Houston, TX – Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg retaliated against criticism from members of the Houston Police Department (HPD) on Monday, by cutting off police access to a database that is essential to criminal investigations, the police union said.
Shortly thereafter, Ogg’s office issued a memo prohibiting assistant district attorneys from communicating with law enforcement officers regarding the disposition of criminal cases, according to a document received by Blue Lives Matter.
“[The] DA's office [is] playing politics w/public safety and endangering Houstonians by denying our detectives access to a very important database,” Houston Police Officer’s Union (HPOU) President Joe Gamaldi tweeted on Tuesday.
“They are specifically targeting HPD, every other agency in [Harris County] still has access,” Gamaldi charged.
“I never thought in a million years this office would play politics over public safety but here we sit, with our officers denied to a system that is extremely important to investigating these public crimes and they just took it away on a whim,” he told KPRC.
Gamaldi said that the police union met with Ogg on Friday, in an attempt to discuss and resolve points of disagreement between law enforcement officers and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office (HCDA).
“We did have a meeting with the DA office, and to say it was contentious would be an understatement,” Gamaldi said.
When 5,200 HPD officers went to log into the Consolidated Criminal History Database on Monday, they were greeted by an error message, Gamaldi told Blue Lives Matter.
“Access to our internal system, Consolidated Criminal History (CCH), will be suspended as we work through some system issues while taking our office paperless,” the error read. “This will also give HCDAO time to review and update our [Memorandum of Understanding] to share this information with HPD.”
Officers quickly realized that the outage was far more than a system maintenance issue, KPRC reported.
“No one else in law enforcement in Harris County has been locked out of this system with the exception of the Houston Police Department,” Gamaldi said. “That’s kind of a coincidence to me.”
After Ogg declined a request for an interview with KPRC, the HCDA’s error message on the CCH database changed, however, and dropped all reference to the HPD and to the memorandum of understanding.
“Access to our internal system...will be suspended temporarily,” the new error message read.
Gamaldi said that officers were still able to gather information using other sources, but that the process would take hours, instead of minutes.
The district attorney’s office’s director of communications also sent an email to KPRC, which seemed to indicate the office had no intention of explaining why HPD officers were specifically denied access to the database.
“This is an intra-agency matter regarding the security of information and technology,” the email read, according to KPRC. “It is a matter to be addressed by the leadership of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office and the Houston Police Department.”
“They said it was a maintenance issue in the beginning,” Gamaldi told Blue Lives Matter on Wednesday. “Now they say it’s a security issue, which is fine, but please provide examples and we will certainly address them.”
“As of right now, 5,200 hard-working officers still have no access to the database,” he said. “It’s 100 percent a public safety issue. They’ve put politics over public safety.”
HCDA upped the ante further on Tuesday evening, when Trial Bureau Chief David Mitcham issued a memo to “all Assistant District Attorney’s Trying Cases.”
“The protocol for discussing the disposition of cases with law enforcement officers is as follows,” the memo read.
“The Officer or Officers who worked the case and have inquiries or concerns about the disposition of their cases may direct their questions to the Chief Prosecutor assigned to the Court where the case was disposed,” Mitcham wrote.
The directive, which prohibited assistant district attorneys from communicating with officers once a case was disposed, was “unprecedented in Harris County,” a former HPD officer told Blue Lives Matter.
On Wednesday, Mitcham told Blue Lives Matter that the memo was a “refinement of protocol,” intended to “make a more practical method of communication.”
“We want to work with law enforcement, and we aren’t trying in any way to shut them out,” he said.
Mitcham told Blue Lives Matter that the memo was sent out after a multitude of inquiries and complaints about dispositional matters were sent to higher-ranking officials in the HCDA office, who then had to seek out information from prosecutors who actually handled the cases in question.
The HCDA wanted those inquiries to be made at a lower level, and to be brought up the “chain of command” if warranted, as opposed to back down the chain of command, he said.
When Blue Lives Matter asked Mitcham why officers couldn’t simply direct their inquiries to the prosecutors who handled the cases through disposition, he argued that they could – but that a chief prosecutor must be present.
“We want to make sure they are getting accurate information,” Mitcham said. “And [the assistant district attorneys] are quite simply not as qualified as the chief prosecutor is.”
Mitcham acknowledged that the memo may have been interpreted as an attempt to restrict communication between assistant district attorneys and officers, but claimed that was not the intent.
“We regret the misunderstanding on that, and maybe we’ll try to clarify that further,” he told Blue Lives Matter.
Regardless of Mitcham’s reasoning, Gamaldi argued that the HCDA’s decision to restrict communication between prosecutors and law enforcement was detrimental to the partnership that should exist between the two entities.
“[Ogg] ran on a platform of transparency,” Gamaldi told Blue Lives Matter. “I don’t understand why communication would be restricted, unless maybe they have something to hide. I’m not saying that they do, but I cannot logically find another conclusion.”
“No matter our differences, the mission of keeping the city of Houston safe is the same,” he said. “Never put politics above public safety.”
He said that no further meetings between the HPOU and the HCDA have been scheduled.
These latest controversies came less than two weeks after Ogg was blasted by retired HPD Officer Mark Stephens, after she blamed him for her office’s decision to not prosecute an organized crime ring.
“For perspective, we are talking about one of the most prolific organized crime rings targeting home builders and new home appliances probably in Harris County history, in my opinion,” Stephens said in a Facebook post. “I’m talking about hundreds if not thousands of burglaries and thefts that stretched all across Harris County and beyond.”
Despite a multitude of evidence – including photos and videos of burglaries in progress – Ogg claimed that Stephens had not sufficiently investigated the case.
“In an attempt to defend herself and her office from failing to take action against these criminals, Ms. Ogg placed the blame squarely on me by stating that I ‘pushed’ a case on the DA’s office and offered ‘no evidence’ or ‘not enough evidence,’” Stephens blasted in his post.
“While it’s not unusual for a politician to look into a news camera and tell a lie or a factually incorrect statement ... I feel compelled to respond in order to set the record straight,” he said.