Thursday, September 03, 2020

Amidst many proposals, police reform in Houston seems stalled out

So, here are the basics regarding police reform in Houston so far as I understand them.

The Mayor has created a task force to suggest reforms but no one expects much of it.

Five council members this week came out with a letter demanding 25 reforms, some big (eliminate the 180-day rule and the 48-hour rule), some small (video recording walk-throughs at the scene of police shootings), and some perhaps deviating from the spirit of recent protests ("Mandatory community engagement hours in predominately minority areas for all patrol officers.")

However, two council members who've worked most closely with reformers didn't sign onto the letter and say they want more. They and advocates feel shut out of the process.

And even if the five and the two were working together, that's only seven on a 16 member council (5 at large, 11 districts).

Efforts to re-prioritize the police budget were quashed by the Mayor and police chief. Any "defund the police" agenda must wait until at least 2021. Big ships turn slowly.

Meanwhile, advocates have been completely rebuffed in their demands to at least view negotiations between the City of Houston and the police union over a meet-and-confer contract.  One of the demands from the five council members was to have council representation at the negotiations, but that's not good enough. Advocates' experience in Austin showed that, if no one in the public knows what's going on at that table, it's impossible to influence the outcome.

There are many council members who haven't expressed their views. So that math isn't meant to play the defeatist but to define the starting line. Advocates in Austin didn't start with a unanimous city council supporting them. They worked each office item by item, identifying areas of agreement and surfacing those happy coincidences to develop a package on which every element could win a council majority. At that point, council members' support for the whole package became unanimous. But that didn't occur until the final week before the vote. 

Austin reformers were lucky. They were already fully mobilized before the George-Floyd protests ever began because of the campaign to fire Chief Brian Manley following Mike Ramos' murder. The letter calling for Manley's ouster basically consisted of a recitation of years' worth of policy disappointments on many different fronts, collectively articulating a broad-based reform agenda, but in the negative: Here's what he won't let us do. So when the opportunity came to influence the budget, a) there were talented people ready to throw in to identify real-world cuts and changes from that agenda that could be implemented right now, and b) many organizations were already onboard with the major parts of it because they'd signed the Fire-Manley letter.

Knowing all that went into achieving Austin's budget cuts and related reforms, it's not surprising to me that few other cities went as big. It wouldn't have happened here if Brian Manley weren't near-universally distrusted and hadn't rallied his foes before the George-Floyd protests ever began. And still, even in Austin, most of the change remains in front of us and could easily be derailed in the coming year or three. 

Houston activists missed a few opportunities this summer, but that's okay. The Mayor certainly didn't help, and there wasn't much of a path without him. Changing public-safety culture in America is a long-term process. One can only do what can be done now and plan to do more later. Now, they should be pushing hard to build support on council for open police contract meetings - a call for transparency around what is actually a huge vendor-contract, and should be of interest to a wide range of Council members - so advocates can observe those and begin planning to make a much bigger stab at reforms next year. Some of the changes on the council members' 25-item list are great, but shouldn't divert anyone's eyes from the prize.

The protests gave police reform a sense of extreme immediacy, but to actually achieve the goals involves settling in for the long haul. These tepid, toe-in-the-water proposals don't yet represent the full panoply of reforms needed in Houston, but players are all trying to gauge interest. If the elections come and go and the political temperature still seems fine, maybe more of them will be ready to dive into the deep end on budget and contract votes down the line.


Gadfly said...

Sly Turner is a ConservaDem and former Legiscritter. Of COURSE nothing will come of this. As planned.

Barbara said...

It should start with a stakeholder analysis of ALL involved before any task force is established. serves public service professionals by helping them solve their most pressing problems using a holistic and collaborative approach.

Anonymous said...

People that can do that don't go to work for the government though. They go off and get real jobs for employers who value that kind of insight and are willing to pay them for it.

Unknown said...

Turner ran the protest in Houston and has said he is against citizens being on a police review board. Sounds like a repub.