After the murder of Houstonian George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, Texas Democrats and police reform advocates were optimistic the tragic killing would be enough of a wake-up call about systemic racism and corruption within law enforcement to garner the widespread bipartisan support needed to really overhaul policing in Texas.
Even Republican Gov. Greg Abbot spoke to the need for the Texas Legislature to act following Floyd’s killing. “I’m here to tell you today that I am committed to working with the family of George Floyd to ensure we never have anything like this ever occur in the state of Texas,” Abbott said last summer at the public visitation of Floyd’s remains.
One year and an entire state legislative session later, all Texas has to show following Floyd’s killing are a few token changes to state policing regulations that reform advocates believe don’t go nearly far enough, and that likely wouldn’t prevent a similar tragedy from unfolding in the Lone Star State.
A sweeping set of police reforms bearing Floyd’s name spearheaded by Black lawmakers never even got a full vote before either the state House or Senate.
“After a year of reckoning over police violence and racism in the wake of George Floyd, we had really hoped for some much more meaningful policy,” said Lauren Johnson, a policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.
“This was a terrible session for police reform,” she said.
Ashton Woods, a lead organizer and founder of Black Lives Matter Houston, agreed with Johnson’s assessment.
“Not much got accomplished. I think this was a session of stagnation and posturing,” Woods said, particularly from Texas Republicans who seemed more focused on right-wing measures like legislating what sports teams transgender Texans can play on than preventing police killings of Black state residents.
Back in August, the Texas Legislative Black Caucus held a press conference to unveil the George Floyd Act, a comprehensive police reform bill that would eventually be carried by Houston’s own state Rep. Senfronia Thompson in the House and by her fellow Black Democrat state Sen. Royce West in the Senate.
The George Floyd Act included a ban on police chokeholds and required that officers attempt to de-escalate before using lethal force and to intervene if they caught a fellow officer using excessive force against a suspect. The bill would have barred cops from arresting Texans for misdemeanor, fine-only traffic violations, like the one that led to Sandra Bland’s arrest in 2015 before she died in police custody, and would have required the testimony of undercover officers in drug cases to be corroborated by additional evidence in order to be used to convict someone.
It also would have ended qualified immunity for Texas police officers, the legal framework that prevents officers from being sued in civil court over on-the-job misconduct.
Thompson said she and her fellow Democrats “knew from the genesis of that bill, from the genesis of that press conference [in August], that it was going to be an uphill fight” to get the George Floyd Act passed into law.
After the House’s Homeland Security & Public Safety committee held an over eight hour hearing on the George Floyd Act in late March, during which Thompson said multiple families of Black Texans whose relatives were killed by police testified to the need for greater police accountability and for much stricter rules on Texas cops, the committee’s Republican leadership never even put the bill up for a vote.
Thompson believes a big part of the bill’s failure to make it out of committee was its provision to end qualified immunity by opening up Texas cops to be liable to face civil rights lawsuits over mistreating suspects, which blue-backing Republicans and law enforcement unions vocally opposed.
Once it became clear that the full George Floyd Act wouldn’t get through its committee, Thompson and her Democratic allies re-worked several of the bill’s individual provisions into standalone bills they hoped would have a better chance of passing since they wouldn’t be tied to more controversial measures like ending qualified immunity.
“We broke it up into six parts,” Thompson said. The full House ultimately passed three of those smaller bills, which respectively would have created new statewide disciplinary standards for Texas cops and included the bits of the George Floyd Act that required corroboration for undercover police testimony in drug cases and that banned arrests over finable misdemeanors.
“They all died in the Senate,” Thompson said of those three individual bills.
Even though those measures got enough bipartisan support to pass through the Republican-led House, Thompson thinks Senate Republicans were too scared to vote for her smaller bills thanks to Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s efforts to rile up the Republican base about the so-called threat of “defunding the police” after the Austin City Council reallocated some police funding to other city services last fall.
“They turned it into ‘If you support these bills, then you’re going to be labelled as not backing the blue and defunding the police.’ And that’s what they wrapped us up in,” Thompson said, pointing out that the George Floyd Act didn’t call for any police defunding whatsoever. “And that gives people like the police department the opportunity to do business as usual.”
The Texas Senate’s version of the George Floyd Act faced a similar fate; The big bill chock full of major reforms never gained traction, so Senate Democrats submitted smaller bills that covered individual reforms.
Two of those bills required police to stop their colleagues from using excessive force and to report those incidents to superiors, and mandated that Texas cops call for medical help and give first aid help to any injured people they come across and banned the use of chokeholds (unless police think using a chokehold is necessary to prevent serious injury or death).
Those bite-sized, police union-backed reforms made it through the Senate and were eventually approved by the House, making them the only two police reform bills that were sent to Abbott’s desk for his signature.
Woods believes that those two minor reforms aren’t nearly enough to get to the root of what’s rotten in Texas law enforcement. “I don’t see anything viable that came out of the legislative session that would be substantial enough to be called ‘police reform’ that would help people on a local level in any part of Texas,” he said.
Thompson said she’s “proud of the work that we were able to achieve,” though she agrees “it wasn’t everything we wanted.”
“They may not be the strongest bills, but it’s a start,” Thompson said. While she doesn’t have any major regrets about how she and her fellow Democrats went about pushing for more substantial reforms, she said pushing harder for more support from the Christian community and state business leaders might have helped pressure Republicans into getting behind more large-scale changes to policing in Texas.
Abbott has already declared he’ll be calling lawmakers back to Austin for a special session to take up unfinished business, like the controversial Republican-backed “election integrity” bill that was killed by a last-minute walkout from House Democrats who argued that the bill’s new restrictions amounted to state-sponsored disenfranchisement of voters of color.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has asked that legislators use the special session to revive his failed bill to force transgender Texans to only play on the school sports teams that align with their biological sex at birth. Neither Patrick nor Abbott has brought up additional police reforms as potential special session agenda items, much to the frustration of Johnson and her ACLU colleagues.
“I think if the governor intends to keep his promise to the Floyd family, he needs to call the George Floyd Act into the special session,” Johnson said.
Thompson agreed: “I think the governor owes that to every citizen of this state, including the Floyd family. No matter what your ethnicity is, that is owed to every citizen.”
“Now, do I think the governor is going to add it to the special session? I don’t think so,” Thompson said.
Woods said that he wishes Abbott would heed the calls for bigger changes to police policy from Thompson, Johnson, his fellow Black Lives Matter activists and other concerned Texans, but knows that’s not a priority for Abbott or the state GOP.
“I think it should happen, but you know that’s not what this is about,” Woods said of the upcoming special session. “This is about peddling bigotry and racism.”
Woods said that while he truly appreciated the work Thompson did to swing hard for sweeping police reforms, he couldn’t say he was surprised that those efforts fell short. Even after Floyd’s murder, he was still skeptical that enough lawmakers who’d previously fought against police reforms would suddenly support the movement to make substantial changes to state law enforcement a reality.
Johnson said if Floyd’s killing wasn’t enough to give legislators the political will to really change policing in Texas, she isn’t sure what would be in the future.
“I’m at a loss,” Johnson said. “I try to remain hopeful, because sometimes optimism is the only thing that keeps you going through the fight.”
“But some of that has been squashed out of me this last session,” she admitted.
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