As Other Cities Talk Police Reform, Houston Stays Mum
Protesters march down MLK Boulevard in November 2014 after a grand jury cleared the officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Freddie Gray's death in Baltimore police custody dragged to the surface longstanding complaints of police brutality, sparking not just riots in the streets but legislation aimed at boosting police accountability and oversight. When video surfaced last year showing Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times, what began as protests ultimately led to a mayor-convened task force that earlier this month called for sweeping police reforms.
There has been no such soul searching by officials in Houston, at least not publicly, not even though the city's rate of police shootings is high compared to those of other major American cities (according to analysis by the Better Government Association, Houston cops killed more people from 2010 to 2014 than police in both Los Angeles and New York, even though the city has only a fraction of the officers those cities have). As we've written before, internal Houston Police Department records show that investigators have, in the course of evaluating such shootings, in the past ignored evidence and witness testimony that conflicts with an officer's account — which might explain why nobody can seem to remember a single shooting HPD deemed unjustified, ever.
Yet Mayor Sylvester Turner has largely remained mum on the issue of police oversight and accountability ever since his swearing in earlier this year, even though he's currently in the process of figuring out who Houston's next police chief will be.
As others have pointed out, the official silence on police reform in Houston might have something to do with the slim chance a shooting like McDonald's would ever be caught on camera here. Not only is Houston another major city that has been slow to adopt body cameras, but, by last count, just 5 percent of HPD's fleet of nearly 4,000 vehicles even have dashboard cameras (by comparison, about 55 percent of Dallas police cruisers are dash-cam-equipped).
The video of McDonald's killing became a flashpoint in Chicago in large part because the footage so clearly disproved the official police account of the shooting – that Van Dyke only fired after the teenager lunged at him with a knife. But there's no similar video showing HPD officer Jason Rosemon responding to the corner of Francis and Sampson just after midnight on October 11, 2012, after neighbors called police to say Kenny Releford, in an apparently psychotic state, had kicked down the door to their house and assaulted some of the people inside before walking back to his own house in a daze.
As HPD Captain Michael Skilern told us last month, “The majority of our police work does not happen in front of a patrol car,” so the department never got around to installing a dashboard camera that could have captured Rosemon pulling up to Releford's house and ordering a schizophrenic man outside over his cruiser-mounted bullhorn. Internal affairs files, which the city fought to keep secret, show police officials took Rosemon's word (that Releford had his hand behind his back, maybe even a weapon, as he walked toward the officer) over that of several witnesses who said Releford was quite clearly unarmed but acting strange. HPD's own internal affairs investigation points to Rosemon's shooting Releford once, waiting for a full minute, then shooting him again when he tried to get back up.
Among other findings, Chicago's Police Accountability Task Force said the city's current system for evaluating misconduct, complaints of excessive force and police shootings, which in many ways mirrors Houston's, is woefully inadequate and, in practice, only insulates police from accountability. The Chicago task force also concluded that provisions in the city's police union contract seem to keep the department from rooting out and punishing officer misconduct. The criticism should sound familiar to anyone who's followed HPD. According to this 2013 Texas Observer report, only 7 percent of complaints against Houston cops between 2007 and 2012 ended in a suspension of three days or more – and among those, arbitrators reduced or overturned punishments two-thirds of the time.
Mayor Turner insists HPD's Internal Affairs Division and the city's Independent Police Oversight Board conduct “independent, thorough investigations” into police shootings, yet the public is rarely told anything beyond HPD's initial boilerplate explanation of an incident (generally, that the officer fired out of a legitimate fear for his or her own life). That silence evidently applies even if it was your unarmed son who was killed by a cop. Janet Baker, whose son Jordan Baker was shot and killed by an off-duty HPD officer in 2014 after he cut through a strip mall while biking home, says that for nearly a year after her son's death, she was given little more than the three-sentence statement HPD provided to the media.
So there's very little explanation about most officer-involved shootings — that is, unless a shooting victim's family files a lawsuit, and a federal judge refuses the city's request to seal any internal records that might come out in court.
The internal HPD records made public in the wrongful death lawsuit Releford's father filed against the city underscore why many don't trust the department's current system of policing itself. A former Dallas police chief hired to review the internal affairs records in Releford's shooting wrote in his report that the department appears to make little effort “to determine what really happened, why it happened, and what might be done to prevent similar deadly shootings in the future.”
Meanwhile, critics say the Internal Police Oversight Board is toothless by design (members merely review HPD's work, and have no subpoena power to conduct their own investigation into a shooting). We know of only one case in which members even recommended HPD conduct further training because of a shooting – recommendations the department inexplicably didn't implement until three years later. Among the shootings cleared by the department's internal affairs division and police oversight board: the drunk, off-duty cop who got into a bar fight and fired into a crowd, killing one unarmed man and injuring at least one more, or the officer who shot a mentally ill, wheelchair-bound double amputee in the head at close range because he was “armed” with a ballpoint pen.
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Last month Mayor Turner's office (he wouldn't agree to be interviewed) told us that HPD plans to implement more "scenario-based de-escalation training" for officers this year. The statement from Turner's office also said that HPD is among the many departments working with the Police Executive Research Forum, commonly known as "PERF," to "review the issue of Use of Force in policing." In a report that included input from top HPD brass, PERF has called for "an overhaul of police training, policy, supervision, and culture on use of force," saying the heightened attention paid to police shootings in recent years has revealed a fundamental disconnect between how police and the broader public view officers' use of force.
Also, per Turner's statement (which is about the most we've heard from him on the issue): "My administration has also instructed Acting Chief of Police Martha I. Montalvo, in conjunction with the Independent Police Oversight Board, to review and develop strategic recommendations to determine what steps can be taken to reduce officer involved shootings."
HPD's own records and deposition testimony by top HPD officials filed in court make it hard to know what to make of those promises. In sworn deposition testimony filed in Releford's case (depositions taken within the past year), HPD officials in charge of training on use of force and how to respond to a mental health crisis didn't seem to know much about some of the department’s most controversial shooting cases, in part because they were hardly discussed within the department.
As for better training, consider this: In 2005, the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health called HPD training the “gold standard” for de-escalating mental health crises. A decade later, an HPD officer shot a naked, unarmed psychiatric patient admitted to the mental health unit at St. Joseph Medical Center. The bullet struck Alan Pean in the chest, lodging just millimeters away from his heart. The feds responded by threatening to pull all Medicare and Medicaid funding from the downtown hospital, saying Pean’s shooting revealed an “immediate threat to the health and safety of patients." Prosecutors responded by charging Pean with two felony counts of assault on a police officer (a grand jury cleared Pean of the charges earlier this year).
And when it comes to overhauling HPD's "training, policy, supervision and culture on use of force," Turner will have the Houston Police Officers' Union to contend with. HPOU president Ray Hunt told us that PERF's recommendations are "way out of line," adding, "those eggheads, those executives haven't been on the streets in 30 years."
Last week, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel promised to implement some but not all of the findings of his police accountability task force. Mayor Turner has indeed even had his own task force of sorts. As part of his “transition team” evaluating all corners of city government, committees studied public safety and HPD policy, making recommendations for policy reforms under his new administration. However, Turner's office has fought the release of those task force reports, filing an appeal with the Texas Attorney General's Office after we asked for copies.
Because while some cities have been forced to talk about police reform in public, Turner would apparently rather do that in private.
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