Mayor Turner promises police reforms including new body camera policy
Mayor Sylvester Turner announced sweeping new police reforms at a City Hall press conference on April 29, 2021. Photo by Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Thursday announced sweeping new Houston Police reforms that include changes to the department’s body-worn camera policy, an overhaul of the Independent Police Oversight Board, and a complete ban on no-knock warrants for nonviolent offenses.

The new policies came at the recommendation of the mayor’s police reform task force, which he created last year in the wake of civil rights protests in Houston and across the country. The task force recommended 104 reforms to the department, along with funding for preventative programs.

At a City Hall press conference Thursday, Turner said he agreed with and would enact “a large majority” of those reforms.

“I believe the work that this task force has done will benefit this city for years and years to come,” Turner said. “And I do believe what’s happening here, I do know, is taken note by cities across the country.”

The mayor did not say how many of the 104 recommendations he would enact, and his office did not respond to repeated requests to provide a full list.

Turner was joined on stage by members of the city council, some of whom spoke in support of the plans the mayor laid out.

Council member Tarsha Jackson, a former criminal justice reform organizer who last year won a runoff election to represent District B, told Houston Public Media that the scope of Turner’s plans were “very impressive,” though she added that she would have liked to see more details in some cases.

But she said she was optimistic, and that many of the reforms were based off of recommendations that advocates have long pushed for.

“I’m really excited about the future,” Jackson said.”These reforms are not only going to improve the outcome for everybody involved when dealing with police and community incidents, but it’s also going to bridge the gap between police and the community, strengthen that relationship.”

Among the reforms is a complete ban on no-knock warrants for people accused of nonviolent offenses — a significant tweak from an executive order last year, which banned such raids unless approved by the commissioner.

HPD’s use of no-knock warrants came under scrutiny after the deadly Pecan Park drug raid, in which prosecutors say former Houston Police officer Gerald Goines shot and killed two residents in their Harding Street home in 2019. Police say Goines sought the no-knock warrant based on a lie about a confidential informant.

City Council this week approved more than $1 million to fight a lawsuit stemming from the raid.

Turner also announced the appointment of a deputy attorney general to a new Office of Policing Reform and Accountability. That appointee, current Assistant District Attorney Crystal Okorafor, would be responsible for a small team to investigate complaints made against officers, the mayor said.

The slate of reforms includes a police oversight dashboard to register complaints online and to track police misconduct and diversity, in multiple languages. People can also can submit complaints to community groups like the local NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, LULAC, and the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, as well as the Mayor’s Office for People With Disabilities and the mayor’s LGBTQ task force.

The policing reform and accountability dashboard will measure total disciplinary actions taken against officers, filtered by date, reason, and how many days an officer was suspended. The data will not identify the officer disciplined, but will provide the number of years the officer has been on the force.

The dashboard will also measure data on traffic stops by race, ethnicity and gender, as well as use of force data filtered by date, race, reason and outcome.

Houston Police Chief Troy Finner at the mayor’s announcement of a slate new police reforms, on April 29, 2021. Photo by Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media.

Turner also announced an overhaul to the Independent Police Oversight Board with a new full-time paid administrative and executive staff, and an eye toward greater diversity. Those changes were in direct response to the task force’s lack of confidence in the board’s current format.

As part of that overhaul, Turner appointed a new board chair: YMCA of Greater Houston president and CEO Steve Ives.

Speaking Thursday, Ives said the new reforms will reward good actors while making sure bad actors are held accountable.

“Good people with good intentions with a strong system of accountability just do a better job,” Ives said.

Neither Turner nor Ives laid out a clear plan for how the board would be made more diverse, however. They also did not make clear what — if any — new responsibilities Ives would have.

That lack of detail was concerning to Rev. Jacqueline Hailey, an organizer with the Metropolitan Organization. Hailey said decisions on staffing, for example, should come from city council members and their communities rather than the mayor.

“Just putting someone over it, and having an inspector general, doesn’t change what the board does,” Hailey said. “So that needs to be spelled out.”

The police reform task force was empaneled after several high-profile incidents of police killings, including the death of George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin last year. Chauvin was convicted of Floyd’s murder last week.

Floyd, whose murder sparked widespread protests, was a former Houston resident. At his Houston-area funeral, Turner laid out a series of immediate steps he would take to reform policing in Houston — reforms inspired by the “#8CantWait” campaign. Those included banning choke holds and strangle holds, requiring de-escalation, mandating a verbal warning before shooting, instituting a duty to intervene for officers who view excessive force, and other reforms.

But Floyd’s death also led to a nationwide conversation on police funding, and inparticular, calls to “defund the police” became more common among activists. Turner has rejected such calls, instead pushing to increase police funding by $20 million last year.

While some of Turner’s recommendations did meet the demands of some activists — in particular, the new oversight dashboard, its reporting tool, and the promise of making cite-and-release data public — it was not immediately clear what impacts the reforms would have on police funding.

Some recommendations mirror criminal justice reform advocate proposals, including diversion programs that would shift the responsibility for addressing mental health crises off the police and onto counselors and other social services.

But the mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment when asked whether funding would go to police, or whether that funding would be allocated to another group or agency to run the programs.

Another sticking point for activists was more transparency in regards to city negotiations with the police union — something the mayor did not commit to, and something that the task force did not recommend.

“The fact that not once did the mayor mention the police union contract, where many of these issues around reporting, around accountability, are included — that is very troubling to me,” Oliver said.

Organizers have also publicly criticized the task force for what they see as failing to include community activists and other criminal justice reform advocates.

“The main issue here is the mayor and the police chief should not be able to direct the conversation about what policing reform is legitimate, and what is not legitimate,” said Jaison Oliver, an organizer with BLMHTX/Imaginoir Collective. “The city of Houston and community members are not directing this conversation, the mayor is. And that is a problem.”

Funding for many of the programs Turner proposed would have to be approved by Houston City Council. Other funding will come from $25 million in federal funds included in President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, Turner said.

At Thursday’s press conference, HPD Chief Troy Finner lauded the changes, including a new body camera policy that would require HPD to publicly release body camera footage within 30 days of when someone is shot or otherwise killed by police.

“The mayor has given the marching orders, and I totally agree: 30 days,” said HPD Chief Troy Finner. “Within 30 days, we are releasing all officer-involved shootings where there is an injury or a death — period — moving forward in my administration.”

The new policy would also mandate 24 hours to release video if a federal or state prosecutor opens an official investigation into the department, and consider additional release criteria.

Finner said the policy would be subject to certain privacy rules, and when pushed, both he and the mayor said the policy would only apply to incidents going forwards, not previous shootings.

But the chief said the new policy would increase accountability and transparency.

“If a chief of police or police officers cant listen and hear the citizens, and feel their hearts, we’re not going to be successful,” Finner said.

In a statement, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg also praised the new body camera policy.

“We are glad Houston Police are going to increase transparency by releasing certain video recordings to the public,” Ogg said. “As for the possible impact on trials, we are confident that Harris County juries will be fair by reviewing all the evidence presented in court before making their decisions.”