Edit @ 2:05 P.M.: Thanks so much for joining us everyone. Read the full project here, and if you have questions you can ask the Unholstered team at [email protected].

I am a criminal justice lecturer at Texas State University and a former police chief. I was the police chief of San Marcos for 11 years, and I served with the Austin Police Department for 25 years before that.

Earlier this week, The Texas Tribune published Unholstered — a project where reporters gathered data on six years of police shootings in Texas' largest 36 cities. The reporters found 656 incidents. The investigation examined unarmed shootings, off-duty shootings and much more. As a former police chief, I was one of the experts The Texas Tribune interviewed to contextualize that data.

You can read the project here, and you can AMA about police shootings in Texas. Also joining are Texas Tribune reporters Jolie McCullough (joliesky) and Johnathan Silver (JohnathanSilverTrib). They can help answer your questions about their reporting and the data they gathered.

Proof: * Dr. Howard Williams * Jolie McCullough * Johnathan Silver

Comments: 383 • Responses: 16  • Date: 

ReginaldLADOO558 karma

Man, I wish this AMA was getting more traction. You are giving some well thought out answers. It's often hit or miss around here. Depending on times, what other AMA's are going on simultaneously, etc. So don't take it personally lol. There were some good questions at least.

But I would like to ask 1 more question if that is okay. In your 36 years in law enforcement, was there a single experience that was your most rewarding? Maybe one particular day or event that impacted you the most? Also, what was the biggest change in law enforcement practices over your career? I imagine you witnessed great changes in crime scene forensics in your time?

Thanks again.

drhowardwilliams3762 karma

Long war story.

I once got a call of a man passed out in a movie theater. It was about 2:30 a.m. Apparently, he had gone to see a movie and passed out drunk, falling onto the floor between the seats. The crew cleaning the theater found him and called the police.

When I woke him up, he was so drunk that he could not tell me where he was, how he got there, or how he was planning to get home. Naturally, I arrested him for public intoxication.

He plead not guilty to the charge, and we had a trial. The judge found him not guilty because she felt that, since he had been sleeping for about four or five hours, he must not have been that drunk.

About two years later, I ran into the man again at a disturbance call. He was not part of the disturbance. A lady in his apartment complex ran to his apartment when her husband was threatening her. He let her in and called the police.

When I had finished the call and was preparing to leave, he asked if I remembered him, because I had not said anything about our previous encounter. I replied that I did remember him, but that had nothing to do with why I was there so there was no reason to bring it up.

That's when he said, "Well, I want to tell you something."

Immediately I started thinking he was going to fuss about my taking him to jail when he was not guilty of being drunk. Instead, he started explaining that he was an alcoholic, and that he never realized it until he awoke in jail and had no idea why he was there or what he had done. He went on to explain that his wife and family had been threatening to disown him over his drinking, and his boss was threatening to fire him. He said that was their problem, not his.

When he awoke in jail, he decided he needed help, and he joined AA as soon as he got out. He said things were going much better for him now. He had just gotten a promotion and raise at work, his family was back in his corner, and he and his wife had recently welcomed a baby daughter (they let me hold her).

He told me I had probably saved his life, and wanted to apologize to me and thank me for what I had done for him. Going to jail was what it took to convince him to turn his life around.

Many times in police work we see our failures over and over again. We get calls on them all of the time. We rarely get to see our successes, because they stay out of trouble. We seldom realize how much good we actually contribute, because we get called to deal with failures, not to celebrate successes. Luck of the draw is the only reason I got to hear his story. His story is why we do what we do.

The greatest advance, DNA. What an incredible tool when it is available. While I was Chief, my detectives solved a 35-year-old-murder because of DNA evidence.

JustAnOldRoadie12 karma

Life well lived, sir. Thank you for decades of service to the innocents, forgotten, lost, hurt and alone. May I ask what prompted a career in law enforcement?

drhowardwilliams45 karma

From the time I was a youngster, I was the peacemaker among my friends. It seems to me that I was simply born for it. I cannot think of anything else I would rather have done with my life.

Awesomater66 karma

Generally, the media likes to paint law enforcement and Black Lives Matter supporters as being against each other. What is your opinion on this portrayal?

drhowardwilliams236 karma

I think to some degree that is true. There are always people who, for whatever reason, are going to be anti-police. That is okay. Everyone should be entitled to their opinion. However, I do not believe that all of BLM is anti-police. I have spoken with BLM members who are very concerned about police/community relations, and they are sincerely trying to make things better, not worse.

Unfortunately, news is news. The anti-police rhetoric is often newsworthy, but genteel cooperation and discussion are not. We all need to do a better job (and that includes the media) in emphasizing the efforts to improve relations. That does not mean ignore the protests, but let's also include a balanced view to include the community meetings and rallies that do not become disruptive.

Awesomater57 karma

What kind of pressures do the police department higher ups have when unarmed shootings occur? Are they accountable to city officials or does it depend on how much attention is received perhaps?

drhowardwilliams156 karma

There is pressure whenever there is a police shooting, armed or not. This is the most drastic measure a government can take -- taking the life of a citizen. There should always be pressure to explain and justify it. It is equally important, however, for government officials and the public to listen to the answers.

As I have often told my students, "Question authority, but have the grace to listen when it answers."

One thing that is important to remember, is that unarmed does not mean the person is not a threat. The third most frequently used murder weapon in the United States is a person's hands and feet. It might be more difficult to explain a fear of death or serious bodily injury from someone without a weapon, but they can still be deadly. The person's being unarmed does not automatically mean deadly force is inappropriate.


Is there anything that can be done currently to ease tension between the police in Texas and the general public (and vice versa)?

drhowardwilliams103 karma

Open and honest conversations are critical to resolving tensions. Relationships, whether they are between family members or are between the police and public need open honest communication to survive critical times.

So often the public begins to complain long before they even know what happened. Part of the reason for that is the police departments' reluctance to release information.

There is no substitute for beginning that conversation right away after a critical incident. There will always be questions unanswered early in an investigation because there has not been sufficient time to get all of the answers, yet. Nevertheless, the sooner we can begin a conversation based on the facts instead of supposition or suspicion, the better off we will all be.

This is not going to be an immediate fix. It takes time to build that trust level once it is lost.

aGuyFromTexas35 karma

Is there any evidence to suggest the rise in fatal incidents with the police in Texas is related to relaxed or relaxing of hiring standards by police departments? If not, what sort of money is spent on training police in deescalating situations?

The Dallas PD wasn’t mentioned in the first 3 stories of Unholstered and I think I remember something about the efforts Chief Brown made to emphasize descalation training early on in his tenure as Chief.

drhowardwilliams94 karma

I do not believe there is a problem with relaxed hiring standards. I never saw any evidence of that. Every Chief I knew refused to lower standards and would rather work short than hire someone who was not qualified.

I do believe that there is a problem in newer officers being somewhat limited in communications skills. Let's face it, I am old. I am a Baby Boomer. Our childhoods were built around pick-up football and basketball games, playing face-to-face with others. We learned how to work out our frustrations with each other and keep going.

Today, unfortunately, our youth seem to think that playing computer games with people they cannot see or speak with directly is entertainment. Nothing wrong with that necessarily, but it does not lend itself to learning how to mitigate personal conflicts face-to-face.

Law enforcement is, and always will be, a face-to-face business. We must communicate with people when they are scared, drunk, high, sick, angry, or mentally ill. We have to spend a lot of time in training new officers how to talk people down because they did not learn that growing up. The state does require such training for new officers.

gb33003325 karma

In each of your opinions, what was the most significant/surprising thing you learned in compiling this report?

drhowardwilliams60 karma

I started researching officer-involved shooting fatalities about two years ago. I limited my research to fatalities because my research interest is arrest-related deaths, which includes deaths not related to the use of firearms. I can say that what the authors of this report found jibes with what I found in my research. Record keeping, not only in Texas but across the US, is terrible. The federal systems commonly used to track officer-involved shooting fatalities are only capturing about half of the fatalities. This lack of reliable information makes it very difficult for government officials and academics alike to engage in evidence-based discussions about the problems.

Zenmachine8325 karma

It has come to light that one of the police officers killed in Dallas had neo-Nazi/white supremacist tattoos and affiliations. How is that a member of a police force, surrounded by people supposedly trained to spot criminals could work next to someone with these kind of beliefs? The LEO in Philadelphia with a Nazi tattoo is another example. How much of a problem is white supremacist infiltration of law enforcement?

drhowardwilliams53 karma

The unfortunate truth is that there are police officers with biases. We do the best we can to weed them out before we hire them, but the hiring practice is not always fail-proof. As the Chief, I once fired one of my new rookie officers for voicing his racist attitudes during his training period. Somehow, that did not come out in his background investigation.

In many agencies, especially those with Civil Service protection, unless an officer violates a law or an established department policy, you cannot simply fire them. Their employment is protected by law.

Having a tattoo is expression that is protected under the free speech clause of the First Amendment. If the department had a policy that said the tattoo must remain covered while in uniform, and the officer kept it covered, there is no policy violation and he cannot be fired simply for having the tattoo.

Having the belief and acting upon it are different things. If there was evidence that the officer was treating people unfairly because of their race, he would be subject to discipline and eventually to dismissal. If there was not evidence of that, there is nothing the department can do about it as a matter of law. The First Amendment protects the police officer, too.

BobbyCBlanchard18 karma

Hi Dr. Williams, the Texas Tribune's social media manager here. One of the things we found is there's a lot we still don't know about shootings. As both a former chief and and a current expert, how do you think police departments should handle records on shootings?

drhowardwilliams50 karma

The state of Wisconsin recently mandated that records of police shootings are open records unless criminal charges are filed related to that shooting. I believe Texas should follow that example.

Obviously, if criminal charges are filed, those records should remain exempt from disclosure until the criminal charges are finally disposed. And, for a while immediately after the shooting, the records must remain exempt, at least until the investigation is closed. We must guard, however, against investigations that never end.

For example, the state could mandate that unless criminal charges are filed within 6 months (that is an entirely random time suggestion), the records are public record and must be provided to anyone making a Public Information Act request. There could still be some exceptions to full disclosure. For instance, out of concern for officer safety, the names of the officers could be substituted with aliases, such as Officer A, Sergeant B., etc.

The public's having access to these records helps to ensure that departments are not trying to coverup a shooting. Public confidence is vital to police legitimacy, and keeping those records exempt from disclosure only adds to public suspicion. It also makes it easier for public officials to intelligently discuss any necessary changes to public policy related to officer-involved shootings.

persine13 karma

What were the reactions or comments that you got from former colleagues at San Marcos or the Austin Police Department after the project came out?

drhowardwilliams36 karma

I have heard from my peers at the University, but I have heard nothing from former police colleagues. I do not know whether they have seen the report, or they just have nothing to say.

I can tell you that anyone who has ever worked with me knows my attitude about use of force. There is a legal side to every use of force, no matter how great or minor it is, but there is also a moral and ethical side. It is equally important to know what one can do, and what one should do. There is no separating one from the other.

AFGtheOpossum10 karma

Do you think the student's right to carry a gun to university makes it a safer place?

drhowardwilliams47 karma

Shootings on university campuses happen rarely. Nevertheless, they do happen. I take no exception with a law-abiding citizen being able to protect himself/herself.

That being said, there will be so few incidents that it will probably take years to accumulate enough data to determine whether campus carry has a positive or negative effect.

All I know for sure is that the prohibition against carrying firearms on campus did not stop the people who brought firearms onto campus so they could shoot people who were unable to protect themselves.

CourtofOwls410 karma

How do you feel about the widespread resentment of police by the general population? What started all this? Is there anything police can do to curb it? How do you feel about #blacklivesmatter?

drhowardwilliams38 karma

First, I am not sure just how widespread the sentiment is. I know there are vocal groups of citizens who protest, but I also know of a lot of people who support the police. I believe this difference of opinion is a reflection of the greater schism we are seeing today in American politics. It seems that we are generally becoming more fixed in our positions, and we are less interested in seeking common ground to resolve our differences.

We have seen this before. The police were roundly criticized following the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles in the 1991. There was also fierce criticism of the police during the Vietnam War protests and the civil rights protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The events in Ferguson, Missouri, certainly were the spark, but the current problems in police/community relations have been building over time. There is no one incident or one problem that started it.

I am a devoted believer in the First Amendment, and I believe that BLM has every right to voice their concerns. I am just afraid that the ways they sometimes choose to voice their opinion is counterproductive to finding solutions to the problems.

ReginaldLADOO8 karma

Hi, Thank you for your time.

When the technology is ready, can you foresee a future where drones are widely used by police departments? For example: Each police vehicle has a drone on a charging station on the roof. Anytime a police officer exits the vehicle the drone follows the officer automatically via a GPS device attached to his body. The drone will relay a live video feed to the police department headquarters. Forget body cameras, isn't this the future? Cost of drones will steadily decrease in the coming years and battery power will improve to make this viable.

drhowardwilliams29 karma

Seems a little Star Wars to me, but Reddit was a giant technological leap for me. I am probably not the best one to answer this. We have come a long way in communications technology since I started my career. Many nights I patrolled without a handy-talkie. Today we have so much instant communication technology available that it is difficult to keep abreast of the new things coming out.

I suppose it is possible, but much of police work is done indoors, especially in people's houses. I am not sure drone technology would be the most effective way to accomplish an officer surveillance system there.

To be fair, though, I would not bet on my being correct if I were you!

Awesomater5 karma

What is your opinion on the CDC not being allowed to conduct research on gun violence?

drhowardwilliams24 karma

I do not know what restrictions the CDC has on such research, so I cannot really address it specifically. But this is a matter of such governmental and public importance, I cannot see why we would not research it as thoroughly as possible.

Jabbi__3 karma

Would you change the gun control law? and do/did you had fear because everybody could have a weapon? In Germany it is a big-thing when somebody even has one. Side-Note: I am for strong gun control.

drhowardwilliams21 karma

I have never been afraid of an honest person with a gun. I grew up around them. I recognize that the gun is an inanimate object that can do only what the person holding it commands of it.

Short of an absolute prohibition on firearms, I do not see what new laws could possibly be more effective than those already in existence. An absolute prohibition is no more likely to succeed than the current prohibitions on the possession of certain drugs that have not kept those drugs out of the hands of addicts and drug dealers.

I do believe, however, that anyone who uses a firearm to commit a crime should be subject to harsh punishments.