Punishments for HPD officers often unravelRecords show discipline is overturned or reduced 70% of the time
Hearing examiners for the city have overturned or reduced nearly 70 percent of punishments given to Houston police officers by HPD management over the last 17 years, recently obtained records show.
The role of independent examiners is a key element in Houston's ability to discipline and remove dangerous officers from the force.
Perceptions of police misconduct and brutality in Houston have intensified so much recently that on Friday Mayor Annise Parker announced a new, independent police oversight board would replace the existing citizens' review committee to address ongoing concerns in the community.
The mayor's administration is also negotiating with police unions to replace most of the 10 examiners with a new slate of arbitrators.
No one disputes that rogue police officers should be disciplined or in some cases fired.
Houston police officers have nearly a 7 in 10 chance of having their punishments overturned or reduced when they appeal their case to an outside examiner, according to city records. In the 378 cases the 10 current examiners heard from 1993 through 2010, examiners overturned 103 punishments. They reduced 156 more in the same time frame while upholding 119 punishments.
The issue has become contentious as Police Chief Charles McClelland has fought to keep two officers from winning their jobs back after he fired them last year for their role in the beating of burglary suspect Chad Holley. Both officers were reinstated to their jobs by hearing examiners, and the city has filed appeals to keep the officers from returning to the force.
"I certainly don't mind my decision being reviewed by an arbitrator, but if the evidence supports we have sustained the case against the officer, the arbitrator should not be able to overturn my discipline, McClelland said. "I'm responsible for the administration of the organization, so therefore my judgment should stand."
McClelland said when a firing is overturned, he is faced with having to take back an officer he has lost confidence in.
"I'll have to put him back to work, but the arbitrator doesn't tell me where to put him. How can I protect the public? the chief said. "It's something I would like to see changed or modified."
Call for fresh faces
Criminal justice experts say Houston's experience with arbitration is not unique.
"Like other cities, Houston wrestles with the dilemma of providing fair arbitration while ensuring that unfit officers are removed, said Larry Hoover, a professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. "Too often the arbitration process results in officers being put back out on the street who don't belong on the street.
Costs for the 10 independent arbitrators are shared by the city, the Houston Police Officers Union and sometimes individual officers.
The examiners have been hearing police appeals for decades one arbitrator began his service in 1984 - with the newest joining the list in 2001. Together, the examiners have served the city for a combined 210 years. City officials say it's time for some fresh faces.
"Certainly they are all respected individuals; some of them have been on the panel for as much as 25 years. There should be turnover on those type of panels periodically," said City Attorney David Feldman.
Ray Hunt, vice president of the Houston Police Officers Union, disagrees with the call for new people. "These arbitrators have to understand our general orders and policies," Hunt said. "We have very fair arbitrators who hear our cases, and sometime we win, sometime we lose."
Hunt said the large number of overturned and reduced punishments are the result of unfair discipline handed down by former HPD Chief Harold Hurtt. In cases where examiners reduce the severity of a punishment, the infraction is still upheld against the officer, Hunt noted.
"Issue a fair punishment, and an arbitrator is going to agree with you, said Hunt, who added that McClelland's administration is assembling a better record of equitable punishments than his predecessor.
'Splitting the baby'
Feldman said state arbitration laws impose many legal burdens and deadlines on the city, but said the most serious shortcoming is thelimited circumstancesin which the city can successfully appeal a ruling by an examiner.
For example, in some cases the city has to prove that false evidence was presented.
Police officers in Houston are defended by private attorneys or those hired by the Houston Police Officers Union, who are staunch supporters of the arbitration system established by state law.
"The process works fine, because you have an independent third party who looks at all the evidence and makes the decision. They don't have an ax to grind, or bias in any way shape or form, said Bob Armbruster, one of the HPOU staff attorneys.
Armbruster said no conclusions or inferences should be drawn from statistics of overturned or reduced police disciplines, noting each case has a unique set of facts and circumstances. The résumés of the hearing examiners, Armbruster noted, demonstrate they are a highly experienced and well-educated group whose other clients include some of the nation's largest companies and government agencies.
Critics of the arbitration process say there is a well-documented practice nationwide of "splitting the baby, meaning that examiners try to issue rulings that favor both city management and police unions in an effort to continue to be hired.
"About half the time, arbitrators set aside a dismissal," noted Hoover, the Huntsville professor. "It's not good, and it's an inherent flaw in the system designed to protect officers from arbitrary and capricious discipline."
In 2010, nine officers fired by McClelland appealed their punishment. Four of the firings were upheld, four were reduced, and one of the officers withdrew his appeal.
Two of the officers reinstated last year by examiners were Guadencio Saucedo and Lewis M. Childress, who were both fired June 23 by McClelland for their roles in the alleged beating of teenage burglar suspect Holley. Neither has returned to work, as the city is appealing the examiners' ruling.http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/7438450.html