Background: Homicides surge in Houston – with perceptions of a revolving door for violent offenders
As violent crime in Houston – notably, the murder total – has surged in the past few years, the profile of the already well known public safety advocacy group Crime Stoppers of Houston has also risen appreciably.
The June 2018 addition of Andy Kahan as the organization’s first Director of Victim Services and Advocacy all but assured that it would be expanding its program from longstanding tips/rewards work in public media to additional initiatives oriented towards victims of crime. Kahan’s track record over roughly three decades as a victims advocate for Houston mayors and for HPD suggested as much. Kahan has certainly delivered.
As Democratic judges promising progressive criminal justice reforms swept into control in Harris County (along with a majority of Democrats on Commissioners Court who favor such reforms) and the pandemic hit not long after, many criminal courts seemed to stop functioning and many more violent offenders seemed to start receiving very lenient bonds and release conditions that ensured they were back out on the streets in no time at all. Kahan began tracking the number of violent offenders who managed to secure low bonds and/or house arrest conditions (via ankle monitor or other means) and then went on to commit additional murders. Kahan frequently made the TV news in town, and could often be seen at various public town halls carrying his victims chart (well over 100 people that he contends were murdered by an accused violent re-offender needlessly released to the streets via too-lenient bonds or other arrangements).
The public became keenly interested in learning more about some of these judges – and both TV news journalists and Kahan/Crime Stoppers have provided some of that information (although it’s probably worth noting that Crime Stoppers seemed hesitant, at least in the beginning, to call out individual judges). That began to attract the attention of and pushback from various progressive organizations, such as Arnold Ventures (backed by billionaire John Arnold, who once focused on mundane matters like public pension reform before his organization turned to more progressive priorities) and the Texas Center for Justice and Equity, activists such as Alec Karakatsanis, and others who favor significant (if not radical) criminal justice reform policies up to and including decarceration and bond reform – policies that Kahan has been all too happy to “put on trial” in Harris County, so to speak.
To deflect blame from both the policies and the judges, some politicians and activists tried to serve up the bail bond industry as the culprit in Houston’s violent crime problem. The area newspaper of record even got in on that silly act. It’s not clear that it persuaded all that many people.
Crime Stoppers of Houston under fire from journalist-advocates
Last Thursday, three hit pieces on Crime Stoppers of Houston appeared from/in various organizations.
The Marshall Project weighs in
The nonprofit advocacy/journalism outfit The Marshall Project led with their piece (which published in the New York Times) that basically accused a fellow nonprofit advocacy group (Crime Stoppers of Houston) of becoming a “partisan” group, taking on Democratic judges in Harris County at the behest of a Republican governor: How a Crime-Fighting Institution took on a Partisan Turn – New York Times
The contention by journalist-advocates David Farenthold and Keri Blakinger (formerly of the Houston Chronicle) is that Crime Stoppers of Houston has a financial interest (they strongly imply need) to curry financial favor with the governor. They also pay particular attention to the compensation of the organization’s chief executive officer/director, Rania Mankarious. Interestingly, that compensation is in the same ballpark as that reported for the president of The Marshall Project on its IRS Form 990 for 2020 (a required filing for such nonprofit organizations). That fact is not mentioned in the reporting.
Now, it’s certainly true that Democratic criminal court judges in Harris County are under fire. And it’s arguably “partisan” in the sense that they swept the judicial seats in local elections and are firmly in the driver’s seat. Those facts aren’t mentioned in the hit piece.
The Chronicle rushed out two hit pieces of their own
Not to be outdone, the area newspaper of record rushed out two hit pieces of their own on the same day: Crime Stoppers is using cash once spent on anonymous tip rewards for celebrating police, travel costs and Fighting Crime or political battles? Crime Stoppers of Houston is drawing scrutiny with partisan voice
Substantively, the articles cover much of the same ground as the Marshall Project piece. Mankarious’s salary gets another mention, and outraged critics of the organization are given space to make their points (including one journalist’s dim sum buddy, progressive State Rep. Gene Wu).
So, it seems we now know what several journalists, some local and some not, think of Crime Stoppers of Houston.
Several critics/opponents of the Crime Stoppers public safety agenda/narrative took to Twitter to celebrate the hit pieces, including Karakatsanis and Wu, who probably betrayed too much in a tweet all but insisting that local TV news stations MUST give Crime Stoppers critics equal time! (does that also include the critical violent repeat offenders that Crime Stoppers would like judges to keep behind bars? Just curious)
Lo and behold, after a tour of the KTRK-13 pool (noted by dim sum partner and KTRK-13 reporter Miya Shay, whose husband Rep. Wu, as noted previously, is highly critical of Crime Stoppers), one Chronicle reporter was given just that opportunity on the local Disney/ABC affiliate. How fun!
It seems a little strange that nobody there thought to ask longtime (now retired) KTRK-13 anchor Dave Ward, whose name graces the Crime Stoppers of Houston headquarters, for his opinion. For the record, Ward did not seem impressed with the hit pieces. Crime Stoppers board chair Justin Vickrey posted this response. One of the more detailed criticisms came from Charles Adams (aka Big Angry Law). Here’s an excerpt:
This clearly orchestrated attack by local Progressives who are witnessing the first dose of political and criminal accountability in an effort to provide a smokescreen by scapegoating those seeking to protect this community is so transparent it’s awful. Shame on all who participated in this.
It’s not clear they have any shame. It’s also not clear they’ve done anything but swing and miss with all this.
(UPDATE) Crime Stoppers has posted a detailed rebuttal to many of the accusations/insinuations in the hit pieces in this press release. I had not seen the release before publishing here, but it’s worth your time if you want the more complete story.