Defund or defend: After years of bolstering Houston police, city leaders consider paths to reform

George Floyd protest Houston
About 60,000 people attended a June 2 protest in downtown Houston, seeking justice for native Houstonian George Floyd. (Emma Whalen/Community Impact Newspaper)

About 60,000 people attended a June 2 protest in downtown Houston, seeking justice for native Houstonian George Floyd. (Emma Whalen/Community Impact Newspaper)

Stepping aside to admire the sight, Houston resident Alonzo Perrin watched as some of an estimated 60,000 demonstrators marched through downtown.

“I know what it’s like to face injustice as a Black man,” he said. “To see people of all ethnicities here, it really shows we’re making progress, but we do still have a long way to go.”

A video of native Houstonian George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody spurred nationwide protests such as the one downtown June 2 seeking justice and an end to discriminatory practices nationwide.

A week later, another demonstration called on Houston City Council members to delay a vote on the city budget and reallocate some, if not all, of the proposed $965 million for the Houston Police Department to social services aimed at addressing poverty, mental illness and other stressors perpetuated by systemic racism.

Over the sounds of protesters’ chants outside City Hall, council members unanimously approved the budget as proposed, which included a $20 million increase for the police department over last year’s budget.

“They have proven that they can be spineless,” said Ashton P. Woods, cofounder of Black Lives Matter Houston. “They had an opportunity to change the trajectory of how law enforcement interacts with Houstonians while increasing people’s quality of life. That’s the thing that we have been asking for when we talk about abolishing and defunding police.”

City leaders instead chose to form a 45-person task force, host round-table meetings and seek other public input before implementing any widespread reforms.

“Certainly I can understand the concerns because people are very frustrated,” Council Member Carolyn Evans-Shabazz said. “We have to operate in concert, but at the same time I don’t want anything to get bogged down so that we’re not moving forward as expeditiously as possible.”

First steps

So far, Houston’s reforms have included the commitment to establish a website for residents to file and search complaints against Houston police officers and an executive order by Mayor Sylvester Turner restricting certain use-of-force tactics as well as banning no-knock raids without written permission from the police chief or a chief’s designee.

“[The executive order] took care of a lot of immediate reforms that were needed,” Evans-Shabazz said.

A slate of reforms seeking to address de-escalation, mental health resources and accountability measures offered by At-Large City Council Member Leticia Plummer failed during the budget vote, partly because of confusion over funding and partly because of a letter signed by her fellow Black council members opposing them in favor of a committee review process.

“I know a lot of people see this as a loss for us, but I am starting to switch my thinking on that,” Plummer said after her proposals failed. “It was a moment where we brought up really difficult conversations that people don’t want to have, and now we’ll bring them to the mayor’s task force and the public safety committee, and I will be a watchdog on that.”

Plummer said she was motivated to develop the proposals before the protests, particularly because one of her own sons was detained by police while walking through West University when he was 14.

Woods pushed back on calls for reforms instead of redistributing the funding toward preventing the root causes of crime, such as poverty, which are compounded by systemic racism, he said.

“You can only reform so much. It’s like adding two new rooms to a house with a bad foundation,” he said.

City leaders and activists, including Woods, agreed the budget vote has less influence over police department operations than many may realize. Over 90% of the police department’s expenses are salaries, most of which are set by Houston Police Officers Union contract.

Turner and union leadership will negotiate throughout the year before the department’s three-year contract expires in December, providing an opportunity for changes to pay, benefits and disciplinary protocols. The closed-door nature of the talks, however, leaves out opportunities for public input.

“They don’t share negotiations,” Woods said. “It’s like a monopoly on the budget.”

While HPOU leadership did not directly comment on the negotiation process, President Joe Gamaldi issued several letters supporting police reform measures such as requiring two-person patrol units and increasing de-escalation training.

Turner also said he supports reforms but maintains his commitment to hire five cadet classes in the next year.

“It didn’t take a police shooting for me to say I will intend to live in the same hood in which I grew up. ... I understand the passion. We’re working on that,” Turner told council members of reforms and investing in under-served communities.

Referring to a 2017 audit from independent consulting firm PFM stating that Houston’s police has fewer officers per capita compared to Chicago and Dallas, Turner has emphasized the need for hiring more officers.

Since taking office in 2016, Turner has added 100 sworn officers and increased the HPD budget by 15%.

Views on police funding

Defunding or defending

Calls for change in Houston and beyond have gained widespread support, but the avenues of achieving progress reside on a spectrum of social and political ideology.

Reducing the scope of work assigned to local law enforcement agencies is one idea that has support from many police abolitionists as well as city and county officials.

“We are the first responders on social issues. It’s not by design, but it’s the needs of the people in this community,” HPD Chief Art Acevedo said at a June 19 police reform discussion.

Often asked to respond to mental health crises, domestic disturbances and to perform outreach to the homeless population, the department is stretched thin by the span of issues to address, Acevedo said.

To better respond to these calls, the department has homeless outreach and mental health response teams, roles some said could be better played outside of the police force, providing an opportunity to reduce its ranks.

“Institutions ... are not malfunctioning but are working just as they were intended to work such that education, health, incarceration and wealth disparities endure and grow,” said Tony N. Brown, professor of sociology and director of the Racism and Racial Experiences Workgroup at Rice University. “Unless we are willing to tear down and rebuild the system, then institutions will continue to manufacture inequality.”

Calls for police abolition are met with resistance by some leaders who said bolstering other programs with some or all of the police’s funding will cause more harm in the short term.

“We can’t cut our resources and ability to respond until we build the resources and infrastructure we need to take the place of the police,” Acevedo said.

Internal measures

Representing District D in the Southside and Third Ward areas, Evans-Shabazz is a longtime member of the NAACP and said her background in education and community organizing has kept her in tune with her district, which is predominantly Black and low income.

“Before all of this, it was they wanted more police officers because they were getting slow response times,” she said.

Some area residents spoke out at a June 25 Houston City Council Public Safety Committee meeting however, looking for broader reforms.

“We deserve a seat at the table. ... Everything that I have heard up until this point has been the same old rhetoric for 40 years. Now, it’s time for no more reform; it’s time for change,” said Synnachia McQueen, who lives in Third Ward, the same neighborhood Floyd was from.

One way city leaders hope to prevent police brutality is through strengthening Houston’s Independent Police Oversight Board, particularly by granting it subpoena power. With that authority, the board could obtain and review body camera footage, said Shelley Kennedy, a member of the board, at the public safety meeting.

“We are not allowed to speak on any of the cases we review,” Kennedy said. “But as an activist, it keeps me up at night.”

Public access to body-worn camera footage, which has been the catalyst for many public calls for change, is stunted by unclear policies, Council Member Edward Pollard said at a June 24 council meeting.

“I don’t see the point in having the technology if it’s of no use to the public,” he said.

Acevedo has come under fire for not permitting the release of body camera videos from the city’s six fatal police shootings this year. He hosted an early June press conference to address the matter and brought the victims’ families, most of whom confirmed they did not want the footage shared.

“HPOU was supportive of body-worn cameras from the start,” HPOU Secretary Ray Hunt said at the June 19 roundtable. “Some of our members didn’t like it, but we fully supported it and believed they would exonerate many of our officers, and they do.”

Ultimately, advocates will be watching for reforms to take hold through a combination of union contracts, city budgeting, and new state and federal rules.

“People are very tired of waiting,” Evans-Shabazz said. “I don’t like red tape, and I don’t think we need to be tied up in it, but you do need to give these ideas due process.”

Matt Dulin and Nola Z. Valente contributed to this report.


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