On Wednesday, 97 long days after Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner appointed his 45-person Task Force On Policing Reform in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, the task force’s leader was given the megaphone of City Hall to officially unveil the group's painstakingly researched list of 104 recommendations on how the Houston Police Department could better serve the city.
Except he didn’t, at least not really.
Instead of spelling out the importance of even a single specific recommendation the group came up with, task force chair Larry Payne — the longtime City Hall operator and current Houston Public Library civic engagement director — had a better idea.
If Houstonians who care deeply about the urgent, life and death stakes of policing want to know more about the task force’s findings, Payne recommended they first “download this document” from the city’s website. Then, he said they should hop in their cars and take some time for a little sober contemplation by visiting either the Rothko Chapel or the traveling Say Their Names memorial to Black Americans slain by police at Emancipation Park.
After doing that homework for the soul, Payne thinks Houston residents would then be in the right emotional space to sit down and read the 153-page report in its entirety, because to discuss any of the nitty-gritty details in a public forum out of context could take away from the sweeping urgency of its full-throated endorsement of creating a policing system that truly values Black and brown lives, he said.
If you don't have the time to read the thorough, thoughtfully-crafted report after a quick field trip, some of the main recommendations it contains are:
— A new “hybrid model” for a revamped Independent Police Oversight Board with “a full-time, paid professional staff accompanied by a diverse, volunteer civilian board,” with its own budget and offices outside of the HPD offices to encourage greater independence.
— The creation of “an independent agency to prosecute cases of police abuse and misconduct” separate from both the District Attorney’s office and HPD to address the “serious inherent pro-police bias and conflict of interest” that results from the two groups’ “symbiotic relationship.”
— A maximum 30-day timetable for the public release of officer bodycam footage of a “display of excessive force and/or a death in custody” to avoid more multi-month delays like in the Nicolas Chavez case.
— A complete ban on no-knock warrants for non-violent offenses to avoid fatal situations like last year’s Harding Street raid where HPD officers killed Rhogena Nicholas and Dennis Tuttle in their home.
— Requiring officers to make official statements about alleged misconduct before they’re allowed to review all of the internal evidence, and getting rid of the state-dictated 180-day time limit for police departments to discipline officers after alleged misconduct occurred
All of these are serious reforms that would definitely address some of the concerns police accountability and racial justice advocates have about current HPD procedures.
But if the task force is unwilling to forcefully make the case for them to the public, that’s likely to add to the skepticism many of those same advocates have that this report might just end up collecting dust on Turner’s shelf.
Turner seemed grateful that Payne and his fellow task force members didn’t offer any easy-to-digest takeaways for the public during Wednesday’s press conference. He admitted that he only received the report yesterday and didn’t read it in full before its unveiling.
“I intended to read it last night, but I got distracted from some other things on the television last night, so I wasn’t able to fully concentrate,” Turner said jokingly, referring to Tuesday’s shitshow of a presidential debate.
Turner did say that he believes that “the Independent Police Oversight Board needs to be revamped,” but did not commit to implementing — or being aware of — any of the task force’s other recommendations.
“We cannot afford to lose this moment,” Payne said somberly, between bouts of waxing poetic on the philosophies of Plato and Martin Luther King Jr. regarding democracy and racial justice.
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He sounded acutely aware of just how crucial it is to the lives and livelihoods of all Houstonians, but especially for people of color, that HPD is held to a higher standard going forward.
However, if this task force that has seemingly worked so long and so hard is only able to muster-up the type of presentation seen on Wednesday, more eloquent than actionable, then someone else will have to hold Turner, City Council, and the Houston Police Officers' Union's feet to the fire to make any of these reforms a reality.
The Task Force On Policing Reform’s full report is embedded below.