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HPOU

From the “Needlessly overstated answers to simple questions” department

I have three things to say about this:

Tony Buzbee, a Houston lawyer who recently announced his plan to run for mayor next year, has offered to “mediate” a long-running pay dispute between the city and firefighters, one week after a judge blocked implementation of a voter-approved charter amendment that would grant firefighters equal pay to police officers of corresponding status.

In a joint statement Friday with the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, Buzbee said he believes it is time “we equally value our police and fire first responders in Houston,” seeming to indicate that he supports the push for “pay parity.”

A spokesman for Mayor Sylvester Turner declined comment, referring to the mayor’s previous comments that a judge should first decide whether a collective bargaining agreement can supersede a voter-approved charter amendment.

1. No.

2. Whether or not the city has any ability to negotiate the terms of the pay parity referendum is an open question right now. (So is the pay parity referendum itself, but let’s set that aside right now.) Asking the city to come to the table and negotiate the terms of the pay parity referendum is basically equivalent to telling the city to agree that the firefighters are right about the big picture and to abandon its current course. Which the city may eventually wind up doing, depending on what the lawyers and the courts say, but now is not the time for that.

3. Even if we were to accept the premise of point #2, maybe find a mediator who’s more, you know, impartial? Like, maybe someone who hasn’t announced their candidacy against Mayor Turner? It’s a big city. We have lots of certified mediators. I’m sure someone else might have time in their schedule for this.

4. Again, no.

Oh, right, I said three things, not four. Better call in Tony Buzbee to mediate the difference between what I said and what I did.

HPOU files first Prop B lawsuit

And away we go.

Courthouse officials were scrambling to find a judge Friday afternoon to hear a lawsuit by the Houston Police Officers Union against the city of Houston and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, that seeks an immediate halt to implementation of a voter-approved ballot initiative that would give Houston firefighters “pay parity” to police officers of similar status.

The lawsuit, filed midday Friday in the 234th state district civil court, seeks to block “Proposition B,” arguing it amounts to an unconstitutional amendment to Houston’s charter, and was void from the start. After hearing initial argument by the police union lawyer to put on the brakes, State District Judge Wesley Ward indicated to lawyers he planned to recuse himself and needed to find another judge in the building who could take over.

Ward, a Republican who was voted out last month on the same ballot with Proposition B, reportedly told attorneys in chambers he had a conflict of interest because he planned to join a law firm where one of the attorneys on the case works.

[…]

The 25-page suit argues that the pay-parity charter amendment is unconstitutional because it “is preempted by and directly conflicts” with state law requiring that firefighters be paid to comparable private sector employment, as well as posing an “irreconcilable conflict” with state law because it ties firefighter compensation to those of other public sector employees, and further conflicts with state law because the two professions do not require “the same or similar skills, ability, and training.”

The measure “undermines and interferes with HPOU’s right to collectively bargain, because both HPOU and the City are forced to consider the economic effect of a third-party’s interjecting interests,” according to the lawsuit. The plaintiff’s attorneys also argued that the requirements of Prop B put the HPOU in the position of representing firefighters who had not chosen the union to represent them and who do not have the same responsibilities as police.

The suit also argues that Prop B runs contrary to local government code mandates that say police and fire departments are “separate collective bargaining units unless they voluntarily join together” for collective bargaining with a public employer.

Well, I don’t know what the city’s lawyers will tell them, but clearly HPOU’s attorneys are not hesitating. The ordinance that Council passed to accommodate Prop B is set to take effect on January 1, so I presume the cops are seeking to get a judge to put it on hold pending the litigation. That’s usually the way these things work. We’ll see now if the city joins this lawsuit or files their own; I presume the latter, though most likely in the end the two will be combined. December is already shaping up to be quite the month.

UPDATE: That was quick:

A state district judge Friday evening granted a temporary restraining order blocking the implementation of a voter-approved charter amendment requiring the city of Houston to grant its firefighters “pay parity” with police officers of similar rank and experience.

State District Judge Kristen Brauchle Hawkins granted the TRO Friday night at the request of the Houston Police Officers Union, which filed a lawsuit earlier in the day against the city and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. The judge set a hearing for Dec. 14.

The fire union opposed the TRO request, but lawyers for the city did not.

Buckle up, y’all.

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.

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.

Endorsement watch: The score so far

We’ve had a slew of endorsements for municipal races this past week. I’ve been keeping track of them as best I can on my 2015 Election page. This isn’t always easy to do, because some groups are not very good at posting their endorsements anywhere. I gather, for example, that the HPFFA has made endorsements, based on these tweets, but so far no official list appears to be visible. Groups whose endorsements I have added to the page so far:

AFL-CIO
Houston GLBT Political Caucus
Houston Stonewall Young Democrats
Houston Area Stonewall Democrats
Democracy for Houston
Harris County Tejano Democrats

Log Cabin Republicans
Houston Police Officers Union
Houston Building Owners & Managers Association

I’ve separated the traditionally Democratic/progressive groups from the rest. There are still a lot of groups out there to endorse – HOPE (they have endorsed Sylvester Turner for Mayor but I’ve not seen anything else from them as yet), SEIU, Houston Black American Democrats, Houston Association of Realtors, Houston Contractors Association, the C Club, Texas Organizing Project, and the firefighters if they ever produce a list. Things may change as more endorsements come in, but here are my initial impressions on what we’ve seen so far.

Sylvester Turner has done very well so far. I had thought some endorsing organizations might want to keep their powder dry in this crowded field, but Turner has stood out with his ability to collect support from different groups. Given all the competition for the LGBT group endorsements, snagging two of them is an accomplishment. Stephen Costello nabbed the other two, with the nod from the Stonewall Young Dems being a bit contentious. Adrian Garcia got on the scoreboard with the Tejano Dems; I’m sure that won’t be his last endorsement. Chris Bell has impeccable credentials for some of these groups, but he’s come up empty so far. You have to wonder if they’re getting a little discouraged over there, and you have to wonder if their fundraising is taking a hit. Ben Hall is getting Hotze support; I’ll be interested to see if he buys Gary Polland’s endorsement in the Texas Conservative Review. Will also be interesting to see if a more mainstream group like the C Club throws in with Hall or goes with an establishment choice like Bill King.

My initial reaction to Chris Brown’s dominance in Controller endorsements so far was surprise, but on reflection it all makes sense. He’s really the only viable Democrat running – Carroll Robinson has Hotze taint on him, and Jew Don Boney doesn’t even have a campaign website. Frazer got the Log Cabin Republicans, and I expect him to sweep up the other R-based endorsements. Keep an eye on what the realtors and contractors do in this one, if they get involved at all rather than waiting for the runoff.

Lane Lewis has crushed it so far in At Large #1, not only sweeping the Dem/progressive endorsements over three quality opponents, but also picking up support from the police, firefighters, and BOMA, who didn’t endorse in any of the other three open citywide races. He won’t win any Republican endorsements, of course – I assume new entrant Mike Knox will, if he can get his campaign organized in time to do whatever screenings are needed – but at this point I’d make him a favorite for most of what’s left. Amanda Edwards has impressed in AL4, though Laurie Robinson has split a couple of endorsements with her and will be a threat to win others. Not clear to me who will take the Republican support that’s available.

I expected more of an even fight in the two At Large races with Democratic challengers to Republican incumbents, but so far Doug Peterson and Philippe Nassif have taken them all. As I understand it, Durrel Douglas hasn’t been screening for endorsements – this can be a very time-consuming thing if you are doing a solo campaign – so Nassif has had a clear path and has taken it. As for AL3, I get the impression that Peterson is considered the more viable candidate against CM Kubosh. I though both he and John LaRue were good interview subjects, for what it’s worth. CMs Kubosh and Christie have gotten the “friendly incumbent” endorsements so far, and I expect that will continue. CM David Robinson has gotten those and the Dem/progressive nods. I’ll be interested to see if HBAD backs Andrew Burks; I expect Gary Polland to give Burks some love for being a HERO opponent, but I don’t know if groups like the C Club will join in with that. Burks is doing his usual thing campaign-wise (which is to say, not a whole lot), so anything that requires an organized response is probably beyond his grasp.

Not a whole lot of interest in the District Council and HISD/HCC races. I’m a little surprised that Karla Cisneros hasn’t picked up any endorsements in H, but there’s still time. Ramiro Fonseca has done well against Manuel Rodriguez, who is deservedly paying for the rotten things his campaign did in 2011. Jolanda Jones still has some game. Beyond that, not much to say.

So that’s where things stand now. As I said, they may look very different in a month’s time. And as with fundraising, a good showing in endorsements only means so much. Plenty of candidates who have dominated the endorsement process have fallen short at the ballot box. So consider all this as being for entertainment purposes only, and take it with a handful or two of salt.

UPDATE: Corrected to reflect the fact that HOPE and SEIU are no longer affiliated.

Endorsement watch: Pushback on the process

The early endorsement by the firefighters’ union – and now the Houston Police Officers Union – of Rep. Sylvester Turner for Mayor has ruffled some feathers.

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

The Houston Police Officers’ Union on Tuesday followed their firefighter counterparts who on Monday endorsed Turner, a 25-year state representative who long has maintained close ties to first responders. Both organizations said that Turner’s legislative record placed him head and shoulders above his competitors and that the decision to endorse him was easy.

The endorsements arrived as various mayoral campaigns are only beginning to roll out their platforms and before the organizations knew the full field of candidates available to consider. In 2009, the last open mayoral race, the unions only chose to endorse in August. Sometimes, the organizations have made endorsements for a November election as late as September.

The firefighters union endorsement is drawing particular scrutiny because the group did not screen any candidates other than Turner, who brokered a deal this month between the city and the fire pension board that earned plaudits from firefighters.

Scott Wilkey, spokesman for the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341, said a more extensive interview process was unnecessary. Given the public statements of the well-qualified field, Wilkey said, the union already knew the positions of most of the candidates.

“Screening candidates who are on record as hostile to firefighters or who are profoundly ignorant of public safety issues just wastes everyone’s time,” Wilkey said in a statement.

[…]

Asked why former congressman Chris Bell and businessman Marty McVey, who have expressed conceivably less threatening positions on pension reform, were not considered, Wilkey said the union compared “a 25-year history versus a 10-year absence in politics versus a neophyte.”

See here for the background. It’s obvious why the HPFFA did not bother to screen candidates like CM Stephen Costello, CM Oliver Pennington, and Bill King. Everyone knows where each side stands on the single issue that matters the most to the firefighters, so why waste everyone’s time? As for the likes of Chris Bell and Marty McVey, endorsing organizations are free to set their own rules and follow their own procedures. The tradeoff for a streamlined process in this case is the possibility of alienating someone who could have been friendly or at least neutral to you. Now that person’s supporters might be less inclined to listen to you, a non-trivial factor in a race that will surely go to a runoff, and you might wind up with a Mayor you’ve annoyed by your process. You pay your money and you take your chances.

But wait, I hear you cry. What about that other guy?

That process snubbed not only McVey but also Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who has not yet announced a mayoral run though people with firsthand knowledge of his plans say he will formally launch his bid in the next few weeks. Garcia, who declined to comment through an adviser, spent 23 years as a Houston police officer.

“Adrian would have been screened Friday if Adrian had announced prior to Friday,” said Houston Police Officers Union president Ray Hunt, who defended the process as thorough and welcoming.

Sources may say that Sheriff Garcia is running for Mayor, but until he himself says it, he’s not a candidate. No organization is going to consider or screen a non-candidate. It happens every two years that some late-entering candidates miss out on endorsements they might have won if they’d been in the race earlier. In this case, the endorsement process was a lot earlier than usual, but them’s the breaks. It’s all part of the process.

HPD to get a pay raise

Mayor Parker and the police union agree to a new contract.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

The Houston Police Department hopes a new union contract that targets raises primarily to younger officers will ward off recruiting struggles that have forced it to offer bonuses to cadets.

The agreement, which Mayor Annise Parker and Houston Police Officers Union president Ray Hunt announced Monday, is aimed at helping HPD compete with peer agencies.

“The fact that we’ve been having to pay hiring bonuses as the economy picked up means that some folks were making economic decisions,” Parker said. “We need to make sure we’re competitive across all ranks, and we need to focus on those, particularly, entry-level officers, to make sure that we have a continuing influx of new talent into the Houston Police Department.”

The deal would give the department an across-the-board 4 percent raise this year, at a cost to the city of about $13 million. That would be followed by two years of varied raises, intended to bring the various ranks in line with peer agencies, at an average cost of $16 million per year. Most notably, starting this June, probationary officers would get $42,000, up from $35,160 today, a bill of about $849,000 in the next fiscal year.

In 2018, the last year of the contract, all police officers would get a flat 3.5 percent raise, at a cost of $12 million. Union members will vote through Friday, and, if they approve the deal, City Council will consider it Feb. 18.

The Mayor’s press release is here. As noted in the story, this is a separate issue from the call by HPD Chief McClelland to hire hundreds more officers to deal with HPD’s backlogs, about which I remain skeptical. Normally I’d say that I’d expect this deal to be ratified, but after the recent HFD contract rejection I’ll wait and see. Mostly, I’m interested to hear what frequent commenter Steven Houston thinks of this. I’m also looking forward to what Council and the scads of Mayoral candidates will have to say about it.

McClelland wants more money for more cops

And I want some answers before we go along with this request.

Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland asked city leaders Tuesday for an additional $105 million over five years to hire hundreds of new officers as part of a plan to shore up divisions where thousands of crimes are never investigated and bolster traffic enforcement as automobile collisions citywide are rising.

McClelland’s request comes as Mayor Annise Parker is searching for cuts to address an estimated $120 million budget deficit for the fiscal year that begins next July 1. Rising pension and debt costs, along with a voter-approved cap on city revenues, are fueling the city’s looming budget problems.

Executive assistant chief Timothy Oettmeier said HPD is proposing hiring 540 additional officers over the next five years, part of a 10-year plan to add 1,200 officers to investigative and patrol divisions. The staff increase would include new officers and hiring civilians to free up officers for field work.

Oettmeier said HPD was “enormously sensitive” to the budget situation and is using the hiring plan as a way to start a discussion. “What we’re simply saying is we need additional personnel, but given the current economic climate, can we sit down and figure out how to proceed at a time that’s appropriate for everybody,” Oettmeier said.

[…]

This summer, two independent police research groups hired to analyze HPD’s staffing noted that the department’s division commanders reported they had more than 20,000 crimes with workable leads that were not investigated due to a lack of manpower. That figure included burglaries and thefts, hit-and-run crashes and assaults.

Crime statistics provided to the committee showed HPD’s clearance rate for theft, burglary and auto theft was 11 percent last year.

[Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union] blamed a 44 percent clearance rate for rapes on low staffing, adding that HPD has seven detectives working adult sex crimes, compared to 15 deployed by the Austin Police Department.

“There’s no question that we’re struggling in some of the investigative divisions,” Oettmeier said, responding to the union.

I’ve expressed my opinion on that no-investigations report before, and the questions I raised then have not been addressed, as far as I know. I am not willing to spend more money on hiring officers until we get some answers to how well HPD uses the budget and resources it has now. We may well need to hire more officers, and to increase the pay we offer to them. I’m perfectly willing to accept that possibility, and the possibility that we will need to spend more money on police, but I am not willing to accept anyone’s word for it. Show me how HPD has performed in comparison to its own recent past and to other large city police forces, and then we can talk staffing levels. I don’t think I’m asking for too much here.

HPOU wades into the DA race

They’re all in for incumbent Devon Anderson.

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg

The already intense race for Harris County district attorney became more heated Wednesday with the Houston Police Officer’s Union attacking Democratic candidate Kim Ogg, saying that during her time at Crime Stoppers she violated the privacy of victims she was supposed to help support.

The 5,300-member group is endorsing GOP incumbent Devon Anderson, who declined to comment about the attack, which included a radio ad that was released earlier in the day.

At her news conference later Wednesday, Ogg called the attack a “desperate act,” then accused Anderson of making backroom deals involving a former judge and at least one former police officer, allowing them to avoid prosecution.

“The union’s support of Ms. Anderson, launching an ad 13 days before the election is a desperate act by this incumbent,” Ogg told reporters. She denied any wrongdoing and said the ad was not true.

At the union news conference, Anderson touted her record and thanked area law enforcement agencies for their endorsements.

“Since I’ve been in office, we’ve tried almost 700 jury trials,” Anderson said. “And of those, over 70 percent are violent criminals, the rest are property crimes and a very small percentage are drug cases.”

[…]

During the union’s news conference, Hunt said Ogg’s style was similar to former district attorney Pat Lykos, who was ousted in the 2012 GOP primary by Mike Anderson.

“It’s going to be very much like it was under Pat Lykos,” Hunt said of an Ogg administration. “It would make our job a lot more difficult.”

The union has long protested the so-called “trace case policy” instituted by Lykos, then repealed by Anderson. The police unions want crack cocaine users caught with powder-covered crack pipes to be arrested on felony charges. Citing clogged courts, overcrowded jails and the inability for the defense to re-test the scant amount of evidence, Lykos directed police to ticket those offenders for misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia. The policy was applauded by criminal justice system reformers and derided by law enforcement agencies.

“There’s a direct correlation between the trace case people and the amount of burglaries we have,” Hunt said.

Ogg denied the claims made by Hunt and the HPOU and pressed her own charges against Anderson, but that last bit above is what all this really comes down to. Anderson, even with her willingness to make incremental changes in how pot prosecutions are handled, represents the way things have always been done in the Harris County DA’s office. Ogg, like Lykos, represents change. As is always the case with change, not everyone likes the idea. As you know, I agreed with Lykos’ trace case policy, and I do think the DA’s office could stand to do things a little differently. I look forward to seeing what Kim Ogg can do in that position. Ray Hunt would disagree, and that’s fine. That’s why we have elections. Hair Balls has more.

Ogg challenges Anderson’s handling of Ryan Chandler investigation

This gets a little complicated, so stay with me.

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg

A county prosecutor who was engaged to fired Houston homicide detective Sgt. Ryan Chandler emailed him an office database search of all his cases as he was under investigation for possible criminal prosecution, according to documents released Thursday by district attorney candidate Kim Ogg.

Assistant District Attorney Inger Hampton sent Chandler an email Feb. 18 with a seven-page attachment that listed criminal cases Chandler handled from 2000 to 2014. The search of the DA’s office database was sent after Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson recused her office from the Chandler investigation on Jan. 7, and asked a judge to seal the motion to keep Chandler from knowing he was under investigation.

Chandler was fired in early April after Chief Charles McClelland disciplined him and seven other homicide division investigators and supervisors for not properly investigating nearly two dozen deaths.

Anderson’s office issued a statement late Thursday saying that while the information provided to Chandler by Hampton was public, its release violated policy and the matter is being reviewed. A phone message left with Hampton’s office Thursday was not returned.

“Inger Hampton’s email to Sergeant Chandler … only involved the release of public information; however her actions were contrary to office policy and as a result, Hampton is subject to internal discipline for this violation,” said a statement from Harris County DA spokesman Jeff McShan.

Ogg is asking Anderson to release information on the transfer of the case to Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon, who for years was head of legal services at the Houston Police Officers’ Union.

[…]

At a press conference Thursday, Ogg questioned Anderson’s decision on Jan. 7 to refer Chandler’s criminal case to Montgomery County, and her refusal to unseal the motion she made to the Harris County chief administrative judge when she requested the transfer. Ogg said former prosecutors and defense attorneys in Harris County are frequently appointed as special prosecutors.

Montgomery County prosecutors said they decided the criminal allegations against Chandler of tampering with a governmental recordwere the type usually dealt with administratively by the police department. Chandler was accused of criminal conduct by HPD for falsifying a report claiming he had referred an April 1, 2011, fatal shooting of an armed robber to the DA’s office for presentation to a county grand jury. Another HPD detective presented the case to the grand jury in September 2013, after an internal investigation began into Chandler’s work.

“We thoroughly looked at and evaluated the Ryan Chandler matter, and it didn’t rise to the level of a criminal offense,” said Phil Grant, Montgomery County first assistant district attorney. “I’m the one who made the decision, and Brent’s former association with HPOU never entered into those deliberations.”

As a bit of background, Chandler is in the process of seeking to get his job back; after a second day of testimony the hearing was put on hold till September.

Here’s the press release Ogg put out for her news conference at which she made these charges, and here’s the executive summary of the report put together by Wayne Dolcefino (yes, that Wayne Dolcefino). I was at the news conference, and these are the points Ogg made:

  • Ryan Chandler’s disciplinary letter of firing indicated that he falsified official reports and lied to the IAD investigators. The former is likely to be a crime – tampering with an official document – and it is what needed to be investigated.
  • Chandler’s engagement and subsequent marriage to Assistant DA Inger Hampton creates a conflict of interest. Normally under these circumstances, there’s a process that is followed that involves the Administrative Judge for the region that in this case includes Harris County, and out of that comes a judge assigned to the case who can then appoint an attorney pro tem, which is the fancy term for “special prosecutor”. Such a special prosecutor is usually appointed from the county where the case originated. Ogg stressed that there are hundreds of qualified attorneys in Harris County who can do this kind of work, and said there have been ten or twelve who have done it recently for various cases.
  • In this case, a Harris County district court judge (we don’t know who for sure) was asked by the DA’s office to appoint Montgomery County DA Brett Ligon as the attorney pro tem. Ligon, as the story notes, is the former counsel for the Houston Police Officer’s Union, which is representing Chandler in the appeal of his firing. Ligon is also a client of consultant Allen Blakemore, as is Devon Anderson, and the HPOU donated money to Mike Anderson’s campaign in 2012.
  • The motion made to appoint Ligon as attorney pro tem was sealed. Ogg wants all documents related to that motion unsealed, which among other things will tell us the name of the judge that acted on it.
  • Ogg also raised concerns about the DA’s office not notifying defense attorneys about the Chandler investigation as is required by law, and in fact did not inform other prosecutors about it in a timely manner. Rather than summarize the evidence Ogg put forth for this, I suggest you read page 4 of the executive summary for a timeline.

From the last page of that document, here’s what Ogg is demanding:

On May 12th,Dolcefino Consulting filed a request under the Texas Public Information Act for letters to victims and Brady letters to defendants and their legal counsel on behalf of the Ogg campaign. Documents released by the District Attorney’s office show none of the letters were written until after the demand for public disclosure filed by Dolcefino Consulting.

The Harris County District Attorney’s office has not released e-mail communication between Inger Hampton and Chandler they deem “personal”. That should immediately happen.

In addition, Anderson should unseal any documents detailing her request for a prosecutor pro-tem, and call on Montgomery County District Attorney Ligon to release documents detailing the “investigation by his office”.

Anderson should also be required to detail for the public what steps she has taken to investigate the actions of Hampton and to internally investigate other personal relationships between prosecutors and testifying police witnesses that give rise to conflicts of interest and report the results to the public.

Most importantly, the District Attorney should have to explain her failure to notify victims, her lapse in notifying defendants, and her failure to warn her own prosecutors.

So there you have it. Anderson for her part released this statement via Blakemore that denies Ogg’s allegations and asserts that “Sergeant Chandler’s activities have undergone the scrutiny of HPD Internal Affairs Division, and an investigation by a Special Prosecutor appointed by the Administrative Judge of the Harris County Criminal District Courts”, but it doesn’t get into any specifics. I’ve got paper copies of the rest of the documents that Ogg provided, but I don’t have electronic versions at this time. There’s a lot here, and we’ll see if anything more comes out. KHOU has more.

McClelland’s response

I have to say, I’m not impressed.

Defending his department’s failure to investigate thousands of crimes last year, Police Chief Charles McClelland on Thursday said the understaffed Houston Police Department does not and should not have a goal of aggressively probing every crime reported to it.

“We work violent crimes first. If someone steals your trash can or your lawn mower out of your garage, there are no witnesses, there’s no evidence, there’s nothing for a detective to follow up on, it’s not assigned,” McClelland, a 37-year veteran of HPD, told City Council members during a budget hearing. “There has never been a time that I have been employed there that the Houston Police Department has had the capacity to investigate every crime that’s been reported to the agency.”

[…]

The chief bristled at the idea that his agency should be expected to throw manpower at all 1.2 million annual calls for service and stressed that his command team knew it had too few officers long before the report was released.

“If you read the work demands analysis, it only recommends 100 additional detectives; the greatest staffing recommendation is for patrol,” McClelland said. “A hundred more detectives will not give the capacity to work 20,000 cases. They’re very minor crimes. I don’t want to dismiss that if someone was a victim of crime, but they are.”

McClelland said he has read the 207-page document and has asked his executive team members to do the same. The chiefs will meet to discuss the report soon, he said, then will present staffing recommendations to Mayor Annise Parker.

“It’s something we know cannot be resolved in one budget year or two budget years,” he said, “but we do have to put a plan in place to address it.”

[…]

HPD is budgeting for 5,305 classified officers in the new fiscal year, a rate of 246 officers per 100,000 people. Comparing Houston to the nation’s 10 largest cities that rate of police staffing falls roughly in the middle, well behind Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, but solidly ahead of cities such as San Antonio and San Diego, according to 2012 FBI data.

Within Texas, Houston falls similarly in the middle. Dallas has 283 officers per 100,000 people. The rate in Austin is 204; in San Antonio, it is 166.

The original story said these were cases “with workable leads”, so Chief McClelland’s statement about “there are no witnesses, there’s no evidence, there’s nothing for a detective to follow up on, it’s not assigned” is disingenuous. I’ve no doubt that all police departments prioritize, but on the surface this looks and sounds really bad. One way to demonstrate that maybe it isn’t as bad as it looks would be to provide comparisons to other large urban police departments. I suspect that’s outside the scope of this report, however. It would still bee interesting to know. It would also be interesting to know what HPD is prioritizing over these cases, since Chief McClelland refers to working violent crimes first. The main problem with that statement is that we know that HPD has also had an issue with homicide cases not being worked. One presumes those are the highest priority cases. All of which is to say, what’s going on in the department? Claims of short-staffing may be accurate, but they only go so far, especially for a department that has seen its funding go up by more than fifty percent over the past decade. I hope the Chief’s executive team members read that report very closely.

Now, for sure we’re going to have a debate about staffing levels at HPD, and how its resources are being deployed. Just keep in mind those statistics cited above regarding the relative number of officers in Houston compared to other cities. In terms of cops per population, we’re in the middle of the pack, not near or at the bottom. Maybe we do need more cops, or maybe we just need to use the ones we have more efficiently. And that much-ballyhooed report itself adds some context, on pages 27 and 28:

The appendix at the end of the report contains a number of benchmarks comparing Houston to other state and national jurisdictions in several crime categories. First is a comparison of 2012 FBI UCR violent and property crime data benchmarking Houston’s crime and department staffing levels against San Antonio, Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth in order to make baseline crime comparisons. Of the five cities, Houston had the highest violent crime rate but fell in the middle for property crime rates.

Staffing comparisons were made to benchmark Houston’s sworn, civilian, and combined staffing against the same four state and five national jurisdictions using 2012 UCR data. For each agency, the percentage of each department’s sworn and civilian personnel is shown.

Next, 2012 UCR data was used to compare Houston’s crime and staffing levels against those of five relatively similar police departments nationally: Philadelphia, PA; Phoenix, AZ; Memphis, TN; Washington, DC; and Baltimore, MD. Compared nationally against other large cities, Houston had the second-lowest violent crime rate but the second-highest property crime rate.

Lastly, crime trend analysis was performed for the City of Houston by reviewing FBI Part I UCR data. We analyzed violent crime and property crime rates (including rates per thousand), and analyzed each of the four individual violent crime categories (homicide, rape, aggravated assault and robbery) and three individual property crime categories (burglary, larceny/theft, and auto theft) over a 10-year period. Both violent crime and property crime rates show a downward trend.

You can see the charts they reference in the first appendix, starting on page 149. To cut to the chase, from 2003 to 2012, the violent crime rate in Houston has dropped from 11.8 per 1000 residents to 9.9 per 1000, and the property crime rate has fallen from 58.8 to 49.5. The amount of crime isn’t increasing, despite some gloom and doom predictions a few years ago. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think we could and should be doing better with the resources we’ve got.

But let’s stipulate that some more resources are needed. What should we prioritize?

McClelland stressed that recruiting is a struggle for the agency, in part because HPD’s starting salary is lower than those of other Texas police agencies. Council recently approved a $5,000 bonus for new cadets. The last class before the bonus started with 30 applicants, he said, and has dropped to about 25. Another class starting in the coming days – after the bonus was implemented – will begin with about 70 cadets, he said.

The chief’s view was echoed by Officer Doug Griffith, of the Houston Police Officers’ Union.

“A 24-year-old Marine coming here could care less if we have a botanical gardens or Uber or anything else,” he said, referring to issues the council has discussed in recent weeks. “What they want is starting salary, and until we get them up to match other cities in this state, we’re not going to get them. We need y’alls help. This is a crisis we’re going to have to work through.”

I’ll grant the salary problems for hiring cadets, but if the report says we only need 100 more detectives, why not start with that? That would cost a lot less than 800 patrol officers, and would likely have a much greater effect on solving these unworked crimes. Patrol officers aren’t there to solve crimes, after all. Texas Leftist and Campos have more.

More details on the rape kit backlog results

HPD reports to Council about the progress of testing done on the backlogged rape kits.

No false arrests by Houston police have been uncovered during an ongoing $4.4 million testing of thousands of old rape kits, but new suspects have been developed with DNA, leading to an undisclosed number of arrests, police commanders told City Council members Tuesday.

Houston Police Department Assistant Chief Matt Slinkard told the council’s Public Safety Committee that 280 “hits” from DNA profiles resulted from the 6,170 cases returned so far to HPD from private labs. Last year, two labs began processing nearly 10,000 cases for usable evidence, including 6,600 untested sexual assault kits, the oldest stretching back to 1987, that were stored in the HPD property room.

DNA testing at HPD’s crime lab was suspended in 2002 after an independent audit revealed shoddy forensic work including unqualified personnel, lax protocols and inadequate facilities that included a roof that leaked rainwater onto evidence.

Slinkard and Capt. Jennifer Evans said that so far, the DNA testing has not found any instances of HPD mistakenly arresting someone.

“There are zero indications of false arrests at this time,” said Evans, who heads HPD’s Special Crimes Division.

[…]

Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, emphasized the 280 hits does not mean HPD is looking for hundreds of active sexual predators.

“I think there’s been an handful of arrests already, but it’s very rare when you get a hit where it’s somebody who is still on the street,” said Hunt, explaining the criminal is usually in jail on another charge.

See here for the previous entry. As of that story, there were still 2410 kits that were being reviewed by HPD to ensure they met standards for federal DNA testing. I don’t know if that has been completed or not, based on this new story. In any event, we got 280 hits in CODIS, of which I presume some are people that are already incarcerated for something, some are the offenders that had been convicted in these cases on other evidence, and some are people that had not been previously identified or arrested as the offender. We don’t have a whole lot more information than that, most likely because the cops don’t want to tip off someone they’re planning to track down. I am certain that the first arrest made based on this evidence will be sufficiently publicized. Beyond that, I’m glad there’s progress. I look forward to seeing this all brought to a completion.

Police cameras

It’s disappointing that Houston lags behind other cities in using dashboard cameras in police cars, but I am glad to see we are trying to catch up.

Houston police have fewer dashboard cameras than any major Texas law enforcement agency, providing them with little of the recorded evidence that other departments have to determine whether an officer violated procedures or laws.

Just 5 percent of the Houston Police Department’s fleet of nearly 4,000 vehicles feature dashboard cameras, compared to the Dallas Police Department’s 55 percent, the highest of the six largest law enforcement agencies in the state.

A recent Houston Chronicle investigation showed more than one-fourth of civilians shot by HPD from 2008 to 2012 were unarmed, and apparently none of the 121 shootings in that time frame were captured by dash cameras.

HPD Chief Charles McClelland this month announced a program to test 100 small cameras worn on the front of officers’ uniforms, saying this newer technology has made dash cameras obsolete. He did not address the future of HPD’s dashboard cameras.

Policing experts say cameras – mounted in cars or uniforms – are critical to public confidence in law enforcement.

“They are absolutely a benefit. They tell a story,” said professor Geoffrey Alpert, who teaches criminology at the University of South Carolina and is a national expert on policing. “If you have a suspect saying one thing, and the officer another thing, and if you don’t have an electronic witness, you don’t know who’s telling the truth.”

Alpert said research has found that dash cameras support the officer’s account 90 percent of the time, although he notes they are expensive for cities to purchase and operate.

Austin police have installed digital cameras in 38 percent of the department’s 1,335 vehicles. Other agencies with more dash cameras than HPD include Fort Worth, El Paso, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. The Dallas Police Department, the state’s second largest police agency with 3,500 officers, has installed dashboard camera systems in 960 of its 1,757 vehicles, according to an open records request.

There’s really no good argument against having these cameras. They cost money, sure, but they’re a great investment because they provide an indisputably objective account of what happened when police interact with civilians. The case for dashboard cams is the same as the case for recording interrogations, though for reasons I’ve never quite understood there’s more resistance to the latter. I am curious about the proposed use of officer cams instead of dashboard cams, mostly because the officer cams – uniform cams? – are new and don’t have a record of use that we can examine like the dashboard cams do. I can see how the officer cams might provide a better view than static dashboard cams, but I can also imagine a scenario where an officer that might want to obscure what he’s doing could facilitate that by the way he positions himself or angles his body. It’s important to make sure the cams can’t be interfered with.

It’s also important to make sure the operation of the cams is not optional or at the discretion of the officers involved.

Fort Worth police have equipped about one-quarter of their 1,227 vehicles with dashboard cameras. Police union officials there say the biggest problem is officers who forget to turn the cameras on.

“Here’s the deal. If it saves you on one multimillion dollar lawsuit, it would be worth it,” said Sgt. Stephen Hall, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association.

McClelland, the HPD chief, said the 100 body cameras to be used in a pilot program – including hardware, software and digital storage – costs $2,500 each.

Equipping all 3,000 HPD officers who are first responders would be a significant investment, McClelland said. Using the figures provided by the chief, the cost would be about $7.5 million.

He said anecdotal reports from other departments indicate body cameras have resulted in fewer complaints against officers, along with more convictions in criminal courts.

McClelland said the new technology will also offer “a measure of protection for our police officers against false allegations” and defense in civil litigation.

“This just allows us to have our own video, without being edited by the public or someone’s cellphone video they want to chop up and only show bits of pieces, only the bad parts that they think where maybe it makes the officer look bad and makes them look good,” McClelland said.

Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, said the cameras must be turned on and off by the officer, who in many situations will instead focus on making an arrest.

“We’re not scared of what the cameras are going to capture, we are fearful that an officer is going to fail to turn it on at a very quickly evolving scene and people are automatically going to think that officer is trying to hide something,” Hunt said.

Which is why it shouldn’t be up to the officers to remember to turn them on. They should either be always on or automatically activated whenever an officer exits the police vehicle. People will have confidence in them only if they know they will always be able to review the video. The first time video isn’t available when there’s been a confrontation between an officer and a civilian, people will have questions. The second time it happens, people will have doubts. If we want this to work and get the maximum benefit from these cameras, they have to be always on when we need them. If they’re not designed that way, they’re not ready to be used. Grits, who is a fan of the officer cams, has more.

Endorsement watch: SEIU and HAR

This came in on Thursday:

SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Texas, including janitors who clean office buildings, housekeeping workers at GRB and food service workers, have endorsed Mayor Annise Parker for re-election. Houston members have also launched an effort to outreach to Latino and African American voters in their neighborhoods. Mayor Parker’s commitment to creating quality family-sustaining jobs makes her the best candidate for Houston’s working families.

“We are one of the most diverse cities in the nation and that makes us stronger. Mayor Parker understands this, that’s why she’s fought to build a city economy that works for everyone. When my fellow janitors and I went on strike last summer, her leadership helped bring about a resolution that is helping to build a path out poverty for thousands of Houston’s families, including my own,” said Houston janitor and SEIU Texas member Yesenia Romero.

In her first two terms, Mayor Parker advanced her mission to make Houston a great place to raise a family by supporting janitors’ efforts to raise wages, creating fair standards for employees who provide city services and holding irresponsible businesses accountable.

“I am proud to stand with Houston’s janitors, housekeeping and food service workers as we join together to make our city a better place to live for all Houstonians,” said Mayor Parker. “Working families helped lift Houston out of the recession – and together, we’re continuing to build a future for Houston’s children with more good jobs, safer neighborhoods and stronger schools. Thank you, SEIU, for your endorsement and support.”

During a press conference attended by Mayor Parker, members committed to turn their support into action in their communities. In the coming weeks, volunteers will generate support from neighbors, family members and fellow members to join Mayor Parker’s mission to build an economy that works for all.

SEIU endorsed a full slate of candidates, and you can see that reflected on my 2013 Election page. I have a continuation of my rant about how hard it is to get this information from some endorsing organizations to make in a bit, but first here’s the slate from the Houston Association of Realtors that I’ve been waiting for. From the press release:

— The Houston Association of REALTORS announced its decision to support the following candidates in the Tuesday, November 5 City of Houston Elections:

Mayor – Annise Parker*

District A – Helena Brown*

District B – Jerry Davis*

District C – Ellen Cohen*

District D – Dwight Boykins

District E – Dave Martin*

District F – Al Hoang*

District G – Oliver Pennington*

District H – Ed Gonzalez*

District J – Mike Laster*

District K – Larry Green*

At-Large 1 – Stephen Costello*

At-Large 4 – C.O. “Brad” Bradford*

At-Large 5 – Jack Christie*

*indicates incumbent

“Houston’s economy is thriving, and the real estate market is at its strongest position in decades. REALTORS and homeowners owe much of this to sound fiscal policy, and a Mayoral administration that promotes responsible commercial and residential growth,” said HAR Political Affairs Advisory Group Chair Nancy Furst of The Furst Group. “HAR is proud to have a very positive working relationship with Houston City Council, and we look forward to working with our supported candidates for the next two years of their service on City Council.”

Of interest is their backing of CM Helena Brown in District A. It’s striking because they could have easily waited till the runoff to pick a side in that multi-candidate race, and of course because former CM Brenda Stardig is herself a realtor who had their support in each of the last two elections. HAR generally sticks with incumbents, so in that sense it’s not too surprising, but still. That’s got to sting a little for Stardig, and it’s a big get for Brown. Both sets of endorsements, along with a set from the Greater Houston Restaurant Association and an updated list from the Harris County Tejano Democrats are on the 2013 Elections page. Ben Hall also picked up endorsements from the Baptist Ministers Association and the Harris County Republicans, which describes itself as “a General Purpose Committee PAC that is dedicated to increasing Republican turnout in Harris County elections”. They will be mailing out their slate of endorsed candidates to Republican voters, but I don’t have that slate at this time, nor do I know if the Baptist Ministers Association has endorsed anyone else, so those are not on the page yet. When and if I get a release or a link with a full list of their endorsed candidates, I will add them.

As for the rant, I was all set to grouse about the HCTJs, as I had heard about their updated list from a couple of the candidates on it but had not gotten it from them before yesterday, then they went and took the wind out of my sails. And good for them for doing so! There are still plenty of others to find fault with. The C Club – I’m interested in Republican-friendly endorsements, too – has one Endorsed Candidates link on their webpage that takes you to a members login screen, and another Endorsed Candidates link that gives their slate for Lone Star College Trustees from May. The last endorsements I can find for the HPOU are from 2010; I even sent an email two weeks ago to info@hpou.org asking for their slate, but have not received a response. The HPFFA has endorsed multiple candidates, but the only ones you can find out about on their website are Ben Hall and Roland Chavez. A lot of other endorsing organization are PACs, and you can learn about their preferences via candidate finance reports, but they all have webpages and/or Facebook pages, none of which carry this information. I continue to have no idea why they all make this so difficult. Why bother to endorse candidates if it’s nigh impossible for actual voters to learn who you’ve endorsed? What am I missing here?

Anyway. This is all a reminder that the endorsements I list on my 2013 Elections page are as best I can determine. If you know of a set of endorsements I’ve missed, and can send me a press release or a link to them, please do so. If you can explain why so many endorsed slates are shrouded in secrecy, please do that, too. Thanks.

More troubles for CM Jones

There have not been many dull moments this year for CM Jolanda Jones. That seems unlikely to change in the near future.

[O]n Wednesday, revelations surfaced that one of her staffers photographed a citizen picking up public records from her office and that the police union asked the Harris County district attorney to investigate Jones for allegedly practicing law without a license.

Both are likely to provide further ammunition for Jones critics and fodder for her campaign opponents.

Earlier Wednesday, Parker said someone from her office had called the state Attorney General’s office for counsel on how to respond to a Sept. 15 incident in which Jones’ chief of staff, Jack Valinski, allegedly took pictures of a 23-year-old law school graduate who came to pick up emails and calendar information he had requested under the Texas Public Information Act.

“It completely freaked him out,” attorney Billy Skinner said of his client, Andy West. “He felt scared. He felt intimidated.” Skinner said West is not connected to the campaigns of any of Jones’s three opponents on the November ballot for At-Large Position 5 on the Council.

Mr. Skinner has uploaded a video of the incident, presumably taken from City Hall security cameras. He also addressed Council, and specifically CM Jones, about the incident this past Thursday. You can see that video here; go to video 4, and scroll ahead to 15:20 for the nine-minute exchange, including Mayor Parker’s postscript. I will leave both to your interpretation.

[L]ater Wednesday, the friction between Jones and the Houston Police Officers’ Union flared anew when the union delivered a letter to District Attorney Pat Lykos asking her to investigate Jones for practicing law without a license.

The State Bar of Texas suspended the councilwoman’s law license on Sept. 1 because she had failed to pay her annual membership dues and her attorney occupational tax. She was reinstated Sept. 30 when she paid the arrears in full. The police union submitted legal documents signed by Jones with September dates to indicate that she continued to practice law during the suspension.

“It’s starting to look a lot like Groundhog Day at HPOU. If the sun comes up, then there’s a good chance that Ray Hunt will lodge a complaint somewhere,” Jones spokeswoman Kelly Cripe said in an email. Hunt is the union’s vice president.

You can see the HPOU press release here. I’ve not seen any of the referenced documents, and not being an attorney I’m not sure I’d know what to make of them if I had. Far as I know, the grievance the HPOU filed against Jones with the State Bar has not yet been resolved. We’ll see what Lykos does with this hot potato.

Lineup update

The Chron story that ran in yesterday’s news is now updated online to reflect the fact that CM Melissa Noriega does have two opponents, Brad Batteau and Chris Carmona. I emailed reporter Chris Moran yesterday to ask about that discrepancy, and he replied that it was just an error on his part, for which he apologized to Carmona. The City Secretary‘s candidate listing hasn’t changed since yesterday, so I would assume at this point that what you see is what you’re going to get.

In my writeup yesterday, I noted that I could not find a voter registration online for now-former HISD candidate Art Huerta. Fred King with the Tax Assessor’s office emailed me to say that Huerta had requested some time ago that his registration certificate info be suppressed online, which is why it was not visible to me. He also confirmed for me that Huerta’s registration info listed him in HISD District VIII. Now I’m not sure why he thought he was in IV to begin with, since apparently the redistricting did not affect his address. HISD needs to get itself some better quality maps. My thanks to Fred King for the information.

I still have no idea if any new HCC Trustee candidates emerged at the last minute. There’s no listing of filed candidates for these races that I can see. If you Google “HCC Trustee Candidates”, you can find this page that tells you how to file to run, but nothing that tells you who has done so. I guess I need to send someone another email, but frankly I find it ridiculous that this information isn’t out there somewhere.

Having said all that, a Google search of “HISD Trustee Candidates” doesn’t find anything, either, but at least those races got reported on. My presumption is there’s nothing new to report, and the lineup we already knew about – Richard Schechter and Chris Oliver running unopposed, Carroll Robinson and Jew Don Boney running for the seat being vacated by Michael Williams – is the same. It would still be nice to have confirmation.

And finally, we have our first official attack mailer of the season, from the Houston Police Officers Union against CM Jolanda Jones. Both HPOU and the HPFFA have endorsed Jones’ opponent Laurie Robinson. There are a lot of interesting races this year, but it’s hard to top At Large #5 for drama and intrigue.

UPDATE: So I wake up this morning and there’s an email to Whitmarsh’s list that announces the endorsements made by the Harris County Tejano Democrats (not listed on their website yet), and one of the endorsed candidates is a fellow named Wendell Robbins, III, who is apparently running for HCC Trustee in District IX, against Chris Oliver. I found nothing useful about him or his candidacy via Google; he’s on Facebook but his last wall posting is from May; and of course as noted there’s no listing of HCC Trustee candidates anywhere. Awesome. Anyone know anything about this?

Inspector General cites CM Jones

Ouch.

Houston City Councilwoman Jolanda Jones used city employees to help run her personal law practice and instructed her staff not to meet with investigators looking into her alleged misconduct, the city’s inspector general has determined.

For three of the six findings, Jones could face misdemeanor criminal charges.

In a June 2 memorandum to Mayor Annise Parker, Inspector General Robert A. Doguim reported that Jones — who is seeking a third term for her at-large seat – violated a city ethics ordinance and the mayor’s executive order on internal investigations three times each. The activities involve the improper use of city resources and personnel as well as Jones’ lack of cooperation and truthfulness with the Office of Inspector General, the probe revealed.

[…]

The investigation stemmed from a complaint about Jones, a criminal defense lawyer, distributing “Know Your Rights With The Police” cards that advise residents never to speak with law enforcement. The handouts included phone numbers to her council office and law office. She has explained that she has distributed a version of the card since before her election in 2007.

But in interviews with Jones’ staff, the inspector general’s investigators found violations beyond the handout and determined that the councilwoman has used employees on city time to notarize documents for her law practice, fax legal papers and drive her to court hearings.

You can see a copy of the report here. While Mayor Parker thinks that the charges don’t rise to a “criminal level”, she does think that Council should consider taking action against her.

“I think it’s going to fall somewhere in the range of — depending on how the council member responds – some form of censure,” Parker said.

When asked if censure in the case of Jones was sufficient to deter other public officials from committing misdeeds, Parker said:

Just the fact that we’re having this public discussion is enough to impact any public official. It always causes us to pause and think about what we’re doing and examine our own behavior.

Whether or not Jones faces censure is up to her fellow Council members.

Several steps must be taken before the council can discipline a member.

First, a member must file a letter of complaint outlining alleged misconduct by another member. The mayor then would convene a three-person committee consisting of herself, the complaining member and a member appointed by the target of the complaint. That committee must vote to forward the complaint to the full city council.

So far, no one on the council has publicly indicated an intention to file a complaint that would start the process.

Councilman Mike Sullivan, chairman of the council’s Ethics and Governance Committee, said, “As disappointed as I am in how this has gone — and I think it’s a poor reflection on council – I am much more focused on issues at hand, such as the drainage fee problem that we’re dealing with, and will leave it up to another council member if they choose to move forward with a request.”

When asked if she thought Jones deserved to be disciplined, Councilwoman Wanda Adams said, “I don’t know because I’m not in that situation, so I’m really not commenting on the case right now.”

Councilman C.O. Bradford, a former Houston police chief, said he intends to review the Jones probe before commenting on possible action.

“I want to know the facts supporting the conclusions that were drawn in the summary,” Bradford said.

Jack Christie, who narrowly lost to Jones two years ago in an election in which he had the endorsement of four sitting council members, called on Jones to resign Thursday, and said he will run against her again if she does not.

Christie’s campaign manager told me he was indeed running and that a formal announcement was coming soon. You can read his press release here. I think it’s premature to talk about resignation – she is entitled to defend herself – but if Council censures her, she ought to give it serious consideration. Even if she survives that, she needs to think long and hard about whether she should run for that third term or not.

For her part, CM Jones released this statement, which you can see on her Facebook page:

“I have just received this report and will comment further once I have reviewed it. I hold myself and my staff to the highest ethical standards. I look forward to clearing up any misunderstandings with respect to this report as expeditiously as the process permits.”

None of this is good. I like CM Jones, but I don’t see how she can be an effective advocate for any of the things she’s passionate about now. I really hate to see it come to this, because I think CM Jones has a lot of talent and pays attention to things that too often get overlooked. If these charges are proven to be true, she will have no one to blame but herself. It’s just a shame.

Some Prop 3 action

Campos observed last week that there hasn’t been any action on Prop 3, which is the red light camera referendum. That’s about to change.

The Houston Professional Firefighters Association, a group that represents more than 4,000 firefighters, said it supports red-light cameras.

President Jeff Caynon is urging Houstonians to vote for Proposition 3 on Election Day.

He said red-light cameras are a safety tool that change behaviors and save lives.

Caynon is also featured in a new television commercial in support of red-light cameras. The ad began airing in Houston on Monday.

The endorsement follows the show of support for red-light cameras by another public safety group — the Houston Police Officers’ Association.

Video of the story is here. Has anyone seen one of these ads yet? I wonder if the anti-camera forces will have the resources to put up ads or send out mailers or something.

One thing to note:

Proposition 3 on the November ballot asks voters if red-light cameras should stay up or be removed.

Note the wording on that. Even though Prop 3 is on the ballot because of the efforts of those who want to remove the cameras, a vote FOR Prop 3 is a vote to retain the cameras. A vote AGAINST Prop 3 is a vote to take them down. I had assumed that the ballot language would be correlated to the effort of its petitioners, and that led to me being initially confused when I saw that the Houston GLBT Political Caucus is recommending a FOR vote on Prop 3, since I didn’t think of them as being anti-camera, but I inquired and got the matter cleared up. In another sense, this is more logical – if you want the cameras, vote FOR them; if you don’t, vote AGAINST them. I just wanted to point this out in case anyone else was operating under the same assumption I had been. And just to make things interesting, note that if you live in Baytown, it’s the exact opposite – a FOR vote there is to dump the cameras, an AGAINST vote is to keep them. Isn’t this fun?

Hail to the (interim) Chief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mayor Parker hits the ground running

Mayor-Elect Annise Parker talks to the Chron and tells us again what she intends to do after she’s sworn in.

“One of the reasons I’m not having that big, excited, happy feeling is that there is a lot of work to be done, not because there are problems undone with the current administration, but because the economic circumstances in which we find ourselves are very, very fluid,” she said in a wide-ranging interview with the Houston Chronicle. “I’m going to be the mom telling you to eat your vegetables and you don’t get dessert. I’m trying to make sure you have enough food to eat.”

[…]

She said repeatedly that she plans to “leave it all on the table” in her efforts to bring lasting change to the city, noting that she does not aspire to higher office.

Her ideas for budget cuts, better policing and other issues seemed well formed in her mind, and she appeared to be under no illusions about the wide array of challenges she will inherit.

The first, the one that will permeate all the others, is the budget, which has been challenging enough to take up most of White’s last year in office. The city continues to have a $3 million shortfall, according to Parker’s latest finance report, one that has just grown with the need to audit the Houston Police Department’s fingerprinting unit, a contract that may cost several million dollars.

White said he has left behind a detailed draft budget for 2010 that will not “compromise city services.” The new mayor will face several constraints if lower-than-anticipated property tax appraisals come in next year and the fallout continues in municipal bond markets from the Wall Street meltdown last year.

Needless to say, the state is facing these same issues. Since the next budget at that level doesn’t have to be written until 2011, one response you’ll hear is to hope that sales tax revenues will rebound over the holidays. If that happens it will presumably be good for Houston as well. Hope may not be a plan, but you’d better believe everyone in government is hoping.

The most pronounced changes in a Parker administration may come in the Houston Police Department, which she routinely called out for having a 40 percent budgetary increase in the past six years without adding any new police officers.

She first intends to name a new police chief from within HPD “who understands that we can’t keep doing things in the same way.” Parker reiterated her intent to “shake up” the department and “take apart old and outmoded ways of thinking,” and relying more on technology and decentralizing police work.

“New York and Los Angeles have a decentralized model that really pushes accountability down to the neighborhood level,” she said. “Every neighborhood in the city of Houston, every area in the city of Houston, has a different set of public safety problems and potentially different public safety solutions. Let’s think about how we do policing at a much more granular level with the authority and the responsibility pushed down more to the men and women on the street.”

If any of this isn’t familiar, you weren’t paying attention during the campaign. Nonetheless, you can see why the HPOU really went nuts on her during the runoff. Change is coming, and they don’t think they’re going to like it. Ought to make for some interesting contract negotiations, that’s for sure.

The real fun begins in January. Parker says she’s willing to push things through on close Council votes if that’s what it takes. Well, everybody who ran for Council this year spoke about the need to deal with the budget, so at the very least this will be a test of their determination. It always gets harder when specifics get proposed. We’ll see how it goes.

Parker’s crimefighting plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cops and crime

The news is mixed, though I see it as being presented as more bad than good.

Houston has a higher rate of violent crime than any other Texas city and ranks among the highest in the nation, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of FBI crime data in the 25 most populous U.S. cities.

The city also has fewer police officers per capita or per square mile than the national average, the analysis shows.

In the nearly six years of Mayor Bill White’s administration, the number of police officers has remained roughly the same, despite the Houston Police Department budget increasing more than 40 percent since 2004, from about $480 million to $680 million for fiscal 2010. That increase is due almost entirely to the ballooning costs of salaries, pension and health care benefits built into police contracts with the city.

The federal government last week declined to provide stimulus funding for additional police academy classes based on the city’s fiscal health and recent declines in Houston’s crime rate compared to previous years. Overall crime in the city is as low as it has been in decades, but looming budgetary problems have led to cuts in overtime and plans for only two police academy classes this year, compared to an average of five a year since White took office.

Several City Council members and mayoral candidates have voiced concern that recent gains may not last.

“That’s a recipe for disaster, and I’m not being overdramatic,” City Councilman Mike Sullivan said of staffing and overtime shortages.

“There’s no doubt that there’s going to be a spike in crime as a result of this,” said Gary Blankinship, president of the Houston Police Officers Union. “We have to learn to work smarter and try to use technology a little bit more, but some hard decisions may have to be made and some other city budgets may have to be looked at. Tough times cause people to have to make tough decisions.”

White said drastically increasing police staffing could cause a different kind of downward spiral: double-digit property tax increases that would price many Houstonians out of their homes. Instead, he said, the city has made better use of technology to ensure officers are more productive, building a 24-hour crime analysis center and redeploying more than 300 officers from desk jobs to the streets.

“It’s not just a matter of head count, but it’s the tools and procedures you give police,” he said.

I’ve done about a dozen City Council candidate interviews so far. Everybody voices similar themes regarding crime and the police. Better use of technology is one, better coordination with other law enforcement agencies – the Sheriff’s office, the constables, Metro and HISD police, etc – is another. Everyone also acknowledges that public safety is a huge chunk of the city’s budget. Nobody has explicitly talked about how much it would cost to hire more police officers – and it’s not clear how many “more” is, or needs to be – or how to pay for it. I don’t know how you can add a significant number of officers – note that according to the budget, there has been a modest increase in police staffing since fiscal year 2008 – without some kind of tax increase, but I’m not running for anything, so that’s easy for me to say. I think that until that becomes easy for some actual candidates and officeholders to say, what we’re going to get is more of the same. Which may not be a bad thing – crime in Houston is down, as the story notes. But it is, at least for now, what we’re willing to pay for. Grits has more.

UPDATE: While HPD didn’t get stimulus money to hire more cops, Metro did.

HPOU touts its opposition to eyewitness ID reform

Here’s a clip from the Houston Police Officers’ Union publication, Badge and Gun (June/July 2009 issue), written by HPOU President Gary Blankinship, detailing how HPOU successfully helped lead the fight against a couple of bills by State Sen. Rodney Ellis that were aimed at reducing the frequency of unjust convictions. The bills were SB117, which would have required all law enforcement agencies in the state to “adopt and as necessary amend a detailed written policy regarding the administration of photograph and live lineup identification procedures”; and SB116, which would have required them to “provide training concerning the technological aspects of electronically recording interrogations to peace officers and other employees of the law enforcement agency who interrogate criminal defendants or suspects, including juveniles.” Both bills passed the Senate but died in the House during the chubfest.

I find it hard to understand the rationale of a police organization opposing stuff like this, especially the latter bill, but there you have it. The case for better eyewitness ID procedures is really strong, with so many recent DNA exonerations coming in cases where the original conviction hinged on a bad eyewitness ID. Meanwhile, given that the Lege passed legislation to increase the compensation given to those who are freed after being wrongly convicted, you’d think we’d want to take common-sense steps to minimize the amount of money we’ll have to be paying out in the future to these folks. Yet so-called “fiscal conservatives” Dan Patrick and Joan Huffman voted against both these bills, and received kudos from HPOU for their obstructive role. Go figure. Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, one of the best things our next Mayor can do in choosing a new Police Chief is to find someone who will be committed to implementing these sorts of reforms regardless of whether or not the Lege mandates them. It’s the right thing to do on so many levels.

Brown and Locke spar over education

At a Mayoral forum on Thursday, Gene Locke and Peter Brown get into it over the school system.

Gene Locke, the former city attorney, targeted Councilman Peter Brown’s recent statement to the Chronicle that Houstonians should consider forming an urban school district heavily influenced by the mayor through board appointments.

“I think that’s an awful idea,” Locke said. “It’s going to be hard enough to make sure this city is safe, to make sure the business development grows.”

Brown retorted, “We cannot punt on education like my colleague said.”

Several independent school districts, overseen by elected school boards, operate inside the city limits. Brown said Thursday he does not favor having city government take over the Houston school district in the way that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has suggested for urban areas.

Here’s an earlier Chron story with more on Brown’s position, with which Annise Parker, Roy Morales, and current Mayor Bill White say they disagree.

City Councilman Brown is pitching the formation of a new “urban school district,” perhaps spanning from downtown past the 610 Loop, that would fall under the mayor’s power.

“I would favor the creation of this urban school district that is controlled by the mayor, that has a board that is largely appointed by the mayor, so there’s accountability,” he said.

Brown added that a task force should study several ideas, including breaking the 200,000-student Houston ISD into smaller districts.

“I wouldn’t want to say, ‘I’m elected mayor, and the second week I’m elected mayor we’re going to dismantle HISD,’ ” he said.

I actually think that’s an interesting idea and would like to hear more about it. I don’t know what I think about it yet, but that’s what these debates are for, to hash stuff like this out and let the competing visions actually compete. Brown and Locke metaphorically took it outside after the event by sending out press releases touting their positions and attacking the other’s; I’ve reproduced one of each beneath the fold. If this is a sign that the heat level has been turned up a notch in the race, as you know I think that’s just fine. As long as it’s about issues and not trivialities, I say keep it up, y’all. Stace has more on this, as well as a candidate forum in Kingwood at which immigration was the hot topic.

One more thing:

Morales asserted that when he served on a grand jury, “50 percent of Hispanics who came across our court were illegals and 90 percent of them were committing crimes against their children and other children.” The figures could not be confirmed late Thursday.

Most of the candidates dodged a question about whether they would propose no annual spending increases in the city government budget. Morales, however, said he would cut the budget and that police and firefighters have told him billions of dollars are wasted in their departments. He did not cite specifics.

Sure, Roy. Whatever you say. We believe you.

(more…)

HPOU wants to get into the immigration business

I really don’t know why it is that the Houston Police Officers Union has decided it wants HPD to be different from every other urban police force in the state and start questioning residents about their immigration status. The reasons why this is a bad idea are spelled out in the story, but let me briefly summarize: If people believe that by talking to the cops something bad might happen to them or their families, then they won’t talk to the cops. That means that victims of crime, witnesses to crimes, people with information about specific crimes or criminals, they’ll just clam up and not get involved. It shouldn’t take any great insight to realize that this is not conducive to public safety, yet it’s what HPOU wants. I don’t understand it any more than you do.

Perhaps the problem here is that they start off with a faulty premise.

[Gary Blankinship, president of the Houston Police Officers Union] said 1,433 of the 7,700 inmates processed through the Houston city jail in February identified themselves as noncitizens, although he does not know how many were illegal immigrants.

“I can’t help but believe a large number were in this country illegally,” he said. “If we had to put our hands on 1,433 fewer people a month, that would free up police for other tasks.”

So, what, you think that if HPD changed its policy today those people would magically disappear? I suppose in some way this is accurate, in the sense that some number of the crimes committed by the people Blankinship would rather not have to touch will never be reported, which I suppose would free up officers for other tasks. Why letting more crime go unreported is a desirable outcome is a question that maybe ought to be answered, if it can. Stace has more.