However, the question still remains of where funding could eventually come from to implement future changes that come from those studies.
The studies cover topics ranging from racial disparities in the criminal justice system and the criminalization of poverty to the examination of whether to create a civilian oversight board to investigate allegations of abuse of force by local police.
The court did not direct immediate funds to any effort, but one of the bigger lifts is likely to involve future spending—a request from Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis to look at how alternative programs could be used to reduce criminal justice interventions for issues related to poverty, mental health and substance abuse. Although no specific programs were discussed, Ellis said he wanted to "put a marker" of $25 million on the effort to show people the county was willing to commit to real changes instead of only passing resolutions.
“I don’t want to do a resolution. I think we resolve enough," Ellis said at the June 9 virtual meeting. "I’m trying to show a serious commitment to it. If we don’t come up with programs that make good sense, I’ll be against [them], but I want to put a marker down.”
Few specific policy changes were made at the meeting, with preliminary findings from most of the approved studies slated to come back to commissioners court in 30 days. Those findings will also eventually be presented at a series of public hearings.
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez spoke at the meeting, acknowledging that law enforcement may not need to be on the front lines of mental health, addiction and poverty to the degree they currently are. However, he argued that defunding police forces should not be the go-to solution to find funding for new programs.
"At the end of the day, there's still violent crime out there. Somebody out there still has to protect the community. We need to be able to solve crimes. We need to make sure that we're paying our deputies good money," Gonzalez said. "Whether it be COVID, [Hurricane] Harvey or going into gunfire, they are always there to answer the call, and they should be paid more. We can be supportive of law enforcement and be against police brutality."
Gonzalez said the sheriff's office has created programs for substance abuse and mental health calls that have been successful.
"There is no need to dissolve those or do away with those," he said.
Ellis said he was open to finding funding from other areas, but reiterated his belief that something needs to change, and those changes will require funding.
Unlike the city of Houston, which is currently preparing to adopt its fiscal year 2020-21 budget, Harris County adopts annual budgets in March, and budget talks typically begin in the fall.
As studies are underway, some shorter-term policy changes could also be put into place. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo proposed the creation of a public site where instances of police use-of-force would be compiled, along with video footage and details on the race, ethnicity and genders of those involved.
Before the motion passed 5-0, Hidalgo adjusted it under guidance from the county attorney to clarify that local law enforcement agencies were not being forced to submit reports and were being asked to do so voluntarily.
By unanimous vote, the court also directed the Justice Administration Department to work with law enforcement agencies—the sheriff's department, each constable's office, the county attorney, the district attorney and the fire marshal—to come up with a uniform policy for how law enforcement uses force. Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said he would like to see techniques such as choke holds and hog tying explicitly prohibited in the policy.
"We may have good policies now, but the question of whether we have a consistent, uniform policy [for] all agencies I think would be very good for the many reasons I spoke about earlier, ensuring that we do not have to wonder whether we have defensible, appropriate and comprehensive policies, ” Garcia said.
Gonzales said the sheriff's office has already banned choke holds and neck restraints, but agreed with the effort to review those policies. As of June 10, Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said the eight constables were working on creating a unified policy with plans to take it to the sheriff's office and district attorney's office in the near future.