Doing It Wrong
By Remington Alessi
From Ferguson to the failed #MyNYPD Twitter campaign, 2014 has seen its fair share of public relations stunts gone awry, largely due to the general tone-deafness of the institutions involved. In preparation for Halloween, the Houston Police Department hosted “Have Coffee With a Cop” events on October 30 at five area McDonald’s restaurants to see test its new Officer Friendly mask.
With a long history of violence against the poor and minority communities, Houston Police Department can be seen as unremarkably similar to urban police departments around the country. Civilians Down, a website started by people who lost loved ones in officer-involved shootings (a figure not currently tracked by any public agencies) counted eighteen fatalities in Houston alone for 2013. Statistically speaking, this would easily qualify the Houston Police Department and the Harris County Sheriff’s Department as the most violent gangs in the area.
Unlike typical street gangs, the Houston Police Department has a public relations department, and, presumably due to increased tensions with the public, decided to put them to work. As part of a partnership with McDonald’s franchise owners, HPD promoted an event at five locations, mostly in affluent areas, where civilians could sit with officers one on one to ask questions or voice concerns. The event, known as ‘Coffee with a Cop,’ was described by Police Chief Charles McClelland as “just another way we’re out in the community letting people know we are there to help.”
Readers may recall a similar event in July of 2012, when Houston Mayor Annise Parker was busy deflecting criticism in the wake of a city ordinance that made it illegal to feed homeless. After smiling and nodding as citizens expressed their concerns, the mayor did nothing to address those concerns. Instead, she went on to reject approximately 34,000 petition signatures requesting a repeal of the ordinance. Naturally, the activist community viewed HPD’s event with a healthy dose of cynicism, expecting this to be an empty gesture meant merely to create the illusion of concern for the community without tangibly addressing any unpopular policies.
Unlike the mayor’s event, during which she was at least willing to confidently explain that she genuinely believed that feeding homeless people merely encouraged them to be homeless, HPD flatly refused in several instances to even hold an honest audience with individuals concerned about their policies.
Not five minutes after the event started, officers refused to allow Shere Dore, a local homeless advocate, to even participate in a conversation with Chief McClelland. One of the chief’s handlers ironically cited a pending investigation of an incident when Dore and several other locals were attacked by police horses and sustained injuries during a protest against police brutality as sufficient reason to refuse dialogue.
In a subsequent interview, Dore explained that she wanted to ask about policies involved in recent aggressive treatment of homeless individuals at the public library. Others at the same location were issued trespass warnings for attempting to offer informational flyers to passersby.
Chief McClelland said of the event, “We still want to enhance our police-community relationship.”
Across town at the McDonald’s in the Montrose neighborhood, Michael Allen, an organizer with End Mass Incarceration Houston, hoped for some candid answers to policy questions regarding screening of new hires and disciplinary procedures for officers identified as problematic. Instead, he explained that “the answers given by the police were evasive and non-committal. Overall they seemed unhappy at the unexpected scrutiny to which they were subjected and missed no opportunity to escape it. Answers were evasive and ranged from ‘Umm, I don’t know’ to ‘Well, that’s above my pay grade.’”
At the same location, activist Jane Nguyen asked questions related to an incident in which an officer shot and killed a wheelchair-bound double amputee. According to Nguyen, officers were tight-lipped about why the officer was later cleared of any wrongdoing, but that “they made some generic statement that cops become cops for good reasons.”
Fortunately, Allen and Nguyen were able to attend without being issued trespass warnings.
Southwest Defense Network, a local group that works to protect tenants’ rights, reported that plainclothes officers from the Criminal Intelligence Division, a modern evolution of HPD’s ‘Red Squad,’ showed up at another location and began taking photographs of protesters in what appeared to be an attempt to intimidate and track political activists.
The following morning, Houston Police Department declaring the event a success, quoting McClelland as saying, “What a great way to start the morning. Any opportunity that we can enhance our police-community relationships, get out in the community and talk with folks, it’s always a good thing.”
Perhaps it’s about time for #MyHPD to go viral.
by Guest Author