HPD maintains its focus on community relations
The events in Ferguson have led to allegations of police brutality and excessive police tactics around the United States. During the Ferguson protests, police were seen atop armored vehicles aiming their weapons at crowds and responding to protesters by firing rubber bullets and rounds of tear gas.
Criticism came from all branches of government – much of which was directed at St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar. UH alumnus and Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland aimed to distance Houston’s police department from the kind in Ferguson when he spoke to the community on Feb. 18 at the Printing Museum.
“I can’t believe, (even) in a blind drunken stupor, that I would do anything that guy did,” said Houston Police Department Chief Charles McClelland. “He wasn’t even on the scene. He went home at 5 o’clock to have dinner with his wife.”
McClelland said control fell upon a single lieutenant in the Ferguson police force. As protests grew, that lieutenant contacted Belmar for authorization to use tear gas and mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles.
According to McClelland, Belmar said, “I wish you wouldn’t, but I’m not there, so do what you got to do.”
McClelland said that a series of missteps led to the loss of control. He added that the chief of police or an assistant chief should’ve stayed on the scene.
Belmar’s response to the use of scoped rifles was that they didn’t have any binoculars and that they were using the scopes to scan the crowd.
“Everything he said didn’t make sense,” McClelland said. “But once it got out of control, he was never able to regain control.”
McClelland said HPD has strict policies and procedures when it comes to crowd control and using armored vehicles.
“The armored vehicles that we have, we don’t put anything on the street in a civil-disobedience type situation,” McClelland said. “We don’t put anything out in camouflage — it’s painted black and white, it has our color schemes on it, our brand on it. You don’t use armor against a crowd.”
Because of the lingering questions surrounding aggressive police strategies, law enforcement agencies have begun implementing the use of body cameras. Last year, HPD began a pilot program that fitted 100 of its officers. Proponents argue that the benefits outweigh the issues of privacy and the increased levels of surveillance.
According to a University of Cambridge study, body cameras effected a 50 percent reduction in the use of force and a 90 percent reduction in complaints against the police. In August, McClelland put in an $8 million request to City Hall to equip 3,500 officers with cameras.
Though the pilot program’s results impressed him, McClelland said he understands that cameras have limitations.
“A camera is not a substitute for good police community relations. It’s a poor substitute,” McClelland said.
“There’s video footage in the Eric Garner case; we saw what happened, and did it produce the results or the outcome that many people wished for?”
Good community relations and community-based policing have been important tenets during McClelland’s tenure. Every three months, he meets with different groups around the city to discuss grievances and to answer any questions.
“Police are the public, the public are the police,” McClelland said.
“All we are are citizens and residents with guns and badges who have special training.”