Is the Houston Police Department keeping us safe?

“Tonight, Houston homicide detectives are working to solve the murder of a man found stabbed in a parking lot.”

Don Hooper
Don Hooper

In Houston, the first five minutes of every newscast includes words like these. When we hear news reporters providing minimalistic details of yet another murder, we believe that detectives will work to solve that particular crime because solving crimes makes us safer. Unfortunately, when Ryan Chandler and some others were assigned murder cases at the Houston Police Department, investigations remained idle and murderers remained free to roam. Thanks to the efforts of James Pinkerton, we know that Chandler had a variety of lapses including waiting years to file reports and lying about the status of murder investigations.

For years, Houstonians have heard of problems with the Houston Police Department. Historically, these issues surrounded police brutality – think Joe Campos Torres. In 2003, the city was shocked to learn about the total failing of the HPD Crime Lab. Instead of solving the root problem of incompetence and poor internal governance, our local government has simply created smoke and mirrors. Recently, Annise Parker created a local government corporation to “control” the crime laboratory; however, problems still remain.

It is long past the time that HPD withdrew from the crime lab business. Scandal after scandal has led to more bureaucratic bumbling with the same management in place. Bill King wrote a great op-ed piece in the Houston Chronicle about the crime lab situation.

Another scandal broke over the holiday weekend. A senior police officer is under investigation for signing in police officers at the municipal courts when these officers were actually absent.

The purpose of the criminal justice system is to hold people accountable for their conduct and make a community safe. Our local government seems to believe that their allegiances are to the police union rather than the people of Houston. The District Attorney’s office is meant to be that check and balance – the watchdog of the police.

Now, the police department is embroiled in one scandal after another that festers because the DA’s office can’t or won’t do its job. Ryan Chandler is just the latest example of poor law enforcement leadership manifesting itself through shameless politics and mismanagement. I say this because Chandler is indicative of the problems of the crime lab, HPOU, and the command structure of HPD itself.

The HPD organizational structure is very top heavy. Each division has a number of chiefs and captains; yet, people like Ryan Chandler are permitted to exist for years. Tim Oettmeier serves as an Executive Assistant Chief over the Homicide Division at the Houston Police Department, which meant he headed up investigations during the time of the Chandler scandal. Somehow, he missed the fact that Chandler’s supervisors continued to offer identical performance evaluations.

It is no wonder that HPOU is linked up with Allen Blakemore – they both have a desire to control the local law enforcement scene. After the Pat Lykos administration prosecuted HPOU members for theft, the union paired with Allen Blakemore in November 2012 to criticize Lykos’s trace policy that had been in effect for two years. Of course, this was the public kickoff to Blakemore’s campaign to take back the DA’s office.

The truth was that Lykos, at the encouragement of senior prosecutors (who would later support her opponent), announced that, beginning in January 2010, the Harris County District Attorney’s office would not prosecute cocaine possession cases where the amounts were so small that the evidence could not be retested by the defense. At the time, the police union said that they would work together with the DA’s office.

Two years later, the union acted like they were horrified by this trace policy, even though it had been in effect for two years. The union teamed up with Blakemore to take back the DA’s office. A group of folks either sat idly by or actively participated in using a grand jury for an unlawful purpose, to oust a District Attorney.

Now, the current DA is supported by the union and is also a Blakemore client. Feel safer?

What is the future for the Houston Police Department? The agency ordered a recently-released Operational Staffing Report. As you may guess, the police report says that there is a staffing shortage and the answer to unsolved crime is more police. Instead of maximizing current staff, the Houston Police Department wants to keep the same structure and continue down the path of a less-safe Houston. This department wants the public to pay them to raise the crime rate. It has become a culture to them. Our elected officials need to reverse this problem by paying them to lower the crime rate with real results. In the last ten years, the police department’s budget has increased from $431 million to over $800 million – and not one officer has been added to the force. Truly, not only are we less safe; but, the officers themselves are less safe because of the outdated structure.

The future without change is that this reactive justice system will spiral out of control and our city will be overrun by the criminal element. It is time for our local leaders to use this opportunity to make a structural change to the Houston Police Department. Unfortunately, I don’t think the current leadership has the guts to make these necessary changes. It is easier for everyone to continue to support the union and the outdated structure. That way, no one risks a political endorsement. It is a culture of complacency.

Ed Gonzalez, a city council member and former homicide detective, is embroiled in the Chandler scandal. Do you think that Gonzalez has any suggestions about good governance concerning the police?

Why does the Harris County District Attorney’s office permit expensive special prosecutors like Jim Mount on certain cases; but, when a HPD homicide detective (married to a Harris County Assistant District Attorney) is accused of lying and potential criminal activity, the case is shipped off to the office of a former police union lawyer? And, of course, it was not surprising to see Chip Lewis, the DA’s favorite defense attorney, insert himself into the Chandler situation. Maybe that relationship deserves a closer look.

So, are we safer without Chandler? We know that solving crimes makes us safer. Holding people accountable for their actions is necessary to prevent future crime. Future offenders need to understand that this behavior will not be tolerated in our community. Firing one guy fails to attack the root of the systemic problem. Without pulling up this root, we will remain unsafe.

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  1. Christopher Busby says

    Thank you for keeping us informed about these issues and speaking up. When law enforcement refuses to check itself the citizens need to be the check.

  2. CJ Pro says

    Don, what a great spot-on assessment of the HPD. It is broken and no one can fix it. Why? Because HPD operates from a special section of the Texas Government Code (Title 5, Subtitle A, Section 143) that only applies to Houston. Pray tell, how does a department have its own code? Subsection 143.014(g) dictates a classified employee serves at the discretion of the “department head” (Chief), but the subsection starts with a declaration the section only applies to departments with less than 1.5 million people. What?!, you ask? How could that be? There must be other cities in Texas that large. Here are the population figures (2010 census; 2012 revisions): Dallas (1.2M), Ft. Worth (793K), San Antonio (1.3), Austin (885K). So, enter “meet and confer” where HPOU gets to set their own rules about hiring, firing, and yielding a big sword. It might as well be said now; although not a shock, no politician is going to knock HPOU. They need HPOU’s endorsement. The public has a mindset of whatever our police believe (whomever they endorse) we must support them! They must know best. Simply, HPOU holds more power than the Mayor and Chief when it comes to running the department. I am sure HPOU is already lobbying to get the population parameter moved up by the legislature since San Antonio is closing in at 1.3 million and the COH population is now 2.1 million. Ten to one we will see a change to 2 million in the next few years.

    I have worked in the department. Nothing has changed in over 20 years and the culture was existent before my time. So, my comments come from real knowledge and may shifts in leadership — many opportunities to make things right. It CAN’T be fixed under the current law. It has led me to believe that we would be better served by a police commission model with a board of citizens elected by their peers. No mayoral appointment to the commission as in some jurisdictions in the country. The rules forming composition of the board should expressly prohibit any member from serving who has ever worked in the department (or their spouse). It is the grandest of reform ideas, but it would wipe the slate clean and bring the power back to the people. We would have the opportunity to bring in lawyers, accountants, business professionals, professors, doctors — experts that could bring real leadership and efficiency. Those running for office no longer have to fear the lack of endorsement from HPOU. We can’t even start a petition to change the city charter. This is a State law issue.

    While I am in my grand reform proposals, HPD IAD would be gone. Again, a separate entity without ties to the department (or commission) OR the district attorney’s office — an independent body with legal authority and independent investigators. Bottom line, to get integrity back we must chop up the authority. Stop the “good buddy system” — it is a theme in your post.

    I must critique one point you made. The Mayor and Council approval to form the Houston Forensic Science Center was a good and sound move. Getting the HPD out of the crime lab business was right operationally and ethically. Now, if we can get the COH and Harris County to move to a regional crime lab — we would be cooking with gas.

    In closing, our men and women in blue, as do the public, deserve a better police department. One that all can be proud.

    Again, thank you for your sound comments. I would suggest you submit your post to the Houston Chronicle for an editorial piece. Say what you may about the Chronicle, but people should see your comments. A revolution often starts with one person saying, “Hell, No!”

    • Don Hooper says

      CJ, thank you for your kind words. I try hard and I don’t always get it right. I did learn from your comments and I do think that the way for HPOU to lose influence is to make sure that people understand that their endorsement makes voters unsafe, unfortunately, this has been the case for years. This was especially true of Mike Anderson’s election.

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