HOUSTON – The voices calling for transparency and independent police oversight grew louder following several recent officer-involved shootings and the death of George Floyd. Houston has a long-established independent police oversight board, but critics question whether the board is given enough authority.
“I don’t believe law enforcement can police itself,” said Dr. James Douglas, president of the NAACP Houston.
Douglas pushed the city for years to create this board, which was established under Mayor Annise Parker.
“I called it a toothless tiger. It’s structural only, it’s a facade,” said Douglas. “If you don’t have subpoena power, if you can’t put people under oath, then you can’t investigate.”
Douglas argues the board is not truly independent because it can’t initiate investigations on its own, can’t subpoena records, and isn’t required to share its findings with the public.
“Pretty much rely on the goodwill of the police department to turn over documentation to them,” said defense attorney and past oversight board member Phil Hilder.
Hilder praises the work of the 21-member volunteer board but recommended giving the board more authority before stepping down.
“It needs to be able to have the ability to have an independent investigation,” said Hilder. “The structure and the bones are there for the oversight board but it needs to be built upon.”
President of the Houston Police Officers’ Union Joe Gamaldi argues the oversight board has a “robust set of powers.”
“We have embraced the independent oversight board, we are not scared of another set of eyes. They actually sit on the discipline committee,” said Gamaldi.
Gamaldi said the oversight board does make recommendations on officer discipline and training.
“They can also tell the department we don’t feel you did a thorough enough of a job and tell them to investigate it further,” said Gamaldi.
However, the department is not required to follow the board’s recommendations.
During a recent protest seeking justice for Floyd in Houston, Houston Police Department Chief Art Acevedo was embraced by some while excoriated by others. Critics said there is a lack of transparency in the department’s handling of six recent officer-involved shootings.
KPRC 2 was told Acevedo was unavailable for comment Wednesday. Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office has also not responded to our request for comment regarding Douglas’ criticisms of how the oversight board functions or whether the city would consider granting additional authority.
Gamaldi did also take issue with some of the wording in an open letter sent by the Major Cities Chiefs Association. Acevedo is president of the Association, he and several other chiefs of police signed the letter which decried the death of George Floyd. The letter read, "contracts and labor laws hamstring efforts to swiftly rid departments of problematic behavior.”
“He probably should turn that finely tuned magnifying glass back on himself,” said Gamaldi, who is also national vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police.
The Association responded to FOP with a follow-up letter. You can read both letters below.