Will the Texas Legislature Take On Police Reform?

George Floyd Act, APD takeover, TCOLE all on Lege’s agenda

Photo by John Anderson

The Texas Legislative Black Caucus introduced the George Floyd Act in August, at the height of protests against police brutality that were unfolding across the nation. The omnibus package – prefiled as House Bill 88 by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D­-­Hous­ton – will likely be the main vehicle legislators use to send reform to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk, after he and other GOP leaders joined Democrats in expressing their revulsion at the misconduct that led to Floyd's death in police custody in Minne­a­polis. It would ban the use of chokeholds by law enforcement officers in Texas, create new ways for victims of police brutality to hold officers accountable, require officers to intervene when a fellow officer is using excessive force as in Floyd's case, and end arrests for some misdemeanor offenses.

At the time, the bill was welcomed as a potential defining achievement of the 87th Texas Legislature. As the summer gave way to fall and winter, the GOP held on to control of the Lege, and the COVID-19 pandemic worsened, attention to criminal justice reform wavered. But the riot at and invasion of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 – and the light resistance the seditious MAGA mob encountered from police, when compared to last summer's protests – has resharpened the focus on reform.

"When there were African American and Hispanic people protesting over police brutality, there was an abundance of law enforcement and all sorts of military force on the streets," Thompson told us. "But that didn't happen in the nation's Capitol. It just baffles me that people cannot understand that there is something wrong here. I would like to believe this will motivate lawmakers to go further with police reform."

The George Floyd Act takes aim at the "qualified immunity" that shields law enforcement from personal civil liability for on-the-job misconduct, allowing officers to be sued in state district courts and providing an opportunity for redress and compensation for survivors of illegitimate police violence. It also bans chokeholds (as Austin did last summer) and requires officers to attempt de-escalation tactics before resorting to force, as well as establishing a duty to intervene. These statutory actions may increase compliance with similar rules that already exist in the general orders of many police forces, including Austin's, but that are often not followed.

The act's ban on arrests in misdemeanor cases that are only subject to fines and citation offers a chance for redemption for Democrats. Procedural mistakes by House Dems in 2019 led to the dramatic failure of the Sandra Bland Act despite its support from both parties, a loss that still stings for reform advocates.

Even as the George Floyd Act would create checks on police power, Abbott has demanded the authority to seize control of municipal police forces. This is mostly an effort to punish Austin for its de-policing efforts, but, in the drafted (but not yet filed) bill language prepared by the Texas Legis­lative Council, it would apply to other large cities as well if Abbott determines "the municipality is providing insufficient municipal resources for public safety."

How that's determined is left unstated; as Mayor Steve Adler has pointed out, Austin still spends more per capita on public safety than other large Texas cities. The draft bill would force cities to pay for the services for the police departments annexed by the Texas Department of Public Safety, but does not address pension obligations nor the compensation provisions secured by police unions. While the "law and order" and "back the blue" messages are appealing to many conservatives, others bristle at such a blatant transgression of Texas' sacred traditions of "local control."

Meanwhile, the state's two agencies that regulate local law enforcement and corrections are both up for Sunset review this session, and the Sunset staff report on the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement is scathing about the agency's failure to impose meaningful professional standards, regulate police training, and hold officers accountable for misconduct. But it only recommends that a blue-ribbon panel study the issue for the next two years, and even that may get punted as the Lege seeks to limit its workload until after the pandemic.

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