Beyoncé’s Unapologetically Black “Formation” Dropped Within Days of Two Unarmed Black Men Being Shot and Killed in Texas

It is fair to say Beyoncé won the Super Bowl with a political performance we won’t soon forget. She has received praise and criticism for using platform to take a strong pro-black stance. The “Formation” video, released Feb. 6, has been called a visual anthem, with explicit references to hurricane Katrina, all-too-familiar images of police in riot gear, and a plea to “stop shooting us.”

Meanwhile in Texas, the shooting hasn’t stopped.

Antronie Scott

635905534922846242-Antronie-Scott-blurred-childOn Feb. 5, another black man in America was shot and killed. His name was Antronie Scott.

The 36 year-old was gunned down by San Antonio police officer John Lee. According to witness reports, a statement by San Antonio Police Chief William McManus, and audio footage of the shooting itself, Lee fired “almost immediately” after ordering Scott to show his hands, which held nothing deadlier than his cell phone.

“It happened in the blink of an eye,” McManus added.

David Joseph

On Feb. 8, 17 year-old David Joseph was fatally shot by Austin Police Officer Geoffrey Freedman. After ordering Joseph to stop repeatedly, Freeman opened fire within seconds of the confrontation. David Joseph was unarmed and naked.

Another Victim, Another Victim Smear Campaign

The attempt to blame the unarmed black victims for their own executions has become standard fare in these indefensible tragedies, and Antronie Scott is no exception. Headlines focus solely on Scott’s warrants and Lee’s fear, and if we come across an image in the reporting, chances are it’s a mug shot.

When an unarmed Eric Garner was choked to death by the NYPD, the media immediately rolled out his arrest record. When Freddie Gray’s voice box was crushed and his spine severed after a ride in a police van, Baltimore PD insisted it was his own fault. And after a 12 year-old Tamir Rice was gunned down by a Cleveland cop for committing the unpardonable crime of playing with a toy gun, the headline read, “Tamir Rice’s Father Has a History of Domestic Violence.”

San Antonio Has a Use-of-Force Problem

In 2014, off-duty SAPD Officer Robert Encina shot and killed 23 year-old Marquise Jones in the drive-thru of Chacho’s and Chalucci’s. Last August, Bexar County Sheriff’s Deputies Greg Vasquez and Robert Sanchez shot and killed 41 year-old Gilbert Flores. And last Thursday, SAPD Officer John Lee shot and killed Antronie Scott for “spinning around quickly.”

San Antonio is one of only four major American cities where officers are not required to give a verbal warning before firing on civilians. Given the city’s history over the last few years, that policy should be reversed immediately.

Law Enforcement in General Has a Use-of-Force Problem

According to the Police Executive Research Forum, on average law enforcement officers receive 58 hours of firearms training, 47 hours of defensive tactics training, but only eight hours of de-escalation and conflict resolution training, respectively. If our cops spent as much time learning to talk to people as they do learning how to shoot them, perhaps we could escape this tragically vicious circle.

Don’t Tune out Beyoncé or the Black Lives Matter Movement

Incensed by the allusion of “Formation” to the Black Lives Matter movement and the lingering image of the words “stop shooting us” emblazoned on a brick wall, members of the National Sheriff’s Association turned off the show in protest and some are boycotting the star altogether.

Beyoncé’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement is something law enforcement should be engaging with rather than tuning out. Black Lives Matter activists’ demands are sensible reforms with which hardly anyone could disagree: among them, de-escalation, the elimination of the chokehold, and a requirement that officers intervene when their fellows exert excessive force on civilians.

But the first reform being called for is by far the most important: “make life preservation the primary principle shaping police decisions about using force.”

Is that too much to ask?

#AntronieScott #DavidJoseph #BlackLivesMatter

5 Reasons Texas Should Decriminalize Marijuana, and One Reason It Shouldn’t

Last year, eleven separate marijuana-related bills were introduced in the Texas legislature, and next year we can probably expect eleven more. Candidates for local offices in Austin and Houston are running on marijuana decriminalization platforms, and the Dallas city council is poised to implement a “cite and release” pilot program for low-level possession offenders. It’s beginning to feel like a movement, and forgive us for saying so, but it’s high time.

There are plenty of good reasons to decriminalize marijuana, and only one reason not to:

1. Cops have better things to do.

In 2010, about 75,000 Texans were arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana. In 2012, that number was about 70,000. That same year, about 90% of the burglaries, home invasions, and car thefts reported in Texas remained unsolved. In Houston alone, 12,000 possession arrests were made in 2013, while 15,000 burglaries, 3,000 hit-and-runs, and 3,000 assaults went uninvestigated.


There are only so many cops, and only so many hours in the day, and we need to decide where their priorities should lie. Would we rather have them busting college kids and cancer patients and veterans suffering from PTSD, or keeping thieves out of our homes and getting our stuff back?

2. Criminalization is insanely expensive.

In 2010, the State of Texas spent a quarter of a billion dollars enforcing marijuana laws, and a staggeringly high percentage of those put through the system were arrested for mere possession. That money would be far better spent elsewhere on schools, infrastructure, tax relief, or literally anything else less ludicrous than putting pot smokers in prison.


3. Marijuana is (relatively) harmless.

Tobacco kills about half a million Americans every year. Alcohol accounts for another 30,000, and prescription drug abuse claims another 20,000. Marijuana fatalities remain, year after year, at a statistical zero.


4. Some offenders are more equal than others.

Blacks and whites use marijuana at roughly the same rates, but blacks are between 4 and 34 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession. And thus for a single marijuana charge, more young black men and women will be denied jobs, school loans, housing assistance, and promising futures.


5. Nearly everybody’s already on board.

Marijuana decriminalization has been a contentious ideological issue for nearly a century, but today about half of all Americans, and 75% of all Texans, support it. And it’s easy to understand why; it’s not every day that issues of personal freedom, limited government, fiscal responsibility, and good science align behind a single issue. This is how you get the likes of the New York Times editorial board on the same page as conservative firebrands like RAMP’s Ann Lee, who has gone on the record to say that “the prohibition of marijuana is diametrically opposed to Republican principles.” Indeed, only two of the current presidential candidates support a blanket criminalization of marijuana.

And one reason not to…

If there’s one thing wrong with the decriminalization movement, it’s that it doesn’t go far enough. Decriminalization would be a welcome first step, but legalization should follow. Were we to adopt Colorado’s robust regulatory structure, Texas would see not only a windfall, but an annual profit in the tens of millions of dollars from taxes on marijuana sales. Legalization would likewise disincentivize consumers from pouring money into the cross-border pipeline of illegal weed coming up from the south. And finally, Texans suffering from Alzheimer’s, cancer, chronic pain, epilepsy, MS, and PTSD—twenty-two veterans a day commit suicide in this country—would have access to an effective medication without fear of imprisonment.

5 Ways Texas can Prevent Another Sandra Bland Tragedy

While there are many things we still don’t know about Trooper Brian Encinia’s dismissal and indictment for perjury in the Sandra Bland case, the move towards officer accountability is a welcome development. However, Trooper Encinia wasn’t the only one who failed Sandra Bland that fateful day. In fact, the tragedy of this young woman’s last days highlights everything that’s broken with the criminal justice system in Texas.

Here are five reforms the State of Texas needs to implement immediately to ensure that this sort of senseless tragedy never happens again:

1. Officer De-escalation Training
Sandra Bland was arrested for failing the “attitude test.” In other words, had she been sheepish and deferential towards Encinia rather than honestly expressing her frustration at being pulled over for failing to signal a lane change, she might have got off with a warning.

But there’s nothing illegal about being honest with a cop. Encinia made a catastrophic decision to escalate the encounter instead of keeping his cool, but had he been properly trained, Sandra Bland might still be alive today.

According to the Police Executive Research Forum, on average law enforcement officers receive 58 hours of firearms training, 47 hours of defensive tactics training, but only eight hours of de-escalation and conflict resolution training, respectively. Our cops need to spend at least as much time learning to talk to people as they do learning how to shoot them.

2. Bail Bond Reform
The bail bond system in Texas transparently and inexcusably discriminates against the poor. The lives and livelihoods of those who can’t afford to bail themselves out of jail are disrupted, and many accept guilty pleas simply to avoid having to sit behind bars in pretrial detention. Sandra Bland couldn’t afford her $5,000 bond, nor the non-refundable $500 she would have had to pay to the bondsman, and thus remained in a Waller County jail for three unnecessary days.

There should not be separate justice systems for those who have money and those who don’t. Detention should be restricted to those accused of serious criminal offenses who pose a flight risk. Other states have already begun reforming their bail bond system, and Texas should follow suit.

3. Cite-and-Release
“Cite-and-release” is a reform usually mentioned in the context of marijuana possession, but it could (and should) also apply to other lesser offenses.

According to the Texas Smart on Crime Coalition, the judicious use of cite-and-release for minor offenses could improve community relations with law enforcement, make patrol officers more efficient, and save the state tens of millions of dollars a year.

4. Inmate Processing
Incarceration for any period of time is a traumatic process, and anyone who enters a jail with prior mental health issues—a history of suicide attempts, for example—will see those issues worsen. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards recently updated its guidelines to reduce the potential for detainees to harm themselves, but much remains to be done to improve both mental health screening and inmate surveillance. Too many Texans die while in government custody.

5. Jail Oversight
Jails in the state of Texas are in a deplorable state, and we will continue to suffer tragedies like Sandra Bland’s unless something is done, and done soon. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards is responsible for the qualities of the state’s jail facilities, and it needs not only to review its current standards, but to increase the frequency of spot checks and inspections and enforce its standards harshly. For example, Sandra Bland’s jailers were supposed to check on her visually at least once an hour, and had they done so, she might have ended up in an emergency room instead of a morgue.

The most saddening aspect of Sandra Bland’s fate was how utterly avoidable it was. And unless we want to continue to see Texans die in Texas jails, implementing these reforms is an urgent imperative for state government.

Street Signs and Tree Stumps: Remembering Sandra Bland

In a Facebook post earlier this month, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office expressed its “condolences to the Sandra Bland family for their loss.” The sentiments would be welcome, were they sincere.

Were they sincere, those condolences might have been accompanied by good faith efforts to address the shortcomings of the Waller County jail system that contributed to Sandra Bland’s senseless death. The county might, say, have undertaken a review and a vigorous reform of its mental health training program for jail staff. It might have created safeguards to ensure it complied with state standards for inmate monitoring. It might have given Sandra Bland’s family assurances that it was doing absolutely everything in its power to see to it that no one ever died in custody again.

But the Waller County Sheriff Office’s condolences were not followed by any of these things. Instead, its Facebook post immediately turned to how it had thrown some protesters out of the building.

In fact, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office has been much more preoccupied with its protestors than it has with its own deficiencies. When demonstrators gathered outside the building, the Sheriff’s Office erected barricades. When they gathered beneath a nearby tree to seek relief from the blistering summer heat, the Sheriff’s Office cut the tree down. And in one disturbing and frankly bizarre exchange, Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith told clergywoman Hannah Bonner—who had been keeping vigil for nearly a month—to “go back to that church of Satan that you run.”


It’s clear that depriving citizens of their liberty—particularly when they’ve not been convicted of a crime, as Sandra Bland had not—is not a responsibility that the Waller County Sheriff’s Office is willing to take seriously. Try as it might, making protestors go away will not make the problem go away, because the protestors are not the problem.

In fact, the tragedy of Sandra Bland’s last days showcases nearly everything that’s broken with the criminal justice system in Texas. When law enforcement officers unilaterally escalate citizen interactions to the point of violence; when they use perceived disrespect as an excuse to exercise excessive force; when they imprison someone under a bond system that transparently discriminates against the poor; or when they fail to monitor the people they’ve detained—then we will continue to lurch from one agonizing injustice to the next.

It is of some comfort, at least, that Texas lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle are clamoring for answers. And the Prairie View City Council recently voted to change the name of University Boulevard to “Sandra Bland Parkway.”

The Waller County Sheriff’s Office will undoubtedly continue to wish its protestors away, but the memory of Sandra Bland and of the injustices wrought upon her are here to stay.

This Isn’t the Training Our Police Officers Need

This week the Houston Police Officers’ Union invited controversial psychology professor William Lewinski to conduct training seminars for 140 of its officers. Unfortunately it won’t be the sort of training that will rebuild community trust in law enforcement or save lives. Quite the opposite.

Lewinski’s publications and seminars are popular in law enforcement circles, but unfortunately his “training” doesn’t teach police officers how to better serve their communities. Instead, he teaches them to shoot first and often, and then provides them with the tools to justify those shootings after the tragic fact.

In his study on officer reaction times, Lewinski concludes that a cop can’t afford to wait until he sees a gun in order to react to its presence. (In other words, “If I see the gun, I’m already dead.”) In another study, Lewinski takes 4,000 words to explain why it’s almost always reasonable for a cop to shoot someone in the back. And in his testimony before the President’s Task Force on Policing, Lewinski laid out ten reasons why the footage from body cameras is not to be trusted.

In other words, if a cop stops you and you are unarmed, in Lewinski’s world it’s perfectly justifiable for that cop to shoot you in the back and blame “muscle memory” or “inattentional blindness” to explain away any incriminating video evidence in the ensuing investigation.

Lewinski is fond of likening shooting scenarios to baseball games. As he told deputy sheriffs in Los Angeles, “a batter can’t wait for a ball to cross home plate before deciding whether that’s something to swing at.” Of course, the analogy collapses once we realize that the consequence of a late swing is a foul tip to the cheap seats in right field, and not, say, the senseless execution of an unarmed citizen by an agent of the state.

Tragically, this sort of thing happens all too often. Man shot for reaching for the driver’s license he’s just been asked to produce. Man shot for failing to produce driver’s license. Man shot twice in the back while running away. Man shot ten times while seeking assistance after a car accident. Man shot. Man shot. Man shot.

Lewinski’s work appears either on his own website or in publications like Police Marksman magazine, and never in peer-reviewed psychology journals. The Justice Department concluded that his findings “lack foundation and reliability.” The American Journal of Psychology has derided his work as “pseudoscience.”

Lewinski and his training regimen are a particularly extreme example of a perverse and all too common law enforcement attitude that perceives civilians first and foremost as enemy combatants. It’s a world where every gesture is a threat, where every unseen hand is brandishing a gun, and where “to protect and serve” is just something that’s painted on a cruiser door.

If we ever hope to change the way police interact with vulnerable communities, we must redesign officer training. In a recent survey of 281 law enforcement agencies nationwide, the Police Executive Research Forum determined that on average officers receive 58 hours of weapons training, 49 hours of defensive tactical training, only eight hours of de-escalation training, and only a negligible amount, if any, of training on how to handle the mentally ill. If all you have is a hammer, as the saying goes, then everything looks like a nail. And if all you have is a gun, then everyone looks like a target.

We have to turn those numbers around if we ever hope to reform law enforcement culture, and the President’s report on 21st Century Policing is an excellent place to start. Police departments need to engage in meaningful dialogue with the people they are sworn to protect. Law enforcement agencies must adopt zero-tolerance policies towards racial profiling, and to increase training in implicit bias, use of force, de-escalation techniques, and how to approach people in states of mental distress. Most fundamentally, officers need to begin thinking of themselves as guardians who serve their communities rather than as warriors who occupy them.

None of that is likely to happen as long as police departments continue to listen to William Lewinski and his ilk.

The Best and Worst of the 84th

Governor Abbott spent the weekend clearing his desk of all pending legislation, and thus we can finally close the book on Texas’s 84th legislative session. This year’s session wasn’t especially unusual, in that it saw its fair share of “chubbing,” glad-handing, horse-trading, and fist fights. Also typical was the sheer volume of threats leveled against Texans’ civil liberties. Thankfully, most of the worst proposals failed to make it onto the books—while some of the better ones did.

Here’s a rundown of some of the issues that mattered for civil liberties:

LGBT Rights:  The Texas legislature faced a serious quandary this year. On the one hand, some of our politicians really, really despise the idea of LGBT equality—more now than ever, with the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision due any day—and are terrified of the possibility that it will become a reality. On the other, Indiana’s “religious refusal” debacle demonstrated just how catastrophic state-sponsored discrimination is for business.

Against that backdrop, LGBT rights fared well this session. Our LGBT Equality Coalition rose to the challenge, and Texas business leaders spoke out against discriminatory laws. Legislators introduced more than 20 bills and two constitutional amendments designed to enshrine discrimination into state law, but in the end none of them passed.  The only LGBT-related bill to become law (signed by Abbott with great fanfare) merely reaffirms that clergy can refuse to perform marriages that violate their religious beliefs, a right already guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Reproductive Rights: Not satisfied with passing the infamous HB 2 in 2013 (now before the Supreme Court) and the closure of more than half the states abortion clinics, extremist legislators tried to double down.  They introduced measures to eliminate an exception to the state’s 20-week abortion ban for severe fetal abnormalities and to block insurance from being used to pay for the termination of a pregnancy. While both of those measures failed, others did not.

In a particularly mean-spirited attack, the legislature revamped the “judicial bypass” process, making it even more difficult for young women who are victims of neglect, abuse, or sex trafficking to access abortion services. To add insult to injury, politicians also blocked access to breast and cervical cancer screenings for patients of Planned Parenthood, and diverted more state funding to discredited “crisis pregnancy centers,” whose literature has been described by the Texas Medical Association as “needlessly graphic” and “factually inaccurate.”

Criminal Justice:  Groups from every segment of the political spectrum united to reform the state’s criminal justice system. The Smart-on-Crime coalition helped enact a series of measures designed to streamline the penal code, reduce recidivism, improve the reintegration process, and give former convicts a better chance for success in life after prison. Disadvantaged school children need no longer fear a fast track to the prison system, now that truancy is no longer a crime. School police officers will receive specialized training to help them better meet the needs of the students they serve and protect. Prisoners destined for solitary will now undergo mental health screenings.

Immigration: The rights of the undocumented fared better than one might have expected in the current political climate.  For one, the fact that Texas DREAMers will continue to have access to in-state university tuition was welcome news. Additionally, two attempts to wrest immigration enforcement from the federal government were thwarted: the Interstate Border Enforcement Compact, designed to allow member states to coordinate border control efforts independent of the federal government, and the Sanctuary Cities bill, which would have required local law enforcement entities to enforce immigration law at the expense of their own local priorities.

However, one immigration measure that enjoyed broad support in the legislature was passed into law. A sweeping border protection bill that costs hundreds of millions of dollars, HB 11 shows that our legislature only embraces small government and fiscal conservatism when it concerns tax rates and deregulation, but not so much when civil rights, police overreach, mission creep, and government surveillance are on the table. The law sets up a centralized surveillance center, allows for southbound checkpoints of American citizens still in the U.S., and implements a hiring surge of officers, which has proven a reliable method for fomenting corruption and abuse in law enforcement.

The bottom line: In spite of some victories for civil liberties this legislative session, lesbian, gay and transgender Texans can still be fired, evicted, or denied services in much of the state, regardless of whether the Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality. Texas women seeking abortion access find ever more obstacles in their path, with many more clinics forced to close if the Supreme Court refuse to step in. We still have one of the highest rates of solitary confinement in the country. Private prisons continue to clamor for more inmates, and the state still has heavy incentives to provide them. And legislators continue to push for proposals that would punish immigrants for seeking a better life.

The legislature reconvenes in 2017, and until then there is much work to do.

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.

Too Crazy to Kill?

When I was a kid, my cousin, Stevie, came to live with us in Memphis. My brothers and I were intrigued by our almost-adult cousin who never really came out of the back bedroom. We’d sneak along the hall and listen to him arguing with himself—long, angry, complicated tirades that made no sense. We first-hand saw his fear of electrical outlets, avoidance of the sun, refusal to bathe, and real consternation about his food and what might be in it. My parents tried what they could to help him; my aunt and uncle had not been successful. I heard “schizophrenia” float around the house but didn’t understand that his brain didn’t work like mine.

Then suddenly he was gone.

And even more suddenly we heard whispers he had killed someone who disturbed his sleep one night in a park in Nashville. And that the dead man was a policeman.


Our society has thousands of untreated mentally ill people; our criminal justice system is overloaded with even more. The legal system is not equipped to handle the burden. The capital system is not designed with a treatment goal, which is what all mentally ill people—including those who commit crimes—need so desperately.

Scott Panetti is yet another instance of a severely mentally ill man hopelessly embroiled in the criminal justice system. He has suffered from schizophrenia for decades; his terrible capital crimes illustrate it, his behavior during trial and in prison confirm it. Even a young child knows how crazy it is to dress as a cowboy and flip a coin to pick jurors while representing yourself in trial for your life.

Mental illness is not an excuse to behave badly—it can be an explanation for the behavior. Often we cannot see the depth and breadth of mental health issues like we can see physical impairments. But just like we wouldn’t ask a woman with a broken leg to run a footrace, we cannot expect normal brain behavior from someone with a damaged or otherwise dys-functioning brain.


I’m not sure how but Stevie’s parents, my father, and another aunt were able to testify at a hearing about his illness and his inability to understand and function in the “real” world, and the judge concluded he was too crazy to kill. Stevie avoided a death sentence in court. Instead, he was sent to a hospital for the criminally insane, where he was actually treated. He was an exception; he was lucky in that instance.

Years later, there was talk that he was cured and that he was coming home to us again. But the week my father was to go pick him up, we got word he had been found hanging from a sheet in his cell, an apparent suicide. Other prisoners my father had met over the years there confirmed the guards had something to do with it—that there was no way a Black man would “get away with” killing a white cop, no matter how crazy he was.

So Stevie was executed in the end.

Today, more than 20 years later, the state of Texas is poised to execute another mentally ill human being. If the state of Texas executes Scott Panetti next week, as a society we have abdicated our responsibility to one more of the most helpless among us.


My father used to tell a story of when he and my uncle Louis took Stevie and his brother Danny fishing in upstate New York, long before I was born. One time they were stopped by a park ranger who bent down to ask Stevie, “Now where are you all from, little boy?”

And Stevie answered, “Home,” and wondered why they all laughed.

Take action:

Tell Texas Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles that they should stop the execution of mentally ill Scott Panetti.

Sign the petition created by Scott’s sister to join the 80,000+ people who say Texas should not execute a schizophrenic man.

Should the State of Texas Be Allowed to Do This to Children?

The primary goal of Texas county juvenile justice facilities is to rehabilitate juveniles in order to develop good behavior and deter potential repeat criminal activity. However, new amendments proposed by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) on chemical spray in county juvenile facilities threaten the overall objective of juvenile justice and the safety of the youths and staff involved. The TJJD has proposed amendments to the Texas Administration Code Chapter 343, which would expand the chemical use of oleoresin capsicum (pepper spray) as an ordinary restraint method at county juvenile rehabilitation centers across the state.  Not only does use of chemical spray negate the goal of rehabilitation, the use of this chemical restraint as punishment is outdated, ineffective, and harmful—not to mention, the proposed amendments lack proper definitions and guidelines to prevent the abuse of discretion in the facilities, opening the doors for medical claims against the state.

A report to the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators found that facilities with high numbers of restraint and chemical incidents are more likely to produce higher rates of safety problems because of youth and staff injury, suicidal behavior, and fear among the youths from injury by staff.

The reported higher rate of incidents explain why the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators’ annual, national survey revealed only six state juvenile corrections agencies authorizing the use of chemical spray in order to secure the facilities: The low national authorization is due to data that shows negative impacts on the staff, juveniles, and facilities when it is used. The survey also showed that 15 agencies authorized chemical restraints, but not necessarily for the staff to carry on their person. Nine of those 15 agencies only authorize chemical restraint as a last resort measure. Overall, nearly 90 percent of the total juvenile correctional agencies do not authorize staff to carry chemical spray as a means to secure facilities.

The American Bar Association (ABA) standards for Juvenile Justice allow chemical restraint only in extreme situations and under strict controls. The ABA also requires the department to adopt regulations that closely govern such use. Not only would improper training and use of chemical restraint put the youth and staffs’ health at risk but would also result in the county and juvenile facility as subject to numerous investigation and lawsuits.

Our Recommendations

At present, the proposed TJJD code allows for use when the juvenile exhibits “physical aggression.” That’s a term open to broad interpretation and without a more narrow definition, there is no limit to the use of the chemical spray.

To mitigate this risk, the TJJD needs to get more specific about uses and training. For one, the amendments should strictly prohibit use to situations where there is a certain risk of life or serious bodily injury. This language would help safeguard the use of chemical spray only as a last resort effort in cases of extreme crisis. The amendment does make room for a provision that requires staff to abstain from use of the chemical on juveniles with respiratory or eye conditions. Strangely enough, there’s no indication of how these individuals would even be identified. When staff members are instructed to react to any form of “physical aggression,” it’s unlikely they would stop to inquire about a youth’s eye or breathing conditions.

Also, the TJJD should better define who would be required to train the staff in proper use of the chemical spray.  The current draft is mute on this matter, a vagary that could result in improper training and place the well-being of staff and youths in danger.

The TJJD should scrap these proposed amendments altogether. Various national written standards of chemical restraint reiterate the fact that pepper spray should not be used at all. However, if the TJJD insists on moving forward with authorization, it should adhere to strict rules regarding usage, reporting of usage, and post-use practices.  To do so, the agency needs to draft amendments that are strictly and clearly defined. Presently, the TJJD falls well short of this mark and the consequences could be devastating.

Read our letter to TJJD on their proposed changes to pepper spray rules:

Update: After listening to concerns from the ACLU and our fellow advocates, TJJD has chosen to delay consideration of this new standard until January 2014.