On Tuesday of this week, Senator John Whitmire and I announced that we are committed to passing a package of policies next legislative session that will improve our criminal justice system. We are developing this legislation to honor George Floyd and his family, Sandra Bland and her family, and all the other families seeking justice and change.
Implicit Bias Training
The first important change happened within the last week. On Thursday, June 4th, I requested that the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE) require implicit bias training as part of their basic peace officer training course. TCOLE, which is responsible for licensing and training standards for law enforcement in Texas, fulfilled my request and added implicit bias training components to the first unit (Professionalism and Ethics) of the basic peace officer training course, and emphasized the need for de-escalation training later in the course.
Implicit bias is the automatic association people make between people and stereotypes regarding that group of people. Implicit bias training helps individuals identify their bias, and works to retrain their mind to take these biases out of their decision making process. Doing so allows for better and more objective decision making. Click here to read the Houston Chronicle story on this improvement.
That was a good start, but more changes in policing and criminal justice policy need to be made at every level of government. I will be doing my part at the state level to push for reform that will ensure equal treatment for people of color, increase transparency and accountability, and keep both law enforcement and the public safer. I am glad to see that other local Democratic leaders such as Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, and Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis have already started to push for changes as well. Additionally, at the federal level, Houston Congressman Al Green and Congresswomen Shelia Jackson Lee are pushing for change in D.C.
In 2017, Senator Whitmire and I passed the Sandra Bland Act, which included key reforms such as de-escalation training, greater data collection on traffic stops and arrests, a universal compliment/complaint section on each ticket, and other reforms that reduce jailing people for minor violations away and make our jails safer. Please click here to read a much more in-depth analysis of the important criminal justice policies passed in the Sandra Bland Act.
The following session we passed HB 4468 to increase jail safety by strengthening the Texas Commission on Jail Standards’ oversight of privately operated jails; expanding the prisoner safety fund; requiring jailers to be enrolled in basic training within 90 days of receiving their temporary license; and preventing a temporary jailer from becoming a supervisor. This upcoming session we will be working to pass a package that will include policies that were in the original Sandra Bland Act that did not make it into the bill, along with new policies that will help bring about real criminal justice reform for people of color.
One of many common sense policies that were in the original Sandra Bland Act that we want to pass this session is prohibiting arrests for non-jailable, fine-only offenses. For example, it makes no sense to arrest someone for allegedly failing to use a turn signal when the worst punishment you can receive if found guilty is a fine with no jail time. This change is long overdue and would have been in place a decade ago if then Governor Perry had not vetoed it.
Another policy from the original Sandra Bland Act that needs to be revived relates to how law enforcement conducts traffic stops. Because the data collection requirements in the Sandra Bland Act were passed, we have a better picture of how law enforcement continues to use traffic stops to target people of color. The use of pre-text stops of drivers of color leads to a disproportionate number of fines and arrests. Regrettably, these stops are allowed constitutionally because of the Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, hence they are sometimes referred to as Terry stops. However, we can pass a law to prohibit these unjust stops. Another practice that we need to prohibit from traffic stops is consent searches. Consent searches cause unnecessary confusion because it can be unclear to a driver if a police officer who asks to search your car is giving a command or making a request. Searches should be limited to instances where an officer has probable cause to search a vehicle.
Another element from the original Sandra Bland Act, would make improvements to our racial profiling law. Under current law it is very difficult to prove in court that racial discrimination is happening because data that could help a judge or jury get a more complete picture of a case is difficult evidence to get admitted at trial. We need to modify the statute to make it clear that this type of evidence is admissible in court. This, along with adding additional transparency to police records and more robust internal investigations into complaints, will give the public more trust in the system.It is a false choice saying that we cannot fund both the police and these alternative initiatives to keeping our communities safe.
Improve Safety—Not Defund the Police
In addition to policies in the original Sandra Bland Act, I will be looking at other reforms. However, simply de-funding the police is not a viable solution, law enforcement plays a vital role in keeping our communities safe and solving and preventing crime. The focus should be on improving law enforcement AND funding alternative initiatives to keeping our communities safe.
Houston council-member Letitia Plummer outlined some initiatives we could fund to help keep our communities safer at Wednesday’s city council meeting. Such as allocating funding to an independent police oversight board, additional de-esclation and implicit bias training for officers, increased funding for Houston’s “My Brother’s Keeper” program, and funding a Crisis Assistance: Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program where social workers and police work together to solve problems.
To have safer communities we need both better law enforcement and better alternatives, not one or the other.
Two more important policies we can put in place that could have prevented a death like George Floyd’s are prohibiting chokeholds by law enforcement and requiring officers to intervene if they see a colleague violating protocol. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to issue an executive order prohibiting chokeholds and strangleholds. Far too often this technique has proven to be too dangerous and had deadly consequences. Mayor Turner’s order will also require officers to intervene if they see a colleague violating protocol. We need to act to replicate what we are doing here in Houston and put these reforms into state law.
One of the major achievements of the Sandra Bland Act was requiring de-escalation training for law enforcement, and now Mayor Turner and other mayors are considering mandating that law enforcement officers must attempt to de-escalate situations before using force. Officers should be required to get training in tactical communication in a class that builds upon de-escalation training. If we are going to require our officers to do this, we need to make sure we make sure they are getting enough of the proper training.
This is not an exhaustive list, but a starting point for policies that I will be working on to keep our communities safer. I would like to thank many of you who have reached out to my office with input. Together we can make change happen.
CONTINUE TO WORK SMART AND STAY SAFE
We are still in the middle of a pandemic, so it is important that we still all work together to help slow the spread of COVID-19. If you are part of the population who has a high risk for severe illness please such as those 65 years and older, or who have an underlying health condition, please stay home as much as possible. If you do go out please practice good hygiene and public health safety measures when you do go out. Such as:
- practice social distancing;
- limit when you go out in public;
- when you do go out wear a face mask; and
- wash your hands and avoid touching your face.
There are people whose work requires them to go out to help us all stay safe, healthy, and fed. We can help those essential workers by staying home. If we work together, we can do our best to minimize the number of deaths by following the recommendations above and encouraging our friends and family to do the same.
From HISD: The Houston Independent School District will begin providing the Summer Meals Program for all children ages 1 to 18. This year, the meals will be distributed curbside to adhere to social distancing requirements.
Beginning June 1, families will be able to pick up boxed student meals twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays at one of 71 designated schools across the district. Each box will contain a day’s worth of meals, including breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack. Pick up sites will provide parents with multiple boxes — three on Mondays and four on Thursdays — for each child.
Boxes will be provided for all children in the vehicle at pickup. Children are not required to be present, but parents must have proof of enrollment in any school district (report card, student id, etc.) or birth certificate.
CVS OPENS DRIVE THRU TESTING SITE IN HD 147
CVS Health has opened up a drive thru testing site in our district at the CVS Pharmacy at 1003 Richmond Avenue, Houston, TX 77006. The drive-thru will be available to individuals who meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention criteria, in addition to age guidelines. Patients must register in advance at CVS.com beginning Friday, May 22 to schedule an appointment.
HOUSTON COVID-19 TESTING FOR EVERYONE
Good news Houston, we now have the capacity to test anyone who wants to be tested. Houston’s two community based testing sites are now available to ANYONE who wants to be tested for COVID-19. You no longer need to have symptoms. However, you do need to call ahead. If you would like to be tested please call 832-393-4220 to be provided a unique identification code and directions on where to go.
If your family or a family you know is in need of internet access to help continue a child’s education, some of Houston’s cable providers are offering free internet for the next 60 days. Listed below are companies and numbers to call to help set you or someone you know up with internet access while a child (K-12 & college) may require an internet connection to continue their education.
- SuddenLink 888-633-0030
- Charter/Spectrum 844-488-8395
The Houston Health Department is operating a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) call center for Houston residents needing more information COVID-19. Houstonians can call the center at 832-393-4220 to speak to department staff and obtain information about the disease or get their questions answered. The call center will open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The waiting week for unemployment benefits has been temporarily waived, allowing the Texas Workforce Commission to pay your UI benefits sooner during this declared disaster. Additionally, For workers impacted by the Coronavirus, the Workforce Commission has waived requirement that one must be looking for work in order to apply for unemployment benefits.
If your employment has been affected by the coronavirus (COVID-19), apply for benefits either online at any time using Unemployment Benefits Services or by calling TWC’s Tele-Center at 800-939-6631 from 7 a.m .- 7 p.m. Central Time every day including Saturdays and Sundays.