A woman holds up a sign as people stand together during a prayer vigil as various pastors from local churches pray during “A Gathering of Our Collin County Churches,” at the Collin County Courthouse in McKinney, Texas on Thursday, June 4, 2020. Churches in Collin county joined to spread […]
AUSTIN -- The 2020 murder of unarmed George Floyd by a former Minneapolis police officer renewed calls for criminal justice reform, with people across the world expressing their views by protesting, marching and developing initiatives that would reimagine not only policing, but address the impact of systemic racism.
But nearly a year after Floyd’s death and the recent conviction of Derek Chauvin for his murder, social justice advocates and Democratic Party lawmakers contend that little has been done in the Texas Legislature to improve the criminal justice system.
The centerpiece Texas legislative proposal -- the comprehensive George Floyd Act -- has been stalled in the Legislature. Authored by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, the bill has been chopped into pieces in an attempt to get some reforms signed into law.
Another bill -- the Botham Jean Act, also known as Bo’s Law -- was voted out of a Senate committee and awaits action from the full body. The proposal got through the House, but only after being largely gutted. That bill is in response to the shooting death of Jean, a Black Dallas man who was killed by former Dallas police Officer Amber Guyger, who was off-duty when she entered his apartment, which she says she thought was her own. She was convicted of Jean’s murder in 2019 and is serving 10 years in prison.
Lawmakers and activists say they are disappointed that there have not been more victories. Criminal justice reform isn’t the only goal for activists this session; they are hoping for legislative triumphs with voting rights and the economic inequities faced by people of color.
Instead, the Legislature has focused on issues favored by the Republican majority and the conservative voters that dominate the GOP primary process. Many of these issues, including proposals aimed at voting, run afoul with social justice advocates.
Rep. Carl Sherman, D-DeSoto, who authored Bo’s Law, said Friday he was still hopeful that his bill would pass, though his desperation was evident after he went to social media urging supporters to call their senators.
Sherman says he doubts that what happened in the summer of 2020 and the social justice movement has influenced the Texas political scene as a whole.
“We are making progress. I wish we could say we were doing more in police reform, criminal justice reform, and social justice reform,” Sherman said. “It seems that this legislative body does not have the appetite for being too progressive in those areas, even after George Floyd’s murder.”
Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who is spearheading various criminal justice proposals in the Senate, says he’d give the Legislature a C grade.
“When I began to look at the George Floyd bill, which was the seminal piece of criminal justice legislation, we were not able to get traction on it, in terms of passing anything with George Floyd’s name on it,” West said. “So therefore, you have to decide whether you want form over substance. In this instance you have to take form, because you don’t have the votes.”
But activists are frustrated with the entire legislative process and don’t believe the criminal justice legislation that has survived strikes the blow needed for change.
The lack of legislative output on criminal justice reform could be a topic during the Dallas-area rallies and protests planned this week in connection with the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s death, including a march and rally on Sunday.
Democrats had hoped to win control of the Texas House in 2020, but failed in an election that featured the defeat of Donald Trump as president.
West says criminal justice victories would include a ban on police chokeholds, mandating that police have a duty to render aid to a person in custody and a duty to intervene when someone is committing harm or violating the rights of a person detained by police. All of it stems from the Floyd murder. The Houston native died after Chauvin kneeled on his neck for over nine minutes as onlookers and Floyd pleaded for him to relent.
On Saturday a Senate committee was expected to consider a proposal related to no-knock warrants.
But that’s not enough for activists on the front lines of the movement to change policing and criminal justice.
“Politicians need to catch up to where the people are,” said Sara Mokuria, the co-founder of Mothers Against Police Brutality. “They’ve lost sight of what galvanizes folks in the first place, which is to have a society where folks are not killed, tortured or murdered. We’re not going to be able to have that kind of society with incremental progress in a system that does not serve us.”
Much of the criminal justice reform legislation was being held up in the Senate Jurisprudence Committee, which is led by veteran GOP Sen. Joan Huffman of Harris County.
“I am moving full speed ahead on every piece of legislation that has the votes and the leadership support to get out of here,” Huffman told The Dallas Morning News on Saturday.
A day earlier she said “good legislation” still had time to become law.
“The fact is, we are working hard to pass good legislation for our state, and that includes House bills,” she said in a statement. “While Sine Die seems very close, we have almost a week to continue to pass House bills, and I can assure you that we will.”
Frederick Frazier, first vice president of the Dallas Police Association and a McKinney City Council member, said Friday that he’s talked to Huffman and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick about Bo’s Law and believes it could be heard before the session ends.
“In its current form, we can live with it,” Frazier said.
Frazier has come around to the Botham Jean Act after several major changes in the bill. It now doesn’t include clarifying the Castle Doctrine allowing people to protect their residences. And while it mandates that police departments make their officers keep body cameras in operation, the state penalties for not doing so have been removed.
Daryl Washington, the lawyer for Jean’s family, said the current proposal is too weak.
“We have really been disappointed with how this was handled,” he said. “It’s not looking like something that should bear Botham Jean’s name. It’s quite insulting.”
Washington said lawmakers should reexamine the bill during the next legislative session rather than approve something that has no teeth.
Mokuria, the anti-police brutality activist, agreed that the proposals in their current forms should not be named after Floyd or Jean.
“It’s just disgracing to their names,” she said.
Sherman, the bill’s author, said that he has gotten approval from the Jean family for every change made in the bill. And he added concerns about removing the penalty provision for not having body cameras on are misplaced, because such neglect would remain against the law.
“This isn’t about Carl Sherman. This is about Botham Jean and his family and the victims of police brutality,” he said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Jasmine Crockett, a freshman lawmaker from Dallas who spent much of 2020 rallying for social justice reforms, called the legislative output on criminal justice “embarrassing,” and pointed out that Republicans are trying to crack down on protests instead of dealing with the issues that led protesters to take to the streets.
“I don’t think that we took the time to address the needs of the people in Texas and that’s all people,” Crockett told The News. " And with Texas having more Black Americans than any other state, it’s pretty much an embarrassment that our response to the protests was to beat up on protesters instead of addressing the catalyst for the protests in the first place. We refuse to address any police reforms because police reform seemingly in the Capitol is like a bad phrase.”
But Republican Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, said there was progress on criminal justice reform, while reminding Democrats that Republicans won the 2020 elections.
“We heard a number of those bills in committee and also Bo’s Law on the House floor that Representative Sherman worked so hard on,” Patterson said. “We had some things happen that they should be able to take home, but the last election was pretty strong in the message that it sent that Republicans are the chosen majority party. We won emphatically in the last election, and we were sent here to do a job. That job was to get as many conservative wins as we could possibly get.”
Spring of discontent for Democrats in Austin
For years, even before Floyd’s death, activists have been working hard to make changes in the criminal justice system. The goals range from curbing police brutality to bail bond reform, reimagining police departments and decriminalizing marijuana use.
Legislative victories have occurred, but they take time. Still, the summer of 2020 offered hope that more lawmakers, even Republicans, were on the same page.
“There was momentum about George Floyd and we had our Republican colleagues call us in support,” said Rep. Toni Rose, D-Dallas, and the vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “Then the narrative of defunding the police happened and distorted the issue. Once that happened, even though we tried to explain to them what the narrative of defunding the police was really to just reallocate funds and spend more on community policing, it hurt other things.”
Frazier agreed acknowledged that the defund the police movement, which irked Gov. Greg Abbott, could have hurt Democrats in Austin.
“Anything or anybody that mentioned defund the police, or even reimagine police, was viewed as toxic,” he said.
Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, said he approached criminal justice legislation that took into account the goals of people on both sides.
“I looked for balance in the legislation that I voted on,” Shaheen said.
Criminal justice reform is just part of the legislative agenda for Democrats and progressive activists.
Much of the fight involved proposals to change election law that Democrats said threatened to disenfranchise voters.
The House and Senate proposals are now being studied by a conference committee. Only the House conferees included lawmakers of color: Democratic Reps. Nicole Collier of Fort Worth and Terry Canales of Edinburg.
“It’s frustrating, it’s like you’re trying to get to the root of the problem, but it seems like anytime that you talk about race, the conversation takes a turn,” Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, the vice chair of the House Elections Committee, said. “I’m sorry, but for you to deny that systemic racism exists is kind of ridiculous, and we should be able to talk about those things.”
Democrats are hopeful that some progress can be made on other issues, including education.
A proposal to develop a commission to deal with broadband inequities is expected to be signed by Abbott.
“They are addressing the broadband issue that was interfering with the ability for some of our students to thrive,” said Collier, chair of the Black Legislative Caucus. “That’s a positive, but when we’re looking at wins and losses, I can’t put a bunch in the win column just yet, but we’re still hopeful.”
Sherman says Texas and the nation can do better, adding that a divided nation, as well as monuments to Confederates throughout the South, belie the fact that the South lost the Civil War.
He said Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson, who died before the war ended, would think the South had won the war between the states if he were alive today.
“If Stonewall Jackson was resurrected today, I think he would be somewhat pleased with where we are as a nation, and where we are with police reform, social justice reform and criminal justice reform,” Sherman said. “Conversely, If Abraham Lincoln was resurrected, he would think that there was another Civil War and the North lost it.”
Staff writer Allie Morris in Austin contributed to this story.