Hundreds of Houstonians joined protestors across the country Tuesday night, voicing anger after a Missouri grand jury chose not to indict Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer who shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown this summer.
Signs and placards carried familiar names that have sparked national headlines, like Trayvon Martin or John Crawford, the young black man shot and killed by cops in an Ohio Walmart just days before the Brown shooting for walking around with a toy gun he picked up in the store. But other names scrawled on protest signs hit closer to home. Like Eli Escobar Jr., an unarmed 14-year-old boy shot and killed by a rookie Houston cop in 2003, or Brian Claunch, a 45-year-old wheelchair-bound double-amputee who suffered from mental illness who was shot in the head by police in 2012 after wielding a ballpoint pen in a scuffle with two HPD officers.
Police cruisers, unmarked police vehicles and mounted patrols began to circle MacGregor Park as a crowd formed Tuesday evening, and chants of "Black Lives Matter" and "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" grew louder. Activist Durrel Douglas took to a bullhorn, shouting: "Yesterday, after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson came down, I saw on Facebook a lot of activity on one side and a lot of inactivity on another side... I saw my brothers and sisters who are students, who are workers, who are everyday people speaking out in disgust...and on the other side, we saw a silence from our elected officials."
"We are trading our votes for turkeys and fish fries," Douglas said. Soon afterward, protesters spilled out into the street on the corner of MLK and Old Spanish Trail, blocking rush hour traffic. Police eventually cleared way for a march, blocking traffic as protesters marched and chanted for hours, past the University of Houston campus and eventually near Texas Southern University. No arrests were reported.
Many came out because they've seen the Michael Brown story, or some iteration of it, play out on Houston's streets: cop shoots unarmed civilian, case goes to grand jury, no indictment.
As the Houston Chroniclereported in a startling investigation last year, HPD officers involved in shootings have been cleared every single time they've gone to a grand jury since 2004 -- at least 288 consecutive times. Of the 121 people HPD officers shot between 2008 and 2012, more than a quarter were unarmed. Ten unarmed civilians were shot dead by Houston cops during that time period.
Critics, activists, and stakeholders have proposed a couple of steps that they say could ensure more oversight. True grand jury reform (random empaneling, as in jury trials, instead of the current "pick-a-pal" system some courts still use) is one. Another could be replacing the current "Independent Police Oversight Board," which consists of four citizen panels that don't get to conduct their own investigations into police shootings and alleged misconduct, but rather review HPD's own Internal Affairs' investigations (apparently gathering a group of folks to tell IA what they think of IA counts as "oversight.") Perhaps an independent citizen review board -- with subpoena power, so they can conduct their own investigations -- would have more teeth, the thinking goes.
The death of Eli Escobar Jr. was the last time a Houston police officer was criminally charged in a cop-on-civilian shooting; a jury convicted rookie HPD officer Arthur Carbonneau of criminally negligent homicide in 2005, and a judge sentenced him to 60 days in jail. J. Michael Solar, a local attorney who's handled many cases involving excessive police force, represented Escobar's family in its civil suit against HPD and the City of Houston. The family got a $1.5 million settlement from the city, and a plaque honoring the boy was placed at Guadalupe Plaza Park.
Solar insists the symbiotic relationship that exists between police and prosecutors keeps questionable police shootings from getting a fair shake when district attorneys present such cases to a grand jury. "The partnership between law enforcement and prosecutors makes it virtually impossible for any subsequent prosecutorial review to be unbiased," he told us in an email.
Larry Karson, who teaches criminal justice at the University of Houston-Downtown, was skeptical a citizen review board could ever take root or be effective here (or anywhere, for that matter). There's little to no indication citizen oversight boards would actually result in more police accountability or tough scrutiny in officer-involved shootings, he insists.
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"Oversight boards are easily co-opted by both the officers' unions and by police management as neither want an outsider having the power to discipline - or not discipline - an officer," Karson told us in an email. "Supervisors believe it preempts their prerogatives and responsibilities and street officers believe that their union contracts protecting them should trump an outsider's viewpoint, especially an outsider who doesn't understand the stress of the street."
Karson says departments should learn from what law enforcement calls "sentinel events" -- like the death of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old Cleveland, Ohio boy shot and killed by police this weekend because of a pellet gun, or, closer to home, HPD's shooting of Brian Claunch. Spurred by either public outrage or civil lawsuits in the wake of such incidents, police should embrace reforms and retool policies, procedures and training, the aim being to de-escalate the often tense and chaotic situations officers face in the field. Such reforms, Karson says, would protect civilians and officers alike.
"When viewed as an 'organizational accident,' a term used in other fields where lives are at stake such as in medicine and aviation, these sentinel events signal a weakness in the system, in this case the justice system," Karson said.
"If departments simply view them as an individual incident instead of recognizing that the actions, or inaction, of the organization actually caused the accident, these homicides will be continually repeated. Doing the same thing over and over again yet expecting a different outcome is the trail to failure and the community can't afford to have its government -- and the police are a major portion of our government -- fail."