On May 25, 2020, as the nation was coming to grips with the deadly coronavirus pandemic, a cellphone video emerged documenting Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin suffocating the life out of George Floyd during a brutal chokehold that lasted eight-minute and forty-six seconds. The video also recorded two other officers, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane, assisting Chauvin and another, Tou Thao, preventing bystanders from offering Floyd aid. The officers had initially approached Mr. Floyd to question him regarding an alleged counterfeit bill used to purchase a pack of cigarettes. Another police interaction with an unarmed black man that would end in murder.
World Joins Protest Over Killing of Unarmed George Floyd
As massive, unprecedented wildfires ravaged California and other western states, that singular video spread across the globe igniting the passions and outrage in millions of people. People worldwide took to the streets to protests the killing of yet another unarmed black man by a white police officer. These massive protests reflecting generations of police brutality against the Black community spurred demands for police reform. Houston area U.S. Congressional Representatives Sheila Jackson Lee and Al Green heard the cries for justice and championed legislation to reform police protocols and eliminate the legal protections they enjoy from civil liability. Several pieces of legislation emerged to address systemic racism and violence in the criminal justice system.
Finally, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 sponsored by Karen Bass (D-CA) passed through the House of Representatives. The act included key provisions from other proposed legislation. It was specifically designed to “hold law enforcement accountable for misconduct in court, improve transparency through data collection, and reform police training and policies.” The Acts includes these reforms:
- Ban chokeholds.
- End racial and religious profiling.
- Eliminate qualified immunity for law enforcement.
- Establish a national standard for the operation of police departments.
- Mandate data collection on police encounters.
- Reprogram existing funds to invest in transformative community-based policing programs.
- Streamline federal law to prosecute excessive force and establish independent prosecutors for police investigations.
In addition to the federal police reform legislation, cities and states across the nation have undertaken reforms to traditional police enforcement policies in their local law enforcement agencies. These reforms include but are not limited to: ending chokeholds, requiring warnings before shooting, eliminating shooting at vehicles, improving the filing of police reports dealing with excessive force, mandatory body and dashboard cameras; special prosecutors to investigate every police-involved shooting, banning the use of all neck restraints, requiring police to provide medical and mental health care to people taken into custody, and eliminating all racial and religious profiling.
Police Reform in Texas, the Texas George Floyd Act
Two Texas lawmakers, Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) in the House and Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) in the Senate, have sponsored bills in the 2021 Texas Legislative Session that would also end the use of chokeholds statewide. This legislation, HB 88, known as the George Floyd Act, is strongly supported by the 19 members of the Texas Black Legislative Cuscus and a growing list of responsible state legislators. Beyond the ban on the use of chokeholds, the George Floyd Act would severely curtail the doctrine of qualified immunity and would create:
1. A state cause of action for deprivation of civil rights by police officers,
2. New and amended duties of police officers:
- a. duty to Intervene,
- b. duty to identify,
- c. duty to render aid
3. Use of force rules narrowed
- a. Strict prohibition on chokeholds
- b. All force must be proportionate to the circumstance and the seriousness of the offense (to address using deadly force for minor offenses) and be accompanied by an attempt to de-escalate and warn,
- c. Reduces allowable uses of lethal force and requires: the imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death, no other lesser level of force available, the use of force does not present a risk to bystanders, and the force terminates as soon as the threat is lessened.
4. Ends arrest for non-jailable violations,
5. Requires corroboration of an undercover police officer’s testimony in narcotics cases,
6. Requires disciplinary actions and other law violations of police officers to be documented in a clear disciplinary matrix that cannot be overturned or changed by contract with the police unions.
Reforms Long Overdue and Just First Step
The new rules about the standards of officers’ protocols are long overdue and necessary. These new duties will address historical police misconduct by requiring officers to identify themselves as police officers. The act would also establish a new duty to render aid to people in distress, even if another officer causes the injury. Police officers would be required to proactively intervene in cases of police misconduct, abuse, and brutality. The bill pushes hard against the defense that an officer did not know their peers’ actions constituted a civil rights violation. “Those police officers who do wrong by unlawfully harming our families or our constituents, who violate the constitutional rights of others, will be held accountable and legally liable for their actions,” says Rep. Shawn Thierry of Houston.
The police reforms under the Texas George Floyd Act are desperately needed. In fact, they should be the bare minimum. We have said before many times, and we will repeat it here: the militarization of police forces and the war these forces are waging against non-white communities in this country must end. The top priorities announced by the incoming Biden administration regarding criminal justice reform and those undertaken in Texas must, therefore, include police demilitarization.
These reforms are necessary to begin the process of identifying and removing systemic racism that infects too much of the nation’s police force, especially here in Texas. Racism in policing is a historical blight that prevents police officers’ from performing their sworn duty: to “protect and serve” all communities. Now is the time to harness the promises and words of support announced after the tragic murder of George Floyd and take real steps towards comprehensive criminal justice reform.