Texas Legislature backs efforts to stop 'defunding' police as reforms stall

Texas Legislature backs efforts to stop ‘defunding’ police as reforms stall

May 26, 2021
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May 26—The Texas Legislature is moving on bills that would make it harder for cities and counties to cut police budgets, but reforms proposed after last summer’s protests against police brutality have seen less success. Lawmakers have just days to pass final pieces of legislation before adjourning on Monday. […]

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May 26—The Texas Legislature is moving on bills that would make it harder for cities and counties to cut police budgets, but reforms proposed after last summer's protests against police brutality have seen less success.

Lawmakers have just days to pass final pieces of legislation before adjourning on Monday.

On Tuesday, members of the House of Representatives approved a bill that would require Texas counties with populations over 1 million to seek voter approval if they want to reduce their law enforcement budget compared to the previous year. Six counties would be affected: Harris, Dallas, Bexar, Tarrant, Travis and Collin.

Senate Bill 23 comes after calls to "defund the police" in the wake of George Floyd's death while in Minneapolis police custody. The movement generally refers to the reallocation of law enforcement funding for other community services.

The 86-59 House vote on the proposal fell on the one year anniversary of Floyd's death. It is now headed to the Senate for consideration of House changes.

Rep. Jasmine Crockett, a Dallas Democrat and civil rights attorney, said the conversation around the bill has centered on a "back the blue versus defund fight."

"When in fact, we all want the same thing: We all want to be safe in our homes and communities," she said. "Yet we don't all feel safe."

Tom Oliverson, a Cypress Republican who sponsored the bill, said he cares deeply about the safety of Texas communities.

"I believe that having law enforcement officers in our communities enforcing our laws makes us safer, and I want them to be properly trained, properly equipped and properly staffed and that takes money," he said.

Democrats offered amendments that included expanding the number of counties subject to the rule. Most of the proposals failed.

"That could only lead me to one conclusion," said state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston. "And that conclusion is, this is not about public safety. This is not about protecting our citizens. This is not about protecting our law enforcement. This is a political ploy."

Bill would penalize cities that 'defund police'

A separate bill, House Bill 1900, would penalize cities with populations over 250,000 that cut police budgets by prohibiting them from annexing for 10 years. The bill, authored by Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, would also limit tax increases and bar fee increases on city utilities by those cities. The legislation is back in the House for consideration of Senate amendments.

Gov. Greg Abbott proposed removing annexation powers and freezing property tax revenue in cities that cut police funding after the Austin City Council unanimously voted in August to redirect about $150 million from its police department's budget, with about $20 million cut immediately.

"A vote for this bill is a vote for public safety. A vote for this bill is to back our police. A vote for this bill is to back the blue," Goldman said.

Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman, the bill's Senate sponsor, said the 250,000 threshold picked because "we are trying to get into the higher populated urban cities where we tend to see higher crime rates, and we tend to see more of the movement or talk about perhaps defunding the police."

Police funding was put to a vote in July in Fort Worth, when voters opted to preserve a more than $80 million Fort Worth Police fund when given a choice between reducing police spending or locking in the department's enhanced patrols and special programs. Opponents had pushed for the funds to be used for community-based nonprofits or improving transportation.

"It's important to understand that the bill has not completed the legislative process and still may change further, so we're likely not seeing it in its final form," Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said in a Wednesday statement. "Like most cities in Texas, Fort Worth will not defund our police department, and I do believe that it is the local leaders that know their community best and understand what is needed to keep their citizens safe."

Huffman's hope is the legislation never has to be used, she said.

"That perhaps our law enforcement community will have the funds necessary to perform the critical functions that we need of them so desperately," she said.

What's the status of the George Floyd Act?

Some Democrats on Tuesday lamented that more hadn't been done to address policing reforms.

"On the year anniversary of George Floyd's death, the death of a Texan, instead of passing police reforms, reforms that the governor himself assured his family he'd sign into law, we're attempting to tie the hands of elected officials who understand their communities of color," Crockett said.

A spokesperson for Abbott said the governor has "reiterated his commitment to improving policing and providing law enforcement with the tools and training they need to ensure the safety that their communities and Texans deserve."

"The Governor continues working with the Legislature to pass and sign meaningful legislation this session to ensure we never have a tragedy like this in the state of Texas," Press Secretary Renae Eze said in a statement. "We must also have adequate policing to protect Texans and our communities, which is why Governor Abbott made the defunding of cities that defund our law enforcement an emergency item this session."

The wide ranging George Floyd Act includes a number of reforms that have been pending in committee since late March. Parts of the bill have been passed as standalone bills, including a ban on choke holds.

Other measures that have passed include Senate Bill 2212, which requires officers request and provide aid for someone who is injured. The bill is now back in the Senate.

Lawmakers also approved House Bill 929, which requires body cameras stay on for the length of an investigation. That bill stems from the killing of Botham Jean, who was fatally shot by a police officer in his Dallas apartment.

"We deem this a tremendous step in seeking to correct some of the systemic issues that plague our society and cause corrupt police officers to walk away scotch-free after committing heinous acts on innocent people," Jean's mother Allison Jean said in a statement. "My family will continue to fight for justice for Botham and for all innocent men and women, boys and girls who have been killed at the hands of police officers in the United States and around the world."

The House on Tuesday also gave initial approval to a bill requiring officers intervene and make a report when another officer uses excessive force. Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, successfully added an amendment offering protections to people recording a police officer as they perform their official duties.

Some policing reform measures stall

Measures that haven't gained traction include ending arrests for fine-only offenses and the removal of qualified immunity for law enforcement, a legal principal that protects government officials from being held personally liable for constitutional violations.

"This is only for the bad actors," said Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston. "This is not for the good cops. ... Why are you worried about qualified immunity? Why? As long as you do what you're supposed to do, it shouldn't be a problem."

Johnson said he supports the George Floyd Act and similar legislation "100%."

"But let's be real about something," he said. "It'll never change. It'll never change until we start to hold accountable police officers for their actions. That means if an officer shoots an unarmed citizen, that officer must stand trial before a body of his peers."

The Legislature has a way of grinding things down, Rice University Political Science Professor Mark Jones said Wednesday on "Texas Standard."

"What we ran into this session was that because of police opposition to the qualified immunity, the George Floyd Act as a general piece of legislation was scuttled, and therefore we were left with individual legislators scrambling to get small components of it passed, and that's just always chaotic," he said.

Fort Worth activist Patrice "Trice" Jones, who participated in last summer's protests following the death of Floyd, recalls testifying in support of the George Floyd Act when it was in committee. Jones, the outreach director for Deborah Peoples mayoral campaign, said she wanted to let legislators know there are George Floyds all over America.

"I want to know why Black people keep getting just a piece of the pie," she said. "Why are we not able to have the whole pie ... and get something in place to ensure that those paid to serve and protect us are required to do their job."

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