Mayor Sylvester Turner announces slew of police reform initiatives

city hall press conference mayor sylvester turner
A slew of reforms are ahead for the Houston Police Department a year after anti-police brutality protests broke out across the nation. (Emma Whalen/Community Impact Newspaper)

A slew of reforms are ahead for the Houston Police Department a year after anti-police brutality protests broke out across the nation. (Emma Whalen/Community Impact Newspaper)

A slew of reforms are ahead for the Houston Police Department a year after anti-police brutality protests broke out across the nation.

Mayor Sylvester Turner and Houston Police Chief Troy Finner announced the changes April 29, which were proposed by the mayor’s task force on policing reform. The reforms include a range of initiatives from mental health interventions to police oversight and training. Below is a list of the changes announced by city officials.

  1. A ban on no-knock warrants for nonviolent offenses. Previously these were allowed pending direct approval from the chief of police and a court order;

  2. A requirement to release body-worn camera footage from shootings and injuries within 30 days;

  3. A new deputy inspector general position to review police misconduct complaints. The position will be held by an assistant district attorney for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, Crystal Okorafor;

  4. An executive order to restructure the Independent Police Oversight Board;

  5. A new chair of the Independent Police Oversight Board. YMCA of Greater Houston CEO Stephen Ives will replace current Chair Marvin Hamilton;

  6. A new website with five dashboards displaying police department data such as cite-and-release statistics, employee diversity metrics and demographic data of residents pulled over during traffic stops and those subject to use-of-force tactics;

  7. A three-year, $25 million investment in mental health crisis intervention initiatives;

  8. The removal of a credit score requirement for new police officer hires;

  9. An expansion of community engagement requirements for cadets and police officers in their first year of service. The engagement initiatives will continue to be facilitated by Sam Houston State University and will expand to include Texas Southern University and Prairie View A&M;

  10. An expansion of the Positive Interactions with Police meeting program and

  11. An overhaul of the police misconduct complaint process including moving it online.

In January, the task force reform process came under fire when a 90-day deadline for over 60 of the reforms proposed by the task force passed with only five completed. In total, the mayor said the reforms announced April 29 and completed prior, make up “over 50%” of the task force’s 104 recommendations.

“We are pleased with the recommendation and guidelines today,” task force Chair Larry Payne said. “We are 50% there or more, and others will come ... you could feel from the task force that we have started a true movement for change.”

Body-worn camera debate

Criminal justice reform advocates have been pushing for changes to the department’s policy on releasing body-worn camera footage for years. With the updated protocols, the public will be able to see footage within 30 days of an incident involving an injury, death in custody or shooting, Finner said.

The policy, however, does not apply retroactively to incidents that happened prior to the change such as the controversial January 2019 Harding Street Raid, Turner said. The raid drew significant attention because it resulted in the deaths of Southeast Houston couple Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas and an internal investigation later determined it was based on faulty evidence.

“The task force report is futuristic in nature,” Turner said. “We are looking forward, not back.”

Independent oversight overhaul

Largely seen as dysfunctional, the city’s Independent Police Oversight Board was recently determined one of the weakest police accountability mechanisms in the state according to research by the Rice University Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

The police reform task force dedicated 10 pages of its report to recommendations for the board, which oversees misconduct allegations against police officers. Turner committed to signing an executive order to restructure the board.

Among changes to the process is the establishment of a new position, the deputy inspector general. The task force stated that strengthening the role of the inspector general’s office is a crucial way to add independent investigative powers to the review process for police misconduct complaints, rather than only placing the responsibility with the police department, as the current process dictates.

Crystal Okafor, an assistant district attorney with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, will assume the role May 11.

Residents will be able to file misconduct complaints directly with Okafor’s office or submit them though a new online reporting system. The system will be available in five different languages and allow complaints to be filed anonymously and without getting notarized. The task force determined the current complaint process was prohibitive because it required those filing complaints to submit paper complaints directly to the Houston Police Department and have them notarized. Although notarization is still required by state law, Finner said, residents will be able to submit them without notarization and the police department will help facilitate the notarization process.

Mental health efforts funded temporarily

A series of mental health intervention initiatives will receive a boost in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, a federal stimulus plan passed in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The city will use $25 million from its roughly $600 million allocation of Rescue Act funds, to pay for the efforts, Turner said. The city is required to spend the funds within three years.

The increased funding, as proposed by the task force, includes expanding the Crisis Call Diversion program's hours, which connects 911 callers in crisis to mental health counselors; increasing funding for the Domestic Abuse Response Team, which pairs a nurse with officers responding to domestic violence to facilitate injury reporting processes; allocating $4.3 million for 18 new Mobile Crisis Outreach Teams, which send mental health professionals to mental health crisis calls in lieu of police; and $800,000 for the a telehealth program that will equip 80 officers with tablets that allow residents experiencing a mental health crisis to speak with a mental health professional on scene.

A recommended increase of 24 additional Crisis Intervention Response Teams totalling about $8.7 million per year was only partially completed. Turner said the city is committing to hiring six new teams for a cost of $2.4 million per year using Rescue Act funds over the next three years. The team pairs crisis counselors with police officers to intervene in mental health crises that have a potential for violence. Out of 40,000 crisis calls HPD received in 2019, 15% were addressed by the department's crisis intervention team, the report found.

He cited a lack of resources while encouraging the state Legislature to play a larger role in funding such efforts.

“What is needed even more is additional mental health funding that will keep people out of that crisis phase,” Turner said. “Where we are today ... is the fault of a society that has underinvested in people.”
By Emma Whalen
Emma is Community Impact Newspaper's Houston City Hall reporter. Previously, she covered public health, education and features for several Austin-area publications. A Boston native, she is a former student athlete and alumna of The University of Texas at Austin.


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