The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in May and the worldwide protests that followed have amplified long-standing questions about violent and biased policing and the larger criminal justice system, including the imprisonment of those convicted of relatively minor crimes. In Texas, Black Lives Matter marches have been held in towns as disparate as Vidor and Alpine, Amarillo and Brownsville.
In the big cities, the protests added urgency to local crises of confidence in law enforcement. Symptoms of the wider problem differed from place to place. Protesters in Austin chanted the name of Mike Ramos, an unarmed man killed by a police officer on April 24; in Fort Worth, protesters remembered Atatiana Jefferson, who was shot and killed inside her home last October by an officer who was standing in her yard. In Houston, a botched no-knock raid that killed two innocent people in January 2019 has been capturing headlines ever since.
Most of the largest cities and counties in Texas are firmly under the control of Democrats, and activists there have succeeded in pushing through reforms in other areas central to the criminal justice system—through changes in district attorney’s offices and in city councils. But change in the culture of police departments, and in the laws and contracts that often allow bad cops and their superiors to evade accountability, has come very slowly, when it has come at all. At the local level, elected officials can be wary of going against police unions, which in Texas (unlike some other states) are allowed to participate in political campaigns by endorsing candidates and donating money. In the Texas Legislature, police unions pose a significant threat to any bill that jeopardizes the privileges of law enforcement officers—often including what they see as the right to avoid serious discipline for officers repeatedly cited for bias or unnecessary violence.
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Does Texas now have an opportunity to break through the deadlock? And what would that look like? To talk about it, we gathered four people with different perspectives on the state’s criminal justice system.
State representative James White is a Republican from East Texas who has been a leading voice on criminal justice reform.
Brittany K. Barnett is an attorney from Dallas whose Buried Alive Project seeks to free those given life without parole under federal drug laws.
Tarsha Jackson is a Houston activist who got her start in 2001, when her special-needs son, then in fifth grade, kicked a teacher and was arrested and charged with assault of a public servant. She’s been working with the nonprofit Texas Organizing Project on criminal justice issues since 2013, and she’s now running for Houston City Council.
Ron DeLord, of Austin, is an attorney and former police officer in Beaumont and Mesquite who helped found the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, one of the state’s largest police unions. He has traveled the world working with and learning about police departments.
TEXAS MONTHLY: Polls have shown that a majority of Americans believe that the way policing works needs to substantively change, even if they’re not really sure what they want to happen. I’d like to start by asking, is there low-hanging fruit here? Are there reforms at the level of police departments or state government or cities that could be made right away?
JAMES WHITE: Our local and county governments have a definite and immediate role. Your municipal police departments, those are led by local mayors, police chiefs, and city councils. Out my way, the city council meets at least once a month. Your elected sheriff is obviously elected by the people and responsive to the people. There is a lot of opportunity to get stuff done right now at the city council and with your local sheriff.
BRITTANY BARNETT: As far as immediate things, banning choke holds, that’s number one. That’s not some hard thing to do. I also feel that we’ve spent a lot of time trying to reform things that should be completely reimagined, completely transformed. I’m almost getting allergic to the word “reform.” Because we’re just tinkering with a broken system. We need full transformation. We need to completely reimagine what this should look like and reimagine justice.
I mean, it’s great we’re renaming schools and removing statues. That’s all cute. But it’s not stopping police brutality. It’s not stopping Black people from entering the criminal justice system. We need the statues torn down. But we have to have more than that.
TARSHA JACKSON: We’ve been pushing since the death of Sandra Bland,¹ in 2015, to change Houston’s police union contract.² Not just the police union contract, but implementing cite and release³ and ending debtors’ prison⁴—getting rid of these broken window policies⁵ that basically get a lot of Black and brown people caught up in the system. There are a lot of great reforms that would reduce the number of people going into the system that could be implemented right now.
I was arrested in 1994 in front of my kid’s day care center. I was pulled over for running a stop sign and had a warrant for an unpaid ticket. They would not allow me to go in to let the day care know that I was being arrested. He just handcuffed me and took me to jail. Then, of course, fast-forward to Sandra Bland. She should have never been arrested. So the policies are there, the opportunities are there, to put forward smart policy solutions that will decriminalize traffic tickets and fees and fines.
TM: Ron, is there anything right now in the short term that you think major police departments in Texas would accept in the way of reforms?
RON DELORD: I think you’d be surprised by how many things we agree on. All of the criminalization of what I consider civil matters has driven up the incarcerated population. It falls disproportionately on the poor. People of color are disproportionately represented among the poor, so they end up with criminal records.
I know why we have all the traffic ticket fines. All of these things that we have criminalized, part of that is to make money. It’s hidden taxes in the state of Texas. We can stop that, and unions would support it.
We didn’t just wake up after George Floyd and go, “Wow. Look what we’ve been doing.” No, elected officials—not picking on Representative White, but people way before his time—we’ve known these things. We’ve had no political will in this country to deal with the real, systemic problems of race and poverty in our society.⁶
TM: Representative White, why has it been so hard at the Legislature to tackle some of these issues?
WHITE: One thing you learn when you get to the Legislature—and I think I knew this a little bit before I was in the Legislature, because I was a high school government teacher—it is difficult to pass a bill.⁷ Roughly eight thousand bills are filed every year, and with some of the language in those bills, it’s probably good that it’s very difficult, because some of the stuff is downright crazy. But we’ve got this great opportunity now, due to the salience of this issue, to make bigger gains than we’ve made in the past.
TM: Do you think that the political power of police unions needs to be curtailed in order for reform to happen?
DELORD: Well, it’s a complicated question. I think our whole political process is upside-down. As long as every special interest group known to man can donate money to get access, then our system is broken all the way up and down the line. You want to ban the police from giving money?⁸ You can pass a Hatch Act. If we talk about the real things that will make a difference in how the police act and how we use the police in our society, I don’t think we’re against those things. Where I have the most aggravation is that we want to single out the union for being powerful.
WHITE: Last session, I believe, I had a House bill that provided some guardrails on conducting arrests on fine-only Class C misdemeanors.⁹ I think many people have reported that the police unions tanked that bill. I disagree with that. Because if I remember the sequence right, we did eventually sit down with our friends over in Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. We incorporated some of their amendments, and that bill actually passed on the House floor with a solid majority. It was on its way to the Senate until some members decided that they wanted a redo on the bill. So it was not necessarily any police organization or a police union per se that tanked that bill last session. It was really the members derailing that.¹⁰
DELORD: I don’t think someone ought to be arrested for Class C. Sandra Bland was pulled over for failing to signal; she shouldn’t even have been stopped. She should have never been in the criminal justice system. A lot of people shouldn’t be. So let’s focus on those things. I do believe that we’ve reached a tipping point. I think this is the biggest opportunity we’re ever going to have in America today to drive these issues and make substantive structural change.
For us to invest billions of dollars into law enforcement and the criminal justice system and have no data to track the outcomes—looking at it just from a purely business perspective, it makes no sense.
BARNETT: One of the things that I feel really strongly about is that we just don’t have adequate national data. That’s so important. It’s hard to understand the shape of the problem if we don’t even have standard measures of what police do or any standard reporting mechanism from it. I’ve worked with Southern Methodist University’s criminal justice reform center to analyze over thirty years of data as it relates to sentencing at the federal level. But the deeper we dug into the data, the less complete it was.
I come from a corporate background. I practice mergers and acquisitions. For us to invest billions of dollars into law enforcement and the criminal justice system and have no data to track the outcomes—looking at it just from a purely business perspective, it makes absolutely no sense. No sense at all.
DELORD: How can we, in 2020, not know how many in-custody deaths we’ve had? How come in 2020 we don’t know how many times an officer fired their gun or shot someone or had a prisoner die? All of that is data that the public ought to know. The police work for the government. They have to understand they’re taxpayer funded and they don’t get to decide how they’re going to police. They don’t. I tell them that. Sometimes they don’t want to hear me. But they don’t get to decide. They’re decisions made by the public through their elected officials.
TM: I wanted to ask about mental health because it’s a factor in so many police interactions that turn bad. What does reimagining that look like? Does it mean more training for police officers? Does it mean some kind of community service officer goes in unarmed and handles suspects with mental health issues?
WHITE: At some point, we’re going to have to make a decision in this country to look at mental and behavioral health as a health issue and treat it as such. In talking to a lot of police officers, they want to focus on folks that are endangering our life and liberty. All right? I believe in President Trump’s most recent executive order on criminal justice. He talks about resourcing up and training co-responders such as social workers and other folks to work in the community and address these issues of homelessness and mental illness and behavioral health.
DELORD: I started [as a police officer] in 1969. I didn’t have a minute’s training. I’d never fired a pistol. I went to work for eighteen months before they said I had to go to a one-month school. Now, I changed all that in the eighties, through the Legislature, but we still have only about six hundred hours of training. Most countries have a year to two before they give someone a gun and have them go out. Texas, I think, is in pretty good shape training-wise but still needs substantially more and a different type of training. What do we have? Eight hours on mental health, and then you spend a week at the firing range? Austin does have mental health training, has about 150 officers specially trained in mental health.¹¹ But that’s not enough.
I’ll say this: there’s a lack of political will to fund the social programs needed to help people sleeping on the street, those addicted to drugs, and to address other social ills.
We as a country have felt like it’s some violation of capitalism to have a social network. But if we had a social network, it would greatly reduce the number of people in prison.