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Police brutality in Texas

Gov. Greg Abbott wants to raise the stakes for protesters during a divisive Texas election

Abbott's campaign event came after a majority of likely Texas voters in a recent poll said that law and order is a bigger issue than the pandemic. Yet they were also more likely to say that racism in the criminal justice system is a larger problem than riots in American cities.

Gov. Greg Abbott meets with local leaders in El Paso to discuss the coronavirus situation in the city and state on Aug. 13, …

At a campaign event in Dallas on Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott laid out a string of new legislative proposals to raise penalties and create new crimes that would require jail time for offenses committed at protests.

Abbott isn't on the Nov. 3 ballot, but the event was the Republican governor’s latest move in a national political battle during a tumultuous election that has pitted police officers and fears of rising crime against calls for an end to police brutality and systemic racism. Recent Texas protests against police brutality have largely been peaceful as the four-month mark of George Floyd's in-custody death in Minneapolis nears.

“Today, we are announcing more legislative proposals to do even more to protect our law enforcement officers as well as do more to keep our community safe,” said Abbott, who was flanked by police union officials, other Texas leaders and Republican politicians hoping to take Texas House seats from Dallas County Democrats in November.

Abbott's press conference came after a majority of likely Texas voters in a New York Times/Siena College poll said that law and order is more important to them than the pandemic. Yet when asked whether racism in the criminal justice system or riots in American cities were the bigger issue, Texas voters were more likely to choose racism than riots.

The governor's recent attempts to center the election on criminal justice also comes as Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is outperforming past contenders of his party in Texas polls. That could create a situation where Biden still loses Texas to Republican incumbent President Donald Trump, but helps Texas Democrats running in legislative districts enough to beat their Republican opponents. The minority party heads into the November election just nine seats away from taking control of the Texas House. If Democrats were to win the chamber, they could be in a position to block legislation on a number of issues pushed by Abbott and staunch conservative Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who runs the Republican-held Texas Senate.

Democrats and organizers have slammed Abbott's latest proposal as a political ploy to garner Republican votes and an attempt to disincentivize protesters. Abbott's suggestion is the latest in a variety of potential legislation he has proposed recently to "back the blue" as protests rock the country.

The legislation would have to be passed by lawmakers in 2021 and it was not immediately clear that such measures would have the support needed to become law. Abbott's proposals would create felony-level offenses with mandatory jail time for causing injury or destroying property during what is deemed to be a “riot.” Blocking hospital entrances and using lasers to target police would also be felony offenses that would require a jail sentence, Abbott said. Striking an officer with something like a water bottle would lead to a mandatory minimum of six months in jail.

Currently, the crime of “participating in a riot” is a misdemeanor offense in Texas with a maximum of six months in jail and is labeled as a gathering of seven or more people that in part creates a danger to a person or property. Many protesters in Texas have been arrested on suspicion of such offenses since protests erupted in May after Floyd's death. Others have been charged with felony-level crimes like assault on a police officer, including an 18-year-old who faces up to 20 years in prison for allegedly throwing a water bottle at an officer.

During a summer of national unrest after Floyd's death, protests in Texas sometimes turned unruly, leaving broken windows and dents in police vehicles, graffiti on government property and police officers with cuts and bruises. Police have also sprayed tear gas and pepper spray into crowds and fired bean bags out of shotguns at nonviolent demonstrators, sometimes seriously injuring them. Most protests in Texas, especially more recently, have been peaceful and have not left massive amounts of property damage — like burned buildings or looted storefronts — in their wake.

In the months after protests began, the Austin City Council issued a vote of no confidence in police leadership to make changes to end police violence against people of color and, later, cut the department’s budget. In Dallas, Police Chief U. Reneé Hall announced she would resign at the end of the year after her department’s use of force during protests was heavily criticized.

Abbott's new proposals already had fierce opposition from organizers. David Villalobos, with the Texas Organizing Project in Dallas, said he is concerned about how police are able to determine when something is a riot and who they will target, and how it will affect a community that already doesn’t trust the police.

“We wouldn’t want [police] to have this wide discretion to deem which protesters are taking part in disorderly conduct or unlawful protests,” he said Thursday. “This seems like a step that would really try to stifle the voice of the people, the people’s right to march and peacefully assemble.”

In Austin, where City Council members last month cut the police budget amid an outcry to defund policing and reinvest in other social programs to reduce crime, Austin Justice Coalition Founder Chas Moore said it seemed “democracy is hanging on by a thread.”

“I don’t think the governor is moving in the right direction if he’s trying to penalize people for protesting or speaking out against the things people have grievances about,” he said. “It's not going to stop people from protesting, but I do think we have a more emboldened police department and police forces.”

Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement that Abbott was again touting police-related proposals to distract from the deadly coronavirus.

“Instead of talking about the issues that matter most to Texans — ending the coronavirus crisis, protecting and expanding healthcare coverage, and building our economy back better — Abbott chose to introduce nonsensical proposals that will not hold up in court," he said. "This was done in a pathetic ploy to help Trump and Texas Republicans’ election chances. It won’t work."

But the issue of policing is one that matters to voters. In the New York Times/Siena College poll of likely Texas voters conducted between Sept. 16 and Sept. 22, there was a partisan split in whether people thought the pandemic was a more important issue than law and order: 66% of Democrats said the pandemic was more important, while 82% of Republicans said law and order was.

But overall, 57% of likely voters in the poll thought law and order was a priority. Yet, when asked whether racism in the criminal justice system or riots in American cities were the bigger issue, 52% of likely Texas voters said racism compared to 42% who chose riots.

Those differences were even more stark depending on where the likely voters live. About 60% of respondents in each of three urban areas that the poll highlighted said racism is a more pressing matter. But 63% of rural Texans said riots in cities is more pressing, according to the poll results.

When asked their views of Black Lives Matter, a majority of urban respondents and almost nine out of 10 Black respondents said they have a favorable view of the movement. That contrasts sharply with the nearly three out of five white respondents and two-thirds of rural respondents who said they view the movement unfavorably.

Abbott’s Thursday proposal would also pursue organizers of unruly protests. A new felony offense would be created for those who “aid and abet riots with funds and organization assistance,” he said, and give the Texas attorney general power to pursue civil penalties against such organizations as well.

And it would also keep anyone arrested on suspicion of riot offenses in jail until they could see a court officer.

“We’re tired of seeing all these rioters do their rioting, they get arrested, they go in, and 30 minutes later, they’re back on the street,” Abbott said.

Abbott's proposals, offered at the Thursday press conference, in part mirror a controversial set of measures Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed earlier this week.

In Florida, DeSantis also announced Monday a proposal to delay releasing people who could make bail. DeSantis' proposal also created new crimes and enhanced penalties like Abbott's proposal, including a mandatory six months in jail for striking an officer.

Democrats in Florida slammed DeSantis’ proposal as unconstitutional and fear mongering, according to the Tampa Bay Times. One Florida lawmaker said the governor had “declared war on our civil rights.”

Juan Pablo Garnham contributed to this story.

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