There are as many ways to fight crime as there are officers to do so. Some techniques, like watching a neighborhood for burglars, are legal, ethical and highly successful, as shown recently by Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Ron Hickman's deputies, who broke up a long-running burglary ring in northwest Harris County.
Other techniques, such as the beating of prisoners to obtain confessions, we all know are both illegal and immoral.
But some methods, though legal, border on the unethical because of their intrusion into the community and their perversion of the law. One is the police blitz or, as it's called locally by deputy constables in Precinct 4, the "task force." This is where the deputies flood an area with 40 to 60 police cars and stop and demand identification from anyone they choose.
Recently, some of the upper-middle class residents of northwest Harris County had the disagreeable experience of finding out what life is like for those living under "task force" operations in the poorer areas of our community (as well as in some Third World countries).
Driving down FM 1960 thoroughfare one recent weekend, no matter which way you looked you found police cars randomly pulling over drivers and demanding to see their "papers," — in this case their driver's license and proof of insurance.
In many cases, I have no doubt that these detentions were followed by the deputy searching the occupants of the vehicle for the deputy's "protection." In some cases they also delayed the drivers further while they arranged for a drug dog to be run around the car. This was being done quite legally in the name of law enforcement by the deputy constables.
When I asked several of them why they thought it was appropriate to randomly interfere with the activities of the average family going about their evening's entertainment, the officers responded that the police blitz had been announced in the news media — as if that made it acceptable.
In other words, they seemed to imply, if you don't want to get stopped, don't frequent the restaurants and theaters on FM 1960 on the weekend. We warned you.
The officers also declared that some local people requested the police to go after DWIs and other crimes, as if those requests made this more palatable. And, of course, the officers claimed that only those who violated the law were stopped. (This assumes that people are ignorant of the concept of pretextual stops — those in which officers look for any traffic violation as the legal excuse to pull over someone a deputy wants to interrogate.) After the operation, the deputies issued a press release showing that almost 900 tickets were written in an attempt to justify treating civil rights as if those rights were only rules to be bent as the deputies please. In the name of efficiency, everyone's rights were allowed to be trampled.
Ever make a trip down Westheimer or any other major street, and forgotten to use your turn signal before doing a simple lane change?
That can make you subject to a police stop and frisk just like those caught up in this task force's net.
Ever had a stranger paw through your purse or pockets? If an officer who has pulled you over on a pretextual stop feels something hard like a checkbook or wallet and wants to think it's a gun, you get to open your purse to allow him a look inside.
Why? In some cases, as one deputy said, "Because I can."
The excuse, of course, is always the war on crime or the war on drugs or the war on whatever is fashionable at the time. But why is it that one never sees the police flooding River Oaks and doing random stops?
No crime there? No drugs used? Or could it be that the movers and shakers of Houston wouldn't put up with it?
Doing "task force" traffic stops is no different than having deputies standing in front of, say, The Galleria, and stopping anyone they want just to look at their papers, do a pat-down search and then further delay them while the deputies do a criminal record check. Not quite what Mom might have had in mind for her teenage kids when she sent them to the mall for the afternoon — nor, I suspect, what some local parents expected when they allowed their children to drive to the movie theater on a recent weekend.
What's the real problem with a law enforcement agency flooding an area with cruisers to stop and interrogate anyone they want?
It's that the agency shows little respect for the people it supposedly serves. Instead, the officers view residents as the violator, the threat, even the enemy. It's also prioritizing efficiency over the intent of the law and the rights of those the police supposedly serve.
This can lead to racial profiling. While perverting the law, these sweeps also undercut the reputations of those officers who are trying to establish and maintain a positive image in the community they serve.
A new district attorney is in Harris County's future, and it is the responsibility of the DA to set the tone for law enforcement in Harris County.
The DA is the linchpin in the local criminal justice system. He or she will decide what gets prosecuted and what conduct is or is not acceptable for our deputies and officers.
It's time for the candidates' positions on police misconduct and mismanagement to be brought to the forefront. The responsibility of the DA to assist the victims of crime also includes those victims of crimes committed by the law enforcement officers themselves.
There are many ways to achieve effective policing without compromising the rights of the whole community. The apprehension of those burglars by Precinct 4 Constable Ron Hickman's deputies mentioned above is an outstanding example.
But when it comes to the protection of our rights, it's time for some peace officers in Harris County to leave the 19th century and enter the 21st. One of the reasons we elect a district attorney is to enforce high standards. Let's insist that our new DA do so.
http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/edi ... 21743.html