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Randall Kallinen

Federal lawsuit filed over homeless feeding ordinance

I’m kind of surprised that this hadn’t been filed before now.

On a recent evening in April, a few dozen people experiencing homelessness lined up outside Central Library in downtown Houston for a free — and illegal — meal of vegetarian chili, macaroni, rice and fruit salad. Volunteers with Food Not Bombs, an international organization with hundreds of local chapters, often serve free dinner here, violating a local ordinance against publicly feeding groups of people without city permission.

Houston’s so-called charitable-feeding ordinance was enacted in 2012 and allows groups and individuals to feed up to five homeless people, no strings attached. To feed more, though, you must register with the city — or face fines up to $2,000 and a misdemeanor charge for violating the Houston Code of Ordinances. Additionally, would-be do-gooders have to take a food handling training class; provide the proposed schedule, time and location of the ad-hoc soup kitchen; detail the food being served; and fill out an online form to receive permission from the city to give food in public.

On Monday, activists filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the ordinance on First Amendment grounds. Food Not Bombs and three of its members are plaintiffs in the suit, filed against the City of Houston in the U.S. Southern District of Texas. The lawsuit accuses the city of infringing on freedom of speech and religious liberties of the anti-war, food-sharing activists. It asks Houston to overthrow the ban and seeks unspecified monetary damages.

The ordinance infringes on “freedom of association” and “political organizing” and is “unconstitutionally vague,” the lawsuit argues. It cites at least 19 pro-food-sharing verses from the Bible. Randall Kallinen, who has filed numerous civil rights lawsuits in Houston, is representing the activists. In interviews with the Observer, he described the ordinance as “totally ridiculous” and part of an effort to “get the homeless out of town.”

While the lawsuit adds to pressure against Houston, the effort to overturn the city’s ban is not new. A parallel lawsuit also involving Kallinen has been floundering in state district court since 2017, and over 75,000 people have signed an online petition calling for an end to the “cruel” ordinance.

See here for some more on the state court lawsuit. A copy of this lawsuit is embedded in the story, and it’s something else. I like to make I Am Not A Lawyer jokes, but I can read legal briefs and motions and generally understand what they’re getting at. This one is in a way a lot easier to read because there’s almost no legal language in it. I mean, there’s a page quoting from the Food Not Bombs website. There’s more than two pages quoting bible verses, and three pages listing organizations that they say oppose the law. The legal arguments section does cite a couple of court cases, but it never quotes anything from the cited decisions, which leaves one to wonder just how those decisions apply to the case at hand.

Most of the arguments they make themselves have to do with the vagueness of the term “those in need” from the ordinance’s definition of “charitable food service”, which is “providing food without charge, payment or other compensation to benefit those in need at an outdoor location not owned, leased or controlled by the individual or organization providing the food.” I mean, I was a math major and I Am Not A Lawyer, but that seems pretty straightforward to me. Their point seems to be that an organization that was handing out food (at an outdoor location not owned, leased or controlled by the individual or organization providing the food) to random passersby would not be in violation of the law. Maybe that could work as a theoretical construct, but I have a hard time imagining it happening in real life.

The writer of this story is clearly sympathetic to the plaintiffs. I get that, but even the lightest critical analysis of the lawsuit shows the problems with it. I’m not sure how the reader is served by that omission. We’ll see what the court makes of this, but color me skeptical.

Bland committee makes its recommendations for Waller County jail

Good to see.

Sandra Bland

Waller County needs a new jail, local officers need body cameras to record their activities and the sheriff’s office needs to promote civility, a study committee formed after the death of Sandra Bland said Tuesday.

The county came under national scrutiny in July when Bland was found hanged in her jail cell three days after being arrested by Department of Public Safety trooper Brian Encinia, who says she assaulted him during a contentious traffic stop. Her death was ruled a suicide, but her arrest and subsequent jailing triggered accusations of racism. Bland’s family has filed a civil lawsuit in federal court against the county, several of its employees and the now-fired Encinia.

Encinia is facing a perjury charge in Waller County, after a grand jury indicted him for lying about why Bland exited her car. The former trooper is also fighting to get his job back.

At Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith’s request, local attorney Paul C. Looney formed the study committee at the end of July to review the operations of his office and the county jail. Civil rights attorneys Craig Washington and Randall Kallinen, former Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Morris L. Overstreet, and criminal defense attorneys Juan L. Guerra and JoAnne Musick served on the committee and had unrestricted access, some of the members said Tuesday. Looney served as a nonvoting member.

[…]

Washington said the recommendations are specific and will make a difference.

“We think they will go a long way to providing better relations between all the citizens of Waller County,” said Washington, who presided over the committee. “Not even dividing them down into police and public but just to all of God’s children, to ensure that this community is a shining beacon of light for perhaps other community toward a more just society.”

Smith said building or rebuilding a positive relationship with the community requires law enforcement to be aggressive and to show that officers are there to protect everyone.

“We’ve got to be on offense,” he said. “Step up and convince the public that we’re open minded … we’re gonna make changes … we’re gonna reach out to regain your trust.”

Smith said from what he’s read, he supports most of the recommendations, but some items won’t just happen in a few months. In the case of the new jail, for instance, land has been picked out but funding has not been approved, he said.

Nevertheless, Smith said, the recommendations will be taken seriously.

“It won’t be dust settling over the report,” the sheriff said.

You can see the recommendations at the story link, and a copy of the report at Grits for Breakfast. I think they’re all doable, and I hope they have a positive effect. There are other issues that should be addressed as well, like de-escalation training for officers and saner bail/bond policies, but those things are outside the scope of what this committee was asked to do. Someone should still be thinking about them, and not just in Waller County. Nonetheless, this is a good start, and I wish Sheriff Smith and his staff in implementing the changes.

Three panels investigating Sandra Bland’s death

One was appointed by the Sheriff:

Sandra Bland

In the wake of the controversial arrest of Sandra Bland and her jailhouse suicide, Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith has asked for an independent panel of civilians to evaluate all aspects of the way he runs his department, from the cell blocks to the streets, and make public recommendations for change.

“He wants to use this tragedy as a growth opportunity,” said long-time defense attorney Paul Looney, who has been asked by the sheriff to form the five-member committee.

[…]

“We have been given carte blanche. We have been told we’ll have access to any piece of paper we want. We can visit with any prisoner or person without notice,” Looney said. “We can go on ride-alongs,” he said of riding in patrol cars with deputies to observe them first-hand.

Looney said the committee will be a diverse group of leaders and that none will be in law enforcement. He also said they won’t pull any punches in making recommendations, which will be shared with the public.

“In a time period of great tragedy, there is also a great opportunity for growth, and he doesn’t want to miss that opportunity,” Looney said of the sheriff. “I don’t intend to be kind, the people I include on the committee will not be kind. We intend to be constructive.”

One was appointed by the District Attorney:

Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis formed a second independent committee Monday to review the arrest and death of Sandra Bland and also released a toxicology report that one expert said suggests the 28-year-old woman used marijuana shortly before jailers found her hanging in her Waller County Jail cell.

Mathis said he was bringing in defense attorneys Lewis M. White and Darrell W. Jordan, both of whom are African-American, to lead a panel that will oversee the work of his office and make recommendations about charges for possible criminal conduct during the arrest and confinement.

“There are many lingering questions regarding the death of Sandra Bland,” Mathis said, explaining why he has asked for help just days after Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith formed a similar committee to review jail procedures.

[…]

The announcement that officials were forming another independent review committee did not build much trust with critics.

Former Waller County Justice of the Peace Dewayne Charleston said he didn’t know White or Jordan, so he couldn’t speak to their abilities or loyalties, but questioned any committee whose leaders are “appointed by the same person they are providing oversight for.”

“He’s not bound to take their advice, suggestions or recommendations, so it’s just window dressing,” said Charleston, who has called for Mathis to recuse himself from the case. “They could give him the best, most accurate recommendation but if he’s not obligated to accept it or just takes parts of it, it doesn’t really matter.”

Both White and Jordan have limited prosecution experience, graduated from Texas Southern University’s law school and work in small firms with five or fewer attorneys, according to the Texas State Bar’s website.

White, who passed the State Bar in 2002, worked under Mathis as a prosecutor for a year. Jordan, who passed the bar in 2006, has served as a prosecutor in the Army National Guard, where he still is a defense attorney. Jordan also has worked as a talk radio host for KCOH, part of the broadcasting company owned by Houston mayoral candidate Ben Hall.

Vivian King, a prominent Houston defense attorney and former prosecutor, said she did not know White, but had confidence in Jordan, who she had as a student at TSU.

“I think he’s confident and smart and will ask for guidance where he needs it,” she said. “He does care about getting it right.”

JoAnne Musick, the president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers, said the decision to bring in someone familiar with the county, like White, might give the duo a useful perspective. But she said that insider status also could undermine the public’s trust in the process.

“Houston is a very close and large area with tons of experienced former prosecutors and defense attorneys that could undertake that review,” she said, noting she knows neither White nor Jordan. “Their selection seems a little odd.”

Musick is one of five people selected by Hempstead and Houston attorney Paul Looney to serve on the sheriff’s review committee, which has not yet met. On Monday, Looney identified the others: Juan L. Guerra Jr., criminal defense lawyer; Randall Kallinen, civil rights attorney; Morris L. Overstreet, a former judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals; and former U.S. Rep. Craig Washington.

Jordan ran in the 2010 Democratic primary for judge of the 180th Criminal District Court. Here’s the judicial Q&A he did if you want to know a little more about him. The Sheriff’s panel has several well-known people on it, and I think they will live up to Looney’s promise that they will not hold back.

There will also be a legislative hearing:

The same day Waller County officials released results of Sandra Bland’s autopsy report, state lawmakers announced they will meet next week to discuss jail standards and police relations.

Members of the House County Affairs Committee, chaired by Houston Democrat Garnet Coleman, on Thursday will discuss “jail standards, procedures with regards to potentially mentally ill persons in county jails, as well as issues stemming from interactions between the general public and peace officers.”

That hearing will be tomorrow, July 30. Here’s the press advisory from Rep. Coleman, who can always be counted on to do a thorough job, and more on the hearing in the Trib. We need to learn all we can from this tragedy, and then to actually follow through on it, or we’re just going to keep having more like it. Still more here from the Trib.

Petitions to overturn homeless feeding ordinance submitted

There’s plenty of signatures, but no guarantee that this will make it onto the ballot.

Activists seeking to repeal a new law requiring City Hall’s permission to serve charitable meals on city-owned land turned in 34,000 petition signatures on Monday asking that the issue be put to voters in November.

Despite the passion surrounding the issue from feeding groups, clergy and others who decried the ordinance as the criminalization of charity, City Attorney David Feldman said it was too late to get the issue on the ballot.

He said the deadline was July 1, the day the law went into effect.

Wrong, said Paul Kubosh, one of the petition drive’s organizers.

“This ordinance is dead. It’s just a matter of how hard and how much political capital will City Council spend to fight the people,” Kubosh said at a news conference in the City Hall rotunda.

The standoff sets the stage for a replay of the legal battle set off by the petition that called for the November 2010 election that outlawed the use of red-light cameras in Houston. Kubosh was also a key player in that battle.

In that case, the election went forward but a federal judge later invalidated it because the petition was turned in too late. However, the ruling is no longer in effect, with both sides claiming victory. Feldman says the legal principles embodied in the court ruling still apply, while attorney Randall Kallinen, who sides with Kubosh, says they don’t.

As noted before, if this becomes law it will leave in place the requirement that organizations get permission from private property owners before setting up a place to distribute food to homeless folks. Again, for all of the fuss over this, I don’t think that part of the ordinance was ever truly controversial. The question is whether permission is needed for doing so on city-owned property. I have no intention of re-litigating any of this, I’ll simply repeat my assertion that if this does get on the ballot, I believe it wins easily. The proponents have many times the energy, desire, and strength of opinion on this.

The question is whether or not it belongs on the ballot. The distinction Kubosh and Kallinen make that this is a charter amendment that happens to overturn – in this case, modify – a city ordinance and not a referendum to repeal it is one that Judge Hughes specifically rejected in his red light camera ruling. I’m not a lawyer, I can’t give you an opinion as to why this time it’s different. I’ll wait for a judge’s ruling like everybody else.

Again, assuming it gets that far. There are at least two more obstacles that I can see, one of which is mentioned in the story and one of which is not.

Council faces a deadline under state law of Aug. 20 for placing items on the Nov. 6 ballot.

City Secretary Anna Russell said Monday that it generally takes her office two weeks or more to count and validate so many petition signatures before they can go to council. Because the Texas Open Meetings Act requires a 72-hour advance notice of a government meeting, her office would have to finish the job in four days to provide for proper notice.

“Even under the best of circumstances I don’t see how in the world that could be done,” Feldman said.

There were complaints about how late the petitions were turned in back in 2010, too. The City Secretary managed to get the job done on time then. Based on this, it would seem impossible. Having said that, remember that episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” where the Enterprise discovers Scotty suspended in a transporter beam where he’d been for however many decades? Anyway, he and Geordi get into an argument about the proper way to inform the Captain about how much time is really needed to accomplish a task:

Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge: Look, Mr. Scott, I’d love to explain everything to you, but the Captain wants this spectrographic analysis done by 1300 hours.

[La Forge goes back to work; Scotty follows slowly]

Scotty: Do you mind a little advice? Starfleet captains are like children. They want everything right now and they want it their way. But the secret is to give them only what they need, not what they want.

Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge: Yeah, well, I told the Captain I’d have this analysis done in an hour.

Scotty: How long will it really take?

Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge: An hour!

Scotty: Oh, you didn’t tell him how long it would *really* take, did ya?

Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge: Well, of course I did.

Scotty: Oh, laddie. You’ve got a lot to learn if you want people to think of you as a miracle worker.

So the question to ask is whether Anna Russell is more like La Forge or more like Scotty. I’ll leave that for you to debate. As for the other obstacle, given the August 20 statutory deadline for putting a referendum on the ballot, it seems to me that a tag by any Council member would settle the issue regardless of what a judge might say. I have no idea if any member would be inclined to do that, I’m just saying that one of them could. Houston Politics and Campos have more.

Petition drive to overturn the homeless feeding ordinance

It’s underway.

The petitioners have until July 1 to gather their signatures because that’s when the ordinance goes into effect. City Attorney David Feldman just informed me that petitioners have the longer of either 30 days following an ordinance’s passage or until the ordinance’s effective date to gather signatures. In this case, it’s the latter. So if the signatures get turned in by July 1, City Council will not be able to point to the ruling — moot though it is – even as a basis for declining to put it on the ballot.

So a coalition of civil libertarians and charities against the feeding ordinance plan to proceed in hopes of gathering 28,000 signatures to give voters the opportunity on the November ballot to overturn the feeding ordinance passed in April. It requires anyone who wants to feed more than five people free meals to get permission of the property owner before doing so.

Randall Kallinen, a civil rights attorney who is leading the repeal drive, said he believes that since the red-light camera election’s validity remains intact because of the ruling by U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes has been set aside, people are free to challenge ordinances even more than a month after the fact.

[…]

The petition asks for signatures in support of a city charter amendment that states the following:

The City of Houston shall not criminalize or penalize any person or organization for, nor shall any group or individual be required to receive permission from or register with the City of Houston before, feeding or sharing free food with any other persons on any and all public property, rights of way or easements for which the City of Houston maintains jurisdiction.

Such language does not overturn the ordinance’s requirement that feeders receive permission from the owners of private property on which charitable meals are served. By limiting the language to the City of Houston property it also leaves in place the requirement that feeders get pre-clearance from other government agencies before using those agencies’ property for charitable meals. For example, permission from the Texas Department of Transportation would be necessary to hand out meals to more than five people at a freeway underpass.

They started Tuesday, so they have a bit more than five weeks to collect 28,000 valid signatures. Given the need to have a buffer to allow for some duplicates and invalid sigs and whatnot, they’ll need to average about 1,000 signatures a day for that time period. I think if they succeed in getting this on the ballot they will win easily, but I have no idea if they can collect those signatures in time.

I’m no lawyer, but Kallinen’s assertion that the time limit isn’t in effect because the red light camera ruling was set aside seems specious to me. Even if there isn’t a legal precedent now, the basic facts are the same. If it comes down to it – for instance, if Council declines to put it on the ballot because the July 1 deadline was missed and Kallinen et al sue – I don’t see why some other judge wouldn’t reach the same conclusion as Judge Hughes. Am I missing something here?

It’s interesting to me that the scope of the petition is so narrow. In part, that’s because the ordinance itself is pretty limited. But for all the hue and cry at the time of its passage, the activists involved here have conceded the point that permission is needed for private property – I daresay that few people would disagree with that – and have also drawn a distinction between city property and property owned by other government entities. I suspect that’s more a practical matter than a theoretical one, since their beef has mostly been about access to city parks, but it still strikes me as a bit odd. Be that as it may, one reason why I think this will be an easy win if it makes it to the ballot is that I doubt it will be presented in such narrow, specific terms in a campaign. It’ll be about freedom and principle and compassion and so forth. Which is fine – I don’t have any problems with this ordinance, but I’m not going to expend any effort defending it if it comes to that. I mean, given what a lousy job the ordinance’s proponents did presenting and explaining it to the public in the first place, I seriously doubt anyone will expend much effort to defend it. I don’t feel nearly as strongly about this as the ones who are spearheading the petition drive, and as such I believe they will prevail if they can beat the clock. We’ll see if they can.

Red light camera referendum may be coming

I’ve been expecting this to happen for awhile now.

Two lawyers who are suing the city over Houston’s red-light camera program and their supporters said Friday they need 20,000 signatures for a citywide referendum to end what they called a dangerous profit-driven scheme.

Lawyers Paul Kubosh and Randall Kallinen announced a petition drive on the steps of City Hall to get an amendment to the city charter on November’s ballot.

“This will stop the actual enforcement of the cameras for all tickets issued prior to the adoption of this petition and for all tickets going forward,” Kubosh said. “It will force the city to stop it completely, if it passes.”

[…]

The group, including Kallinen and Kubosh and his brothers Randy Kubosh and Mike Kubosh, also announced Friday the creation of a PAC, Citizens Against Red Light Cameras, to get the required number of signatures by July 1.

“I have at least 50,000 registered voters in my client base,” Paul Kubosh said. “They’re all getting mailers.”

Twenty thousand signatures isn’t that high a hurdle, so I won’t be surprised if they succeed in getting their proposition on the ballot. And if they do, I won’t be surprised if it passes. Not because I think it’s the more popular position – I actually suspect it isn’t, but I’m not aware of any polling data, so I really have no idea – but because I don’t think there will be an organized effort on the part of the pro-camera forces to get out the vote. Frankly, the person who would need to push this is Mayor Parker, and I don’t know how she feels about the red light cameras, as they weren’t an issue in the campaign. I’m sure she favors them, but that’s not the same as being willing to risk political capital by publicly fighting for them. I really don’t know how this might play out.

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that the vast majority of support that Kallinen and his merry band of Kuboshes claims comes from people who, like Paul and Michael Kubosh, do not live in the city of Houston and thus would be ineligible to actually vote for this referendum. I believe these guys have intensity, but I don’t know how broad their base is. It’ll be interesting to watch, that much I know.

City to release documents related to red light camera study

They’re being ordered to do so by a judge, but it doesn’t look like they’re particularly bothered by it.

Paul Kubosh and Randall Kallinen filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s refusal to release 208 documents they requested under the Texas Public Information Act, many of them internal city communications and e-mails to and from the camera vendor, relating to last year’s city-sponsored study of the effectiveness of the camera program.

State District Judge Tracy Christopher has ordered the city to release 160 of 208 contested documents, ruling the city legal department presented no evidence they should be withheld under the law’s exceptions for attorney-client privilege or the deliberative process.

[…]

City attorney Arturo Michel said the city likely would not appeal the order, noting that many of the documents had been added as exhibits to motions filed in court.

Okay then. I’m not sure why it took this long to release these documents, given that the study came out nearly a year ago, followed almost immediately by Kubosh and Kallinen’s suit demanding the release of the draft report of the study. The city hasn’t exactly gone to the mat to defend the need to keep these docs secret, so perhaps a certain amount of fuss could have been avoided.

Be that as it may, the idea behind this is apparently to fuel an effort to get a referendum to remove the cameras onto the ballot in 2010. Kubosh and Kallinen think that these docs will have something in them that will expose the program as a fake, or something. And who knows, maybe they’re right, though again it seems to me that if the city were concerned about it, they’d be putting up more of a fight to keep the docs secret. (They may yet appeal the initial ruling, so it’s not a given that they’ll hand them over.) All I know is that Kubosh was sure that the city’s camera program was unconstitutional, and he’s since given up that fight after losing in court.

Let’s assume for a minute that the docs do all get released, and there’s no smoking gun in them, though there are a few bits and pieces that Kubosh and Kallinen seize on to press their case. What are the odds their desired referendum passes? Offhand, I would say they’d have a chance, but I’d make it no better than a coin flip. They’ll have passion on their side, which certainly counts for something, but I can’t quite shake the feeling that their base is mostly Republicans who mostly don’t live in the city of Houston. Paul Kubosh, for example, doesn’t live in the city of Houston, at least according to his voter registration card. If this would be a city of Houston referendum, as I presume it would be, he himself would not be eligible to vote for it. I could be wrong, and I’d love to see some polling data on this, just as I’d love to see an update to that original badly-flawed study, but I’m not nearly as sure as they are that there’s gold at the end of this particular rainbow.

Baytown gets the red light camera blues

Oops.

A Texas motorist caught the city of Baytown using short yellows to trap motorists at a photo enforced intersection and of failing to protect sensitive private information. At a press conference yesterday, Byron Schirmbeck and his attorney, Randall Kallinen, announced that the city had agreed to drop a $75 ticket issued on April 12 for making a right-hand turn just 0.2 seconds after the light had turned red at the intersection of West Baker and Garth Roads. The yellow time at this intersection was set at just 3.1 seconds, even though state guidelines indicate that the yellow should have lasted no less than 4 seconds.

“I informed my councilman and he set up an interview with the police legal advisor and head of the red light camera program,” Schirmbeck told TheNewspaper. “They reluctantly admitted the amber times were too low but don’t admit any wrongdoing or have any explanation.”

Police reviewed the situation and ordered the yellow time at the intersection raised to 4.5 seconds on June 5. At least five other pending tickets will be dismissed, but Schirmbeck believes hundreds of other motorists may have been trapped by the same short yellow and deserve full refunds.

A small change in the length of the yellow warning period can make a significant difference. The vast majority of “violations” caught on camera happen after drivers misjudge the end of the yellow light by less than 0.25 seconds — literally the blink of an eye (view chart). According to a report by the California State Auditor, nearly 80 percent of that state’s tickets were issued for violations that took place less than one second into the red. By adding an extra 1.4 seconds to the yellow, violations should plunge at the intersection of Baker and Garth by more than 80 percent.

Maybe someone ought to do a study on that. I must confess, I’m not clear on why a longer yellow light time makes a difference. I mean, maybe if you lived someplace where a yellow light was a signal to slow down and prepare to stop, as opposed to a signal that you’d better hustle if you want to make it through this light, it might reduce the number of red light violations. I might even want to live someplace like that, if I thought such a place existed. In the world we actually do inhabit, I admit to some lingering doubts. Be that as it may, I am curious about one thing: Is there an upper limit on what the yellow light duration should be. Everyone cites the “add one second” maxim to reduce red light violations, but why not add two seconds or three? At what point do you hit diminishing marginal returns, or do drivers start to adjust their behavior in a way that nullifies the positive effect? This says there’s a mathematical formula, which looks to me like there might be an effect that leads to increased speed at intersections, while this suggests there is no hard and fast rule, just a rule of thumb that 4.3 to 4.6 seconds is best.

Anyway. I agree that yellow light durations should be optimized. If that means red light camera revenues drop, that’s okay. I think they can have a positive effect on accidents, though that remains to be shown in Houston. I’m not convinced that lengthening yellow light times is sufficient, but it should be part of the fix. If it turns out that our drivers here respond well to that, fine; if not, the cameras will make money and there’ll be one less thing to complain about them. That’s a win-win.

Critics claim camera study shenanigans

So what else is new?

The Houston Police Department tried to influence the outcome of a controversial city-commissioned study by changing how crashes at intersections with red-light cameras were counted, according to documents included in a lawsuit.

HPD’s request was refused by the study’s authors, however, who concluded the number of accidents at 50 intersections with the cameras had increased, not decreased as city officials expected, documents say.

Attorneys fighting to end Houston’s 2-year-old red-light camera program seized on the documents — released after an open records lawsuit they filed against the city — as evidence the study was tainted by a purposefully skewed methodology.

“As in other cities, the red-light camera system in Houston is increasing accidents,” said Randall Kallinen, a lawyer who represents ticketed drivers in court. “This is very dangerous for the public, and we must end the red-light camera experiment.”

I just want to point out here that by Kallinen’s logic, if the next batch of data shows a decrease in accidents at these intersections, it must also be the cameras that caused that decrease. You can’t have it both ways.

City officials and Rice University political science Professor Robert Stein, one of the study’s main authors, contend the Houston Police Department’s requests were part of an ordinary back-and-forth about how best to examine the efficacy of red-light cameras and were not a conspiracy to deliver false data.

[…]

Researchers have studied the impact of such cameras for decades, but the results are mixed and inconclusive, according to an analysis of numerous studies conducted by The Cochrane Collaboration, an international organization that evaluates medical and public health research.

The Cochrane analysis found only five studies that used statistically sound methodology to examine data from the U.S., Singapore and Australia.

The result was that red-light cameras usually reduce the number of fatal crashes but don’t necessarily reduce total collisions.

The Houston study’s authors and city officials expected that to be the result here. Instead, the review showed crashes doubled at intersections where at least one camera was installed, although the uptick in collisions happened in the approaching lanes without cameras. At the lanes with cameras, the increase was too slight to be statistically significant, the study’s authors found.

According to an e-mail included in the lawsuit, an HPD official asked Stein in April to rule out accidents if they occurred more than 100 feet from the intersection. Kallinen also said that documents he obtained indicated the department attempted to rule out crashes that did not involve a red-light violation. Either of those steps would be more likely to lead to results showing the cameras reduced crashes, Kallinen said.

Stein, whose involvement has been criticized because his wife works for White, said the study’s other authors rejected HPD’s suggested change because they were using what they believed was the best methodology.

Mayoral spokesman Patrick Trahan said the police had legitimate reasons to consider limiting the crashes that way, as they did not want the study to include collisions that had nothing to do with running red lights or the cameras.

Doesn’t seem like too unreasonable a request to me, but then I haven’t been peddling conspiracy theories about the cameras. Your mileage may vary.

Can I make a simple request here? I know there’s another study going on to gather more data about the cameras and the accident rate in Harris County as a whole. How about we make sure this study uses the statistically sound methodology that the Cochrane folks refer to? Maybe we could all even agree beforehand that if such a methodology were to be used, we’d all accept the results, whatever they are. And finally, maybe we could try to get other locations that have the cameras do the exact same kind of study, so we can see if Harris County is getting similar results as they are or not. I mean, it could be the case that we’ve just done a lousy job of implementation, and if we’d followed the example set by others we’d get better results. Or perhaps we’ll learn that there are no better results, or that what we got in the first year was a fluke. All I’m saying is, it can’t hurt to have more and better data.

Stein acknowledged that the cameras are not working in Houston as well as he believes they have been shown to work in other cities. The city and critics should be more concerned about why, he said.

“Why are these crashes going up at these intersections?” Stein asked. “Nobody really cares to get at the truth here. Cars are being damaged, people are being injured and a handful of people are dying. … What I want to know is, why they aren’t working in Houston, and what we can do to improve them?”

You know what my suggestion is. And while we’re at it, let’s please release the draft version of this first study. There’s no reason not to, and holding onto it just fans the flames.