Mayor Turner, Black Lives Matter Houston address the future of police oversight board

Houston Police Officers’ Union also weighs in on recommendations from task force

HOUSTON – Mayor Sylvester Turner said that work is underway to restructure a civilian police misconduct review board, which was under scrutiny for not being effective at holding officers accountable.

An overhaul of the Independent Police Oversight Board, or IPOB, was one of the main recommendations addressed in a Turner-commissioned policing reform task force, which published findings of its review in September.

Since then, community activists have called on Turner to begin implementing many of the policy recommendations. But many allege Turner isn’t moving quickly enough and hasn’t kept the public in the know about what’s underway.

On Thursday, Turner said that was not the case.

“We are working internally to restructure that. It will be restructured,” Turner said, referring to the embattled IPOB, which was long referred to as a ‘toothless tiger’ by activists that said the board is far too aligned with the interests of the Houston Police Department.

“There will be more people added to IPOB/Civilian Review Board.  In addition, we’re putting in place something like an Office of Inspector General, along with a staffing person,” Turner continued, adding complaints reviewed, “won’t just come internally they can come from the public and the Office of Inspector General will have the responsibility of investigating and working in conjunction with the civilian review board.”

But Thursday marked 113 days since Turner’s task force unveiled its policy recommendations – 104 total – which includes increased training for officers to respond to mental health crises, changes to the disciplinary process for officers accused of wrongdoing, increased focus on community policing, among other suggestions.

Turner said he expected changes to IPOB to be introduced in the coming months, but said a solid date has not been set. That’s drawn criticism from community activists who accuse the mayor of dragging his feet.

“My thought process is that we’re stagnated,” said Ashton P. Woods of Black Lives Matter Houston. 

Woods, along with other community activists, have said they’ve worked for years to see some of the reform policies come into fruition and argues change can begin now.

“Many of the recommendations from this advisory council, much like others, looks like it’s collecting dust on the shelf,” Woods said.

Mayor Turner denied that allegation and cited other reform measures already implemented that have made a difference.

“As you know, I signed the Executive Order and made it an obligation for, say, police officers who see other police officers doing something wrong, they are required to intervene,” he said.

Turner said the city also provided additional funding to the Crisis Intervention Response Teams (CIRT), specifically for domestic violence.

Turner added the city’s IT department is also working on developing a dashboard for reporting cases of police brutality. Moreover, Cite and Release and Safe Harbor Court have been implemented.

“We’re approaching things from multiple levels,” Turner said.

But the push for policing reform also came with a call for transparency – including throughout the reform process.  Woods said thus far the activist community has been kept out of the conversation, despite helping to design many of the recommendations.

“He gave an affirmative to how he would handle that. We’ve seen no action. We’ve no meetings. No invitations. Nothing,” Woods argued.

Houston’s IPOB is ‘one of the least effective in the state,’ according to a recent report.

The report, released last November by Rice University’s Kinder Institute, concluded Houston’s police oversight board was among the least effective in Texas. It reported the panel suffers “from a lack of data access, a lack of independence, uncertain legal status, and a complete lack of transparency and public reporting.”

The report also shined a light on how complicated reforming the disciplinary process can be.  It would involve changes to state law, particularly Local Government Code 143.

“We suggest that state and city officials confer to discuss LGC 143′s barriers to effective oversight, as outlined by NACOLE’s principles, and encourage more uniform and evidence-based policy design,” the report’s researchers wrote.

Critics long have called the panel a toothless tiger for what they say it doesn’t have: subpoena power.  The mayor’s task force concluded the panel required independent access to information and evidence, rather than what is received from HPD investigations.

But along with potential changes to state law, reform of the disciplinary process also would require changes to the city’s labor contract with the Houston Police Officers Union or HPOU.

HPOU: ‘We have no problem with change. We just want reasonable change’

Doug Griffith, president of the Houston Police Officers Union, said the union supports most of the recommendations made by the mayor’s task force.

“I think there’s plenty that can be implemented, especially in the way of training.  Our officers would love more training. They beg for more training. The problem is it comes to funding,” Griffith said.

Griffith said the officer-involved shooting death of Nicholas Chavez, last April, speaks the need for more training.  Officers fired 24 rounds fired after Chavez, seen in cell phone video on his knees, gestured toward what officers on the ground said was a taser, although its cartridge was empty.

The city fired four officers involved, calling the shooting death unjustified.  HPOU maintains Chavez’s death was “terrible” but maintains officers acted in accordance with the active shooter training they received.

The union has decried the firing, instead of placing blame on a lack of training when dealing with mental health calls.

“They reacted differently, each of them did. The sergeant acted completely appropriately. He went with his training. He set up the guys just like they were doing an active shooter. You know why? That’s the extent of our training. He lined his officers up just like they were going to deal with an active shooter. The problem is they were unaware the taser cartridges had been spent and nobody told them,” Griffith said.

Overall, Griffith said the current disciplinary process is extensive and fair to all sides.

“I believe it’s a very fair process that they have in place. They do a phenomenal job in terms of feeling out the investigations and making sure they’re properly done,” Griffith said, adding he doesn’t think the addition of subpoena power would make much of a difference in strengthening IPOB’s authority.

“This group is to provide a framework for a fair discipline process. They make sure the investigation is done properly and if it’s not they can send it back and have it reviewed and changed.”

Community activists: current structure leaves zero room for an independent investigation.

Woods maintains part of the challenge in pushing for policing reform is a very strong police union.

“HPOU has active members on the police advisory board. So, there already was a problem with that, and while I’m big on supporting unions, police officer unions, in particular, are very powerful in ways they should not be,” Woods said.

Woods argued the union has slowed down the reform process, a claim the union denies. Moreover, while the union wields power, Woods said Mayor Turner does, as well. He said Turner should propose changes to disciplinary guidelines during the union’s collective bargaining process.

“When you think about how things work, and you talk to people about who does what, you have to understand accessibility is one of those things that make a difference,” Woods said.

HPOU contract in ‘evergreen phase’

The current HPOU contract was set to expire on Dec. 31.  However, it’s still in place, under what’s called an evergreen phase.

“We have an evergreen clause, so we’re staying with the evergreen clause all the way until December 2021,” HPOU’s Doug Griffith said.  If we don’t come to an agreement at that point, we’re just status quo – no raises, no changes in the contract until we sit down and meet again.”

While that’s true, talks could begin at any point before December 2021.

Mayor Turner said revising disciplinary guidelines during collective bargaining is complicated and can be tricky. Still, community activists maintain doing so is the right thing to do.

“The reality is that we need people in leadership who are unafraid to stand up to people who even donate to them and endorse them,” Woods said.

About the Author:

Emmy and Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. NOLA born and bred, though #HoustonStrong, with stops in Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in along the way.