Mayor Sylvester Turner on Thursday unveiled a sweeping effort to reform policing in Houston by banning no-knock warrants for non-violent offenses, restructuring the police oversight board, publicly releasing body camera footage when officers injure or kill residents, expanding diversion programs and allowing online and anonymous complaints against officers.
The reform package, which Turner outlined at a City Hall press conference with Police Chief Troy Finner and other city officials, comes nearly 11 months after the mayor appointed a task force to explore changes the city should make after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The city made more modest changes before and after it unveiled the report, such as an executive order curbing certain uses of force, “safe harbor” court to provide alternatives to jail for people who cannot afford to pay fines, and joining a cite-and-release program that gives citations instead of arrests for certain nonviolent crimes.
The slow pace in addressing big-ticket items, though, frustrated advocates looking for more immediate reforms. Turner sought to change that Thursday, addressing many of the central recommendations in the task force’s report. He said the city now has implemented more than half its suggestions.
Among the changes: a dashboard to track police misconduct and encounters while also accepting anonymous complaints; a revamped oversight board with full-time investigative staff; the ban on no-knock warrants, one of which resulted in two civilian deaths and unearthed a major scandal for Houston police; and the public release of body camera footage within 30 days of critical incidents.
The online complaint form, available in five languages, and data dashboards will be available by the end of May, Turner said. It will allow for anonymous complaints, which advocates have said is critical.
Scott Henson, executive director of justice reform nonprofit Just Liberty, said a similar change had a profound impact in Austin, where officers began anonymously reporting each other for infractions.
Turner also said he will use more than $25 million in federal pandemic relief dollars over three years to expand diversion programs, a key victory for some advocates who had called for the city to add mental health counselors to police responding to certain calls, or replace them altogether.
The diversion programs include Crisis Call Diversion, which directs certain 911 calls to mental health professionals with the goal of resolving an incident without a police response; Mobile Crisis Outreach Teams, which dispatch mental health professionals without law enforcement; and Crisis Intervention Response Teams, which pair a mental health counselor with a police officer.
The mayor said the city will expand the call diversion program to around-the-clock coverage, at an annual cost of $272,140, and hire 18 new mobile crisis outreach teams at a cost of $4.3 million per year, as the task force recommended.
While the report called for 24 new crisis intervention teams, the city will hire six new teams to add to the current staff of 12, among other efforts.
“We do ask our police officers to do way too much, and put them in some very precarious situations where the outcomes sometimes are not positive,” Turner said.
See here for the previous update. Overall, this seems pretty good, and the announcement drew praise from CMs Letitia Plummer and Tarsha Jackson, who are among the leaders in pushing for reforms on City Council. Some advocates were more muted, but at least no one was quoted in the story with harsh criticism. It’s still early days, so we’ll see about that. The next step is in the implementation, which will be another measure of the commitment from the city, as well as an indication of if we’re going in the right direction and at the right pace. It’s a good start, now we need to take the next steps. The Press has more.
On the topic of criminal justice reform, there were also a couple of items of interest from the Lege. First, the George Floyd Act passed the House.
The Texas House on Thursday quickly gave preliminary approval to three police reform measures that are part of a sweeping set of legislation following the in-custody murder of George Floyd last year.
The bills would require Texas law enforcement agencies to implement more uniform and substantive disciplinary actions for officer misconduct, bar officers from arresting people for fine-only traffic offenses and require corroboration of undercover officer testimony.
State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, lead author of the bills and the omnibus George Floyd Act, said the disciplinary measure was about fairness and accountability.
“The bill is by no means a cookie cutter process,” said Thompson, D-Houston. “Every case of officers’ misconduct is different. But so are other crimes in this state.”
The approved measures will head to the more conservative Senate after a final vote in the House. The upper chamber has also passed targeted pieces of Texas’ George Floyd Act — though only those that are also supported by police unions. The measure on officer discipline is strongly opposed by major police unions.
See here for some background. I am cautiously optimistic, but with the Senate working to pass permitless carry over the objections of law enforcement, I fear they’ll aim to appease them by watering down this bill. We’ll see.
Also from the Lege: Smaller penalties for pot possession passes the House.
The Texas House preliminarily approved a bill that would lower the criminal penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana and provide a path for many Texans charged with such a crime to expunge it from their criminal records. The bill applies to possession of one ounce or less — approximately two dime bags.
Currently in Texas, possession of up to two ounces of marijuana is a Class B misdemeanor, which can be punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine. House Bill 441, authored by state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, would reduce possession of one ounce or less to a Class C misdemeanor, which carries no jail time. Police also wouldn’t be allowed to make arrests for possession at or under an ounce.
In a committee hearing, Zwiener said the language had been worked on with Gov. Greg Abbott’s office and praised the “bipartisan conversation” over reducing possession penalties. The House passed a similar measure two years ago, but Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick opposed it and quickly declared it dead in the upper chamber. Patrick’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
I continue to believe that no measure of marijuana decriminalization will pass the Lege as long as Dan Patrick is in a position of power. I will be happy to be proven wrong about that.