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Martha Montalvo

Mayor Turner picks Austin PD Chief for HPD

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: Here’s the updated Chron story:

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

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

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

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

[..]

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

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

Acevedo asked the agency to have his back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Where are the chiefs?

People are beginning to wonder.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

Both Montalvo and West are reportedly interested in the positions.

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

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

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

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

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

On finding the next HPD Chief

I don’t know about this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner has chosen to select Houston’s next police chief through a private executive search firm, taking the position that the applications and résumés of job candidates do not have to be made available through the Texas Public Information Act.

The process stands in stark contrast to that used by his predecessor, Annise Parker, who in 2010 released the applications of 26 candidates for police chief in response to a records request.

“I am not going to conduct this process in the media,” Turner said via email Friday. “I didn’t do that with the searches for a new city attorney, the Flood Czar, the Education Director and other positions within my administration. My goal is to find the best candidate for the job and you don’t get the best candidate when the search is conducted in the media, especially if the publicity could endanger an applicant’s current position. It will be done on my time line. In the meantime, HPD is operating quite well under the very capable leadership of Acting Police Chief Martha Montalvo.”

The mayor’s spokeswoman, Janice Evans, said the search for a new chief is being handled by a six-member transition team along with the executive search firm of Russell Reynolds Associates. She declined to provide any records on the city’s arrangements with the firm, saying its services are being provided at no cost and without a contract.

Civil rights activists and open records advocates have been sharply critical of what they see as Turner’s lack of transparency, which comes as they are demanding a new chief to reform police operations.

“This is not a transparent process they are using,” said Houston attorney Joe Larsen, who heads the review committee of the nonprofit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “Besides the mayor, the chief of police is one of the most important positions in the city, and all the stakeholders should be aware of what’s going on.”

Larsen said the city has a legal responsibility not only to provide records it has but also records it controls.

[…]

After the Chronicle made a similar open records request for chief applicants this year, Turner’s staff first sought an attorney general’s opinion to allow them to withhold the information. The city later withdrew its AG request, saying it had no records of any kind relating to applicants for the chief’s job.

“The city does not have any responsive information,” said Evans, Turner’s director of communications. “As was the case with the City Attorney, this is being handled as part of the transition process.”

[…]

C.O. “Brad” Bradford, a former City Council member and Houston police chief under two mayors, said he doesn’t see a downside to Turner withholding the list of candidates as long as the finalists are disclosed after an appointment is made.

“Once the mayor nominates someone for council approval, then that’s when the questions should start – what was the process used to nominate this person, and who the other candidates were,” Bradford said.

“Now is not the time to do it.”

Bradford said that before he was appointed chief in 1997, then-Mayor Bob Lanier announced the names of 12 candidates from within HPD and four from outside the department who were vying for the position.

“I recall when 12 of us were competing, there were some nasty things that happened,” he said.

The story notes that Mayor Parker released applications of candidates who had been screened by a nonprofit group back in 2010 when now-retired Chief McClelland was hired. The story doesn’t say whether those applications, which were disclosed as the result of an open records request they made, came to them before or after McClelland was hired. If it’s the latter, then I think the distinction Bradford draws is a reasonable one. It can get awkward for some job applicants to be known to be looking elsewhere, which can cause some potential candidates to shy away from applying for a job if they know their status as an applicant will be made known. Disclosing the names of just the finalists for the job sounds like an acceptable compromise. On the other hand, it’s seldom wrong to err on the side of disclosure in matters involving the public interest, and there’s nothing untoward about people asking questions about who the candidates are for HPD Chief. Perhaps a full accounting of what we will know and when we will know it will suffice for now. We do need to know more than what we currently do.

HPD rolls out its body cameras

The first wave has been deployed.

The Houston Police Department handed out Thursday the first wave of 4,100 body cameras being distributed to all first-line officers over the next 12 to 18 months, initiating a new policy that will require officers to wear the cameras for all law-enforcement related activities.

About 200 officers – those on duty at Central Patrol – received their body cameras Thursday. Mayor Sylvester Turner joined Acting Police Chief Martha I. Montalvo, District Attorney Devon Anderson and several city council members at a press conference at Central Patrol to announce the new policy.

[…]

Under the plan, officers are required to wear the camera on their chest, so it is clearly visible to anyone interacting with law enforcement. They’re expected, according to HPD’s policy, to keep the devices in standby mode and then to activate them before arriving at any call, initiating a traffic stop, detaining or arresting someone, conducting a search, interviewing witnesses, or engaging in a pursuit, among other interactions. Officers are not permitted to turn the cameras on and off at their own discretion.

The footage will be downloaded and stored on a server at the station and transferred to a disaster recovery site. Video involving an incident classified as Class B or above will be retained for 10 years, or until the statute of limitations expires. For some crimes, including homicides, the statute never expires.

Class C traffic violations will see footage stored for one year. Informational cases, in which an officer interacts with a citizen but no crime is committed, will have footage stored for 180 days.

Right now, only first-line officers are receiving cameras, though the department hopes to extend the policy to officers in Investigations after the full rollout, Skillern said. Officers in the traffic enforcement division, who have a high volume of interactions with citizens, will receive cameras next. Then, it’s southeast patrol, followed by a different patrol group each month. The staggered distribution is meant to handle any training and technical issues.

Questions still remain about how the camera data will be stored and how it will be accessed. No one questions the utility of these things, though. Let’s see what they can do, and let’s make sure that any questions that arise get answered in a way that promotes transparency. The Press has more.

Turner names interim HPD chief

Congratulations, Chief Montalvo.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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