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Attitude Check

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Why is Houston plain and simple and aboveboard even when it's wrong, and Dallas is sneaky and convoluted even when it's right? Urban karma? Their main tourist attraction is the Galleria Mall. Ours is Dealey Plaza. Case closed.

Example: the issue of arresting people for "failure to identify."

Dallas police continue to arrest people improperly for failure to identify themselves, even though the official police policy in Dallas for at least a decade has spelled out exactly how this charge may and may not be used in Texas.

For a long time in Houston, on the other hand, they just had it wrong. Official policy there up until recently was that the cops could arrest you just for refusing to give them your name. By state law, they can't. You have to provide a police officer with identification only if you are already under arrest for something else. If you have been detained as a witness, you don't have to give your name, but it is against the law to give a fake name. Other than these exceptions, a police officer has no right to demand that you identify yourself.

When you think about it, this is a pretty basic American concept. Demanding identity papers is something Claude Rains might have done to Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, but it's not something many of us consider a normal part of American life. It grates against a fundamental American sense of personal liberty. Of course, the Houston case is a beautiful example of whose normal American life we're usually talking about with this charge.

Late one night three and a half years ago in Kingwood, an affluent, newly annexed area far north of downtown Houston, a resident called police to complain about a black male running around wildly in his underpants and boots. An officer found the guy and flagged him over to the patrol car for a little chat. But the man refused and kept running. Two other officers showed up and demanded that the man talk to them. He refused again. They cuffed him and put him in the car. They demanded that he identify himself, and he refused to give his name, so they busted him for failure to ID.

When it was all sorted out, the man really hadn't been running around in his underwear. He was running around in his running shorts, T-shirt, and running shoes. He was in the area because he lived there. And he knew a lot about the law, because he was a federal judge.

Now for the pop quiz: In this particular real-life scenario in which an American citizen was arrested for failure to ID, which part of the situation did the cops get right?

You got it! He was, as the facts proved, black.

But here is the good news about Houston: Eventually the city attorney and the Houston police chief and the Houston City Council all stood up in the council chamber in front of the cameras, hiked up their trousers, raised a hand, and said, "My bad." Last November the Houston City Council agreed to pay federal immigration Judge Jimmie L. Benton, 46, damages of $55,000 for his wrongful arrest on a charge of failure to ID. An assistant chief of police told reporters, "They had reasonable cause to stop him, but they had no probable cause for arrest."

And Houston City Attorney Anthony Hall said, "The mere failure to identify yourself to a police officer is not an offense in this state."

In Dallas, a recently released set of numbers shows conclusively that the use and misuse of this charge here is a racial and ethnic issue. In response to a demand from the Citizens/Police Review Board, the Dallas Police Department released numbers showing that between January 1995 and September 2000, almost 60 percent of the people arrested for failure to ID in Dallas were black.

Stack that against a black population usually estimated at about 30 percent of the city, and you have black people being arrested for this offense at two times the rate of their demographic presence.

In the period reported by the police department, a total of 17,665 Dallas citizens were charged with failure to ID. One of the arguments Dallas police officials have made for arresting people on this charge is what they claim has been a high conviction rate: By their count, just over 9,000 cases in the reporting period have been disposed of, with 85 percent resulting in "convictions."

If the police are handling this charge the wrong way, police officials asked the Citizens/Police Review Board, why does the criminal justice system find that 85 percent of the people brought to trial on it are guilty?

But David Davis, a Dallas attorney who is now representing two people on this issue, examined the full set of numbers released by the police department and came to a very different conclusion. Of the 9,003 closed cases, Davis points out, 1,391 were dismissed. That leaves 7,612 failure to ID cases that resulted in a finding of guilt or innocence. Of those, exactly one case produced a verdict of not guilty.

But of the other 7,611 cases that police officials bragged about to the review board, claiming an 85 percent conviction rate, 6,340 actually were plea bargains in which the defendant was sentenced to "time served." Time served is the night you spend in jail waiting to get arraigned.

That means that in more than 70 percent of failure to ID cases, the city attorney and the municipal judge tell the guy, "Look, we'll let you go home right away with just the time you've already served in jail and no fine, if you will just sign here saying you were guilty."

In other words, if these were good charges, the police and the city attorney ought to be willing to go to trial with some of them and try to collect fines. Otherwise, it's a straight city expense--processing and jail time--with no revenue. But Davis thinks they know the charge is bogus, so they don't want to go to trial on it.

"The city and police management are, if not explicitly then at least tacitly, permitting police officers to maintain order in the streets and effect curbside justice with a charge they know won't stand up in court," Davis says.

After the review board forced the release of the numbers, police Chief Terrell Bolton did ask for and receive an audience with The Dallas Morning News editorial board, and an editorial did appear in a recent edition of the News saying that reforms are needed and that Bolton is working on them.

At Bolton's direction, a new training video has been produced for police, which I have seen, and it tries to explain some of the finer points of the law. Bolton also has talked about putting video cameras on police cars as a way of making sure arrests are done by the book. Certainly the chief deserves credit for all of that.

But I am also aware that the chief has been calling around to various political leaders in the community complaining that the review board is trying to run his department and needs to be reined in. I asked the chief to discuss that with me, and he declined, through a spokesperson.

The videotape, meanwhile, never says, "Just don't do it." It never tells police to make sure they don't use this charge as street justice. Instead, it seems only to give them pointers on how to use it more cleverly.

Let's discuss a few practical aspects of this issue. For example, the other day I picked up a copy of Dallas Child magazine, which happened to be lying around the house, and I noticed an article in it by this woman, Mariana Greene. I noticed it mainly because this woman, Mariana Greene, is my wife. So what is this woman writing about but kids who get into trouble with the police and what you should tell your teenager to do if a police officer demands some ID? On her list of things to do, she wrote, "Give correct name, age, parents' names, and phone number."

At first I'm reading this, and I think, "Hey, we need to get on the same page with this." But then I think about it some more, and I realize, yeah, we have always told our kid, if he ever gets into trouble with a police officer, "Snatch off the hat; say 'sir' and 'ma'am' a whole lot; call off your full name, address, and serial number the moment you are asked; and, if there's a lull in the conversation, ask the officer if he or she knows of any good orphanages."

But failure to ID isn't really our issue, because we're white.

The numbers indicate that the charge is used disingenuously by police, especially against minorities, not to get ID from people but as punishment for a bad attitude.

That's really what needs to be rooted out: the concept of the attitude check, whether it's done with this charge or some other charge. Ask the British: They'll tell you our whole country was founded on a bad attitude.

You know an interesting thing about this issue? You know who has really pushed it from the beginning? A guy named Tony Garrett, who is on the review board.

Garrett is white and a conservative Republican. But he happens to take his civil liberties very seriously. "I believe in limited government," he said the other day. "I want the government to pick up my garbage and then stay the hell out of my life."

Things here are so complicated. Think about Houston. They do it wrong. Get caught. 'Fess up and pay up, then fix the problem. What in the world do they do with the rest of their time down there?

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