Monday, November 25, 2013

288 and counting...

The Houston Police Department is on a 288-0 win streak. There have been 288 officer shootings without a single indictment since Arthur Charbonneau shot an unarmed teenager to death in a closet back in 2004.

From 2008 to 2012 there were over a hundred officer shootings - and a quarter of the civilians fired at were unarmed. The victims of the Houston Police Department include a double-amputee in a wheelchair and a Navy veteran suffering from a mental illness.

Making matters worse for the citizenry is the lack of dashboard cameras in the vast majority of HPD patrol cars. The lack of cameras means that there is almost never a video record of a police shooting in Houston.

Police Chief Charles McClelland has defended his officers going so far as to say that deadly force is justified even if the suspect is unarmed. During the five year period investigated by The Houston Chronicle, the department found only one of 636 officer shootings (including shooting animals and unintentional firings) was not justified.

Yes, officers are faced with making split-second decisions about how to handle a particular suspect. But the same laws that govern our behavior are, at least in theory, the same laws that govern police officers. A police officer's job is to protect and defend the citizens of their city - not to declare war on part of the population. While it is not justified for a citizen to walk down the street and shoot at someone else just because he thinks that other person might be carrying a weapon, police officers in Houston seem to have carte blanche to do just that.

The matter isn't helped by the callous attitude of the Harris County District Attorney's Office when it comes to police shootings. The attitude of prosecutors is that the police wear white hats while everyone else wears a black (or grey) hat. While prosecutors will always refer to complaining witnesses as "my victim," when a civilian is on the wrong side of a police shooting the focus turns to "my officer."

If the targets of police shootings weren't overwhelmingly black, brown or poor maybe there's be a different attitude on the part of prosecutors and the public. If the victims of police shootings lived in better neighborhoods and looked more like judges and prosecutors, maybe the attitude would change.


Anonymous said...

One would hope that when an officer shoots a civilian in the line of duty that it is justified. Perhaps the numbers reflect that. The same grand juries that return no-bills on civilian cases review all of the evidence in these cases.

"While it is not justified for a citizen to walk down the street and shoot at someone else just because he thinks that other person might be carrying a weapon, police officers in Houston seem to have carte blanche to do just that."

You're mistaken. A regular citizen can do just that if a reasonable person in their shoes believed that deadly force was necessary to protect themselves from another's imminent use of unlawful deadly force. And don't forget the apparent danger doctrine that likely comes in to play in cases with people that end up being unarmed.

Anonymous said...

Rather than hear the moans about statistical likelihoods, present one case with all the facts in the order the police knew them, where a grand jury should have indicted within the last five years (out of the 288). In most of the cases, a weapon was present, in all of the other cases, a case was made for the immediate danger presented by the one shot.

Don't get me wrong, if the police mess up they deserve to be hung out to dry in civil and criminal courts, depending on the facts. There are so many reviewing bodies on the shootings that I feel you would find better cases of misconduct elsewhere though. If it irritates some to hear that phrase "I was in fear for my life" just make a few changes in the law where the officers can refuse to go to a call in a bad neighborhood without available backup. In a city this size (geography and population), there should be far more officers, the savings rendered by short staffing them result in the horrible costs we all complain about elsewhere.

Thomas Houston said...

Relying on statistics is akin to relying on the science of large crime labs, pure numbers do not tell us much of anything without context. Do we have a racial breakdown of those shot by local police? Does that truly matter? I'm not so sure it does though I can see why a defense attorney might try to make hay out of race claims that might favor clients or simply poison the perception of local police.