Sheriff slashes number of internal jail inspectorsJan 24th, 2016 | By admin | Category: Harris County, In The News
Sheriff officials defend the changes, saying they could speed internal investigations while placing more responsibility on first line jail supervisors.
Critics fear Hickman’s move reverses reforms taken by former Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who beefed up the same division in 2009 to address a backlog of complaints against personnel, and reduced the role of jail supervisors in screening complaints of inmate abuse.
Under Garcia, the IAD unit from 2009-2014 unearthed myriad problems at the Harris County Jail, including long-term neglect of a mentally ill inmate left for months in a filthy cell, guards who’d eaten pizza instead of watching over a suicidal inmate, and a guard who punched an elderly inmate who fell and hit his head and then left him lying in a pool of blood.
Diana Claitor, executive director of the Texas Jail Project in Austin, said she worries those types of probes just won’t happen any more.
“It sounds like the in-depth, complex kind of investigations of police misconduct won’t get done, and that’s extremely bad for all us,” said Claitor. “That’s the only way of digging deep.”
Joanne Musick, a former state prosecutor and president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said disbanding the IAD proactive unit could discourage people from filing complaints.
“Even back when I was a prosecutor, we relied on the proactive IAD divisions from the Sheriff’s Office and HPD to help find and prosecute this police misconduct,” Musick said. “If you’re just simply working on a reactive basis, someone has to report the misconduct first, and when you’re dealing with police officers, a lot of time the public is reluctant to come forward, especially if it’s criminal conduct. They fear if an officer is involved in criminal conduct, they feel the officer might retaliate for them reporting.”
‘Need that oversight’
Currently, Harris County has 32 people assigned to the combined office of Inspector General and Internal Affairs Division, sheriff officials said. Hickman is maintaining the same number of staff in that combined office. But he has reduced the jail’s Compliance & Inspections Unit from 15 to eight members, transferring inspectors to other assignments. Inspectors in that unit were the first to discover the neglect of jailed mentally ill inmate Terry Goodwin in 2013. The inmate spent weeks without leaving an isolation cell littered with empty food containers, human waste and insects. His family negotiated a $400,000 settlement with the county.
The Sheriff’s disciplinary files, part of employee personnel records, contain details of many misconduct cases documented by IAD involving jailers who abused and neglected inmates. But those results were not generally known to the public until a Houston Chronicle series called Jailhouse Jeopardy detailed disturbing patterns of abuses as well as failures to report use of force against inmates.
Musick cited the newspaper’s series, as well as past federal investigations, as reason to increase the number of jail inspectors rather than reduce them.
“Our clients tell us day in and day out of their abuse in the Harris County jail, and that it’s the worst experience in their life and they’d rather be in the city jail or sent to” state prison, Musick said. “I know the Chronicle has uncovered a lot of internal affairs reports that show within the jail command staff that supervisors whitewash reports of abuse, so you need that oversight from outside the chain of command because … it’s all too easy for one to cover for another.”
Ralph Gonzales, director of public affairs for the Sheriff’s Office, said minor complaints by jail inmates now will be handled by the jail command staff instead of going directly to internal affairs investigators.
But Gonzales stressed that more serious allegations, such as use of excessive force, will still be investigated by the Office of Inspector General and internal affairs department.
“You have to understand there’s a different mind-set right now,” Gonzales said. “The sheriff is pushing that accountability and responsibility to the front line supervisors, where in the past I think everything was going to internal affairs no matter what the problem was.”
Former Sheriff Garcia abandoned the process of having jail supervisors screen inmate complaints in 2014.
Department statistics show that between 2009 and 2013, when jail supervisors screened grievances of jail abuse before deciding which to refer to internal affairs investigators, only about 88 cases were sent up for review. But in 2014, when Garcia implemented a policy that required an internal affairs division review of all inmate grievances, the number of referrals rose to 236. The number of complaints sustained by internal affairs also increased slightly. The Chronicle’s review of jailhouse disciplinary actions showed that investigations of allegations of jailer misconduct took an average of eight months to complete.
Gonzales said the changes are part of Hickman’s department-wide effort to upgrade procedures and improve technology.
He said the changes will include an $877,000 installation of upgraded surveillance cameras in the 1200 Baker Street jail, which currently cannot archive any video footage. Video footage, which is available in another jail building, has been key in several misconduct reviews, records show. Those upgrades, records show, began under Garcia.
The department also is testing a pilot system of electronic monitors to confirm jailers actually visited cells for state-required checks of inmates, and biometric technologies are also being explored. Falsified cell checks have been detected in department reviews of inmate neglect and of misconduct linked to inmate suicides.
Hickman, since being appointed sheriff in May, has raised the minimum age of jailers from 18 to 21, reopened the department’s jailer training academy, and eliminated online training previously allowed for jailers.
Harris County Sheriff’s Deputies Organization President David Cuevas said the changes in inmate grievances have union support. “You don’t want to take away the authority from your first-line supervisors,” said Cuevas. “You have to let your first-line supervisors deal with the issues first before it gets relinquished to internal affairs.”
But two Democrats competing to replace Hickman in this year’s sheriff’s election criticized his IAD decisions.
Former Houston city council member Ed Gonzalez called reducing jail oversight “a very poor decision.”
“The public, in this day and age, is asking tough questions and demanding answers, and a lot of them are centered around jails,” Gonzales said. “They want more ways to reduce jail suicides. There are questions about staff supervision, what the jail intake process is. With this narrative repeating across the country, we should be strengthening oversight of the jail.”
Lt. Jeff Stauber, a longtime Sheriff’s Office employee who also is running against Hickman as a Democrat, said the proactive IAD unit was necessary even though there are not a large number of cases requiring the expertise.
“We need a proactive unit, because what do you do with complaints that come in that are going to require some type of surveillance on an employee?” Stauber said. “Who is going to do it?”