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One of the many disturbing facts that have come to light in the weeks since Michael Brown was killed by a police officer is that for all the crime data tracked by the government, there is no central record kept of law enforcement use of deadly force. Individuals and groups have been making their own databases, but a citizen would need to file open records requests to learn about his or her community. 

You may have asked yourself, “Was Michael Brown’s killing lawful? And could an unlawful shooting happen in my hometown?”

Well, good news, if you live in Houston. The Texas Observer has looked at the numbers and the answer is, no. Your police force cannot wrongly shoot you.

It just doesn’t happen. Well, deadly police shootings do happen in Houston at an average of one every three weeks. But none of them is inappropriate. Every shooting by a Houston Police Department officer is investigated by HPD’s Internal Affairs and Homicide divisions. Between 2007 and 2012, according to HPD records, officers killed citizens in 109 shootings. Every killing was ruled justified.

The 112 instances of an officer shooting and injuring a person were justified, too.

So were the 104 times an officer wounded an animal, and the 225 times an officer killed an animal.

There were 16 shootings found “not justified,” but they were all ruled accidental.

In more than one in five cases in which officers fired on citizens, the citizen was unarmed.

Skeptics might say those numbers show police bias in holding their own accountable. I would direct these skeptics to the grand jury system.

Harris County grand juries have cleared HPD officers for on-duty shootings almost 300 times in a row. No Houston officer has been indicted for a shooting in a decade.

Don’t you feel better?

Now, the Houston Chronicle’s Lisa Falkenberg recently reported on a Houston cop who bullied and threatened a witness while serving as foreman for a grand jury investigating the killing of a Houston cop. And this man had served on at least nine other grand juries. But that’s probably an isolated case.

Besides the grand jury system, there are other safeguards against misuse of police power in Houston. There’s the Independent Police Oversight Board, which consists of four panels of citizens that divvy up and review HPD’s Internal Affairs investigations. The panels don’t have subpoena power; they can’t do their own investigations; they can’t interview witnesses; they can’t force anything to happen. But they can suggest that Internal Affairs do a more thorough investigation or reconsider its findings. Internal Affairs doesn’t have to do anything they say, but it’s nice that the people have a voice.

Last week, Houston City Councilman C.O. Bradford, a former HPD chief wrote an editorial in the Chronicle saying Michael Brown’s killing was “a wake-up call for Houston” and noted that the Independent Police Oversight Board was “without substantive authority.” Yet his solution was to let stakeholder groups like the NAACP appoint their own representatives to the authority-less board.

That’s different from the idea stakeholders themselves have, which is to replace the IPOB with a citizen oversight board with subpoena power—that is, the ability to do their own investigations into shootings or alleged misconduct.

One of those stakeholders is a Houston police officer I met for coffee this week. He had read the two features I wrote on HPD shootings, beatings, and lax accountability for the Observer last year and just wanted to talk. A 20-year veteran of the department, he plans to leave the force soon. There are too many problems, and the department is so sealed, so shielded from scrutiny, he said that “It’s like a Communist country. A lot of us wish we could talk but they’re nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs…. Boy, I hope they get that citizen oversight board soon.”

But if we did, all that good news might go away.

Louie Gohmert
Louie Gohmert talking. Gonna be a good week.

Dear ones, we have a problem. WTF Friday is in a rut. Every week, we set out to bring you the best in absurdity from this state we all love and/or are stuck with, and every week, we fall back on the usual suspects: Rick Perry; Ted Cruz; the border crisis. When short on material, one has but to ask, “Did Louie Gohmert open his mouth this week?” If yes, you’re in business.

That said, there are things you can’t ignore. So let’s mix it up. Sure, we all know Texas is full of problems to be solved and people who deserve better, but there’s more to Texas than that. Did you know that Texas allows the keeping of raccoons as pets? It does. Colorado doesn’t. California doesn’t. Even Alabama doesn’t. But Texas does. That’s worth something.

Keep that in mind as you ponder this week’s WTF.

1) Perry Part One. On Sunday, still-Gov. Rick Perry told CNN’s “State of the Union” that the deployment of the 1,000 National Guard troops to the border isn’t to fight migrant children but because “countries that have substantial terrorist ties, whether it’s Afghanistan or Pakistan or Syria—we have historic record highs of individuals being apprehended from those countries.”

[covers the mic] (Do we even have to fact-check that? I mean, does that even deserve a response? … President? Again? Okay, fine.)

PolitiFact rated that claim “Pants on Fire.”

2) Here’s a raccoon doing somersaults.

3) Perry Part Two. The squinting statesman also said some awesome stuff in a National Journal story this week. From the “Not At All Defensive—Why Do You Ask?” Files, author Michelle Cottle notes Perry spent “a generous 15 minutes or more walking me through his ophthalmological history” in response to her question about his famous new frames. When she met him in South Carolina, he’d forgotten them in Austin. “Shortly after our conversation, an aide was dispatched to a North Charleston shopping mall to procure an identical replacement from a one-hour optical shop,” Cottle writes.

Then he smells a woman’s boot. A woman he meets in South Carolina says she’s wearing some uncomfortably stiff new cowboy boots made from a gator she shot and “next thing you know, one of Pam’s boots is off her foot and in the governor’s hands,” Cottle writes. “Perry flexes the sole, then sticks his face down inside the shiny black footwear and inhales deeply. ‘I just love the smell of new leather!’ he announces happily. He pauses, looks over at me, and asks, ‘This is going to wind up in your piece, isn’t it? “He likes to sniff women’s shoes!”’”

Yes. Yes it is.

4) Here’s a raccoon watching TV.

3) Ted Cruz. After having derailed the American political process with pizza, the junior senator had a quiet week. The most notable Cruz quote came from the Ghost of Cruzes Past, who three years ago primed a crowd for Gov. Perry at the RedState.com convention by saying, “My prediction is Rick Perry will win the nomination and in November 2012 he will defeat Barack Obama.”

Oops.

Cruz and Perry are speaking again at the RedState.com gathering in Fort Worth, but as frenemies and potential 2016 rivals. Perry kicked things off this morning and Cruz closes them down tonight. I hope they wear the same red tie. So awkward!

5) Here’s a raccoon fixing a car.

6) Actual-U.S.-Congressman Louie Gohmert appeared on “The Sean Hannity Show” on Thursday and told not-kidding guest host Col. Oliver North that a Border Patrol agent told him, “[Y]ou know what the drug cartels call the homeland security in America? UPS. We’re their logistics. They get people to the border and then Homeland Security is their logistics to get their package to wherever they wanted it to go.” I have no idea what that means, but my favorite thing about it is that Breitbart.com wrote it up as “Rep. Louie Gohmert reported” [italics mine.] Because that’s what reporting is. Come on, people. Reporting is serious work undertaken by serious people who seek the truth behind all the spin and deceit and play a crucial role in a functioning democracy.

7) Here’s some baby raccoons following a little girl around.

8) Texas also continued its dysfunctional relationship with sex and gender this week. Tea party state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) claimed on Facebook that he’d just drafted a bill to bar the state of Texas from providing gender reassignment surgery to inmates. Which it doesn’t. In fact, as Lone Star Q reports, the state successfully went to federal appeals court in 2007 to keep from having to provide even hormone therapy to transgender inmates. But you can’t be too safe, I guess. Priorities.

Good for you, hon.

And 63 state legislators signed an amicus brief supporting Texas’ defense of its gay marriage ban that said allowing gay marriage “could lead to the recognition of bigamy, incest, pedophilia, and group marriage.”

It’s not that these arguments haven’t been made before, in public and by people who apparently dress and feed themselves. It’s just that an amicus brief is so public and official, part of the historical record, that you’d think they’d at least drop the “pedophilia” thing in deference to decency and common sense. But no.

Don’t despair, though, dear ones. Many gay rights advocates say a win for Texas in that case would be something of a blessing, fast-tracking the issue for the Supreme Court.

And at any rate, Perry and Cruz and Gohmert and those 63 state legislators may get the spotlight, but they aren’t the only Texans that matter. There are tens of thousands of hard-working Texans making this state incrementally better every single day. One of them is Brenda Rioja, who edits the church newspaper at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen. Sacred Heart has aided more than 5,400 migrants since June and they’re not done yet, no matter what lawmakers on the state or national stage do or don’t do. “We always say, leave politics at the door,” Rioja told the National Geographic. “It’s about helping those who are right there in front of you. Imagine if we did that all around the world, how different it would be.”

Yeah.

9) Happy Friday, dear Observers. Here’s a raccoon skipping away.

Houston mayor Annise Parker announcing the Equal Rights Ordinance in April.
Greater Houston Partnership / Richard Carson
Houston mayor Annise Parker announcing the Equal Rights Ordinance in April.

Sometimes members of the far right have to work pretty hard to maintain a posture of victimization, to connect distant dots suggesting that a Radical Homosexual Agenda or Lavender Menace is snaking its tastefully dressed tendrils through the halls of governance to undermine the will of Decent Christian People Trying to Protect Their Families ™.

Monday was not that day.

At a press conference Monday afternoon, Houston City Attorney David Feldman announced that a petition challenging a new Equal Rights Ordinance had failed. Opponents fell just over 2,000 signatures short of the 17,269 needed to put a repeal of the ordinance on the November ballot. Mayor Annise Parker said she expected the issue to end up in court and that the courts would agree with the  city’s assessment, but that she would delay implementation in the meantime.

But here’s the twist—the petitioners actually had plenty of valid individual signatures. What undid them was the disqualification of thousands of entire pages of signatures. More than half the 5,199 pages submitted were invalid because the collectors weren’t registered Houston voters, hadn’t personally signed the petition, hadn’t had the page properly notarized, or some combination—all requirements set forth in the city charter. Thus, it’s possible that outraged petitioners will challenge not only the city’s count of valid signatures but also the city charter rules themselves.

David Welch of the Houston Area Pastor Council, a leader of the petition effort, says he expects to prevail. “We were well aware we were dealing with an administration that’s willing to bend the rules,” Welch told the Houston Chronicle. “Courts typically uphold the rights of the voters. We feel very confident in how that will go. Frankly, there was no respect for the rights of the voters in this process.”

Naturally, Mayor Parker expects the same. “I’m confident that the courts will agree with the strict interpretation of the rules set out in the charter for the requirements and that the courts will protect the integrity of our petition process,” Parker said at the press conference.

Whatever the courts decide, the ordinance is essentially safe from repeal for the time being. State law sets the deadline for the November ballot just two weeks from now, meaning a court would have to be decide in the petitioners’ favor in that time. Meanwhile, Mayor Parker said she’d delay implementation but didn’t say for how long.

The petition’s failure might have been surprising—opponents said they turned in 50,000 signatures, after all—if not for the shadowy efforts of an anonymous party that posted the petitions online and invited visitors to scour them for problems. Noel Freeman, a public policy analyst and treasurer of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, says he didn’t post the materials but is spearheading an independent review of them using the website, HEROpetition.com. He predicted Monday’s outcome, telling the Chronicle almost 3,000 pages were invalid. Freeman explained to the magazine OutSmart, “The petitions are a mess. They are the worst petitions I’ve ever seen.”

That Freeman and his cohort saw the petitions at all could prompt more fear of a Queer Conspiracy. As Buzzfeed.com noted, the domain name was registered on July 3, the same day the petitions were turned in, through a service that masks the registrant’s identity. But while the registrant is masked, the name and address of all those who opposed the ordinance are exposed. Petitions are public record, but still—if one were already inclined to fear mistreatment or intimidation by a powerful political figure who is gay, which Mayor Parker is, the events around the petition drive would not inspire confidence.

Now, however, Houston’s journey toward an equal rights ordinance at last gets boring. The online petitions have been taken down. All the council meetings have been met, the rallies rallied, the droves of witnesses indignantly cut off before they were done. The council voted, made their speeches, and the waves of misinformation and bigotry washed around town for several weeks in response. If the petition drive had succeeded, ordinance opponents would have had momentum, keeping the hysteria stoked through November. But now the trudging legal system takes over and there’s not much for Houston’s anti-HEROs to do. Even if they prevail in court, a vote to repeal the ordinance wouldn’t happen until November 2015 unless the City Council decided to set a special election for it, which they aren’t likely to do. By then, even the intrigue and outrage prompted by this contentious petition process is likely to have faded.

Swingset

The massive for-profit company Texas hired to further privatize its foster care system has pulled out, casting more doubt on the privatization effort that was supposed to improve the troubled system without costing the state any extra money.

Today, Providence Service Corp. of Texas informed the Department of Family and Protective Services in writing that it was terminating its $30 million-a-year contract with the state just 18 months into its five-year agreement. Providence was the first company contracted by the state under a set of changes dubbed “foster care redesign.” The only other company contracted for redesign, the Fort Worth-based nonprofit ACH Child and Family Services, began providing services at the beginning of July and remains in its contract.

Though Providence’s decision is being called “surprising,” the Observer reported in June in the feature “Fostering Neglect” that many child welfare advocates and even the CEO of Providence expressed skepticism that the plan was financially viable. Nine months into the agreement, Providence was already $2 million over budget.

Providence had been hired to provide services to foster kids in a 60-county rural swath of West and North Texas and to oversee all the private child-placing agencies in the area. Advocates, most of whom are already concerned that redesign could make a bad system worse, were further alarmed in July when two young foster children drowned after being placed with a family by the child-placing agency owned by Providence’s parent company.

At the time, the state didn’t seem likely to change its relationship with Providence, but in a statement today from the Department of Family and Protective Services, the attitude seemed to be “good riddance.” Although Providence is the one who pulled out, the release notes:

“Recently, DFPS notified Providence about several issues with the performance of their contract.

Some of those issues included:

• Missing performance targets on key goals such as placing siblings together and keeping children close to home.

• Failing to develop staff and network of providers needed to place children as quickly as required.

• Unable to develop a full array of services to better serve children.”

Judge John Specia, the department’s commissioner, told the Observer that Providence pulling out is “not going to impact the children. The children are going to stay where they are.” Over the next 30 days, the state will reabsorb the 1,100 children served by Providence.

As for whether the basic financial plan of redesign—providing more services and management without more money—was viable, Specia said, “We’re looking at that very carefully. We’re doing a study right now on the cost of doing redesign.” He expects results mid-September.

Providence’s withdrawal is “a set-back,” Specia says, but, “it doesn’t change the need to change the system. The issues are still there. To be honest, we’re going to have to really evaluate where we go and make sure it’s going to work next.”

That’s what child welfare advocates like Ashley Harris of Texans Care for Children have been asking for all along. In a statement today, Harris said, “It should now be clear to everyone that just barreling ahead with further privatization isn’t going to work. It hasn’t worked in other states, and it’s not working in Texas. We can do some things on the cheap, but protecting a child after the state takes custody of her is not one of them.”

Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth).
Patrick Michels
Sen. Wendy Davis during her 2013 filibuster.

Many times, the rationale for passing a piece of legislation includes hard numbers: This many dollars will buy that many school lunches; expanding this program will prevent that many infections. Other times, the reasons offered are soft and subjective, more a feeling than a data point, like freedom, safety or health. House Bill 2, the anti-abortion omnibus bill passed by the Texas Legislature just over a year ago, fell into the latter category.

The bill, the object of Wendy Davis’ briefly successful filibuster, was meant to “improve and better protect women’s health,” Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told a press conference at the time. He also acknowledged that the bill’s four new restrictions on abortion access would cause the birth of many unintended children “so that families can adopt them and love them and be able to cherish them.” What better reasons for a bill than health, love and cherished babies?

Yet the impact of the law can be summarized with one very hard number: six. That’s how many abortion clinics are expected to survive the last of HB 2’s restrictions, which go into effect on Sept. 1. They require all facilities that perform abortions—even if they only distribute a pill to be taken at home—to have an on-site ambulatory surgical center with wide hallways and rooms of a certain size. Most abortion clinics can’t afford to move or make the structural renovations to meet these standards and will close by Sept. 1, if they haven’t already. In 2011, Texas had 44 clinics that performed abortions. Today it has around 20. Come September: six. 

The bill’s three other restrictions went into effect in November 2013. One was a ban on abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation, except to save the life of the mother or in the case of severe fetal anomalies. Such procedures were already rare—they make up less than 1 percent of abortions—but are often sought by especially vulnerable populations such as rape victims who’ve been in denial about their pregnancies. (The ban has no exception for rape.) Another requirement was that women make three separate clinic trips to receive a medical (pill-based) abortion—two for each dose of the medication and one for a follow-up visit. Combined with anti-abortion legislation passed in 2011, which added a mandatory ultrasound and 24-hour waiting period, getting a medical abortion now takes four office visits. Medical abortion was also limited to pregnancies of seven weeks or less. Finally, doctors performing abortions were required to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic, even though hospital transfers are extremely rare and hospitals have to admit and treat patients regardless of a doctor’s status. 

Whatever the reasoning given for anti-abortion legislation, it certainly has impact. A recent study found that the restrictions passed in 2011 have reduced abortions in Texas by 13 percent, including a dramatic drop in the use of medical abortions. As HB 2 takes full effect, to the benefit of women’s health and safety or not, legal abortion in Texas is likely to continue its decline. 

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DFPS

Tragedy has again struck Texas’s most vulnerable charges—its foster children. A 4-year-old boy and his 6-year-old sister both drowned while visiting Lake Georgetown with their foster parents on Sunday. Such horrors typically prompt calls for reform, but these particular deaths have the potential to disrupt controversial changes to the foster care system that are already underway. That’s because the agency that placed the children in their foster home is Providence Kids, a sister company of Providence Service Corporation, one of the major contractors Texas recently hired to take over and privatize a large swath of its foster care system under a privatization scheme called “foster care redesign.” (Read “Fostering Neglect,” the Observer’s June 2014 feature on foster care redesign here.) Under redesign, large lead agencies oversee dozens of private child-placing agencies, and the deaths call into question whether private contractors can effectively manage such agencies—even the ones they own.

The two children, originally from Waco, had lived with the foster family since August. Georgetown police say the children were playing a breath-holding game in two to three feet of water about 10 to 15 feet from the shore, according to press accounts. After the pair failed to surface for several minutes, a 12-year-old who also lived in the home went looking for them and found the bodies. The victims had two other siblings, a 1-year-old girl and a 22-month-old boy, who lived with the foster family but have since been moved. No names have been released.

The Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) is investigating the deaths. “This is an unspeakable tragedy,” said DFPS Commissioner Judge John Specia in a statement on Monday. “We will find out exactly what happened, and whether or not it could have been prevented. Foster children must be kept safe.”

One other foster child, 11-month-old Orien Hamilton, died in state custody this fiscal year. She was crushed to death by her foster mother’s ex-husband. Seven foster children died of abuse or neglect in Texas in the 2013 fiscal year.

Like almost all foster kids in Texas, the children who drowned were placed in their foster home by a private child-placing agency that recruits, trains and supervises foster families. DFPS has stopped placements with Providence Kids until it finishes its investigation. Providence Kids has 29 foster children placed in eight homes in Central Texas, and the department says Child Protective Services will visit each home as a precaution.

Texas has hundreds of private child-placing agencies, but Providence Kids is unique. It shares a childcare license with Providence Service Corporation of Texas, the for-profit company recently contracted by the state to oversee all the other private child-placing agencies in a vast 60-county area of West Texas.

Redesign is controversial for several reasons, including that it places a layer of bureaucracy between the state and its foster kids, distributes the same budget money among more parties—some of which, like Providence, have to turn a profit—and does not include the increased training and oversight that stakeholders say would prevent neglect and abuse. So far, the state has rolled out redesign in two regions and plans to start accepting bids on a third region this summer, a move many stakeholders are asking to delay until more data is available on how redesign affects foster kids’ lives.

For a company to take over a region, it must be a licensed child-placing agency. That means if Providence Kids lost its license because of the two child deaths, Providence Service Corporation would be in violation of its contract with the state.

But while this is possible, it’s not likely. Patrick Crimmins, a spokesperson for DFPS, says it typically would take more than deaths in one family to threaten the license of a child-placing agency. “If this investigation [of Providence Kids] turns up problems in other homes,” Crimmins says, “and persists and persists and persists, you put them on evaluation. If that doesn’t work, you kick it up to probation. At some point down the line, yes, a license could get revoked.”

Hey, we made it! It’s Friday, the day when having continued to exist during the immutable passage of time feels like an accomplishment. Time to look back at some recent choice moments in our state’s public discourse.

This week’s theme: the elusive “core concept.”

1) The Texas Democratic Convention happens this weekend in Dallas, but one of the party’s most buzzed-about candidates won’t be there: Jim Hogan. The Democratic candidate for agriculture commissioner who raised no money, has no experience, and did not campaign will preserve his flawless outsider cred by not showing up at the convention, either. (“Boycotting” seems like too active a verb for this guy.) The candidate for statewide office explained to The Texas Tribune, “There’s not a political bone in my body. I just want to be ag commissioner. I don’t want to have to go be a politician to get there.”

Nathan Fillion tries to explain

2) Most of the week’s WTF-ery related to the influx of undocumented immigrants, including thousands of unaccompanied children, crossing the border and being detained. Gov. Rick Perry did his best to frame the problem as the humanitarian crisis it is, but did so, in true Perry form, by evoking one of our nation’s most outrageous atrocities against people of color. “There’s babies,” Perry told a press conference on Monday, “I mean there are babies there that have been transported all across Mexico. I’m telling you in July and August, if the message does not get out into those countries in Central America, you’re going to see a trail of tears again, from Central America to Texas.”

Props to Mike Ward of the Houston Chronicle who pulled no punches when he explained, in the second paragraph of his piece about the comment, “The Trail of Tears is the name of the ethnic cleansing campaign and forced relocation of tens of thousands of American Indians from the southeastern United States to Oklahoma during the 1830s. More than 6,000 are believed to have died.”

3) As a break from the darkness, here’s Rep. Louie Gohmert willfully photobombing Oklahoma Rep. James Lankford on live TV:

Gohmert photobomb

He may have been motivated by the attention he received after photobombing freshly elected House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and conservative activist Ralph Reed last Friday:

Gohmert photobomb 2

The Washington Post called this one “Amazing,” but we think the FOX News creep-up is even better.

Gohmert also talked this week. On Wednesday, at a House Judiciary hearing tastefully titled “An Administration Made Disaster: The South Texas Border Surge of Unaccompanied Alien Minors,” Gohmert said the Obama administration must stop “luring these children into America” because “there are children that are suffering and being hurt, being lured here to their detriment.” See? Like Perry, Gohmert cares because the children could get hurt! Oh and because they carry “lice,” “scabies” and “H1N1,” or swine flu, he added. Keep it classy, Gohmert.

4) State Rep. Jonathan Stickland also subscribes to the “luring” theory. On his website Tuesday, Stickland wrote, “All the magnets attracting folks here must be turned off. No more benefits or special perks for illegal immigrants.”

In his honor, we proffer the classic music video “Miracles” from the group Insane Clown Posse, an un-ironic meditation on the natural world that features the line, “[Expletive] magnets, how do they work?” If you don’t mind a handful of F-bombs, it’s definitely worth your time.

5) Now let’s get down to brass tacks. State Rep. Bill Zedler knows how to fix this mess: boycott Mexico.

Zedler tweet

Tahmooressi is a U.S. Marine being held in Mexico on weapons charges. Bud Kennedy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram pointed out that Mexico is Texas’s top trade partner, doing about $539 million in trade a day, so a boycott would probably be bad. But at least it would stop Central Americans fleeing violence from migrating to the U.S.

6) Happily, none of us have to worry about this tragedy, or anything, much longer, according to Kathie Glass, the Libertarian Party candidate for governor. On her website, she declares, “If I don’t become Texas governor, it really doesn’t matter which one of the other two does, because America will die and take Texas and liberty with it.”

Whew!

Health image

Next week, the Sunset Advisory Commission will meet to hear testimony regarding its scathing report on the Department of State Health Services (DSHS), one of the largest and most important state agencies. “Scathing” is a term that gets thrown around a lot but really ought to be reserved for dispatches like this one, released in May, which saves special condemnation for the department’s many failures in running the state’s public mental health system. “This experiment was well-intentioned,” the report says, referring to the department as a whole, but DSHS “has struggled to address longstanding concerns, despite clear and repeated direction.” Because of this, most of the Sunset staff recommendations don’t break new ground but “reflect a need for the agency to simply do its job better.”

While the report specifies nine areas for improvement, its authors note that this list is constrained by the resources of their review, not by any limit to the department’s problems. They even suggest that by the time the Sunset review concludes next fall, future reports may question “continuation of DSHS as a standalone agency.” The report goes beyond critical and gets existential.

Some of the recommendations are specific, like calls to combat fraud in the EMS industry, to better protect vital statistics information, and to reduce the department’s regulatory role. But some are just damning pronouncements: “DSHS Has Not Provided the Leadership Needed to Best Manage the State’s Public Health System;” and “DSHS’ Numerous Advisory Committees Lack Strategic Purpose, Limiting Their Effectiveness and Wasting Resources.”

Perhaps the broadest and most troubling part of the report is its wholesale indictment of the state public mental health system. That system has two parts: outpatient community-based treatment, and inpatient treatment through the state mental health hospitals. According to the report, both are broken.

The mental health hospital system, finds the Sunset Commission, is in a crisis that “Requires Action, Starting Now” because of understaffing, inadequate capacity, and aging, remote facilities that need more that $200 million in upgrades. These aren’t new problems, the report notes: “Numerous plans and studies attempting to correct pervasive state hospital system issues have yielded few results, and the success of future plans is questionable… The State essentially operates the same mental health hospital system as during the last Sunset Advisory Commission review 15 years ago, despite years of planning and discussion.”

At least one thing has changed in that period, but it hasn’t helped matters. In recent years, Texas judges have sent more and more psychiatric patients to the hospitals for “competency restoration”—that is, to receive psychiatric treatment until they’re mentally competent to stand trial—exacerbating bed shortages. The special challenge of these so-called “forensic commitments” is that if state hospitals are full, a person charged with a crime who needs inpatient treatment can be held in jail, untried and often untreated, until space opens up. Long waits have led to lawsuits. Under pressure from the courts, the Department of State Health Services has reduced the wait time for forensic patients from an average of 77 days to 17 days over the last few years, but at a price. More forensic beds means fewer civilian beds, and this year, forensic commitments exceeded civil ones for the first time. In other words, if you need treatment from a state mental health hospital, your odds of getting it are now better if you’ve committed a crime than if you haven’t.

The outpatient mental health system is hardly better. The department “has not seized obvious opportunities to integrate… mental health and substance abuse services,” the report found. Half a million Texans suffer from a severe mental illness, two million have a substance abuse problem, and there’s plenty of overlap between those populations. But screening, assessment and treatment systems for the two groups remain separate, which “allows people with complex, co-occurring mental health and substance abuse issues to more easily fall through the cracks.” The department’s funding structure for community mental health providers is “irrational,” “byzantine,” and “disconnected from performance,” and despite collecting hundreds of data points, the department knows little about what programs work and why. These systems need “a complete re-evaluation and overhaul.”

In short, the Department of State Health Services fails to plan strategically or address structural problems because it’s “constantly operating in crisis management mode,” says the Sunset staff report. Mercifully, the report’s authors blame this on the department’s overly ambitious mission rather than the department itself. “[F]ew, if any, state agencies have the breadth and scope of DSHS’ responsibilities,” they write. “…[I]n many ways DSHS was set up to be a ‘jack of all trades, and a master of none.’” But this may be cold comfort if a future report recommends, as this one suggests, that state legislators dismantle the Department of State Health Services altogether.

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Rick Perry
Patrick Michels
Gov. Rick Perry

Back in March, Gov. Rick Perry sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder declaring his intent to defy a federal law designed to reduce sexual assault in prison. It was a very Perry letter, slinging around terms like “ridiculous” and “unacceptable” and “costly regulatory mess.” But perhaps the most Perry part was his vow to “encourage my fellow governors to follow suit.”

Now, saying a law is wrong for Texas is one thing. Saying governors of other states—you know, just anywhere—should defy the Prison Rape Elimination Act suggests Perry believes the law is wrong in general principle, not specific application. Or else he’s just grandstanding. (A Google search for “Rick Perry” and “grandstanding” returns 173,000 results.) Either way, Perry appears to have had limited success. May 15 was the deadline for governors either to certify their state prisons were compliant or promise to become so, and the Associated Press reported last week that just four other states joined Perry in saying they planned not to try: Idaho, Indiana, Utah and Arizona.

“Perry is sort of out on his own on this one, which is fantastic news,” says Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, who works for an advocacy group that fights prison sexual assault, Just Detention International.

Lerner-Kinglake is one of many observers who can’t work out why Perry picked this particular battle in the first place. The problems with the law that Perry lists are relatively minor, though he describes them as insurmountable—and some don’t actually exist. Lerner-Kinglake says Perry’s letter contains “so many basic errors. It’s really kind of simple stuff that anyone who took a minute to look at the standards would know.”

For example, Perry writes that governors must certify their state’s compliance “under threat of criminal penalties,” but that’s not true. The only enforcement mechanism is that a state can lose 5 percent of its federal corrections grant money. Perry also says the act’s compliance dates are “impossible to meet,” but governors can—and at least 10 did—give assurance letters by the May 15 deadline promising that they were actively working toward compliance.

Perry also seems to think the new requirements apply to “local jails” and would be too expensive for small counties to implement, but they wouldn’t have to, since the act covers only facilities under Perry’s operational control.

The further you get into the letter’s nitty-gritty, the stranger Perry’s defiance seems. “The rules appear to have been created in a vacuum,” Perry complains. But a 2010 letter to the Justice Department from the executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said just the opposite. The director wrote, “The agency had relatively few issues” with implementing the act, “because most of the recommendations were similar to agency policy… [I]t is apparent the Department of Justice gave careful consideration to the comments submitted by many interested parties…”

Livingston’s letter did bring up one of Perry’s big beefs, though: the law’s prohibition on cross-gender viewing of inmates showering, changing, or using the toilets. Perry and Livingston suggested that banning cross-gender viewing could force Texas to violate laws banning gender discrimination, since 40 percent of correctional officers are female. Poppycock, says Lerner-Kinglake. The area in which women couldn’t be stationed, he says, “is so limited in scope, and he’s making it out to be a deal-breaker. It’s just a matter of basic dignity.”

A 2013 report from an outside agency (uncovered by the blog Grits for Breakfast) also said half-walls could be used to shield inmates’ genitals and suggested more discreet camera positioning at one of the prisons. “[I]t is not a mainstream practice to have cameras pointed directly into toilet and shower areas,” the report noted. But Perry claimed re-positioning cameras would “increase the likelihood of assaults taking place, defeating the intent of the law.”

Perhaps the most understandable of Perry’s objections is that while the Prison Rape Elimination Act requires the state to keep prisoners under 18 separate from adults, Texas considers 17-year-olds to be adults, so the two standards conflict. But none of the other nine states that incarcerate 17-year-olds as adults appear to have defied the law, and the separation requirement doesn’t kick in for three years. Just in March, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee held a hearing on raising Texas’ adult prosecution age from 17 to 18. Yet this issue and the alleged gender discrimination problem were the sticking points Perry reiterated in a May 16 letter that was much milder in tone.

Present in the first letter but missing from the second was Perry’s claim that Texas already effectively prevented sexual assault in its prisons. Actually, Texas reports almost four times as many prisoner sexual assaults as the national average, according to a federally-funded study from the JFA Institute. Elizabeth Henneke, an attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, warned at a House hearing that noncompliance could leave the state open to litigation and pointed out that one ex-inmate, who says he was raped at the Travis County Jail, is already suing for $2 million, alleging officials “displayed deliberate indifference to his safety by failing to comply with PREA.”

“Of all the misinformation that Perry puts out there,” Lerner-Kinglake says, “about what the standards require and exaggerating how onerous it is, the most problematic thing is that he tries to paint Texas as having prisons that are increasingly safe for inmates. The data from the federal government does not paint that same picture, and neither does what we [Just Detention International] hear from the inmates themselves… We get tons of letters from inmates who have been sexually assaulted in prison, and a disturbing number of them come from Texas.”

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Recent stories from diverse parts of Texas suggest that increased awareness, public pressure and new technology are creating more accountability for law enforcement officers who use excessive force.

On Saturday, the City Council of the small central Texas town of Hearne voted unanimously to fire a police officer who shot and killed a 93-year-old woman in her home. Her nephew had called police after the woman threatened him with a revolver, angry that he wouldn’t turn over her car keys. The officer’s firing is especially remarkable because the woman’s nephew says she shot twice before being killed. Councilmembers may have been swayed by national media attention and local outrage, but also by the officer’s history. In just two years on the force, Stephen Stem, who is white, killed two black citizens in the city of about 5,000. The first shooting took place a few months after Stem became an officer. That time, a grand jury cleared Stem and he returned to work.

On Monday, a federal jury found that four Galveston police officers used excessive force when they beat and pepper-sprayed members of a wedding party at a bar in 2008. The jury awarded the dozen plaintiffs almost $49,000 in damages. The brawl started when an off-duty officer working as a security guard tried to arrest a 19-year-old, Cole O’Balle, for underage drinking. O’Balle allegedly struck the officer, who called for backup, and about 30 officers—nearly every on-duty officer on the island—responded. They beat O’Balle so badly he had to be flown to the hospital by helicopter. Nine officers involved were temporarily suspended and four received written reprimands. The jury did not, however, find consensus on the $13 million claim by former Astros pitcher Brandon Backe, another attendee who says the injuries police gave him that day ended his career.

Also on Monday, an Austin grand jury indicted Detective Charles Kleinert on a charge of manslaughter for shooting an unarmed man in the back of the neck in July. Kleinert was investigating a robbery at a bank when Larry Eugene Jackson Jr. tried to use a fake name and ID to get service there. The bank manager reported this to Kleinart, who tried to question Jackson and pursued when the man fled. Kleinart flagged down a passing motorist to use his car and chased Jackson under a bridge where he says he shot Jackson accidentally. Kleinart, who’d been an officer for almost 20 years, retired in October before an internal affairs inquiry was complete, and the Austin Police Department decided not to complete its investigation. With no official negative findings against Kleinart, the file on the killing was sealed. (For more on the secrecy of internal affairs investigations, read the Observer feature “Crimes Unpunished” here.) If convicted of the second-degree felony, Kleinart could face up to 20 years in prison. It’s the first time a grand jury has indicted an Austin officer for an on-duty shooting in more than a decade.

Finally, in Dallas on Wednesday the City Council approved a $105,000 settlement in a lawsuit claiming excessive force during a home search in 2010. Danny Cantu alleges officers threw a flash-bang grenade into his house, entered without warning, zip-tied his hands and then beat him until he lost consciousness. Officers say they were executing a no-knock search warrant because they believed Cantu was trafficking cocaine for a Mexican drug cartel. They found 0.1 grams of cocaine and a sawed-off shotgun, but Cantu was never charged with a crime in connection with the search warrant. The Dallas Morning News reports that verdicts or settlements in lawsuits against the Dallas Police Department have cost the city about $6 million since 2011. There have been 10 six-figure awards in that time. For contrast, between 2006 and 2010 there were six awards of that size totaling just $1 million.

Video played a key role in several of the recent cases. “The frequency with which we now have videotapes has certainly leveled the playing field,” Don Tittle, a lawyer for one of the plaintiffs, told the Dallas Morning News. “Now, in all those scenarios where we had an individual’s word against an officer—which was always a loser for the individual—if there is videotape, it doesn’t lie, and it has changed things.”

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