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.