Austin at Large: Say Their Names, at the Capitol
Four Black Texans, four lives lost, four chances to advance criminal justice reform
It's been a minute since we've seen large groups mobilized for rallies 'round the Capitol during session, a pre-plague fixture of the Texas Legislature. But now that Gov. Greg Abbott has shoo-shooed COVID-19 off to Oklahoma by decree, normal conditions are returning to the pink dome, including today's (Thursday, March 25) expected convergence of justice advocates from across the state for hearings on the proposed George Floyd Act.
The legislation, filed as House Bill 88 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, is an omnibus with several components, some of which have also been filed as stand-alone bills; the Senate companion is being carried by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas. One is a statutory ban on lethal force holds, such as the knee-to-neck hold captured on video that ended the life of George Floyd in Minneapolis and sparked a nationwide reckoning. The act also creates a "duty to intervene," and to render aid to those in need, when, as in Floyd's case, other officers see such misconduct or that a suspect's life may be in danger.
Many Texas police departments claim that local policies and general orders already restrict chokeholds and require officers to intervene. But state law does neither, and opinions from the Office of the Attorney General have, as you'd expect, reinforced the leeway given to officers in the field to use force to restrain suspects even when they pose no threat, and to their colleagues to look the other way.
Other Things Not to Do
These provisions of the George Floyd Act would also have been meaningful when men with badges hastened the end of Javier Ambler's life in North Austin in 2019. That case, which precipitated the indictment and ouster of Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody last fall, is more notorious for the involvement of tag-along cameras from the reality show Live PD. The Javier Ambler Act by Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, would ban Texas cops and sheriffs from doing such TV deals; it's also set for hearing Thursday in the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, chaired by Rep. James White, R-Woodville, the chamber's only Black Republican and a past supporter of justice reforms, especially concerning juveniles.
A third life brought to an end after police excess, that of Sandra Bland, has its name attached to a bill (HB 830, also by Thompson) that's included in the George Floyd Act. This measure, which came agonizingly close to passage in 2019, would end most arrests of people for class C misdemeanors that themselves carry no jail time, such as the traffic violation for which Bland was stopped in Waller County. Right now, state law can be read as creating a duty to make such arrests, which can have terrible consequences, as in Bland's case.
There is a fourth name, that of Mike Ramos, whose Act won't be heard this week but has been referred to White's committee; it and its Senate companion (filed by Austin's Rep. Eddie Rodriguez and Sen. Sarah Eckhardt) contain reforms prompted by Ramos' death at the hands of Austin police Officer Christopher Taylor, now charged with murder. These include mandating de-escalation training and giving the dysfunctional Texas Commission on Law Enforcement – subject of a scathing review by the Sunset Advisory Commission – the power to have an officer's license suspended for misconduct. It also clarifies requirements for the release of body camera video footage, along the lines of Austin's current policy, which APD failed to implement properly before finally releasing the "critical incident" video of the Ramos shooting, compared by some observers to an execution by firing squad.
We Have All Borne Witness
A common theme among all these proposed reforms, you may notice, is that they respond to injustices and excesses that we know happened because they're documented on video: George Floyd's death, the chaotic attempted arrest of Javier Ambler, Sandra Bland's altercation with an abusive cop, and Ramos' panicked attempt to avoid an altercation with eight Austin cops in warrior mode after a bogus 911 call that he knew nothing about. Is there more context to each case? Of course. Do we know that Taylor, or Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, surely deserve to be convicted of murder? Of course not.
But the provisions of these bills don't presume those outcomes either; they're more or less tailored to respond to the actual events that millions of people, on the left and on the right and in the center, have seen with their own eyes and told themselves were wrong. In the political environment we are told we are in, egregious police conduct is supposed to be unpopular on both sides; Abbott condemned George Floyd's death as "horrific" and attended his Houston funeral. These bills should all be able to pass with near unanimous consent.
They almost certainly won't. The most politically fraught component of the George Floyd Act is an effort to mitigate the "qualified immunity" enjoyed by police from civil liability for actions on duty ("under color of law") that violate the rights of Texans under the state constitution. The prospect of civil liability is often cited by conservatives who look askance at regulation; we have recourse to the courts if injured, we are told. When the harm comes from the police, that's almost always not true in Texas, or in most places. Changing that – so that an officer like Christopher Taylor, who before the age of 30 has already shot and killed two people who weren't threatening him, might think twice – would be a good thing.