Opinion: Make the independent police oversight board actually independent

Houston Chronicle Opinion

Houston will benefit by embracing an effective, strong and visible Independent Police Oversight Board that keeps its police department accountable to the people. Accountability and transparency are necessary to maintain a responsive police force. Community policing is morphing into militarization around the country as police adopt military culture, equipment and tactics, and the federal government has promoted this seismic shift. This trend is dangerous because it carries the potential to further divide the police from the community.

The government is advocating for police militarization, while simultaneously retreating from policing the police. The current U.S. Department of Justice has abandoned investigations into unconstitutional policing. In the past, the DOJ would utilize consent decrees and court-ordered arrangements with police departments to enforce reforms.

It’s more important for a powerful, local police department to be answerable to the community. A strong oversight board can act as a counterweight instilling public confidence that local law enforcement is responsible and  is serving the community rather than controlling it. Transparency and accountability are not stagnant concepts and must evolve to be effective.

Citizen board structure

The oversight board is comprised of citizen volunteers appointed by the mayor and confirmed by city council. The board’s purpose is to review internal Houston Police Department investigations including excessive force, misconduct, firearm discharge, serious bodily injury or death and citizen mistreatment. The board makes  recommendations on community concerns over recruiting, training, and evaluation of police officers. It’s a tough task for the 21 community volunteers.

Structural reforms and modifications are desperately needed to address review panels with enhancement, independent tools, community outreach, emerging technology, training, and policy.

Structural Independence

The board should hold independent investigative authority when necessary. As constituted, after the Internal Affairs Division completes a misconduct investigation, the results are submitted for the board’s consideration. For the vast majority of complaints this is sufficient. However, there must be an independent investigative mechanism for exceptional matters.

Should an independent investigation be required the board could utilize the city’s inspector general, who is already the board’s special advisor in connection with the review of investigations and discipline. The public must have confidence that its board is active and credible. The board must enhance community outreach programs and communicate its findings. It must establish a visible process for civilians to lodge direct complaints and concerns.

The board must have its own publicly accessible facility. Currently, the board is located in HPD’s headquarters. The mere optics of its location undermine a perception of “independence.”

Operational support

Establishing at least limited, administrative subpoena power to obtain HPD records, including body cam recordings, would help to evaluate department policies, practices, and training. Currently, HPD provides information to the board at its discretion. Full subpoena power to compel testimony may not be necessary for internal investigations since police officers are required to cooperate as part of their employment agreement. At a minimum, the board should be able to obtain HPD documents, a power the board currently does not hold.  Depending upon reform parameters, undisclosed information by HPD may become publicly available – as has been called for in the aftermath of the botched Harding Street raid.

The board merits a full-time paid director position to ensure that the process functions effectively. Additionally, the chairperson should have a security clearance, as should a subcommittee within the board, to oversee security-restricted new technology. Technology in law enforcement changes rapidly; and the community that pays for it must have a say in its usage. New technologies include drones and robots for surveillance and yet unidentified artificial intelligence. As of now the board is powerless to monitor usage, training, or policy around security restricted devices. Questions may arise about under what conditions can these machines be weaponized, if at all. True oversight includes technology.

Other technology issues confronting the board include requirements to audit the tens of thousands of hours of body-worn camera video. The cameras represent a change in technology justifying additional resources unimagined when the board was created.

Clearly the board is severely under populated to perform misconduct evaluations, supervise training, policy input, and community outreach. Additional panels should be constituted to enact robust sustained community outreach. Community members must realize a tangible connection to oversight.

Way forward

Expanding the board’s visibility and powers should be welcomed. It can preserve community accountability and control over a police force that is a protector, not an enemy.

Philip H. Hilder is a white-collar criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor. He served on the City of Houston’s Independent Police Oversight Board from 2011-2018.