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Houston Police Join Harris County’s Cite-and-Release Program

By joining with the county, Houston hopes to save resources by keeping low-level offenders out of jail. Reform advocates see it as a move against police brutality, but not everyone agrees it’s progress.

(TNS) — The Houston Police Department plans to join Harris County’s cite-and-release program, fulfilling advocates’ long-running request to implement a policy they say keeps low-level offenders out of jail and saves law enforcement resources for more serious threats.

In a presentation to the city council’s Public Safety Committee, Assistant Chief Wendy Baimbridge on Thursday laid out the program HPD will use for a set of six misdemeanors offenses. The strategy mirrors that already used by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and other local departments, using a program set up by Harris County court-at-law judges.

In those cases, officers now would be required to give people a citation with the time and date they must appear in court, instead of hauling them to jail, unless certain exceptions apply. Like the sheriff’s office, HPD officers who use their discretion to disqualify an accused offender from the program would have to get supervisor approval and list the reason in their report.

Chief Art Acevedo said HPD will implement the program “imminently,” once he receives the final policy from the Turner administration.

Some advocates who have lobbied for the measure for months — and in some cases years — lauded the plan as a victory for the recent movement protesting over-policing and brutality. State law first allowed such programs in 2007, and Turner’s transition team endorsed the idea in a March 2016 report.

“The policy isn’t perfect, but at the end of the day, it’s the first real step we’ve seen toward changing policing in Houston,” said Sarah Labowitz of ACLU Texas. The group is part of the Right2Justice Coalition, which released a July report recommending a slew of reforms, including cite and release.

Darrell Jordan, a Harris County court-at-law judge who helped design the cite-and-release program, said the city could have opted into the program months ago. The county’s cite-and-release court has processed 113 cases since the program’s launch in February.

“I don’t believe in applauding people for waiting six months to fix a problem,” he said. “That’s six months Houstonians had less officers on the streets. How many victims have suffered waiting for police officers to respond? How many alleged criminals have gotten away?”

Judge Franklin Bynum, who helped craft the program, said HPD, along with the county District Attorney’s office, was the most obstructionist during the process. The District Attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

“They were not interested in doing it,” he said of HPD.

Alex Bunin, the Harris County public defender, was also in the meetings and said of HPD: “I don’t think that there was a lot of push to get it done.”

Acevedo denied that, citing his adoption of the policy in Austin before his tenure here. He said cite and release was one of the first things he advocated for when Houston hired him in 2016. He blamed the delay on unspecified technological problems trying to get the city and the county on the same system.

“I’m just grateful that finally the county is putting in the technological systems we needed to get it done,” Acevedo said to council members. He told the Chronicle later, “I have been very, very vocal in my desire to have cite-and-release. … For them to say that, they’re misinformed.”

The offenses available for cite and release are: criminal mischief of up to $750 in damage; graffiti resulting in up to $2,500 damage; theft of up to $750; theft of service worth up to $750; bringing contraband into a correctional facility; and driving with an invalid license. Minor marijuana arrests will continue to be directed to Harris County’s marijuana diversion program.

The Right2Justice report estimated those offenses accounted for 9 percent of HPD arrests from March 2014 to March 2020. That includes 29,000 arrests, nearly half of which involved Black people.

Internal numbers show between 2,600 to 3,000 arrests last year would have been eligible for the program, HPD said.

The HPD plan does allow for exceptions: eligible people must be 18 or older and a resident of Harris County; they cannot have outstanding warrants or face additional charges that do not qualify for the program. Police can disqualify a person if they refuse to sign the citation or demand an immediate appearance before a judge.

There are additional carve-outs for accused offenders that are combative, cannot be positively identified, or if there is reason to believe they will not appear in court. The latter requires supervisor approval, and “the basis for this determination shall be specifically stated in the offense report,” according to HPD’s presentation.

Councilmember Mike Knox, the vice chair of the committee and a retired HPD officer, said it is important to give officers discretion in the matter.

“One of things we don’t want to do is get in the way of on-site decisions of patrol officers or supervisors on scene,” said Knox.

The program has wide buy-in, including the Houston Police Officers’ Union.

“If there’s a way for us to not take someone to jail, we’re going to do that,” said Ray Hunt, the union’s past president. “I really would like for you to consider not just cite and release, but warn and release… Give us some discretion on Class B’s and A’s. We have none now.”

Jay Jenkins, with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, questioned how meaningful the change would be in wake of Harris County’s bail reform, which allows certain misdemeanor offenders to quickly get out of jail on a personal recognizance bond, or a promise they will appear in court.

Acevedo and other officials said the change still is noteworthy in that could prevent the physical interaction in which an officer handcuffs the offender, which can escalate. It also prevents a person’s car from getting impounded if they were driving at the time of the arrest.

“It is a huge deal when you limit the physical custody,” the chief said.

Still, some reform advocates said they were concerned giving police wide discretion to make arrests would result with Black and Latino residents facing higher rates of arrests than others.

“Will entrance into the cite and release program be applied equally and fairly to all that are eligible to participate in the program?” asked Joy Davis, with the Texas Organizing Project. “Will Black people continue to account for a majority of those arrested when a ticket could have been issued? Progress is being made, but we have a very long way to go.”

©2020 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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