Opinion

Police Reform Coming to Houston, But Slowly

Scene from the #BlackLivesMatter marches last year.
Scene from the #BlackLivesMatter marches last year. Photo by Doogie Roux
Ever since the death of Houston native George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, civil rights activists have renewed their calls for police reform. A series of high-profile nationwide demonstrations for the cause has definitely moved the needle on the subject, including here in Houston. Unfortunately, progress is quite slow.

In September, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Task Force on Police Reform released a list of more than 100  recommendations, most of which he said could be implemented by the start of the new year. “Can” and “will be” are not synonyms, however, and so far, only six of the proposals have actually made it into police regulations.

Community Impact has been tracking the progress of Houston’s police reform diligently, and while what has been done so far is necessary there simply hasn’t been very much of it.

The HPD’s use-of-force policies have been updated, but in many cases they remain exactly the same as they were before with just slightly clearer wording. Officers are mandated to not do things like fire their weapons at a car that is approaching them unless they have attempted to get out of the way first, a very minor change that is unlikely to save many lives.

More helpful is the new cite-and-release program the city instituted in the fall. Low-level, non-violent offenders are not to be arrested. Previously, such suspects were arrested at the officer’s discretion, and multiple studies across the country on police behavior show that Black suspects tend to be detained where white suspects were released. The new policy will hopefully keep more people out of jail for minor offenses. The city also adopted a policy to help the poor who cannot afford their fines avoid jail time.

Possibly the biggest win for police reform activists is the end of no-knock warrants. Movement to end the practice actually started before Floyd’s death, and Chief Art Acevedo had already begun prohibiting the practice. The change came after a disastrous drug raid on Harding Street that killed two people and injured five more after officers burst in unannounced. Only small amounts of marijuana and cocaine were found.

Since then, Texas Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston) has been attempting to make the policy statewide. This reflects a larger movement in Texas to pass far-reaching police reform.

In August, the Texas Legislative Black Caucus laid out a massive George Floyd Act that would make sweeping changes to the way police use their power in the state. These include banning choke holds, ending qualified immunity for officers who kill people in the line of duty, mandating that officers render aid to the injured, and more. The bill received vocal support from Governor Greg Abbott, and is expected to be part of the legislative session that just begun.

These are all steps forward in the fight against police brutality, but whether they will prevent the next George Floyd remains to be seen. Many of the most egregious and easily fixed problems, such as including autopsy reports for deaths reviewed by the Independent Police Oversight Board and creating a zero-tolerance policy for officers who use slurs against civilians, have not been tackled. Monitoring police for membership in extremist groups hasn’t been proposed either, an issue that could certainly use some addressing considering how many of the people who attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6 were off-duty cops. There is still a long way to go.
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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner