Police reform brings progress, unmet needs, advocates say

protestors
Mayor Sylvester Turner issued a slew of police reform measures in late April, but it may be too soon to say whether the measures will result in fewer incidents of police brutality, advocacy groups said. (Emma Whalen/Community Impact Newspaper)

Mayor Sylvester Turner issued a slew of police reform measures in late April, but it may be too soon to say whether the measures will result in fewer incidents of police brutality, advocacy groups said. (Emma Whalen/Community Impact Newspaper)

Mayor Sylvester Turner issued a slew of police reform measures in late April, but it may be too soon to say whether the measures will result in fewer incidents of police brutality, advocacy groups said.

Turner and Houston Police Department 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.

police oversight and training.

“It’s good that actions are finally being taken to reform our police, but we can’t just settle on these reforms alone,” said Lucinda Davis, a Houston-based organizer with the Texas Organizing Project.

In January, the task force reform process was falling behind when a 90-day deadline for over 60 of the reforms passed with only five completed. The mayor said the reforms announced April 29 and made prior make up “about 50%” of the items suggested to be completed by October 2021.


“We are pleased with the recommendations and guidelines today,” task force Chair Larry Payne said at the press conference. “You could feel from the task force that we have started a true movement for change.”

Body camera policies

Criminal justice reform advocates have been pushing for changes to the department’s policy on releasing body-worn camera footage for years. With new 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 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.”

While collaborators with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition—including Texas Appleseed, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and Texas Organizing Project—support body camera policy changes, they are viewed as reactive rather than proactive.

“We know that they help with accountability but don’t necessarily change the culture among a police force,” said Brennan Griffin, deputy director of civil rights group Texas Appleseed.

Improving oversight

Another key set of changes came for Houston’s Independent Police Oversight Board. Largely seen as dysfunctional by current and former members who spoke out, the board was found to be one of the weakest police accountability mechanisms in the state by Rice University researchers.

The police reform task force dedicated 15 pages of its report to recommendations for the board, which oversees misconduct allegations against police officers. Turner signed an executive order April 29 to restructure the board and replace its chair.

Changes also included establishing a new position, the deputy inspector general. The task force stated 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 prior process dictated.

Crystal Okorafor, an assistant district attorney with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, assumed the role May 11. It is not clear yet, however, whether one additional employee will be sufficient to address the amount of cases the board reviews, said Steve Sherman, a Rice University researcher specializing in police policy.

“My first reaction was that this is a tremendous amount of work for one person and a group of volunteers,” Sherman said. “My first concern was staffing.”

Residents are now able to file misconduct complaints directly with Okorafor’s office or submit them though a new online reporting system. The system will be available in multiple languages and allow complaints to be filed anonymously and without getting notarized. The task force determined the previous complaint process was prohibitive because it required those filing complaints to submit paper complaints directly to the 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

A series of mental health intervention initiatives will receive a boost from the American Rescue Plan Act, a federal stimulus plan passed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Turner said he will use $25 million from the city’s roughly $600 million allocation to pay for the efforts.

“We are excited about the non-police mental health program,” ACLU of Texas policy strategist Julia Montiel said. “I think this is a good step in the right direction of having mental health crisis programs separate from the police department.”

The increased funding, as proposed by the task force, includes expanding the Crisis Call Diversion program’s hours; 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 a telehealth program that will equip 80 officers with tablets allowing residents experiencing a mental health crisis to speak with a mental health professional.

Doug Griffith, the president of the Houston Police Officers Union, said he welcomed the investments.

"We’re not clinicians; we’re not used to dealing with mentally ill individuals that we see on a regular basis, and it’s the same thing with the homelessness issue,” Griffith said. “We’re having to deal with that at an increasing level.”

Houston City Council passed an amendment June 2 to its budget that would increase the number of new Mobile Crisis Outreach Teams to 20 rather than 18. Meanwhile, a recommended increase of 24 additional Crisis Intervention Response Teams for $8.7 million per year was only partially completed. The city initially planned to add six new teams, but the June 2 budget amendment reduced that total to four.

The teams pair 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.

Amid the reform wins, Payne said efforts are still ongoing.

“We have had a hope that is achieved through consistent action and accountability,” Payne said. “And we look forward to more to come yet.”

View the full list of reforms here.
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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