What's So Secret About HPD's DWI Policy?
The Houston Police Department's policy for dealing with motorists suspected of driving while inebriated is pretty straightforward, except for the section about "violent prisoners," which is curiously redacted. The Houston Press obtained a copy of the policy without the redactions, and although HPD went around the horn trying to explain why that section was redacted, the department was unable to provide a specific reason.
Here's the redacted section:
Violent prisoners will remain handcuffed and will be taken directly to a city jail. Violent prisoners will not be videotaped or given a breath test. In such cases, the arresting officer will complete the Peace Officer Sworn Report form, indicating the prisoner refused a breath test.
Not exactly the Pentagon Papers. It remains unclear why that information would be exempt from an open records request. An HPD press officer referred us to Jeff Monk, manager of HPD's records division, but Monk said he did not know for sure why the DWI policy was redacted, and instead fell back on HPD's usual excuse that the information possibly would help criminals evade the law or endanger officers' lives.
"We probably got an Attorney General ruling on that many years ago," Monk said in a phone interview. "When someone makes [an open records] request for a general order, our legal services and content experts go through that general order line by line to see if anything in there reveals tactics that might either allow a criminal to evade prosecution or detection, or would endanger an officer’s safety. So that’s why there are redactions in general orders. Somebody probably felt it would endanger the safety of an officer."
In 2008, the Attorney General's Office ruled to redact this part of HPD's policy, but the explanation then behind the decision shed no more light on the situation than Monk could. This isn't the first time HPD appears to have overused its thick black Sharpie. In January, we obtained a copy of HPD's use of force policy, without redactions, and found that HPD redacted large parts detailing when and how officers are allowed to strike you with a baton, how officers are supposed to book injured suspects and what type of documentation cops are required to gather in the event of police violence. Similar to the DWI policy redactions, the redacted parts of HPD's use of force policy do not obviously appear to "endanger officer safety" or put officers at a tactical disadvantage.
One of the more interesting parts of the redacted section on the DWI policy, which was enacted in 2001, is that it apparently instructs the arresting officer to deny a breath test for violent prisoners, then to write on the arrest report that the suspect was offered a breath test but refused. Refusing a breath test can have a serious impact on a future sentencing, and this policy clearly denies "violent" suspects the option to take one. It does not, however, define what a "violent prisoner" is. When asked to explain why HPD's policy appears to instruct officers to fill out a misleading report, Monk again did not have an answer, and actually referred us back to the press information officer who sent us to Monk in the first place.
"Really, only one person can speak for policy formation for the department, and that’s the chief of police," Monk said. "You can call the press information officers and try to get that arranged. But for a [policy] that old, the current chief probably was not involved in that. But I can imagine in my mind that if you told everyone in the world, 'Hey, if you get a little violent, then you're not going to have to take a DWI test'…you know what I mean?"
It seems as though HPD is following a policy that no one in the department can fully explain — at least not publicly.
You can see the redacted version of HPD's DWI policy here:
Here's the un-redacted version:
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