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Here's What a Former Police Chief Thinks of Texas Police Shootings

Our readers asked a former police chief about his experience and Texas police shootings. Here's what he told them.

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After spending nearly a year investigating police shootings in Texas, we launched our Unholstered project on Tuesday examining 656 police shootings in Texas' 36 largest cities.

On Friday, Sept. 2, at 1 p.m. CT, the Tribune hosted a Reddit IAmA with former police chief Howard Williams for a live discussion about Texas police shootings. Williams spent 11 years as police chief in San Marcos and 25 years serving the Austin Police Department before retiring in 2014. Now a criminal justice lecturer at Texas State University, Williams has studied the issue of police shootings. Reporters Jolie McCullough and Jonathan Silver also joined the chat.

Read the highlights below, or view the full conversation on Reddit

Is there anything that can be done currently to ease tension between the police in Texas and the general public (and vice versa)? — PM_ME_SHIHTZU_PICS

Williams: "Open and honest conversations are critical to resolving tensions. Relationships, whether they are between family members or are between the police and public need open honest communication to survive critical times.

So often the public begins to complain long before they even know what happened. Part of the reason for that is the police departments' reluctance to release information.

There is no substitute for beginning that conversation right away after a critical incident. There will always be questions unanswered early in an investigation because there has not been sufficient time to get all of the answers, yet. Nevertheless, the sooner we can begin a conversation based on the facts instead of supposition or suspicion, the better off we will all be.
This is not going to be an immediate fix. It takes time to build that trust level once it is lost." 

Generally, the media likes to paint law enforcement and Black Lives Matter supporters as being against each other. What is your opinion on this portrayal? — Awesomater

Williams: "I think to some degree that is true. There are always people who, for whatever reason, are going to be anti-police. That is okay. Everyone should be entitled to their opinion. However, I do not believe that all of BLM is anti-police. I have spoken with BLM members who are very concerned about police/community relations, and they are sincerely trying to make things better, not worse.

Unfortunately, news is news. The anti-police rhetoric is often newsworthy, but genteel cooperation and discussion are not. We all need to do a better job (and that includes the media) in emphasizing the efforts to improve relations. That does not mean ignore the protests, but let's also include a balanced view to include the community meetings and rallies that do not become disruptive." 

What kind of pressures do the police department higher ups have when unarmed shootings occur? Are they accountable to city officials or does it depend on how much attention is received perhaps? Awesomater

Williams: "There is pressure whenever there is a police shooting, armed or not. This is the most drastic measure a government can take -- taking the life of a citizen. There should always be pressure to explain and justify it. It is equally important, however, for government officials and the public to listen to the answers.

As I have often told my students, 'Question authority, but have the grace to listen when it answers.'

One thing that is important to remember, is that unarmed does not mean the person is not a threat. The third most frequently used murder weapon in the United States is a person's hands and feet. It might be more difficult to explain a fear of death or serious bodily injury from someone without a weapon, but they can still be deadly. The person's being unarmed does not automatically mean deadly force is inappropriate." 

In each of your opinions, what was the most significant/surprising thing you learned in compiling this report? — gb330033

McCullough: “One of the most surprising things for me was how difficult it was to obtain this data, and how inconsistently departments track this internally. We contacted the police departments in the 36 largest cities in Texas (all with a population over 100,000) and there was never any telling how easy or even possible getting the data from them would be. In some cities, the departments list shootings online; in others, we never got anything, even after a year of going back and forth and including the Attorney General's office.”

Is there any evidence to suggest the rise in fatal incidents with the police in Texas is related to relaxed or relaxing of hiring standards by police departments? If not, what sort of money is spent on training police in deescalating situations?— aGuyFromTexas

Silver: “Dallas has been praised for its de-escalation training that involves reality-based scenarios to better prepare officers for what can happen on the job. Chief Brown has said that type of training has lowered the number of complaints of excessive force against his department.

Dallas was one of the more open departments when it came to sharing information about shootings. In the race story, we mention Dallas several times and their efforts to deal with racial tensions. When it came to discipline, Dallas had notable cases where officers were disciplined, and we talk about the latest in their former officers' criminal cases.” 

It has come to light that one of the police officers killed in Dallas had neo-Nazi/white supremacist tattoos and affiliations. How is that a member of a police force, surrounded by people supposedly trained to spot criminals could work next to someone with these kind of beliefs? The LEO in Philadelphia with a Nazi tattoo is another example. How much of a problem is white supremacist infiltration of law enforcement? — Zenmachine83

Williams: "The unfortunate truth is that there are police officers with biases. We do the best we can to weed them out before we hire them, but the hiring practice is not always fail-proof. As the Chief, I once fired one of my new rookie officers for voicing his racist attitudes during his training period. Somehow, that did not come out in his background investigation.

In many agencies, especially those with Civil Service protection, unless an officer violates a law or an established department policy, you cannot simply fire them. Their employment is protected by law.

Having a tattoo is expression that is protected under the free speech clause of the First Amendment. If the department had a policy that said the tattoo must remain covered while in uniform, and the officer kept it covered, there is no policy violation and he cannot be fired simply for having the tattoo.

Having the belief and acting upon it are different things. If there was evidence that the officer was treating people unfairly because of their race, he would be subject to discipline and eventually to dismissal. If there was not evidence of that, there is nothing the department can do about it as a matter of law. The First Amendment protects the police officer, too." 

When the technology is ready, can you foresee a future where drones are widely used by police departments? For example: Each police vehicle has a drone on a charging station on the roof. Anytime a police officer exits the vehicle the drone follows the officer automatically via a GPS device attached to his body. The drone will relay a live video feed to the police department headquarters. Forget body cameras, isn't this the future? Cost of drones will steadily decrease in the coming years and battery power will improve to make this viable. — ReginaldLADOO

Williams: "We have come a long way in communications technology since I started my career. Many nights I patrolled without a handy-talkie. Today we have so much instant communication technology available that it is difficult to keep abreast of the new things coming out.

I suppose it is possible, but much of police work is done indoors, especially in people's houses. I am not sure drone technology would be the most effective way to accomplish an officer surveillance system there.  To be fair, though, I would not bet on my being correct if I were you!" 

In your 36 years in law enforcement, was there a single experience that was your most rewarding? Maybe one particular day or event that impacted you the most? — ReginaldLADOO

Williams: "Long war story. I once got a call of a man passed out in a movie theater. It was about 2:30 a.m. Apparently, he had gone to see a movie and passed out drunk, falling onto the floor between the seats. The crew cleaning the theater found him and called the police.

When I woke him up, he was so drunk that he could not tell me where he was, how he got there, or how he was planning to get home. Naturally, I arrested him for public intoxication.

He plead not guilty to the charge, and we had a trial. The judge found him not guilty because she felt that, since he had been sleeping for about four or five hours, he must not have been that drunk.

About two years later, I ran into the man again at a disturbance call. He was not part of the disturbance. A lady in his apartment complex ran to his apartment when her husband was threatening her. He let her in and called the police.

When I had finished the call and was preparing to leave, he asked if I remembered him, because I had not said anything about our previous encounter. I replied that I did remember him, but that had nothing to do with why I was there so there was no reason to bring it up.

That's when he said, 'Well, I want to tell you something.'

Immediately I started thinking he was going to fuss about my taking him to jail when he was not guilty of being drunk. Instead, he started explaining that he was an alcoholic, and that he never realized it until he awoke in jail and had no idea why he was there or what he had done. He went on to explain that his wife and family had been threatening to disown him over his drinking, and his boss was threatening to fire him. He said that was their problem, not his.

When he awoke in jail, he decided he needed help, and he joined AA as soon as he got out. He said things were going much better for him now. He had just gotten a promotion and raise at work, his family was back in his corner, and he and his wife had recently welcomed a baby daughter (they let me hold her).

He told me I had probably saved his life, and wanted to apologize to me and thank me for what I had done for him. Going to jail was what it took to convince him to turn his life around.

Many times in police work we see our failures over and over again. We get calls on them all of the time. We rarely get to see our successes, because they stay out of trouble. We seldom realize how much good we actually contribute, because we get called to deal with failures, not to celebrate successes. Luck of the draw is the only reason I got to hear his story. His story is why we do what we do."  

Read more from our Unholstered investigation here: 

  • The Texas Tribune spent nearly a year collecting data from the state’s largest cities on every incident in which police officers pulled the trigger between 2010 and 2015. Here's a look at what we found.
  • At least 881 officers were involved in police shootings in Texas’ 36 largest cities between 2010 and 2015, according to data compiled by The Texas Tribune. Seven officers have faced criminal charges for pulling the trigger in that period. None have been convicted, so far.
  • Police officers in Texas unholstered their guns and fired at suspects in at least 656 incidents between 2010 and 2015, but that total is undoubtedly incomplete. There is so little reliable, consistent information on police shootings in Texas that the public, lawmakers and police officials are largely flying blind.
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