For over a decade, we have written about the “epidemic” of police misconduct and the devastating impact of systemic racism inside the criminal justice system. It was just another voice in the proverbial wilderness. Today, however, things are different. In the wake of George Floyd’s horrific killing, city and state governments are not only looking at long-held policing procedures but how to hold officers accountable when they either violate or abuse those procedures.
Houston’s Police Chief Art Acevedo recently told ABC’s The View that the time has come for police departments across the country, and in particular, in Houston, to discuss measures to address police misconduct. Before The View interview, Acevedo gave Houston’s ABC13 Erik Barajas these thoughts, undoubtedly influenced by George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers.
HPD Chief Ponders Reforms to Officer Liability
“We need to assess if it is time to make some adjustments where officers that act in a willful and reckless manner, that some of those protections [like qualified immunity] may be adjusted,” Acevedo said. “I have been telling my people that I am going to hold them accountable for time, making sure that they slow down just a bit. Assess. Time is on your side, so utilize it. Create distance. It’s time, distance, numbers, cover, and concealment. We instill that in our officers from day one.”
Houston’s 5000-person police department was involved in 21 shooting incidents in 2019 and 16 thus far in 2020. The lowest number of police shooting incidents since 2005 was in 2017 when there were 15 such incidents, compared to a record high of 49 events in 2009.
Acevedo’s stated goal of reducing police shooting incidents and curbing excessive force faces a history of such complaints being casually dismissed by the department’s internal review process. ABC13 reported in 2011 that not one single complaint involving the use of excessive force was sustained.
Austin PD Also In Need of Reform
The Austin police department has been under increasing fire for its use of lethal force in dealing with people of color and excessive force when dealing with peaceful protesters. The Austin police killed 25 people between 2015 and 2019. The department’s latest killing involved an unarmed African American and Latino man named Michael Ramos, who was shot and killed by Austin police as Ramos was pulling out of a parking lot.
The Ramos/Floyd killings have roiled Austin with days of street protests and growing city government scrutiny. The City Council recently placed restrictions on the police department’s use of lethal force and the use of “less lethal” weapons against protesters. The City Council is also taking a hard look at reducing the department’s next fiscal budget. These council actions came after the Ramos killing and the department use of rubber bullets and bean bag rounds that sent nearly three dozen protesters to the hospital.
Austin Police Chief Brian Manley has resisted these calls for reform, especially the potential budget cuts. The Chief remains defiant despite the fact that during the recent protests there have been 159 complaints lodged against his officers—more than the total number of complaints filed between 2015 and 2019.
Immunity from Accountability
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. He believed he had a license to kill and immunity from accountability.
On June 17, 2020, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (“TRAC”) reported that U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s Justice Department brought just 49 cases of police misconduct under the civil rights statute in 2019 while initiating 69,536 prosecutions for the petty offense of illegal entry into the U.S.; 467 prosecutions for simple drug possession; and 119 prosecutions for illegally taking birds, fish and migratory birds.
Clearly, police misconduct is not a serious priority for the Trump administration. The president has been complicit in the staggering increase in police misconduct involving both lethal and excessive force, which he has encouraged.
Prosecutors across Texas have also been complicit in allowing police officers to have an immunity to engage in misconduct.
Austin’s KXAN investigative news recently examined 297 cases in which Texas police officers were formally charged with criminal conduct between 2015 and 2018, half of which were felonies. Prosecutors allowed these officers to leverage the surrender of their law enforcement licenses in exchange non-prosecution or a lesser sentence through a plea deal.
As long as the federal government considers petty offenses like illegal entry, marijuana possession, and stealing birds more serious than police abuse and misconduct and as long as Texas prosecutors allow criminal law enforcement officers to trade their badges to avoid accountability, the prospect for serious police reforms will remain dim at best, despite the efforts of reform-minded elected officials.