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Lawsuit filed over untested rape kits

This could be a big deal.

A former Houston woman is suing the City of Houston and a long list of current and former mayors and police chiefs for failing to investigate a backlog of more than 6,000 untested rape kits, and not identifying her attacker as a man who had been in a national police database for decades.

In one of several cases brought by victims against officials around the country in recent years, the victim of a 2011 sexual assault in Houston claims in a federal civil rights lawsuit this week that her perpetrator could have been apprehended and prosecuted for earlier crimes if officials had kept on top of the massive backlog of DNA samples in the city’s possession.

DeJenay Beckwith, 35, who now lives in Milam County, contends city officials failed to pursue a serial offender in her case, or investigate rape kits for other victims, because they don’t take women or child victims seriously. She is seeking damages, saying city officials violated her rights to due process and equal protection, and officials illegally took her property and violated her personal privacy and dignity under the Fourth Amendment.

[…]

Houston tackled the backlog of rape kits in early 2013 under former Mayor Annise Parker and ex-Chief Charles McClelland, drawing on $4 million in federal grants to outsource DNA testing with private forensic labs. Parker led the initiative to remove the crime lab from HPD management in April 2014 – although it remains in the HPD headquarters building – after the creation of an independent city-funded lab now overseen by civilian forensic experts.

According to court documents, Beckwith met her assailant on April 2, 2011, when he pretended to be a mechanic and offered to fix her broken down car. He asked to come inside her Southwest Houston home for a glass of water.

According to the lawsuit, he proceeded to throw her to the floor, strike her repeatedly and rape her. She chased him on foot, and a neighbor joined the chase, but he escaped in his car.

A rape kit taken at Memorial Hermann Southwest as a result of her police report was taken to the city’s crime lab.

Beckwith’s lawyers say the kit went untested for five years. During that time, she got one phone call from a detective who wanted to know what she was doing wandering on Bissonnet when she met her assailant, implying she was a prostitute and saying, “These things happen.”

The detective discouraged her from filing a report, telling her it was unlikely the suspect would be caught, according to the lawsuit.

She next heard from Houston police in 2016, when they contacted her to say they tested the DNA and they had a suspect. She later learned the man’s name was David Lee Cooper. Cooper had prior sexual assault convictions, including one from 2002 involving minor child. His DNA had been in the Combined DNA Index System, known as CODIS and managed by the FBI, since 1991.

The details of what happened to Ms. Beckwith are awful and troubling, and if the account of what the detective told her is accurate, I hope he’s no longer in that job. It’s too late to do anything to help Ms. Beckwith in any meaningful way, but we sure can get to the bottom of why this all happened and take steps to make sure it never happens again. The Press and ThinkProgress have more.

Harris County crime lab experiencing DNA testing backlog

These things do happen.

I want one of these

Never miss a chance to embed the DNA Robot

Expanded testing for property crimes has helped create a backlog of more than 4,600 DNA cases in the Harris County crime lab, straining its ability to complete the processing of such evidence for sexual assaults and even homicide cases in a timely manner.

Officials with the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences say a relentless uptick in property crime, robbery and assault cases has stretched the lab’s resources. The spikes can be traced in part to the lab’s own push in recent years to expand its forensic operations and offer law enforcement agencies more DNA testing for property crimes.

The lab serves more than 60 law enforcement agencies, which rely on it to process DNA evidence as part of criminal investigations. Officials are particularly concerned about how the backlog has affected sexual assault cases, which they’ve pledged to make a priority as the cases have recently taken longer to finish.

Sexual assault cases took on average of 172 days to complete in 2015, far from the county’s 60-day goal and the roughly 60 to 90 days that they took from 2009 to 2013 The average for homicides and death investigations is now 238 days, though it is more difficult to set a benchmark in such cases because evidence often comes in piecemeal over time.

The backlog – defined by county lab officials as containing any case that has not been completed – has set off a debate over how to prioritize DNA testing in the short term and handle lesser offenses such as property crimes in the long term.

[…]

[Crime Lab Director Roger] Kahn said the lab already has essentially halted analyses of DNA in some property crimes. Last July, the institute said it would suspend “touch DNA” analysis – such as testing for microscopic skin cells containing DNA that naturally rub off on objects – for almost all property crimes.

The moves have contributed to a drop in the number of sexual assault cases that take more than 60 days to complete: after reaching 252 in January, that number was 148 last month, Kahn said.

He stressed that the high numbers are also in part because of new protocols to reanalyze some cases that have samples containing multiple people’s DNA. These, he said, can often be the most complex cases.

All this being said, Kahn acknowledged that the turnaround times are too high.

He said lab officials are looking at halting some analyses of assault and robbery cases. The lab is also planning to work with sexual assault nurse examiners to better identify samples to analyze in such cases, and is weighing other possible workflow improvements.

For their part, county commissioners on Tuesday approved the crime lab’s move to apply for a National Institute of Justice grant of more than $645,000 that would help its DNA division – the Forensic Genetic Laboratory – reduce the backlog. It has applied for and received the same grant since 2005.

Commissioners also approved a roughly $100,000 contract to outsource some property-crime testing to a private company, Bode Cellmark Forensics, an uncommon move but one that the county has made in the past.

[…]

It’s unclear what will happen to property crime cases, and possibly robbery and assault cases, that the county crime lab may set aside to focus on sexual assaults and homicides. Kahn said the lab works closely with law enforcement and the district attorney’s office to prioritize cases, even those involving property crimes.

At Wednesday’s meeting, District Attorney Devon Anderson questioned whether the lab should be making decisions of what types of cases to prioritize.

Sheriff Ron Hickman said telling the public that the county lab had the technology to solve crimes, but couldn’t use it because of lack of resources, would not “play well.”

“How do you get to say, ‘No?'” Hickman said.

Kahn said the current focus is on sexual assault cases. Then lab officials, with other public officials, will determine how best to use the lab’s resources.

There’s a lot there and I don’t want to make too big a deal over it. Both DA Anderson and Sheriff Hickman raise good questions, for which they deserve better answers than “we’ll figure it out later”. If this is a matter of resources, then Commissioners Court needs to address that. The County Crime Lab serves multiple cities in addition to the county, so it’s not just their own business that’s being affected.

We can’t discuss the Harris County crime lab without mentioning the Houston lab and the ongoing debate over whether the two should merge. I’ve noted before that there are questions about how the county handles crime lab issues and how the city’s needs would be accounted for. This situation highlights those concerns. As the story notes, the city’s crime lab has its own backlog issues, though they are smaller and seem to be on track towards resolution. I’m just pointing this out to note that there are questions to answer before anything can go forward. If you want this to go forward, which is certainly a reasonable thing, those questions need to be addressed. It’s not insurmountable, but it’s not nothing and shouldn’t be treated as nothing.

All backlogged rape kits have been tested

Great news.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Houston officials have completed the lab testing and review of a three-decade backlog of rape kits, yielding 850 matches in the national DNA database.

On Monday, Mayor Annise Parker, District Attorney Devon Anderson and police department and crime lab officials trumpeted the newly complete testing of the 6,600 kits as a major milestone. Now, however, those 850 hits fall to HPD and prosecutors to determine whether charges can be pressed.

So far, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office has prosecuted 29 suspects, disposing of seven cases. One was dismissed because the complainant did not want to go forward with the case, and the others resulted in sentences ranging from two years to 45 years, said Jane Waters, head of the District Attorney’s Office’s special victims bureau.

“I know this milestone is of special importance to the rape survivors and their families and friends because pit means their cases are receiving the attention they should have years ago,” Parker said. “If there is a chance of prosecution in a case that has languished or new cases that are uncovered, that prosecution will happen.”

Anderson also acknowledged for the first time that in some cases alleged assailants committed other crimes, including rape, while their DNA sat untested. She said she did not know off-hand how many suspects fit that description, but there may not have been enough DNA at the time to generate a profile in some cases. Waters added after the press conference that some may have involved victims who chose not to move forward with their cases at the time.

“Yes, it did happen unfortunately,” Anderson said. “We are eagerly looking forward to prosecuting those rapists, those repeat rapists.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The last of the kits was sent off to the lab in August of 2013, so at this point all the work has been done. One pleasant surprise to come out of this was that there were no exonerations. I would have bet a modest sum of money at the beginning of this story that at least one wrongly convicted person would be freed as a result of this. I’m glad that none of the men who will be put into prison because of these rape kits will be replacing someone who shouldn’t have been. KUHF and Hair Balls have more.

More suspects arrested from the rape kit backlog

More good news.

Houston’s effort to test a nearly three-decade backlog of sexual assault kits has resulted in new charges filed against 19 people, city officials said Monday, including 10 suspects identified and arrested for the first time.

One of the new suspects has been charged in connection with two assaults; another remains at large, Houston Police Department spokesman John Cannon said. The other eight suspects, he said, already are in jail on other charges and now face sexual assault charges.

City Council in 2013 paid $4.4 million to two private labs to test DNA samples from 9,750 cases, including a backlog of 6,600 rape kits dating to 1987. The labs’ work is nearly done, and staff from HPD and the city’s forensics lab now are entering all eligible genetic information into the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, a national law enforcement database.

So far, DNA from 1,031 of those cases has produced “hits,” meaning a suspect’s DNA already was in the database in connection with an earlier crime. In the vast majority of cases reviewed to date, officials said the suspects are known to police, having been arrested, convicted or detained at some point.

HPD Assistant Chief Matt Slinkard said the reviews have confirmed police arrested the right person in 58 sexual assault cases, but officials did not release details Monday about these cases or the 19 suspects hit with new charges. The Houston Chronicle reported in April the testing had identified at least one serial rapist already in jail on other charges.

The police officials gathered Monday at City Hall with Mayor Annise Parker and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to celebrate the renewal of a federal law that frees up millions of dollars to help cities test sexual assault kits. Parker and Cornyn also lauded the city task force – headed by three lieutenants, eight sergeants and 33 investigators – charged with clearing the backlog by updating criminal cases and making arrests as suspects are identified.

See here, here, and here for the background. Let me also recommend that you read Emily DePrang’s in depth story in the Observer about how we got here, and how HPD is now leading the way nationally when it comes to dealing with untested rape kits. A few bits to whet your interest:

The trouble is, demand for DNA testing in many places continued to outstrip growth in crime-lab capacity. Backlogs, once cleared, would quickly form again. In 2009, a CBS News investigation found that rape kits in Alabama and Illinois took, on average, six months to process. In Missouri, the wait was almost a year.

These kits—the ones submitted by law enforcement to crime labs for analysis but not returned for more than 30 days—are what the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Department of Justice, considers “backlogged.”

But that’s not what happened in Texas.

Rather, most of the 19,000 kits reported (so far) never saw the inside of a lab because a sexual assault investigator made the decision not to have them tested. Victims who endure DNA collection may understandably assume it will be analyzed as part of the investigative process, but until recently, law enforcement officers could choose whether to test a kit. Often, they chose not to.

This was by no means limited to Texas. A 2011 survey by the National Institute of Justice found that, on average, nearly one in five recent unsolved rape cases nationally contain forensic evidence for which police never requested analysis.

The language used to talk about untested kits can obscure this deliberateness. If only for brevity, law enforcement and victims’ rights advocates alike have embraced the term “backlog” to describe all untested kits, but this can wrongly suggest that testing was attempted or intended. The term “backlog” implies the problem was simply a lack of resources instead of a conscious decision by police not to test. Similarly, untested kits are usually described as having been “discovered,” often “discovered in a warehouse,” as if evidence for thousands of sexual assault cases had been misplaced. That’s misleading, too.

“I think on some level jurisdictions love to use the word ‘discovered,’” says Sarah Tofte, vice president of policy and advocacy for the national Joyful Heart Foundation, “because that makes them feel, in a way, a little bit better, and maybe look a little less culpable.” The Joyful Heart Foundation runs the website EndtheBacklog.org, a clearinghouse for information on the quest to test all kits. Tofte says, “I think when people hear, ‘Oh, they discovered a backlog,’ they imagine there was some abandoned meat locker somewhere in a field, and they opened it and said, ‘Oh my gosh! There are all these untested rape kits! We had no idea.’ But yes, jurisdictions know. They know because it’s their policy. If their policy is, ‘Don’t send everything to the lab,’ there shouldn’t be a surprise when there’s a backlog.”

[…]

In 2010—before [Sen. Wendy] Davis’ bill—HPD, on its own initiative, had already implemented a test-all-kits policy. Then it successfully applied for a competitive grant from the National Institute of Justice. The grant, awarded just to Houston and Detroit, provided funds for the city not only to inventory its kits, but to study why so many went untested for so long, and to institute reforms. This wasn’t a secretive internal probe, either. Since early 2011, guided by the grant, HPD has hosted regular meetings of a diverse team of researchers, victims’ advocates, health care workers, forensic scientists, prosecutors and police brass, all dedicated to improving their response to sexual-assault survivors in Houston. When the grant ends in October, the group plans to continue its work independently.

Before sitting down together as part of the straightforwardly named Sexual Assault Kit Action-Research Task Force, many of these parties hadn’t previously communicated, let alone collaborated. Others, like victims’ rights advocates and some HPD investigators, were downright adversarial. As part of the group’s research, social scientists surveyed the attitudes of people in the justice system toward victims’ rights advocates and found that investigators in HPD’s Adult Sex Crimes Unit were particularly averse to outside meddling. One investigator told the group’s researchers, “…[Advocates] lead the woman to believe things that aren’t true.” Another complained, “[Advocates] have an agenda and take the woman’s side immediately.”

Undeterred, HPD moved forward with a plan to add a “justice advocate” to the Adult Sex Crimes Unit: a master’s-level social worker charged with improving investigators’ interactions with victims. The advocate, Emily Burton-Blank, was installed within earshot of investigators—a major breach of traditional police insularity—and investigators were required to involve her when contacting victims prone to dropping out of the process, such as people who are homeless or suffering from mental illness.

“Where we saw a large issue was the fact that a lot of people were dropping out of the system shortly after reporting [their rapes],” says HPD Assistant Chief Lentschke. “So we looked at that. How can we keep them in longer? Emily [the advocate] is a living, breathing idea. She’s done magnificent. And the investigators who were so anti-advocate … now they absolutely love her. That’s a huge turnaround.”

Sonia Corrales, chief program officer for the Houston Area Women’s Center, agrees. “Whenever we send a survivor [to HPD],” she says, “we know that when they talk to Emily, they’re getting really great service.”

The justice advocate position was originally slated to last less than a year and be funded only through the grant, but HPD officials quickly found the results so impressive that they made the position permanent and committed to hiring more advocates in the future.

It’s one of several steps HPD has taken to improve its treatment of sexual-assault survivors. New policies now require investigators to go into the field to investigate assaults rather than closing cases if victims fail to return phone calls or respond to a letter. The adult unit recently set aside a private room in which to take victims’ statements rather than interviewing them in the open, surrounded by other staff and ringing phones. And investigators have gotten new training, including education on the neurobiology of trauma so they can better recognize and respond to it.

But most important, HPD leadership has committed to ending the culture of victim blaming.

It’s a great story, so go read the whole thing. And did you notice the reference in there to Wendy Davis? A bill she authored in 2011 provided funding for rape kit testing, requiring every law enforcement agency to tally and report its untested sexual assault kits, and mandating that law enforcement agencies submit kits to a crime lab within 30 days. HPD as noted had gotten started before then, but the rest of the state wouldn’t be where it is now without that bill. Every one of these arrests is a reason to celebrate, as is the revelation – which I admit comes as a bit of a surprise – that no wrongly convicted offenders have been identified. With the winding down of this important project, the city’s new Forensic Science Center should be in good position going forward to ensure that there is never again this kind of backlog. Kudos to all for getting this done, and to Mayor Parker for making it a priority of her administration. Grits has more.

HPD’s good, bad, and ugly

The good news is that the testing of backlogged rape kits has led to the identification of a serial rapist in Houston.

Houston police on Tuesday for the first time identified a criminal suspect – a possible serial rapist – from testing of sexual assault kits that once gathered dust in the police property room.

HPD sex crime investigators said Herman Ray Whitfield Jr., 43, has been charged with four counts of aggravated sexual assault going back to 1992, and said he may have had more victims.One of his victims, police said, was a 12-year-old.

The identity comes one year after two independent labs began processing about 10,000 cases, including 6,600 untested sexual assault kits, that were stored in the HPD property room. The city turned to an outside lab after DNA testing at HPD’s crime lab was suspended when an independent audit revealed shoddy forensic work.

In February, Houston Police Department brass said partial results of a DNA testing had not resulted in any false arrests. And while HPD confirmed the testing had led to a number of arrests, they would not reveal the exact number or identify any suspects.

“I don’t think it’s surprising. You have thousands of untested rape kits, and when you start testing them you’re going to start making connections,” said Mark Bennett, a veteran Houston criminal defense attorney.

“If there are rape victims who wouldn’t have been raped if the authorities had done their jobs properly, we should all be outraged by that.”

[…]

Whitfield was sentenced in 1994 to 30 years in prison for kidnapping and served 12 years before being paroled in 2006, [Sgt. John] Colburn said.

He confirmed the evidence in the sexual assault cases was developed by DNA testing by the independent labs.

From 2006 to 2009, Whitfield was living near Airport Boulevard and Texas 288 in the Sunnyside area but had several different addresses before being sent back to prison in 2009 on a parole violation, according to officer Holly Whillock.

At some point during his parole, Whitfield’s DNA was entered into a national database, allowing police to later link him to the four local cases, Colburn said.

His victims ranged from 12 to 30.

Three of the assaults occurred before he went to prison: Dec. 15, 1992, 4300 block of Alvin; Feb. 16, 1993, 4300 block of Alvin; and Aug. 30, 1993, 4400 block of Wilmington.

The other charge stems from an attack on June 11, 2008, in the 4300 block of Wilmington. In that case, police released a composite sketch of the attacker, based upon the victim’s description.

Grits was the first to publish about this, and he notes that there will likely be more such identifications when all is said and done. It’s great that this criminal will be held responsible for his rapes, hopefully to the tune of a life sentence, but as Mark Bennett said in the story, the fact that he wasn’t tied to those crimes before now is a tragedy and an outrage. The failures of HPD’s crime lab are well known, but there has been plenty of other bad news for HPD in recent weeks, all of which led to this blistering editorial in the Chron, in which they call for a third-party investigator to do a thorough examination of HPD’s practices.

It seems like a month can’t go by without HPD landing itself in another controversy. There were two HPD lieutenants who retired, with full benefits, amid allegations of sexual harassment. The crime lab faces an internal investigation after reports that a former employee did not follow proper procedures over the last two years. This comes on the tail of untested evidence, faked results, inaccurate fingerprinting and contaminated blood tests. We thought those days were over.

HPD has also yet to properly address a lauded two-part article by Texas Observer writer Emily DePrang documenting rampant and unpunished police brutality in Houston. Nor has HPD taken significant steps to address police shootings, even after a series of articles by Chronicle reporter James Pinkerton revealed that a quarter of civilians shot by HPD over the past five years had been unarmed.

Now we’re learning that the homicide division simply ignored stacks of cases and failed to keep track of documents. The problems go all the way to the top: City Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a former police sergeant, kept homicide case files after leaving the force (“Council member imposes penalty on self,” Page A1, Thursday). Because of this incompetence, a man charged with murder now sits out of reach in Honduras. How many other murderers roam free because Houston’s police officers refused to do their jobs?

Neither Mayor Annise Parker nor District Attorney Devon Anderson should be satisfied with HPD’s performance. The department’s failures undermine its reliability in the courts and its trustworthiness in the hearts of citizens. All of Houston suffers when HPD falls down on the job, yet it seems like officers get off with a slap on the wrist.

See here and here for those two Observer stories by Emily DePrang; I’ve got links to the Chron stories about shootings here. I’d like to see this be an issue in the DA’s race and in next year’s Mayoral race. Frankly, given that DePrang’s stories were published last summer, it should have been an issue in the 2013 Mayor’s race. Instead of his half-baked reform ideas, Ben Hall should have been all over HPD’s discipline problems and used them to attack Mayor Parker hammer and tong. Sure, a lot of this stuff predates her, and institutional change is hard, but hey, the buck stops here. Every Mayoral wannabe next year needs to be pressed on this. It’s embarrassing, it’s unacceptable, and it needs to stop.

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.

Clearing the rape kit backlog is producing results

Very promising results.

Private forensic laboratories hired to clear the Houston Police Department’s untested DNA evidence – including a decades-old rape kit backlog – have identified potential offenders in a third of the cases where sufficient DNA samples were found, according to a HPD report.

[…]

Since the HPD lab resumed operations about six years ago, the city has spent millions to outsource DNA evidence testing to reduce the backlog, including $2.1 million in federal money in 2010 and 2011. That money was used, in part, to study why the kits had not been tested.

Last year’s multimillion-dollar clearance project to bulk outsource the cases came more than a year after HPD officials began an inventory of the sexual assault kits in their property room to determine how many had not been tested.

The two private labs have received 9,500 cases, and completed testing in nearly 6,200, according to the HPD report. Of those completed, sufficient evidence was found in 1,268, about a third of the 3,760 cases that have undergone HPD review to ensure the DNA evidence meets federal standards.

The remaining 2,492 cases reviewed did not find any results useful to investigators, the report states. Another 2,410 of the cases where testing was completed are still in HPD review.

See here and here for the background. If the same ratio of useful results holds true for the 2400 cases still being reviewed by HPD, then Houston will have had a higher success rate than some other cities when they finally cleared their backlogs. That doesn’t mean we should expect a thousand or more arrests – going by prior experience, we may see arrests in ten percent of these cases – but still, every single one will be good news. And of course, there are other possibilities.

Bob Wicoff, with the Harris County public defenders office, said the forensic testing could possibly result in exonerations of people wrongly convicted of a crime, or lead to the apprehension of guilty parties.

“There could be some exonerations out of this, but it’s too early to say,” said Wicoff, who represented two Harris County men who were wrongly convicted and imprisoned for rape. “That’s the whole point of doing the testing – its to identify unknown DNA.”

I’ll be surprised if there isn’t at least one exoneration out of all this. The experience we’ve seen elsewhere strongly suggests that one or more innocent men will be identified as a result of this work. That too is very good news, and it will be doubly so if the real rapist gets caught as well.

Rape kit backlog eliminated

More good news.

For the first time in its history, the Houston Police Department doesn’t have a backlog of rape kits that haven’t been tested.

The backlog, which at one point totalled 6,600 untested rape kits, was eliminated by sending the kits to outside labs, Chief Charles McClelland said.

“There is no backlog regarding DNA (evidence) and sexual assault kits,” said McClelland, adding that lab results are beginning to arrive back at the police department and criminal investigations will be updated if usable evidence is found.

The police department used federal grants and city funding to pay for processing the rape kits, in addition to testing evidence in other pending cases for possible DNA, the chief said. Rape kits are the informal term for biological samples as well as physical evidence gathered from victims of sexual assaults, which are later processed to see if they match the DNA of a suspect.

Police officials say they have the laboratory capacity, both inside HPD and in outside labs, to keep a backlog from developing.

It was back in March that Council unanimously approved a plan by Mayor Parker to allocate funds to clear the backlog by sending all of the kits to two outside labs. I presume what this story really means is that as of now all of the kits have been physically transferred from HPD’s possession to those two labs. The fact that HPD is now able to process all of the DNA evidence it collects in a timely manner so that no new backlogs develop is at least as big a deal as the clearing of the backlog that had existed for so many years.

Past critics of the department’s forensic services, including the city’s largest police union, say they expect the crime lab not to ever lag behind again.

“Under this chief and mayor, it better be sustainable because they made it very clear to the (assistant) chief who took over that position that it is not going to happen again,” said Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officer’s Union. “I’m very confident, under this administration, that there won’t be a backlog. That is something that has to happen – you can’t get behind.”

Assistant Chief Matt Slinkard said that HPD investigators receive about 1,000 new sexual assault cases each year, and these cases are also being sent to a pair of outside laboratories. Other criminal cases needing forensic testing are being processed in the HPD lab.

This is a big deal and an accomplishment of which Mayor Parker should be justifiably proud. It will make the transition to the new crime lab structure much smoother, and it means that the new crime lab can be more aggressive about pursuing and analyzing DNA evidence in property crime cases. All in all, a very good day for the city.

No action on SB5 in the Senate

The name of the game is running out the clock.

Right there with them

Right there with them

Texas Democrats, far outnumbered by Republicans in both the House and the Senate, are nonetheless on the verge of killing one of the most restrictive abortion proposals in the nation — at least for now.

Using delaying tactics and parliamentary rules, the minority party argued into the wee hours in the state House on Monday morning and then stuck together to keep the GOP from jamming Senate Bill 5 through the Senate in the afternoon. Republicans vowed to try to try to muster enough support to push the bill through again Monday night, but it was unclear if they could change any minds.

SB 5, by state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, would make abortion illegal after 20 weeks and would establish stringent new requirements for facilities that perform abortions. Supporters of the bill say it would make the procedures safer for women and protect unborn babies. Abortion rights proponents say the legislation would shut down most of the abortion facilities in Texas.

With barely more than a day left in the 30-day special session called by Gov. Rick Perry at the end of May, that means Democrats have moved much closer to putting the controversial measure within the range of a filibuster.

“I think we are now in a position to try to do what’s right for the women of this state,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus. “We need to be protecting women’s health in this state, and we need to be protecting a woman’s right to make choices about her body.”

Sen. Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat and rising star in the party, has vowed to launch a filibuster. Unless Republicans can change some votes, the abortion measure can’t be brought up for debate until Tuesday morning at about 11 a.m. Since the session ends at midnight Tuesday, that means she could kill the legislation by talking nonstop for about 13 hours.

The Democrats won a test vote at about 4 p.m., turning away a GOP attempt to fast track the abortion legislation by suspending a 24-hour layout rule. It takes a supermajority — two-thirds of those present — to suspend that rule. The Democrats voted as a bloc and stopped debate on the measure.

There was a second attempt to get a motion to suspend but it failed as well. The Senate is in recess until 10 AM today. As noted, from that point on it’s a matter of someone talking till midnight, at which point the session expires. There could, of course, be a second session called, but you take your victories where you can.

In the meantime, let the blame game begin!

Accusations of who’s to blame for the anti-abortion proposal’s potential demise already are starting to fly.

Look no further than the always vocal Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who blasted leadership after the Senate recessed Monday afternoon.

In a short back-and-forth with reporters, Patrick said “very clearly it does not look like there was coordination between the people who lead the majority” when it comes to Senate Bill 5.

“It’s just clear that we appear to be flying a little bit by the seat of our pants. These are important bills. You don’t fly by the seat of your pants when you try to pass important bill.”

Patrick added: “We’re the majority if the majority can’t pass the legislation they think is important and the people think is important then that’s a great concern to me.”

In response, Lt. Gov David Dewhurst said Patrick misrepresented leadership’s strategy and that he “had a very clear plan” to “pass good pro life legislation.”

Dewhurst quickly turned the table to focus on the House, which passed SB5 Monday morning.

After passing the bill, the House sent SB5 to the Senate for the upper chamber to concur with a change it made when the lower chamber put back language to ban abortions at 20-weeks.Concurring with the House change is the final step for the Senate before sending the bill to Gov. Rick Perry.

But because the House wrestled with SB5 from Sunday evening all the way into Monday morning, it delayed the Senate’s ability to move forward and cut short the potential for an even longer filibuster from Democrats.

“I asked the House ‘please don’t send it to us at the last minute, please,’” Dewhurst said. “Send it out at the latest on Sunday afternoon, so we’ll be able to take it up outside of filibuster range. “

Dewhurst added: “The House, by passing this out late this morning, it means that we can’t bring the bill up until tomorrow at 11 o’clock … most of us … could stand up for 13 hours and talk. That’s the reason why I wanted Senate Bill 5 passed out of the House by late afternoon Sunday, so we could bring it up this afternoon, and I think out of filibuster range where its difficult for most people to talk for 36 hours in a row.”

I don’t know, I might have included Rick Perry in the blame, since he sets the session agenda and all. But then, Dan Patrick isn’t (possibly) running against Perry. And it must be noted, Dewhurst did try to go the extra mile.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told Sen. Leticia Van de Putte in a letter Monday that the he plans to move forward with a package of strict abortion restrictions even if the San Antonio Democrat is away attending services for her recently deceased father.

“I cannot in good conscience delay the people’s work on these important matters,” Dewhurst wrote Monday.

[…]

Van de Putte’s vote could be what determines whether Democrats can block Republican efforts to suspend the 24-hour layout rule. Without her, Democrats don’t have enough votes to block it.

And Van de Putte is scheduled to be in San Antonio on Monday attending services for her father, Daniel San Miguel Jr., who was killed in a car accident last week. Van de Putte lobbed a letter at Dewhurst a day earlier (rumors have been swirling all day at the Capitol about Van De Putte potentially showing up; her office declined to comment).

In his letter, Dewhurst offered condolences but made clear the Senate cannot wait because time is running out on the special session.

“I believe we can fulfill our obligation to the people of Texas while honoring your beloved father’s memory,” he wrote.

The wild card in the equation: Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville.

Lucio supports the package of anti-abortion bills, and he’s also planning to vote in favor of a motion to suspend the 24-hour layout rule. But he’s said he won’t cast that vote unless Van De Putte is on the floor.

“Senator Van de Putte asked me directly — knowing I support Senate Bill 5—to nonetheless vote no on suspending the 24-hour posting rule on the bill until she can be in the Senate chamber to cast her vote against it.” Lucio said. “I am honoring Senator Van de Putte’s request.”

Heck of a guy, that David Dewhurst. Remember when he tried to take advantage of John Whitmire being in the bathroom to push through a vote on voter ID during Mario Gallegos’ convalescence after his liver transplant? Good times. Lucio thankfully stuck to his word, and Dewhurst was thwarted – for now – having ruined Sen. Kevin Eltife’s vacation for nothing.

So it comes down to today, and there will be filibustering. Maybe the Rs have something up their sleeve to overcome that – after 10 AM, all they’ll need is a majority vote – and as noted, maybe Rick Perry will call another session. But this is a win, and as was the case ten years ago with the Killer Ds, it’s a galvanizing event. If you’re in Austin today, you can be there to see it for yourself. And wherever you are, you can keep the ball moving after sine die, whenever that may be.

Finally, I can’t let this go without a tip of the hat to Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, who demonstrated that one does not have to be a man to say something profoundly stupid and offensive about rape. As they say, sometimes no sarcastic remark seems adequate. PDiddie has more.

It sure is nice to budget when you have money

Mayor Parker has released her FY2014 budget, and it’s great news for those of you that have been waiting for their single-stream recycling bin.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

More than 100,000 Houston homes will be added to the city’s single-stream recycling program by this fall, doubling the number of households receiving the 96-gallon green bins.

About 35,000 homes will receive single-stream service via the wheeled containers in July, allowing curbside recycling of glass, newspapers, magazines, cans, cardboard and plastic. Another 70,000 homes will be added in October.

Today, 28 percent of Houston homes have single-stream, and 26 percent use 18-gallon tubs, in which glass is not allowed. Another 46 percent do not have curbside recycling. The $7.8 million plan would expand single-stream service to about 55 percent of the city’s households, Mayor Annise Parker said. Of the initial 35,000 homes, a Solid Waste Department spokeswoman said, 15,000 will be first-time recyclers and 20,000 will upgrade from the 18-gallon tubs.

“To be a little more than halfway there is a great milestone,” Solid Waste Management Director Harry Hayes said, adding he anticipates a $500,000 savings in waste diverted from landfills.

The announcement came as Mayor Annise Parker rolled out her budget for the 2014 fiscal year, which starts July 1. The proposed budget, which must be approved by City Council, is $4.5 billion, including enterprise funds such as the aviation department and utility systems, and represents a 6.4 percent increase over the current fiscal year.

The proposed general fund budget, supported chiefly by property and sales taxes, is $2.2 billion, an increase of 4.9 percent over the current budget, but just 2.4 percent over projected spending for the current year.

Most of the spending increases – 51 percent – are driven by contracts with the city municipal, police and fire unions and each group’s pension board. Another 8.4 percent will go to rising health care costs.

The Mayor’s press release on the budget is here. Expanded recycling is the big deal, but there are a lot of other goodies in there as well. Some highlights include the completion of the rape kit backlog; $2.2 million to fund operations of the city’s new public safety radio project, which is about harmonizing communications with Harris County and other entities; the creation of the Forensic Transition Special Fund to keep separate and account for costs related to the Houston Forensic Science LGC; an extra $693K for BARC; and for the first time ever, a line item for infrastructure maintenance, renewal and replacement. The release also notes that all services that were cut two years ago will be restored if they have not already been. Like I said, ain’t it great to have the money for the things you need?

UPDATE: From the Texas Campaign for the Environment and my inbox:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

May 15, 2013

Contact: Tyson Sowell (713) 337-4192 (office) or (217) 418-9415 (cell)

Environmentalists Applaud Recycling Expansion But Opposed to City’s “Recycling Scheme”

HOUSTON–Environmentalists applaud Mayor Parker’s Fiscal Year 2014 Budget Proposal that would expand curbside recycling to 100,000 households, while also urging her office to let curbside recycling work before adopting unproven waste schemes. The proposed expansion of single-stream recycling, separation of recyclables in one cart and garbage in another cart, is the single largest expansion of curbside recycling in the City of Houston’s history.

“We are very happy to hear a renewed commitment to the expansion of single-stream recycling,” Tyson Sowell, Program Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment said. “Over the previous years, the city has said that they cannot expand curbside recycling due to budget constraints. We’re glad to see that they have decided to make recycling a priority.”

The proposed curbside expansion comes on the heels of recent negative public reaction towards the Mayor’s proposal to build a “dirty MRF (materials recovery facility)”.

The “dirty MRF” would cost an estimated $100 million, and would sort recyclables and garbage that have been combined or sorted by residents and collected in one truck. Texas Campaign for the Environment (TCE) says that similar facilities in other communities and have failed to achieve high recycling rates.

“Houstonians want to recycle and we want real recycling. The announced expansion is a direct result of thousands of letters written by Houstonians to the mayor and city council members asking for real recycling, not some magic system that will not work,” Mr. Sowell said. “Houstonians get it. They understand that dirty MRFs do not work because of contamination issues. They understand that paper is ruined when you place your coffee grounds on top of it. Hopefully this is a sign that the City of Houston understands this now, as well, and will allow real recycling to work.”

Currently, the city services 375,000 households with garbage collection services. Of those 375,000 households, 170,000 households do not have curbside recycling available to them. The proposed expansion would cut the number to those without curbside recycling to 135,000 households at the start of fiscal year 2014 and cut it again to 70,000 by the end of fiscal year 2014.

Mr. Sowell says that the next step is for the city to commit to similar expansions of recycling for the next two fiscal years so that everyone will have single-stream curbside recycling by 2016 and for the city to abandon the “dirty MRF” idea.

Where does the crime lab go from here?

Now that there’s a plan in place to clear the longstanding crime lab backlog, the question is what should we expect from the crime lab going forward?

Scott Hochberg

“It’s sort of hard to build a house when you’re trying to dig yourself out of a hole,” said Scott Hochberg, chairman of the Houston Forensic Science Local Government Corp., a nine-member independent-appointed board formed by Mayor Annise Parker last year to take over the city’s forensic operations from Houston Police Department. “So getting back to ground level is a good place to start.”

Police officials are optimistic that by the time backlog testing is completed, in an estimated 14 months, control of the city’s forensic testing will largely fall under LGC authority, rather than HPD. Whether more property crimes – which accounted for just 3 percent of evidence the crime lab tested over the last two years – will be included will likely be the decision of the board, said HPD Executive Assistant Chief Timothy Oettmeier.

“We’d like to be in a position to look at the LGC and say ‘You know what, because we got rid of this humongous backlog that maybe we’ve got enough capacity to start processing some of that stuff,’ ” said Oettmeier, emphasizing that HPD will only play a supporting role for recommendations in crime lab functions once the LGC takes over.

[…]

The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, which serves 37 area law enforcement agencies, has been testing touch DNA in property crimes cases. When testing for touch DNA, the forensics institute has a 70 to 75 percent success rate for matches to crime suspects in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, a national database used to store DNA profiles, said agency spokeswoman Tricia Bentley.

Oettmeier said collection of touch DNA is contingent upon the number of crime scene unit personnel on staff to gather evidence. He said crime evidence collection is another part of forensics that HPD would like to hand over to crime lab.

“It’s unfortunate that we aren’t farther along in this area than we should be,” Oettmeier said. “But we’ve been carrying around this anchor with all of these problems for so long that we finally have a break and we’re going to take advantage of that.”

See here and here for more about the Houston Forensic Science Local Government Corporation (LGC). I too would like to see more done with property crime cases, including “touch DNA” testing. I also think moving crime evidence collection under the auspices of the LGC and away from HPD makes sense. What would you add to this that isn’t in the story?

What to expect from clearing the rape kit backlog

As you know, two weeks ago Mayor Parker announced that the city would allocate funds to clear the backlog of rape kits, thus bringing to a conclusions one of the city’s longest-standing issues. City Council has now unanimously approved the plan, in which out of state labs will provide the analyses. What was fascinating to me about this was the statistics cited at the end of the story:

Council members C.O. Bradford and Helena Brown raised concerns about the cost of bringing experts in from Utah and Virginia to testify, should cases resulting from testing the backlog go to trial.

Parker said the $4.4 million should cover all needed testimony, including that related to the active cases being outsourced, adding the city has farmed out DNA testing and flown experts here to testify for years. Even if the initial amount falls short, she said, there are several million dollars left in the budget set aside to tackle the backlog.

HPD Assistant Chief Matt Slinkard said both labs awarded contracts Wednesday have cleared other jurisdictions’ backlogs, and reported that expert testimony was required in fewer than 1 percent of such cases. Slinkard said cases also may be reopened and adjudicated without a need for expert testimony.

Parker said she expects few local cases to be affected by the testing of the backlog, because many have long since been closed or adjudicated, whether because other evidence was sufficient to bring charges, the victim was not willing to prosecute, or other such factors. The hit rate was “incredibly low,” she said, when other cities tackled their own backlogs.

New York City exonerated one defendant after working through its 16,000-kit backlog, first identified in 1999. As of 2009, the testing had produced 2,000 hits matching DNA profiles in law enforcement databases and 200 investigations, arrests or prosecutions, according to the Joyful Heart Foundation, which works to raise awareness of sexual and domestic violence.

Los Angeles’ backlog of 6,132 rape kits, made public in 2008, produced about 1,000 hits in law enforcement databases, according to the Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles police officials in 2011 estimated the number of arrests generated by the backlog testing in the “dozens.”

First, I had no idea there had been such backlogs in other cities, though I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised by that. Second, I had no idea that so few of the kits led to some kind of action. I don’t know what I should have expected, but whatever that is, it wasn’t this. To be clear, this is a worthwhile and absolutely necessary thing to do regardless, and the Council’s unanimous vote of approval shows the support for doing this. HPD also has a bunch of DNA samples from property crime cases to process, and getting all of this done sets the stage for better and more timely handling of this evidence going forward. I just thought this was interesting.

Clearing the rape kit backlog

Some excellent news from the Mayor’s office.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker and the Houston Police Department today announced details of a plan that will eliminate the backlog of untested sexual assault kits (SAK). Under the plan, which will be formally considered by Houston City Council next week, the untested kits will be sent to two outside labs for testing. It is anticipated the work will be completed in 12-14 months and cost the city $4.4 million, which will be covered with grant funding already awarded to HPD and dollars set aside for this purpose by City Council in the city’s current budget.

“Today is an important day for rape victims and the city as a whole,” said Mayor Parker. “With this plan we will finally be able to say the backlog is gone. The problem was years in the making and we’ve been working to solve it since I became mayor. It has been a struggle to deal with during a period of extremely difficult economic times, but we remained determined. I am committed to it never happening again.”

HPD is recommending the contract be awarded to Bode Technology Group, Inc. and Sorenson Forensics, LLC. They were selected through a competitive process. Both are recognized leaders in the field and both have worked on other large backlog projects in various places, including New York, Los Angeles and Los Angeles County. Due to the volume of work, the city is able to maximize the use of a low, fixed-price contract.

“This plan will eliminate the backlog of SAKs and other DNA cases entirely,” said Houston Forensic Science LGC Chair Scott Hochberg. “This will allow the existing crime lab to focus on current casework and give the LGC a clean start and the ability to focus on other issues as it works to establish an entirely independent city crime lab.”

“Department personnel have worked diligently on this project and will be implementing an aggressive plan to complete it in an effective and efficient manner,” said Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland. “I am extremely confident this will not be an issue in the future. I am also very proud of all the men and women who have helped us reach this milestone.”

The contract will include the following:

  • Testing of 6,663 stored SAKs
  • Testing of 1,450 active SAKs
  • Testing of 1,000 SAKs HPD anticipates receiving in the next year
  • Testing of 1,020 other non-SAK cases

The proposed contract with Bode Technology Group and Sorenson Forensics is expected to be on the February 20 City Council agenda. Approval by City Council would clear the way for transfer of all SAKs and other DNA cases to the two firms for the start of testing.

The backlog of these rape kits is a longstanding scandal, and clearing it would be a major accomplishment. Amazing the positive things that can get done when there’s money in the budget, isn’t there? The Chron story adds a few more details, including the fact that clearing the backlog would mean that DNA testing for property crime cases can proceed; that’s what the “1,020 other non-SAK cases” item above refers to.

The main question I have in reading this is whether the money came from the $5 per customer strip club fee that Council adopted last June. I wouldn’t think so, for two reasons. One, CM Ellen Cohen, who proposed the fee as a way to help pay for the rape kit backlog, estimated it would collect between one and three million dollars per year. Two point two million in six months seems like an awful lot. More to the point, I’m not sure the fee is even being collected yet, or if it is if its revenue is available for the city to use since the strip clubs filed a lawsuit over the fee in October. The state held the revenues collected from their fee in escrow for years while that litigation was being resolved. In any event, I posed the question to the Mayor’s office, also asking if the fee would still be needed now that the backlog was on its way to being resolved, and got the following response:

While the litigation is pending, the clubs are not paying the fee. The $2.2 million from the General Fund is part of $5 million City Council included in the current city budget last June for testing and to help with start up of the independent crime lab. It is not from the fee. There is no implication that the fee will no longer be needed. It just may not be needed for this purpose.

So there you have it. Speaking of the lawsuit, and I want to emphasize that this is my own speculation here, it seems to me that the resolution of the backlog would be a useful pretext for settling that litigation if both parties were so inclined. If the backlog is cleared then the fee is no longer needed, right? The city could agree to quit collecting it, and then modulo any haggling the clubs might want to do over fees that had already been collected, that would be all there is to it. Like I said, entirely my own speculation. Hair Balls has more.

City-county cooperation

It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?

At 9:27 p.m. on Election Day, when it was clear a Metro referendum crucial to both of their road-building budgets had passed, Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack’s phone buzzed with a text message from Houston Mayor Annise Parker: “Maybe we can tackle world peace next.”

The note hinted at the unlikeliness of their pact. As recently as August, before the cooperative push for a “yes” vote on the Metro referendum, the bombastic Radack, long a city critic, could be counted among the anti-Parker crowd.

And while it is not world peace, this political odd couple’s new alliance could spur progress on several languishing projects, most notably a joint city-county inmate processing center that first was proposed in the 1990s.

Over his steak salad, her bowl of chili and two iced teas at Tony’s last Wednesday, Parker and Radack decided movement could come on the processing center as early as next month, perhaps in the form of a clear plan presented to Commissioners Court and City Council.

“The processing facility is something that’s been brewing for a very long time. We need some resolution,” Parker said. “Commissioner Radack was previously in law enforcement, and he understands these issues. He’s interested in taking some lead on it in the county.”

Radack, a former Houston policeman and county constable, already has talked to other members of Commissioners Court and the county’s top budget and social services directors about moving forward.

“There’s a strong possibility we can help a lot of people, like the mentally ill,” Radack said. “I think we can operate much more efficiently, save taxpayers’ money, and do a better job. That potential is there. It’s time to seize the opportunity and get it going.”

It all sounds good, and this is certainly a sensible project. They’re also continuing to talk about jointly doing a crime lab that is independent of HPD – the city’s crime lab proposal is still a theoretical entity at this point – and about dealing with the city’s great backlog of rape kits. If all this comes together, it would be a pretty nice legacy for Parker no matter what happens in next year’s election.

Strip clubs sue city over $5 fee

Remember the $5 per customer strip club fee that was added as a budget amendment by CM Ellen Cohen as a way to fund clearing HPD’s backlog of rape kits? The clubs threatened to sue the city at the time this was debated, and last Thursday they followed through on that threat.

CM Ellen Cohen

In the lawsuit the strip clubs argue that the $5 per-customer fee on sexually oriented businesses passed by Council in June is unconstitutional on several grounds:

  • That state law requires that fees be based on the cost of processing permits and investigating applicants, whereas Cohen pushed the fee simply to raise money for the rape kits.
  • That a city cannot levy a tax targeting an occupation unless the state has already done so. Cohen’s state legislation applies to live nude entertainment. The plaintiffs offer what the city calls “semi-nude” entertainment, so their businesses are exempt from the state fee and therefore can’t be targeted by the city.
  • That it violates state law requiring that such taxes be equal across an industry. Here the strip clubs argue that they’re being singled out by a fee because of high prostitution, violent crime and drug use near adult establishments while the areas around bars without strippers have even higher rates of such crime.
  • It’s an infringement of the right to free speech. While a state court rejected this argument as it applied to Cohen’s state legislation governing nude entertainment, the ruling did not find that the spillover crime effects justifying free-speech restrictions were not as great for businesses that present semi-nude entertainment.

The ordinance and requested council action from June can be seen on starting on pdf page 123 here.

The story doesn’t have a copy of the suit, so the best I can do is tell you that it’s case number 201260353, which you can find on the District Clerk webpage. I reviewed the history of the strip clubs’ lawsuit against the state over that fee here. I’ll leave it to the legal experts to opine whether this suit has a better chance of success than that one did.

Council adopts strip club fee

Here it comes.

Seeking a solution to the bedeviling problem of untested rape evidence that is in some cases decades old, council imposed a $5-per-customer fee on strip clubs Wednesday so it can buy speedier lab work.

That simple solution, however, may come with complications of its own, starting with court costs.

“Houston has now bought itself the certainty of ongoing litigation,” said Los Angeles-based attorney John Weston, who represents the Association of Club Executives of Houston. Councilwoman Ellen Cohen said she believes the city is on solid ground because the Houston ordinance she championed is based on a $5-per-customer statewide fee she authored as a state representative. That fee was upheld by the Texas Supreme Court last year.

[…]

Cohen has said the Houston fee would raise $1 million to $3 million a year for rape evidence testing.

Collections in Houston will depend, in part, on who has to pay. Cohen estimated that about 30 clubs would be covered by her ordinance. The state has collected from 20 clubs in the city. A local attorney for the clubs said only a handful fit the city’s definition of a sexually-oriented business, while an additional 50 clubs’ entertainers wear just enough clothing to skirt the classification.

In the end, Cohen sold the ordinance to her colleagues as she declared, “We have waited long enough.” Council passed it by a vote of 14-1.

The need to clear the rape kit backlog was cited by CMs Oliver Pennington and CO Bradford as justification for their vote in favor. Given the certainty of litigation and the fact that the state-collected fee has not yet been appropriated because of that, it’s not clear to me that this will actually shorten the wait to get this done. I suspect the main question to be argued before the courts is which clubs are truly on the hook for this fee. It won’t surprise me if it’s a few years before we get an answer to that.

Budget amendment time

Now that Mayor Parker has formally submitted her proposed budget for fiscal year 2013, it’s time for Council members to submit their amendments for consideration. I’m going to start at the bottom of the story with the two proposals that intrigues me the most.

Two members called for a November election to amend the city’s term limits law, which forces council members, the mayor and controller from office after three two-year terms. [CM Wanda] Adams proposes two four-year terms; Councilman Andrew Burks proposes three four-year terms.

Councilman Ed Gonzalez has proposed a ban on plastic bags in Houston. Specifically, his amendment calls for the city to draw up an ordinance within a year that would phase out the use of the bags. Brownsville has banned the bags, and a ban goes into effect in Austin next year.

“We have a number of bayous, and they’re littered with plastic bottles and plastic bags,” which conservation groups spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year removing, Gonzalez said. He referred to trees on the banks of bayous with bags snagged in their boughs as “urban Christmas trees.” He said he does not envision the city offering businesses a financial incentive to abandon plastic bags.

As you know, I don’t like term limits at all, but if we have to have them I’d rather put the limit at 12 years rather than 6, for the simple reason that I don’t think six years is enough time to really accomplish much as a Council member. As such, I’d take Burks’ proposal over Adams’, though hers is still better than the status quo. However, I would prefer even more to have six two-year terms instead of three four-year terms. My argument for having two year terms instead of four year terms can be summed up in four words: Council Member Helena Brown. Four years is an awful long time to have to wait to correct an error like that.

As for the bag ban proposal, you know I’ve been following developments around the state and wondering when Houston might get in on the act. About time for it, I say. I don’t have a strong preference for any specific approach to this, whether a ban by fiat or by imposition of a tax on bags, perhaps to be replaced later by a full on ban. As long as the city engages all the stakeholders and gives plenty of opportunity for feedback, I’m sure the end result will be fine. All of these proposals assume Mayor Parker supports them, as they are unlikely to get very far if she doesn’t. We know she’s no fan of the current term limits system, and I’ll be very surprised if she doesn’t back up her Mayor Pro Tem on this one.

Council members Stephen Costello and Wanda Adams both call for giving $160,000 to the Houston Food Bank to help it enroll more people in SNAP, the federal program formerly known as food stamps.

One of Councilman Mike Sullivan’s amendments would eliminate funding for affirmative action monitoring on city contracts. Councilman Larry Green proposes increasing it.

From Councilman Jack Christie came a fill-it-or-kill-it plan that would have Council consider eliminating any position that remains vacant for three months.

First-term Councilwoman Ellen Cohen proposed a Houston version of the so-called “pole tax” she shepherded into law as a state legislator. The state law imposed a $5 per customer fee on strip clubs to raise money for sexual assault victims.

In order:

– I approve of the Costello/Adams proposal. Ensuring children have adequate nutrition is one of the best investments you can make. It is, to coin a phrase, a big effin’ deal.

– Sullivan may have won his Republican primary last month, but between this and some of his other amendments, which include a five percent pay cut for the Mayor and Council members, I guess he isn’t finished wooing those voters. I don’t expect them to go far, and as Campos notes, his colleagues who hope to be on Council longer than Sullivan intends to be probably aren’t too thrilled by this.

– I see some merit in Christie’s proposal, but on the whole I’d prefer to err on the side of more flexibility for department heads.

– I’m a tiny bit ambivalent about Cohen’s SOB proposal. No question, clearing the rape kit backlog is a huge priority, and with the favorable resolution of the lawsuit over the state “pole tax” law (that Cohen authored), this is the obvious vehicle for that. I just feel, as I did about the state law, that sexual assault is everyone’s problem and everyone’s responsibility, and as such it feels a little pat to put the entire burden for funding these needed items on strip clubs and the like. It’s a minor quibble, not enough to make me oppose Cohen’s amendment, I just felt like someone had to say that.

There’s more proposals than just these, of varying levels of seriousness and likelihood of adoption. In addition to her pension default tomfoolery, CM Helena Brown has a variety of no-hope amendments, including one to switch the city from a strong mayor system to a city manager system. There are pros and cons to each approach, and without commenting on the merits of one system over the other, I’ll just note that this would be a ginormous, fundamental change to how we do things, and as such would need a ton of discussion and engagement culminating in a charter referendum. All things considered, it’s hard to see this as anything but another attack on the Mayor by her political enemies. Stace has more.