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Criminal Justice Reform Proposals Begin to Emerge in Texas

As George Floyd was being laid to rest Tuesday, the first reforms aimed at preventing police violence were beginning to emerge from elected leaders, police departments and advocacy groups. 

The Dallas Police Department was the first in the state to implement policy changes following Floyd’s death. Dallas Police Chief Renee Hall’s new order bans chokeholds, which the department has not used since 2004. Hall is also requiring her officers to warn before shooting and moving to create guidelines for the release of body camera and dashcam video of critical incidents. In addition, there is a new policy requiring officers to intervene in any situation where force is applied inappropriately or is no longer required.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner followed Hall’s action with an announcement of his own at Floyd’s funeral about banning chokeholds in Houston.

In Congress, legislation proposed by House Democrats would ban chokeholds by police nationwide, require the creation of a national database of police misconduct and give the Justice Department civil rights division subpoena power to investigate local police departments.

This all comes amid the subsequent and ongoing protests in Texas and across the nation to demand justice for Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many other people of color who have died at the hands of police or in other racially charged killings.

For many, there are questions about why it has taken so long.  

Some have suggested that the answer is policy because law enforcement groups and politics go hand-in-hand, and law enforcement groups have a lot of power and influence in the legislature. In order to see lasting change, the two must work together, not just at a local level but also at a legislative level. Some reforms have not lasted because of this. Reform of police departments and how they do their jobs and how funds are allocated must also accompany voices in the legislature who will work toward justice and transformation. 

“The mandate that the people have put forward is that the status quo has to change, and we refuse the slow incremental steps of so-called reform,” said Aislinn Pulley, co-founder of Black Lives Matter: Chicago. “None of that has worked, and at this point we need radical change. We need a radical redesigning of our social relations in this country.”

The Legislature

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has said that new legislation related to police brutality will be a priority for the legislature, which begins meeting formally in January. Rather than waiting until January, Abbott has said the work needs to begin now. Members of the Texas Black Legislative Caucus are scheduled to meet with the governor on the subject Wednesday.  

There have been several high profile cases of Texas police officers who have directly killed black people such as Atatiana Jefferson who was shot in her Fort Worth home, or officers who have been involved in cases that have led to the deaths of black people like Sandra Bland. Bland died in a Waller County jail cell by suicide after a traffic stop. 

Some reform initiatives, like the Timothy Cole Act, have helped in criminal justice reforms as the state has reduced prison populations and compensated those wrongly convicted of crimes, but others, like the Sandra Bland Act, have faltered at the legislative level.

The two lawmakers who sponsored the Sandra Bland Act, State Sen. John Whitmire and State Rep. Garnet Coleman, both Democrats from Houston, have said they will push to restore key reforms such as those against racial profiling that were stripped from their original bill.

At the Local Level

In April, unarmed African American and Hispanic Austinite Mike Ramos was killed in an officer-related shooting. Some, like Chas Moore, co-founder of the Austin Justice Coalition, have been calling for Austin Police Chief Brian Manley’s termination since. Others say just firing Manley would not be productive in light of more-deeply rooted problems in police departments.

“It’s too easy to just fire one person,” Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder told the American-Statesman. “The ultimate question is, ‘Can Manley do the job?’ I don’t know. But rather than throw the ball at one person, we need a larger change.”

Renewed pressure on Texas police departments has risen and in some cases — hit a climax — because of police violence against protestors. This is particularly illustrated in Austin protests, where two young men — 16-year-old Levi Ayala and 20-year-old Justin Howell — were both struck in the head by rubber “bean bag bullets” while observing protests. Although police say are intended not to be fatal, these bullets have a three percent fatality rate, and 15 percent of those injured are left with permanent disabilities. 

Manley said bean bag bullets will no longer be used in crowds, but leaders in Austin feel that that’s not a good enough step and that more needs to be done. 

“He was standing by himself,” said Austin District 4 representative Greg Casar during an Austin City Council session following Ayala and Howell’s injuries. “So changing the policy for crowds would not have changed this.”

In Houston, Turner is forming a task force to review Houston Police Department policies and to make recommendations, but it’s not clear when it will begin meeting or when people will be appointed to it.

“It’s so important to hold onto the trust between the community and police because the two have to work together, not be against one another,” Turner said during a town hall meeting announcing the task force. “Establishing that confidence and that trust is a critical component.”

There are also calls for other changes in Houston, including strengthening Houston’s Independent Police Oversight Board with subpoena power to conduct its own investigations. 

On June 25, the Houston City Council Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee will hold a meeting to discuss what investigative procedures should happen after an officer-involved shooting. This meeting echoes the demands of protesters across the state and country for leaders to start listening.

There have been six fatal shootings by Houston police in the last two months, all of which are under investigation. So far, local officials have refused to release the body cam footage from those shootings. 

A man and a woman were killed in a botched drug raid two years ago in Houston. Two police officers have been indicted. 

“HPD, by and large, has implemented a lot of the recommendations that are being put forth across the country,” City Council member Abbie Kamin told ABC13. “Now, how do we make sure those are being enforced? How do we make sure we have transparency? That’s part of this conversation, too.”

Meredith Mohr
Meredith Mohr
Meredith is a writer, editor, storyteller, and "girl-in-the-city." She's created content for thought leaders for publications like Forbes, The Texas Tribune, and The Houston Chronicle.


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