Shared from the 6/11/2020 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Houston’s police union contract must change

Steve Gonzales / Staff photographer

Jani Maselli, center, kneels Monday with others in support of Black Lives Matter across from the Harris County Criminal Justice Center.

The Houston Police Officers Union and the City of Houston are negotiating a new contract that will go into effect in January 2021. We have a rare opportunity to ensure that Mayor Sylvester Turner and Police Chief Art Acevedo make significant changes to this contract, especially two articles under the current contract between the Houston Police Officers Union and the City of Houston, that essentially give the union the power to clear their fellow police officers of any misconduct.

Under Article 30 of the contract, when a complaint is filed against an officer, the accused officer receives all copies and files associated with the complaint against them. They then have 48 hours to review the complaint against them, talk to a lawyer and get their story together. All of this happens before they are required to give a statement to their supervisor. This “48-hour rule” insulates them from questioning and gives cops a privilege that no civilian gets.

Article 26 grants a committee of officers the power to appoint the 12 “independent hearing examiners” who get the final say on officer discipline for misconduct. But these examiners are not actually independent, as half of them are appointed by the police chief and the other half by the union. In other words, when an officer has been disciplined for misconduct and appeals that discipline, these cop-appointed examiners get to make the final call. Because the union gets to pick 50 percent of the examiners, they effectively have veto power. This gives the police union, the most outspoken opponent of police reform, a startling amount of control over officer discipline.

You may have noticed that there’s a huge piece of the puzzle missing: community oversight. While Houston technically has an Independent Police Oversight Board, this board has no subpoena power and no direct discipline authority, making it one of the weakest and least effective community oversight boards in the nation. According to the City of Houston website, the board can’t even take complaints directly from civilians. All complaints are reviewed by HPD.

Houston’s process to hold cops accountable for misconduct lacks community oversight and is controlled by the police union. To see the negative impact of these policies, look no further than the data showing how many are shot by police. HPD reports that there have been 41 people killed by HPD officers and 61 people wounded by HPD shootings since 2015. Every single one of these incidents was declared “justified” on official records, including when a Houston police officer shot and killed a double amputee in a wheelchair. As upsetting as it is that none of these officers have been held accountable, it’s not surprising. The terrible policies laid out by the police union contract allow cops to walk away Scot-free from complaints made against them, no matter how egregious. Cities with effective community oversight boards are 78 percent more likely to sustain complaints.

Here’s the good news: the current terrible contract expires in December. But we must ensure that Turner and Acevedo make significant changes to articles 26 and 30 in the new contract. Turner and Acevedo must establish a system for the community to provide input before, during and after they draft the new contract. As Houstonians, we cannot and will not be silent.

Woods is the founder of #BlackLivesMatter Houston.

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