Roughly half of the nearly 14,000 complaints brought against Houston police officers in the past six years have been upheld by the department’s Internal Affairs Division, covering allegations ranging from misconduct or wrecking a police unit to breaking the law or lying to supervisors.
Over the past six years, an average of 2,300 complaints have been lodged annually against Houston police officers, brought either by their supervisors or residents. That equates to about six complaints per day.
A Houston Chronicle examination of HPD’s internal affairs data provides a rare look into an issue concerning many Houstonians in light of the March beating of Chad Holley, a 15-year-old African-American fleeing police after a burglary. After surveillance video of Holley’s violent arrest surfaced, Chief Charles McClelland ordered an internal affairs inquiry and later disciplined 12 officers accused of being involved in the beating, firing seven of them.
Complaints brought by the public comprise roughly one in four of those investigated in recent years. The majority come from department supervisors, an HPD spokesman said.
“That’s quite a bit, that’s quite a few people,” said Fred Cooper, a member of the NAACP’s criminal justice committee in Houston, about the number of complaints sustained at HPD. “The issue is they’re sustained, so if it was like a driver’s license they would suspend your license. It just makes you wonder what they’re doing, if anybody’s watching the henhouse. That’s surprising to me, that they have that kind of rate of sustained complaints.”
Johnny Mata, a longtime Houston civil rights activist and coordinator for the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice, said the release of the Holley tape last week reinforces the need for more transparency in the criminal justice system, as well as an independent civilian panel to review police misconduct.
“I believe the number of complaints should be higher, but persons are fearful of filing because of retribution,“ Mata said. “They feel the complaint is not going to go anywhere.”
Houston police have two categories of complaints. The more serious Class 1 complaints involve officers who violate state or federal laws or have used excessive force.
A sustained complaint is one where there is sufficient evidence to prove the allegation occurred.
The most frequent sustained complaint involved officers who had an accident that was their fault in a police vehicle, followed by misconduct, improper police procedure and failing to attend a court hearing, according to an HPD database of sustained complaints of officers currently on the force. Included are hundreds of officers who have more serious sustained complaints involving criminal activity, untruthfulness and insubordination, the data base shows.
Attorneys with the Houston Police Officer’s Union, who defend officers during internal investigations, say Houston police are among the nation’s most strictly regulated.
“HPD is one of the most discipline-happy departments on the planet,” said Aaron Suder, an officer’s union attorney. “You talk to other agencies, and it’s amazing how little they discipline their officers compared to HPD.”
He added: “If anybody were to say that they (HPD) don’t take investigations seriously, they don’t do enough, they don’t discipline, they sweep things under the carpet, that’s the furthest from the truth. They go to the opposite end of the spectrum.”
HPD Executive Assistant Chief Michael Dirden said HPD’s internal affairs process is fair and efficient but acknowledged minority residents remain doubtful they will be treated fairly by HPD officers. He noted the department, to avoid possible intimidation, allows complaints against police officers to be filed at NAACP offices.
“The department is very confident that when citizens make a complaint, or believe they have been a victim of misconduct by a police officer, that we have the appropriate processes to initiate and conduct a thorough investigation and ultimately make a decision based on the evidence that’s there,“ Dirden said.
He would not say what the rate of sustained complaints says about the department and its officers, other than there is an active and appropriate review process.
“When there is evidence the officer did in fact commit the actions alleged to have been committed, we don’t have a problem making an appropriate decision regarding that,” he said.
Cooper, with the NAACP, questioned whether internal affairs data at HPD is being analyzed to improve officers’ conduct.
“They got a lot of data over there, and I don’t think anybody is sweeping through to try and review it or make smart conclusions,” he said.
Dirden said HPD does not annually review Internal Affairs Division complaints to identify trends but described the disciplinary process as ongoing. He said Chief McClelland’s reorganization of the command staff placed IAD and the training division under the same commander, so troubling conduct could be addressed in training sessions.
Randall Kallinen, a Houston civil rights attorney who has sued HPD and other police departments for use of excessive force, said HPD commanders too infrequently order officers to undergo additional training when they are found to have committed an infraction.
“They seldom order any retraining,” Kallinen said. “In other words, they just give a peer punishment, not rehabilitation, so to speak. Meaning he’ll get a day off or a private reprimand.“
Kallinen also noted supervisors have broad discretion in ordering counseling instead of opening an IAD investigation, a discipline called supervisory intervention, which is not included in the officer’s personnel file that is available to the public for review.
The Chronicle is awaiting more documents from the city outlining the range of punishments officers receive as a result of sustained complaints.
Houston defense attorney Wilvin Carter, who represents Holley and a woman who alleged she was beaten while in police custody, characterized HPD’s internal affairs process as “flawed.”
“From what I’ve seen, if they feel there is no merit then they do a half-assed job with regards to investigating (a complaint) even though they are internal affairs and they’re supposed to be separate,“ Carter said. “It seems they are looking out for the well-being of the officers.”
‘They do a credible job’
Academic experts on policing say Houston’s overall rate of complaints against officers is in line with rates logged by other large departments.
Larry T. Hoover, a professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University, gave HPD a good grade on its efforts to oversee the conduct of its officers.
“My perception is they do a credible job in balancing positive counseling with negative discipline,“ said Hoover, who is also the director of the university Police Research Center. “It is typical to have those kinds of numbers in a large municipal police department. Whenever you add the internally generated complaints of misconduct, you’ll find at least those kinds of numbers.”
Fear of retaliation
Dirden acknowledged that mistrust of Houston police, along with reluctance to lodge complaints against officers for fear of retaliation, remains a factor in minority neighborhoods.
“I’m an African-American, I grew up in Houston and that complaint was there, that feeling was there, when I was a kid,” Dirden said. “And despite the numerous outreaches the department has made and the culture has made, there are still folks who believe that, and will always believe that.”
The veteran HPD assistant chief said the principal remedy is rigorous and effective policing of the police.
“What we have to do as an agency is to continue to show that taking effective action against police officers — when we have the evidence to do so – that the issues and fears of retaliation expressed by the community … will go away,“ he said.
An underlying challenge facing Houston police management is that officers fired for serious misconduct can often win their jobs back, using the appeals and arbitration process.
Over the past five years, HPD has fired 50 officers. Seventy percent of those cases – 35 firings – were upheld by either the civil service commission or an independent arbitrator, Dirden noted. Eight officers had their firings overturned. Seven others kept their jobs after negotiating a lesser punishment with the police chief.
“It clearly sets out that whatever decision the chief makes regarding an employee’s misconduct, the chief doesn’t have the final word,” Dirden said.
Courtesy: Houston Chronicle