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Policing Reform in Houston Kicks Into the Next Gear

Mayor Turner says the city of Houston is ready to move forward with more police reforms.
Mayor Turner says the city of Houston is ready to move forward with more police reforms.
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Effective immediately by executive order of Mayor Sylvester Turner, body camera footage from all police-involved shootings which involves a display of excessive force or the death of someone in custody, will be made public within 30 days.

However, to the expected disappointment of many in the community, that change in policy will not be retroactive meaning it will not include any video of disputed and controversial encounters between police and civilians such as occurred with the Harding Street Raid in which two people were killed.

Turner made his announcement Thursday as part of his much anticipated next step in the policing changes recommended by his 45-member Mayor's Task Force on Policing Reform headed by Larry Payne.

He began the press conference by referencing his executive order on June 10, 2020 which came the day after George Floyd's funeral, in which he banned "excessive use of force, banning chokeholds, requiring that officers have a duty to intervene, restricting when officers can shoot at moving vehicles" among other matters.

Thursday, he added a ban on no-knock orders for non-violent offenses, part of the task force's recommendation.

As Turner tracked through more of the changes, he acknowledged that not all of the group's 104 recommendations were adopted but of those the Mayor has embraced — some of which require City Council approval — included are:

— People will be able to file police complaints with or without using their names and without having to provide a sworn affidavit at the start. They will be able to do this online in a complaint form available in five languages.

— By the end of May, an online dashboard will be live, showing such things as they ethnic breakdown in traffic stops, alleged criminal action and the makeup of the Houston Police Department.

— By Turner's executive order, the (hereto pretty toothless) Independent Police Oversight Board is being overhauled and Stephen Ives, the president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Houston, will be the new chair.  In brief remarks, Ives called it "The most important thing that's going to happen in this city," adding that it will make clear the standards HPD expects for good officers and will hold bad officers accountable.

— Turner appointed Crystal Okorafor, a chief prosecutor with the Harris County District Attorney's Office overseeing felony cases will become the deputy inspector general of the newly-created office of of Policing Reform and Accountability, with a limited staff to investigate both internal and external allegations of wrongdoing by police.

— Setting aside $25 million to fund a variety of mental health crisis intereention programs that will provide for more counselors able to go out into the field with police when the situation calls for it as well as a telehealth program when they cannot.  Turner credited the Biden administration with providing the funds through the American Rescue Plan, adding that these were changes he wasnted to make earlier but the city just did not have the funds available.

— Applicants to become police officers will no longer be asked for their credit scores.

In attendance was the new Houston Police Chief Troy Finner who said he endorsed the changes the mayor is calling for in law enforcement transparency.

Turner was occasionally testy, especially when asked about why the new video release policy wasn't retroactive. He said the media had accused him of moving too slowly on reforms, adding that it was "moving the goal posts" to add in new qualifiers. "We're moving forward, not going back."

Despite the fact that not all officers wear body cameras in every encounter, Turner said the changes did not include making radio transmissions in those situations immediately available to the public, even when they may be the only independent record of what occurred.

In response to Turner's announcement, Harris County District Attorney Kim Off released this statement: "We are glad Houston Police are going to increase transparency by releasing certain video recordings to the public. As for the possible impact on trials, we are confident that Harris County juries will be fair by reviewing all the evidence presented in court before making their decisions."

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