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Dateline Houston



Hostage negotiation. Narcotics enforcement. Border patrol. Fraud investigation. These may sound like the duties of a few distinct, highly trained law enforcement groups, and they usually are. But they’re also the purview of … game wardens?

A recent issue of Texas Parks & Wildlife, the department’s magazine, featured a lengthy article on several new specialty units comprised of game wardens, all of whom are fully commissioned peace officers. Some of the new groups are understandable, like the K-9 team used to detect smuggled game and fish, and a search-and-rescue team trained in disaster response, swift-water recovery and how to escape from a sinking helicopter. Additionally, there’s an underwater search-and-recovery dive team.

But the department also has a unit to investigate boat theft and boat-related fraud. Then there’s the “Forensic Reconstruction and Mapping Team” that uses state-of-the-art technology to piece together crime scenes and “produce 3D videos re-creating accidents.” The “Scout Team” is specially trained in “border operations, dignitary protection, or any form of high-risk law enforcement” such as hostage situations. And the “Maritime Tactical Operations Group” responds to “unique maritime operations,” presumably with the department’s five gunboats equipped with .30-caliber machine guns.

Mike Cox, who works for the Texas Parks and Wildlife communications department and wrote the article, says the gunboats patrol Falcon Lake and Lake Amistad, Texas’ border lakes, where they may have to confront illegal commercial fishermen or heavily armed drug smugglers. “We’ve always operated patrol vessels,” he observes, though “this is the first time we’ve had automatic weapons on some of them.”

He adds, “That’s perfectly within their jurisdiction, and we’re proud that they are there on the border being vigilant.”

Texas Parks and Wildlife isn’t alone in employing its own police force. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission has more than 230 peace officers who carry weapons and make arrests. They usually solve alcohol-related crimes, says spokesperson Caroline Beck, inspecting licenses and finding out who served alcohol to a minor. But they also investigate drugs, weapons and human-trafficking crimes that take place in bars, “as well as just your normal prostitution and gambling.” Like game wardens, the enforcement duties of Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission officers have no firm parameters. After Hurricane Katrina, they provided security at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. During wildfires in Bastrop, they patrolled neighborhoods and rescued pets.

The Texas State Board of Dental Examiners is a little more reserved. Its 12 peace officers carry sidearms, but “physical custodial arrests are typically made by assisting local law enforcement agencies,” wrote Director of Enforcement Lisa Jones in an email. “The agency does not take a lead role in criminal investigations for any offenses not related to the practice of dentistry.”

The Texas Department of Insurance has 30 peace officers in its Fraud Unit, which investigates criminal offenses related to insurance. They too are armed and “adhere to the same use of force continuum as any law enforcement agency,” wrote spokesperson Jerry Hagins in an email.

Cox, of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, says none of this should come as a surprise. “We’ve always been a little frustrated that the general public does not seem to understand that game wardens are police officers,” he says. “That means they can enforce any state law. … I’d say every day, somewhere in Texas, one of our game wardens does something that is not connected to hunting and fishing law. And that’s a good thing.”

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Jail hands

Updated with a response from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

A new study of sexual violence in U.S. correctional facilities supports earlier findings that Harris County has a serious problem with inmate sexual abuse. Can Sheriff Adrian Garcia fix it without admitting it exists?

Last July, Dateline Houston reported on a related Justice Department study that quantified sexual violence by directly surveying inmates about their experiences. The Harris County Jail came out looking pretty bad by that method. At the largest of the jail’s four locations, the reported rate of sexual mistreatment was twice the national average. Harris had the third highest rate of the more than 350 jails surveyed.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office took exception to the study, calling it “flawed and misleading” in a letter to the Justice Department. The main objection was that the allegations were unofficial, unverifiable and anonymous. But a new study aggregating official allegations of sexual abuse doesn’t look much better.

In each year addressed—2009 through 2011—Harris County had by far the most allegations of “nonconsensual sexual acts” by inmates of any jail in the state. That’s perhaps to be expected since Harris County has Texas’ largest jail by far. But over the three years, it also had more official allegations than all of Texas’s other public local jails combined. This is despite housing about half as many inmates as the sum of all other such jails.

Earlier this month, Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia was called to testify at a Justice Department hearing on the first study’s results. It didn’t go great. The Houston Chronicle reported, “After several minutes of reading an opening statement describing the jail system he commands…Garcia was cut off by a panelist and urged to get to the point of the sexual assault statistics.”

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia
Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia

In short, he didn’t. His testimony could be summarized as, “There isn’t a problem because there shouldn’t be a problem.” The jail is designed for direct observation by guards. It has extensive surveillance cameras and more will soon be installed at a cost of $800,000 or more. Inmates are evaluated upon intake for whether they need special protection or pose a threat to others and housed appropriately. There is a zero tolerance policy for sexual abuse and allegations are taken seriously. Staffers watch a video, sign a form and take training about preventing and handling sexual abuse. Posters and flyers inform inmates of the zero-tolerance policy and a toll-free phone line to report abuse. More guards have been hired and security rounds made more frequent. A committee has been established. The jail passes regular inspections and evaluations.

Many of these safeguards have been instituted since 2011, when the reporting period for the studies ended, so they may well be working but stats wouldn’t show it yet. And whether or not the jail’s abuse rate has dropped in the last two years, all these efforts are unquestionably to the good. They show the sheriff’s office is serious about preventing abuse.

One might even say it’s doing all it can—except for one thing. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office refuses to admit it has a problem with sexual assault. In November, Sheriff Garcia responded to a letter from the Justice Department asking for an explanation of the study’s findings. The first question was, “What are the factors that lead to the high incidence of sexual victimization at the HCJ during the time of the BJS report?” Garcia called that a “false premise” and responded, “There was and is no high incidence of sexual victimization in the Harris County Jail facilities.”


Garcia’s objections to the study vary in their ability to hold water. He rightly observes that the question lumps all four jail locations into one question although three had sexual abuse rates lower than the national average. But his point carries the seed of its own illegitimacy. First and foremost Garcia finds the anonymous reports unreliable. Fair enough. But another Harris County Jail location housing almost as many prisoners reports a rate of 0.9 percent, versus the worst facility’s 6.3 percent. Why would inmates at one jail, taking the same anonymous survey, falsely report abuse seven times more often? Is it likelier that there are seven times more liars in one spot than another or that one jail has a problem and the other three don’t?

Garcia also notes that the (“flawed and misleading”) survey finds higher rates of victimization among women, inmates with mental illness and non-heterosexual inmates, which the high-rate facility houses most of. So which is it? Are the higher rates non-existent, a product of false reporting and bad statistics, or is the rate legitimate and caused by a concentration of more-victimized groups?

The frustration in Garcia’s letter is palpable. His answer to this first, contentious question concludes with a paragraph describing how his office tried to investigate the findings and “without access to all of the underlying data” was simply “unable.”

But “we cannot tell if there’s a problem” is very different from “there is definitively no problem.” The first indicates concern and a willingness to try, which the rest of the county’s preventative measures suggest is Garcia’s true position. But the latter is his official stance. Having to preserve it may, tragically, keep the county from fixing what the best information available says is broken.

From Alan Bernstein, Director of Public Affairs for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office:

“The Harris County Sheriff’s Office appreciates the chance to provide information and perspective for this article. Better late than never.

Sexual victimization of inmates in America’s jails and prisons continues, much to the frustration of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies undertaking sophisticated, aggressive, progressive and inventive ways to stop it. The traits of those efforts reflect every aspect of Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s reform administration, as shown in other Texas Observer articles.

The fact that such alleged incidents are relatively infrequent – coming from 1.6 percent of all U.S. inmates, if one of the studies referred to in the article are to be believed – is of no comfort. Although not mentioned by Texas Observer, the key point of the other study cited is that U.S. prison and jail commanders have been able to substantiate only 10 percent of inmate sexual victimization allegations, meaning the other 90 percent unfortunately lacked conclusive evidence, were the subject of shoddy investigations or were false.

As Texas Observer well knows, an allegation is not proof of guilt. Just ask Michael Morton. However the studies and the TO article confuse allegations with proven incidents of sexual victimization (which the study says ranges from forced sex acts to uninvited touching of an inmate’s clothed thigh).

Recent news media reporting on sexual victimization claims in the Harris County Jail, by far the state’s most populous, stems from a 2011 anonymous survey of less than a tenth of the 9,000 or so inmates. At three connected jail buildings that hold the majority of inmates, the allegation rate was below the national average. At one connected jail building, called 1200 Baker St., the allegation rate was 6.3 percent. The study says it was designed to get a 65 percent response rate from inmates, but at that building, the threshold was not reached. This is one of many reasons why the study is deeply flawed; by its own admission, it forfeited statistical reliability and also was unable to determine the frequency of false claims.

Also, that building houses the jail system’s inmates with acute mental illness. In fact the statistician who worked on the 2011 study tells us that two-thirds of the surveyed inmates in the so-called “high” rate building had “psychological stress disorders.” We don’t know how that was determined, and we would never allege that people with mental illness fabricate allegations more often than anyone else. But in his testimony in Washington, Sheriff Garcia described the day-old case of an inmate outcry of sexual victimization and in the process showed how many claims are elusive.

Texas Observer claims the sheriff never got around to such a discussion. Oh well! The case involved a man housed in the mental health unit. Deputies interviewed him as part of the full investigation they conduct on every such allegation. He said he awoke and found his trousers pulled down; he believed he had been sexually assaulted; and did not know by whom, or how, or where or how often. No doubt that is the kind of claim that led to one of four jail buildings having a so-called “high” rate of allegations (not assaults).

As for which prisons and jails rank among the worst, the study points out that about 20 agencies refused to cooperate with the 2011 anonymous survey. One was in Texas. One was the New Orleans Parish Jail. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office allowed the surveyors access to inmates, and Sheriff Garcia accepted the invitation to testify in Washington, because of his commitment to transparency and accountability in the cause of restoring the public’s faith in the operations of the jail.

In sum, Sheriff’s Garcia’s statements still stand: The biggest jail system in Texas does not have a “high rate” of sexual victimization of inmates, but that does not excuse us from trying to eradicate any such incident. All Harris County jail inmates , including the two-thirds who are awaiting trial and therefore have not been found guilty, deserve respectful treatment. We are striving to be a national leader in how we deal with sexual abuse and allegations thereof.”

Judge Denise Pratt
Judge Denise Pratt

Early voting for the March primaries will begin in just a month and, as usual, all eyes will be on top-ballot races with multiple viable candidates. But one far less noticeable Harris County vote may help answer a perennial political question: Does bad press make a difference in down-ballot races?

At issue is Denise Pratt, the judge for the 311th Family District Court. She faces four Republican challengers in the primary. And with good reason: She’s been mired in scandal since last October and a fresh round of allegations has just emerged. But unlike so many scandals, the accusations against Pratt have nothing to do with slush funds, tax fraud, or “hiking the Appalachian Trail.” Rather, they’re about how she does her job, if she’s negligent, whether she broke the law to cover it up.

The Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, and even local conservative bloggers have reported the debacle diligently. Defenses and explanations offered by Pratt’s lawyer have ranged from weak to nonsensical. But should Pratt win the primary, she’s likely to keep her judgeship thanks to straight-ticket voting. So if persistent, apparently well earned bad press is going to make a difference, it’ll be on March 4th.

Here’s the Denise Pratt story, also known as How to Lose Friends and Alienate Lawyers.

Pratt started strong. An experienced family law attorney, she garnered a Chronicle endorsement and beat four other candidates in the 2010 primary without a runoff. Then she won election by 10 points. But for reasons unknown, Judge Pratt fell behind. She started issuing rulings long after their hearings and letting cases pile up that needed only a signature. In May of last year, the 14th Court of Appeals reprimanded Pratt for “unreasonable” delays and ordered her to rule on a case she’d heard 10 months before, which she did.

Then the intrigue began. In June 2013, just after the appeals court slapped Pratt’s wrist, a man whose divorce case Pratt heard three months earlier finally got his ruling. His hearing had been March 25th. The ruling was dated March 25th. But the man didn’t receive notice until June. This was, he said, despite contacting Pratt’s office repeatedly and being told he’d get the ruling as soon as it was ready.

Greg Enos, a local family law attorney, was suspicious. Enos suspected Pratt had gotten in trouble, fished out an overdue case and backdated the ruling. He wrote as much in his watchdog blog, “The Mongoose,” and asked other lawyers who suspected judicial shenanigans to contact him.

They did. When Enos filed a criminal complaint against Pratt in October, he cited six cases and alleged rampant backdating. In November, 32 Houston-area family law attorneys signed a letter calling for Pratt to step down. Then the Houston Bar Association’s biennial judicial evaluations savaged her. Seventy six percent of respondents said Pratt was “poor” at following the law; 81 percent said she was bad at issuing timely rulings; 83 percent reporting she wasted attorney time; and 79 percent rating her poor at working hard and being prepared. In all, 57 percent of respondents gave her the lowest of five possible overall ranks.

But Pratt wasn’t merely unpopular. Enos’ complaint sparked an investigation by the Harris County district clerk, during which Pratt’s lead clerk, a 25-year veteran, pleaded the Fifth and resigned. Pratt heard one case in January, issued a ruling in May, and dated the ruling a day before the two-day trial actually ended.

The district attorney empaneled a grand jury to investigate whether the judge tampered with court records. Though in December the grand jury declined to indict Pratt, visiting judges did grant eight lawyers’ requests to have her removed from their cases.

And her time on the un-fun side of the bench may not be over. On Thursday, Enos filed another complaint against Pratt, this time citing what the Chronicle adorably calls a “surprise docket purge” of more than 700 cases in a month.

For obvious reasons, if a judge schedules a hearing he or she has to give the affected lawyers notice. Failure to appear can be grounds for dismissal. But according to Enos and several other lawyers, Judge Pratt dismissed hundreds of cases without warning attorneys to show up.  Most of the purged cases were signed on Dec. 30 and 31, when the district clerk’s office told the Chronicle no dismissal dockets were scheduled.

It’s hard to see how Pratt thought this would go well. Her lawyer, Terry Yates, has yet to pitch a convincing explanation for any apparent improprieties, though he’s made up for in quantity what his explanations lack in quality. Among the justifications offered are:

  • Lawyers didn’t receive notice because of the new electronic filing system in the District Clerk’s office, which that office’s spokesperson told the Chronicle “has nothing to do with the mailing of notices.”
  • Lawyers with dismissed cases have “just got to file a motion to reinstate…so it’s really no big deal,” Yates said to the Chronicle.
  • Purging cases at the end of the year is normal, though in December Pratt dismissed at least 561 and the eight other family court judges dismissed between 28 and 121.
  • Pratt has the most pending cases of any family court—more than 3,000—which Yates told the Chronicle is “really a legislative issue to get more family courts here so the dockets are manageable.”
  • And of course, no litany of excuses would be complete without this old chestnut: The accusations against Pratt are, according to her email to GOP precinct chairs, all “rumors that are being spread by the Democrats and the liberal media.”

Even if all the criminal and more moustache-twirling allegations against Pratt are untrue, there’s no question that she issues tardy rulings, lets cases pile up, and is held in abysmal esteem by the lawyers with whom she works. All indicators suggest, in short, that she does a bad job. She’s also not a seasoned incumbent letting things slide; this is her first term. And she’s drawn four challengers in the primary.

One would think all this would doom her, but besides incumbency she has one advantage: While the local conservative press has turned against her, the Republican Party hasn’t withdrawn its endorsement. Thus, Pratt’s primary pits the media against the establishment.

It’s not Chris Christie-level drama, but for the hundreds of Houstonians whose divorces and child visitation rights hang in the balance, the quality of a single judge matters very much indeed. The question is, come March 4th, will that matter to the voters?

Texas DPS

Yesterday, the Houston Chronicle reported that the Texas driver’s license application asks drivers whether they’ve been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. The question isn’t new—the Department of Public Safety has asked since the 1970s. Nor has it gone unnoticed; state Rep. Garnet Coleman has been trying to have it removed for the last few legislative sessions. But it’s an important story because, in several ways, it’s about what happens when government and reality collide. (Spoiler: reality loses.)

First, the question is overly broad. It asks, specifically, whether an applicant has in the last two years been diagnosed with, hospitalized for, or is currently receiving treatment for a psychiatric disorder. It doesn’t ask whether the disorder interferes with a person’s ability to safely drive, which is a component of another question about medical conditions in general. By asking separately about medical conditions and psychiatric conditions, the question implies that psychiatric illnesses are not medical, which is a funny distinction to make about a problem effectively treated by a wide array of drugs. And by including all psychiatric disorders in the question’s scope instead of conditions that might affect driving, it’s uselessly inclusive.

Have you ever felt grumpy from caffeine withdrawal? According to the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, that’s a diagnosable psychiatric problem. So are binge eating, sleepwalking and restless leg syndrome. Considering that a quarter of Americans will suffer a mental illness in a given year, the question assumes most drivers will lie.

Second, the question is illogical. A psychiatric condition that’s being treated will usually be less symptomatic than an untreated one. For greater relevance, the question would ask whether a driver has been diagnosed with but declined treatment for a disorder. Or better, it would ask if someone has a mental illness of which they’re unaware. While inquiring about that, Dateline Houston suggests the Department of Public Safety ask if an applicant texts while driving, tends to make terrible decisions, or has ever played Grand Theft Auto.

Third, the enforcement mechanism appears to rely on applicants to lie. Answering “yes” doesn’t disqualify a person, but it leads to more questions to determine whether someone’s psychiatric record should be examined by the Medical Advisory Board of the Department of State Health Services. That board comprises 13 doctors, none of whom are psychiatrists. Texas has about 18 million licensed drivers.

And yet, after all the questions about medical history, a shaded box reminds applicants, “False information could also lead to criminal charges with penalties of a fine up to $4,000.00 and/or jail.”

drug test

In August 2012, one Houston courtroom played host to a legal drama of Brockovichian proportions. During a routine probation hearing for a man who’d tested positive for illegal drugs, his lawyer, Lisa Andrews, put Harris County’s entire probation department on trial. She called most of the department as witnesses and submitted thousands of subpoenaed emails and documents showing that bad record keeping, human error and poor oversight had allowed test results to get mixed up, costing innocent people their freedom for drug use that never happened.

The judge was livid. She not only dismissed the case against Andrews’ client, but called for the probation department head to resign, which he did.

But some thought the resignation unnecessary. The department was overwhelmed, swamped with 25,000 drug tests a month, and while the crisis was certainly mismanaged—one reporter noted a months-old urine sample sitting at the back of a lukewarm refrigerator—the courts, not the probation department, created the problem.

That’s because forcing people to submit regular urine samples for drug testing isn’t standard for probation. It’s an extra condition, applied at the discretion of the judge, and Houston judges have been applying it. A 2005 report on Harris County from the Justice Management Institute noted that the previous decade had seen a threefold increase in the average number of probationers with extra conditions like urine testing.

So can a mess made by the courts be cleaned up by a new probation director?

Dr. Teresa May is going to try. Soon after her appointment last February, May hired a consultant who found that “many probationers had for years tested negative on hundreds of tests,” the Houston Chronicle reported. Continuing to demand samples from low-risk subjects like these contributed to the department’s heavy drug-testing load, which May has halved since March. Now she’s working with judges to develop a risk-assessment tool to standardize the assignment of extra conditions like urinalysis, substance-abuse programs and mental-health treatment. (Currently, the state evaluates all probationers, but it’s usually after their conditions have been set.)

In doing so, May is finally fulfilling recommendations the Justice Management Institute made to Harris County in 2005. Its report advised the courts to “develop cost-effective common policies concerning when drug testing should be ordered, for what types of drugs, how and by whom the tests should be conducted, what responses should be made to test results, and when (under what circumstances) the drastic step of revoking bond should be taken.”

Such standardization may seem obvious, but actually implementing it is real progress. Perhaps if these steps had been taken back when they were suggested, fewer innocent people would have gone back to jail.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker
Houston Mayor Annise Parker

From the Department of Inevitability, the Harris County Republicans filed suit yesterday over Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s move to provide spousal benefits to same-sex partners of city employees who have been legally married in other states. District Judge Lisa Millard issued a temporary restraining order halting the policy until a hearing January 6th.

Dateline Houston speculates that it took the Harris County Republicans so long to sue (Parker made her announcement four weeks ago) because their chairman, Jared Woodfill, was working out the exact language to describe the badness of the change.

It’s “one of the most egregious acts by an elected official I’ve ever seen,” he told the Houston Chronicle, apparently up there with Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair. “They just decided to, unilaterally, as a lame duck, thumb their nose at the will of the people and just spit on the U.S. Constitution.”

Leaving aside the facts that 1) lame ducks are officials whose tenure is nearly over, while Mayor Parker, though in her last term, has just been re-elected by 30 points, and 2) ducks don’t have thumbs or noses, Woodfill’s claim that the Constitution forbids such an act is dubious at best.

Firstly, the part of the Defense of Marriage Act that prohibited federal recognition of gay marriages was struck down this year as a violation of the Fifth Amendment. (Who’s spitty now?) Secondly, the Texas National Guard yielded last month to Pentagon pressure and began offering same-sex spousal benefits. (Hippies.) Thirdly, Austin, Dallas, El Paso and Fort Worth already have policies like Houston’s, making it look a little less egregious.

City Attorney David Feldman told the Chronicle he expects the lawsuit to be thrown out because the Harris County Republicans “don’t appear to have any particular state to complain about this. Just being a taxpayer isn’t enough.”

All that aside, it’s not hard to see why the group is upset. In 2001, voters approved an amendment to the city charter that banned benefits for anyone but “legal spouses.” (That change, by the way, was spearheaded by Dave Wilson, the white man recently elected to be a Houston Community College trustee after leading voters to believe that he was black.) Since Texas refuses to recognize same-sex marriages from other states, the marriages aren’t legal here. But, citing the recent IRS decision to recognize married gay couples for tax purposes, even if they live in states banning gay marriage, Houston decided to do it anyway.

Mayor Parker, who is gay, will be unaffected by the change because she and her partner of 24 years are unmarried.

The StarChase GPS Launcher.
The StarChase GPS Launcher.

Historically, civil libertarians and law enforcement watchdogs have reacted to innovations in police technology with skepticism if not alarm. Last year, for example, the ACLU published a report blasting unfettered use of automatic license-plate readers in places like Grapevine, where surveillance equipment scanned more than 14,000 plates a day, and the city had no plans to delete the data.

But a couple of high-tech solutions being rolled out in Texas police departments are proving exceptions to the rule. That’s because in addition to fighting crime, they have the potential to make police encounters safer for innocent civilians, not just officers.

One of the most dangerous police activities is the high-speed chase. The largest analysis of police pursuits found that almost a quarter of pursuits resulted in an injury or property damage, and that one in five injury victims was a bystander. But restrictive chase policies frustrate officers who feel their judgment should be trusted.

The solution? Be like Batman. As of March, a dozen patrol cars in Austin have been fitted with grill-mounted air cannons that fire GPS darts at fleeing vehicles. Deployed by a pursuing officer via keypad, the darts stick to the back of a suspect’s car, letting police discontinue the chase while continuing to track a suspect’s movements in real time.

The Austin Police Department is an early adopter. The maker, StarChase, says a “large handful” of agencies have installed the technology, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office and departments in Iowa and Florida. It’s not cheap—each system costs about $5,000 and includes two darts, which can be refurbished and reused for $250 each. But it may be less expensive than the status quo. Austin police reported 135 pursuits in 2012, of which 22 ended in crashes. One of those crashes killed a bystander. The department says if the program is successful, it will seek grants to put the system in every patrol car.

Though it’s less cutting-edge, Houston, too, is using technology to address a pernicious police problem: civilian complaints. Since last winter, nine officers at the Houston Police Department have worn different types of body cameras in the field to help evaluate models for potential use. HPD recently confirmed that it plans to add 100 cameras by next summer, an expansion that will cost an estimated $400,000 including equipment and data storage. Though pricey, Houston police Chief Charles McClelland says the cameras may save money by quickly resolving Internal Affairs investigations. “You don’t have to spend resources to investigate frivolous complaints,” McClelland told the Houston Chronicle. “Sometimes when people make complaints, and they see themselves on video, they drop the complaints.”

But potential savings aren’t why groups including the ACLU cautiously support such programs. An October report from the group called police cameras a “win-win,” saying that while the group generally takes a dim view of expanded surveillance, “on-body cameras are different because of their potential to serve as a check against the abuse of power by police officers.”

Of course, any technology can be abused. The ACLU’s endorsement is contingent on the adoption of strict policies ensuring privacy and preventing tampering, policies HPD says it’s still developing. But the fact that two large police departments in Texas are investing in new ways to ease officer-citizen conflicts looks a lot like progress.

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March in favor of a non-discrimination ordinance outside San Antonio City Council meeting.
Forrest Wilder
A September march in favor of San Antonio's non-discrimination ordinance.

Austin may have a reputation for being Texas’ most gay-friendly town, but Houston’s catching up.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker announced today that the city will start offering employment benefits like health insurance to same-sex spouses of city employees who were legally married in other states. In 2001, voters approved a city charter amendment that appears to prohibit exactly that, but Parker says because it permits benefits for “legal spouses,” then legal gay spouses should be included. (Parker, who is gay, will be unaffected by the change since she and her partner of 24 years are unmarried.)

A statement from the mayor’s office appears to claim both that the city is still legally obeying the charter amendment—the city will not extend benefits to domestic partners, for example, only to full spouses—and that the charter amendment is unlawfully discriminatory. It explained, “After a careful review of recent case law, the city legal department believes continued application of the charter amendment so as to deny same-sex spousal benefits would be unlawful because it treats employees differently on the basis of sexual orientation.”

The statement cited the August IRS decision recognizing married same-sex couples for federal tax purposes even if the couples reside in states where their marriage is not recognized. Austin, Dallas, El Paso and Fort Worth already have such policies, as does San Antonio, the recent site of an ugly squabble over whether to extend the city’s non-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

It’s the second big leap forward for gay rights in Houston in as many weeks. Last Thursday, the Harris County Sheriff’s announced new policies intended to prevent sexual assault and harassment at the county jail. They include adding sexual orientation and gender orientation to the characteristics protected against discrimination and requiring new training on “updated zero-tolerance rules” about sexual abuse, harassment, improper contact and failure to report violations, according to a statement.

More radically, jail staff are now expected to consider gender identity, not merely anatomy, when deciding whether to house inmates with men or women. They’re also director to address inmates by either their chosen name or last name only, and to “follow common sense rules about whether an inmate should be searched by a male or female staffer.”

“Harris County courts will continue to mete out tough justice,” said Sheriff Adrian Garcia in the statement. “But being tough only works the right way when it is accompanied by values such as safety, fairness and dignity.”

Dignity in Houston looks to be coming along.

Dave Wilson

On Friday, Houston news station KHOU reported on the surprising election of Dave Wilson, a white anti-gay activist who beat a 24-year incumbent in a heavily Democratic and African-American district at least in part by pretending to be black. That story has blown up, but what few outlets are noting is that Wilson is a longtime and, heretofore, unsuccessful foe of the college system he has just joined.

During his run for District II trustee of the Houston Community College System, Wilson’s campaign materials never showed his face. Instead, they featured black families beside the words, “Please vote for our friend and neighbor Dave Wilson.” One mailer crowed, “Endorsed by Ron Wilson,” suggesting the support of a former state representative who is African American. But actually the endorsement came from Wilson’s cousin Ron, who lives in Iowa.

Wilson, an electrician known locally for nuisance lawsuits and homophobia, doesn’t deny his intent to mislead. “Every time a politician talks, he’s out there deceiving voters,” Wilson told KHOU.

But besides being non-representative of his district politically and racially, Wilson joins the ranks of conservative neophytes elected to political bodies they openly despise. At a tea party event in October of last year, Wilson delivered a 76-slide presentation on why voters should reject the $425 million bond proposal to fund HCC, the gist of which was that enrollment was down and money is expensive. Despite his heroic PowerPoint, that bond passed. In 2011, Wilson sued the HCC trustees to prevent the purchase of land Wilson claimed was overpriced. The suit was summarily dismissed with prejudice and Wilson had to pay court costs.

Most of Wilson’s 20 years of relapsing-remitting political activity in Houston has gone like that. But he has had one other taste of victory. Before turning his eye on HCC, Wilson fought homosexuality. In 2001, he gathered enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot denying benefits to same-sex partners of city employees. That referendum passed. He followed up by running for mayor on an anti-gay platform, sending out tens of thousands of mailers saying Annise Parker, who is gay, should not be mayor because “homosexual behavior leads to extinction.”

In 2009, Wilson’s homophobia took a pitying stance. In one flier, he said, “I have nothing but compassion, respect, and sensitivity toward those trapped in homosexual behavior.” But by the time Parker won a second term, Wilson had gotten uglier. A capture of campaign website from December of 2011 features a Bible verse from Romans over an unsigned cartoon of Parker high-fiving Jerry Sandusky while saying, “You’re hired!”

The electorate that, perhaps inadvertently, elected Wilson last week also granted Parker a third mayoral term.

Wilson hinted at his new campaign strategy during his last failed run. Perhaps sensing that gay-bashing had lost its value as an electoral tool, Wilson released a statement two days before the 2011 election stating that he was not in the Ku Klux Klan, that Parker’s camp had spread a rumor to that effect, and that he had been a member of the NAACP for several years.

How much Wilson’s racial subterfuge helped him in last week’s election is unknown. The HCC system has been plagued by poor performance, and other trustees were forced into runoffs. But the effect could have been tiny and still decisive. Wilson beat incumbent Bruce Austin by only 26 votes in a race with more than 11,000 cast. Austin has asked for a recount, but with electronic voting, a reversal seems unlikely. An HCC trustee term is six years.


How much is a competent defense attorney worth? If you’re the defendant, very much indeed. But how much is it worth if you’re not on trial—and you’re the one footing the bill?

That’s the question underlying a new study of the Harris County Public Defender program. Harris County was the last major urban county in the U.S. to get a public-defender program, which in 2011 started handling a small fraction of the county’s 70,000 indigent defense cases a year. The rest are still dealt with the old way: assigned to a rotating cast of Houston attorneys who are paid little per case, and whose average caseload far exceeds recommended maximums for effective counsel.

Comparing results between the public defender and traditionally appointed counsel doesn’t just make the former look good—it makes the latter look terrible.

The study found that felony public defender clients were acquitted three times as often as those with assigned counsel. Misdemeanor public defender clients with mental illness saw their cases dismissed five times as often, and both felony and misdemeanor defendants represented by public defenders were more likely to have their cases taken to trial than end in a plea deal.

These results aren’t mysterious. The study’s authors at the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a national nonprofit with an office in Austin, chalk them up to time and money. The Harris County Public Defender program is staffed by experienced lawyers who are paid a salary and prevented from taking cases in excess of national standards. Assigned lawyers in Harris County are paid per docket, and significantly less than in other urban counties in Texas. Nothing prevents them from taking on more clients than they can effectively defend.

For example, in 2012, almost half the indigent felony defendants in Harris County were represented by lawyers carrying more than the nationally recommended standard of 150 felony cases per year. And while the standard for misdemeanors is 400 cases a year, the top 10 percent of assigned attorneys in Harris County took on an average of 632 cases each. That may be because the county pays an average of $84 per misdemeanor case—little more than half of what Travis and Dallas counties pay.

The additional time Harris County public defender lawyers spend on each case gets better results, but it requires more money. For misdemeanor cases, the public defenders cost the county almost eight times as much as assigned counsel; in juvenile cases, they cost nine times as much. Felony public defender cases averaged about 1.7 times the cost of assigned counsel, in part because of issues of scale. (Public defenders took on more than half the county’s appellate cases in 2012, and did so, on average, more cheaply than assigned counsel.) But the public defender program is handling only 4 to 8 percent of the county’s misdemeanor, juvenile and felony cases. And while expanding the program will bring per-case costs down, the public defender program may never be as cheap as the assigned counsel system.

Harris County received grants to start its public-defender program, but those will end in October 2014. The county then will have to choose whether to pay rock-bottom prices, or pay for better results for people who’ve hit rock bottom.