The conference, held in conjunction with the Houston Police Officer’s Union in the wake of Houston Police Sergeant Harold Preston’s death in the line of duty, joined U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) with Abbott at the table.
With flags still at half-mast after Preston died last week responding to a domestic disturbance call, the police have taken center stage in Houston’s local politics.
Against the wishes of Black Lives Matter activists and some members of the Houston City Council, Mayor Sylvester Turner submitted a budget this summer that put over $19 million dollars more into the police department when it passed. Abbott praised Turner’s support for the department particularly as other cities in Texas moved to defund their police departments in varying degrees.
“We will never forget the service of Sgt. Harold Preston, nor the ultimate sacrifice he made, and our hearts are with his family and the entire Houston Police Department as they mourn this unspeakable loss,” Abbott said.
Grace Church’s memorial service for Preston will take place tonight, and a motorcade in his honor will drive through Houston this Saturday.
Abbott introduced the pledge — originally online, though displayed in physical form as a three-foot card at the event — for candidates to sign. Wesley Hunt, Republican candidate for Texas’ 7th congressional district, joined state Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) and state Sens. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), Larry Taylor (R-Pearland), and Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) in signing. The governor added his name to the pledge, as well.
Local governmental bodies across the state have toyed with police department cuts, with local higher-ups often insisting no connection between such cuts and the “Defund the Police” movement — putting them at odds with both supporters and detractors of the ill-defined slogan.
The City of Austin most notably siphoned millions from its department to social programs, providing a major prompt for Abbott’s pledge. Austin Mayor Steve Adler denied that the cuts amounted to defunding.
The Bexar County Commissioners Court recently halved the staff of the Bexar County Constable’s Office after impassioned public testimony characterized the proposal, for better or for worse, as a defunding effort despite the more diplomatic description of the cuts by county Judge Nelson Wolff as a simple reallocation of funds.
To the angst of Mayor Eric Johnson, the City of Dallas approved deep slashes to police overtime pay last month in a choice motivated in part by race in the words of one councilman who supported the budget.
Abbott spotlighted Dallas and Austin as cautionary tales, threatening state action if cities give up their public safety responsibilities.
“Part of our job as state leaders is to ensure the safety and security of our communities, and we are ready to step in if cities choose to undermine this core function by defunding the police,” Abbott said. “We also cannot sit idly by while local officials try to override state laws with their own policy decisions.”
Abbott has suggested intervention from the Department of Public Safety and legislative retaliation as possible deterrents to local police department cuts, including freezing tax revenues and annexation of the Austin Police Department.
Reporters pressed Abbott on COVID-19 at the end of the conference, with the governor foretelling no new state restrictions.
“The plan that we have focuses on the metric that is most important, and that is those who need hospital care… [and] that we have the healthcare capacity to be able to treat everybody who needs to be treated,” Abbott said.
“Those mechanisms are already in place, and because of that, there is no need for additional measures at the state level.”
The current plan allows reopenings in hospital regions where COVID-19 patients do not take up more than 15 percent of hospital capacity. If a hospital region exceeds the 15 percent limit, the counties in the region return to tighter lockdown rules. Most notably, bars will close and businesses will operate at half capacity — all “automatically, without any decision-making process whatsoever,” as Abbott explained today, as opposed to regions under the 15 percent limit where such closures are up to the county judge to decide.
Abbott noted that three of the 22 hospital regions in the state have triggered this automatic tightening of restrictions.
“One is in El Paso, the other is Lubbock, and the other is Amarillo,” Abbott pointed out. “Remember this, and that is just because people are testing positive for COVID… in and of itself is not a sign of danger. The sign of danger is when you have increased hospitalizations.”
The state has enjoyed somewhat looser rules since Abbott cracked the windows on stifling operating procedures earlier this month, when he handed closure authority to local officials and raised operating capacity for some restricted businesses up from 50 to 75 percent.
In El Paso, where the COVID-19 percentage of hospital capacity has risen well above 15 percent, county Judge Ricardo Samaniego piled a curfew on top of Abbott’s executive order earlier this week.
Abbott’s coronavirus game plan has lost him many friends in his own party. The yawning rift within the GOP reached the peaks of party leadership, even resulting in a protest at the Governor’s Mansion which drew the support of state GOP Chairman Allen West and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller. The group called on Abbott to fully reopen the state, and Miller said his “cure is worse than the disease.”
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