond referendum that was needed to secure the landmark pension reform package he shepherded through the Legislature last year.

The mayor on Tuesday instead highlighted the need to increase staffing in the Houston Police Department, and he suggested the idea of following former Mayor Bill White’s playbook from 2006, when White got voters’ permission to let the city collect $90 million more than the cap otherwise would have allowed for spending on public safety.

It took Houston eight years to exhaust that breathing room and run into the cap for the first time. Amid rising property values, the City Council has been forced to cut the property tax rate every fall since to avoid collecting more revenue than the cap allows. Council cut the tax rate to 58.42 cents per $100 of assessed value last September, the lowest rate since 1988.

The revenue cap limits the annual growth in city property tax revenue to 4.5 percent or the combined rates of inflation and population growth, whichever is lower.

Turner did not commit to White’s approach, to a dollar amount, or to placing an item before voters this November, saying he intends to force a conversation on the need to invest in more officers and in ancillary areas such as cybersecurity protections, adding “the current model is not sustainable.”

“I’m just simply sounding the alarm. We cannot continue to cut and cut and cut and add 500 to 600 more police to our force,” Turner said after his speech to a luncheon hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership. “I did not want to throw out a number because people then tag onto that number and we don’t have a robust conversation on the need and then how we should meet that need.”

Tweets from his official Twitter account, however, were more definitive about taking the matter to voters: “I will move to put an item on the ballot on (sic) this November to make sure Houston continues to be resilient and strong when it comes to protecting innocent people.” said one. Another said, “Our city sorely needs revenue to increase staffing & resources for first responders at Police & Fire Dpartments. But we’re constrained by the #revenuecap. That’s why it’s time to ask voters to lift the cap solely for strengthening public safety & city services.”

[…]

What makes Turner’s Tuesday comments different, said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones, is that he is focusing solely on public safety.

“There does not exist a strong public appetite for lifting the revenue cap unconditionally,” Jones said. “The only way to really sell it is via public safety. That’s probably the only winning method.”

Turner seemed to acknowledged as much Tuesday, saying in part, “It’s quite clear, it seems to me, people want to maintain the revenue cap. OK, fine. What I’m simply saying is, we need to find a way to generate some additional dollars on top of that revenue cap.”

It’s depressing to me that people have come to believe the BS about this stupid policy, which was imposed on Houston and basically noplace else by the usual gang of governmental nihilists, but propaganda does work. I’d love to see an all-out assault on the revenue cap, marshaling all the arguments about how it undercuts the city’s ability to prosper from economic growth and how it forces budget priorities on us whether we want them or not, but I recognize that this would be a tough fight against a wealthy and motivated opponent, which we could lose. It’s a fight we can engage another day, perhaps when the climate has changed enough. In the meantime, we all know that budgets can be flexible, and money is often fungible. Even earmarking extra revenue in this fashion makes the budget more manageable. If it’s the best we can do, then let’s do it.

The latest report on city finances

A little light reading for you.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Even after Mayor Sylvester Turner’s landmark pension reforms, the city of Houston is on pace to spend $1 billion more than it will take in over the coming decade, and must cut spending and raise revenue bring its annual budget into balance, according to an exhaustive new report.

Failing to do so, the authors state, risks letting the city inch toward insolvency with all the symptoms that accompany such a fiscal crisis: Worker layoffs, an erosion in police staffing, fewer library hours, decaying parks facilities, a hollowing out of the city as the suburbs boom.

The analysts from Philadelphia-based consulting firm PFM did not shy away from controversial recommendations, including some that would dramatically restructure city government.

Among dozens of other reforms, the authors suggest Houston should:

  • break up its mammoth Houston Public Works department and consolidate its finance, procurement, human resources, and information technology staff;
  • cut the $9.5 million annual subsidy to the Houston Zoo roughly in half;
  • shrink the Houston Fire Department by up to 845 positions through attrition and lengthen firefighters’ work weeks; reduce the number of fire stations; hire civilians to do fire inspections and take 911 calls; and raise ambulance fees;
  • hire civilians for the Houston Police Department to enable cops now doing administrative tasks to get back on patrol; free up officers’ time by arresting fewer low-level offenders and writing more tickets; use civilians to conduct crash investigations and issue non-moving traffic tickets; consolidate with Metro’s police staff, and, perhaps, local school districts’ too;
  • cut health benefits for active and retired city workers; and
  • submit trash pickup, building maintenance and street repairs to “managed competition,” giving all or part of each task to city departments or to private companies, whichever submits the most efficient proposal.
  • City Council hired PFM for $565,000 in 2016, Turner’s first year in office, to craft a 10-year financial plan. Turner made clear in comments last week, however, that he views some of the recommendations as impractical.

“When you talk about structural changes, just because it’s identified doesn’t mean it’s easily done. It’s not about taking a report and just implementing it,” he said. “There are some things that, from my vantage point, yes, we will accept. There are some things that are going to require additional study. There are some things that will be more long term. And then there are some things that we’ll never get there.”

The report is here; it’s quite long, but the executive summary is only 16 pages, so read that if you want a feel for it. At first glance, a lot of it sounds reasonable and even doable. I appreciate the fact that they recognize that revenue is part of the equation and that removing the stupid revenue cap would go a long way towards alleviating the problem. Some actions could be done by Mayoral fiat, some by Council action, and some will require negotiations with third parties and/or legislative approval. It’s always possible that a report like this becomes little more than a doorstop, but I think we’ll see at least some of it happen.

Looking to hire more cops for Houston

We’ll see about this.

The head of the Houston police union announced Wednesday that city leaders had pledged to grow the Houston Police Department ranks by 500 officers over the next five years, far fewer than the city’s police chief said he needs.

“It’s no secret the Houston Police Department has been doing more with less, for far too long,” HPOU President Joseph Gamaldi said Wednesday afternoon at a crowded news conference at union headquarters.

The influx of officers would still be a fraction of the 2,000 new officers Chief Art Acevedo has said he believes the department needs to deal with the city’s growth, but comes as Houston has struggled for years to meaningfully increase the staffing in the department.

Gamaldi’s initiative, which the union is calling the “Drive for 500,” came after union officials visited all of the city’s council members, as well as Mayor Sylvester Turner, and asked them to pledge their support to increase the department that has nearly 5,200 officers on the job.

[…]

Currently, the HPD operates on a yearly budget of $827 million, and it costs the department around $3 million to run each class of recruits through its in-house academy.

The call for more officers comes as the city management last year had to close a $130 million budget shortfall.

The staffing proposal follows a concerted campaign last year to reform the city’s pension system, which officials warned was underfunded and threatened the city’s long-term financial health.

Meanwhile, Chief Acevedo and Gamaldi have stepped up calls for an large infusion of new officers into the department, saying it is dangerously understaffed, particularly compared to other large cities around the country.

Though Houston has fewer police officers per resident than other large cities, I remain unconvinced that we need to go on a hiring spree. At the very least, I’d like to understand what the plan is for a larger force. HPD’s solve rate isn’t so hot, so if the idea is to staff up on investigators with the goal of closing out more cases, then I can be on board with that. If it’s more like hire now and figure it out later, I’ll take a pass.

As the story suggests, hiring more cops would likely be part of the argument to alter or lift the revenue cap. Not my preferred approach, but I admit I’m not representative on this. I am ready for this argument to be fully rolled out, in anticipation of a vote this year.

Endorsement watch: Don’t forget the city bonds

The Chron circles back to where they started this endorsement season.

The spotlight of public attention has focused on the billion dollar pension bond referendum, Proposition A, whose passage is absolutely critical to Houston’s financial future. But if you’re a Houston voter, you’ll also find on your ballot four bond issues that will pay for a long list of projects and equipment essential to our city government.

Proposition B would authorize the city to borrow $159 million for the police and fire departments. The Houston Police Department needs the money for everything from improvements to its training academy to pouring new pavement at HPD facilities. The Houston Fire Department would use its funds to pay for renovating and expanding some of its fire stations. And both departments need to tap the bond money to update their aging fleets of cars, trucks and ambulances.

Proposition C would authorize $104 million in bonds for park improvements, including upgrades to 26 of the 375 parks around the city, making sure they are usable, safe and fun. To take one example: Baseball and soccer are popular with both young and older athletes in many neighborhoods, but many city ball fields are equipped with old wooden light poles. The bond issue would allow the Houston Parks and Recreation Department to replace them with new metal poles, energy efficient lights and underground wiring. The upgrade would also include a remote control feature that would reduce personnel costs.

Proposition D would raise $109 million for a variety of public health and solid waste disposal expenses. Much of this money would go to renovating and rehabilitating old multi-service centers, which are used as everything from health clinics to election polling places. Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department, the people who pick up our garbage, would spend their share of this money on a “to do” list that includes a new disposal facility and a storm water mitigation project.

Proposition E would go a long way toward upgrading library services throughout the city with a $123 million bond issue, directly benefiting at least 24 of the city’s 42 libraries. Not everyone can afford a home computer, yet in this digital age access to a computer is crucial to success. That’s why it’s such a shame that so many of Houston’s neighborhood libraries are in disrepair. The bond proceeds will replace the roofs and repair the exteriors of ten libraries and will rebuild four neighborhood libraries.

Maybe you’re wondering why these propositions don’t include money for flood control after Hurricane Harvey. It’s a logical question with an equally logical answer. In order to appear on the ballot in November, the plans for these bond issues were presented to city council in early August, weeks before the storm hit.

Beyond that, flood control in the Houston area has mainly been the responsibility of the county and federal governments. When voters ask why more hasn’t been done to mitigate flooding, those are questions that need to be addressed mainly to the county judge and commissioners as well as our elected representatives in Washington.

The Chron had endorsed these bond issues in their first such editorial of the cycle, but that one was primarily about the pension bonds, and only mentioned the others in passing. You read what these are about, it’s hard to understand why anyone would oppose them, but a lot of people don’t know much about them, and of course some people will always oppose stuff like this. As you know, I believe the bonds will pass, but we’re all just guessing. We’ll know soon enough.

Endorsement watch: The bonds

Endorsement season has officially begun.

The key referendum, Proposition A, is a solution to Houston’s potentially disastrous pension problem. A complex deal ushered through the Texas Legislature by Mayor Sylvester Turner would reduce the $8.2 billion unfunded pension burden now carried by Houston taxpayers to $5.2 billion. Union leaders representing police officers and municipal employees have agreed to sacrifice benefits worth roughly $1.8 billion. But the whole arrangement depends upon voters approving a $1 billion bond issuance, 1 of 5 city bonds on the ballot.

The pension bond wouldn’t raise taxes, nor would it increase the public debt. Houston already owes this money to its retired employees; this deal will take care of a debt that’s already on the books. The bonds will be paid off over the course of three decades. By coincidence, this happens to be a good time for the city to borrow money. This is like refinancing your mortgage when interest rates are low.

On the other hand, Turner bluntly and accurately told the Chronicle’s editorial board, if the pension obligation bonds go down, “it’s worse than the financial impact of Harvey.” Before this deal was struck, our city government was staring at the grim prospect of laying off more than 2,000 employees, about 10 percent of its workforce, a cut that would almost certainly impact police and firefighters.

[…]

Meanwhile, four other bond proposals would pay for facilities and equipment at everything from police and fire stations to city parks and libraries. At a time when our police officers are driving around in cars that are more than a decade old, we voters need to pass these capital improvement bonds.

The campaign for the bonds is underway, and I do expect them to pass. But this is a weird year, and turnout is going to be well below what we’re used to – and we ain’t used to particularly robust turnout – so anything can happen. The big task in this election for all campaigns is just making sure people know they need to go vote. If you’re reading this site, you already know that much. I say vote for the bonds as well, for all the reasons the Chron gives.

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.

DA’s office ends trace case prosecutions

Good.

Kim Ogg

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg has stopped prosecuting thousands of so-called trace drug cases, which typically stem from glass pipes seized from users containing little more than residue of crack cocaine, officials said Thursday.

The recent change means it is not prosecuted at all, unless there are extenuating circumstances said Tom Berg, First Assistant District Attorney. Houston police officials have given the new policy their approval, but with an important caveat.

“We want to go after people who are a real danger to the community, violent against people, violent against property,” Berg said. “It’s a smarter practice that everybody agreed to go forward on without a great deal of controversy.”

Berg said several factors combined to push the policy change, including limited resources, a raft of exonerations in recent years because of erroneous field tests and the rise of lethal drugs. He singled out fentanyl, a chemical which is 100 times more powerful than heroin and is used to cheaply spike more expensive drugs.

“Fentanyl and carfentanil – horrible substances – potentially fatal substances on contact,” he said. “Inadvertent contact, in the context of trying to scrape up some crud out of carpet in a car, could have catastrophic effects on the officers. They could be inhaling it without knowing it.”

[…]

The change is being eyed with cautious optimism by police representatives who had previously argued against the change.

“We’re not opposed to it as long as the DA is going to hammer hard these (burglary of motor vehicle) suspects who are crackheads anyway,” said Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers Union. “These are the ‘trace case’ people, that’s who they are. They’re the people who are breaking into cars to steal change.”

The police union has argued that arresting people for drug possession because of residue on paraphernalia keeps them from burglarizing cars, homes and businesses.

In the past, much less than a gram of the illegal drug – often just scrapings – could be prosecuted as a felony adding 2,000 to 4,000 people a year to Houston’s crowded dockets.

Hunt said the district attorney’s office promised to vigorously prosecute car burglars in exchange for police support of the policy.

“If we start getting cases where we have BMV (burglary of a motor vehicle) suspects and it’s a crackhead with a pipe on them and that person gets one or two days in jail, then it’s a serious problem and they’re not living up to the deal,” Hunt said.

This was indeed a campaign promise of Ogg’s, and it had been the policy under Pat Lykos, before Devon Anderson put a stop to it. Getting buy in from the police union, however tentatively, is a big deal since they were a big part of the reason why it was so contentious under Lykos. Refocusing on property crimes is also a good move, as those offenses are seldom punished now and affect a lot of people in a tangible way. All in all, a big win. Let’s hope the follow-through is as successful. The Press has more.

Mayor seeks one-year tax hike for Harvey cleanup

This stuff isn’t going to pay for itself, you know.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner will ask City Council to approve an 8.9 percent hike in the city’s tax rate this fall to help Houston recover from Tropical Storm Harvey, in what would be the first tax rate hike from City Hall in more than two decades.

The average Houston homeowner would pay $118 more in property taxes next year under the proposal, which will begin a series of public hearings later this month and reach a formal vote in mid-October.

The tax rate would rise from 58.64 cents per $100 of appraised value – the lowest city tax rate since the late 1980s – to 63.87 cents. That was the rate from 2009 through 2013, when a 13-year-old voter-imposed limit on Houston’s property tax collections first began forcing City Council to cut the rate each year to avoid bringing in more revenue than was allowed.

Turner is able to propose an increase beyond the strictures of the revenue cap – allowing the city to collect an extra $113 million for one year – because Harvey placed Houston under a federal disaster declaration.

“If this is not an emergency, I don’t know what is. What we’re able to recoup from one year, the $113 million, will not even be enough to cover the expenses we will have incurred,” Turner said Monday. “What we don’t get from the feds we’ll have to come up with ourselves. I would be not doing my job if I did not advance it.”

Debris removal could cost more than $200 million and will require Houston to foot 10 percent of the bill without being reimbursed. The city also lost 334 vehicles to floodwaters and saw its municipal courts complex, city hall and its adjacent annex and two wastewater treatment plants knocked offline.

[…]

If adopted, the higher rate would take effect only for homeowners’ January 2018 tax bills. Come the following January, the emergency period would end and the city’s tax rate again would be dictated by the voter-imposed cap, which limits the annual growth of Houston’s property tax revenue to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston and key revenue cap proponent, said he wants to speak with the mayor to remind him that homeowners’ assessed values are rising, meaning a tax rate hike would amount to a double increase.

Bettencourt refrained from outright criticism of the proposal and praised much of the mayor’s response to the storm. He urged caution on the tax proposal, however.

“The rate is just one half of the equation. The other half is how much the value has gone up,” he said. “This is a delicate public policy issue because we’ve got Houstonians that are literally flooded out of their homes and many people have been affected so they’re not in a position to pay the bill easily, much less if it increases.”

The average Houstonian in a $225,000 home with a standard homestead exemption sends $1,321 to City Hall annually. Turner’s proposal would see that bill rise by $117.86 next year.

Let’s be clear about a couple of things. Thanks to the revenue cap charter amendment, this can only be a one-year increase. The rate will be what we had from 2008 to 2013, so it’s not like this is some unprecedented assessment. The city can’t run a deficit, and it can’t borrow money without getting authorization from the voters. The property tax rate is basically the only mechanism the city has to raise this kind of money. The city will get some federal funds, but it may not have control over their appropriation, and some of those funds as noted in the story are contingent on the city putting up money as well. Lord only knows what the state will pay for, and the county will do its own thing.

The point here is that the city has some big unexpected bills to pay. It has to pay for a lot of overtime for police officers and firefighters who were rescuing people during the floods and who are dealing with aftereffects like traffic control. It has to pay for a lot of overtime to Solid Waste employees who are working to pick up the enormous piles of trash around the city. Your taxes are going up by a couple hundred bucks to pay for this. If you have a problem with that, I don’t know what to tell you, other than I can’t abide that kind of thinking.

Some people will say that we should find costs to cut instead. I will remind you that the vast majority of the city’s expenses are for personnel, and in this particular case the extra unbudgeted expenses are largely for overtime pay. Unless you think all these people should have worked for free, this argument is nonsense. Every time a government entity faces a budget shortfall, I hear people justify cutting programs and services as “shared sacrifice”. In my experience, most of the people who say that aren’t themselves sacrificing much of anything. The difference between those cuts and this rate increase is that this time the bulk of the sacrifice is being felt by a different crowd. If you don’t like it, maybe keep that in mind for the next time.

To address Sen. Bettencourt’s concern, I’m fine with exempting the people who were flooded out from the rate increase. If you filed a FEMA claim, you get to be assessed at the current rate. As for the Council members quoted in the story who say they can’t go along with this, I say no trash gets collected in their neighborhoods until every last piece of Harvey debris has been carted off. There’s a little shared sacrifice for you. The Press has more.

Law enforcement against the bathroom bill

Add another group to an ever-expanding list.

Police chiefs from three of the five biggest cities in the state gathered at the Texas Capitol on Tuesday to spurn proponents’ claims that such legislation is needed to protect privacy, arguing that proposals being considered by the Legislature are discriminatory, won’t keep people safe and would divert law enforcement resources.

“It may be great political theater,” said Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, “but it is bad on public safety.”

The police chiefs were joined by public school officials, advocates for sexual assault survivors, representatives for the Harris County and El Paso sheriff’s offices, the Corpus Christi ISD chief of police and other members of the law enforcement community.

“If a bill like this were to be passed that would pull police officers’ time away from combating violent crime into enforcing a bathroom bill, it makes communities less safe,” said Austin Police Chief Brian Manley. “It is time not spent ensuring community safety.”

[…]

“I asked my department to go through the record. What we found is this: There were no known incidents of bathroom assaults performed by men posing as transgender women,” San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said Tuesday. “I am a believer that if you propose a bill to address a criminal justice concern, it is important to determine if there is an actual problem you are trying to solve.”

Corpus Christi ISD chief of police Kirby Warnke added: “School districts face multiple issues that the Legislature could help us with, but the bathroom bill is not one of them.”

As the story notes, this is the first time law enforcement has organized to speak out against the bill. I’m trying to think of any group that isn’t associated with professional conservatives who supports it, and I just can’t. In a sense, none of this matters, as the Senate went ahead and passed a bill that is basically identical to what they had passed in the regular session, by the same 21-10 vote as before (all Rs plus the insufferable Eddie Lucio), but that’s the wrong way to look at it. As I look at it, everyone who votes for this abomination is giving more and more people a good reason to vote against them next year, with a lot of those people being strongly motivated to see them get voted out. It’s also given a lot of people the chance to stand up and speak out for doing the right thing, which is always welcome. We’re going to lose battles along the way, but this is a fight we will win. The Press has more.

More on the firefighters’ pay parity proposal

Here’s that full Chron story I mentioned yesterday:

Houston firefighters delivered over 32,000 signatures to City Hall on Monday in support of asking voters in November to mandate parity in pay between firefighter and police officer ranks, a maneuver that could threaten the city’s plans to sell $1 billion in bonds as part of its pension reform plan.

While the two measures are unrelated, both are tied to firefighters’ displeasure with the Turner administration.

As such, a unified voting bloc of firefighters during what is expected to be a low-turnout election in November could spell trouble for Mayor Sylvester Turner’s signature pension reform plan, and potentially thrust the city back into the fiscal quagmire Turner spent his first year in office trying to escape.

“If one issue is a five-alarm fire, both together are a 10-alarm fire,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

[…]

The union originally sought a 21 percent pay raise over three years, according to Turner, but lowered that request to 17 percent. The city, meanwhile, offered 9.5 percent over three years, which Turner said would stretch the city’s financial capabilities.

Houston firefighters have been without a contract for three years. The “evergreen” terms that had governed their employment during that time lapsed last month, reverting to state law and local ordinance. City Council made the terms in that local ordinance less favorable in a unanimous vote on the same morning the union filed its lawsuit.

“This petition drive was necessary because Houston firefighters are at a breaking point,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association at a press conference Monday. “We now are asking the voters to help Houston firefighters because the city refuses to do so.”

The petition seeks to amend the city’s charter to mandate equal pay and benefits between firefighters and police-officers of similar status, but not necessarily title, accounting for varied rank structures between the two departments.

See here for the background. I have a basic question to ask here: Who is going to support the firefighters in this effort? Who will their allies be in this fight? Because I’m having a hard time seeing who is on their side right now.

As noted, Council voted unanimously to impose those less favorable “evergreen” terms under which they now grudgingly labor, and Council approved the pension reform plan on a 16-1 vote, with the only No coming from CM Knox, who wanted to see a bill get filed first. Who on Council is going to endorse the pay parity effort?

If the thinking is that the firefighters might try to tank the pension obligation bonds as payback or leverage as part of this, then please note that the House passed the pension reform bill 103-43, and the Senate passed it 25-5. Of the Harris County contingent, Sen. Sylvia Garcia was a “present, not voting”, while Reps. Jessican Farrar and Briscoe Cain (a pairing I’d never expected to see) were No votes. Everyone else voted Yes. I don’t see Sen. Garcia and Rep. Farrar crossing swords with Mayor Turner on this, and Rep. Cain represents Baytown. Who in the Lege will stand with the firefighters? Maybe Sen. Paul Bettencourt, because he’s a little weasel who likes to stick it to Houston, but he was the one who put the provision in to require a vote on the bonds.

Of the establishment groups that tend to get involved in city politics, the Greater Houston Partnership is all in on pension reform and spending restraint. I can’t see the Realtors opposing the Mayor on this, nor the GLBT Political Caucus, nor any Democratic-aligned groups. The one possible exception is labor, but this proposal would be bad for the police and the city workers. It’s not about a rising tide, it’s just shifting money to the firefighters from the rest of the city employees. Maybe labor backs this, maybe they don’t. The Chronicle will surely endorse a No vote. Who among the big endorsers will be with the firefighters?

I’m sure the firefighters will have some allies. My point is that as I see it, the Mayor already has a lot more. Which brings me to the next point, which is where will the firefighters get the money to run their pro-pay parity campaign? It helps to have allies, who can not only make donations themselves but also hold fundraisers, solicit contributions from their networks, and eventually participate in campaign activities. I think we all agree that Mayor Turner is a good fundraiser, and he can assemble a pretty good get out the vote campaign. While this is certainly likely to be a low turnout election, at least compared to a normal city election, turnout is in part determined by how many people are aware there is something or someone for them to vote on. Who do you think is going to have more resources and a bigger microphone for getting out a message about the need to vote? And bear in mind, even if the firefighters are good at raising money, that in itself can be used against them. I mean, here they are claiming poverty, holding up signs saying they can’t afford to live in the city, but they can spend a bunch of money on a campaign? Yes, I know, the one doesn’t really have anything to do with the other, but do you want to have to explain that to people?

What I think it comes down to is this: Sure, people like firefighters, and they think they should be adequately compensated. In the abstract, their proposal sounds reasonable, and there are probably a lot of people who would feel good about paying our firefighters more. But this isn’t an abstract choice, and there are lots of consequences to making it. The firefighters are asking for something for themselves, something that doesn’t benefit anyone else and which potentially has a large cost attached to it that everyone will pay. They’re doing all this while at the same time spitting on an offer from the city to give them a ten percent raise. Now how positively will people feel about their proposal? That’s what we’ll find out. Campos has more.

Firefighters petition for a raise

Whatever.

Houston firefighters are launching a campaign to place on item on the November ballot asking voters to mandate parity in pay between corresponding firefighter and police-officer ranks.

The petition drive to amend the city charter, slated to launch Saturday morning, follows the fire union’s decision last month to sue the city over stalled contract talks, alleging Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration failed to negotiate in good faith.

“I don’t know what else to do. We’re trying to find a fair and reasonable solution that affects 4,100 members and their families,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. “Let’s let the voters decide what’s fair and we’ll see.”

[…]

A 1975 City Council motion did set the goal of achieving parity in the base pay of equivalent ranks in the public safety departments, and the topic spurred regular fights throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Typically, firefighters and their supporters on council were in the position of working to ensure their salaries kept pace with police pay, though they were not always successful.

Parity was regularly mentioned into the mid-2000s, but the late 1998 contract negotiated by the newly recognized police union began to dismantle that system, recalled Mark Clark, executive director of the Houston Police Officers Union.

That police contract, Clark said, began adjusting HPD’s personnel structure so that the city could grant raises to, for example, 38 police captains without having to also boost the salaries of more than 120 fire personnel of corresponding rank.

“I know they’re desperate and they’re my friends, but this is a non-starter,” Clark said of the firefighters’ petition drive. “They’ve got an important job, but police and firefighters do not have the same job, and their rank structures are completely different. Just to come in and say, ‘We want what they’ve got’ – certainly I understand asking, but where in the world would the city of Houston come up with the kind of money that it would take?”

Apparently, something like $40 million per year, according to the story. This is an easy No vote for me, if it comes to one. We elect representatives to make these decisions, and it is generally my preference for that system to be allowed to do its thing. There’s a place for letting the voters decide on things, but this is not one of them. The cost, the difficulty in setting up a system to match job ranks, the fact that this is an obvious retaliatory move for the recent political setbacks the firefighters have experienced, those are also factors. I have no idea what happens from here, but if this does get on the ballot it will be interesting to see how a campaign plays out. The potential for it to get ugly is very high.

When will the lawsuits against the “sanctuary cities” bill begin to be filed?

Soon.

The question isn’t whether or not the Texas attorney general’s office will be hauled to court over a Texas Senate bill to ban “sanctuary” policies in Texas — but, more likely, when they’ll be asked to defend Senate bill 4 in a federal court.

“There are ways to challenge the bill before September to prevent its implementation and we’ll be looking to challenge this as soon as possible,” said Marisa Bono, a staff attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Bono was referring to the Sept 1 date the bill is slated to take effect. Senators approved the controversial measure late Thursday after it cleared the Texas House last week.

[…]

Bono, whose firm represented some of the plaintiffs who successfully sued the state over its 2011 voter ID law and that year’s redistricting maps, said that litigation could focus on several issues, including what power states have to craft their own immigration-enforcement laws. A separate issue is whether the requests from federal authorities, known as detainers, are mandatory or voluntary.

“There are a number of provisions throughout the bill, including the detainer provision and several other sections, that raise concerns about preemption and vagueness” in the bill, she said.

The bill was passed after a San Antonio-based three-judge panel ruled that lawmakers either violated the U.S. Constitution or the Voting Rights Act in 2011 by intentionally watering down the strength of minority voters in Texas. That was just weeks after a federal judge ruled that Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against Hispanic and black Texans after the Legislature passed a strict voter ID law in 2011.

Bono said although those rulings prove state Republicans have had minorities in their crosshairs for years, she was confident plaintiffs would prevail in a lawsuit against SB4 because of the bill itself.

“We consider the wind at our backs because of the way the bill is worded,” she said. “But certainly the state’s history of intentional discrimination — and specifically recent targeting against the immigrant community — will be helpful in the narrative.”

See here for the background. It would be more than a little ironic if Texas’ discriminatory history, which has been reiterated multiple times in the courts lately, comes back to bite the state in the lawsuits that get filed over SB4. For sure, the state deserves zero benefit of the doubt, especially given all the testimony against SB4.

The Chron adds some details.

“People need to understand there’s a symbiotic relationship police have with the communities they serve. … If there’s a law that’s passed and officers start asking people’s status, that’s going to send a chill through the community,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit. “While this bill doesn’t require them to ask, there will be people who will interpret this bill as a green light to do immigration work, which is not the work of state and local police, that’s a federal responsibility.”

Citing already heightened tensions in Houston’s Latino community over anti-immigrant rhetoric, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said Thursday he had already heard examples of residents who regretted reporting domestic violence crimes and then seeing their partners deported.

The new legislation could raise the stakes even further, he said.

“There’s this fear that any potential traffic stop, any call for service calling for police – they can be questioned, and why would they even call to begin with?” he said.

Troy Nehls, the Republican sheriff of Fort Bend County, warned the legislation goes too far by needlessly encroaching on local authority.

“I don’t support sanctuary cities, I’ve made that very clear,” Nehls said. “But some of language in this bill, I don’t agree with. … Adding the criminal penalty to sheriffs and others, it’s an overreach by state officials and state government.”

He said he would not fight the Legislature’s mandate but would use discretion as he went about his job.

“I’m not going to violate law, but if Sheriff Nehls makes a traffic stop, I’m not asking for your immigration status,” he said.

[…]

Peter Spiro, a law professor at Temple University in Philadelphia who specializes in immigration and constitutional law, said they can ask about immigration status but they cannot detain immigrants without charges while waiting for federal agents to pick them up.

“It was a little bit meaningless in the sense of what Arizona could do with it,” Spiro said. “(Police) can’t hold someone on a suspected immigration violation in and of itself.”

Terri Burke, the executive director of the ACLU of Texas, said the organization found “clear and potential constitutional problems” in more than 75 percent of traffic stops in Arizona, and have asked the Department of Homeland Security to investigate.

“The stops now occurring in Arizona can take from 15 minutes to three hours,” she said. “It is believed that is a constitutional violation.”

She said the high court also said that the state’s policy opens up the potential of racial profiling, but the issue so far hasn’t been addressed by the courts.

“This is an invitation for racial profiling,” Burke said. “You have people in an area who are brown-skinned and look foreign, they’re going to be asked for their papers.”

Law enforcement is strongly against this law, for lots of good reasons. I don’t know what effect that will have on the litigation, but we may as well keep it in mind.

And whatever is to come with this, it has begun.

Gov. Greg Abbott signed a ban on “sanctuary cities” into law on Sunday, putting the final touch on legislation that would also allow police to inquire about the immigration status of people they lawfully detain.

“Texas has now banned sanctuary cities in the Lone Star State,” Abbott said in a brief video address on Facebook. Abbott signed the bill without advance notice in a five-minute live broadcast on the social media site, avoiding protests a customary public signing might have drawn.

“We’re going to where most people are getting their news nowadays and talking directly to them instead of speaking through a filter,” said John Wittman, a spokesman for Abbott.

And also at a time and in a fashion that made it easy to exclude other politicians and hide from protesters. Greg Abbott’s gonna do Greg Abbott things. It’s our move now.

Get ready for the “sanctuary cities” lawsuits

It’s just a matter of time.

Now that Senate Bill 4 is on its way to becoming law, opponents are looking to the courts for relief – and a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case is giving them hope.
The high court struck down parts of a controversial 2010 immigration law in Arizona on the grounds that Congress, not the states, has the power to create immigration law. Experts say that argument could come into play with Texas’ SB 4, which requires local jails to comply with immigration detention requests that federal officials have said are voluntary.

“My opinion is the state is regulating in the immigration field,” said Barbara Hines, senior fellow at the immigration reform group the Emerson Collective. “What the state of Texas is doing is they are creating their own detainer program. That is pre-empted. Immigration is a federal area.”

Among other things, SB 4 would create civil and criminal penalties for officials who disregard requests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to extend the detention of jail inmates suspected of being in the country illegally. Those detention requests, or detainers, help facilitate possible deportation proceedings.

State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, predicted that the bill will follow the same course as Arizona’s SB 1070, better known as the “papers please” law because it required law enforcement officers in Arizona to demand the documentation of anyone they believed was in the country illegally.

Texas’ SB 4 doesn’t require officers to ask, but it prohibits sheriffs or police chiefs from keeping their officers from doing so.

“It allows local law enforcement to ask anybody on the street for their immigration status,” said Anchia, who chairs the Democrat-dominated Mexican American Legislative Caucus, which is fighting the state in court over redistricting maps it says are racially discriminatory.

[…]

Critics have argued the bill would separate families, deport well-meaning immigrants and create a fear in immigrant communities that might undermine their safety.

They picked up a legal argument this week after a group of mayors, including Austin Mayor Steve Adler, met with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions for clarity on the ramifications for so-called “sanctuary cities.”

Sessions confirmed Tuesday to the mayors that compliance with the federal immigration detention requests sent to local jails — the central requirement of SB 4 — isn’t mandated under federal law. Rather, the jails can choose whether to hold inmates longer at the request of ICE, Sessions said.

That the comments came from such a high-ranking Trump administration official deflated the notion often associated with SB 4: that local officials like Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez are breaking federal law by choosing to ignore some ICE detention requests.

It also raised questions over whether the state could step in and create an immigration law making the detainers mandatory.

“It is inevitable that you will see cities and counties across the state suing the state. The overreach is unprecedented,” Austin City Council Member Greg Casar said. “I don’t know who died and made Greg Abbott (into) Putin, but our cities are going to fight back.”

See here for the background, and here for more on what Mayor Adler said about his meeting with Sessions. I hope opponents of this lousy bill flood the zone with lawsuits. It’s clear from the HB2 experience that setbacks in court will not stop the Lege from trying the same things again in the future, but it’s still necessary. Also, I say Greg Abbott has always had authoritarian inclinations, he’s just more comfortable expressing them in public now.

There will also be many headaches for law enforcement agencies, which strongly opposed SB4.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo spoke vehemently against Senate Bill 4 Thursday afternoon, calling it a dangerous move by the state Legislature because it would redirect limited HPD resources from crime fighting efforts to an initiative that does not improve public safety.

Acevedo did not share if HPD would alter its policies if SB 4 were to become law. However, he made it clear during the afternoon presser he would make public safety a priority over policies he believe are unrelated.

“I am carrying out my sworn duty and moral duty to speak out on matters of public safety. And I’m not here to keep a job to do it,” he said.

[…]

The legislation would force police to honor all federal requests to detain people suspected of being in the country illegally until federal authorities can investigate the person’s status. It also would prohibit local jurisdictions from passing or enforcing an ordinance that prohibits police officers from inquiring about a detained person’s immigration status, which would nullify the Houston Police Department’s 1990 policy on the matter.

“If that language does not get removed … we’re going to have some negative consequences,” Acevedo said.

Police departments across the state, including Houston, are understaffed, he said. And the bill would diminish those already limited resources, he added. Just this year Acevedo announced plans to target high-crime areas and violent documented gang members.

He also announced a joint effort with the Texas Department of Public Safety to decrease violent crime in the area by creating two squad assigned to the initiative.

However, he believes SB4 may affect those plans.

“We don’t have the resources, nor do we have the bandwidth nor the desire to be ICE agents. If I wanted to work for ICE, I would’ve applied for ICE,” he said.

Acevedo’s worry is that a police officer’s duty and the proposed policy will create a divide among departments throughout the state. While police officers are sworn to protect, he says the bill could open the door for harassment.

“I will lose my ability and authority to direct (my officers) workflow,” he said. “ … And all of sudden I’ll have a police officer that wants to go off and play ICE agent all day.”

He went on to add he hopes that isn’t the case, but that perception would be damaging for Houston – particularly on immigrant communities.

It’s not about what local officials want, it’s about what Greg Abbott wants. Sorry, Chief. The Chron, ThinkProgress, and the Press have more.

Tom Brady’s jersey recovered

Our long national nightmare is finally over.

On Monday morning, the NFL and Houston’s police chief reported [Tom Brady’s Super Bowl] jersey was located and will be returned to the Patriots.

Investigators with the Houston Police Department’s Major Offenders Division traced the jersey to Mexico, Chief Art Acevedo tweeted Monday morning, adding that it was recovered with help from the FBI as well as Mexican authorities.

HPD says the Major Offenders Division is “responsible for the investigation of highly specialized and often unique types of criminal activity that fall outside the scope or expertise of other investigative divisions.”

The division has investigators who focus on specific crimes like fugitives, illegal dumping and animal cruelty. It also participated in the FBI’s interagency task forces, including one aimed at major thefts.

The 2017 jersey was found along with Brady’s jersey from the team’s 2015 Super Bowl victory “in the possession of a credentialed member of the international media,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement.

At a morning press conference at HPD headquarters, Acevedo said the suspect in the jersey theft “came to the wrong state. You don’t come to Texas when the eyes of the world are upon the state.”

Acevedo said the suspect had legitimate access to the event and was not a ticket holder.

Acevedo said the NFL’s private security was in control of the locker room from which the jersey went missing. He suggested they “check their protocols,” since the 2017 jersey was recovered along with a 2015 game jersey of Brady’s that was apparently also stolen.

He said while the Texas Rangers participated, it was Houston investigators who found an informant who pointed the investigation to Mexico.

Video footage helped investigators and likely will serve as evidence for criminal charges expected from the U.S. attorney’s office, the chief said.

Acevedo said the department devoted a “handful” of investigators from the Major Offenders Division to the case but told them not to “burn the midnight oil.”

“This was not the highest priority of the Houston Police Department,” Acevedo said several times, pointing to a fatal shooting here over the weekend as a more pressing issue.

However, he suggested this resolved the “only blemish” on Houston’s moment in the international spotlight as a Super Bowl host.

See here for the background. Clearly, HPD is so good they were even able to solve a crime no one had known about. Texas Monthly adds some more details.

Implicated in the heist is Mauricio Ortega, a former executive with Honduras newspaper Diario La Prensa, according to Ian Rappoport of the NFL Network. Ortega had press credentials that granted him access to the Patriots locker room, and—stunningly—the search for the jersey (conducted as a joint operation by the FBI, the Patriots’ security team, the Houston Police Department, and the NFL) turned up not just Brady’s Super Bowl 51 jersey, but also his Super Bowl 49 jersey, and a Denver Broncos helmet that may have belonged to a player in that team’s victorious appearance in Super Bowl 50.

Curiously, the existence of a stolen Super Bowl 49 jersey wasn’t much in the news despite claims that Brady brought it up in interviews following the theft (if he did, we haven’t seen them). It also raises questions about other jerseys worn by other players in the big game. It’s possible that Ortega, or whoever is ultimately found responsible for the theft, is just a massive Tom Brady fan who targets the quarterback exclusively. But it’s also possible that other players have lost their jerseys, helmets, or other memorabilia and simply not spoken up about it.

Who knew? Thanks to HPD for the good work, and please send the bill for any overtime used to NFL Security, which needs to step up its game. Deadspin, Pro Football Talk, Yahoo News, the Trib, and the Press have more.

Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences officially opens

Excellent news.

I still want one of these

The greater Houston region now has a sophisticated asset to investigate and solve crimes with the official opening of the new Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences (HCIFS).

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and other dignitaries, including Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, attended a ribbon cutting ceremony at the new facility on Thursday March 16th.

The Institute is located in the Texas Medical Center and it is an impressive state of the art nine story building.

Funded by a bond that was approved by the voters back in 2007, Harris County has invested 75 million dollars in it.

The facility serves both as a crime lab and as the medical examiner’s office.

Among other tasks, its staff will perform autopsies for cases investigated by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) and the Houston Police Department (HPD).

Doctor Dwayne Wolf, deputy chief medical examiner at the HCIFS, explains that “about 11,000 deaths are reported to our office every year, of which we bring in 5,000 bodies for examination, either for autopsy or external examination.”

Construction of this facility was approved to begin in June of 2014, with an expected timeline of three years, so this was on schedule. I expect great things.

Ogg launches her pot prosecution reform program

We’ve been waiting for this.

Kim Ogg

The Harris County district attorney’s plan to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana drew reactions swift and strong Thursday from both sides of the debate.

District Attorney Kim Ogg made the announced Thursday backed by a bevy of local officials, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

“The sky will not fall,” Acevedo said as he voiced his support. “There are already critics out there. We’ve been down this path before with my old department. Rather than see an uptick in crime, in the city of Austin we reduced violent crime between 2007 and 2014 by 40 percent.”

Bellaire Police Chief Byron Holloway, however, said the program seems similar to a program former District Attorney Devon Anderson put into place.

“At first blush, I’m not seeing a difference,” he said. “This is basically giving deferred adjudication up front.”

Yes, that’s my impression as well. This earlier story gives the details.

The policy, set to begin March 1, means that misdemeanor offenders with less than four ounces of marijuana will not be arrested, ticketed or required to appear in court if they agree to take a four-hour drug education class, officials said.

Ogg said the county has spent $25 million a year for the past 10 years locking up people for having less than 4 ounces of marijuana. She said those resources would be better spent arresting serious criminals such as burglars, robbers and rapists.

“We have spent in excess of $250 million, over a quarter-billion dollars, prosecuting a crime that has produced no tangible evidence of improved public safety,” she said. “We have disqualified, unnecessarily, thousands of people from greater job, housing and educational opportunities by giving them a criminal record for what is, in effect, a minor law violation.”

Officials have said it could divert an estimated 12,000 people a year out of the criminal justice system and would save officers hours of processing time now spent on low-level cases. More than 107,000 cases of misdemeanor marijuana cases have been handled in the past 10 years, officials said.

Since there is no arrest, there is no arrest record. Since there is no court date, there are no court documents connected to the encounter. The plan calls for officers to seize the marijuana and drop it off at a police station at the end of their shift, along with a record of the encounter in case the suspect does not take the class.

“You do not get charged with anything,” Assistant District Attorney David Mitcham, who heads the DA’s trial bureau, said Wednesday. “You have a pathway where you can avoid going to court.”

[…]

At the sheriff’s office, the new policy will save up to 12 hours of processing time per month for as many as 1,000 suspects, a move that will ease the workload on administrators and jailers who transfer and process inmates, officials said.

“We’re really encouraged by these swift actions by the district attorney,” said sheriff’s spokesman Ryan Sullivan. “And we are looking forward to working with Harris County’s criminal justice leadership identifying common-sense solutions to our broken criminal justice system.”

Sullivan said the move would likely not affect the jail population significantly, since most misdemeanor marijuana offenders move quickly in and out of jail. On Wednesday, just 12 people were jailed on misdemeanor marijuana offenses and unable to make bail, he said.

Elected district attorneys are given wide latitude in their discretion about how to enforce laws in their jurisdictions. Diversion programs, such as drug courts, have been widely used across Texas, and Austin has launched a “cite and release” program in which low-level drug offenders are given tickets and required to appear in court.

Under the new local program, police would identify a suspect to make sure they do not have warrants or other legal issues, then would offer them the option of taking the drug education class. If the suspect takes the class, the drugs are destroyed and the agreement is filed away.

A suspect would be able to take the class over and over again regardless of past criminal history, officials said.

The new program will keep police on the streets longer each day and reduce costs for lab testing of the drugs, Mitcham said.

If the suspect does not take the class, the contraband will be tested, and prosecutors will file charges and issue an arrest warrant. Offenders could then face up to one year in jail if convicted of the Class A misdemeanor.

The model to think about here is traffic tickets – speeding, running a stop sign, that sort of thing. You get a ticket instead of getting arrested (generally speaking, of course), and you have various options for disposing of the ticket without it appearing on your record. As with speeding tickets but unlike the program put in place by former DA Devon Anderson, you can get a do-over if you get cited again. Given all the strains on the jail lately, keeping some number of mostly harmless potheads out of jail, while keeping cops on the street instead of hauling said potheads downtown for booking, sure seems like a win to me.

As for Montgomery County DA Brett Ligon, whose press release is here, last I checked Montgomery County was not part of Harris County. State law allows for police departments to write citations for low-level drug busts instead of making arrests, and prosecutors have a lot of discretion in how they handle criminal charges. He’s as free to do his thing as Kim Ogg is to do hers, as long as the voters approve. Well, as long as the Lege approves as well, which given that Dan Patrick is having the vapors over this, could change. As we are seeing with many things, the Dan Patricks are out of step with the mainstream. It may take awhile, but that will catch up to them eventually. The Press and Grits for Breakfast have more.

Nancy Drew – I mean, Dan Patrick – and the case of the missing jersey

Seriously?

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick asked the Texas Rangers and Houston Police Department to team up in finding New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s football jersey, which was stolen Sunday night after the Super Bowl, according to an emailed news release.

“In Texas we place a very high value on hospitality and football,” Patrick wrote. “Tom Brady’s jersey has great historical value and is already being called ‘the most valuable NFL collectable ever.’ It will likely go into the Hall of Fame one day. It is important that history does not record that it was stolen in Texas.”

According to the news release, Brady’s jersey was stolen from the Patriots’ locker room at NRG Stadium in Houston. The Patriots beat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI, 34-28.

“I’m a Texans and Cowboys fan first, but the unquestionable success of the Super Bowl in Houston last night was a big win for our entire state, and I don’t want anything to mar that victory,” Patrick said. “Whoever took this jersey should turn it in. The Texas Rangers are on the trail.”

A spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, of which the Rangers are a division, confirmed Monday afternoon that DPS has offered assistance to the Houston Police department but did not specify what that assistance entails. The Houston Police Department directed all inquiries to NFL security.

Putting aside the weaselness of claiming to be both a Texans fan and a Cowboys fan (*), don’t the Rangers have anything better to do? Even by the standards of self-aggrandizing political stunts, this is pretty egregious. Give it a rest, dude. Texas Monthly has more.

(*) I recognize that this is a thing politicians do – believe me, I’m from New York City, where Yankees/Mets and Giants/Jets and to a lesser extent Rangers/Islanders is a big deal. (**) I get it, I really do. I’ve just always believed as a sports fan that most of use have way more respect for people who stay true to their teams than we do to the panderers. Everyone knew President Obama was a White Sox fan. Even Rudy Giuliana never pretended to have an affinity for the Mets. You’d think Dan Patrick of all people would have no trouble choosing a side.

(**) The Nets were still in New Jersey when I was growing up, so Knicks/Nets wasn’t a thing. The Nets are in Brooklyn now, but it’s still not a thing.

Super Bowl security

There will be a lot. You may or may not get to hear about it.

When an expected 1  million people descend on Houston for 10 days of Super Bowl concerts, contests and championship football, they will be protected – and watched – by a security operation built on secrecy, technology and the combined efforts of dozens of agencies.

Unlike in recent Super Bowls, however, the public here won’t likely see lines of officers with fatigues, military-style rifles and armored vehicles.

The message for visitors? Relax and enjoy the fun.

“We don’t think we need to display a heavy militaristic presence to provide a safe environment,” said Executive Assistant Houston Police Chief George Buenik, who heads the event’s public safety committee. “We are keeping it a lower visible presence, meaning we are not going to be displaying all of our resources and assets, just like we are not getting into numbers or specifics. A lot of our security plan is what we consider confidential.”

[…]

The hype, media attention, massive crowds and more than 100 million expected television viewers make for an over-the-top party but also offer a unique challenge for law enforcement.

Keeping such events safe has grown even more complex in recent years, with the proliferation of terrorist attacks and new technology and social media that can connect or inspire like-minded persons.

The Houston events will be spread out across the city, from the football game at NRG Stadium to live concerts, fan festivals and other events at Discovery Green and the George R. Brown Convention Center 13 miles away.

Lakewood Church – which sits between the two sites in a former indoor sports arena near Greenway Plaza – will host an NFL Gospel Celebration.

Law enforcement agencies have been preparing for the events since not long after Houston was selected in May 2013 to host the big game.

Delegations have been sent to the last three Super Bowls to learn and figure out what might be done differently in the Bayou City. Houston has experience with big crowds, having previously hosted the Super Bowl in 1974 and 2004 and other big events.

The city is expected to spend about $5.5 million, mostly for security, but that is expected to be reimbursed by the game’s host committee.

The federal government also is covering some security costs, with the FBI; Homeland Security; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other agencies participating, though those details are – not surprisingly – not available.

Local preparations have included combing through NRG Stadium and other Super Bowl-related venues and installing additional surveillance cameras in key areas, but authorities decline to reveal exactly what they are doing.

NRG Stadium will be surrounded by a special zone, where police will control foot traffic and commercial vendors. And the nearby Astrodome – which originally had been considered for special events – will remain shuttered.

Flight restrictions will be in place for certain aircraft, and a “No Drone Zone” is expected to be declared, as it has for previous Super Bowls.

And local law enforcement officers are racking their brains to think of new threats they might have missed. Representatives of various local, state and federal entities gathered in recent days in a conference room at NRG Stadium to think up new scenarios and how they would respond.

I don’t remember what the number of visitors for Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004 was. I do remember that the number far exceeded the total number of seats available in Reliant Stadium, enough to make me wonder what these people were traveling for, if they couldn’t see the actual game. What I’m getting at is that I don’t know if that “one million people descending on Houston” estimate is realistic or not, but based on past history it is a lot higher than you might think. Regardless, I’m sure we’re all relieved to know that the city will be reimbursed for its police and other Super Bowl security-related expenditures. My general advice to avoid the area at all costs unless you really have to or really want to remains in effect.

Year Two for Mayor Turner

Year One was busy, but a lot of what was done this year depends on what happens next year.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Tasked last year with distinguishing himself from a crowded field of mayoral candidates, Sylvester Turner styled himself as a progressive with expansive policy goals.

He pledged to boost wages, improve educational opportunities and implement a new road repair job training program, stressing that Houston’s future depends on pairing such initiatives with core services improvements.

“I am bullish on Houston,” Turner would repeat, radiating optimism in the face of a tight budget and looming pension crisis.

A year into office, however, the mayor has set aside much of that to-do list in favor of an ambitious but moderate “back to basics” approach.

Pension reform – a topic he shied away from on the campaign circuit – now is the linchpin in Turner’s two-year plan, and he is loath to discuss much else.

That focus has paid off in the form of a reform package that he says will eliminate the underfunding of Houston’s three retirement systems in 30 years and limit the city’s exposure to market downturns.

Crucially, the plan has received buy-in from the fire, police and municipal pension boards, as well as praise from experts.

“When you look at where we were on Jan. 1, 2016, on pensions and look at where we are today,” Turner said recently, “there is no question that we have come a long, long way from where we started.”

The deal now must earn approval from the Texas Legislature, which controls Houston’s pension systems.

[…]

If Turner is successful, however, he intends to spend his political capital – earned, principally, from pension reform and closing this year’s $160 million budget gap – on campaigning to lift Houston’s limit on property tax collections.

The voter-approved revenue cap was instituted in 2004 and limits the increase in the city’s annual property tax collections to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

Turner is not shy about pitching projects he would take on, absent the revenue cap, such as expanding the Houston Police Department by 540 officers by 2020. This plan may take on even more urgency, as HPD has seen a sharp spike in the number of officers filing papers indicating they plan to retire in the first half of 2017.

“We need more police officers. We need more equipment. We need more EMS units. We need more training,” Turner said in September, after a southwest Houston shooting wounded nine. “You can’t keep lowering the property tax rate because of this revenue cap and expect the city to be fully equipped with all of the assets that are needed.”

I’m pretty sure there’s more than one person on Team Turner who is grinding their teeth at the “back to basics” usage, since that was very much not Turner’s campaign slogan. Be that as it may, the general formulation is correct. Turner spent a lot of time this year working on a pension deal, and what he does next is tied to his success at getting the necessary legislation passed to implement that deal. And if he is successful, then the rest of 2017 will largely be focused on amending the revenue cap. If he can get both of those things done, then the sky is the limit and anything he wants to do is on the table. If not, it isn’t fatal, but it does leave him stuck. How much time can he spend on other things if he still needs to work on getting these things done? I’m sure he’d rather not have to find out.

How likely is Turner to get the pension legislation through? I have no idea, but if there’s anyone in a position to do it, it’s Turner. This is one of those times when experience really matters. No guarantees, because the Lege doesn’t work that way, but if anyone knows how to navigate these waters, it’s Turner. I should note that the pension bills aren’t the only thing on the city’s legislative wish list for 2017. Most of the specific items are pretty narrow and wonky, but the overriding principles laid out in the first few pages will keep the lobbying team busy, primarily I fear on defense. But if you want to know what the city does and doesn’t want from Austin next year, there’s your reference guide.

One more thing:

[Bill] King, last year’s mayoral runner-up, said he is considering challenging Turner, depending on his health and how pension reform plays out.

“If he ends up not solving the pension problem – which he promised he would do – then I think somebody needs to step in and save the city from going bankrupt,” King said.

King, who would like to see Houston switch from defined benefit to defined contribution plans similar to 401(k)s, has gotten under the skin of Turner and his staff by sending regular email blasts criticizing the city, including on inauguration day, and holding occasional press conferences.

“The campaign is over, and the total focus should be on meeting the needs of all Houstonians in their moment of crisis,” the mayor tweeted in April, after King criticized the city’s flood response.

I get those emails, too. You can probably guess what my level of interest in them is. King is certainly able to be the next Ben Hall if he wants to – he’s got the money for it, and apparently the lack of anything better to do. The question is, what has Turner done so far to lose anyone’s support? Based on how things have gone so far, I’d say not much. But hey, keep hope alive.

HPD retirements

This is a concern, but I don’t think it’s a big one.

A dozen of the Houston Police Department’s top commanders were among 123 officers who filed paperwork this week indicating they plan to retire in the first half of next year, senior City Hall and HPD sources said, a sign that a rumored exodus driven by unease about possible pension reforms may be underway.

As of last month, the department’s retirements for 2016 were on pace with the attrition rates seen in recent years. However, the number of officers now expected to leave by July 1 – the earliest a new pension structure would take effect, if Mayor Sylvester Turner can get the proposal passed at the Legislature – far outstrips the typical volume of about 50, HPD spokesman John Cannon said.

Officers can retire at any time, but Wednesday was the deadline for those who wish to enter a program called “phasedown” in which employees effectively retire but retain some benefits of employment while using up accumulated vacation days and other paid time off.

The uptick in retirement filings comes as city officials and law enforcement experts acknowledge the police department already is understaffed. HPD has fewer officers on the street today than it had to police a much smaller city 15 years ago, and a recent operational study recommended ramping up hiring to improve the rates at which crimes are solved.

City leaders long have been concerned that huge numbers of first responders are eligible to retire, as many were encouraged to stay on the job by the pension benefit increases Turner now is working to roll back. About 37 percent of police officers and 25 percent of firefighters are eligible to begin drawing a pension.

The mayor cast the number of retirement filings as a positive, saying it was lower than some had predicted.

“Considering there are 1,900 officers eligible to retire, I view this as a positive response to the pension reform,” Turner said. “These numbers are in line with what we normally see. They are definitely far lower than the hundreds of retirements some had speculated we would have. Instead, we have hundreds who are staying. I want to thank them for their commitment and vote of confidence in the pension reforms.”

[…]

Many senior HPD chiefs face a fairly obvious decision to retire because of a provision that essentially drops the salaries on which their pension payments would be calculated to that of captain. The effect is similar for some lower-ranking officers, as well.

“Folks have to make decisions based on their personal financial consequences if they were to stay, and I understand that,” Acevedo said. “I’m confident that regardless of the numbers, our men and women are up to the challenge and are committed to doing whatever it takes to keep Houston safe, which is as simple as starting an overtime program where all hands will be on deck, working patrol or whatever other function needs to be worked.”

Acevedo also was unphased by the prospect of losing as many as 13 of HPD’s top 17 commanders, the number sources said filed retirement papers Wednesday, in part because he intends to flatten the command structure.

“You hate to see a lot of good people leave, but the sky’s not going to fall,” he said. “With the retirement of good people, it creates opportunities for other good people who are full of energy, ready to lead and probably will bring a new, fresh creativity to their position. We’ll get through it.”

I agree completely with Chief Acevedo. HPD and the city will be fine. The hiring of the new chief, who is planning to make changes in the command structure, would likely have spurred a few departures even in the absence of the pension change. There will likely be some bumps in the road, but this is just the circle of life. We will indeed get through it.

Chief Acevedo’s priorities

They sound good to me.

When Houston police officers shot and killed an armed man standing in a street intersection this summer, officers’ body cameras taped the incident – but the recordings didn’t start until after the man had been shot.

The video released to the public didn’t convince skeptics that police were telling the truth about the man allegedly pointing his gun at the officers. And critics questioned whether the department’s homicide division could investigate the officer-related shooting death objectively.

After just two weeks on the job, Art Acevedo, Houston’s new police chief, is calling for two major changes in department policy to improve transparency. He wants body cameras to start recording automatically when police officers exit their vehicles, and he plans to create a specialized unit this spring that will investigate officer-related shootings and alleged wrongdoing by police.

“To me the relationship between a police department and a community starts with legitimacy,” Acevedo told the Houston Chronicle this week. “Cameras and the way we investigate officer-involved shootings … is absolutely the most important aspect of what we do to build that legitimacy and to build that trust. That’s why I’m starting there.”

[…]

Automatically activated body cameras could help prevent situations like the Braziel case in which critical moments are not captured on video. Acevedo said they also would simplify things for police.

“When an officer turns a corner and they see a person being shot or assaulted or stabbed, the last thing they should be worrying about is hitting a button,” he said.

Along with the camera policy, Acevedo said he plans to change how the department handles officer-involved shootings and other criminal investigations of police.

“Hopefully by the end of the first quarter, we’ll be establishing a special investigations unit that will be handling officer-involved shootings and officer-involved criminal allegations,” Acevedo said.

At a meeting Thursday, the chief said he hopes the new unit will launch in April as part of a larger reorganization.

Currently, officer-involved shootings are investigated by three entities: HPD’s homicide and internal affairs units, and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

The new unit, whose members Acevedo says he will “hand-select,” would investigate officer-involved shootings, taking the place of homicide detectives.

“It’s a matter of prioritizing their limited bandwidth,” Acevedo said, noting that each year homicide investigators get about 45 officer-involved shootings added to their load of 300 or so murder cases.

The body camera proposal makes a lot of sense. There are cost questions, both for the hardware and for the increased storage, but those are surely surmountable. As for the special investigations unit for police-involved shootings, the main concern here is sufficient transparency to ensure public trust. Either people will believe this unit will do a fair and impartial job, or they will believe that it will tip the scales in favor of the officers. The rest is mostly details. So far there’s no real opposition to any of this, but we’ll see what happens as these ideas move forward. The Press has more.

Acevedo and Pena confirmed by Council

They’re officially official now.

HoustonSeal

City Council unanimously confirmed Art Acevedo and Samuel Peña as Houston’s new police and fire chiefs Wednesday, clearing the way for the mayoral appointees to take office.

Acevedo, Austin’s former police chief, is poised to take the helm of the city’s police department Thursday, while El Paso Fire Chief Samuel Peña is set to assume local duties in mid-December.

Acevedo said he intends to adopt a model he calls “relational policing.”

“Every person that we contact as members of the Houston Police Department – whether it’s a 911 operator, crime scene tech, police officer on the front line, the detectives – is an opportunity to create a relationship,” Acevedo said. “It’s about the way you treat people. I think you start with transparency. You respect people. … You engage the community. Because the police is not us or them. We are the community.”

[…]

Peña, 47, said he looks forward to working with the Houston Fire Department to “make this community the great community that it should be.”

“It’s not lost on me the trust and responsibility that you guys have placed on me,” Peña told Turner and the council. “I pledge my whole loyalty to the Houston Fire Department and the city of Houston. And what I ask from the Houston firefighters is that they pledge their loyalty to this community, as well.”

See here for the background. Both have some challenges ahead of them, and I look forward to seeing how they tackle them. Welcome aboard, gentlemen. KUHF and the Press have more.

Mayor Turner picks Austin PD Chief for HPD

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: Here’s the updated Chron story:

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

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

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

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

[..]

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

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

Acevedo asked the agency to have his back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We now have data about police shootings of civilians

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

Rep. Eric Johnson

Rep. Eric Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Unholstered”

Some really good work by the Trib here.

The Texas Tribune spent almost a year attempting to collect information on police shootings from departments in the state’s 36 largest cities, which have a population of 100,000 or more, and was able to confirm 656 fatal and nonfatal shooting incidents involving 738 individuals that occurred between 2010 and 2015. Those 36 cities make up almost half of the state’s population.

It remains impossible to determine exactly how many more times police officers in Texas pulled the trigger, and the data vacuum isn’t just about total shooting incidents. At a time when much public attention — and political debate — is focused on police shootings of minorities, it is also virtually impossible to know how many shootings in Texas involve Hispanics, the state’s largest minority group, because some departments don’t distinguish between race and ethnicity in their records.

Frustration over the lack of readily available, standardized and reliable data on police shootings is widespread among lawmakers, criminologists and the general public, particularly after several deadly shootings — like those in Ferguson, Missouri, Minnesota and Baton Rouge — that have garnered national attention.

With such an information void in Texas, it’s difficult to find a starting point in assessing police interactions with communities — and any possible reforms or solutions, said Durrel Douglas, co-founder of the Houston Justice Coalition. “If we can’t get there, it’s absolutely frustrating,” Douglas said. “We have absolutely nothing to even start with.”

The FBI tries to collect nationwide data, but its statistics are incomplete and riddled with mistakes. Texas lawmakers passed legislation in 2015 requiring statewide reporting, but those efforts won’t capture all police shootings in the state.

Access to comprehensive information rests almost completely in the hands of local police departments. Departments in big cities, such as Houston and Dallas, post information on every police shooting on their websites. But a list from most departments can only be obtained through an open records request — and often after a fight over what information should be made public.

[…]

National record-keeping efforts are also inconsistent. The FBI’s database of police shootings — based on voluntary reporting by departments, which fluctuates from year to year — only includes fatal shootings, and even those are often undercounted.

From 2010 to 2014, the latest year for which FBI data is available, the Tribune confirmed at least 198 fatal shootings by the 36 departments examined. But it appears at least 89 fatal shootings were either not reported to the agency or reported incorrectly.

Additionally, the FBI’s incomplete database only counts fatal shootings, which the Tribune’s analysis shows made up just 36 percent of all shootings in Texas during that time.

Calling the current system a “travesty,” the FBI has said it plans to revamp its system for tracking police shootings in 2017, including expanding reporting to note other injuries caused by police. That would still miss instances in which police shoot but miss. From 2010 to 2015, 142 of those incidents made up more than one-fifth of all shootings in Texas’ biggest cities.

Read the whole thing, and be sure to click on the other stories in the series as well. We can’t understand the situation, let alone make sensible reforms as needed, if we don’t have the basic facts of it. Shootings are also only one piece of the puzzle, as people die in police custody for other reasons as well. That information is supposed to be collected but often isn’t, and the information we do have is not readily available. Grits for Breakfast contributing writer Amanda Woog, who is a postdoctoral fellow at the UT-Austin Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, has been working on this, with the data she has gathered at the Texas Justice Initiative website; here’s a podcast conversation with her about it. We need to know what is actually happening, we need all relevant entities to report their data in a timely and cooperative fashion, and we need to ensure there are consequences for not complying. Then we can move forward.

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

No.

HoustonSeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pension reform update

Things are happening.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Longtime firefighters pension fund chairman Todd Clark has retired from the department and resigned his post, a move City Hall observers interpret as perhaps the clearest sign yet that Mayor Sylvester Turner’s push for pension reform may succeed.

The municipal pension also is in upheaval, having bought out former director Rhonda Smith’s contract for nearly $438,700 and replaced her with David Long, a controversial figure who played a central role in the 2001 benefit changes that created the city’s pension funding shortfall, a gap that has now reached $5.6 billion.

The mayor last week sidestepped questions about whether Clark or Smith’s departures were harbingers of reform, saying the results of his negotiations matter more than who is at the table. Though sources with knowledge of the talks say they have intensified in recent months, Turner gave a cautious assessment of his progress.

“We’re having conversations, and I think the conversations have been constructive,” Turner said. “This is not an easy subject matter, and I’m under no illusions. I mean, it’s hard. It’s hard. Since 2002, no previous mayor has resolved it, especially on a long-term basis. But we shall see. I’ll take it one day at a time.”

[…]

Sources with knowledge of the talks said Clark was upset when he put forward a reform proposal earlier this year that went further than any of his previous offers, only to have Turner seek further changes.

Seeking more optimistic news from Austin, Clark then met with state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston. But the sources said Clark came away from that discussion having concluded that hoping for the best in Austin during next year’s legislative session would be even riskier.

Confronted with the choice of agreeing to unpalatable changes or risking an even less palatable outcome in Austin, the sources said, Clark chose to step down.

Huffman said she learned of Clark’s retirement, which came shortly after their meeting, only when he announced it publicly. But Huffman said in her meetings with all three pension boards she has urged them to strike a deal with Turner.

“I’ve made it clear to them that I strongly urge them to sit down and to work this out, that the politics-as-usual was not going to work and that it was only fair to their members and to their people that are going to retire one day that this system be sound,” Huffman said. “I was firm about it and will continue to be firm about it, because they have to work it out.”

Huffman said she has tried to act as an arbiter, saying she would prefer the funds “fix what they have” rather than switching to a 401(k)-style system abhorred by workers as much as it is loved by some conservative lawmakers.

“There is a feeling that there will be good-faith efforts to get something done. The tough part, of course, is always bringing along the membership of these groups,” she said. “I understand that’s the tough part, but they need to, given the facts – and the facts are that the system is unsustainable. It hurts to fix it, but it would hurt a lot more if the system were to collapse.”

Todd Clark was a strong defender of the status quo for the HFRRF, so his departure could indeed be an indicator of how the wind is blowing these days. That probably suggests that the firefighters themselves are – ready for? resigned to? some other verb? – change as well. Mayor Turner seems to keep things like this close to his vest, so we’ll know more when he’s ready to make an announcement. In the meantime, this is your Conventional Wisdom Update for the week.

Where are the chiefs?

People are beginning to wonder.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Six months after Houston’s top cop retired and 10 months after Houston’s fire chief resigned to take another job, both departments remain without permanent chiefs, prompting concerns that public safety could suffer during the transition to permanent leadership.

The delays are already among the longest in decades at a time when community pressures are mounting on local agencies.

“We need leadership right now, and no one wants to make any moves until a chief is named,” one longtime police investigator complained recently.

Acting Police Chief Martha Montalvo, a Houston Police Department veteran, has led the agency since Mayor Sylvester Turner named her to the interim post in mid-February. Acting Fire Chief Rodney West has been at the helm since before Turner took office in January.

Both Montalvo and West are reportedly interested in the positions.

City officials say the administration has been occupied with passing the city’s budget, dealing with historic flooding and responding to the high-profile murder of an 11-year-old boy in north Houston earlier this year and the recent, controversial shooting by police of an African-American man in south Houston.

“My preference would be to have permanent leadership for the departments to depend on and move forward with,” said Council Member Brenda Stardig, chair of the City Council’s public safety committee. “We have to prioritize and take care of the citizens and public safety.”

Turner’s office has remained tight-lipped about the searches.

“Nothing has changed. The mayor is working on his timetable,” city spokeswoman Janice Evans said in an email. “In the meantime, both HPD and HFD are operating well. Both Chief Montalvo and Chief West meet regularly with the mayor so that he is aware of what is going on in the departments. His concern is about getting the job done rather than the personalities of who is making sure the job gets done.”

The story goes on to note that while Mayor Turner is taking longer to name HPD and HFD chiefs than what we are used to, it’s not out of line for similar appointments in other big cities. I can’t speak to how any of this affects the internal dynamics of either organization, but at least for HPD there are some big issues involving things like recent shootings of civilians and how body cameras are being used for which it would be nice to get some clear direction. It’s better to be right slow than to be wrong fast, so as long as Mayor Turner gets the right people in place in not too much longer, all should be fine. The Mayor clearly isn’t going to be rushed, so we may as well wait till he’s ready to make his choices.