Monday, September 15, 2008

Civil Order in Houston

Folks who followed the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina through Interdictor's blog are surely wondering how Houston's civil order is in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike. Unlike New Orleans, whose officers seemed to have dissolved in the face of disaster, Houston has regular patrols and a visible police presence.[1] 

My informants report spotting vehicles carrying teams of four male occupants, cruising in neighborhoods where they clearly had no personal connection, presumably casing the area. Identifying evacuated homes that might not have powered security systems, but would have good loot, probably seemed like a good plan to members of some professions. How will Houston moderate the risk of ill behavior under these circumstances?

Houston is under a curfew from 9PM to 6AM, so it's easier to spot night-time crooks. Under the curfew order, anybody spotted outdoors at the wrong time is a crook. Simplicity, no? Also, Houston didn't mostly evacuate. Sure, Houston is largely without power -- informants tell me fuel prices aren't up at all despite the storm, because there's no power with which to operate fuel pumps -- but this doesn't impact the inclination or ability to conduct home defense.[2] I don't expect a spike in violence in the storm's aftermath, as was observed in New Orleans, though I expect opportunistic property crimes to be a factor.

One reason to conclude as I have that civil order is likely to be maintained in Houston as compared to New Orleans is that civil order in New Orleans was largely a joke to begin with. New Orleans is famous for corruption, and abuse of office is a theme I've heard in numerous anecdotes from the city (even anecdotes intended to be funny, told by people who love the city). The police officers and prosecutors didn't create a cultural expectation of consequences for crime, so when crime targets presented themselves in large numbers in New Orleans, people inclined to behave poorly behaved really poorly.

To give you an idea of the cultural difference in expectation of consequences, let me lay out for you some of the things that surprised Katrina evacuees who, having been successful career criminals in New Orleans, attempted to continue their work in Texas. And yes, there were some Katricians (their word) committing crimes in Houston. Arresting officers were taken aback by criminals laughing at them for bothering to conduct an arrest, and were surprised to be taunted in sneering voices about how the arrestees would be walking free the next day. Or the same day. One shopkeeper interviewee explained it this way: "The locals care if you see them stealing; the evacuees don't." Houstonians' experience with the criminals who were part of the Karina evacuation was certainly an unpleasant surprise.

But the real surprise, it turned out, was on the part of the arrested folks. You see, they genuinely did not expect that (a) the police would expend the time and effort bring them to a processing center and jail them pending trial, (b) the Harris County prosecutors would actually perform the steps needed to have them formally charged, and appear in court as often as was required to move them toward trial or a plea deal, and (c) nobody was trying to game them into a payoff, they really wanted to convict and sentence suspected offenders. These things -- part of business as usual in local law enforcement here -- came as rather a shock to repeat offenders with rap sheets longer than you are tall, who were nevertheless still walking free when Katrina hit New Orleans. The idea that government employees might have enough work ethic to actually process a suspected offender, or work to charge and convict an accused criminal when there was no obvious political or financial benefit flowing from the particular case, was simply not on the mental map of people who'd lived all their lives committing crimes in New Orleans.[3]

New Orleans' civil order in the face of unashamed sociopaths was apparently a thin veneer put on to keep tourists (read: easy marks) from writing the place off completely. The fact that many of these not-really-committed citizens had bailed out of New Orleans without a plan to return was of great worry to government officials facing re-election by a committed minority who expected government to work as diligently on the city as they had to get their businesses back up and running. A year after the storm hit, Houston was barraged with campaign ads for New Orleans political candidates, targeting new Houston residents who departed New Orleans in teh face (or in the wake) of Katrina. The sponsors of these ads clearly hoped the ex-Louisiana residents could be persuaded to vote by absentee ballot or by special polling arrangement in a New Orleans election.

Mind you, the definition of citizenship in the United States -- and therefore voting eligibility -- is based on domicile. Your domicile can be retained in Houston if you go to Flower Mound until you are given official instructions that persons subject to the evacuation order are instructed to return, because you still have a fixed place of residence in Houston and a firm intent -- an intent with an ascertainable time -- for your return. This is why absentee ballots are still valid when you are doing a semester abroad: you have a domicile in the U.S., despite being gone, because you have a home to which to return and a known time you will return. The year-after campaign ads in Houston weren't targeting people who had a discernible time to return. These were people who had ignored official pleas for residents to come rebuild New Orleans, and were happier with their opportunities in Houston. (Except for the people with crime careers, who returned after figuring out that their standard of living was much better in New Orleans because of the reduction in occupational hazards associated with interaction with the criminal justice system. These guys largely figured out they weren't welcome and bailed. New Orleans is, from their point of view, once again the right place to do business.)

Now that I've established that Houston has some aspiring looters cruising the streets, through they are too timid to attempt crime while my informants are looking, I'm sure the next question is whether Houston will start gunning down minorities. Houston installed its first African American police chief in 1982 when it picked up Mr. Brown (later, Houston's first African American mayor) from his post as police commissioner from Atlanta. Its second African American police chief, Clarence Bradford, having served as police chief under two mayors, is now the democratic candidate for District Attorney (Judge Lykos, his Republican opponent, is a woman). Houston sits astride Harris County, which is a majority-minorty jurisdiction: less than half the population is "white".

This is to say: which group(s) should qualify in Houston as a minority?

Jokes aside, Houston took a turn a couple decades ago as a national leader in murders, and has turned itself around with vastly lower homicide numbers in the face of a greatly grown population. Houston's police patrols and response are clearly superior now to what existed in the 1980s, and the last time I was pulled over by a police officer I was given a citation because, I was told by the non-white officer, that they were keeping records of the races involved in traffic stops and since I was white he really had to give me a ticket. Apparently the course on discrimination law is an elective at the HPD Academy.  (I was pulled over for purportedly making a dangerous turn, which is funny, because I was trying to escape the danger posed by the ticketing officer as he barrelled down a 35 zone at about 80 on the way to a call.  If he was so hot to get to the call, why is he stopping to ticket people turning out of his way in fear to avoid being rear-ended?  Crazy.  In Texas you can generally disappear one ticket a year with defensive driving, so this kind of oddball interruption isn't as serious as it might otherwise be.)

Despite the great diversity in Houston's races and languages -- you can find street signs here in Chinese or Vietnamese if you go to the right parts of town -- we seem to get along pretty well. For a place as heavily armed as Houston, you'd expect more violence if we were prone to it.

The real problems facing Houston at present are:
  • Electricity Outages. The cold front is a blessing, the additional rain notwithstanding, but if power isn't back by the time the cool air is defeated by Houston's September, people will bake alive in their homes. Without electricity, fuel stations can't pump fuel. One station north of town was rationing fuel to people with containers to prevent immediate sellout, and it had enormous lines. So far, people don't seem to be out of fuel, just the electricity to pump it. Until electricity is back, evacuated residents should stay away, which means the curfew will continue to prevent property losses.
  • Groceries. Grocery stores, like everyone else, need things like power (lights? refrigerators? cash registers?). I have reports from two stores that are out of numerous things but still have huge lines for entry. Fresh fruits and vegetables require frequent restocking, and dairy requires refrigeration. This is going to be a problem unless restocking becomes plausible.
  • Busted Stuff.  All this junk must go somewhere, and Houston isn't Camelot -- unwanted bits laying about don't all blow away completely, at night (of course).  Debris is an impediment to rebuilding, and it will keep lots of inundated downtown offices from being restored to working order any time soon.  A roof doesn't work if it leaks, and no building is habitable (at least in Houston) unless it can resist rainfall.  Downtown law firms with soaked and scattered papers, and computers that all now enjoy liquid cooling?  Let's hope you've got work-stoppage insurance and off-site backup.

[1] Houston also has nontrivial military presence, which ordinarily doesn't come to anyone's attention because it ordinarily doesn't mass in public. There are, for example, reservist units based in Houston that meet and train and muster for exercises, but my chief interaction with them was on the weekends when tending a Houston grocery store cash register as a high-schooler -- they'd send a couple of folks to load up on refreshments and donuts to keep the weekend warriors sustained. I can't get my pics uploaded from here, but before I bugged out I photographed a line of military vehicles, their storage areas filled with liquid containers, lining up to be in place to offer support following the storm. Whether the containers were fuel or water or both wasn't something I discerned walking past.

[2] Home defense actually means something in Harris County. Unlike some jursdictions, Harris County is very receptive to homicide defenses based on deliberate acts to protect third parties or their property. Failure of a criminal charge can occur through a grand jury's disinclination to indict, or through a prosecutor's disinclination even to bring the charge to the grand jury. As for being armed to defend one's home ... I read in the 1980s that Harris County had more firearms in it than the combined arsenals of the then-warring nations of Iran and Iraq. Mind you, I have been informed that automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers and their ammunition are as easily obtained in Iraq as are matchbooks in the United States, so I retain a certain skepticism about the relative firearms count.  We have a lot of matchbooks.

[3] Mind you, the people who lived all their lives in New Orleans not committing crimes were probably happy someone finally began doing something to get the garbage off the streets. I know some New Orleans people myself, and I love 'em. Indeed, it was these New Orleans friends who warned me that they didn't leave New Orleans to become the neighbor of a relocated Ninth Ward. It's these folks, the ones who act like they've bought off the whole government already and are entitled to everything they can steal and are offended they aren't getting even better handouts than they've received, that get my eyes rolling. And for you non-evil New Orleanders, here and everywhere: laisses les bons temps rouler!

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