Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Confronting police brutality

Tuesday was the day to speak out against police brutality at the weekly meeting of the Houston city council. As I was scheduled to appear in court down on the island, I was unable to attend the meeting. My colleague, Robert Fickman, past president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, was on hand, however, and provides us with this guest post.

I attended today's City Council Meeting along with my officemate Vivian King. Altogether I am sorry to report that the meeting left me largely disappointed. However, my resolve to fight police brutality has never been stronger. 

First,  I had called upon our fellow members of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association to attend. I thought that some of our 500 plus members would want to join us in speaking out against police brutality. 

I was mistaken. Vivian and I were the only two members of the Defense Bar there.

 I have worked for a number of years to build HCCLA and  the voice of the defense bar. I am disappointed  that some of our leaders  think it's not our place to speak out against police  brutality.  Additionally, the membership's  apathy toward police brutality is also disappointing. Our clients are the victims of the brutality. HCCLA, in my opinion, is currently adrift, rudderless,  which makes me quite angry. 

There  was a large turnout at City Hall. Those, like myself, who came to speak out against police brutality were made to wait until more important topics like historic preservation and sewers were discussed. After an hour or so they finally got to us.  Reverends Dixon and Coffield were quite forceful in their presentations. Minister Muhammed was eloquent and warned that if the City did not take serious steps to end police brutality the community reaction would only get worse. Each of these men and others presented compelling arguments urging the city to take action. Quanell X was sick an unable to attend. His voice was missed. 

Unfortunately, with few exceptions mostly what we heard from Council was semi- patronizing lip service and statements about how they had done all they could do. Council Members Bradford and Jones seemed to be the only two on Council who were in touch with the community outrage. Curiously Councilwoman Wanda Adams spent much of the meeting, posturing  on her desk phone.

I spoke. I told the Mayor and Council that the Harris County District Attorney's Office were largely responsible for the problem. I pointed out that  except for rare occasion the District Attorney's Office had failed for three decades to prosecute police brutality. I urged the Mayor to contact the Attorney General of the United States and ask him to form a special task force to investigate and prosecute police brutality in Houston.

In response to my call for federal intervention,  City Attorney David Feldman pointed out that the City had already contacted the Justice Dept regarding the Holley case and  they were taking a wait and see position. I  think they  missed my point. I was not speaking about the Holley case. I was speaking about  all police brutality cases in Houston. Having pointed out the historic failings of the DA's Office on these cases, I was calling on the Mayor to call on the feds to form a task force to handle all police brutality cases in Houston. I pointed out that it took the power of the federal government to end segregation, and I believed it would take the power of the federal government to end police brutality. 

I intend to follow up with my own letters. HCCLA's leadership, members, and Council may choose to stick their collective heads in the dirt while our community suffers daily police abuse; I will not. I will not be silent on the issue of police brutality. We need strong deterrents and punishments to stop the abuse.  The longstanding history of murderous rogue cops needs to end on Our Watch. 

I don't know what the solution is. A civilian review board sounds nice - but in reality, do they really do any good? The boards tend to be made up of politically-connected folks who don't really want to go out on a limb. Even if you give the board subpoena power, what would you accomplish? Would the board be tasked with seeking out the truth - and forgoing criminal prosecution? Would the board's job be to uncover evidence and turn it over the the DA's office? Would members of the board have any idea what they were doing?

A "rogue" grand jury that was interested in investigating complaints of police brutality might be the best opportunity to bring these matters to light. Of course, since the Harris County DA's Office would then be in charge of any criminal prosecutions, it's very likely that nothing would change under that scenario. The DA's Office has shown its complete indifference toward police brutality over the years. The last thing that Ms. Lykos wants is for those sitting on jury panels to realize what happens to a person when they've pissed off a cop.

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