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Texas lawmakers unveil the George Floyd Act to limit police use of force, ban chokeholds

Fort Worth Star-Telegram logoFort Worth Star-Telegram 8/13/2020 By Tessa Weinberg, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

The Texas Legislative Black Caucus introduced the George Floyd Act Thursday afternoon, a sweeping bill aimed to curb police use of force and further criminal justice reforms in Texas.

Provisions of the bill include a prohibition on chokeholds, ending arrests for non-jailable, fine-only offenses, addressing qualified immunity protections and requiring officers to intervene and render aid when excessive force is used.

The proposed legislation is named after George Floyd, a Black man who died May 25 in Minneapolis police custody after a white officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. In the wake of Floyd’s death as protests rocked the nation decrying police brutality, state lawmakers vowed to push forward criminal justice reforms and strengthen past legislation.

“We acknowledge that the road to justice in Texas, particularly for Black and Brown people in Texas, has been fraught with dead ends — the dead ends of white supremacy, racial hatred and bigotry. So today, we are here to open up that road to equal justice for all Texans, including Black Texans and Brown Texans and Texans everywhere,” said Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., a Democrat from Houston and Chair of the House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee.

Lawmakers were joined via Zoom Thursday by members of Floyd’s family who expressed gratitude for the legislation and said that many of its provisions are “way overdue.”

“I wish you guys could have met him,” said Rodney Floyd, George’s brother. “As a family man, as a brother, a father, uncle, cousin, he was a great man. ... Before you knew his past, you knew George Floyd as a man. Except, they didn’t see him as a man.”

The bill aims to narrow officers’ ability to use force by banning chokeholds and mandating that all force used be proportional to the circumstances, and not put bystanders at risk. The bill also requires that any use of force be accompanied by deescalation tactics, such as warnings, and cease as soon as a threat is lessened.

“The world was able to see that officers had an opportunity to do something different for a total of nine minutes and they did not,” Tezlyn Figaro, a senior adviser at the George Floyd Foundation, said of Floyd’s case. “And that is what has truly woken up the world.”

The bill also aims to establish a statewide policy that requires officers to intervene when excessive force may be being used and render aid — even when the force is at the hands of another officer.

In the wake of widespread protests, some police departments began to implement such measures. The Dallas Police Department established a duty to intervene policy, which requires officers to stop others “when force is being inappropriately applied or is no longer required.” The Fort Worth Police Department has had a similar policy in place since at least July 2017.

While some departments have already implemented such policies, Rep. Nicole Collier, a Democrat from Fort Worth and chair of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, said a state law will help ensure it’s followed across Texas, “because departments fail to enforce duty to intervene now.”

The bill also aims to tackle departments’ qualified immunity doctrines — which often protect officers from lawsuits over their conduct — in an effort to hold them legally liable for their actions. The bill will allow victims of police misconduct to sue for civil rights violations in state courts by creating a new state level civil action for deprivation of rights, Rep. Shawn Thierry, a Democrat from Houston, said.

Such policies have left “thousands of people without recourse and represents a complete failure in our justice system to protect the constitutional rights of Texans,” Thierry said.

The George Floyd Act also will limit arrests for fine-only offenses — the final provision of the Sandra Bland Act that had been stripped from the original bill, said Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Democrat from Houston and one of the bill’s authors.

Three days after being arrested by a Department of Public Safety trooper during a traffic stop in 2015, Bland, a 28-year-old Black woman, was found hanging in a cell in the Waller County jail. Her death was ruled a suicide.

After facing opposition from law enforcement groups, the 2017 bill named after her was eventually whittled down to largely focus on mental health issues, investigation of jail deaths, de-escalation training and data collection of traffic stops.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a Democrat from Houston who is spearheading the act’s proposal, said she hopes groups that have historically been opposed to criminal justice reforms will come to the table to collaborate.

“I believe in the last several weeks, that the public itself has spoken very loudly and very clearly that there should be some changes — that there need to be some changes,” Thompson said.

Other criminal justice reforms, such as eliminating no-knock warrants and ensuring officers activate body cameras, will be addressed in several additional bills lawmakers plan to file this upcoming session, Dutton said. The Texas Legislature is set to reconvene in January, and lawmakers have said that widespread protests this summer will help ensure that criminal justice reforms remain a priority.

At Floyd’s Houston memorial in June, Gov. Greg Abbott had raised the possibility of a George Floyd Act and said that Floyd “is going to change the arc of the future of the United States.”

“George Floyd has not died in vain. His life will be a living legacy about the way that America and Texas respond to this tragedy. I am here to tell you today 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 at the time.

Lawmakers said they hadn’t yet gotten to speak with Abbott directly about the proposed legislation. But Sen. Royce West, a Democrat from Dallas, said that he discussed criminal justice issues more broadly with Abbott last week and that the governor “still is, in fact, committed to do something in this particular area.”

West called on Abbott to set the bill as an emergency item, which would authorize its passage in the first 60 days of the legislative session.

Lawmakers observed a moment of silence to honor Black citizens who have died at the hands of police, and raised the names of victims including Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling and Tamir Rice.

For many demonstrators in Fort Worth, another name was on their lips during recent protests: Atatiana Jefferson. Jefferson was fatally shot by a white Fort Worth officer in her home in October, and her death spurred Tarrant County lawmakers to renew their calls for statewide policing reforms.

Floyd’s death has been a rallying cry that has brought many of those calls for change back to the forefront, and Thursday lawmakers expressed hope that change is on the horizon.

“Quite frankly, this is an important time, because with all of the interest in what happened to Mr. Floyd, if we can’t do it now, then when will we do it,” Coleman said. “And that’s why this effort by the Texas Legislative Black Caucus is so important, because we’re not going to stop with just having a protest and outrage.”

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