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HPD’s Third Annual Citywide Town Hall Meeting

Recently, the Houston Police Department hosted its Third Annual Townhall Meeting. Chief Charles McClelland and District Attorney Devon Anderson were present to talk about issues such as overcrowded prisons, police body cameras, and grand jury selections. Krishunda Goodman, the host of KTSU’s A Closer Look served as the MC for the town hall meeting. The town hall meeting also allowed the public to use a police shooting simulator to help the people understand why the police resort to shooting and to clear up some misconceptions people have about the use of guns among police offiers. Outside of the building, people had the chance to view and take photos with a police helicopter, a SWAT truck, and several other police vehicles.

The town hall meeting begun with a prayer spoken by Ken Murray, the Pastor of Reach Center Church and member of the HPD Clergy Alliance and a brief presentation by John Rudley, President of Texas Southern University (TSU). Just as Rudley was wrapping up his speech, three anti-police protestors stormed into the meeting. They shouted “hands up, don’t shoot”, the same words uttered by Michael Brown before he was shot to death by Officer Darrin Wilson. The protestors were eventually escorted from the building.

Chief McClelland called the town hall meeting a “report card” for HPD where citizens had the chance to judge the actions of the Houston Police Department. Although many people have a lot of negative things to say about the police right now, Chief McClelland wanted to start off the meeting by talking about some of the accomplishments HPD has made over the past year.

HPD is one of the most diverse police departments in the nation,” said McClelland. “Almost half of HPD is made up of minorities. Women make up about 15% of our police department. We want to make sure that HPD is a representation of Harris County and we think we have accomplished this goal by hiring a diverse group of officers. HPD has received the lowest number of complaints in its history this past year. In 2014, HPD only received 206 complaints from the public.vOver the past year, HPD has reduced crime in the city by 4%. We are proud of the accomplishments we’ve made over the past year. We’re also aware that we still have some major issues to address, and that’s what I want to get into now. Texas has the second largest prison system in the United States,” says McClelland. “Over 150,000 people are currently sitting in Texas prisons. Out of that 150,000, about 52,000 of those inmates are black, about 49,000 are Hispanic, and about 47,000 are white.The average educational attainment among Texas prisoners is an 8th grade education. Thirty years of age is the average age of prisoners. About 65,000 inmates are released from prison in Texas every year. Most of these inmates commit more crimes end up back in prison within a year because they cannot get a job and cannot get housing. With no education or job skills, commiting more crime is the only option for inmates. Some of these people are violent offenders who deserve to be locked up, but others are struggling with illnesses and addictions and need alternative interventions other than jail time.”

To try to mitiagate this vicious cycle of releasing undereducated and unemployed former inmates back into society, Mayor Annise Parker signed an Executive Order to establish a re-entry program. “The re-entry program allows the courts to partner with employers who are willing to hire people regardless of their criminal history,” says McClelland. “These employers are willing to hire 15 and 20 time felons, because these employers understand that some felons have serious diseases and addictions and they can turn their lives around if they get the right help from the right resources,” said Devon Anderson.

Body cameras have become a hot button issue in the wake of police shootings across the country. “Many people assume that body cameras are a new concept, but body cameras are not new to HPD. ‘We’ve had some number of body cameras for over a year,’ said McClelland. “I’ve actually called for body cameras two years ago. We are updating our body cameras as I speak, but I want everybody to know that we’ve had body cameras for over a year. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the Police Executive Research Forum have developed policies to govern our use of body cameras. There has to be training with the cameras, because there is no equipment that I know of that can turn on the camera and it can’t be turned off. Officers may have to turn their camaras off when responding to certain situations. A homeowner may not want an officer to have the camera on when responding to a home invasion for fear that the video of their home may end up on TV.

A sexual assault victim may feel violated all over again if an officer has their camera rolling while responding to their scene. Of course the officer will need to turn the camera off during restroom breaks or any other time when they need their own privacy.At the same time, it is important for officers to have the cameras on when they are engaging in police activity.”

We don’t have the technology in place yet where cameras can automatically turn on and off, so thorough training is vital in making sure our officers know how to properly use these cameras.” Devon Anderson has allocated $1.9 million to HPD and the Sheriff’s Department to purchase body cameras.

District Attorney Devon Anderson spoke specifically about the grand jury process in Texas and a new intervention program for first-time offenders. “Harris County has a Civil Rights Division which consists of a team of prosecutors and investigators,” says Anderson. “Under the Civil Rights Division, a prosecutor and an investigator must report to every crime scene in Harris County that involves a police shooting”. “We want to conduct our own independent investigation of a shooting.” “Many other jurisdictions rely on their agencies to conduct investigations.” “When we send a prosecutors and investigator out to a scene, they get access to evidence, witnesses, and officers. Prosecutors and investigators then take their findings and present it to a grand jury.”

Anderson says that she wants to change the current grand jury selection process in Harris County. Right now, jurors are selected through a commissioner system. Through this current system, judges send people out into the community to select people to serve on grand juries. Anderson says that this system is not working for Harris County, because it does not yield diverse grand juries. Anderson is working to change the system so that jurors are selected from a jury pool. “Right now some judges are selecting jurors from jury pools and they are assembling diverse grand juries.”

The most important thing I want people to understand about our grand jury process is the concept of self-defense”. “A police officer have the right to use self-defense if he feels that someone is threating his life.” “When a case involving a police shooting is presented to a grand jury, the vital question that the jury must answer is this: Did the officer shot a person in self-defense?” “It’s not about whether the shooting was a good shooting or bad shooting or whether the officer should have used a taser instead of a gun.” “It’s only about self-defense.” To claim self-defense in Texas, a person must have a justified reason to use deadly force against someone.” “A person holding something shiny in their hand and saying ‘I’m going to shoot you’ is a good example of a justifiable reason.”

Anderson started the First Chance Intervention Program, which is a six month pilot program for Class B misdemeanor marijuana possession cases. To be eligible for the program, offenders must have two ounces or less of marijuana in their possession. If offenders have no previous criminal history, then they will enter the program and do eight hours of community service and agree to stay out of trouble for 60 days or an eight hour cognitive class and agree to stay out of trouble for 90 days. Offenders will be assigned community service or the cognitive class depending on if they’re at a low risk or medium risk of committing another crime. If offenders successfully complete community service or the cognitive class, then the charges against them will be dropped and they will have a clean criminal record again. Over 800 people are in the program right now and about 89% of them successfully complete the program. In the future, Anderson plans to expand the program so that it covers other non-violent misdemeanor offenses.

Once Chief McClelland and Devon Anderson wrapped up their presentations after about 40 minutes, audience members had the chance to ask HPD questions and voice their concerns about issues that have been impacting their communities. Many people responded to McClelland and Anderson’s speeches, but others made some very interesting comments.

Michael Akinoski, the President of Houston Black Deaf Advocates asked HPD to be more sensitive and patient when dealing with deaf people. Akinoski also shared a sad story about an incident involving a deaf man in Kansas and asked that HPD make sure that a similar incident never happens in Houston. “A deaf man was pulled over and was reaching for the glove department as the officer walked up to his car.” “The officer thought that the man was reaching for a gun and ended up shooting and killing him.” “The man was just reaching into his glove department to get a pen and paper so that he could communicate with the officer by writing since he could not hear.” “Some deaf people can read and write very well, but others cannot.” “That is why I ask that HPD be patient and sensitive when dealing with deaf people.”

I hope nothing like that never happens in Houston either,” says McClelland in response to Akinoski’s comment. “I want to point out that HPD is one of the few police departments in the nation that provides several resources for the deaf and hard of hearing.” “We have remote video interpreters on staff so that the deaf and hard of hearing can communicate with an interpreter on a video screen in a police car when they are pulled over.”

Still another deaf man named Emmanuel had a complaint about how deaf people are treated in court. “Sometimes the courts do not have an interpreter on staff.” “Read my lips, that is what I have been told by some judges.” “The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) says that courts must provide interpreters for deaf people.” Emmanuel specifically asked District Attorney Anderson if she could better educate judges in Harris County about the importance of having interpreters on hand in our courts.

I’m very disturbed by this,” says Anderson in response to Emmanuel’s comments. “When I was a judge, there was a team of interpreters available. When there was a deaf defendant in my court, I made sure that they had an interpreter before I proceeded with their case.” She continued,“We also had bilingual defense attorneys who knew how to use sign language and TVs in our offices where defendants could remotely communicate with interpreters. I will make sure to explain your concerns to the court administration and make sure that interpreters are showing up to court”.

Akinoski’s comment was very near and dear to me because I have a brother who is deaf. I know that what happened to the man in Kansas could have easily happened to my brother. I applaud Akinoski and Emmanuel for speaking up for the deaf community and asking law enforcement to be more sensitive to people who are deaf.

Charles Wright, a student from Lone Star Community College said that the police create an atmosphere of fear in the community. “When I’m interacting with a police officer, I’m wondering if I’m going to walk away free and alive or not.” “I understand that police officers have to shot some people because they fear that their lives are in danger, but I think officers should be trained not to kill.” “If they have to shot, then they should aim at a non-vital part of the body such as the legs, but don’t aim for the head or some other vital part of the body where you can kill someone instantly.” Wright wrapped up his commit by asking : “Am I asking too much of my police department to protect and serve without fear?”

Chief McClleland responded by saying, “No you’re not asking for too much.” “It is our responsibility to you to protect and serve.” “Police officers are not trained to shot and kill, but they are trained to stop the threat.” “Police offiers are really not that good at shooting.” “The last thing an officer is thinking about when he is faced with an armed suspect is how perfect is aim is.” “An officer only has a few seconds to react to an armed suspect.” “This is why we have a shooting simulator on hand today, so that you can put yourself in the shoes of a police officer and see the types of danger we deal with on a daily basis.” “If we wanted to train our officers to kill, then we would train them to shot at a person in the head, but we don’t do that.” “Our goal is to stop the threat.”

“Young people can reduce their chances of having a violent encounter with the police if they just simply do what they are told.” “This does not start with the police, but it starts at home.” “Young people need to do what they are told when their parents tell them to do something, when their teachers tell them to do something, when their coaches tell them to do something, when the elderly lady next door tells them do something, or when anyone in a position of authority tells them to do something.” “If you do what you are told to do, then you’ll be fine.”

Although Chief McClelland says that things will be fine, some young people strongly disagree. “This current police system is killing us,” said one young man. “It’s killing young black men, and young Latino men! I’m a victim of police brutality!” “My father is a victim of police brutality! My brother is a victim of police brutality! My friends have been victims of police brutality!” he continued on to say, “Ever since I was 10 years old, my mother would tell me not to sag my pants, not to dress a certain way, and not to act a certain way because the police will say something or do something to you. Over generations, black people, women, and queer people have been fighting for their rights, and the police have been killing and beating them for generations! All we ask is that police officers and politicians stop judging us, stop shooting us, and stop hassling us!”

Unfortunately, I and several other people in attendance did not get a chance to present our concerns to HPD because time ran out. There was still a long line of people waiting to ask questions when time ran out. The large turnout shows just how much the community wants to sit down and have a dialogue with the police and try to resolve some major issues impacting our society. Hopefully, there will be more time for more people to express their concerns during the next town hall meeting.