Friday, April 23, 2021

Assessing status of police-reform bills as #txlege reaches inflection point

The Texas Tribune published a story in the wake of the Derek Chauvin verdict interviewing families of police brutality victims pushing for the Texas George Floyd Act. While that omnibus legislation appears stalled, as we've discussed in two recent, special podcast episodes, it has also been broken up into a number of different bills, some of which are still wending their way through the process.

Portrait of George Floyd by Nia Palmer
We're now at an inflection point in the Texas legislative process: Bills that are out of committee and moving at this point are still "alive" and could possibly pass. Those that never made it out of committee are largely dead, though conceivably some could be brought back as amendments to other bills. Let's run through the main police-accountability bills still moving.

HB 830 (S. Thompson) passed out of the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee and was included on House Speaker Dade Phelan's list of priority bills. The committee substitute of that legislation would ban all arrests for Class C traffic offenses, which Grits estimates would prevent more than 80% of Class-C arrests overall. This reform is long overdue; this is its third session hitting the House floor. The provision is in both party platforms and should get done this time.

HB 834 (S. Thompson) cleared the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and is in Calendars: This bill requires corroboration for testimony by police officers in undercover drug cases, a reform that could have changed George Floyd's entire life (he never got his notice to vacate his old drug case due to Gerald Goines.) 

HB 829 (S. Thompson), which passed out of the Urban Affairs Committee, would require police departments to create a disciplinary matrix articulating acceptable punishments for various types of misconduct: The reform is aimed at preventing arbitrators from overturning disciplinary decisions by police chiefs.

In the Senate, two bills have passed over to the House that include provisions from the George Floyd Act: SB 2212 (West) creating a duty to render aid, and HB 68 (Miles) creating a duty to intervene/report when officers witness excessive force. Both of these include stronger language than the governor's proposed language on the topic, which is contained in HB 3712 by Ed Thompson (not Senfronia). And both potentially are life saving improvements.

What's not here? Stricter use of force standards from HB 833, the chokehold ban in HB 831, and qualified immunity provisions in the original HB 88. The reforms that are moving are important. But some ideas that should have been easy are stuck, like requiring departments to have de-escalation policies. And some ideas are very big and getting their first real attention at the Lege, like limiting the situations where lethal force is authorized.

With the likelihood growing that the Legislature won't enact Sunset reforms at the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, the bills above that are moving appear to be the main chance we have for improving police accountability this session. Even if everything described here passes, Texas will have a lot more to do.

In the scheme of things, most of these besides HB 830 are relatively small bills. And the prospect for sentencing reform seems dim, with hundreds of new crimes and penalty enhancements having been proposed. By contrast, New Mexico just legalized recreational pot. Colorado created a state civil rights cause of action free from qualified immunity. Red states like Oklahoma and Utah have reduced low-level drug possession from felonies to misdemeanors. And bills still moving in Texas pale compared to the most comprehensive police-reform packages in other states.

That's the context in which Grits recently characterized most of the criminal-justice bills besides HB 830 and the bail legislation as "small potatoes" in the Dallas Morning News. In the scheme of things, it's hard to argue Texas' reforms still moving aren't relatively small time. Sure, compared to the killing field that faced criminal-justice legislation two years ago, these are significant proposals. But compared to the rest of the country, Texas' reform legislation isn't particularly remarkable. The state has fallen a few steps behind the national reform curve, when 12-15 years ago we were ahead of it.

UPDATE: Adding one more piece from the Texas George Floyd Act, HB 831 (S. Thompson) banning chokeholds passed out of the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee today.


Joshua Kumler said...

It's the smallest of our small potatoes, but Rep. S. Thompson was also able to add funding for a "Report on Police Brutality" from Prairie View A&M as a budget amendment yesterday:
Amendment to amendment, clarifying the scope of the study:

Should make for a good Grits blog post down the line, if nothing else...

Gadfly said...

You forgot to mention, as I tweeted you a week ago, Grits, that New Mexico ALSO eliminated qualified immunity!