InsideOut At City Hall: Police State
What to do when you feel your rights have been lost in translation.
Your blood pressure spikes at the sight of those bright, flashing lights in the rearview mirror. You take a deep breath, try to figure out what you did wrong, and pull over. It’s time to remain calm and follow the police officer’s directions.
The officer stalks up with his hand on his gun. “License please,” he demands gruffly. “Is this your car? Why are you out so late in this part of town?” he asks as he writes a ticket for an expired inspection sticker. Is he insinuating something?
The ticket must be dealt with, and there are instructions for what to do on the back of it. But you think the officer was out of line and needs to be reprimanded. What can you do about it?
You could file a complaint with the police department’s Internal Affairs Division (IAD). IAD, however, is designed for criminal complaints against officers, such as assault, and this does not rise to that level. But you still want to feel that your voice is heard.
Thanks to Houston Police Department’s free and highly successful Alternative Dispute Resolution program, chances are excellent you can resolve your problem by sitting down with the officer and talking through it. Yes, good ol’-fashioned communication with a modern twist: mediation. With the help of experienced, neutral mediators, you discuss directly with the officer how you saw his conduct and then listen to his response. The confidential guided exchange often surprises both citizen and officer, and almost always satisfies both parties. Out of the 900 complaints ADR has mediated since 1999, only three cases could not be resolved. (The ticket itself cannot be discussed here. That’s between you and a judge.)
“Hand-on-gun” and “rude officer” complaints account for many of the citizen complaints against officers. Talking to the officer across the mediation table, a citizen learns that traffic stops are actually some of the most dangerous encounters officers have with citizens. Officers can run the car’s plates, but have no idea who’s driving. They have to be ready to protect themselves in case an armed suspect opens fire. Standard HPD procedure requires an officer to approach a car with his/her hand on their gun.
Rudeness, however, goes against HPD policy. What an officer perceives as a terse (and efficient) request for information may strike the citizen as insulting or intrusive. Mediation gives officers the unique opportunity to hear how they come across and to improve. I understand young officers can be a bit resistant during mediation. But they have a strong incentive to learn.
The lessons are spelled out in black and white in a signed, binding contract. Each contract is different, based on the participants’ own statements regarding apologies and acknowledgements. In this example, the contract might include:
• The citizen’s acknowledgement that he/she understands HPD policy requiring officers to place their hand on their gun while approaching a stopped vehicle;
• The officer’s apology for being rude or insulting, or the officer’s acknowledgement that he/she may have been perceived that way;
• Both parties’ acknowledgement of what happened;
• The officer’s pledge to treat citizens courteously.
This legally closes the dispute.
As long as the officer complies with the contract, the citizen cannot file civil charges against the officer based on the same facts. The officer, in turn, must honor his or her signed pledge regarding courtesy or face possible IAD investigation on a serious “truthfulness” charge if another departmental or citizen complaint about courtesy is substantiated.
Mediation and Diversity
Houston’s diversity is one of its greatest assets. As you may know, it even ranks high on the list of community assets that attract top college graduates and job seekers. It also presents unique challenges for HPD. Officers must deal with many cultures, languages, and lifestyles. Misunderstandings occur easily. For this reason, it is imperative that the force continues to receive state-of-the-art police academy training and look for ways to bridge cultural divides.
Mediation of disputes works for business and personal problems. Before my election to City Council I took a course in mediation that allowed me to mediate disputes referred by the JP courts and in a voluntary dispute resolution program. It was tremendously helpful to learn techniques for getting to a resolution for the parties involved, and I have called on these skills as both a public official and on a personal level. I highly recommend seeking out training, even if you don’t intend to use it formally.
When Alternative Dispute Resolution opened its doors in 1999, it provided in-house mediation services for HPD officers and departmental employees and was a true cutting-edge program. In 2003, the service morphed into the expanded Citizen and Employee Mediation Program to include public, non-criminal complaints against officers. The program has proven so successful that it’s now expanding to all city employees with interpersonal workplace issues. City employee complaints must be referred by the city’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). Another section of the ADR office handles employee sexual discrimination complaints.
The current edition of Money Matters , my monthly TV show, features the mediation program. It can be seen at 2 and 8 a.m. and p.m. on HTV (Comcast Channel 16, Phonoscope 2, TVMax 98, and Suddenlink 14). For more information about ADR programs, call 713-308-3400 or check the city website at www.houstontx.gov/police/adr/.
Annise D. Parker is Houston’s third-term city controller and one of the highest-ranking openly GLBT-elected municipal official in any of the 10 largest U.S. cities. Her website is www.houstoncontroller.org. The City Controller’s webpage is www.houstontx.gov/controller/index.html. To receive the controller’s newsletter, send an e-mail to [email protected]