After 39 years with the Houston Police Department, and six years as the department’s police chief, Charles McClelland retired this February. McClelland, who was appointed by former Mayor Annise Parker in 2010, announced his retirement during a press conference with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who stated the department would have an interim chief until they found a permanent replacement for McClelland.
That replacement was finally announced in November: Houston’s new police chief would be Art Acevedo, the then-head of the Austin Police Department. Acevedo officially stepped into his new role on November 30, and two weeks in, he spoke with the Houston Chronicle about two specific changes he wants to bring to the department: equipping police officers with body cameras that begin recording when officers exit their vehicles and creating a new unit for investigating police shootings.
“To me the relationship between a police department and a community starts with legitimacy,” Acevedo told the Chronicle. “Cameras and the way we investigate officer-involved shootings … is absolutely the most important aspect of what we do to build that legitimacy and to build that trust. That’s why I’m starting there.”
Improving relations between police officers and the communities they serve was also a priority for McClelland. He helped to usher in the department’s use of body cameras, supplying HPD with 4,100 cameras, the “largest implementation of body cameras in the country.” But McClelland’s attempts at improving the department weren’t without obstacles. During his tenure, he faced a shrinking police force in one of the nation’s largest cities and was often forced to make difficult choices due to budget cuts. While some applaud him for his efforts to improve the department’s relationships with citizens through community policing, other community leaders told the Chronicle that McClelland still fell short in some areas, especially when it came to addressing use of force by officers:
“He did OK keeping the community safe, but on the other hand, there were so many shootings, and he didn’t address them properly,” said LULAC civil rights co-chair Augustin Pinedo, recalling an incident in which a Houston police officer shot a double amputee in a wheelchair, and the more than 200 officer-involved shootings during McClelland’s tenure that injured or killed more than 150 people. “Things like that – glaring incidents pointed to a need for more training for police officers, but he failed to address issues like that.”
In July, three months after the department implemented body cameras, police officers shot and killed Alva Braziel. Braziel was armed with a gun and officers say he pointed it at them, but questions remained about what exactly occurred. The most reliable video from that incident is security footage from a gas station near the shooting, and in an investigation by KHOU into HPD’s body camera policy, reporters noted when the body cameras were used in the Braziel shooting:
While both officers were wearing body cameras, the first didn’t begin recording until 49 seconds after shots were fired. It was another 30 seconds before the other officer hit record.
That’s where Acevedo’s calls for body cameras that automatically begin filming when officers exit their vehicles comes in. Ideally, turning on body cameras will be one less thing for officers to worry about and the public will have better access to full incidents. The department only recently purchased their body cameras in April—at a cost of $8 million—and while some support the ease that automatic body cameras would provide, they’re concerned about the costs.
“Though we don’t oppose anything that makes it easier for our officers to turn their body cameras on, we do believe this may be a knee-jerk reaction to recent events and that once our officers have more time with the equipment, it will become second nature to turn their cameras on,” Joe Gamaldi, the second vice president of Houston Police Officer’s Police Union, told the Chronicle. “The estimated cost to outfit the department with automatic triggers is well over $1 million, and we believe that money would be much better spent on manpower and vehicles.”
But even without funding concerns, there are still multiple issues with HPD’s body camera policy that hinder full transparency. KHOU’s investigation revealed major delays in the department’s release of body camera footage. The problems seem to stem from the decision to store the footage in-house rather than to use third-party servers that store footage in the cloud. According to emails shared by KHOU from Houston’s open records unit, computers are unable to handle all the video footage, and the inability to edit videos to redact confidential information may cause further delays. Of the 75 videos that KHOU requested, the department released only eight.
Nationally, even in cases in which videos capture entire scenes of police shootings, there are questions about the consequences officers face when they are involved in fatal encounters. This has raised broader concerns about the justice system, and it also begs questions about the effectiveness of special investigation units, like the one proposed by Acevedo.
After Houston police shot and killed Alva Braziel this July, Texas Monthly’s Leif Reigstad noted issues with the department’s record on officer-involved shootings.
The New York Times reported on the city’s absence of video footage of police violence in February, noting that since 2005, HPD shot at more than 460 people and killed 111. According to HPD records, 20 percent of those shot at were unarmed, and most of them have no video footage to show exactly what happened. The result of this lack of video evidence, combined with HPD’s internal review process—which separate investigations by the Houston Chronicle, Texas Observer, and Houston Press have found to be flawed—is that HPD has not had an “unjustified” shooting in more than a decade. An HPD officer hasn’t been charged in a shooting in twelve years.
According to the department’s website section on officer-involved shootings, there are nine divisions and agencies that investigate these incidents: the HPD Homicide Division, Houston Forensic Science Center Crime Scene Units, HPD Internal Affairs Division, a civil rights attorney from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, investigators from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, the officer’s legal counsel, the Media Relations Unit, the Medical Examiner’s Office, and the Officer Safety Unit. Acevedo’s new unit would replace the homicide division in investigating officer-involved shootings, but it would still not be independent of the department. Acevedo also plans to “hand-select” members of the unit he is proposing.
Still, as Randall Kallinen, a civil rights attorney, told the Chronicle, Acevedo’s new unit would continue to be “the police investigating the police.” The only truly independent “safeguard” Houston has in place is the Independent Police Oversight Board, which isn’t included on the list on HPD’s website, perhaps for the reasons Emily DePrang noted in the Texas Observer in 2014:
There’s the Independent Police Oversight Board, which consists of four panels of citizens that divvy up and review HPD’s Internal Affairs investigations. The panels don’t have subpoena power; they can’t do their own investigations; they can’t interview witnesses; they can’t force anything to happen. But they can suggest that Internal Affairs do a more thorough investigation or reconsider its findings. Internal Affairs doesn’t have to do anything they say, but it’s nice that the people have a voice.