The Houston Police Department does not want you to know about its policy requiring officers to carry a baton when responding to disturbance calls or working a big event. Nor does HPD want you to know that if cops pepper spray you, department policy requires that they get you immediate medical attention and call a supervisor out to the scene. Same goes for the policy prohibiting officers from firing warning shots or shooting at fleeing or suicidal suspects who present no imminent threat to anyone but themselves.
These were among the many sections redacted from the use of force policy HPD provided to Black Lives Matter activists last summer, according to an un-redacted copy of the policy obtained by the Houston Press this week. While HPD says it only redacts information that would “divulge police tactics” and potentially endanger officers in the field, the department blacked out large sections that detail 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.
Activists with Campaign Zero this week unveiled what they're calling “the first open-source database of police use of force policies for the 100 largest U.S. city police departments.” Well-known Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson filed the request for HPD's policy on June 11, 2015, and within a week the department responded with a heavily redacted copy. Campaign Zero points to Houston as evidence departments across the country continue to hide important information about police use of force from the public.
When we spoke with HPD public information officer Victor Senties on Wednesday, he wouldn't comment on the redactions except to say, “It's because of officer safety and police tactics.” It's unclear how sections stating when officers should keep canisters of pepper spray on their duty belts fit that description. How are “officer safety and police tactics” compromised by disclosing an internal policy outlining how department officials are expected to respond to use of force incidents? One section that was redacted details when officers are allowed to shoot at vehicles; that policy was even debated in public last fall when HPD tweaked it.
Senties also told us that requests for internal policies are always sent to the Texas Attorney General's Office to determine what portions should be withheld from the public. “I'm not going to speak to the policy and explain what's redacted and what's not redacted,” he said. “It goes up to the AG. They're ones who make those determinations.”
But Mckesson tells us he was never given an AG letter justifying the redactions. Judging from the correspondence between Mckesson and HPD's public records office, the AG was never asked to weigh in.
“It's the knee-jerk reaction to provide the least amount of information possible,” said Tom Nixon, a local attorney and former HPD officer who was forced out several years ago after he publicly questioned HPD's high-speed pursuit policy.
According to a source with knowledge of HPD policies, police often redact information that could possibly tell criminals how officers are directed to respond to certain situations; "you don't wanna show your hand," the source told us. Evidently that can cover everything from how HPD deploys its super-secret cell-phone-data-sucking Stingray technology to the policy prohibiting cops from firing so-called “soft-impact weapons” like flash-bangs, tear gas canisters or bean bags at a suspect's head – a policy that HPD redacted from its use of force policy.
The problem, Nixon says, is that in a system weighted in favor of police secrecy, “keeping policies hidden means that you'll never know how to question the department.” How do you hold cops accountable for police violence when the internal policies that direct how and when they can use force are hidden from the public?
Compare these two copies of the use of force policy to see what HPD, for reasons the department won't yet fully explain, doesn't want you to know.
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