Last Thursday, the Austin City Council banned chokehold maneuvers in response to nationwide protests against police brutality spurred by the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis after a white officer used his knee to pin Floyd’s neck to the ground and cut off his breathing.
But just a day later, an Austin police officer was captured on video kneeling on a teenage protester’s neck — strikingly reminiscent of the restraint used on Floyd. Austin police said the video is being reviewed “to determine whether it was lawful and within policy.”
Seeing the use of force in action so soon after officers promised to abandon the hold reinforced police reform advocates’ worries that recent commitments from local officials will fall short in practice.
“We’ve seen departments adopt a lot of different use-of-force guidelines, limitations in the last five or six years,” said Chris Harris, the criminal justice project director for Texas Appleseed, mentioning the large-scale implementation of body cameras. “Yet it seems very difficult to say that those have resulted in the type of changes that people envisioned upon their adoption.”
Since Floyd’s death, policing changes in Texas have largely come from chiefs announcing new restrictions, mayors signing executive orders and city councils voting. But in many cases, officials were touting the passage of so-called reforms that were already on the books.
For example, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner signed an executive order on police reforms last week that largely mirrors policies already in place at the Houston Police Department, such as requiring deescalation techniques and limiting no-knock warrants.
A Houston police spokesperson said last week the order “means we will continue to do what we’ve been doing.”
Still, officials say that doesn’t make the action meaningless. Instead, it codifies, or passes into law, the preexisting rules so they can’t be easily overturned when a new police chief is hired.
“The Executive Order codifying our most critical policies for the first time, will protect Houstonians for generations to come,” Houston police Chief Art Acevedo tweeted after Turner signed his order.
As protests continued in Dallas, Houston and Austin, banning chokeholds like the one that killed Floyd quickly gained traction. Dallas officials said earlier this month they would ban any force intended to restrict a person’s airway, and Turner’s order also restricted chokeholds and specifically forbade kneeling on a person’s neck.
But police departments in those cities said chokeholds were not a part of policing protocol, and officers were not trained to use them. The latest changes by officials officially ban the maneuvers, but it’s still unclear how enforcement of such bans will be carried out.
Texas’ largest cities are implementing other policing changes. Dallas now requires officers to intervene when they see another officer use excessive force, and Austin now prohibits the use of weapons like rubber bullets, bean bag rounds, tear gas and pepper spray during protests. These bans came after two protesters were critically injured in Austin and a Dallas protester lost his eye from projectiles.
But what’s needed, advocates say, are more meaningful, longer lasting reforms — ones that will take more time and more community input.
“What we’re seeing is police departments or mayors, with the stroke of a pen, trying to make quick-hit changes.”
— Nicole Austin-Hillery, Human Rights Watch
“There has to be a reprioritization of how policing is viewed, there has to be a reprioritization of funding and there has to be a reprioritization of police responsibilities in communities,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, executive director of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch. “What we’re seeing is police departments or mayors, with the stroke of a pen, trying to make quick-hit changes.”
Many of the actions taken by Texas officials align with the 8 Can’t Wait campaign, a list of policies governments can adopt to reduce use of force, like banning shooting at moving vehicles and requiring deescalation. Criminal justice advocates say using this framework is a fine first step, but there’s no evidence to support that these policies alone will lead to a significant reduction in police brutality.
In recent weeks, however, advocates have been pushing for additional measures, asking city councils to rethink policing entirely by providing alternative ways to deal with public safety issues and reinvesting part of police budgets into social services like education, health and affordable housing programs. That effort to defund the police ranges from advocates calling for moderate cuts to police budgets to others demanding that police departments are abolished entirely.
“I think the City Council realizes that we are in a very unique time, and I think they understand that they have a moment to really be on the right side of history and really shake the foundation of racism and white supremacy in this country and particularly this city,” said Chas Moore, executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition.
Measures to defund police are being considered in Austin and Dallas, but Houston is holding on firmly to its budget.
Houston City Council member Letitia Plummer proposed an amendment to cut the department’s 199 vacant positions, none of which are police officer jobs, but got no support from fellow council members. The cut would have freed up about $11.7 million, a little over 1% of the police department’s budget. Instead, the council increased its $965 million police budget by $20 million last week, the Houston Chronicle reported.
“We’re very different from Austin and Dallas. The mayor pretty much makes a decision in terms of what he would like to see happen, and that typically is what is respected,” Plummer said.
After signing his executive order, Turner said that immediate action was not the only step he would take to reform policing in Houston. A new mayoral task force on other police reforms will be largely driven by residents, he said.
Last week, the Austin City Council voted unanimously to defund the Austin Police Department, but it didn’t specify by how much. On Wednesday, Austin City Manager Spencer Cook announced plans to cut almost 100 sworn positions from the city’s police department, the Austin American-Statesman reported.
Moore has been advocating for a $100 million cut from the Austin Police Department, about 25% of the current budget.
“We will neither abolish nor defund the police. We will not compromise the safety of the community. Period,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said in a tweet thread. “But re-imaging policing & investing in people & the community hold the promise of making us even more safe.”
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo and Dallas police Chief Reneé Hall have both denounced the defunding of police.
Disclosure: Texas Appleseed and Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chairman, have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.