Reviewing surveillance policies

May 22, 2008 4:49:17 PM PDT
We have the latest on the Harris County Sheriff's Department's secret squad and its inability to tell us who they watch and when. And now, we're comparing how the Houston Police Department and others have conducted surveillance, and what records they say they have kept. Generally, law enforcement must be suspicious of some criminal activity before they set up surveillance on someone. That was not the case with the Ibarra brothers, the men who settled a civil rights lawsuit against the Harris County Sheriff's Office for nearly $2 million.

If the Houston Police Department is sued, Chief Harold Hurtt says under no circumstances does he use officers to investigate the plaintiffs. He says they are only used for internal affairs and criminal investigations.

"That's the only surveillance that we do, is criminal investigations," he said.

Any surveillance done by his officers, he insists, would result in pages of reports and documentation.

"Whatever information or tactics that we use would be recorded in that report," said Chief Hurtt.

Compare that to the Harris County Sheriff's Office's secret surveillance of Erik and Sean Ibarra, the brothers who sued the sheriff's office, claiming their civil rights were violate when they were roughed up during a drug raid.

The only documentation we've seen of that is a single email. It was an email the sheriff tried to destroy months ago, an email only preserved because of legal action by 13 Undercover. That email details few specifics from the 5-6 hours the sheriff's special investigative unit said they spent tailing the Ibarras over the course of three days. It concludes only that there was no suspicious activity.

"You know, I used to do that," said retired UH-Downtown Criminal Justice Professor Bob Walsh.

Walsh used to work for the Detroit Police Department doing criminal surveillance. He says record keeping was second in importance only to public safety itself.

"Every time we were out on the road, we had to submit a record of not only what we did but where we went," he said.

District Attorney candidate and former Houston police officer Pat Lykos agrees and wonders how well the sheriff's office might be able to pursue criminals if it is not keeping reports specifying their activities. She says that could affect criminal prosecutions.

"You have to keep records of what it is that you do," she said.

"The fact that there is so little detail and information and documentation of their daily operations is of concern," said Houston City Councilman and candidate for sheriff Adrian Garcia.

Garcia says there needs to be an audit done at the sheriff's office to ensure that records are not only kept, but accessible.

"Making sure that anyone who walks in there can look at files and information and see what is being done," he said.

Sheriff Tommy Thomas has refused our repeated requests for comment. His chief deputy says the Ibarra case was the first time sheriff's investigators were ever assigned to dig up information for use in a civil suit. A sheriff's spokesman has defended the department's actions, insisting it has done nothing wrong.

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