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Ron Hickman

About that lost evidence

Sorry about that.

Mark Herman

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office has sent notices to lawyers in 10,000 closed criminal cases that evidence, which was kept in storage, may have been lost or destroyed between 2007 and 2016.

The bulk of the emails, which were sent Wednesday to lawyers for about 7,750 defendants, caused an uproar among defense attorneys but left Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman scratching his head.

“We’ve already been through this,” Herman said Wednesday. “This all stems from a year and half ago. It’s old news.”


“Upon learning that evidence may have been lost or destroyed while in the custody of law enforcement, it was our duty to conduct a thorough review, which included manually going through thousands of records to determine which cases may have been affected,” according to a statement released Wednesday from the District Attorney’s Office. “After the recent completion of that process, it was also our duty to notify all defendants and defense lawyers involved.”

Since each of the 10,484 cases has been resolved, defense lawyers are scrambling to figure out what evidence may have been destroyed and when. If the evidence was destroyed before the case was resolved, it could be grounds for an appeal. If the case is being appealed, the destruction of evidence could hamper those proceedings.

See here, here, and here for the background. This may be old news in a sense, but that doesn’t mean it’s been resolved. I don’t see any reason why we would have considered it closed last year, without Kim Ogg getting a chance to review everything after she got elected. If this causes problems, the reason for those problems goes back a lot farther than last year. Better to make sure everything we know about what happened comes out, and then we can be done with it.

Two unsatisfying articles about the 2016 Democratic sweep in Harris County

The Democratic sweep in Harris County has drawn some national attention, as writers from the left and right try to analyze what happened here last year and why Hillary Clinton carried the county by such a large margin. Unfortunately, as is often the case with stories about Texas by people not from Texas, the results are not quite recognizable to those of us who are here. Let’s begin with this story in Harper’s, which focuses on the efforts of the Texas Organizing Project.

Amid the happy lawyers, journalists, and other movers and shakers at the victory parties, one group of seventy-five men and women, who had arrived on a chartered bus, stood out. Most of them were Latinos, like Petra Vargas, a Mexican-born hotel worker who had spent the day walking her fellow immigrants to the polls. Others were African Americans, such as Rosie McCutcheon, who had campaigned relentlessly for the ticket while raising six grandchildren on a tiny income. All of them wore turquoise T-shirts bearing the logo top. Not only had they made a key contribution to the day’s results — they represented a new and entirely promising way of doing politics in Texas.

The Texas Organizing Project was launched in 2009 by a small group of veteran community organizers. Michelle Tremillo, a fourth-generation Tejana (a Texan of Mexican descent), grew up in public housing in San Antonio, where her single mother worked as a janitor. Making it to Stanford on a scholarship, she was quickly drawn into politics, beginning with a student walkout in protest of Proposition 187, California’s infamous anti-immigrant ballot measure. By the time she graduated, the elite university had changed her view of the world. “I always knew I was poor growing up, and I even understood that I was poorer than some of my peers that I went to school with,” Tremillo told me. What she eventually came to understand was the sheer accumulation of wealth in America and its leveling effect on the rest of the population: “We were all poor.”

Both Tremillo and her TOP cofounder Ginny Goldman, a Long Island native, had worked for ACORN, the progressive national community organization that enjoyed considerable success — registering, for example, half a million minority voters in 2008 — before becoming a target of calculated assaults by right-wing operatives. By 2009, the group was foundering, and it was dissolved a year later.

In response, the activists came up with TOP. Goldman, who was its first executive director, told me that TOP was designed to focus on specific Texan needs and realities and thereby avoid the “national cookie-cutter approach.” The organization would work on three levels: doorstep canvassing, intense research on policy and strategy, and mobilizing voter turnout among people customarily neglected by the powers that be.


The TOP founders and their colleagues, including another Stanford graduate, Crystal Zermeno, a Tejana math whiz whose mother grew up sleeping on the floor, began to ponder ways to change that. Might it be possible to mobilize enough voters to elect progressives to statewide office? For non-Republicans in Texas and elsewhere, the most galling aspect of recurrent electoral defeat has been the persistent failure of supposedly natural allies, specifically Latinos and African Americans, to show up at the polls. For years, Democratic officials and commentators had cherished the notion that natural growth in the minority population, which rose from 20 percent to nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population between 1985 and 2015, would inevitably put the party back in power. Yet these designated agents of change seemed reluctant to play their part. As I was incessantly reminded in Houston, “Demographics are not destiny.”

The problem has been especially acute in Texas, which produced the lowest overall turnout of any state in the 2010 midterm elections. Three million registered African-American and Latino voters stayed home that year, not to mention the 2 million who were unregistered. The result was a state government subservient to the demands and prejudices of Republican primary voters, and unrepresentative of the majority in a state where almost one in four children lived in poverty, 60 percent of public-school students qualified for free or subsidized lunches, and the overall poverty rate was growing faster than the national average. Following the crushing Republican victory in 2010, TOP launched an ambitious project to discover, as Zermeno put it, “who was not voting, and why.”

Digging deep into voter files and other databases, Zermeno confirmed that Texas contained a “wealth of non-voting people of color.” Most of them were registered, but seldom (if ever) turned up at the polls. The problem, she noted, was especially acute with Latinos, only 15 percent of whom were regular voters. In her detailed report, she calculated precisely how many extra voters needed to turn out to elect someone who would represent the interests of all Texans: a minimum of 1.1 million. Fortuitously, these reluctant voters were concentrated in just nine big urban counties, led by Harris.

Ever since the era of Ann Richards, Democrats had been focusing their efforts (without success) on winning back white swing voters outside the big cities. But Zermeno realized that there was no reason “to beat our heads against the wall for that group of people anymore, not when we’ve got a million-voter gap and as many as four million non-voting people of color in the big cities, who are likely Democrats.” By relentlessly appealing to that shadow electorate, and gradually turning them into habitual voters, TOP could whittle down and eliminate the Republican advantage in elections for statewide offices such as governor and lieutenant governor, not to mention the state’s thirty-eight votes in the presidential Electoral College. In other words, since the existing Texas electorate was never going to generate a satisfactory result, TOP was going to have to grow a new one.

There was, however, still another question to answer. Why were those 4 million people declining to vote? TOP embarked on a series of intensive focus groups, which were largely financed by Amber and Steve Mostyn, a pair of progressive Houston claims attorneys. (Their string of lucrative settlements included some with insurance companies who had balked at paying claims for Ike-related house damage.) Year after year, the Mostyns had loyally stumped up hefty donations to middle-of-the-road Democrats who doggedly pursued existing voters while ignoring the multitude who sat out elections all or most of the time. When TOP asked these reluctant voters about their abstention, the answer was almost always the same: “When I have voted for Democrats in the past, nothing has changed, so it’s not worth my time.” There was one telling exception: in San Antonio, voters said that the only Texas Democrat they trusted was Julián Castro, who ran for mayor in 2009 on a platform of bringing universal pre-K to the city, and delivered on his promise when he won.

“There’s this misunderstanding that people don’t care, that people are apathetic,” Goldman told me. “It’s so not true. People are mad and they want to do something about it. People want fighters that will deliver real change for them. That’s why year-round community organizing is so critical. People see that you can deliver real impact, and that you need the right candidates in office to do it, and connect it back to the importance of voting. It’s the ongoing cycle. We see winning the election as only the first step toward the real win, which is changing the policies that are going to make people’s lives better.”

Beginning with the 2012 election, TOP canvassers — volunteers and paid employees working their own neighborhoods — were trained to open a doorstep interview not with statements about a candidate but with a question: “What issue do you care about?” The answer, whether it was the minimum wage or schools or potholes, shaped the conversation as the canvasser explained that TOP had endorsed a particular candidate (after an intensive screening) because of his or her position on those very issues. These were not hit-and-run encounters. Potential voters were talked to “pretty much nonstop for about eight to ten weeks leading to the election,” according to Goldman. “They got their doors knocked three to five times. They got called five to seven times. They signed a postcard saying, ‘I pledge to vote.’ They circled which day they were going to vote on a little calendar on the postcard, and we mailed those postcards back to them. We offered them free rides to the polls. We answered all of their questions, gave them all the information they needed, until they cast a ballot. And what we saw was that the Latino vote grew by five percentage points in Harris County in 2012.”

Link via Political Animal. I love TOP and I think they do great work, but this article leaves a lot of questions unasked as well as unanswered. When Ginny Goldman says that the Latino vote grew by five percent in Harris County in 2012, I need more context for that. How does that compare to the growth of Latino registered voters in the same time period (which I presume is since 2008)? What was the growth rate in areas where TOP was doing its outreach versus areas where it was not? Do we have the same data for 2016? I want to be impressed by that number, but I need this information before I can say how impressed I am.

For all that TOP should be rightly proud of their efforts, it should be clear from the description that it’s labor intensive. If the goal is to close a 1.1 million voter gap at the state level, how well does the TOP model scale up? What’s the vision for taking this out of Harris County (and parts of Dallas; the story also includes a bit about the Democratic win in HD107, which as we know was less Dem-friendly than HD105, which remained Republican) and into other places where it can do some good?

I mean, with all due respect, the TOP model of identifying low-propensity Dem-likely voters and pushing them to the polls with frequent neighbor-driven contact sounds a lot like the model that Battleground Texas was talking about when they first showed up. One of the complaints I heard from a dedicated BGTX volunteer was that both the people doing the contact and the people being contacted grew frustrated by it over time. That gets back to my earlier question about how well this might scale, since one size seldom fits all. To the extent that it does work I say great! Let’s raise some money and put all the necessary resources into making it work. I just have a hard time believing that it’s the One Thing that will turn the tide. It’s necessary – very necessary – to be sure. I doubt that it is sufficient.

Also, too, in an article that praises the local grassroots effort of a TOP while denigrating top-down campaigns, I find it fascinating that the one political consultant quoted is a guy based in Washington, DC. Could the author not find a single local consultant to talk about TOP’s work?

Again, I love TOP and I’m glad that they’re getting some national attention. I just wish the author of this story had paid more of that attention to the details. With all that said, the TOP story is a masterpiece compared to this Weekly Standard article about how things looked from the Republican perspective.

Gary Polland, a three-time Harris County Republican party chairman, can’t remember a time the GOP has done so poorly. “It could be back to the 60’s.” Jared Woodfill, who lost the chairmanship in 2014, does remember. “This is the worst defeat for Republicans in the 71-year history of Republican party of Harris County,” he said.

But crushing Republicans in a county of 4.5 million people doesn’t mean Democrats are on the verge of capturing Texas. In fact, Democratic leaders were as surprised as Republicans by the Harris sweep. But it does show there’s a political tide running in their direction.

Democratic strategists are relying on a one-word political panacea to boost the party in overtaking Republicans: Hispanics. They’re already a plurality—42 percent—in Harris County. Whites are 31 percent, blacks 20 percent, and Asians 7 percent. And the Hispanic population continues to grow. Democrats control the big Texas cities—Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso, to name three—thanks to Hispanic voters.

But in Houston, at least, Democrats have another factor in their favor: Republican incompetence. It was in full bloom in 2016. Though it was the year of a change election, GOP leaders chose a status quo slogan, “Harris County Works.” Whatever that was supposed to signal, it wasn’t change.

“It doesn’t exactly have the aspirational ring of ‘Make America Great Again’ or even Hillary’s ‘Stronger Together,'” Woodfill said. “It is very much a message of ‘everything is okay here, let’s maintain the status quo.’ People were confused and uninspired.”

A separate decision was just as ruinous. GOP leaders, led by chairman Paul Simpson, panicked at the thought of Trump at the top of the ticket. So they decided to pretend Trump was not on the ticket. They kept his name off campaign literature. They didn’t talk about him. And Trump, assured of winning Texas, didn’t spend a nickel in the Houston media market. It became an “invisible campaign,” Polland said. “There were votes to be had,” Polland told me. They were Trump votes. They weren’t sought.

This strategy defied reason and history. Disunited parties usually do poorly. GOP leaders gambled that their candidates would do better if the Trump connection were minimized. That may have eased the qualms of some about voting Republican. But it’s bound to have prompted others to stay at home on Election Day. We know one thing about the gamble: It didn’t work. Republicans were slaughtered, and it wasn’t because the candidates were bad.

“Our overall ticket was of high quality, but no casual voter would know it since the campaign focus was on ‘Harris County Works,’ and Houston doesn’t,” Polland insisted. “Did we read about any of the high-quality women running? Not much. Did we read about issues raised by Donald Trump that were resonating with voters? Nope. Did the Simpson-led party even mention Trump? Nope.”


Republican Rep. Kevin Brady, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the “holy grail” for Democrats, both in Texas and nationally, is winning the Hispanic vote. “They did that somewhat successfully” in 2016, he said in an interview. Unless Democrats attract significantly more Hispanic voters in 2018, Brady thinks Republicans should recover. His district north of Houston lies partly in Harris County.

For this to happen, they will need to attract more Hispanic voters themselves. They recruited a number of Hispanics to run in 2016, several of them impressive candidates. All were defeated in the Democratic landslide.

I have no idea what the author means by “a number of Hispanics” being recruited, because by my count of the countywide candidates, there were exactly two – Debra Ibarra Mayfield and Linda Garcia, both judges who had been appointed to the benches on which they sat. Now I agree that two is a number, but come on.

Like the first story, this one talks about the increase in Latino voting in Harris County in 2016 as well. Usually, in this kind of article, some Republican will talk about how Latinos aren’t automatically Democrats, how it’s different in Texas, and so on. In this one, the turnout increase is met with a resigned shrug and some vague assurances that things will be better for them in 2018. Maybe no one had anything more insightful than that to say – it’s not like Jared Woodfill is a deep thinker – but it sure seems to me like that might have been a worthwhile subject to explore.

As for the griping about the county GOP’s strategy of not mentioning Trump, a lot of that is the two previous GOP chairs dumping on the current chair, which is fine by me. But honestly, what was the local GOP supposed to do? Not only was their Presidential candidate singularly unappealing, their two main incumbents, Devon Anderson and Ron Hickman, weren’t exactly easy to rally behind, either. Focusing on the judges seems to me to have been the least bad of a bunch of rotten options. Be that as it may, no one in this story appeared to notice or care that some thirty thousand people who otherwise voted Republican crossed over for Hillary Clinton, with a few thousand more voting Libertarian or write-in. Does anyone think that may be a problem for them in 2018? A better writer might have examined that a bit, as well as pushed back on the assertion that more Trump was the best plan. It may be that, as suggested by the recent Trib poll, some of these non-Trumpers are warming up to the guy now that he’s been elected. That would suggest at least some return to normalcy for the GOP, but the alternate possibility is that they’re just as disgusted with him and might be open to staying home or voting against some other Republicans next year as a protest. That would be a problem, but not one that anyone in this story is thinking about.

So there you have it. At least with the first story, I learned something about TOP. In the second one, I mostly learned that Gary Polland and Jared Woodfill don’t like Paul Simpson and have him in their sights for next year. That will provide a little mindless entertainment for the rest of us, which I think we’ll all appreciate. It still would have been nice to have gotten something more of substance.

Sheriff Gonzalez’s staff

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez combines diversity with experience in his braintrust.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

New Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez has tapped a diverse wave of law enforcement veterans to fill his top command staff, sharply increasing the number of minority leaders and naming the first female assistant chief ever in the sheriff’s office.

In his first week as sheriff, Gonzalez named three Latinos, three African-Americans and two Asians to leadership positions, and promoted Debra Schmidt to assistant chief. Another woman, who is African-American, is also among the new leadership.

Ten of those selected for the 15 top command posts are longtime members of the sheriff’s office, a sharp break with the actions of the two previous administrations. One major’s position is not yet filled.

“There are a lot of wonderful, highly skilled, quality individuals within the sheriff’s office,” Gonzalez said. “Part of being a leader is doing that – identifying bright people that can really help, that are smart and capable.”

Before Gonzalez took office Jan. 1, four of the top command staff retired and nine were asked to leave, according to Ryan Sullivan, a sheriff’s office spokesman. Two officers have been retained.

The appointments are the first indication of how Gonzalez will approach the county’s top law enforcement job. His decision to pick department insiders with knowledge about the operations drew immediate praise for boosting morale.

“By selecting a diverse staff internally he has shown he recognizes the experience and cultural knowledge of those deputies within his own office while also understanding the expectations of the diverse community the department serves,” said Lawrence Karson, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Houston-Downtown.

David Cuevas, president of the Harris County Deputies Organization, likewise praised the decision to promote from within.

“Morale has instantly skyrocketed,” Cuevas said. “The consensus around the department is we finally have upward mobility and institutional knowledge in place to move the sheriff’s office forward and into the future. … The rank-and-file see that if they are on a promotional list and take their time, their hard work and leadership is not going to be stifled because people outside are brought into command positions.”


Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, a Republican, said the moves should help Gonzalez get up to speed quickly on operations at the state’s largest sheriff’s office.

“He is certainly showing he has figured out a way to make up for the fact he hasn’t worked in the sheriff’s office,” he said. “It’s very intelligent of him to take advantage of the vast amount of experience within the department that he doesn’t have yet.”

I presume Steve Radack plays tennis, because that’s quite the backhand he’s got there. Back when Ron Hickman was installing an all white-guy command staff, he responded to criticism about it by saying “Diversity for diversity’s sake is not always effective”, and pointed to his team’s “vast education, experience and devotion to police work”. Turns out, you can have both diversity and experience. Who knew?

Chron favors a jail administrator

I remain unconvinced.

Next month, we’ll have a new sheriff in town. Ed Gonzalez will take command of the largest sheriff’s office in Texas, the third-largest in the nation, with more than 4,600 employees responsible for serving and protecting the estimated 4.5 million people who call Harris County home.

It would be nice if our new sheriff and the law-enforcement professionals under his command could focus all of their attention upon making our homes, streets and neighborhoods safer. Unfortunately, the biggest headache Gonzalez will face is running the perpetually troubled county jail.

On an average day, the jail houses more than 9,400 inmates, about 80 percent of whom are locked up while awaiting trial. More than a quarter suffer from some sort of mental illness, essentially making the Harris County Jail the largest de facto mental health facility in Texas. It’s already so overcrowded, outgoing Sheriff Ron Hickman recently asked the state jail commission for permission to let nearly 200 inmates sleep in plastic cots on the floor. Other prisoners have been shipped to private, for-profit jails at a cost of up to $1 million a month. Meanwhile, the county has spent close to $15 million on overtime pay this year to cover staff shortages, adding to the tab of more than $10 million paying for temporary medical help in the clinic and mental health wards.


Texas law assigns the task of running county jails to county sheriffs. But Commissioner Steve Radack, who’s spent years beating the drum for a jail boss answering directly to commissioners court instead of the sheriff, plans to lobby for state legislation requiring a licensed administrator to take over the jail. Even if the proposal dies in Austin, Radack plans to press Gonzalez to hire a professional jail executive, advice the new sheriff would be wise to follow.

Our state’s requirement that sheriffs run county jails is a 19th-century concept that doesn’t necessarily fit in the 21st century. Maybe it still makes sense in small Texas counties with comparatively few inmates, but it’s not the best way to administer the complex of jails in Harris County.

This idea has been kicked around before, coming up again last year a bit after Ron Hickman was installed as Sheriff. As noted, the Legislature would have to authorize this, and so the first step would be to identify someone to author and carry the needed bills. I’ve always been skeptical, but I could be persuaded that this is a better idea. I do have to wonder how you can make it through this entire editorial without discussing the bail issue and how so much of the crowding problem is directly related to that. Maybe administering the jail would be less onerous if it weren’t always bursting at the seams. Also, it’s not clear to me why Commissioners Court would provide better oversight than the Sheriff, whether the Sheriff remains in charge of the jail or not. Again, I could be persuaded, but you’re going to have to give me reasons rather than assertions.

Motion to dismiss county bail practices lawsuit denied


In a sweeping 78-page opinion issued late last week, a federal judge has denied Harris County’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit that accuses it of operating an unconstitutional bail system.

District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal dismissed the sheriff and county judges from the lawsuit in their personal, but not official, capacities; and the five county bail hearing officers remain sued in their personal capacities, but not official capacities.


While the county had tried to argue county officials were immune from this suit under various policymaking grounds, Judge Rosenthal rejected the argument outright.

“Multiple and overlapping authorities may contribute to a policy of denying freedom from pretrial detention to those accused in misdemeanor cases solely because they are too poor to pay a bail bond,” Rosenthal wrote. “Or [authorities may contribute to] a policy of releasing wealthier misdemeanor defendants while detaining the indigent for days without a hearing on their inability to pay or eligibility for release on nonfinancial conditions. But the existence of multiple and overlapping authorities cannot, on its own, shield officers or official bodies from liability.”


In explaining why the plaintiffs have reason to bring the suit, Rosenthal wrote that the lawsuit had raised important questions about why the government would have any legitimate interest in detaining people charged with low-level crimes, who are not a threat to public safety and could otherwise be released. Quoting a Supreme Court case, Rosenthal wrote: “Liberty is the norm, and detention prior to trial or without trial is the carefully limited exception.” That exception, she went on, would include people charged with violent crimes who would threaten public safety.

See here for previous coverage, and here for a copy of Judge Rosenthal’s ruling. Courthouse News adds some details.

Asserting civil rights and equal protection claims, [lead plaintiff Maranda Lynn] ODonnell’s original complaint named only five magistrate judges as defendants. She added the county’s 16 misdemeanor court judges as defendants in an amended version. State judges, called district judges in Texas, handle the county’s felony cases.

In an attempt to head off the lawsuit, the 16 judges changed the “County Rules of Court” on Aug. 12 to state that no-fee bonds are “favored” for 12 misdemeanor charges, including public intoxication, prostitution and possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Harris County also recently hired two more magistrate hearing officers and revamped its pretrial-services form to collect more financial data about misdemeanor defendants earlier in the post-arrest process.

But ODonnell claims in court filings that the judges’ customs are too ingrained, and that even after the August policy change they continued to force magistrates to set predetermined bond amounts for people arrested on those 12 charges.

In refusing to dismiss, Rosenthal said there are unresolved disputes of fact, including whether ODonnell and one of her co-plaintiffs have standing.

The county argued that ODonnell lacks standing because she posted bond a few days after she was arrested and filed the lawsuit, and that it had the right to detain her because she has outstanding warrants in Harris and Galveston Counties for failing to appear for misdemeanor court hearings.

However, Rosenthal wrote: “Even taking the defendants’ factual allegations on these points as true, Ms. ODonnell would have standing to bring her claim. Ms. ODonnell alleges that no judicial officer timely considered her inability to pay or her eligibility for release despite her criminal history, and that this outcome is typical for misdemeanor defendants in Harris County. The defendants’ allegations do not resolve Ms. ODonnell’s claims.”

Co-plaintiff Loetha McGruder was arrested in May, charged with giving a false name to a police officer, a misdemeanor. A magistrate set her bond at the preset $5,000. She couldn’t pay it. Four days later a state district judge reduced her bail to a personal bond and she was released.

The county argued in dismissal motions that McGruder “is the prime example of the system functioning as it should,” because she was released the first business day after her probable cause hearing.

But Rosenthal found McGruder has standing to bring due process and equal protection claims because she was detained over a weekend, though the county acknowledges her poverty made her eligible for an immediate personal bond.


Attorneys for both sides said they are working to settle the case.

Harris County assistant attorney Robert Soard said Rosenthal is aware the county has teamed up with Luminosity, a nonprofit St. Petersburg, Fla. criminal justice consulting firm, to develop a “public safety assessment” and “decision making framework” to guide decisions on whether to release misdemeanor defendants on personal bonds without pretrial services having to interview them.

The system is expected to launch in March 2017.

“We would like the case to resolve quickly for the benefit of the people being arrested on misdemeanors in Harris County, to decrease the number of people staying in jail,” plaintiffs’ attorney Rebecca Bernhardt with the Texas Fair Defense Project said.

I’m very glad to hear that settlement talks are happening, as that’s what I have wanted all along. As we know, Sheriff-elect Ed Gonzalez has filed an affidavit in support of the plaintiffs, which ought to help move that along. A class certification hearing has been set for Feb. 21, 2017. We’ll see how it goes from there.

The new Sheriff in town

Sheriff-elect Ed Gonzalez has his work cut out for him.

Ed Gonzalez

When newly elected Sheriff Ed Gonzalez takes office on Jan. 1, he will face a tangle of budget, staffing and jail inmate safety issues inherited from more than a decade of struggles at the nation’s third-largest sheriff’s department.

Staff shortages at the troubled jail operation alone have resulted in overtime expenditures of $14.8 million so far this year, adding to a current tab of $10.4 million to pay for temporary medical help in the jail clinic and mental health wards, county budget records show.

The burgeoning jail population – which soared to more than 9,400 inmates in September – has forced officials to put some inmates on temporary cots and ship others to private, for-profit jails for up to an additional $1 million a month.

And on the law enforcement side, critics point to low clearance rates for nearly all crime categories and a need for additional investigators and patrol deputies.

Gonzalez, a longtime Houston homicide detective who served on the City Council before being elected sheriff in November, told the Chronicle he is apprehensive about the fiscal condition of a department responsible for public safety in a large swath of unincorporated Harris County.

“My main priority will be dealing with the budget, the need to improve the situation at the jail, the overtime issues that are killing the budget, and morale that is really low right now,” Gonzalez said recently, as he prepares to take office.

Gonzales said he is committed to hiring an experienced, certified jail administrator to help oversee operations in the county’s sprawling jail complex and will work with the patrol and investigative divisions to improve clearance rates of crime.

He’ll also have to develop a new leadership team. The sheriff-elect said he expects only a few of the 25 high-ranking members of outgoing Sheriff Ron Hickman’s command staff to remain.


Jail safety expert Michele Deitch urged Gonzalez to create an independent group, or an ombudsman, to closely monitor jail conditions in what is largely a closed system.

“Prisons and jails around the country are the least transparent organizations that exist, yet they are the places where there is more urgency to make sure there is public transparency about what goes on and accountability for insuring the safe treatment of inmates,” said Deitch, a senior lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. “What Harris County needs is a local system of external and independent oversight over the jail, in the same way we have created police accountability systems.”

Recent reports ranked Harris County with the highest per-capita rate of jail deaths of any other jail in the nation, as well as continued attempts at suicide by inmates and violent assaults on inmates and guards, Dietch said.

In April, Patrick Joseph Brown, 46, was jailed for allegedly stealing a guitar and then beaten to death in a crowded holding cell by two other inmates. The cell was equipped with surveillance cameras, but due to a lack of staffing, no officers were watching the monitors. At least two other deaths in the jail came after assaults on inmates by other prisoners, according to state in-custody death reports.

“The key to a safe jail is the staff,” Deitch said, “and you need to make sure staff are there in sufficient numbers, well-trained, alert and engaged and their morale is high.”

I’ve covered some of this before. I’ll say again, I believe the single most effective thing our new Sheriff can do to relieve both his budget and personnel issues is work to reduce the number of inmates in the jail. You know the song I’m singing, and it really is that simple. All of the problems discussed in this story are related to the locking up of too many people who have not been and in many cases will never be convicted of a crime. Gonzalez has less power to affect this problem than some others – he will be very dependent on the magistrates and misdemeanor judges who treat jail space as infinitely renewable – but he can at least order his deputies to issue citations to low-level non-violent offenders instead of arresting them, and he should have an ally in DA-elect Kim Ogg. He can also help force a settlement in the bail practices lawsuit against the county. He will still have plenty of other things to deal with, but getting this solved will make the totality of his task a lot less daunting.

Precinct analysis: Gonzalez v Hickman

Ed Gonzalez scored a solid win for Sheriff, knocking out incumbent Ron Hickman to win the office back for Democrats. Let’s break it down.

Dist   Hickman  Gonzalez  Hickman%  Gonzalez%
CD02   162,915   111,689    59.33%     40.67%
CD07   139,292   113,853    55.02%     44.98%
CD09    26,869   106,301    20.18%     79.82%
CD10    81,824    36,293    69.27%     30.73%
CD18    48,766   153,342    24.13%     75.87%
CD29    35,526    95,138    27.19%     72.81%
SBOE6  341,003   265,358    56.24%     43.76%
HD126   36,539    24,813    59.56%     40.44%
HD127   48,891    24,516    66.60%     33.40%
HD128   41,694    17,117    70.89%     29.11%
HD129   41,899    26,686    61.09%     38.91%
HD130   59,556    21,256    73.70%     26.30%
HD131    7,054    38,887    15.35%     84.65%
HD132   38,026    30,397    55.57%     44.43%
HD133   47,648    27,378    63.51%     36.49%
HD134   44,717    43,480    50.70%     49.30%
HD135   32,586    27,180    54.52%     45.48%
HD137    8,893    17,800    33.32%     66.68%
HD138   27,480    23,366    54.05%     45.95%
HD139   12,746    39,223    24.53%     75.47%
HD140    6,376    20,972    23.31%     76.69%
HD141    5,485    32,573    14.41%     85.59%
HD142   10,801    33,924    24.15%     75.85%
HD143    9,078    23,689    27.70%     72.30%
HD144   10,765    16,194    39.93%     60.07%
HD145   10,785    23,462    31.49%     68.51%
HD146   10,144    37,991    21.07%     78.93%
HD147   12,100    45,136    21.14%     78.86%
HD148   17,701    29,776    37.28%     62.72%
HD149   15,702    27,266    36.54%     63.46%
HD150   49,904    26,142    65.62%     34.38%
CC1     74,178   239,211    23.67%     76.33%
CC2    125,659   125,416    50.05%     49.95%
CC3    193,214   158,164    54.99%     45.01%
CC4    213,519   156,417    57.72%     42.28%
Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez

Gonzalez received 16K fewer votes than Kim Ogg; his overall total of 680,134 would put him fourth in line among District and county court candidates, behind Kelli Johnson, Mike Engelhart, and Robert Schaffer. I said in my initial reactions that while Ogg received crossover votes, I think Gonzalez merely maxed out the Democratic tally. In retrospect, I think Gonzalez probably drew a few Republican votes, and as usual HD134 is the evidence for that. Overall, though, he wasn’t the draw that Ogg was, which is apparent not just by his lower total but also by a cursory examination of the Republican State Rep districts, where he consistently trailed Ogg by a thousand votes or so. If you look at those districts more closely, though, you will see that Gonzalez didn’t trail Ogg everywhere. In fact, Gonzalez did better than Ogg in five districts – HDs 131, 140, 143, 144, and 145, with the latter providing the biggest difference, 493 votes in Gonzalez’s direction. That’s four of the five predominantly Latino districts, with a fair amount of overlap with Gonzalez’s old City Council District H.

Gonzalez also fell just short of a majority in Commissioners Precinct 2 – I mean, 243 votes short out of 250K cast – where Ogg carried it by over 6,000 votes. Here it’s worth noting that while Ogg carried this precinct on the strength of crossovers, Gonzalez nearly took it merely by not losing Democratic votes. Look again at the judicial average vote totals in CC2. The Republican average judicial vote is less than 500 higher than Hickman’s tally, but the Democratic average judicial vote is nearly 5,000 votes less than what Gonzalez got. Gonzalez outperformed the judicial average in all four Commissioners precincts – the undervote in his race was 3.56%, compared to about five percent in most judicial races – but the point here is that the difference is almost entirely on the Democratic side. One conclusion you might draw from this is that a serious candidate for Commissioners Court in Precinct 2, one who runs a real campaign, ought to do better than the “average Democrat” benchmark for the simple reason that fewer people who are generally voting Democratic will skip the race. Just something to think about.

I have two more in this vein to do, and I have on my list a look at Fort Bend County, too. I’ve got one or two other oddball things to look at if I can find the time, because what’s the fun of having this data if we don’t examine a few rabbit holes? If there are any particular questions you want me to try to address, leave a comment and let me know.

New Sheriff not interested in defending current bail policies


Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez

After defeating Sheriff Ron Hickman in the election this month, Sheriff-elect Ed Gonzalez is already sticking his nose in Hickman’s official business — mainly, the lawsuit filed against him.

Hickman, along with the county, all the county judges and five bail hearing officers, has been sued for participating in what a national civil rights group calls an unconstitutional bail system. The plaintiffs, Civil Rights Corps, argue that poor people in Harris County are being systematically jailed before trial just because they cannot afford to pay an arbitrary bail amount, unlike wealthier people charged with the same crime.

While Hickman has voiced support for bail reform in the past, he and his lawyers have nonetheless insisted he be dismissed from this lawsuit since he is simply complying with court orders from judges to house these people in the jail. Civil Rights Corps, however, argues that since many of these people are being held unconstitutionally, the sheriff is still liable. And it just so happens that Hickman’s successor agrees.

In an affidavit presented before U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal in federal court on Monday, Gonzalez called the county’s bail system unconstitutional and asked Rosenthal to keep the sheriff in the lawsuit — essentially encouraging Civil Rights Corps to continue to [sue] the office he will soon inherit.


Gonzalez’s premature involvement places the Harris County Attorney’s Office and its hired private attorneys in a somewhat awkward position: Once Gonzalez assumes office, county attorneys will be representing a public official whose views are seriously at odds with their entire argument — that nothing is legally wrong with the county’s bail system.

While the county raised ethical concerns in court yesterday about Gonzalez filing an affidavit apparently in support of the party that is suing him, Judge Rosenthal did not find any problems with it. In fact, one attorney from the Houston law firm Susman Godfrey, which is a plaintiff along with Civil Rights Corps, argued that the greater ethical concern was Gonzalez being “represented” by people who do not represent his views.

Judge Rosenthal is expected to decide soon on which parties will remain in the lawsuit.

The county argued Monday that its bail practices are not in violation of the Constitution since defendants see a magistrate within 48 hours (most of the time). And that magistrates, county attorneys said, have the information in front of them to consider a defendant’s ability to pay, as the Constitution requires. Civil Rights Corps lead attorney Alec Karakatsanis, however, repeatedly argued that the county was missing the mark: The point, he argued, is that magistrates systematically choose not to consider a defendant’s ability to pay bail, sending low-level, low-risk defendants to jail instead of giving them a personal bond.

See here for prior blogging on this. In case you’re curious, this is what Sheriff-elect Gonzalez is refusing to defend:

Anthony Wayne Goffney shuffles toward the floor marker where he is told to stand, wearing light blue pants and a smock top, four days after being jailed for trespassing.

A prosecutor rattles off information about his arrest as Goffney, stooped and gray-haired, appearing confused, gazes over his shoulder.

Court records show Goffney has dementia and a history of homelessness, yet his poverty is not discussed as hearing officer Jill Wallace, appearing via a video link, decides whether to jail him or let him go free.

Wallace says, rapid-fire: “Bond is set at $5,000. You’re denied a pretrial release bond.”

Then she adds: “Are you requesting the court to appoint you a lawyer?”

“Who me?” he asks.

“Yeah, you,” she answers.

Then Wallace sends Goffney to jail.

The videotaped encounter – among thousands that occur 24 hours a day at the Harris County courthouse – is among a cache released by the Texas Organizing Project showing what officials say is judicial indifference to a parade of poverty, homelessness and hopelessness.

“The elderly man [Goffney] has nobody to speak for him,” said Tarsha Jackson, a TOP organizer. “It’s inhumane and it’s not fair.”

There more, including video, at the story link. I don’t know about you, but that sure doesn’t sound like anything that has to do with “justice” to me. The county is arguing that the lawsuit should be dismissed because it has made progress in addressing the issues. Judge Lee Rosenthal has said she will make a final determination in January, after the new officeholders have had a chance to get sworn in. We know where Gonzalez stands, and I’ll be shocked if Kim Ogg isn’t there with him. We’ll see what that means for the case.

Checking in with Ed Gonzalez

Also known as Harris County Sheriff-elect Ed Gonzalez.

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez will have a lot to do when he assumes the position of the county’s top cop in January.

He’ll have to rein in overtime pay, manage the Harris County jail population and win over the thousands of employees who backed his opponent in Tuesday’s election.

First, though, he plans to reactivate his peace officer’s license, which has been inactive since 2012.

“He will have to mail his application and pay a fee of $150 and take 40 hours of training including the basic state and federal law update,” said Gretchen Grigsby, spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. “Texas law will give him two years to do that.”


The county’s third sheriff in the last two years, Gonzalez will now turn his attention to managing the office and a sometimes-scandal-prone jail of nearly 10,000 inmates. The move could bring yet another seismic shift among the highest echelons of the department’s command staff.

“I haven’t finalized in my mind yet any thoughts on who I might keep or might not keep or bring in or anything like that,” Gonzalez said.

He said he hoped to meet with Hickman soon to assess operations at the department and have a transition framework in place within a week or so.

Observers will also be watching to see how Gonzalez fulfills pledges he made during the campaign to bulk up jail diversion programs and fight crime more effectively.

With county budget talks beginning in March, Gonzalez will have just a few months to get up to speed on the internal workings of a department of more than 4,600 employees and budget of approximately $483 million.

Harris County Budget Officer William Jackson said he would be meeting with Gonzalez and other newly elected officials to guide them through the budget process after they take office in January.

“Commissioner’s Court only approves the budget as a single number at the top,” Jackson said, explaining that if Gonzalez had different priorities, he will have flexibility to shift funds within his budget.

Gonzalez will also have address approximately 300 vacancies within the department, which has contributed to a crunch in staffing in both patrol and detentions, and said he would not rule out re-implementing measures former Sheriff Adrian Garcia – Hickman’s predecessor – had used to try to address jail overcrowding or other issues at the sheriff’s office.

“Everything needs to be considered and be on the table,” Gonzalez said, noting that Hickman’s reforms had caused both jail and patrol overtime to spike. “All that needs to be looked at.”

Like Kim Ogg, Ed Gonzalez had a strong electoral showing, but it’s not clear to me that he got crossover votes. Comparing his result to the judicial races, there were fewer undervotes in his race, so I’d say he probably just retained more of the Democratic base vote than the judicial races did. That was more than enough for a strong victory, and is perhaps a more accurate picture of Democratic turnout in Harris County in 2016, but it’s a slightly different dynamic than it was for Ogg.

Also like Ogg, Gonzalez will have a lot of issues to address beginning on Day One. He won’t face the kind of turnover that Ogg will face, which means he’ll retain the institutional knowledge and experience that already exists, but it also means he’ll have to work with a number of people who didn’t support him, and he’ll have to implement changes for an institution that may not want to change. The biggest challenge he faces is with staffing, and the single best thing that could happen to him is for the DA and the courts to send fewer people to the jail for him to have to find space and oversight for. Ogg will help with that, but it will be on Gonzalez to try to persuade the misdemeanor court judges to work with him. He can also implement some policies to facilitate early release for inmates that earn it, as his predecessor Adrian Garcia had done.

He’s going to have to deal with the challenge of mental illness among the inmate population, and especially among the people who cycle in and out of the jail. The old saw about the jail being the biggest mental health facility in Texas remains true, and unfortunately the results of the national election will not only not offer any help on that score, it’s a virtual certainty to make it worse. Also not going to get any better will be issues with undocumented immigrants and a large community of voters who supported Gonzalez in the election but deplore the current processes for checking immigration status and handing over some offenders to ICE.

There are things Ed Gonzalez can do as Sheriff to enable his success, and there are things that are beyond his control that will affect his success, like whether the misdemeanor court judges continue to treat the jail’s capacity as essentially unlimited. One factor that I’m less sure how to evaluate will be Gonzalez’s relationship with Commissioner’s Court. Steve Radack and the now-departed Jerry Eversole were Adrian Garcia’s biggest antagonists. I expect Rodney Ellis will be a strong ally, but he’ll also expect results. It’s not in his control either, but the best thing that could happen to Gonzalez could be another Democratic sweep in Harris County in 2018, ushering in misdemeanor court judges who are willing to give personal recognizance bonds, and maybe a second ally on Commissioners Court. We’ll see what he can do with what he’s got until then. The Press has more.

Dems sweep Harris County

Hillary Clinton had a 100K lead in early voting in Harris County, and increased her lead as the night went on. The only countywide Republican who was leading early on was Mike Sullivan, but later in the evening, at the time when 80% of the Election Day vote was in, Ann Harris Bennett caught and passed him. Kim Ogg and Ed Gonzalez won easily, Vince Ryan was re-elected easily, and all Democratic judicial candidates won.

The HISD recapture referendum went down big, the Heights referendum to update the dry ordinance won, and Anne Sung will face John Luman in a runoff for HISD VII. Statewide, Clinton was trailing by about nine points, and with a ton of precincts still out was already at President Obama’s vote level from 2012. Dems appear to have picked up several State House seats, though not the SBOE seat or CD23. Clinton also carried Fort Bend County, though she had no coattails, and Commissioner Richard Morrison unfortunately lost.

I’m too stunned by what happened nationally to have anything else to say at this time. I’ll be back when I recover.

The answer is to always cram more people in the jails



Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman is asking the state jail commission to let nearly 200 inmates sleep on plastic cots on the floor of the already overcrowded county jail system, a request challenged by more than a dozen Houston-area lawmakers.

The lawmakers note that county officials have not fully followed the advice of their own criminal justice consultants, who since 2009 have advocated increased use of low-cost personal recognizance bonds as well as jail diversion programs for low-level drug offenders and the mentally ill to reduce jail population.

Today, the average daily population exceeds 9,400 inmates and nearly 80 percent are awaiting trial, county records show.

Hickman and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett are asking the Texas Commission on Jail Standards to extend their existing variance of 580 bunk beds and add another 192 plastic cot-like bunks known as “low riders.” Also called “boats,” the plastic cots would be used by inmates in both the 1200 Baker St. and 701 San Jacinto jail buildings in downtown Houston, the county’s application states.

Hickman’s request is on the agenda for Thursday’s jail commission meeting in Austin, and the sheriff acknowledged that the use of the plastic cots could cause “heightened apprehension” by jail regulators.

The sheriff said “low riders” are necessary due to a jail population that has risen dramatically since January from an average daily population of 8,500 to 9,400 last month, as well as the need to do preventative maintenance in various cellblocks.

“Harris County and the Sheriff’s Office realize variance beds are temporary in duration and not a permanent replacement for sound criminal justice policy or correctional practices,” Hickman stated in an Oct. 6 letter to the jail commission.

Ryan Sullivan, spokesman for the sheriff’s office, stressed late Wednesday: “Sheriff Hickman has been the foremost advocate for reforms of the criminal justice system and bail reform in Harris County. On multiple occasions, the sheriff has testified in the Texas legislature asking the state to bear its burden in criminal justice reform. Likewise, the sheriff has used the full force of his office to advocate for criminal justice and bail reforms locally.”

In the Oct. 6 letter to the commissioner, Hickman stated: “The department is committed to working with all stakeholders to reduce the jail population and lessen our dependence upon variance beds and we will continue to explore all options and opportunities to mitigate their necessity.

Sullivan pointed out “that variances are temporary fixes requiring more permanent solution.”

I’m sorry, but no matter how temporary this may be, the answer should be No. It is and has always been within our power to address this problem by not putting people in jail for the crime of not being able to afford to bond themselves out. For the umpty billionth time, even a small increase in the number of personal recognizance bonds would go a long way towards fixing these ever-recurring problems. I recognize that no Sheriff can make the misdemeanor court judges do this, but we can at least consistently identify the problem for what it is, in the hope of maybe applying a little pressure. Commissioners Court could help with that, too. Regardless, the Legislature should not do anything to enable the problem. The voters will have a chance to apply an electoral fix to this in 2018, but that’s two years off and the track record in off-year elections is not promising. Having the Lege say “fix this yourselves” is our best bet for now.

UPDATE: Grits is thinking the same thing.

UH Hobby School (Harris County only): Clinton 43, Trump 36

More polling locally.

Hillary Clinton

A new survey released Thursday by the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs shows Democratic challengers for county wide office rising sharply against Republican incumbents.

It also showed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton with a seven-point lead over Republican Donald Trump, which Hobby research associate and poll author Bob Stein called “the biggest lead I’ve ever seen a Democratic presidential candidate have in the 37 years I’ve been polling in Houston.”

Barack Obama beat Republicans John McCain by 1.6 percent in 2008, and Mitt Romney by less than 1 percent in 2012.

“The big takeaway here is the Democratic surge,” Stein said.

The poll, a telephone survey of 400 registered Harris County voters, showed Democratic challenger Kim Ogg ahead of incumbent Republican Devon Anderson by seven points, 40 percent to 33 percent. A similar survey released by UH in September showed Ogg and Anderson in a virtual tie, 29 to 30 percent.

The new poll has a margin of error of plus- or minus 4.5 percent.

The poll also showed Ed Gonzalez, the Democratic candidate for Harris County sheriff, in a virtual tie with Republican incumbent Ron Hickman. The UH poll last month showed Hickman six points ahead.

Stein, who also teaches political science at Rice University, cautioned that the wording on the two polls was not identical, making direct comparisons difficult.

Here is the new poll data. Another reason why it’s a bit dicey to compare this poll to the one from September is that they classified the voters differently. In September, we had Registered Voters, Likely Voters, and Extremely Likely Voters. Clinton led Trump 43-34 among Likely Voters, but only 43-39 among Extremely Likely Voters. In this month’s poll, we have Very Likely To Vote and Certain To Vote, with Clinton leading 46-34 (!) among the Certain To Vote cohort, but trailing (!!) 43-33 among the Likely To Vote crowd. Prof. Stein suggests in the article that there’s an enthusiasm gap that favors the Democrats and accounts for this difference. Putting that aside and just focusing on the topline result, if Hillary Clinton is really leading in Harris County by seven points, not only will this almost certainly portend a complete Democratic sweep, it also adds credence to the ever-closer statewide margins, and to my mind also very likely presages a blue Fort Bend.

As for the Sheriff and DA races, I’ll say what I said in September, which is that they will almost certainly be determined by the Presidential race. Both Devon Anderson and Kim Ogg have money to spend on TV advertising, which may move the needle a bit one way or the other, but I for one haven’t seen much on the air so far, just a couple of Ogg spots from a week or so ago. I’d love to see at least one more poll from a different source, just as a check in case this is an outlier, but for now this is what we have. Early in-person voting begins Monday, and I know that a bunch of mail ballots have already been returned. This is going to be a busy couple of weeks. PDiddie and the Press have more.

Overview of the Harris County Sheriff race

The Chron takes a good look at the race for Sheriff.

Sheriff Ron Hickman

Sheriff Ron Hickman

Policing Texas’ most populous county is just one item on a laundry list of challenges facing Harris County’s next sheriff.

Voters next month will choose between the appointed Republican sheriff, Ron Hickman, a career cop who formerly served as Precinct 4 Constable, and Democratic challenger Ed Gonzalez, a 47-year-old former homicide investigator-turned Houston city council member.

Whoever prevails will have to contend with the realities of fighting crime in Harris County’s rapidly developing unincorporated areas and running an expensive, overcrowded jail frequently referred to as the largest mental health facility in Texas.

All of that is set against a backdrop of heightened tension between civil rights activists and police over the use of fatal force against civilians and the murders of peace officers in high-profile incidents in Dallas, Baton Rouge and northwest Harris County.

After party affiliation, the race is expected to boil down to the differing philosophies of Hickman and Gonzalez.

Hickman, a traditional law-and-order Republican with a passion for fighting crime with technology, touts his executive experience and his efforts to modernize the sheriff’s office.

“I’ve dealt with hard choices and decisions, in law enforcement,” said the 65-year-old incumbent. “I never left law enforcement to be a politician.”

Since assuming the sheriff’s office in May 2015, Hickman has re-opened the county’s outlying jails, created a homeless outreach team, privatized the jail’s commissary and established a high-tech crime unit to investigate child exploitation, internet fraud and identity theft cases, and rolled out the department’s Real-Time Crime Center, which tracks information as officers respond to incidents. The department also has installed cameras throughout the jail and created a dedicated DWI task force, he said.

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez

A self-styled progressive, Gonzalez touts a reform-driven platform that he hopes voters will embrace. He has pledged to root out cronyism and corruption in the department, improve relationships between the sheriff’s office and Harris County residents, increase collaboration between local law enforcement agencies and push for systematic changes to Harris County’s criminal justice system.

“You have to lead comprehensively. And my No. 1 priority is to keep you safe, and that’s not happening,” said Gonzalez, who worked as a homicide investigator, hostage negotiator and chairman of Houston City Council’s Public Safety Committee. “(Hickman’s) experience has only brought us a lack of crime-fighting resources, budget deficit and a trail of scandal.”


A recent University of Houston poll found Hickman and Gonzalez tied, with 32 percent support each from registered voters with 36 percent of voters still undecided.

“The candidates are heavily tied to the performance of the national ticket,” said Richard Murray, professor of political science at UH. “If your guy is losing at the top, or lady, you’re sunk, in my view.”

When pollsters narrowed the field to “extremely likely voters,” Hickman pulled to a 36-30 advantage, but Gonzalez appears to be gaining momentum and likely would benefit from straight ticket voters, poll watchers said.

“My advice to these candidates – and I’ve talked to a few – is prayer,” [Rice poli sci professor Mark] Jones quipped. “It doesn’t cost anything and it might work. Because you can’t fundamentally change the dynamics of the presidential race.”

You know how I feel about that poll. Profs Murray and Jones have it right, in my opinion, though past races have shown that there is room for crossover voting in this race if one candidate or the other has enough baggage. This race hasn’t been quite as high profile as the DA race, and I don’t know how much the Constable Precinct 4 scandal has touched Hickman. In any event, this is a good overview, with some information I hadn’t known – I had no idea Sheriff Hickman’s wife worked as a JP in Navarro County, for example. So go read the whole thing, it’s worth your time.

Internal report on Precinct 4 evidence destruction

The more you look, the worse it appears.

Constable Mark Herman

Constable Mark Herman

One of the first hints of anything awry in the Precinct 4 property room came in an email from evidence manager Christopher T. Hess.

Harris County District Attorney “Investigator Kerry Gillie called today about the evidence for case 13-50054,” he wrote in the Feb. 29 email to his supervisor, Lt. Christian Nicholson. “I explained that the drugs had been recently destroyed. He then asked for a court order for destruction copy. I told him there was not one to my knowledge.”


Hess, a master peace officer who began his career with the constable’s office 25 years ago, according to state records, told investigators repeatedly that the destruction was supervised by a now-retired colleague, Cpl. Mike Lacher. Hess has claimed Lacher ordered him to destroy drugs, even if they pertained to open cases, according to the Precinct 4 internal affairs complaint that the Chronicle obtained under a public records request.

The 25-page document shows investigators believed Hess broke evidence tampering laws and Harris County policies on evidence handling and truthfulness. The documents show the constable’s property room was operated with little oversight and reveal that a string of errors led to wrongful evidence destruction.

The scope and duration of the scandal raise deeper questions about operational failures inside the Precinct 4 Constable’s Office, said Samuel Walker, professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“You get a picture of an incredibly poorly run operation,” said Walker, who studies police accountability and department management. “If the staffing is poor, if the facilities, the room itself, is overcrowded, it creates a potential problem that could jeopardize criminal cases. That’s a big deal.”

Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman, appointed in May after former constable Ron Hickman became sheriff, said Hess wrongfully destroyed evidence for as long as nine years and never sought court orders required to destroy guns or drugs as required under state law.

See here and here for the background. It really does boggle the mind that this could have been happening for nine years, maybe more. How is it that it hadn’t affected any cases before now? How is it no one noticed it? Why is it that Sheriff Hickman, who was the Constable in Precinct 4 for most of this, hasn’t explained himself? Lots of questions, not so many answers. The Press has more.

UH Hobby School (Harris County only): Clinton 43, Trump 34

I have many thoughts about this.

Hillary Clinton

Between September 1 and September 20, 2016, the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs conducted a telephone survey of 550 Harris County registered voters as part of a larger Hobby School study on voter participation and engagement under the direction of Mark P. Jones, Renée Cross, and Jim Granato with Ching-Hsing Wang and Wyman Wan. The survey was based on a stratified probability design, including both landlines and cell phones. The survey was available in both English and Spanish using bilingual operators, and lasted an average of 13 minutes. The final data set was weighted by ethnicity, age, and gender to be representative of Harris County registered voters. The margin of error for the survey results is plus or minus 4 percent (at the 95 percent confidence level).

Harris County is the third most populous county in the nation and is home to approximately one fifth of Texas voters. The 2008 and 2012 presidential contests were very close in Harris County, with Barack Obama defeating his 2008 Republican rival, John McCain, 50.45 percent to 48.82 percent, and his 2012 Republican rival, Mitt Romney, 49.39 percent to 49.31 percent.

The Presidential Election: Vote Choice

Approximately two months prior to the November 8 presidential election, the survey finds Hillary Clinton with a lead over Donald Trump in Harris County, with the size of her lead varying depending on assumptions related to voter participation.

Candidate    ELV    LV    RV
Clinton      43%   43%   42%
Trump        39%   34%   32%
Johnson       7%    9%    9%
Stein         1%    1%    2%
Unsure/NA    11%   13%   15%

We divided the survey respondents into three groups of decreasing size: all registered voters (Registered Voters), voters who indicated that it is very likely or extremely likely that they will vote this fall (Likely Voters), and voters who indicated that it is extremely likely they will vote this fall (Extremely Likely Voters).


The Harris County District Attorney and Sheriff Elections: Vote Choice

The survey also queried respondents regarding their vote preference in the key races for Harris County District Attorney and Harris County Sheriff. In both contests, even among the likely and extremely likely voters, there existed a substantial proportion of respondents who were unsure about their preference in these lower visibility contests (compared to the presidential race).

Among those likely voters who did have a preference, in the District Attorney race 29 percent favored Democratic challenger Kim Ogg over Republican incumbent Devon Anderson with 27 percent support. In the Sheriff contest, 33 percent of likely voters supported Republican incumbent Ron Hickman while 32 percent backed Democratic challenger Ed Gonzalez.

Just as was the case in the presidential race, the Republican candidates fared better when the population was limited to those most likely to cast a ballot this fall: the extremely likely voters. Among this population Anderson narrowly bested Ogg, 30 percent to 29 percent, while Hickman increased his lead over Gonzalez, 36 percent to 30 percent.

Poll data is here. My thoughts:

– I find the distinction between Likely Voters and Extremely Likely Voters to be silly. I mean, why stop at Extremely Likely? Why not ask if someone is Super Duper Double Dog No Backsies likely to vote? There’s a reason why every other poll under the sun uses Registered Voters and Likely Voters, and nothing else.

– The press release for this poll claims that “neither party can depend on presidential coattails” for the donwballot races. I don’t see how they can draw that conclusion from the given data set. For one thing, there’s no breakdown of the vote by partisan affiliation, nor is there any generic “which party’s candidates are you more likely to support in other races?” question. We have several cycles’ worth of actual results to suggest that Democrats have done a pretty good job of voting all the way down the ballot, while Republicans have only really done that in 2012, and even then not quite as faithfully as the Dems. Don’t make suppositions about what the topline numbers mean. Ask the questions that could tell you the answers!

– I picked the “Likely Voter” numbers for my post title, and if one went by that without knowing anything else, one would feel really good about Democratic downballot chances. But to be secure in those feelings, one would have to know those partisan crosstabs. If one were to choose an archetype for the Republican Who Will Not Vote For Donald Trump, it’s probably a voter in HD134. How many self-identified Republicans say they are voting for a candidate who is not Donald Trump? How many are just in the “Unsure/No Answer” column? That would tell me a whole lot more about the downballot races than the actual Ogg/Anderson and Gonzalez/Hickman results do.

– How many new voters are in this sample, and how many of them are deemed “Likely” or “Extremely Likely”? We know voter registration is up in Harris County – indeed, it’s way up around the state – so who are these voters and how were they accounted for in the poll?

– I would love to see a similar poll – with my suggested modifications, of course – for other area counties as well. Fort Bend would be my first choice for this, as they are close to being the kind of swing county that Harris has been. Is the year that Fort Bend Democrats break through, or does the Fort Bend GOP maintain its hold? A sneak preview of that answer would have been nice.

– If the polls of Texas that show Clinton trailing by significantly less than the margins by which President Obama lost the state are accurate, then it stands to reason that Clinton would be doing better in Harris County than Obama (who won the county by small margins) did. Similarly, if this poll of Harris County is accurate, then it stands to reason Clinton would be running more strongly statewide than Obama did. It’s like the relationship between national polls and state polls – they may not be tightly correlated, but one is unlikely to make a big move in a given direction without the other following suit.

More on the Precinct 4 evidence destruction scandal

Lots of cases have been compromised.

Constable Mark Herman

Constable Mark Herman

District Attorney Devon Anderson’s office first learned in April that the mistaken destruction of evidence in Harris County’s Precinct 4 had likely compromised more than a thousand criminal cases, including more than 400 in which defendants had already been convicted, records released Tuesday show.

Anderson immediately launched a criminal probe, but her office did not begin informing defendants, their attorneys and even her own prosecutors about the magnitude of the problem until late August.

The records show that most of the cases were minor drug offenses, although dozens involved violent felonies in which defendants either pleaded or were found guilty and in some cases sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. Prosecutors have dismissed more than 140 cases so far.


Anderson has emphasized in past statements that evidence went first to a prosecutor who is investigating Precinct 4 in her Public Integrity Division. Her office made the records, including lists of 21,000 pieces of evidence that had been destroyed, public for the first time Tuesday in response to a public information request from the Houston Chronicle and other media outlets.

Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said his office immediately informed the DA’s office in March after learning that an officer had destroyed evidence in the department’s overstuffed property room. By then, he said the DA’s office had already launched a criminal investigation into the matter.

The constable’s office began supplying a longer list of cases in April.

“We were very direct, very deliberate with the DA’s office from the very beginning,” Herman said. “When this process started … we talked to them, told them we had cases compromised due to an employee destroying evidence to open cases.”


Legal experts said deciding when to disclose evidentiary problems to defendants and their attorneys is a complex matter involving numerous factors, including the status of any ongoing criminal investigation.

Geoffrey Corn, a professor at Houston College of Law, credited Anderson with already dismissing dozens of cases instead of fighting for convictions as the scandal has unfolded.

“When you have a catastrophic failure – and this was catastrophic, a DA doesn’t expect an evidence custodian who is lazy to just destroy tons of evidence – there’s got to be a lot of assessment,” he said.

Local defense attorneys criticized Anderson for what they saw as a lack of transparency and said many defendants still have not received legally required “Brady notices” informing them of the evidence destruction.

“The response from the Harris County district attorney has been nearly non-existent,” said JoAnne Musick, former president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. “Despite having known of the evidence destruction since February, it took … months and a flood of negative press before they saw fit to even begin notifying defense attorneys.”

Tyler Flood, the association’s current president, praised Anderson for complying with Texas Public Records Laws and supplying the case lists.

“I think it’s commendable that they are attempting to do the right thing by releasing this information,” he said. “However, there’s an issue with the scope. We don’t know if this is covering everything that it needs to cover and how far back it goes.”

See here for the background. I don’t really have anything to add to this, I’m just noting it for the record. The big question that continues to be unexplored in all this is how the deputy in question could have been doing this for so long without longtime Constable (now Sheriff) Ron Hickman noticing. It would be very nice to get some clarity on that. The Press has more.

Endorsement watch: Time for a change, part 2

The Chron endorses Ed Gonzalez for Sheriff, after indicting incumbent Sheriff Ron Hickman for a litany of failures.

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez

At the beginning of this campaign we believed that Sheriff Ron Hickman should get the benefit of a doubt on his challenging task. The longtime Precinct 4 constable was appointed to his position by Commissioners Court when Adrian Garcia decided to run for mayor in May 2015. Since then, we’ve seen a series of problems created more by policy choices than inexorable jail conditions. A scandal in his former constable’s department places these problems in a wider pattern of questionable management. Because of these issues, we encourage voters to support Democratic challenger Ed Gonzalez for sheriff.

More than 100 cases have been thrown out at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center because Precinct 4 improperly destroyed more than 20,000 pieces of evidence. People may even have been wrongfully incarcerated. Federal investigators are still trying to figure out exactly what happened, but some fingers are pointing to a single officer who apparently had been inappropriately destroying evidence since 2007 – well within Hickman’s time as boss. We still don’t know what Hickman knew, when he knew it, and what he could have done to prevent this cascading failure of criminal justice. Could Hickman stop a similar problem from happening on his watch as sheriff?

He certainly didn’t predict the consequences of replacing jail guards with deputies: fewer patrols, overtime skyrocketing by 500 percent, exhausted employees and low morale. The budget has been pushed to the limit, and it is putting the county’s crime-fighting abilities at risk.

This personnel change may have been worthwhile if it made the jail safer. Yet this past May, Chronicle reporters James Pinkerton and Lauren Caruba documented four inmate deaths from assaults or head trauma suffered in the jail, including one man held on misdemeanor charges killed by another inmate.

Garcia used every trick in his book to squeeze the budget and prevent jail overcrowding. Hickman put that book back on the shelf. That’s the attitude that we’ve come to expect from Harris County’s eight constables, which often serve more as political fiefdoms than well-oiled law enforcement agencies.

I had wondered if Hickman’s role in the unfolding Precinct 4 evidence scandal was going to get some attention. The Chron has some nice things to say about Gonzalez, though they’re not as effusive as they were about Kim Ogg. Mostly, though, this is about how Hickman has fallen short, and why he needs to be replaced. That case is clear, and the Chron lets Hickman have it.

The Precinct 4 evidence destruction debacle

What the heck is going on here?

Constable Mark Herman

Constable Mark Herman

The Harris County Precinct 4 deputy who was fired after destroying evidence in hundreds of pending criminal cases this year has been wrongfully tossing evidence without following department protocol since 2007, Constable Mark Herman announced Tuesday.

Herman’s announcement comes just after Houston defense attorney Paul Morgan wrote a letter to the U.S. Attorney’s Office asking the federal government to investigate Harris County Precinct 4 and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, arguing that neither agency is capable of conducting an independent investigation and that the DA’s office is complicit in the fiasco. Morgan also asks the feds to strip Precinct 4 of law enforcement duties and restrict the precinct only to ability to serve civil process and warrants, because it has demonstrated that it “cannot handle criminal investigations and prosecutions,” Morgan wrote.

Since 2007, the fired deputy, Chris Hess, has destroyed more than 21,000 pieces of evidence, putting more than 1,000 cases in jeopardy. Already, the DA’s office has dismissed 142 pending cases, most of them drug-related, because the evidence was incinerated in January — the last time Hess destroyed evidence before he was caught and fired.

This problem only became public after Morgan and attorney Emily Detoto discovered in August that drug evidence in their own client’s case was destroyed — just as a prosecutor was offering their client, David Bellamy, a 25-year plea deal for meth possession, Morgan said. It was among the first cases to be dismissed due to the Precinct 4 missing-evidence fiasco.

But as more details have surfaced of the hundreds more affected cases, what has bothered Morgan and Detoto the most is the complete lack of action the district attorney’s office had taken on the issue, they say — even though District Attorney Devon Anderson admitted to knowing about the destroyed evidence since February. It was only directly after KTRK aired a story about Bellamy’s case on August 17 that Anderson blasted out an email to all her prosecutors, ordering them to stop offering plea deals or taking to trial any cases involving Precinct 4.

Morgan and Detoto say it was an email that should have been sent out seven months ago.

“With something this large, it’s either the height of deception or the height of incompetence — either way it’s inexcusable,” Morgan said. “But which office has more blame? It’s the district attorney’s office all day. They legally have more responsibility. It’s why we have shiny gold bar cards. This just can’t happen.”

This is nuts. I hadn’t followed this story very closely, so let’s review a few previous stories to catch up:

Precinct 4’s destruction of evidence the subject of a criminal probe

Hundreds of Precinct Four cases could be dismissed

Feds eyeing mass evidence destruction problems in Precinct 4 constable’s office

So a big mess, and we’re far from the end of it. In addition to being another headache for District Attorney Devon Anderson, it’s also now a campaign issue.

Harris County District Attorney candidate Kim Ogg is calling for a special prosecutor to investigate “possible civil rights violations” in the wake of disclosures that thousands of pieces of evidence were wrongly destroyed by the Precinct 4 constable’s office.

Ogg, a Democrat who is facing Republican incumbent District Attorney Devon Anderson in the November general election, questioned why Anderson waited more than six months to notify trial prosecutors that the evidence may be missing.

“It’s time we asked for an independent prosecutor to investigate not just the actions of Precinct 4, which are going to be reviewed by the Justice Department, but of this district attorney and her assistant district attorneys,” Ogg said Thursday during a news conference. “For every person who was convicted where evidence had already been destroyed, they’re entitled – in all likelihood – to a new trial.”

Anderson fired back, saying she has been open with the public about how she came to learn of the property room debacle in Precinct 4 and said Ogg is politicizing the issue.

“I have spoken at length with the media on this situation,” Anderson said in a written statement Thursday. “I have given them all the details and all the facts. If there are any questions on specifics I am happy to answer those, but Kim Ogg’s attempt to politicize this and make it a DA campaign issue is desperate.”

Anderson’s public integrity unit has been investigating the discrepancy since February, but the dozens of prosecutors who handle cases at the trial level were apparently not notified until Aug. 19 to stop work on Precinct 4 cases, after a defense attorney raised questions about missing evidence in his client’s case.

Ogg said failure to alert prosecutors more quickly and to disclose details about the missing evidence to defense attorneys appears to be prosecutorial misconduct.

Unfortunately for Anderson, she’s got some credibility problems to overcome if she wants to make a “politicization” claim stick. To be fair to her, however, her office isn’t the only one with some questions to answer here. Anderson has largely blamed Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman for the problem, but Herman has only been in office since last year, and the evidence destruction apparently goes back a lot farther than that. Let’s return to that Press story we began with:

If Hess had destroyed evidence in any pending cases since 2007, then that leaves defense attorneys puzzled over how prosecutors never discovered they had no evidence against suspects they convicted or persuaded to take plea deals.

Herman took over as constable in May 2015 after former Precinct 4 constable Ron Hickman became county sheriff. In January, Herman ordered Hess and several deputies to clean out the storage room because it was overfilled with evidence. He said his office caught Hess’s misconduct shortly afterward, but he could not comment on or account for how Hess got away with destroying evidence for nine years prior. He says the constable’s office has passed various audits “with flying colors.”

Herman said Precinct 4 superiors can only trace Hess’s policy violations to 2007 because that’s when the department started using a new electronic system to track evidence destruction and the property room’s inventory. Hess had been working in the property room, though, since 2000, which is when Hickman became constable.

Herman told the Press that when he ordered a review of all of Hess’s past employee evaluations since 2000, strangely no evaluations on Hess were on file. By contrast, Herman said that every employee is supposed to be evaluated every year.

A sheriff’s office spokesman declined to comment on allegations that Hickman failed to discipline Hess for violations until it could be confirmed through records that Hess had been breaching department policies since 2007. The Press has requested the documents.

So one has to wonder how it is that now-Sheriff Ron Hickman didn’t discover this problem over the course of eight years. That’s a question that could use a bit more exploration. Like I said, I think we’ll be learning new things about this for quite some time to come.

Washington Post: Clinton 46, Trump 45


With nine weeks until Election Day, Donald Trump is within striking distance in the Upper Midwest, but Hillary Clinton’s strength in many battlegrounds and some traditional Republican strongholds gives her a big electoral college advantage, according to a 50-state Washington Post-SurveyMonkey poll.

The survey of all 50 states is the largest sample ever undertaken by The Post, which joined with SurveyMonkey and its online polling resources to produce the results. The state-by-state numbers are based on responses from more than 74,000 registered voters during the period of Aug. 9 to Sept. 1. The individual state samples vary in size from about 550 to more than 5,000, allowing greater opportunities than typical surveys to look at different groups within the population and compare them from state to state.

The massive survey highlights a critical weakness in Trump’s candidacy — an unprecedented deficit for a Republican among college-educated white voters, especially women. White college graduates have been loyal Republican voters in recent elections, but Trump is behind Clinton with this group across much of the country, including in some solidly red states.

The 50-state findings come at a time when the average national margin between Clinton and Trump has narrowed. What once was a Clinton lead nationally of eight to 10 points shortly after the party conventions ended a month ago is now about four points, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. A number of battleground states also have tightened, according to surveys released from other organizations in recent days.

The Post-SurveyMonkey results are consistent with many of those findings, but not in all cases. Trump’s support in the Midwest, where the electorates are generally older and whiter, appears stronger and offers the possibility of gains in places Democrats carried recently. He has small edges in two expected battlegrounds — Ohio and Iowa — and is close in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, each of which Democrats have won in six consecutive elections.

At the same time, however, Trump is struggling in places Republicans have won consistently and that he must hold to have any hope of winning. These states include Arizona and Georgia, as well as Texas — the biggest surprise in the 50-state results. The Texas results, which are based on a sample of more than 5,000 people, show a dead heat, with Clinton ahead by one percentage point.


Of all the states, Texas provided the most unexpected result. The Lone Star State has been a conservative Republican bastion for the past four decades. In 2012, President Obama lost the state by 16 points. For Democrats, it has been among the 10 to 15 worst-performing states in the past four elections.

The Post-SurveyMonkey poll of Texas shows a dead heat with Clinton at 46 percent and Trump at 45 percent. Democrats have long claimed that changing demographics would make the state competitive in national elections, but probably not for several more cycles.

A comparison of the current survey with the 2008 Texas exit poll (there was no exit poll there in 2012) points to reasons the race appears close right now. Trump is performing worse than 2008 GOP nominee John McCain among both whites and Hispanics, while Clinton is doing slightly better than Obama.

Among men, Trump is doing slightly worse than McCain did eight years ago. The bigger difference is among women. McCain won a narrow majority of women in Texas while Trump is currently below 40 percent. That’s not to say Texas is turning blue in 2016. Given its history, it probably will back Trump in November and possibly by a comfortable margin. But at this stage, the fact that it is close at all is one more surprise in a surprising year.

You can see the Texas numbers here, though there’s not much to see. In the four-way race, it’s tied at 40-40, with 11 for Libertarian Gary Johnson and 3 for Green Jill Stein. The 46% figure is on its own the highest number I’ve seen for any Democrat in a statewide poll in Texas since I started paying attention. If it holds up, then no matter what else happens, she will have accomplished something here.

I should note that there are some concerns about the methodology used for this poll:

The Post-SurveyMonkey poll used an online-based sampling methodology that differs from previous polls by The Washington Post. Those are telephone surveys based on random samples of cellular and landline phones.

The new poll was conducted online as part of SurveyMonkey’s 2016 Election Tracking project, which recruits respondents from the large number people who take polls on the company’s do-it-yourself survey platform, roughly three million each day. A subsample of respondents to this range of surveys — which includes formal and informal polls of community groups, companies, churches and other organizations — were invited to participate in a second survey with the prompt, “Where do you stand on current events? Share your opinion.” The survey was not advertised on any website, so individuals could not “click-in” in an effort to influence results. A survey invitation could be used only once.

From Aug. 9 to Sept. 1, the survey asked the sample of 74,886 registered voters about their presidential support, including between 546 and 5,147 respondents in each state. The final sample was weighted to the latest Census Bureau benchmarks for the population of registered voters in each state.

The Post-SurveyMonkey poll employed a “non-probability” sample of respondents. While standard Washington Post surveys draw random samples of cellular and landline users to ensure every voter has a chance of being selected, the probability of any given voter being invited to a SurveyMonkey is unknown, and those who do not use the platform do not have a chance of being selected. A margin of sampling error is not calculated for SurveyMonkey results, since this is a statistical property only applicable to randomly sampled surveys.

The ability of random samples to represent the overall population is grounded in probability theory. With non-probability samples, testing is necessary to ensure a particular sampling strategy, along with adjustments to match population demographics, can consistently produce accurate estimates.

See here for more, including full question wording. I’ve seen a number of critiques of the poll, from folks like RG Ratcliffe on Facebook, which hold me back from embracing this as anything more than just another data point. Five Thirty Eight includes this result in its tracking page for Texas, but grades the poll at a C-, and the overall 538 assessment of Texas is more influenced by three weekly Ipsos Reuters polls that have shown Trump with much more typical double-digit lead. They can’t both be right. There’s a Texas Lyceum poll coming out next week, so perhaps we’ll get some corroboration for one or the other.

The Chron rounds up some local reactions.

Matt Angle, executive director of the Lone Star Project, an organization dedicated to making Democrats competitive again in Texas politics, noted that the SurveyMonkey poll’s web-based methodology has yet to be proven. He remains hopeful, but unconvinced, of a Clinton tie with Trump.

“I haven’t seen anything else to make me think that,” Angle said. “But I do think the atmosphere (for Democrats) is good. It’s better than I’ve seen it in recent elections.”

Chris Perkins, a GOP pollster and political consultant in Austin, said he, too, was skeptical. “Internet polling has been proven over and over to be wildly inaccurate. Can some of them be correct? Yes. But then there’s the old saying, ‘even a broken clock can be right twice a day.'”

Recent internal polls by both Democratic and Republican-leaning pollsters have tended to give Trump a strong lead in Texas, though the margins have fluctuated significantly in what many analysts rate as an unconventional election year.


The length of time covered by the poll also has raised questions, since it does not reflect potential changes in respondents’ attitudes over a three-week period while the campaigns ebbed and flowed.

“I’m surprised they would put that much stock in an online survey, based on the fact that internet surveys have a tendency to be inaccurate and that it took nearly a month to complete,” Perkins said.

Some academics say that as the science of polling evolves, however, each new poll has to be seen as a piece of a puzzle.

Rice University political scientist Robert Stein, a polling expert, said that well-designed internet polls can be as reliable if not more than traditional telephone polls. “You have to treat this is one more data point, and it’s a big data point,” he said. “I wouldn’t disregard it.”

James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, said he has used both types of polling, and found the Post’s results to be generally in line with the national trends – except in Texas.

“The most controversial result is the Texas result,” he said. “It’s an outlier.”

Henson noted, however, that a number of recent private polls he has seen have given Trump only single-digit leads in Texas. Four years ago, President Obama lost the state by 16 points to Mitt Romney; four years before that, he lost to John McCain by some 10 points.

“When you haven’t seen a double-digit poll in this matchup in a long time, it’s hard not to get some sense that there is some kind of movement, and consider what the narrative of that movement is,” he said.

Craig Goodman, who teaches political science at the University of Houston in Victoria, said that although the Washington Post-SurveyMonkey poll has to be “taken with a grain of salt,” it fits into the broader context of a tightening race. “Certainly, Donald Trump hasn’t been running away with Texas,” he said. “It certainly fits in with the broader narrative of where Trump has been struggling.”

Anyway. Juanita passes along a rumor that Clinton has a double-digit lead in Harris County, which if true (I’m not ready to believe it) likely suggests a high concentration of not-Trump Republicans here. Democratic Sheriff candidate Ed Gonzalez sent out a fundraising email yesterday afternoon that teased a poll saying “Sheriff Ron Hickman is vulnerable and we are well-positioned to win” and “the race is a dead heat and nearly a third of the vote is undecided”, which neither confirms nor denies Juanita’s rumor. Who knows? I’ve added the result to the right hand sidebar. We’ll see what the outfits that normally poll Texas have to say soon enough.

What’s that definition of insanity again?

How many times are we going to find ourselves in this same situation before we finally accept that we need to do something different?


The Harris County Sheriff’s Office has cut funding for law enforcement operations to cover exploding overtime costs at the department’s understaffed jail, a move critics say could harm public safety while failing to address departmentwide staffing issues.

Since March, the department has transferred nearly $8 million to jail operations from other areas in the department largely to cover overtime pay for jailers, which has risen 500 percent in the last two years, county records show.

Sheriff Ron Hickman acknowledges the fiscal strain but said state laws have tied his hands.

“When we steal money from some place in the budget like patrol, we can’t buy cars anymore, or new tires, we have to put that money to pay for the inmates,” he said at a recent town hall meeting in Clear Lake. “I have to (care for inmates). I’m statutorily required. Getting to your house the same day a burglary happens is not a legal requirement. So guess who suffers when we don’t have the funds? Y’all do.”

Monthly overtime costs have risen from $261,472 in mid-March 2014 to nearly $1.4 million by mid-June this year, records show. Overtime costs in May 2015, when Hickman was appointed sheriff, were $328,357.

The budget transfers come as county commissioners have rejected requests from Hickman to bulk up staffing with 376 new positions and after he changed employment policies to prohibit the hiring of jailers younger than 21 in hopes of developing a more mature workforce.

In an interview with the Chronicle, Hickman blamed the spike in overtime to an increased jail population, state requirements on staffing, aging facilities and trouble retaining jailers who can earn better pay with fewer hours elsewhere.


The Harris County Deputies’ Organization has grown so concerned about staffing and retention issues that the organization has begun filing records requests seeking the department’s manpower plan.

“We’re at a critical shortage when we have a high population of prisoners and we’re forcing people to work overtime and people are fatigued,” [David Cuevas, president of the Harris County Deputies’ Organization,] said.

Emphasis mine. You know what could solve these problems without shifting money around or taking deputies off of patrol or any of those other things mentioned in the story? Having fewer people in jail. In Sheriff Hickman’s defense, there’s not much he can do policy-wise to affect the jail population. He does, however, have the capability, and frankly the obligation, to call on the District Attorney and the criminal court judges to use the power they have to alleviate this problem, which after all is almost entirely of their making. I’d have more sympathy for him if he did that. We know what the problem is, and we know what the solutions are. We just refuse to do them.

Legislation to ban the jailing of rape victims proposed

Hard to argue with, I must say.

DA Devon Anderson

The controversial jailing of a rape victim to ensure her testimony could lead to a new state law protecting victims’ rights to an appointed attorney.

State Sen. Joan Huffman is joining with Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson and Sheriff Ron Hickman to push for new legislation to protect witnesses facing jail time through a legal mechanism known as an attachment order, or witness attachment.

The announcement Friday came on the heels of a firestorm after a mentally ill rape victim filed a lawsuit last month over being detained in the Harris County jail for almost a month while waiting to testify against her attacker.


“The process of attachment is a rarely used but extremely vital tool for attorneys to ensure the testimony of a witness,” said Huffman, R-Houston. “It should only be used when there is no other way to hear testimony that is critical to public safety or in the best interest of the public.”

Huffman said what happened to the rape victim was “distressing” and she is looking at a wide swath of possible changes, mostly for large jurisdictions in Texas.

In addition to requiring judges to appoint counsel, Huffman said she is looking at requirements that office holders, or their designees, sign off on the order. There could also be a requirement to renew the order every 72 hours.

“I envision it almost like the special protections we have in the juvenile system, like making sure they have counsel and someone is keeping tabs on them,” she said. “And that way everybody knows what’s going on and everybody is on the same page.”

She said smaller jurisdictions would probably be exempt, since it would be unlikely that a witness in jail in a small rural county would “fall through the cracks.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background. It’s hard to argue with the intent of such a bill, but one could easily argue that this should never have happened here without DA Anderson and Sheriff Hickman’s knowledge and consent, and that it happened is more a failure of common sense and office management than anything else. That said, if it takes a law to ensure that every office has that kind of procedure in place, then so be it. I would argue that small counties should not be exempted from it, as informing the DA and Sheriff is hardly an imposition, and ensuring they are informed would also ensure they are accountable. So kudos to Sen. Huffman for proposing this, but forgive me my exasperation that she had to propose it.

More on the jailed rape victim

The Chron pens a harsh editorial.

DA Devon Anderson

Although a spokesman for the district attorney’s office has admitted this miscarriage of justice should never have happened, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson defends the prosecutor involved in the case. She says the prosecutor tried to find a suitable place for the sexual assault survivor to stay after her breakdown and even paid for a night in a hotel out of his own pocket. Calling it “an extraordinarily difficult and unusual situation,” the DA said there were “no apparent alternatives” that would ensure the victim’s safety and that she also would appear to testify. Coming from a district attorney who presents herself as a champion of crime victims, that’s mighty hard to swallow. Throwing a mentally ill rape victim into jail because there’s supposedly no other place for her to go should shock the conscience of every citizen of Harris County.


Voters will pass final judgment on Anderson’s handling of this matter. With the district attorney up for re-election in November, the incident already has become a political issue.

Meanwhile, we call upon our elected leadership to ask the U.S. Justice Department for a federal investigation of this case. The DA and the sheriff have offered their own explanations, but an independent inquiry is absolutely essential.

We also urge Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and county commissioners Jack Cagle, Gene Locke, Jack Morman and Steve Radack to take the time to read the lawsuit the victim’s lawyer filed. It’s a frightening document outlining an unimaginable perversion of justice. We hope they lose sleep thinking over what they need to do about it.

See here and here for the background. We absolutely should be hearing more from Judge Emmett and Commissioners Court – including Sen. Ellis – on this. Do they support a federal investigation into what happened? We need to know.

and yes, this is a campaign issue.

District attorney candidate Kim Ogg on Tuesday again pushed for reform in the treatment of crime victims, criticizing the controversial jailing of a rape victim by Harris County prosecutors to ensure the woman would testify in court.

Ogg said the district attorney’s office could improve how victims are detained if prosecutors are worried witnesses might fail to show up in court. She also suggested the creation of a new division in the district attorney’s office that would be responsible for prosecuting people who commit sex crimes.

“I will never put a crime victim in jail to secure a conviction,” she said at a Tuesday press conference. “There are so many other things we can do … There is no excuse for putting this woman in jail.”


Ogg called last week for an independent investigation of the case and has now made crime victim treatment a campaign priority, saying her proposed reforms would be implemented if she is elected in November.

Sheriff candidate Ed Gonzalez has also been speaking out about this. You may say, we shouldn’t politicize this. I say District Attorney and Sheriff are political offices for a reason, and it is ultimately on the voters to decide how and when to hold the people who serve in those offices accountable when stuff like this happens. DA Anderson and Sheriff Hickman have given their responses to what happened. We get to decide how we feel about that. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

July finance reports for county candidates

Most of the interesting race in Harris County this year are the countywide races. Here’s a look at how the candidates in these races have been doing at fundraising.

District Attorney

Friends of Devon Anderson PAC
Kim Ogg

Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
Anderson   253,670   55,392         0    368,907
Ogg        143,311   34,417    69,669    108,872

Devon Anderson received a $60K contribution from Richard Anderson; I have no idea if there’s any family connection there. She’s a strong fundraiser, but she’s also had her share of bad publicity, and I suspect it’ll take more money than what she has in the bank to wipe that away. As for Ogg, her biggest single contribution was $13,500 from Nancy Morrison. I feel like Ogg’s totals don’t quite work, since she reported $30K on hand for her February 20 eight-day report, but it’s not that big a deal. This is also a reminder that the totals listed above for Ogg were from the period February 21 through June 30, while Anderson’s are for the full six months.


Ron Hickman
Ed Gonzalez, May runoff report
Ed Gonzalez, July report

Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
Hickman    127,153  175,247         0    135,868
Gonzalez    38,435   35,587         0     20,117

Hickman had primary opposition, so his report is from February 21 through June 30. He got $21,700 from Suzanne and Keith Moran for his biggest donation. He also spent a bunch of money – $59K to Strategic Media Services for TV ads, $41K too Neumann and Co for mailers, and (my favorite) $10K to Tom’s Pins for “promo items and Golf Promo items”. I bet that’s a lot of pins and little pencils. As for Gonzalez, he had raised $130K from Feb 21 to May 14, during the primary runoff period. His July report is only for May 15 through June 30. In other words, don’t freak out at the disparity in amount raised.

Tax Assessor

Mike Sullivan
Ann Harris Bennett

Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
Sullivan    70,300   39,196         0    101,564
Bennett     26,190   11,536         0      1,837

Both Sullivan and Bennett were in contested primaries, so both reports cover February 21 through June 30. You could call Sullivan an efficient fundraiser – he raised that $70K from 55 total donors, 52 of whom gave $250 or more, and three of whom gave $100 or less. Bennett has never been much of a fundraiser, and this report bears that out. Some $17K of her raised total was in-kind, which contributed to the extra low cash on hand amount.

County Attorney

Vince Ryan
Jim Leitner

Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
Ryan         72,400  33,652         0    171,677
Leitner      12,550  10,225     9,500      8,765

Leitner had to win a primary, while Ryan was the one Dem who had a free ride. Ryan is also the one Democratic incumbent, and he built up a bit of a cushion over the past four years. Leitner wins the award for being the one guy to fill out his form by hand rather than electronically. Not a whole lot to see here otherwise.

Commissioners Court, Precinct 3

Steve Radack
Jenifer Pool

Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
Radack     747,500  177,604         0  1,616,948
Pool        13,750   13,054         0          0

This is the one contested County Commissioner’s Court race. Radack’s Precinct 3 is redder than Jack Morman’s Precinct 2 but less red than Jack Cagle’s Precinct 4. In a normal year, I’d expect Radack to get around 60% of the vote, though downballot candidates have done better than that in recent years; Adrian Garcia topped 47% there in 2008. This is obviously not a normal year, though whether the effect of that is primarily at the top of the ticket or if it goes all the way down remains to be seen. To the extent that there is an effect, Precinct 3 ought to serve as a good microcosm of it.

And for completeness’ sake:

Commissioners Court, Precinct 1

El Franco Lee – Still has $3,774,802 on hand.
Rodney Ellis – $1,959,872 on hand. Same as his state report.
Gene Locke – Raised $258K, spent $182K, still has $115K on hand.

I’m going to step out on a limb and suggest that Gene Locke has run his last campaign. Very little money has been spent from El Franco Lee’s account – one presumes his campaign treasurer hasn’t given the matter any more thought since he was first asked about it in January. Rodney Ellis has promised to give $100K to the HCDP coordinated campaign. I say Gene Locke and J. Kent Friedman (El Franco Lee’s campaign treasurer) should do something like that as well. This year presents a huge opportunity for Harris County Democrats, and it’s not like that money is doing anyone any good sitting in the bank. It’s not my money and I don’t get to say how it gets spent, but I do get to say what I want, and this is it. Put some money into this campaign, guys. There’s absolutely no reason not to.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, Commissioner Locke has nothing to do with the late Commissioner Lee’s finance account. I was under the impression that Lee’s campaign treasurer controls that purse, but it has been suggested to me that (at least by now) that may have passed to his widow. Be that as it may, and again to be clear, Commissioner Locke has no involvement in anything but his own finance account.

Falkenberg talks to DA Anderson about jailed rape victim

Worth reading, as you would expect. I’m going to quote from the conclusion:

DA Devon Anderson

[Assistant DA Nick] Socias appeared to have diligently tried to help, but he seemed to be trying alone. Anderson’s office said she wasn’t informed about the situation until near the end of trial.

She should have been involved from the start. The sheriff as well. When I asked, Anderson couldn’t think of a single thing the prosecutor could have done better. One is glaringly obvious: ask for help.

In the end, the victim testified, and her bravery helped get a serial rapist off the street.

But the cost to the victim was too high, something Anderson said “we regret very much.”

“We’ve just been crushed by this,” she told me.

I believe her. But a young rape victim has been destroyed by this. It’s not acceptable to say that was unavoidable.

See here for the background, and do read the whole thing. I don’t think Devon Anderson has been a terrible DA. She has done, or at least tried to do, some good things, from better handling of marijuana cases to not being bulldozed by politics in the Planned Parenthood investigation. She’s a clear step up from Chuck Rosenthal. But this case demonstrates an appalling lack of oversight within her office. There’s just no way that an ADA should have been able to make the decision to hold a crime victim, let along a rape victim, in jail without the full knowledge and consent of the DA and the Sheriff. Maybe they would have signed off on it and maybe they would have insisted on finding another answer. Maybe if they had signed off on it there would have been better management of the process that could have avoided the terrible things that happened to the victim while she was inside. Whatever the case, the fact that it did happen without them knowing about it is a problem. That Anderson didn’t see that on her own is an even bigger problem.

We’re outsourcing inmates again

We never learn.


Harris County, in the latest move to keep its swelling jail population in check, is pursuing an agreement with neighboring Fort Bend County to send inmates to the suburb’s jail.

A Harris County Sheriff’s Office spokesman called the measure precautionary. If it is approved by commissioners at their meeting Tuesday, it’s not certain that Harris County would immediately begin sending inmates to the Fort Bend County jail. But it’s likely that Harris County in the near future will begin the transfers, especially as its jail population spikes in the summer months.

“Harris County officials asked if we had bed space available and we do,” Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls said in a written statement Friday. “They came out and looked at our facility and were impressed with what they saw. We will be able to accommodate the increased number of inmates within our current budget.”


Earlier this year, Harris County began sending hundreds of inmates to jails in Jefferson and Bowie counties.

What is different about the Fort Bend County proposal is that it targets pretrial inmates, or those in jail ahead of their court proceedings, said Harris County Sheriff’s spokesman Ryan Sullivan.

The Bowie and Jefferson transfers focused on inmates who had been convicted and were awaiting transfer to a state prison.

The pretrial inmate population is the biggest driver of the county’s high jail population, Sullivan said.

It’s also been the subject of intense scrutiny in recent years.

See here for the background. Everything I said then remains true now. What we are doing is the definition of dumb. It is our choice to jail thousands of people each year who are no threat to anyone. It is our choice to do something different. We need people in place – Sheriff, DA, judges – who will make the better choices.

Lawsuit filed over Harris County bail practices

This could be a big deal.

An advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., challenged Harris County’s bail system on Thursday, arguing in a federal civil rights lawsuit that hundreds of offenders are unlawfully jailed for minor offenses like trespassing and shoplifting simply because they are poor and cannot afford even nominal bail payments.

Lawyers for the non-profit, Equal Justice Under Law, filed the suit on behalf of Maranda Lynn ODonnell, a 22-year-old single mother jailed Wednesday for driving without a valid license, and all other pretrial misdemeanor offenders held in Harris County, asking the court for class action status.

ODonnell, mother of a 4-year-old, has been held for two days only because she can’t afford to post $2,500 bond, according to court documents. The suit described ODonnell as one of many poor defendants who have been “subjected to the County’s unlawful and ongoing post-arrest wealth-based detention scheme.”

“She is currently being held in a jail cell solely because she cannot pay what to other people is a small sum of money,” the lawsuit says, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has “repeatedly articulated the fundamental principle that no person can be kept in a jail cell solely because of her poverty.”

Equal Justice Under Law has previously targeted what it calls “money bail” practices all across the United States as unconstitutional, filing lawsuits against 17 other cities and counties nationwide, including Ferguson, Mo., New Orleans and San Francisco, according to Alec Karakatsanis, one of the non-profit’s attorneys.

The group has obtained federal consent decrees eliminating that practice for newly-arrested offenders in eight cases involving smaller cities, including Clanton, Al., Dodge City, Kan, and Moss Point, Miss., he said. Harris County is the largest jurisdiction to face a challenge from the group.

Here’s some background on EJUL and this particular crusade; they have some other causes going on as well. The lawsuit names Harris County, the Harris County Sheriff, and Harris County Criminal Law Hearing Officers as defendants. You know how I feel about this, and you also know that this is largely self-induced on the county’s part. Harris County has recently taken a step towards reforming how bail is done, which is long overdue and still in believe-it-when-I-see-it mode. Perhaps this action will spur that along. Grits and the Press have more.

Locke calls for jail administrator

Some strong words from Precinct 1 Commissioner Gene Locke.

Gene Locke

Gene Locke

Harris County Commissioner Gene L. Locke on Tuesday demanded that a certified jail administrator be hired after learning that four Harris County inmates have died after being assaulted by other inmates or suffered blunt force trauma while jailed over the last year.

The latest of the deaths during the tenure of Sheriff Ron Hickman, who took office in May 2015, came on April 5 after Patrick Joseph Brown, a Katy man arrested for allegedly stealing a guitar, was beaten to death in a crowded jail cell. Two inmates have been charged with aggravated assault in his death.

“Any in-custody death is unacceptable, and to hear that four people died while in jail awaiting trial in Harris County is embarrassing and disgraceful,” Locke said in a press release. “The inmates’ families deserve answers, and the people of Harris County are entitled to know that their public servants are safely operating a place of confinement, which is meant to be temporary, and not a death chamber for inmates who have not been given a bond hearing or convicted of the crimes for which they have been accused.”

Hickman responded via an emailed statement that he shares Locke’s concerns about inmate care and said he welcomed “any additional assistance that can be provided to ease and/or identify problems with staffing.”

“Our position continues to be that we will never tolerate any abuse or improper treatment of any individual under our care or custody and protection of life is always our first priority,” Hickman said. “Many times, we are the first point of access to medical care when individuals who are brought to our facility are found to be ill, needing medical attention, or mental health services.”

See here for Commissioner Locke’s full statement. The idea of a separate jail administrator has come up before, with the proposal originally being put forward by Commissioner Steve Radack and Sheriff Hickman saying he was open to the possibility. I have expressed some skepticism about this idea, partly because I was afraid it was a stalking horse for some kind of jail privatization scheme, but also because we’re very light on the details for this. How exactly would this work? To whom is the jail administrator accountable? There are many questions to answer before we could consider moving ahead.

Commissioner Locke, who invited me to have lunch with him this week to discuss what he has been doing and planning to do as Commissioner, told me that his reasoning for this was simple: Sheriffs have a strong preference for putting more deputies into patrol and investigations, and they cut costs relating to the jail to pay for that. A jail administrator, who would only have responsibility – and budget – for the jail would instead be incentivized to improve jail operations rather than simply cut costs. I’m still not on board with the idea, at least not until some of the other questions are answered, but I can see the logic in that. Whatever the case, it is clear that what we are doing at the jail now is not working any better than it was before, and we need to make significant changes to bring an end to the violence and death we see all too often in the jail. To that extent, I’ll keep an open mind about having a jail administrator if there’s a proposal for one that makes sense and addresses these questions.

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.

Runoff watch: Sheriff

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez

This one is straightforward. Democrats Ed Gonzalez and Jerome Moore will square off for the right to go against incumbent Sheriff Ron Hickman this November. Gonzalez led the way with 43.5%, while Moore tallied 29.8%. Gonzalez was the consensus establishment candidate – he swept all the group endorsements, while collecting the Chronicle recommendation as well. As a three-term Council member, he’s well known to officeholders, groups, and many of the kinds of voters who are likely to turn out in May. Moore is a career law enforcement officer who didn’t raise much money and who is I believe making his first run for office. He may benefit if turnout in the runoff is higher.

My interview with Ed Gonzalez is here. I didn’t reach out to Jerome Moore, who didn’t have a web presence at the time I was trying to set up interview appointments in the Sheriff’s race. I may try again for the runoff if I have the time and he has the interest. Gonzalez has all the factors in his favor to make him the frontrunner in this race, but as always in a low-profile setting one cannot take anything for granted. He’s fairly well known among party faithful, which is much more important in a runoff than in a March primary, but as someone whose electoral experience is representing a Council district with modest voter participation, that only takes one so far. Remember what I said about how Adrian Garcia could make people who might be mad at him for challenging Gene Green get over it? Helping his buddy Ed Gonzalez – visibly helping his buddy across the finish line in this runoff would be a fine start.

2016 primaries: Harris County

Though this will be the first entry published in the morning, it was the last one I wrote last night, and I’m super tired. So, I’m going to make this brief.

Harris County Dem resultsHarris County GOP results

Democratic races of interest, with about 86% of precincts reporting

District Attorney: Kim Ogg with 51%, so no runoff needed.

Sheriff: Ed Gonzalez (43%) and Jerome Moore (30%) in the runoff.

Tax Assessor: Ann Harris Bennett (61%) gets another crack at it.

Judicial races: Some close, some blowouts, some runoffs. Jim Sharp will not be on the ballot, as Candance White won easily, while the one contested district court race that featured an incumbent will go to overtime. Elaine Palmer in the 215th will face JoAnn Storey, after drawing 43% of the vote to Storey’s 28%. Those who are still smarting from Palmer’s unlovely ouster of Steve Kirkland in 2012 will get their chance to exact revenge on May 24.

Turnout: For some reason, Dem results were reporting a lot more slowly than GOP results. As of midnight, nearly 150 precincts were still out. At that time, Dem turnout had topped 200,000, so the final number is likely to be in the 210,000 to 220,000 range. That’s well short of 2008, of course, but well ahead of projections, and nobody could call it lackluster or disappointing. As was the case in 2008, some 60% of the vote came on Election Day. I think the lesson to draw here is that when there is a real Presidential race, fewer people vote early than you’d normally expect.

Republican races of interest, with 92% of precincts reporting

Sheriff: Ron Hickman, with 72%.

Tax Assessor: Mike Sullivan, with 83%. Kudos for not being that stupid, y’all.

County Attorney: Jim Leitner, with 53%.

Strange (to me) result of the night: GOP Chair Paul Simpson was forced to a runoff, against someone named Rick Ramos. Both had about 39% of the vote. What’s up with that?

Turnout: With 67 precincts to go, just over 300,000 total votes. Interestingly, that was right on Stan Stanart’s initial, exuberant projection. He nailed the GOP side, he just woefully underestimated the Dems.

Bedtime for me. I’m sure there will be plenty more to say in the coming days. What are your reactions?

Chron overview of the Sheriff races

The candidate who isn’t there nonetheless plays a central role.

Appointed incumbent Ron Hickman faces two repeat challengers in the GOP primary, while four others, including former Houston City Councilman Ed Gonzalez battle for the Democratic nomination.

The candidates square off in an election year when criminal justice issues are on the forefront of the public consciousness, following a year and a half of protests across the country over how police use lethal force during interactions with the public, particularly involving minorities.

“There’s been a lot more scrutiny as there’s been more reporting on issues from brutality or misconduct amid patrol, to misconduct among jail guards, to sanitary issues in the jail,” said Jay Jenkinsof the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “For the first time in a long time, it feels like the general public is realizing what responsibilities come with that office, and how sheriff has the ability to help or hurt on those issues.”

Former Sheriff Adrian Garcia beat out Tommy Thomas eight years ago on the heels of a string of headlines about numerous inmate deaths, a high-profile civil rights lawsuit and thousands of deleted emails under a Thomas policy that violated state law. He resigned the post last May when he ran unsuccessfully for mayor; Commissioners Court appointed Hickman to finish Garcia’s term, which ends Dec. 31.

The landscape is different today, but the department again has come under scrutiny over inmate deaths and allegations of abuse, poor medical care and other problems in the jail dating back to 2009.

Hickman’s supporters argue that the majority of those issues occurred under Garcia’s regime, and that state inspectors gave the facility high marks when they inspected it last December.

It’s not a big surprise that the primaries for Sheriff are in their own way about Adrian Garcia. Jeff Stauber on the Democratic side is a pretty strong critic of Garcia’s term in office, as you can hear in the interview I did with him. His belief is that the HCSO needs someone with experience in the office as the person in charge, a charge that conveniently works against both Ed Gonzalez and Ron Hickman. As for Hickman, invoking Garcia now is basically a defensive move, but if he’s still doing it in the fall it will surely be as an offensive maneuver. As he will have been on the job for more than a year by then there’s no guarantee that the voters will accept that, but there’s no reason why they couldn’t. I suspect that once we get past March, Hickman will prefer to talk about the things he has done rather than things his predecessor did, but I’m sure the latter won’t be too far beneath the surface, if it’s beneath it at all.

Chron overview of Sheriff primaries

No, it’s not 2008, though there are a couple of superficial similarities.

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez

On paper, Ed Gonzalez is a near-replica of former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

The Latino Democrats served in the Houston Police Department and represented the same district on City Council. Eventually, both were appointed mayors pro-tem.

Now, eight years after Garcia unseated Harris County’s longtime Republican Sheriff Tommy Thomas, Gonzalez, 46, again is looking to follow in his political mentor’s footsteps.

“We don’t need just a manager. We really need a reformer,” the soft-spoken Gonzalez, a former hostage negotiator, said during an interview at Montrose’s Blacksmith coffee shop. “That’s what I represent.”

Garcia vacated the sheriff’s post last May to run for Houston mayor, at which point members of the county’s commissioners court replaced him with Republican Ron Hickman. Garcia came in third and now is challenging Congressman Gene Green, the longtime District 29 representative, in the Democratic primary.

Gonzalez and Hickman are widely viewed as the favorites in the Democratic and Republican primaries, respectively.


Gonzalez is up against sheriff’s lieutenant Jeff Stauber, 52, constable’s lieutenant Jerome Moore, 42, and Theodore “Ted” Perez in the Democratic primary.

All of them face a steep fundraising climb in a primary unlikely to draw much notice. Stauber reported $1,200 in the bank as of the end of 2015, while the others did not file end-of-year finance reports or reported having no cash on hand.

Asked about his top three priorities, Gonzalez listed crime prevention, jail management and working within the office’s budgetary constraints.

“I’m really going to look at some diversion programs,” Gonzalez said, adding that he supports channeling low-level drug offenders to treatment and support services rather than jail.

Stauber, who is running his first campaign for public office, criticized Gonzalez for keeping six homicide case files, including those for one active case, when he left the Houston Police Department in 2009. Gonzalez had placed the files in a box while clearing out his work area and did not return them until the department launched an inquiry into lapsed murder investigations years later.

Police charged a suspect in one of those murder cases within two weeks of receiving the file.

“A family, their investigations were held up for five years,” Stauber said. “I think that needs to be looked at.”

Stauber, who said he most recently voted in a Republican primary, plans to focus on officer training and education, technology and improving community relations.

Moore and Perez did not respond to interview requests.

My interview with Ed Gonzalez is here, and my interview with Jeff Stauber is here. Adrian Garcia cruised to an easy win over the scandal-plagued Tommy Thomas in 2008, but he was in a good position to win regardless thanks to the overall Democratic surge in Harris County that year. Ron Hickman is an appointed replacement Sheriff, not a troubled longtime incumbent, so that dynamic is very different, but the effect on the outcome of partisan turnout levels is not. More Democrats than Republicans voted in 2008; Thomas’ problems mostly helped Garcia run up the score. The Sheriff election this is more like an open seat race than anything else, and barring anything strange it will likely be decided more by turnout levels than anything else. As someone with a mostly clean slate, I think Hickman gets some benefit of the doubt, meaning that his Democratic opponent will have to either find some effective points of attack against him, or rely on a sufficiently high surge. We’ll have a better idea of how that might go once we know who the Presidential candidates are.

Endorsement watch: Sheriffs

It’s the time of the season again.

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez

In Ed Gonzalez, Democratic Party primary voters have a candidate with broad experience in law enforcement and governance. Gonzalez’s resume includes three terms as councilman of District H, and 18 years in the Houston Police Department, including time spent as a homicide investigator and a hostage negotiator.

Gonzalez, 46, has managerial experience, as well. He was a sergeant at HPD before retiring from the force and served as mayor pro tem on City Council as well as chairing council’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Division.

“We need a reformer. We need change,” Gonzalez told the editorial board. In his first week in office, Gonzalez said he would immediately assess the number of open cases, share crime analysis information and work with constable offices, regional authorities and crime prevention groups like Crime Stoppers of Houston to improve crime clearance statistics.

Gonzalez, a native Houstonian, has an academic background in criminology: a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from University of Houston-Downtown and a master of liberal arts degree from University of St. Thomas. As a council member he played a role in the creation of the Houston Center for Sobriety, a place for Houston police officers to drop off people whose only offense is public intoxication. He also pledged to be aggressive about creating more diversion programs for additional segments of the population.

Both of Gonzalez’s opponents in the Democratic primary respectively are waging their first race for public office. Jerome Moore, 42, has more than 17 years experience in law enforcement, and Jeff Stauber, 52, has more than 30 years. But Gonzalez brings to bear the experience in law enforcement and governance needed to keep the office headed in the right direction. He has our nod for the Democratic primary.

Various Democratic groups are starting to do their screenings, and I’ve added the endorsements that I’ve seen to the 2016 Election page. I’m still working on adding January finance reports, so be patient. The Chron also endorsed incumbent Sheriff Ron Hickman for the GOP primary. They’ve got a lot of races to get through between now and the start of early voting on February 16. I expect the editorial page will be busy.

Morris Overstreet to run for DA

I know we’re all still recovering from Tuesday, but the 2016 filing season is almost upon us, and the Democratic race for Harris County DA just became a contested race.

Morris Overstreet

Former appeals court judge Morris Overstreet announced Thursday that he would seek the Democratic nomination for Harris County District Attorney.

Overstreet, a former judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals who has been a licensed attorney since 1975, said he wanted to bring integrity to the state’s largest DA’s office, currently helmed by Republican Devon Anderson.

“I want to instill integrity, so that the people of Harris County have public trust in the office of the district attorney,” Overstreet said. “As a trial judge and a prosecutor involving hundreds of jury trials and thousands of non-jury trials, I’ve never had any criminal conviction reversed because of any error committed by me.”

Here’s a post of Facebook from Overstreet’s announcement. He had released a video on YouTube on October 28 teasing the announcement. Overstreet was a candidate for Chief Justice, 1st Court of Appeals in 2010, and more recently was appointed by the Waller County Sheriff to an independent panel of civilians to evaluate his department in the wake of Sandra Bland’s death. Overstreet joins Kim Ogg in the race, presumably against incumbent DA Devon Anderson, who has not yet announced but is expected to run and who as far as I know has not attracted a primary opponent. I look forward to the debate in this race, Lord knows there’s plenty to talk about.

As far as the rest of the primaries go, County Attorney Vince Ryan, the sole Democratic countywide officeholder, is expected to run again, and I have not heard word of a primary opponent nor of a Republican challenger yet, though I’m sure there will be the latter. Brandon Dudley, chief of staff to Sen. Rodney Ellis and 2010 judicial candidate, is running for Tax Assessor against Mike Sullivan; Ann Harris Bennett, who ran for Tax Assessor in 2012 and County Clerk in 2010 and 2014, is also running. So far, no one has announced on the Democratic side for Sheriff. The name people bring up when I ask about it is Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen, who would be up for re-election this year. He himself has not said anything, for the same reason former Sheriff Adrian Garcia couldn’t talk about running for Mayor – he’d have to resign as soon as he did say something. There’s some speculation around outgoing CM Ed Gonzalez as well, but Rosen is the name I keep hearing. Incumbent Sheriff Ron Hickman should have at least one primary opponent, 2012 candidate Carl Pittman, but beyond that I don’t know. I’ll do a roundup on judicial and legislative and other races another time. If you have a name and some reasonably informed scuttlebutt to add to this, by all means please do.