GOP Senators Join Houston Mayor at Roundtable on Police Reforms

A crowd gathers in front of Houston City Hall on June 3, 2020, to remember the late George Floyd. (Courthouse News photo/Cameron Langford)

HOUSTON (CN) — Body cameras and qualified immunity dominated the discussion at a police reform roundtable Friday in Houston, in which Republican U.S. Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz found common ground with the city’s Democratic Mayor Sylvester Turner.

“This is Juneteenth. And quite frankly the spirit of Juneteenth needs to be every day,” Turner said, speaking of the holiday celebrating the end of slavery that originated in Galveston.

Many of the former slaves who belatedly learned President Abraham Lincoln had abolished slavery by signing the Emancipation Proclamation, effective in 1863, when a Union army general came to Galveston and informed them on June 19, 1865, moved 50 miles north and settled in Houston.

Unlike other major cities, Houston has not heeded demands to cut its police budget, changes put in motion by the killing of Houston native George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25.

The City Council on June 10 unanimously approved a $5.1 billion budget for fiscal year 2021 that included a $20 million increase for the Houston Police Department. Turner has long said Houston needs more police.

He expressed sympathy Friday for the force of 5,300 officers, who patrol a city of 2.3 million residents that sprawls over 669 square miles, a much smaller force than three U.S. cities with bigger populations: New York (36,000 officers); Los Angeles (9,000) and Chicago (12,000).

“We ask our police officers to do too much. Way too much,” Turner said. “We ask them to police, to be social workers, to go out on crisis intervention, to deal with homeless, to deal with domestic abuse and violence.”

Cruz, who sits with Cornyn on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he believes police body cameras are good for everybody.

“Tragically, had there not been a video it’s likely no one in this room would know Mr. Floyd’s name,” he said. 

But he and Cornyn acknowledged Friday the Just and Unifying Solutions to Invigorate Communities Everywhere, or JUSTICE Act, police reform legislation introduced by Senate Republicans on Wednesday, stops short of mandating body cameras for all the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies.

Republican U.S. Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn listen to Mayor Sylvester Turner at a police reform meeting in Houston on Friday.

The senators said rather than a blanket mandate, the bill would provide law enforcement agencies with guidelines on the best practices for using body cameras, and funding to buy them.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat whose Texas congressional district includes central Houston, told reporters after the roundtable the House of Representatives’ police reform bill would require all law enforcement to wear body cameras.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, a Democrat, also sat on the panel. She said the lack of uniformity in body-camera policies among the county’s 86 law enforcement agencies impedes justice.

She said agencies have different rules about when their officers must wear body cams, how they must wear them, when they can take them off, and some use software that’s incompatible with the DA office’s systems.

“When we can’t get footage for months and months due to inadequate funding for staff to deliver it, or technology that isn’t interconnected then it delays justice,” she said. “This frustrates people and it harms and erodes the public trust. And it must change.”

Floyd’s killing has shone a spotlight on qualified immunity, a legal doctrine established by U.S. Supreme Court precedent that shields police from liability in federal lawsuits for all but the most egregious misconduct.

Panelist Gerald Birnberg is a civil rights attorney and member of the Houston Independent Police Department Oversight Board. He said Congress needs to make cities more accountable for the misconduct of their police by doing away with the Monell doctrine, established by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in Monell v.  Department of Social Services of New York.

Under Monell, for cities to be held liable for civil rights violations perpetrated by their employees, a litigant must prove an official city policy caused the constitutional injury.

For Floyd’s family to win a judgment against the city of Minneapolis, for instance, they would have to prove the city’s former policeman Derek Chauvin putting his knee on Floyd’s neck was part of an official policy.

“Now you can sue individual officer, and assuming you get by qualified immunity, you can get a judgment against an individual officer,” Birnberg said. “What good is that going to do you? … The place you can make sure we have adequate supervision, adequate training, all of that is at the city level, not individual police officer level.”

He also said Congress should consider requiring all cities to provide insurance for their police against lawsuits, so victims of unconstitutional conduct can be compensated. 

Cruz said in a press conference after the hearing his Senate colleagues are concerned altering qualified immunity could expose police officers to “crushing liability,” and they are also looking at changing Monell to give police victims a way to receive settlements from cities.

Cornyn said he fears tinkering with qualified immunity could lead to unintended consequences and proposals should be vetted in Senate Judiciary Committee hearings.

“I don’t think most people understand it also protects schoolteachers, for example, all government workers,” he said.

Bishop James Dixon of the Community of Faith church in Houston sat at the roundtable and told the senators his son, a straight-A student, is afraid of the police and he too has had problems with them, despite trying to protect them.

“In 1992 there was a song taken off market called ‘Cop Killer’ by the rapper Ice-T. I campaigned with local, state and national law enforcement to get that song taken off the market to protect lives and dignity of police officers,” said Dixon, vice president of the NAACP’s Houston branch.

He added, “At same time I’m a black man who has been pulled over in my neighborhood multiple times and asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ I’ve had guns pulled at my head when I was accused of running a stop sign I didn’t run.”

Dixon said Congress should fund a campaign to improve relations between police and communities of color. “This divide is not wholesome,” he said.

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