“I’m an African American mother, and there’s not a night that I don’t go to bed hoping that my sons haven’t been killed because of their ethnicity and some bias that police have towards African Americans,” the 82-year-old legislator said Wednesday.
As proposed, the act would make sweeping changes to interactions between the public and law enforcement. It would require officers to intervene when another officer is using excessive force, prohibit the use of choke holds and limit use of lethal force while emphasizing de-escalation and the sanctity of human life. It also would allow people to file state civil lawsuits for deprivation of rights, with officers not shielded by qualified immunity.
Arrests would no longer be allowed for fine-only Class C misdemeanors. There were more than 41,700 such arrests last year, according to an evaluation of state data by Scott Henson, a criminal justice advocate who has worked on these issues for decades. This specific change, which Thompson has long pushed, was stripped from the last piece of meaningful criminal justice reform that Texas legislators adopted in 2017.
“It’s such a groundswell of support and attention that people have continued to give to this issue because of the grotesque scene that lingers in your mind when you see that man’s knee on the neck of George Floyd,” noted Thompson, now in her 25th session. “It’s something that you just can’t let go of. The people want something to be different.”
Texas has had its own high-profile cases in which law enforcement has been accused of using excessive force after a person of color has died. In 2017, high school freshman Jordan Edwards was fatally shot while a passenger in a car leaving a party; the officer involved was convicted of murder. The following year, accountant Botham Jean was killed in his own apartment by an officer who said she’d mistaken the front door for her own and feared Jean was a burglar. She, too, is serving time for murder.
And less than two week ago in a suburb north of Dallas, Marvin Scott III died after being arrested on suspicion of marijuana possession and taken to the Collin County Jail. According to a custodial death report filed by the sheriff’s office, Scott “became noncompliant with detention staff’s directives.” Staff then tried to place him on a restraint bed, the report states, “and Scott became unresponsive during the restraint.”
A lawyer working with his family has said that the 26-year-old man was taken to the jail after suffering a mental health episode related to his schizophrenia. There, attorney Lee Merritt said, Scott was pepper sprayed, knelt on by officers and placed in a spit hood. Collin County officials have not released many details about the death but have publicly confirmed several of Merritt’s claims.
Ever since, protesters have gathered nightly at the jail and called for the arrest of the seven officers involved. Thursday morning in Austin, a crowd of about 50 people rallied outside the Capitol and heard from relatives of people who died in the custody of law enforcement.
“My brother was a really good guy,” said Angel Gonzales, whose 27-year-old brother, Alex, was fatally shot by an off-duty Austin officer in January. “They keep doing this to all people of all colors. You can’t just kill someone and get away with it, which is what he did.”
Still, it’s the Floyd case — with the trial of the officer charged with his death set for opening arguments Monday — that advocates hope will resonate most with lawmakers. The first hearing on the act bearing his name is scheduled for Thursday.
“Most of what’s in the George Floyd Act is actually crafted around specific aspects of his life and the things that happened either in the instance that killed him or in Houston,” Henson said. “That bill tells a story, in a way, and each of the components are in themselves important reforms.”
Other notable laws passed in recent years increased compensation for people who are wrongfully convicted of a crime and required prosecutors to open their files to defendants and keep records of evidence disclosed.
In 2017, the Sandra Bland Act aimed to divert individuals with mental health or substance abuse issues away from jails like the Williamson County facility where the 28-year-old woman hanged herself — a death that drew international attention. She’d been incarcerated just three days earlier after being pulled over for a traffic violation, and the bill sought to outlaw arrests for such stops. That language was quashed by strong pushback from law enforcement unions.
Thompson expects a similar fight this year. The Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas has the package on a list of measures it opposes, and the Texas Municipal Police Association has issued a statement assuring members that “qualified immunity will NOT be included in any final legislation and will remain intact as a legal doctrine.”
Yet she is hopeful that outrage over police misconduct can bring Democrats, Republicans and independents together. Since lawmakers only meet every other year, this will be their key opportunity to respond. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has not commented publicly on the proposal.
“When you start dealing with police unions, they don’t want to change, but best practices are developed over time,” Thompson said in an interview. “The reason that we are having these fights is because society has tolerated it, and what I see is that people in society are beginning to see that this is something we should no longer tolerate.”
While the George Floyd Act isn’t the only reform bill filed this session — a separate measure, the Mike Ramos Act, is named for an unarmed man fatally shot by an Austin police officer last April — it has garnered the most support. Dozens of nonprofit organizations have formed the Texas George Floyd Act Coalition, including Henson’s nonprofit organization, Just Liberty, which even has an ad airing on talk radio, rock and pop stations asking Texans to call their lawmakers and push for the act’s passage.
“George Floyd died saying, ‘I can’t breathe.’ Thousands marched, the cops took a knee. But talk is cheap — what does it mean if we don’t make it count today?” the spot says.