New taskforce to review city of Houston’s Independent Police Oversight Board as part of reforms

HOUSTON – A new task force on police reform, announced Wednesday by Mayor Sylvester Turner, will take a closer look at the city’s Independent Police Oversight Board.

The board was created in 2011, and Houston’s NAACP president, Dr. James Douglas, is not a fan.

“It has no power, it can’t accomplish anything,” he said.

Douglas has long pushed the city for an oversight board that initiates it’s own investigations and takes its findings to the District Attorney’s office, which is something the board cannot do right now.

“I think if it was more of an independent board, you would have more of a public trust,” Douglas said.

How the board works

Depending on which document you read, the board has either 21 or 29 members who are split into four panels tasked with reviewing use of force incidents, police misconduct and other internal affairs investigations. The goal is to, “provide a system of increased accountability and transparency and to facilitate resident input into the internal investigative process.”

But that’s not what it’s doing now, according to Douglas.

“It’s a nice thing to say we have a citizens’ review board, but if they can’t do anything it’s just window dressing,” he said.

So what can the board do?

Members make recommendations on officer discipline, training, even hiring. Some members even sit on HPD’s disciplinary committee. But the police chief is not required to follow any of the board’s recommendations.

Marvin Hamilton, who is in his second term as chairman of the board, has the criticisms. He told KPRC 2 that board members are unpaid volunteers who review about 275 cases each year. The board can’t start its own investigations, only review cases provided by HPD.

“When we get it, it’s just a case put together and usually there’s a recommendation from the division,” he said.

All documents are reviewed in the board offices on the 20th floor of HPD headquarters because nothing is allowed to leave the building. And the board cannot discuss its findings with the public. Hamilton cannot assure anybody that it’s a real “checks and balances” on the police department.

“I can’t. I can tell you that I believe that but I couldn’t convince you if you don’t believe it,” he said.

Calls for reform

Hamilton’s also heard the calls to give the board subpoena powers and move it out of HPD headquarters.

“For me to do what a lot of people what you to do, I would have to go and investigate that case and we’re not investigators,” he said. “I’m not a trained investigator.”

Former Houston police officer and now attorney Tom Nixon said a big issue with oversight boards is the law doesn’t really allow civilians to dictate any kind of terms to certified police officers.

“That’s what the code of criminal procedure lays out” he said, “who has the authority to give a police officer an order of any kind.”

Nixon also argues we already have a form of civilian oversight when a police officer crosses the line.

“And that’s the grand jury,” he says.

Chief Art Acevedo told Channel 2 Investigates he’ll listen to any recommendations the task force has and union leaders say they’ve never had a problem with a second set of eyes.

About the Authors:

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”