When Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner laid out new police reforms earlier this year, he also unveiled a new role charged with working with the city’s Independent Police Oversight Board to investigate police complaints: the deputy inspector general of the newly created Office of Policing Reform and Accountability.
The new DIG, Crystal Okorafor, has also been charged with keeping track of where the city stands in enacting many of the 104 recommendations from the mayor’s police reform task force. And, she said, she wants to see the implementation of those recommendations and more.
“I think that the task force recommendations — the 104 — are a great start, but I think that there’s so much more that we can try and do,” she told Houston Public Media in a recent interview. “And so, we’re starting here and just trying to go forward with whatever needs to be done to help repair some of the relationship issues between the Houston Police Department and the community.”
Okorafor spoke with Houston Public Media about her new role, and what she expects moving forward.
The below interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Were there any particular reforms that you were personally excited to see or that you were particularly optimistic about in terms of what they could do to improve those relations as you described?
I think the release of the body cams and the changing there with the 30-day release. I think that’s a really big deal and a big step for Houston. I know there are other cities around the country, I think there’s a few that do it a little bit faster than us, but I think 30 days and releasing something like that is just so important, because it’s one thing to read about and hear about it, but to be able to see it and show that good, bad, or ugly, we’re giving everything we can, I think that helps with the transparency.
Are there any reforms past these initial 104 that you would hope to see in the future or that you’re hearing from folks they would like to see in the future?
I think just being back in the community and helping regain the trust. I think that HPD is working on doing some different community events themselves to kind of show that, ‘yes, we’re the police, but we’re here to be a part of the community.’ And I think Chief Finner is really trying to implement some of that back into it: the community policing. Because, we are all one community and we all have to work together. And especially in these trying times, everyone’s got to work together to do their part. So I think really just working together, it’s going to be huge.
One of the recommendations from the mayor’s task force said that they wanted to “address the serious inherent pro-police bias and unavoidable conflict of interest between the DA’s office and the HPD.” And I know you’re from the DA’s office originally. So I’m just curious: how do you conceptualize responding to that goal? And what you think is your role in that?
I was at the District Attorney’s office for eight years and I really enjoyed my time there and helping the community. I think that everyone has to work together to do their part and there has to be a little bit of separation, but at the end of the day, the goal is to pursue justice. HPD is trying to pursue justice, and I assume also the District Attorney’s Office is also trying to pursue justice. So I think they just have to work together there. There’s so many different agencies and one can’t work without the other, and there’s so many issues within the criminal justice system right now post-Harvey, and COVID and the backlog. It’s just a matter of trying to work together to implement the changes that are needed in the system itself.
When you think about all of the reforms that have been laid out by the task force, if there are barriers for implementation, what are those barriers?
I think a lot of the barriers are funding-related issues, and then there are some legislative issues. Especially around the 180-day timeframe, and that’s a legislative issue, in Chapter 143: An investigation has to be completed from the start of the date of the incident within 180 days, and I think that that is detrimental because sometimes you might not find out about something until six months later, you know, and then it’s already been 180 days. So there’s very few issues where we can work around that 180-day rule. I think that if we can get to our legislators and kind of really push on changing that rule because I think if we have longer term to be able to do investigations and not be limited, I think that we could have a lot more. You could have implemented a lot of changes.
I’m curious how other people you know — your colleagues, people in HPD — how they have received these recommendations. Can you speak to that?
I think Chief Finner has made it very clear that he really wants to implement all of these recommendations. Obviously, there’s some that we’re not able to institute and things like that, but he’s really been pushing everyone over at HPD to work together because I think the way that everyone is kind of approaching it is that no one is trying to say anyone is doing a bad job. We’re just trying to make sure that we’re all holding each other accountable, and that part of the accountability is working together.
And I think part of it that also helps is that I have the recommendations, but I’m not a police officer and I don’t know how to implement those. And so I’m asking them like: “hey guys, how could we do this so that it works within your system?” I don’t want to go into a situation acting like I know everything. I’m just asking for everyone’s input so that we can come to a resolution together that implements the goals of the mayor’s task force reform, because at the end of the day, everyone is just trying to do their part for the city of Houston, and I think when we look at it that way that we might be on different sides of the fence at some aspects, but we’re all trying to do our best part because our end goal is to make Houston better.
What happens after an investigation? You know, a complaint has been made, there’s been an investigation — if there is a sense that punishment or consequences needed to be given to an officer, how does that happen? Who is deciding?
The initial investigation and decision on punishment is made by the internal affairs division over at HPD. And then the Independent Police Oversight Board reviews it, and they decide if they think it’s appropriate. And then, if they have questions or concerns about it, it goes back to the commander and then it goes back to IPOB and then, if they can’t come to a resolution, then it would go to Chief Finner. But it also gets reviewed again by the disciplinary board, and the panel chairs sit on the disciplinary board, but the ultimate decision on discipline is done by Chief Finner, because he has to sign off on that.
Is it common for there to be disagreements between those two bodies in that series of back and forth?
Yes and no. There’s sometimes questions about like, “well in the investigation, why didn’t this happen?” Or, “why are we not punishing someone for this-and-that?” But typically, between the panel and the commander, the questions are answered and everyone feels comfortable moving forward with the disciplinary decision.
What makes you hopeful about this work and what do you think success looks like?
I think that we’re an ever-evolving city and the push that the death of George Floyd and so many others during the last years have really caused everyone to look at themselves and see what it is they’re doing and what they can do more of. For myself, I have two small boys, and so this is very important to me as I get ready to see my boys grow out of being toddlers and become young men. I want to make sure that at the end of the day, I can say I did everything I can to have made this a better place for them to grow up in and so that really motivates me. I think that we’ve seen by the creation of the task force, the creation of this office, and so many others, everyone is united in wanting to see change and implementing it. And so I’m very hopeful in that aspect.
And I think, what it looks like, I don’t know if there is any kind of quantitative thing I could really put on it. It’s just the collaboration and knowing that things are going to happen. There’s no way to stop every bad apple, but knowing that you can have faith in a system to fix it for everyone, not depending on people’s race, it’s just a system that’s going to work for everyone in the justice system: over at the District Attorney’s Office, people getting arrested, however you come in contact. I just want the creation of a system that affects all people equally.
Yeah I would just like to let everyone know that this office is here. I really do want to get out and hear from people and hear what needs to be done, because I only know what my community is dealing with. I want to know what everyone’s community is dealing with. What we can do to change. Because I look at these task force recommendations as a starting block, not an ending block. I want to hear good, bad, ugly, whatever is happening. If there is someone that’s patrolling your neighborhood that you think is just not doing the right thing, or someone that’s doing a wonderful thing, or if you think that we should change something, or if you have a recommendation.
I think that we all have to work together and I want you to know that I’m here, this office is here. We want to help.