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Is Texas becoming a safer state or a police state?

Are local police forces becoming militarized? That’s a concern expressed Tuesday before the Arlington City Council with regard to this weekend’s regional distaster drill which some are terming “militarization of the police.”

The Star Telegram reported:

A group of 25 people angrily left the City Council chambers Tuesday night after voicing objections to this weekend’s regional disaster drill, saying it is a “militarization of the police.”

The North Central Texas Council of Governments is sponsoring the Urban Shield exercise Friday through Sunday to test the region’s ability to respond to terrorist events and other emergencies that could happen simultaneously throughout North Texas.

Police officers and firefighters will go through several training exercises including school shooting scenarios and mass transportation incidents. Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas, Garland, Grand Prairie and other area cities will participate.

But the training exercises became controversial to some people after they learned that first responders in Boston had been through the training before the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing. Protesters said the tactics that first responders reportedly learned were excessive when it came to searching for the bombers.

“What happened in Boston won’t be allowed here by the population. That will be a danger to everyone. The way they went through people’s homes. The way they pointed weapons,” said Douglas Bell, 33, a disabled veteran who was among four residents who spoke in opposition Tuesday night. “Our people should not be trained to do that. It is unnecessary.”

Defending the drill as preparedness exercises, Mayor Robert Cluck said, “Public safety is complicated and everyone needs to know what their job is in an emergency.”

“Clearly the world is more dangerous,” he told the paper, “But this exercise is not prompted by any one recent incident.”

Area residents might have heightened sensitivity to this issue after the August raid of a small Arlington farm that led to a 10-hour property search during which the residents were reportedly “handcuffed and held at gunpoint while they watched more than 10 tons of their property hauled off in trucks.

FreedomWorks blog reported:

What dangerous contraband required this massive governmental response? It wasn’t illegal explosives, stolen vehicles or drugs, but rather organic blackberry bushes, okra plants, and sunflowers.

The Garden of Eden is a 3.5-acre farm that promotes a sustainable lifestyle. Back in February, Arlington started complaining about possible city code violations. Officials said that the grass was too tall, bushes were too close to the street, and chopped wood wasn’t stacked in a government-approved manner. Basically, HOA-style complaints where no homeowners’ association exists.

The farm owners said they had corrected some of the issues and challenged others, requesting meetings with the city to work out an amicable agreement. Early the morning of August 2, the government responded with the SWAT raid. Officers carried search warrants alleging that the farm might be growing marijuana, but none was found. The search warrant, signed the day before the raid, gave police the pretext to enforce the city’s “code violations” on private property.

“They came here under the guise that we were doing a drug trafficking, marijuana-growing operation,” owner Shellie Smith said. “They destroyed everything.” She said that officers shielded their nametags so they couldn’t be identified and didn’t produce a warrant until two hours after the raid started.

Officers destroyed crops and other vegetation, they hauled off furniture, wooden pallets, food and compost. One individual, Quinn Eaker, was arrested for unrelated traffic violations.

Per the blog, City of Arlington spokeswoman Sana Syed called the raid “perfectly legal and appropriate” terming its purpose as “to improve the quality of life, to resolve safety issues within neighborhoods and to hold the property owner responsible for creating blight conditions on their property.”

And just last month, Fort Hood personnel used the base’s Elijah urban training site to conduct crowd and riot control training for both soldiers and municipal police forces.

In what the military is calling “full-spectrum operations,” the training is to help individuals in “keeping themselves safe and mitigating any danger for the people on the other side.”

The training included an exercise that utilized role players as rioters. The Killeen Daily Herald described this drill:

Beginning at the team level, soldiers learned formations and verbal and hand signals used to unify themselves against a crowd from 89th Military Police Brigade soldiers. Eventually the formations grew to platoon-sized shapes. Soldiers learned to chant, “Get back,” while stepping forward in unison with their left feet toward the crowd.

This sends a clear, concise message that’s not demeaning or harmful to the crowd, Ford said.

The paper discussed an earlier training for San Antonio Police Department personnel while Watchdog Wire – Texas reported on the Austin Police Department’s SWAT operations attending a similar session.

Is this the emergence of “warrior cops”? In his new book Rise of the Warrior Cop, Radley Balko makes the case that equipping police with military weapons and armor is creating a new breed of police.

Salon.com says this of the book and its position on the growing militarization of police forces:

How did this happen? For decades, the war on drugs has empowered police to act aggressively. More recently, 9/11 and school shootings enforced the notion that there’s no such thing as too much security. Since 9/11, the newly formed Department of Homeland Security has distributed billions in grants, enabling even some small town police departments to buy armored personnel carriers and field their own SWAT teams.

Once you have a SWAT team the only thing to do is kick some ass. There are more than 100 SWAT team raids every day in this country. They’re not chasing murderers or terrorists. For the most part they go after nonviolent offenders like drug dealers and even small time gamblers. As you’d expect when there is too much adrenaline and too much weaponry, there have been some tragedies. Suddenly goofball comedies where an elite squad invades a house to find a pot-smoking kid don’t seem so funny. (Balko’s book describes such incidents at length in excerpts Salon published here and here.)

This problem defies the usual conservative vs. liberal calculus. As Balko sees it, Democrats love spending money on cops and Republicans want to seem tough on crime. In this fertile ground, the police-industrial complex has grown. Many of its excesses are almost impossible to defend, but it’s not going anywhere. Balko talked to Salon about the decline of community policing, the warrior cop mentality, why so many dogs get killed by police. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Wall Street Journal provides this perspective:

The acronym SWAT stands for Special Weapons and Tactics. Such police units are trained in methods similar to those used by the special forces in the military. They learn to break into homes with battering rams and to use incendiary devices called flashbang grenades, which are designed to blind and deafen anyone nearby. Their usual aim is to “clear” a building—that is, to remove any threats and distractions (including pets) and to subdue the occupants as quickly as possible.

The country’s first official SWAT team started in the late 1960s in Los Angeles. By 1975, there were approximately 500 such units. Today, there are thousands. According to surveys conducted by the criminologist Peter Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University, just 13% of towns between 25,000 and 50,000 people had a SWAT team in 1983. By 2005, the figure was up to 80%.

The number of raids conducted by SWAT-like police units has grown accordingly. In the 1970s, there were just a few hundred a year; by the early 1980s, there were some 3,000 a year. In 2005 (the last year for which Dr. Kraska collected data), there were approximately 50,000 raids. Some federal agencies also now have their own SWAT teams, including NASA and the Department of the Interior.

Lou Ann Anderson is an information activist and the editor of Watchdog Wire – Texas. As a Policy Analyst with Americans for Prosperity – Texas, she writes and speaks on a variety of public policy topics. Lou Ann is the Creator and Online Producer at Estate of Denial®, a website that addresses probate abuse via wills, trusts, guardianships and powers of attorney as well as other taxpayer advocacy issues.

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Brazoria County, Travis County: Comparing and contrasting two drunk driving tales (TX)

Upon being arrested by Houston police on a driving while intoxicated charge, a Brazoria County prosecutor has resigned. This development becomes especially notable as controversy continues related to the April drunk driving arrest of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg and four months later that of Assistant District Attorney Brandon Grunewald.

Michael A. Abner, 30, was arrested Oct. 19 after a Houston police officer responded to a call about a swerving vehicle the Houston Chronicle reports. He was later released from jail on a $500 bond and is scheduled to return Nov. 11 to Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 4.

Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne told The Chronicle Abner resigned last week.

“After his arrest became known, Mr. Abner and I had a discussion,” she said.

Yenne said her office has a policy of no drinking and driving.

“I came to the conclusion years ago that there are certain standards you have to have when you prosecute people for DWI,” she said. “I don’t ever want somebody to say, ‘You do the same thing.’ No good can ever come from drinking and driving, anyway.”

Yenne said she has had the policy in writing since 2011.

“It is my sincere hope that everyone who works for me complies with it,” she said.

Travis County, on the other hand, approaches drunk driving of district attorney’s office employees much differently.

Despite repeated calls and ongoing legal actions stemming from the arrest, Lehmberg has refused to step down. Hypocrisy and diminished credibility overshadow the district attorney’s office and its effectiveness as the county’s chief prosecutor of other DWI offenders or offenses that involve drunk driving.

Shortly after her April arrest, Lehmberg entered a guilty plea to intoxication and an open container violation. She was then sentenced to 45 days in jail with her license suspended for 180 days. Credit for good behavior allowed Lehmberg’s release after serving half the time.

Adding insult to injury, it was later learned that Lehmberg continued receiving her salary while in jail and kept the almost $10,000 of public dollars paid to her. Weeks later upon discovery of this information by attorney Kerry O’Brien who has also filed a removal from office civil action, the embattled district attorney quickly announced a donation to Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) claiming there “isn’t really a mechanism” to pay back the public.

In June, Lehmberg entered into a political showdown with Gov. Rick Perry as the state’s top official made good on his threat of a line item veto of state funding for the district attorney’s Public Integrity Unit (PIU) when Lehmberg refused to resign in the wake of controversy surrounding her drunk driving arrest.

The Public Integrity Unit investigates and prosecutes state officials and politicians. Its Travis County location and control by Lehmberg comes as ethics violations often center on activities around the Capitol or at other Austin-based state agencies.

Travis County residents are now on the hook for a new $1.8 million expense after county commissioners voted in August to finance a portion of the PIU whose funding was cut after Lehmberg refused to resign.

Meanwhile, Travis County Assistant District Attorney Brandon Grunewald was arrested Aug. 11 on a misdemeanor drunken driving charge in connection with a traffic accident in Austin.

The Austin American-Statesman reported Lehmberg saying “her office doesn’t usually fire employees for a first-time DWI offense and that she will wait until ‘all the facts are known’ before making any final decisions.”

The Remove Rosemary Lehmberg Facebook page offered this quote reportedly from Lehmberg’s Travis County District Attorney Employee Handbook (dated 09/03/10, p. 4):

“All employees are expected to adhere to the highest standards of conduct in both their professional and private lives. By statute, all DA employees work at the will of the District Attorney. Any illegal acts or any conduct bringing disrepute on the office are grounds for immediate termination.”

So Lehmberg doesn’t “usually fire employees for a first-time DWI offense”? Has it happened so many times to have developed such a specific course of action? And if so, what of the DA’s “standards of conduct” and how do DA staffers maintain credibility in prosecuting other DWI offenders or offenses that involve drunk driving?

Also worth noting, however, all news for Lehmberg is not grim.

A 12-member Travis County grand jury recently declined to indict the district attorney on charges relating to her jail conduct in the aftermath of the drunk driving arrest. The grand jury review was based on a complaint filed by attorney Rick Reed, a former Lehmberg political opponent. Reed’s complaint alleged Lehmberg committed 16 counts of official misconduct ranging from coercion of a public servant to retaliation. If affirmed, Lehmberg could have faced third-degree felony obstruction charges.

Austin’s KOKE-FM compiled this booking footage of Travis County’s top prosecutor.

The civil jury trial seeking to remove from office Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg based on her drunk driving arrest has also been cancelled. This cancellation prompts serious questions of if this development is a move to save taxpayer funds and more efficiently move forward the legal process? Or is merely a tactic which might later be used to help the district attorney avoid removal?

As Brazoria County taxpayers can take a degree of satisfaction that their interests have been protected at least in this instance, Travis County taxpayers still deservedly have legitimate questions regarding the operations of their district attorney’s office and its impact on the county’s entire legal process.

Lou Ann Anderson is an information activist and the editor of Watchdog Wire – Texas. As a Policy Analyst with Americans for Prosperity – Texas, she writes and speaks about a variety of public policy topics. Lou Ann is the Creator and Online Producer at Estate of Denial®, a website that addresses the growing issue of probate abuse in which wills, trusts, guardianships and powers of attorney are used to loot assets from intended beneficiaries or heirs.

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Big in Texas: local government spending, football, local government football spending

Texas is known for big things and that includes public spending. Complain all you want about Washington D.C. and the federal government’s always insatiable appetite for debt accumulation and more tax dollars. With $322 billion in local government debt here in our own backyards, Texans can have our own special brand of confidence that the all-star debtor status of our children and grandchildren is firmly secured, even growing, so that an adult life of financial uncertainty and instability are some of the few things on which they’ll likely be able to count.

Texas local government debt stands at $322 billion, second only to California in total debt and second only to New York in per capita debt. Often using the “for the children” mantra, school districts account for the largest growth sector of outstanding local government debt while the biggest percentage debt increase is in special purpose districts.

Texas is routinely noted as one of the nation’s fastest-growing states. For the year ending July 1, 2012, we had eight of the 15 fastest-growing large U.S. cities and towns. High tax states are losing population.

You’d think that might signal to the historically low tax states – like Texas – the importance of maintaining those policies that indeed are the basis for its current taxpayer migration popularity. It’s understood that population growth prompts the need for some increased infrastructure like new schools and roads. Does it, however, prompt the need for things like $60 million high school football stadiums?

In August 2012, just north of Dallas, the Allen Independent School District opened its $60 million, 18,000-seat football stadium. Forbes noted it as “generally discussed, at least outside of Texas, as the wretched excess of the state’s mania for high school football, the kind of schoolboy facility inspired by Jerry Jones‘ understated (that’s sarcasm) Cowboys Stadium.”

Upon its opening, the stadium “instantly become the nation’s largest and most expensive high school football stadium.” Featuring 4,000 seats more than district’s old stadium and though the stadium was only home to six regular season games during its first year, WFAA reported “district officials emphasize the athletic complex will be used every day, all year round. Among the amenities are a vast weight room, an area for the three-time state wrestling champs and an indoor golf practice area.”

Other stadium features include a 75-foot long high-definition video scoreboard, 42 concession stands and 192 public restrooms.

“If they didn’t want it, they could have voted it down,” Allen Coach Tom Westerberg told WFAA with regard to the stadium’s community support. “And they didn’t.”

But voters are often disinclined to vote against such proposals and the reasons why aren’t hard to see. Constructive opposition to local government spending issues places citizens against public officials who may be neighbors, fellow church or civic organization members, etc. Launching an oppositon campaign requires courage, an attribute existing more in theory and reputation than in reality.

Prominent local officials as well as business leaders are strongly encouraged to register support for new measures or else risk community “team membership” status. Average citizens not falling into step risk social ostracization or other exclusion from the “right” party rosters or Christmas card lists. Peer pressure is a common force used to encourage passage, but other routinely invoked mechanics in such elections are also easily identifiable.

With the November 2012 election, Texas voters continued embracing debt level largesse by approving $5.5 billion in new bond proposals – $7.7 billion upon adding the interest rarely addressed in bond proposal “sales” campaigns.

Nov. 5 will offer new opportunity to continue this trend of financial commitments and consequences destined to impede future generations’ prosperity for decades ahead. Besides nine proposed constitutional amendments, more than 70 local taxing entities will ask their voters to approve more than $5 billion in new bond packages. But again, will the outrage aimed at D.C. ever find its way to local communities?

A new 14,000-seat, $69.5 million football stadium for the in Katy Independent School District will be an interesting initiative to watch. While proponents claim the growing school district is in need of a second stadium, other term the measure as  “grossly excessive” and failing to offer voters a choice of projects.

Cyndi Lawrence, president of an anti-tax group called Katy Libertea, said her members do not oppose all of the projects in the $99 million bond package, which includes $25 million to expand the Gerald D. Young Agricultural Sciences Center and $4.5 million for a new science, technology, engineering and math center.

“They are coming at us with a $99 million bond that is all or nothing,” Lawrence said. “Some of us support the STEM Center and the agricultural facilities but we feel that $69 million is way outlandish for a football stadium.”

Bet they are not mentioning that the real cost of the bond package will be the advertised rate plus another 40 percent or so for interest. Taxpayers were seriously betrayed as organizations including Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) and Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA) – both of which exist based on school district memberships (i.e. public funds) – joined Texas Municipal League (TML), Texas Association of Counties (TAC) and a host of other taxpayer-funded organizations in killing legislation that would have provided taxpayers with new transparency regarding local government spending and debt.

In other words, dishonesty with regard to real bond proposal costs would have been disallowed. The mechanics of school district elections once more in play.

Texans for now seem happy to remain outraged with Washington while largely living out of touch with their own local governments’ spending and the long-term dangers being created. Interesting times will be ahead as future generations of all-star debtors live with the consequences of today’s all-star spending  – spending created in part by all-star football and similarly questionable expenditures.

Lou Ann Anderson is an information activist and the editor of Watchdog Wire – Texas. As a Policy Analyst with Americans for Prosperity – Texas, she writes and speaks about a variety of public policy topics. Lou Ann is the Creator and Online Producer at Estate of Denial®, a website that addresses the growing issue of probate abuse in which wills, trusts, guardianships and powers of attorney are used to loot assets from intended beneficiaries or heirs.

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Houston-area neighborhood opts for private, not government security (TX)

One Houston neighborhood is taking an interesting non-governmental approach to security.

From KHOU 11 News Houston:

 

Since November Houston’s Sharpstown neighborhood has contracted with S.E.A.L. Security Texas for its security services. The officers look and are equipped as traditional police. Their services even include the use of canines.

James Alexander, director of operations for the Houston-based company, says that although most people think of private security as “mall cops,” his company patrols district and subdivisions like Sharpstown to “give them a little bit more security for their money.”

Opposed to Sharpstown’s prior contract with Harris County Constable’s Office, KHOU reports, S.E.A.L. Security provides three to four officers on patrol at any given time and does so at half the previous cost. Burglaries have also been cut in half.

The Sharpstown Civic Association says the switch will save about $200,000 per year.

Lou Ann Anderson is an information activist and the editor of Watchdog Wire – Texas. As a Policy Analyst with Americans for Prosperity – Texas, she writes and speaks about a variety of public policy topics. Lou Ann is the Creator and Online Producer at Estate of Denial®, a website that addresses the growing issue of probate abuse in which wills, trusts, guardianships and powers of attorney are used to loot assets from intended beneficiaries or heirs.

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DontComply.com speaks to juror as Bell County prosecution of Grisham case continues (TX)

L.J. Cotterill, one of six jurors from the U.S. Army Master Sgt. C.J. Grisham trial, spoke with Matthew Short of DontComply.com regarding his four-day Bell County courtroom experience which rendered a hung jury with a five to convict, one to acquit vote.

After qualifying that he was speaking only on his own behalf, Cotterill called the trial an “interesting event.”

Cotterill said that upon seeing the dashcam video, being a corrections officer caused him to look at the incident from both points of view and he saw many mistakes made by both parties. “This was a matter that got completely blown out of proportion,” he said. “You had two A-type personalities run into each other and they responded poorly to one another.”

He discussed how, as a reflexive response, people with weapons retention training will react differently when someone tries to disarm them. With Grisham’s military history, Cotterill observed “you’re going to have that.”

Once the encounter between Grisham and Temple Police Officer Steve Ermis started, “if either party had backed up just a little, it would have de-escalated quickly. They could have talked, they could have fixed this. It would never have become public attention. But what happened was rather than say ‘hey, hold on, what I’m going to do is clear this weapon and make sure I’m safe while speaking to you,’ the officer pulls his weapon and puts him (Grisham) on the hood.”

He expressed empathy for Ermis, the dangers of the job and noted not being there to specifically read that situation, but suggested, “I know my method of handling the situation would have been different.”

Cotterill says that Grisham did the things he was charged with, but there were circumstances behind the actions. “The problems were with two A-type personalities and neither was going to back down so it continued to escalate and they ended up on the hood.”

“If I had been allowed to factor in self-defense,” Cotterill said, “This would have probably been a two-minute deliberation and we all would have went ‘not guilty.’”

The problem is, he explained, all the jury was allowed to consider was criminal negligence using the definition that had been provided. The jury was not allowed to factor in circumstance or anything else – it was just did this thing happen? All evidence considered had to be from witness statements.

After 12 hours of arguing “not guilty,” Cotterill said he had to admit that Grisham did indeed commit the acts. The jury, he said, was not there to decide if there were mitigating circumstances.

“We had been given the order to determine whether or not he had committed these acts.”

“You can look at the video and you can see he (Grisham) committed these acts. Yes, he may have had his reasons, but it doesn’t change the fact that he committed these acts.” Cotterill explained. “We weren’t there to determine if he had the right to self defense, we weren’t there to determine if his actions were a defensive tactics. We weren’t there to determine whether the officer was wrong in his actions. We were just there to determine whether or not he had committed the acts that he was charged with.”

The jury was hung because “one individual did not feel Grisham’s acts were pronounced enough to constitute resisting, interfering, impeding or disrupting,” Cotterill said.

He went on to describe a “huge gray area” regarding the definitions given. “That gray area is the difference between the spirit and meaning of the law and the letter of the law,” he continued. “When we were arguing for ‘not guilty,’ we were going on what we felt the spirit and the meaning was, but that is a highly subjective thing and we ended up having to resort to what is the letter of the law.”

Of the one acquittal holdout, Cotterill said he didn’t know if the person “couldn’t divorce their feelings from the matter or if they were stubborn.”

Of his own vote change from not guilty to guilty, Cotterill said he told other jurors that he was wrong initially, but “for all the right reasons.” The charge by itself, he said, is garbage because while Grisham may have committed the charge, it was for a good reason and while he may have committed the acts, it was justifiable in Cotterill’s opinion.

Only information presented from the witness stand was allowed during deliberations. No “outside information” was made available. A jury request for a dictionary in order to clarify the definition of “criminal negligence” was denied.

When asked if jurors were presented an option of jury nullification, Cotterill said no. He said the jury instructions stated if Grisham committed any one – not all – of the acts for which he was charged, a guilty verdict should be returned. Only if the jury found Grisham committed none of the acts could not guilty be found.

Cotterill said he originally argued that circumstances of the incident mitigated Grisham’s actions and the charges, but because of the “criminal negligence” definition provided, he says that hours of deliberation altered his position to a view that “circumstances were not what was in question – it was a question of whether or not the action had been committed.”

The jury composition included corrections officer Cotterill, a law enforcement officer and a Marine. He said all but one – the individual who voted “not guilty” – were pro-gun.

The interview concluded with Cotterill noting both Grisham and Ermis are “heroes” with regard to their respective public service. He said Ermis made mistakes, but “was not on trial.” Grisham was on trial and his actions were those upon which judgment was required.

Regardless “whatever the politics were,” Cotterill said he agrees with the message of Open Carry Texas and believes in the Second Amendment and in all our Constitutional rights. Whether the Grisham case could be precedent setting, he said the jury had to set aside personal feelings and judge the case based on the information provided at trial and on the jury instructions.

That’s why, he said, they “had a hard time coming to a decision” and had Bell County’s longest deliberation of any Class B misdemeanor.

Per Cotterill, “we all agreed that the charge itself and the case itself was garbage. This entire matter should have been resolved by two grown men acting like grown men apologizing for their part in a bad situation and buying each other a beer and then going to a range together.”

The term right fighting – fighting to be right, not necessarily to make the right decision; having to have the last word in an argument; to not back down, to prevail regardless the cost or carnage -  applies to the prosecution of this case. Right fighting usually occurs in dysfunctional personal relationships, but we see here that it can also find its way to public venues at taxpayer expense.

As Grisham’s case remains pending with the office of Bell County Attorney Jim Nichols, area residents can look to the new trial scheduled Nov. 18 as the next date in which taxpayer-funded right fighting dysfunction returns to court.

Lou Ann Anderson is an information activist and the editor of Watchdog Wire – Texas. As a Policy Analyst with Americans for Prosperity – Texas, she writes and speaks about a variety of public policy topics. Lou Ann is the Creator and Online Producer at Estate of Denial®, a website that addresses the growing issue of probate abuse in which wills, trusts, guardianships and powers of attorney are used to loot assets from intended beneficiaries or heirs.

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