Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz joined Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and other community leaders today for a round table discussion on police reform.
Cornyn said he had asked Turner for the meeting to help advise him and Senator Cruz on what might be an appropriate federal response to the public outcry for reform in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
In his opening comments, Cornyn told the group that next week the Senate would be taking up South Carolina Senator Tim Scott’s JUSTICE Act, which proposes a number of policing reforms, makes lynching a federal crime, and creates a national Criminal Justice Commission to present additional recommendations within 18 months.
Cornyn acknowledged, however, that there was a public sense of urgency, and said he would be pushing for swift actions from Congress.
“I can’t think of anything that’s more important right now than this.”
Senator Cruz noted that while the country was seeing enormous racial divisions, “in the immediate aftermath of Mr. Floyd’s killing…it was encouraging the unanimity with which everyone condemned what happened, across the political spectrum.”
Among other proposals, Cruz advocated for federal incentives for law enforcement departments to use body cameras, saying that the cameras could both hold officers accountable and exonerate them in the face of false accusations.
“The criminal justice system should be about truth,” said Cruz. “It should be about understanding what in fact happened.”
Decrying attempts to demonize police, Cruz praised Houston for mostly peaceful protests and Mayor Turner and the city council for embracing what he said were common-sense reforms.
Turner urged members of Congress to listen to mayors across the country, since they were closest to the people, and warned that police officers were being asked to do too much.
“We ask them to police, we ask them to be social workers, we ask them to go out on crisis intervention, we ask them to deal with our homeless, we ask them to deal with drug abuse and violence.”
The mayor asked for resources and grants for substance abuse, crisis intervention, and domestic violence intervention programs, as well as grants for police officers to live within the communities they patrol.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said while he supported those kinds of programs, he cautioned against cutting funds for law enforcement departments before replacement programs for such services were fully in place.
Although Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg agreed with the call for body cameras, she advised that the lack of a uniform policy and wide variety in equipment used often created headaches for her office in investigating allegations of police misconduct, especially those involving federal agents.
Ogg also highlighted funding problems for her department.
“With 360 lawyers to deal with 75,000 cases in Harris County, without a courthouse to do it in that won’t flood, it’s very difficult to ensure timely justice.”
State Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston) urged local jurisdictions to work to minimize contact the public has with the police.
“Police ought to be used against individuals that we’re afraid of, not that we’re mad at,” said Whitmire.
“We’ve got to quit stopping people for not using their turn signal: Sandra Bland tragedy…Mr. Floyd, for not submitting an accurate twenty-dollar bill, allegedly.”
Houston City Council Member Abbie Kamin said the JUSTICE Act needed to include more incentives for reporting hate crimes, and funding for hate crimes training. She also said that “use of force” definitions in the JUSTICE Act were problematic, but did not offer an alternative definition in her comments.
Kamin called for “meaningful reform on gun violence that puts officers in danger and our communities in danger.”
In light of some calls to address “Qualified Immunity,” which protects certain government employees from liability, Gerald Birnberg of the Independent Houston Police Oversight Board said Congress should address a Supreme Court decision known as “Monell” which holds that the city is not liable for the actions of its officers.
Several participants advocated for broader reforms of the entire criminal justice systems.
“Criminal justice reform includes police reform, sentencing reform, law reform, reducing prison populations, and in some cases, decriminalization, such as marijuana,” said former Harris County District Judge Marc Carter (R).
“Let’s accept the fact that we’ve created a violent culture in America. There are probably more guns on the streets of America than anywhere else in the world, concealed, open carry, churches, schools, they’re everywhere,” added Carter. “Police assume everyone is armed which leads to fatal mistakes and overly aggressive tactics.”
A call for action and cooperation came from First Vice-President of the NAACP and Community of Faith Church pastor Bishop James Dixon II, who lamented the fact that his children were afraid of the police even though he himself was a friend of the police chief.
In urging unity, Dixon said leaders should unify to “dignify the outcry” for reforms. He added, “Racism is the result of a deception, that there’s more than one race. There’s only one: there’s the human race.”
Other invited attendees included Major Mike Lee from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Houston Mayor Pro-Tem and City Council member Dave Martin, former Houston Police Officers Union President Ray Hunt, Houston Urban League President Judson Robinson, Houston Recovery Initiative Executive Director Leonard Kincaid, and LULAC & Greater Houston Coalition for Justice activist Johnny Mata.
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Houston) had not initially been listed as attending, but made a surprise appearance and contributed to the discussion as well.
“I believe that people of color are the most law-abiding people in this nation, and I can document because our grandmothers, grandfathers that many of us were raised under told us how to behave. And we have not steered away from that, but we have been hurt and in pain because of what has occurred in our history.”
Jackson Lee also took part in the press conference following the round table, noting that while the Senate’s JUSTICE Act incentivized local use of body cameras, House legislation would mandate the equipment for the nation’s 18,000 police departments.
During the presser, Jackson Lee and Mayor Turner took different positions on public release of a recently conducted audit of the Houston Police Department’s Narcotics Division.
Turner said the issue fell under local jurisdiction, and that he was in the process of reviewing the audit himself.
“We will make it available to our legislators under the understanding that they will maintain the confidentiality…you don’t want to disclose the identity of officers who have been out there undercover and expose them to risk,” said Turner.
Jackson Lee agreed that “local policing is local government’s territory, but transparency should be a national issue.”
“What we will do is have a policing system across the nation that is grounded in transparency, as well as grounded in the ability to do the job of safety and security for our community.”
Participants also frequently invoked the significance of the date of the round table: June 19, or Juneteenth, the day on which Texans celebrate the 1865 emancipation of slaves in the United States.
Texas has observed the date since 1980, and Cornyn said on Monday he planned to introduce a bill in the Senate to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.