The Houston Police Officers Union (HPOU) has long spun stories to Houstonians regarding its own supposed willingness to be a player in accountability. However, as soon as even the mildest reform is suggested, they throw a tantrum.
The latest of these tantrums was featured in a blog post published Friday on the HPOU’s blog, Badge and Gun. The post claims “we are not afraid of transparency and accountability”, but the subtext of the post strongly implies otherwise:
“There are activists that are going to make a run at our contract and discipline provisions. They want to erode the protections afforded to us under the Texas Local Government Code 143. There will be a fight here in Houston like it was in Austin. There is a false narrative out there that our contract far exceeds the protections provided under section 143, but that is not the case.”
Code 143 is an odd magic wand for the union to use. The law simply empowers bare minimum disciplinary measures codified into municipal public servants; it does not dictate what is just or the extent to which a given city can hold police accountable.
On the other hand, the police union contract does truly allow HPD to literally get away with murder. As Ashton P. Woods wrote in an editorial published in the Houston Chronicle in June, officers are given privileges that anyone else would never be afforded, such as 48 hours of protection against questioning after an officer-involved shooting, giving officers time to work through their story and talk to a lawyer. The examiners of all incidents are chosen 50-50 by the police chief and the HPOU, granting the police a supermajority on all judgement of incidents. Even if the Independent Police Oversight Board (IPOB) catches wind of an incident and wants to investigate further, it has no subpoena power. The police have control over everything and have no intention of ceding that power.
A blog post muddying these issues is an implicit endorsement of the corruption and violence HPD and HPOU enable. Over the last two years, HPOU has consistently lied about policing matters in our city and intentionally misled the people of Houston, often taking square aim at activists who seek to hold them accountable. In the wake of the Harding Street raid that murdered two innocent people, Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas, and their dog, and caused four police officers to wound one another in early 2019, HPOU mouthpiece Joe Gamaldi told cameras “if you’re the ones that are out there spreading the rhetoric that police officers are the enemy, just know, we’ve all got your number now. We’re going to be keeping track of all ya’ll, and we’re going to make sure that we hold you accountable every time you stir the pot on our police officers.”
The Harding Street murder is now considered one of the deadliest and most infamous outcomes of the behavior of dirty HPD double dealer Officer Gerald Goines, who falsely accused Tuttle and Nicholas of dealing heroin in the documents justifying the no-knock raid. Gamaldi has doubled down on his demagoguery and never answered for his unusually timed, suspiciously framed, inflammatory statement.
During the George Floyd protests, 60,000 people marched peacefully through Houston, while Chief Art Acevedo did photo opps and spawned viral videos. Police attacked protesters late in the protest; the instigating incident was “blocking the street”, which was absurd in that the streets were already closed for the march and many of the businesses in that area were closed, too. Even if streets hadn’t been closed, brutalizing protesters over peaceful behavior is always violent and wrong. HPD officers engaged in kettling, brutalizing, holding people in crowded cells for egregious amounts of time with no water and no masks, using sonic weaponry against them, running them down with horses, beating them with nightsticks, and gassing them, then denying it later to the press.
Mayor Turner, for his own part, spiked all police reforms suggested by his transition team from before his first term, opting instead to issue an executive order and launch yet another task force. Despite including some decent community voices on the taskforce, it was clear from the start that the task force was designed to be toothless; all suggestions made by the task force’s eventual 150 page report have either already been recommended or deemed ineffective by experts on the issue. As for the executive order, suggestions were largely either already HPD policy or picked around the edges of real reform, rendered almost entirely moot by the HPOU contract, which gives them enough legal maneuvers to squirm out of any measure of accountability.
In June, almost all City Councilors sided mindlessly with HPD, downplaying violence against protesters while voting in favor of a 2% raise in HPD funding, a $19 million increase. HPD’s $965 million total budget is nearly 20% of the city’s total operating budget. During 2020 budget discussions, Turner attacked the only council member who offered any serious reform, Letitia Plummer. Councilmember Plummer was unable to garner a second on any of her suggested reasonable reforms, such as reapportioning dollars for training. Plummer’s suggestions did not even include cuts to the overall HPD budget.
Several city councilors later wrote a letter undercutting Plummer’s proposed reforms in favor of half-hearted changes that fail to touch reasonably the union contract or department funding. Instead, they called for meaningless minor adjustments to the IPOB. Almost all of City Council took HPOU money last election cycle. HPD’s PR department, meanwhile, remains in the shadows, but any professional PR practitioner can tell immediately that it greatly surpasses the funding of local activist organizations, journalists, and the mass communications department of city councilors, most of who are apologists for the department, anyway.
The City of Houston’s public safety committee meetings since the protests have only allowed activists to speak during public comment; no advocate has been featured as a guest of the committee. Despite massive calls for debate and transparency, the committee has platformed police officers almost exclusively to tell their side of the narrative of Houston policing. While city councilors rightfully performed a surgical cross-examination of the IPOB chair, other proceedings taking place during these meetings have mostly served as propaganda for HPD and several of the more politely yet militantly pro-police councilors. HPD has even preemptively called Houstonians signed up to speak on policing issues at public comment before they dialed in, a measure likely presented as a matter of outreach but what comes across as intimidation, particularly in light of the consistent, needless police presence at protests of Houston’s 419 Emancipation baby jail owned by Southwest Key and the regular John Cornyn Weekly Tuesday protest.
Chief Acevedo has been lock step with the mayor and council, calling protests peaceful while demonizing those arrested and brutalized as “outsiders”, and marginalizing their political position on national media, including a softball interview on The View and a guest appearance with Joe Biden at the opening panel of the DNC.
All of this has taken place while our neighbors in Austin and cities across the United States have dialed back police funding, opting instead for increases in pro-social public services to mitigate against violence from officers of the state. HPD, meanwhile, has had six lethal officer-involved incidents this year. 41 people have been killed by on duty HPD officers and 56 people wounded by HPD shootings since 2015. Examiners have found officers justified in 100% of the shootings.To take action, please check out Houston DSA’s long-term demands on policing as well as the Justice Can’t Wait report.