Ending 'Qualified Immunity' For Police Was Key To Texas' George Floyd Act. It Went Nowhere In The Legislature
Several successor bills to House Bill 88 have advanced to the Senate, but they do not include one significant part of the original bill – limiting qualified immunity for police officers.
Nearly one year after the killing of George Floyd, a bill in the Texas Legislature commemorating him now survives in pieces.
But a core piece of the George Floyd Act — limiting qualified immunity for police — is effectively done.
State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, is the author of the original George Floyd Act, officially designated House Bill 88. That bill missed a key deadline last Monday when it failed to pass out of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee.
All House bills that missed that deadline for passing out of committee are dead for the session.
Thompson did, however, break up the George Floyd Act into three pieces. House Bill 829 provides for a disciplinary matrix to govern police misconduct. House Bill 830 would bar arrests for misdemeanor traffic stops – which originated as part of what became the 2017 Sandra Bland Act. House Bill 834 would require corroboration for the testimony of undercover officers in drug cases – motivated in part by the Harding Street drug raid and the case of former Houston police officer Gerald Goines.
“I want to have the same privilege that so many of you in this room take for granted,” Thompson said on the House floor. “Many of you don’t have to worry about your sons being stopped by the police and making sure that their hands are on the steering wheel or being mistreated because of the color of their skin. I call my sons, who are adults, every night just to make sure that they have gotten home and not gotten killed because they are Black.”
All three of those successor bills have passed the House, but have yet to be assigned to committees in the Senate. None address qualified immunity.
The purpose of qualified immunity is to protect law enforcement from frivolous lawsuits, said Eddy Carder, assistant professor of constitutional law at Prairie View A&M University. But they’ve also shielded those who abuse power, he added.
While the successor bills do show a willingness in the Texas Legislature to address the issue of police misconduct, Carder said, he also understands criticism of the measures as “superficial” changes.
“That's not to say that they're not needed and not important...but in light of the big picture with what happened in the George Floyd trial and the circumstances surround(ing) that, those things really seem to look very superficial and represent more of an effort to address the issue from the optics standpoint more than from a substantive standpoint,” Carder said.
Carder said that as long as the Texas Senate remains as conservative as it does, qualified immunity is not likely to be struck down or altered in any significant way.
"The direction of the effort to address the issue of qualified immunity may move toward holding the police department or the employer or the city responsible for the actions of its employee," he said.
Also missing from any of the successor bills were any references to bans on specific means of subduing suspects, such as choke holds.
Howard Henderson, director of the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University, has seen cities around the country taking the initiative on police reform as states decline to pass legislation such as the George Floyd Act. In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner banned chokeholds last year, and has promised to enact a number of reforms recommended to him by his police reform task force.
It will take some time after the session to determine what it was in the George Floyd Act that denied it bipartisan support. But Henderson suspected optics may have played a role.
"I think that George Floyd has become sort of the poster child for justice reform, and I know in many places, it's going to be very difficult to pass policies with his name on them, unfortunately,” Henderson said. “I think that's where we are."
And ultimately, Henderson said, changes to qualified immunity were the “crux” of calls for reform.
"That was what Texans were calling for,” Henderson said. “That's what people were looking to see, where officers would be held accountable and would not be protected by qualified immunity protections…You weren't going to get enough conservatives to support that, and that's the nature of politics, right?”
This story was produced by Houston Public Media.