Black lawmakers at the Texas Legislature unveiled on Thursday the George Floyd Act, a sweeping police reform proposal that would ban chokeholds across the state and require law enforcement officers to intervene or render aid if another officer is using excessive force while on the job.
The legislation, spearheaded by members of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, is named after Floyd, a Black man killed in Minneapolis police custody. Floyd died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes until and after he lost consciousness.
His death in May set off protests across the country and renewed debate over police brutality and racial inequity. And at the Legislature, which is set to meet again in January 2021 for a regular session, Floyd’s death has sparked new calls for policing and criminal justice reforms — including proposals that have failed at the Texas Capitol in recent years, often after opposition from police unions.
“We acknowledge that the road to justice in Texas — particularly for Black and brown people in Texas — has been fraught with dead ends, dead ends of white supremacy, racial hatred and bigotry,” state Rep. Harold Dutton, a Houston Democrat who chairs the caucus, said as he kicked off a virtual press conference, which included Floyd’s youngest brother, Rodney Floyd. “These dead ends have to go — and particularly the dead ends that relate specifically to law enforcement.”
The bill would also address qualified immunity, which shields government officials from litigation, by allowing civil lawsuits at the state level “for deprivation of rights under color of law,” according to a caucus summary of the legislation. Another provision would end arrests for fine-only offenses like theft under $100, a version of which died dramatically in 2019 after union opposition.
“Those police officers who do wrong by unlawfully harming our families or our constituents, who violate the constitutional rights of others, will be held accountable and legally liable for their actions,” said state Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston.
It’s unclear if the outcry sparked by Floyd’s death will provide enough momentum in 2021 to push past resistance from law enforcement and unions. It’s also unknown whether the legislation will win Gov. Greg Abbott’s support, which would be crucial in turning it into law.
Abbott has previously said he is committed to working with Floyd’s family on legislation, and has even floated the possibility of a George Floyd Act at the Legislature. While he has not offered specifics on what proposals he would support, Abbott has emphasized a proposal that has also been pushed by police union officials: strengthening law enforcement training before officers are allowed to go on patrol.
Both state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, and state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, the two lawmakers expected to carry the legislation, said Thursday they have not yet spoken to Abbott about the bill. West said he spoke with the governor last week while Abbott was in Dallas — “and he still is in fact committed to do something.”
“Hopefully he will partner with us on this legislation,” West said.
Dutton, the chair of the caucus, said there will be several bills filed next session in addition to the George Floyd Act to address other criminal justice-related issues, including one measure that will aim to “basically do away with” no-knock warrants after the killing of Breonna Taylor. Dutton also filed a bill to restrict the use of no-knock warrants in 2019 after two people were killed and five officers were injured in a botched Houston drug raid. The bill died in early stages.
The caucus’ George Floyd Act would limit the use of force by officers, requiring them to attempt to de-escalate the situation and banning lethal force “if another lesser level of force could have worked,” said state Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston.
“It is long past time to put statutory limits on the use of lethal force, and more clearly set out expectations for all use of force by peace officers,” he said. “These provisions go a long way toward reducing the harms to the Black community currently associated with policing.”
The bill would also aim to build on the Sandra Bland Act passed by the Legislature in 2017. Bland, a Black woman, was found dead in a rural Texas jail in 2015 three days after she was arrested during a routine traffic stop. Dashboard camera footage of her arrest showed the state trooper dragging Bland out from her car and using a Taser on her after she refused to put out a cigarette.
State Rep. Garnet Coleman, a member of the caucus who spearheaded the 2017 law, said Thursday that the George Floyd Act “picks up the last key item for reform” by ending arrests for non-jailable fine only violations, the provision unions have opposed.
Rodney Floyd, the youngest brother of George Floyd, applauded lawmakers Thursday for the proposal, thanking Thompson during the news conference and saying the legislation “has so many great things [that are] way overdue — way overdue.”
Jolie McCullough contributed reporting.