Texas Legislature Set to Pass Pair of Police Reform Bills

Part of proposed legislation named after George Floyd, the measures would force police to provide first aid for injured people and intervene when colleagues are using excessive force.

(Image by F. Muhammad from Pixabay via Courthouse News)

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – A bill meant to stop Texas police from using excessive force easily advanced Wednesday with a ringing endorsement from the state’s largest police union.

Broken off from omnibus legislation named after George Floyd, who grew up in Houston and spent most of his adult life in Texas, Senate Bill 68 would place a duty on police to intervene when they see another officer using force not needed to make an arrest, and force the observer to file a report with their supervisor.

“This duty could have saved George Floyd’s life,” Rebecca Bernhardt of the Innocence Project of Texas told a state House committee Wednesday, noting a recent poll found 82% of Americans support a duty to intervene.

A union that represents more than 25,000 Texas peace officers called the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, or CLEAT, is also backing the measure, which passed the Texas Senate with a 31-0 vote last month.

But critics say it could go farther to encompass more officer misconduct.

“If an officer sees another one fabricating evidence, or lying on an affidavit, or doing any number of other things that are harmful to our justice system, at some point we’d like to see that considered,” Kathy Mitchell, policy director for the criminal justice reform group Just Liberty, testified before the committee.

Chris Jones, CLEAT’s training director, had a simple answer for Mitchell.

He said no matter what type of misconduct, police have always had a duty to intervene.

“We don’t support officers using excessive force. We never have. The people who hate bad cops more than anything are other cops, good cops. So this is common sense,” said Jones, who hung up his badge in 2010 after 31 years as a sergeant with the Houston Police Department.

Representative Matt Schaefer, a Tyler Republican, told Jones he was concerned the measure would subject more Texas officers to lawsuits for not stepping in to stop their colleagues from needlessly inflicting pain on people they are arresting.

“I mean literally if you squeeze someone’s arm to the point they feel pain that would meet the penal code definition of bodily injury … How does the officer standing nearby know if that officer is squeezing someone’s arm when they shouldn’t?” Schaefer said.

Jones rejected that premise. He testified SB 68 has wide backing of police unions because it would not intrude on precedent established by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1989 ruling in Graham v. Connor, which established an “objectively reasonably” standard for excessive force cases, that the reasonableness of a use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene.

Police explaining in arrest reports why they used the force should protect them from liability, Jones continued, even if body camera footage indicates it was unjustified.

“It’s just like when the public sees a body camera video. They’re going to say, ‘That just didn’t look right.’ And it may be it was right. But the officer needs to explain why it was right. So that’s what we do every time we write an offense report, or an incident report. We explain what we did and why we did it,” Jones said.

Not all police support the bill. Ray Hunt, executive director of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, believes it could lead district attorneys to file baseless charges against officers.

“I agree that people should intervene if they have all the same facts as the arresting officer,” Hunt said in a phone interview. “If I’m passing by a scene and some officer is fighting with somebody on the side of the road and that guy is hollering ‘I can’t breathe,’ or ‘you’re choking me,’ or something like that, I don’t know what just happened before I saw that. So I have serious concerns with the bill.”

Despite Schaefer’s reservations, he joined his colleagues on the Texas House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, advancing SB 68 to the full Texas House Wednesday with a 9-0 vote.

It appears to be headed to Governor Greg Abbott’s desk and will take effect Sept. 1 if he signs it.

The committee also unanimously advanced Senate Bill 2212 on Wednesday. It would require police to call an ambulance, and provide first aid as they wait for emergency responders, for any injured person they encounter while on duty.

Some of the representatives questioned the threat to cops’ safety if they are helping someone who is bleeding and has an infectious disease or Covid-19. But Jones, of CLEAT, said when he worked for the Houston Police Department it issued officers masks to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

“Most departments have policies that are similar in nature to require a duty to render aid, and/or get EMS, or help people if they don’t have ability do it themselves,” Jones testified.

He said the bill’s authors addressed CLEAT’s concerns when they added language that an officer wouldn’t have to provide aid if doing so would put them or another person at risk of injury.

“If we’re in an active shooter situation and somebody gets shot and we have to leave cover, that’s not a very safe thing to do. So there’s got to be some reasonableness,” Jones said.

For Hunt, the Houston police union executive, such a scenario is why he refused to endorse SB 2212.

“We train specifically during active shooter situations that you will make sure everything is safe before you do any type of rendering aid,” he said. “Just because you don’t hear shots being fired you still need to go clear that school before you start dealing with anybody who is injured. Otherwise you’re going to be killed too.”

If passed, SB 2212 would also go on the books Sept. 1.

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