State Senator Borris Miles

As part of the Defender’s “Redesigning Public Safety” series, we spoke with the state senators who are at the heart of Texas’ police reform efforts. Here, Texas legislators Borris Miles, Royce West and John Whitmire share their perspectives on those reform and the legislation they will be working during the next legislative session (Jan. 2021) in order to make those reforms a reality.

 

SENATOR BORRIS MILES

State Senator Borris Miles

“Qualified immunity must be corrected by the legislature… Citizens must regain the right to sue law enforcement when they abuse their power.”

Defender: What does your vision of redesigned public safety look like with regards to policing?

Civilian Review Boards: Public safety needs to start with trust and confidence with law enforcement. To achieve this, we need transparency and power behind citizen complaints. That’s why I filed Senate Bill 67, so that all large cities will have civilian complaint review boards with the actual power of subpoena and built in accountability by allowing multiple officials to appoint the board, not just the mayor. This is complemented by Senate Bill 66 which subjects police complaints to open records requirements and requires police departments to store all such records.

Curtailing Excessive Force: I also think we need to end the culture around use of excessive force. That is why I filed Senate Bill 68, which requires law enforcement officers to intervene when fellow officers are using excessive force, as well as report all use of force to their department. Furthermore, I filed Senate Bill 69, which bans chokeholds and submission techniques that block the airways or arteries. Finally, under Senate Bill 71, law enforcement agencies and police departments must adopt written use of force policies. I also don’t think police should indiscriminately shoot at vehicles like in the Michael Ramos case in Austin, so I filed Senate Bill 72 which requires law enforcement agencies to adopt policies on the discharging of firearms into moving vehicles. Public safety starts when the public is no longer afraid of police. We cannot be our own enemy.

Defender: What are the laws on the books that are different for police than for regular citizens, laws that protect police from prosecution?

Qualified Immunity: I have drafted legislation addressing law enforcement’s enjoyment of qualified immunity. It is not fair that law enforcement can excuse gravely injuring and killing people as part of routinely doing their job. We have an entire branch of government, the judiciary, charged with checking this abuse of power. Qualified immunity must be corrected by the legislature for the courts to properly follow. Citizens must regain the right to sue law enforcement when they abuse their power. Qualified immunity should not cover cases where an individual never committed a crime, also it arguably should not cover cases where an individual is convicted of a crime that is different than the crime for which they were arrested. You should be able to sue law enforcement if you are wrongfully detained or arrested and beat up about it.

 

SENATOR JOHN WHITMIRE

State Senator John Whitmire

“We’ve made progress, but I think we’ve all witnessed this year, that when it comes to police accountability, we’re probably really derelict in many ways.”

Defender: What does your vision of redesigned public safety look like with regards to policing?

Statewide Body Cams: Good, law-abiding professional police officers ought to applaud accountability tools like dash and body cameras that display bad officers and acknowledges there’s a lot of, in fact, mostly good officers.

Permanent Bans on Working in Law Enforcement: I’m an attorney. If I do something egregious, I lose my law license and I can’t get another one.

Reduce Police/Citizen Contacts for Minor Offenses: Most of the tragedies we’ve seen around the country that had been documented on video, start with non-violent, police contact over nothing. Then you have exchange of words, and it leads to a tragedy… Sandra Bland is a prime example. What if we could come in and send a mental health worker with the police officer. Have professionals that don’t involve a gun and a badge.

Redirect Resources: Why are you wasting police resources on a traffic dispute? I just think if we could come up with the resources and redirect, and let me just add right there, that the term “”defund police is probably the most misstated message that I can imagine… In Texas people get alarmed when you say defund the police, because they think you’re shutting down the police department. Well, we’re not. If anything, your terminology of “redesigned public safety” would be perfect because you’re not saying less. You’re just saying maybe a repurpose of police.

Bail Reform: One thing I’m going to spend a lot of time on is bail bond reform. We still are locking up people because they can’t afford a bond where if the person with identical charges has money, he or she leaves. So that’s a battle. And, and quite frankly, I think some bad guys are getting out on cash bonds.

Defender: Are there any cities or states currently using the reforms you would like to see enacted in Texas?

Several States & More Progressive Texas Cities: Hell, 35 States have legalized marijuana for personal use… So, what other States do, they’re just a lot more lenient about what they think is a law enforcement violation… But in Texas, and that’s part of the problem, you get in small jurisdictions and, Oh my Lord.

 

SENATOR ROYCE WEST

State Senator Royce West (Photo by Aswad Walker)

“If we have one law that deals with the use of deadly force, we need to make certain that all policies… should be consistent across the entire state of Texas and towards that particularly.”

Defender: What specific legislation are you and others working on?

Home Invasion Policies: I’m going to carry the George Floyd Act in the Senate. There will be a Breonna Taylor Bill that we are drafting right now. Botham Jean, you recall that in Dallas, a man was sitting in his home and… he ends up dead. We’ll be working on that with Rep. Khan Sherman.

Reduce No-Knock Warrants: In terms of welfare checks, how do you make certain that policies are consistent concerning welfare checks? How do you make certain that we don’t have that? We reduced the use of no-knock warrants as an example. And don’t get me wrong. I want to make certain that if a police officer leaves home in the morning that they’re able to return home. But during the course of it, I want to make certain that a citizen is not injured or killed as a result of misjudgment or some negligence on the part of police.

Consistency in Deadly Force Policy: If we have one law that deals with the use of deadly force, we need to make certain that all policies… should be consistent across the entire state of Texas and towards that particularly. And I think that most law enforcement would agree with that. We’re in the process right now to collect the data, to see exactly what the policies are.

Defender: What about Qualified Immunity? People in the community feel like it’s a get out of jail free card for police.

Qualified Immunity: The reason they feel that way is because there are very few cases where police officers are not allowed to use that. Most instances they’re allowed to use that as a get out of jail free card because of the circumstances surrounding the case…. So, we’re dealing, we’re going to have a discussion to try to deal with that issue in the state of Texas.

Defender: Are there any cities or states currently using the reforms you would like to see enacted in Texas?

Colorado: Colorado just passed the law against the use of qualified immunity on the certain circumstances… There is in fact, a movement around this kind of in order to deal with police accountability, without damaging police officers’ mission to provide security for people in the state and in the various States.


 

Police Reform Proposed in Texas Senate

SB 65 – Makes it a felony for an officer to engage in official oppression that results in bodily injury.
SB 66 – Subjects officer complaints to open records law and requires departments to keep such records.
SB 67 – Creates civilian complaint review boards in cities with more than 200k people, and grants the boards power of subpoena.
SB 68 – Requires officers to intervene when another officer is using excessive force and to report such to the department.
SB 69 – Bans chokeholds and submission techniques that block breathing or blood circulation.
SB 70 – Requires officers to report their use of force to their departments.
SB 71 – Requires law enforcement agencies to adopt written use of force policies.
SB 72 – Requires law enforcement agencies adopt policies for shooting at moving vehicles.