Shelby Stewart’s framework envisions accountability via investigative autonomy and funding
Backed by activists, clergy and former law enforcement officers, retired Houston Police Department Sergeant Shelby Stewart has presented a new framework for police accountability that calls for autonomy in citizen oversight, subpoena power and city funding.
The proposal was unveiled during a news conference at Houston’s SHAPE Community Center on Almeda, the day after Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron announced that no police officer would be charged in the death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville.
The “Houston Police Independent Citizens Investigative Board” establishes a new process and more power for the residents who probe possible misconduct by HPD employees. The cases involved would include Class I complaints – which are violations of federal law, state law and local ordinances, such as allegations of excessive force, discharge of firearms, serious bodily injury or death – as well as Class II complaints which encompass department policies that are not criminal in nature such as accusations of sexism, racism and mistreatment of citizens.
“Police accountability is a huge issue around the country, just as it is here,” Stewart said. “You don’t have 70,000 people show up in downtown Houston for a demonstration if they are satisfied with everything that’s going on here.”
Stewart was referencing the June protest in response to the murder of George Floyd in which Mayor Sylvester Turner, HPD Chief Art Acevedo and Floyd’s relatives participated.
“I thought about creating a model for a citizens review board which would have the scope and the power to be able to come to better conclusions when people get killed and with excessive force issues with the Houston Police Department,” Stewart continued.
Speakers at the Sept. 24 news conference included SHAPE founder Deloyd Parker, retired HPD sergeant Kenneth Perkins, activist Cynthia Cole, Noel Pinnock of Texas Cops & Communities, and Hai Bui of We the People Organize, which was founded to eliminate no-knock raids and seek justice for the couple killed in the 2019 Harding Street Raid.
“These groups want transparency and accountability, but they need a vehicle to get to that point,” Stewart said.
The Houston Police Independent Citizens Investigative Board would have the power to review and make final decisions on HPD policies as well as the recruitment, training, evaluation and discipline of officers. Members would be able to subpoena all “records, reports, bodycam videos, witnesses, complainants, and officers involved in these investigations,” the 4½-page proposal says. The board would be funded with up to $3 million annually from the city. The panel would also meet with community members and facilitate input on HPD’s internal investigative process.
Proposed board members would include representatives from Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law and the University of Houston Law Center, as well as from grassroots organizations such as the Texas Organizing Project, SHAPE, Black Lives Matter, National Black United Front, the Anti-Defamation League, Texas Appleseed, National Action Network, Greater Houston Coalition for Justice, We the People Organize and Texas Cops & Communities.
“I leaned towards the groups that were actually doing the work and I put them in the model. I wanted to keep City Hall politics and the politics from the police out of the decisions that would be made by the board,” Stewart said. “I wanted to give the board enough power to be able to make decisions that would affect the police department in a positive way as far as the community being able to believe that things were being handled properly in these investigations where people were being hurt or killed and handled by people who don’t have skin in the game. I want to take the HPD hierarchy and the city council and the mayor out of those decisions.”
According to HPD General Order 200-03 regarding the Investigation of Employee Misconduct, last revised in 2012, the agency’s internal affairs division (IAD) “serves as a fact-finding entity for investigations of employee misconduct.”
HPD’s Independent Police Oversight Board (IPOB) reviews internal investigations involving use of force, discharge of firearms, incidents resulting in serious bodily injury or death and other investigations requested and approved by the police chief.
For at least a decade and over the course of two Houston mayors – Turner and his predecessor, Annise Parker – activists have been calling for any independent police oversight board to have subpoena power.
Parker’s 2011 update to civilian review was met with a lukewarm reception from grassroots activists and victims of police misconduct who doubted that her committee of residents and criminal justice experts would adequately address community concerns.
In 2018, Mayor Sylvester Turner created a new IPOB with two dozen members “to provide a system of increased accountability and transparency and to facilitate resident input into the internal investigative process of the Houston Police Department” – but the executive order doesn’t grant the panel subpoena power.
A new layer of scrutiny was added that allows disagreements about the resolution of cases between the board and police brass to be mediated by the city’s Office of Inspector General, which has the option to conduct its own investigation.
In June, Turner signed an executive order on the use of deadly force which codified previous prohibitions on neck restraints and chokeholds – the same maneuver employed by officers in 2014 in New York City on Eric Garner and on George Floyd this year in Minneapolis, to fatal results. Those deaths sparked widespread protests and continued calls for policy change.
The same month, Turner appointed a new Policing Reforms Task Force to review HPD policies and practices. The 45-member panel chaired by Dr. Larry Payne is charged with duties that include reviewing IPOB operations, assessing when body camera footage should or should not be released, and evaluating how HPD is handling community policing.
The task force first met on July 6, and has up to 90 days, a deadline looming in early October, to submit recommendations.
In responding to a request for comment about Stewart’s proposal, Turner’s director of communications, Mary Benton, said in an email that the mayor “continues to listen to community members as he works on issues related to policing reform” and that he expects recommendations “soon” from the task force.
HPD spokeswoman Jodi Silva said Acevedo had not seen Stewart’s proposal, but would forward the document to the chief when a copy was received.
Stewart said he hasn’t talked to the mayor or the police chief, but has little faith in Turner’s version of an IPOB or the new task force.
“The board doesn’t get to see much to make a decision. They basically sign off on the investigation that internal affairs did. They don’t have any power,” Stewart said. “I think the task force is just a political move to pacify Black and brown communities in Houston. Many of those people are connected to the mayor.”
The framework is officially named “The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth Model for Justice and Accountability” to salute a civil rights legend who was a mentor to Stewart.
Shuttlesworth, a fiery activist who died at age 89 in 2011, worked alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama in the 1950s. In the following decade, he played pivotal roles in the Freedom Rides, the 1963 Birmingham campaign and the Selma Voting Rights Movement, which were watershed moments for nonviolent social change. For decades into his senior years, Shuttlesworth served as a pastor and agitator against racism and homelessness in Cincinnati, where a street is named to recognize his contributions.
In 2008, Alabama’s most populous city renamed the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in his honor.