Let’s Turn McKinney into an Opportunity

On June 5th McKinney police responded to a complaint regarding unwanted teenagers at a community pool. What ought to have been relegated to a footnote in a local police blotter has become yet another variation on a depressingly routine theme in the racial politics of American policing. Rather than exercising common sense and restraint, officers on the scene opted for escalation, intimidation, and excessive force against a group of young black people.

When we see the image of a McKinney cop drawing his weapon on two unarmed black teens while pressing his knee into the back of a 15 year-old girl who’s calling out for her mother, it is a wretched sign of the times that one of our first thoughts is, “It could have been worse.” But it could have been worse, because it has been, for Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and on and on. Mercifully no lives were lost in McKinney last weekend, but the encounter nevertheless calls attention to the fact that we need a fundamental and comprehensive overhaul of our police practices, particularly when it comes to youth and communities of color.

No one should lose his life at the hands of law enforcement for selling cigarettes. No one should lose his life for taking a toy gun off the shelf in a Wal-Mart. And no one should fear for her life for visiting a community pool and objecting to her treatment by law enforcement.

The path forward is clear. According to the President’s report on 21st Century Policing, police departments need to adopt zero-tolerance policies towards racial profiling, and to increase training in implicit bias, use of force, and de-escalation techniques. Officers need to begin thinking of themselves as guardians rather than as warriors, as parts of the communities they patrol rather than as occupiers of those communities. Police departments need to engage in more and more productive dialogues with the communities they serve, to establish transparency and clear chains of accountability, and should stop altogether the aggressive enforcement of low-level infractions in communities of color. Until each and every one of these conditions are met, precisely no one should question why black teens flee when police show up.

If you wonder what that might look like, consider Nashville, where police essentially provided security for peaceful Ferguson protesters rather than lobbing tear gas grenades at them. Consider Las Vegas, which has implemented nearly 80 separate reforms in order to reduce its number of officer-involved shootings. Consider Richmond, where teens are recruited for community outreach rather than being slammed to the ground and handcuffed.

The fact that the offending officer has resigned from the McKinney police department does not settle the issue. The continued insistence that police abuse is the result of “bad apple” officers’ misbehavior actually creates an obstacle to comprehensive reform. We already have the knowledge, the tools, and the road map to bring community policing to every city in the nation. Now all we need is the will.

Take Action: Call for community policing reforms throughout the state of Texas.

Who’s The Criminal When Austin Police Infiltrate Protestors and Encourage Commission of Felonies?

By Debbie Russell

Editor’s Note: The Harris County hearing was reset for three weeks from today. State District Judge Joan Campbell told the prosecutors she was “floored” that the role of an Austin
police detective has not been disclosed. 

Our friends at the ACLU-MA have already provided the linear version of events here. A more detailed account by Jordan Smith of The Austin Chronicle is here. First to break the news was an active Occupy Austin participant, Kit O’Connell, blogging here at FiredogLake.com, which includes the most relevant portions of the transcript of the hearing in Houston last week that brought to light these activities.
On Wednesday, September 5, in a Harris County court, a judge will rule to proceed forward or move to dismiss, essentially by suppressing much of the prosecution’s evidence against the Occupiers.

Background: Across the United States, urban police departments prioritize the drug war and the so-called “war on terror” over simply rooting out violent criminals. The war on drugs targets non-violent, low-level users for the most part, in an effort to log higher arrest numbers such that it appears they are doing their job. The war on terror, formerly the purview of federal entities, and now being done in conjunction with them, takes many forms including: data-mining; spying on people without prior cause; infiltration of activist groups (many times acting as provocateurs); and the use of military tactics to chill free speech.

Case in point: Evidence is mounting that an undercover Austin Police detective induced members of Occupy Austin to commit felony obstruction of a roadway during a demonstration in Houston in December 2011. Or, did he – and two colleagues – intervene in protester plans in order to keep them, and police and firefighters responding to the Houston protest, safe?

The big question is did Austin Police Chief Acevedo order or approve the operation? There’s no doubt that it happened…one of the undercovers proudly admitted it in a court hearing last week. He said he pushed for activists to “step it up” and suggested building lock boxes – a riskier action than simply linking arms to block a roadway. The problem is, participants didn’t know it was “felony” risky! Never before had this action brought more than a misdemeanor charge, but an assistant district attorney in Harris County found a way to bump it up by claiming the lock boxes could have been hiding explosives (a sad irony since the real activists are committed to non-violence).The main risk with lockboxes is that they can be harmful to the users depending on how public safety officials choose to remove them.

Bottom line: Those in charge of our public safety not only lied about who they were and encouraged riskier actions than were being initially planned, but they bought the materials, assembled them and delivered the “criminal instruments” to the activists, putting them at risk of injury and unintended commission of a felony. In no way did this activity by APD protect anyone from harm. In fact, it created it.

Debbie Russell is an Austin-based activist and ACLU of Texas volunteer.

From undermining democracy to increasing mass incarceration, ALEC has got it covered

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

Reacting to backlash against voter suppression efforts promulgated by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), two of the organization’s giant corporate members – Coca Cola and PepsiCo – have succumbed to pressure from public interest groups and severed their ties to the group.

According to a National Public Radio report, ALEC promotes business-friendly legislation in state capitols and drafts model bills for state legislatures to adopt.  They range from little-noticed pro-business bills to more controversial measures, including photo voter identification laws.  These laws directly benefit the corporations’ bottom line regardless of the societal cost.

Thankfully, the truth is starting to come out about how ALEC is an affront to our democracy.  A few days ago the Huffington Post published an article titled How Are ALEC Laws Undermining Our Democracy?

So what kind of bills does ALEC draft and spread state to state? According to the article:

–       Democracy-undermining Voter ID legislation that has been passed in at least 14 states – under the guise of preventing election fraud (which no one can actually find).

–       Voucher programs that privatize public education.

–       Anti-immigrant laws like Arizona’s SB 1070.

–       Anti-worker legislation.

–       Laws that undermine smart-on-crime reforms, such as “three strikes,” mandatory minimum sentencing, and “truth in sentencing.”

As the list above shows, ALEC’s model legislation has a real world negative impact on the civil liberties of all Americans, puts more people needlessly behind bars, undermines our democracy, and makes communities across the country less safe.

The ACLU of Texas works to protect the civil liberties of all Texans, but we need your help.  Follow our work and join our Community Action Network – together we can ensure that civil liberties, not corporate profits, prevail at the Texas Capitol.

Private Profit, Public Debt … The Story of Willacy County’s Tent City

By Frank Knaack
Associate Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

(Originally posted on Texas Prison Bid’ness)

The Bureau of Prisons and Management and Training Corp. of Utah (MTC) recently announced a $532 million deal to convert “tent city” in Willacy County from a facility contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement into a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facility. The first wave of new prisoners have begun to arrive (“New prisoners begin arriving at ‘tent city'” McAllen Monitor, October 10). Under the new agreement, the Willacy facility will continue to be managed by MTC and will house immigrant prisoners convicted of federal crimes exclusively.

This is great news for MTC. As an MTC representative stated, “[t]he Bureau of Prisons has good contract system; they need beds, we need the stability” (“New jail contract described as a win-win deal for county, MTC,” Raymondville Chronicle, June 22). Unfortunately, while this may be good news for MTC, Willacy County, that funded the construction of the facility through revenue bonds issued by a Public Facilities Corporation, continues to receive the short end of the stick.

Under the Willacy County’s first contract with MTC, the facility housed undocumented immigrants under an agreement with ICE and, according to Willacy County Judge John Gonzales, “the income the county had hoped to gain from the facility fell far short of expectations.” In fact, the facility never reached 50% capacity (Monitor, October 10). To add to the county’s loss, earlier this year MTC handed out pink slips to almost 20% of its local staff. Under the new plan to convert the facility into a BOP unit, MTC will reduce its local staff by more than 32% below the number of employees it had prior to handing out pink slips (Raymondville Chronicle, June 22).

Under the new agreement, the county will receive a minimum of $104,900 a month, much more than the $970,000 the county received from ICE over the past year. While this may seem like a lot of money, it will only put a small dent in the outstanding debt obligation of $75 million (after the most recent refinancing goes through) incurred by the county to finance the facility’s construction (Raymondville Chronicle, June 22).

Things must be really bad in Willacy if this deal can be reported as a win for the county.

Even with Supreme Court Intervention, still too many people put to death in Texas

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

Texas leads the nation in the number of executions.  In fact, we have executed more than 4 times as many people as any other state since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1976. If Texas were its own country it would have tied for eighth in the world (with Syria) for the number of executions in 2010.  Though barely publicized, the US Supreme Court intervened twice this month to save the lives of two inmates on death row in Texas.

First, on September 15, after he had eaten his last meal, Duane Buck got news that his execution had been temporarily stayed by the Court.  Buck was tried in 1997, and racist testimony by psychologist Walter Quijano suggested that his being African American would contribute to “future dangerousness” to inmates in prison, a factor that is considered before issuing a death sentence.  Despite the fact that Mr. Buck’s conviction was one of six that former Texas Attorney General (and now US Senator) John Cornyn said needed to be reopened because of Mr. Quijano’s racist testimony, Gov. Perry refused to grant Buck a 30-day stay for his case to be reviewed.

Just last night the Supreme Court intervened in Texas’ death penalty system once again.  The Court stopped the execution of Cleve Foster less than three hours before he was to be put to death. This is the third time the court has intervened on behalf of Mr. Foster, and it did not explain why it issued the stay.

This pattern of intervention from the highest court in the land should compel Texas to take a good look at our death penalty system.

The Good and the Bad from the 82nd Legislature

Matt Simpson
Policy Strategist

We aren’t going to lie, there was a lot of ugly in the 82nd Legislature, yet we are proud to report that the ACLU of Texas achieved some incredible successes despite the contentious atmosphere of the proceedings.  Many of the bills we supported passed, and we were successful in stopping many bills that would have been bad for Texas.

We worked with business leaders, civil liberties organizations, law enforcement, and religious leaders to stop various anti-immigrant proposals.  These proposals would have encouraged racial profiling and undermined public safety.  Although numerous proposals were offered, and we were backed into a corner when the so-called “Sanctuary Cities” bill was added to the Special Legislative Session, no anti-immigrant bill successfully passed.  Phew!

In addition to holding off the anti-immigrant charge at the Legislature, our other major successes came in the area of decriminalizing school discipline. Current policies and laws that require ticketing students for minor disciplinary infractions at school push youth into the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems, interrupting or altogether halting their education.  Futures have been ruined by these policies, and with more youth in jail – and out of a job – these policies certainly have not benefited the economy.   Additionally, criminal justice responses to minors’ misbehavior are more costly and less effective than other methods of encouraging good behavior at school. Here is an overview of our decriminalizing school discipline successes:

  • The Corporal Punishment, Ticketing, and Use of Force Bill (HB 359) addresses three separate school discipline issues.  First, it grants parents the power to determine if their children can be subjected to corporal punishment at school.  Second, it exempts children in sixth grade and under from being charged with three separate Class C misdemeanors for engaging in childish misbehavior on school property.  Third, it ensures that school peace officers report their use of restraints on special education students. 
  • The Truancy Bill (SB 1489) aims to reduce the number of youth and adults sent into juvenile and adult criminal justice systems for truancy.  In 2009 alone there were approximately 120,000 Class C misdemeanor charges filed against Texas students for failure to attend school, a 40 percent increase since 2005.
  • The Record Sealing Bill (HB 961) will better allow youth and young adults to move past childhood mistakes by lowering the age at which individuals may have juvenile records sealed and/or restricted.
  • The Anti-Bullying Bill (HB 1942) requires school district policies to include a procedure for reporting, investigating, and responding to instances of bullying on their campuses.   

Along with the passage of these good school discipline bills, two important criminal justice reforms passed this session. 

  • The Asset Forfeiture Bill (SB 316) reforms the way that asset forfeiture laws can be used.  In the past, asset forfeiture laws were sometimes misused by law enforcement to intimidate individuals (disproportionately African Americans) into relinquishing personal property in an effort to avoid being put in jail. 
  • The Anti-SLAPP Bill (HB 2973) allows for safeguards against frivolous lawsuits targeting individuals with the purpose of quelling the individual’s free speech rights. 

These wins will make a difference in the lives of many Texans, and we are proud to have had such a successful session. But, while we were able to successfully advocate for these bills and stop all of the anti-immigrant proposals, a few bad bills still passed:

  • The Voter ID Bill (SB 14) requires proof of identification at polling places, which creates more roadblocks to voting despite the already very low voter turnout rate in Texas. Voters must already show proof of identification to register to vote. A second show of ID isn’t necessary and there’s no evidence of voter fraud in Texas.
  • The Sonogram Bill (HB 15) intrudes on the doctor-patient relationship and forces a woman to go through an invasive sonogram procedure prior to undergoing an abortion.  
  • The Sexting Bill (SB 407), well-meaning but poorly crafted legislation that creates a new crime for youth that send naked images to friends or classmates, a practice that more than 20 percent of youth engage in nationwide.  There are better non-criminal ways to address this widespread youthful indiscretion without having to place children before a judge.

Between working to undo these unwise new laws and keeping the momentum going on the school discipline successes, we don’t have much time to rest. There is still a lot to do to protect the civil liberties of all Texans.  We assure you we aren’t going anywhere and will keep on fighting for your rights!  To follow the work we do, find us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter!  And remember, to show your support for the work we do, please vote for us as “Best Activist Organization” in the Austin Chronicle’s Best of Austin contest.

Entire State Should Take Note of Mishandled KeyPoint Report

By Matt Simpson, ACLU of Texas Policy Strategist

Officials around the state should take a careful look at the Austin Police Department’s (APD) and the City of Austin’s handling of a report in the Nathaniel Sanders II investigation as an example of the damage that can be done when officer-involved shooting investigations lack transparency.

Sanders, 18, was shot and killed by an APD officer on May 11, 2009. Though the officer was cleared criminally and his actions deemed justified by police, information subsequently made public has revealed a biased investigation. More recently a report by KeyPoint Government Solutions (PDF), a firm hired by the city itself to conduct an independent review, reached conclusions that were vastly different than those reached by APD, including calling the officer’s actions “reckless.”

And just as the KeyPoint controversy was erupting, another large police department, Fort Worth PD, had an officer-involved shooting incident of its own when one of its officers shot and killed a 21-year-old man earlier this month.

Fort Worth and law enforcement across the state of Texas can learn a lesson from the Sanders shooting: a single incident of failing to provide appropriate transparency and accountability can undermine years of work building trust between law enforcement and the communities served. When communities do not trust their police force, crimes go unreported and witnesses do not come forward. This endangers us all.

Much of the report and its findings was withheld and only became public when it was leaked to the media. City Attorney David Smith has chosen to retire early from city government following details of his obstruction of transparency becoming public.

Good intentions are not enough, Fort Worth Police Department and the City of Fort Worth should learn from the poor example presented by Austin’s handling of the KeyPoint report. Failing to address community concerns about police use of force can undermine public trust, which could fundamentally undermine public safety.

Clearly there is a lesson here for City of Fort Worth and the City of Austin. But there is a larger lesson for the rest of Texas: accountability, transparency and community engagement are not principles to be turned on and off. A full-time commitment to these principles is the only way to build trust between law enforcement and a community.

The issues raised by the Sanders investigation illustrate the statewide need for stronger transparency and accountability policies that ensure unclear policies do not undermine accountability and transparency.