Police

Houston police union, criminal justice attorney differ on reforms amid Tyre Nichols killing, botched Galveston raid

While the cases are not related, the two incidents have sparked conversations about police training.

A group of demonstrators protest outside a police precinct in response to the death of Tyre Nichols, who died after being beaten by Memphis police officers, in Memphis, Tenn., Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023.
(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
A group of demonstrators protest outside a police precinct in response to the death of Tyre Nichols, who died after being beaten by Memphis police officers, in Memphis, Tenn., Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023.

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Two more police officers have been suspended in connection with the investigation into the death of Tyree Nichols last week.

Five other officers seen on video beating Nichols were fired and charged with second degree murder and other offenses. And locally, Galveston’s police chief Doug Balli has been placed on administrative leave after police botched a raid.

While the cases are not related, the two incidents have sparked conversations about police training. Douglas Griffith, president of the Houston police officers union, and Jay Jenkins, the Harris County Project Attorney at the Texas Center for Justice and Equity, joined Houston Matters with Craig Cohen on Tuesday.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with Tyre Nichols’ fatal encounter with police earlier this month. And what we’ve learned about it from Friday’s video release. Jay, what do you take away from that?

Jay Jenkins: The Tyre Nichols case is another, in a long line of incidents like this, where we see individuals killed by police. Because we have since Mike Brown, in 2014, had a number of incidents like this across the country, where graphic video shows police killing civilians, without justification. And I think what we’re learning from the Tyre Nichols case is that a lot of the reforms that we’ve been told at every turn, that hiring more black officers, a diverse set of officers, were going to stop incidents like these, that having body cameras was going to stop incidents like these, that using less lethal weapons was going to stop incidents like these, that specialized hot hotspot policing units was we’re going to stop incidents like these and that more training was going to stop incidents like these when in Memphis, they’ve had sufficient training, ample training, and they’re working under a consent decree with Department of Justice. And so, Tyre Nichols is really the latest example of the failure of any of these measures to rein in this specific issue.

Officer Griffith, what’s your takeaway from this?

Doug Griffith: I have to agree with him on some of the points and disagree on some others. Training is always important for all law enforcement. You got to understand as budgets shrink, the first thing that you see cut is the training. None of this was used in the Tyre case. Because those officers just went completely outside the bounds of any type of training and committed crimes, period. There’s no way around that. But to say like Michael Brown, Michael Brown, we proved over and over is that did not go down the way everybody claimed it did. But we still have too many of these incidents that make the news.

Officer Griffith, I’m sure you can’t comment directly on this rate of an incorrectly identified Galveston residents home. But it does remind us of the Houston Police Department’s own botched 2019 no knock raid which killed two Harding street residents based on a now ex-officers apparent false evidence. While these are rare exceptions to the rule, as you’re suggesting, how do such incidents impact the public’s confidence in law enforcement?

DG: Well, it just erodes the confidence that people have I mean, this is preventable every day all day. You check that address repeatedly. You make sure you have your facts in order before you go serving an arrest warrant or a search warrant. And that apparently didn’t happen in this case. So I don’t want to make comments disparaging them. But again, just like Texas we have 2,800 law enforcement agencies in the state of Texas. And out of that 90% are under 50 police officers in those departments. So they’re not receiving the same training. And we do the kind of standardize that across the state for de escalation training, use of force training, different things like that, that the public really sees on a day to day basis.

Jay, what do you take from this news, the Galveston Police raided the house of misidentified suspects?

JJ: Officer Griffith mentioned the large number of police across the state of Texas and it just goes to show you that even training one department, or a high profile incident like the Harding Street raid that resulted in Officer Goings of Houston Police Department being charged with murder that happened just one town over, and even though the steps that were taken in the aftermath of the Harding Street raid, did not eliminate no knock raids, just down the road in Galveston. I’m sure they heard of what happened in the Harding Street raid, and they’re still serving these these warrants on witnesses to cases and stuff like this. That’s completely uncalled for.

And I agree with Officer Griffith, that this is preventable. And I would ask, if this is preventable, why hasn’t it been prevented? We agree that it is preventable, where we disagree is that the efforts made to prevent it, are woefully inadequate. And if we keep pushing training as a solution, Officer Griffith just told you these officers in Memphis were acting far outside the scope of their training. So what does that tell us that the training is only as good as the officers that are executing it and that it will be narrowly applied in the field. And really, until we start to see reforms that shrink in some way … we’ll be back on the phone in six months talking about another video of another individual that’s been killed like this.

Officer Griffith, Jay raised a number of ideas there. Do you think those are steps that would make a difference in any significant way?

DG: Actually, I think he’s going the wrong direction with it. I was in a specialized unit, a gang unit for 20 plus years. We did it right. We had good supervision. And that’s where this stems from most of the problems that you see, where are the supervisors on the scenes? Where are those leaders that are supposed to be there to make sure their troops are doing it the right way? We have to have proper supervision across the board. As long as you have that, you won’t have these incidents, you didn’t see a single supervisor in this, “Scorpion” unit. Why not? When you have a specialized unit like that, you have to have strong leaders that are going to make sure things are done properly. And in the Harding Street raid is completely different. You had one rogue officer that went out there and did some inappropriate, again, the supervision, where’s that? Why were they not checking up on him and making sure his paperwork was documented properly, and that his work product was properly done?

Officer, you point out to two distinctions here, and I kind of want to drill down on each one. One is this question of maybe how to better screen and train officers at the outset. But then the other piece that you’re talking about is also a lack of supervision in this one case out of Memphis, perhaps. What kind of ongoing training from more experienced officers, those who become supervisors, how much is that taking place?

DG: Well, part of it is the tenure that these folks have, with the fact that a lot of our older officers are retiring. And getting out of the profession we have, we’re pulling people over that may not be as qualified as those in the past. And then you’re going to have incidents like this, each of these guys that were involved in the Memphis incident are less than five years on, if I’m not mistaken. You shouldn’t be in a specialized unit unless you have three to five years on patrol. So you can learn you have people that mentor you, older officers will take you under wing and show you the proper way. And I don’t believe they had that instance. And that’s part of the issue. As our departments get younger and younger, they’re starting to pick people to be police officers, you don’t have the passion for it, it’s just a job. For this job it’s a calling, it’s a passion, you got to want to go out and help and serve the community. And sometimes people get through that this is just a job, they lose their cool, they lose their emotional fortitude there, and they go out and do things are wrong, and/or illegal. And we have to find a way to better recruit better retain those officers that are doing it right. But as long as we keep pushing this narrative, that the cops have the problem, when we have one incident out of 100,000 or 200,000, whatever it is, we’re not going to fix the problem.

Jay, what do you think about the idea that maybe there is another level another degree of effort to be undertaken in terms of reforming the way new officers are screened and trained?

JJ: What I would say to that, with all due respect, is that if other civil servants, if teachers were somehow involved in the killing of civilians in any way, we would not be on the radio talking about organizational hierarchy, we would be talking about getting rid of teachers, getting rid of those departments that employ these folks, and not trying to further supplement those departments that continue to fail in this manner with more and more dollars. … [G]iving more money to the problem adding more training, you’re just telling us the same thing that we’ve been told throughout all these years, to no effect. And so it’s hard for advocates on the ground, communities that experienced these incidents, to take, ‘oh, well, we just need to go up another level with more funding and training.’ Training is not the issue here. And individuals are not necessarily the issue here. It is the nature of the institution that can that brings us constantly to this point where we’re discussing unnecessary deaths of our fellow citizens.

DG: I completely disagree with that. That makes absolutely zero sense at all. You’re going to tell me that we need to change we need to get rid of police officers and we need to change the way they do their job. Yet, I don’t see the same individuals out there complaining about physicians about practice, they kill more people every single day in this in this country, than you have police officers killing individuals, but I don’t see you complain.

JJ: But I don’t know their salaries or anything because they’re not taxpayer funded. They’re not government sanction of the state.

DG: I’m saying I’m just we have body cameras on. And what you don’t understand I fought for body cameras, because I believe they show our officers are doing it right. Are you going to have one or two go rogue from time to time? Yes, you are. You deal with them. Just why we have people charged the process work in this instance in [Memphis] because of what took place. Those guys were fired and indicted very, very quickly. And if you’ve got someone that goes rogue like that, that’s what the system is for. Put them in jail. They did not follow their training. They did not follow the procedures. They went rogue, that they are the problem, not policing. I don’t know understand how people can say, ‘oh, policing is the problem.’ No. Criminals are the problem. No matter if they have a badge or not, the criminal is a problem.