AUSTIN — With racial tension rising following the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, Texas lawmakers have filed legislation to make police actions more transparent in this state.
Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston, said he filed bills to pre-empt police brutality from occuring in Texas.
“All I want to do is be transparent and know if we have an officer that has the propensity to violate people’s civil rights or has the propensity to abuse his authority or overextend his authority,” Miles said.
Miles isn’t the only lawmaker who hopes to increase police transparency.
Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, filed House Bill 1036, which would require police departments to report all officer shootings to the Attorney General of Texas, along with House Bill 1035, which would allow people to film police interactions in public places.
“These bills will bring much greater transparency to police interactions with the public in Texas,” Johnson said. “Required reporting of all officer shootings means we will for the first time know just how often they occur. And hopefully there will be video — either from police body-cams or civilian footage — so that we know exactly what happened in every such encounter.”
Johnson, in a news release, said the Dallas Police Association is not opposed to civilians recording interactions, as long as they do not interfere with officers.
Miles’ bills are opposed by Houston Police Officer’s Union, which is concerned about frivolous or unwarrented complaints.
In San Antonio, police spokesman said the department has some measures in place, and would follow new laws written by the Legislature to deal with potential problems.
One of Miles’ bills pertains to police departments statewide. House Bill 265 would increase a Texas police officer’s penalty from a Class A misdemeanor to a felony if an officer knowingly caused bodily injury to another.
House Bill 261 would create a civilian review board in Houston to review complaints against police officers, and HB 270 would make publilc complaints made against Houston police officers.
Although the legislation dealing with officer complaints and a citizen review board would only apply to Houston, Miles said he would consider expanding the legislation to include other Texas cities.
In San Antonio, complaints go to the Internal Affairs Unit and then are forwarded to the Chief’s Advisory Action Board. The board includes seven civilian members, which then sends its results to the Chief of Police, according to the City of San Antonio’s website.
Sgt. Javier Salazar, a San Antonio Police Department spokesman, said complaints against a police officer are made public only if there’s discipline.
Salazar said the department did not have an opinion on legislation that would make all complaints against an officer public.
“Of course if the legislature sees fit to pass those we’d abide by them,” Salazar said.
For the last two sessions, Miles has filed all three bills together, which have been opposed by the Houston Police Officers’ Union.
Ray Hunt, president of the union, said the group is especially concerned that unnecessary complaints against an officer would be made public.
Hunt is confident that bill won’t be passed. “There’s no reasonable person that can say a frivolous complaint should be made public against someone.”
Miles said he thinks that with recent events in Ferguson, Missouri; Cleveland, Ohio and other cities across the country, the legislation is more likely to pass this session.
“I think other elected officials — not just in the state, but in the country — are looking at some of the laws as it pertains to its law enforcement agencies and its citizens,” Miles said.
In Houston, all complaints received by the department are processed through the Central Intake Office and reviewed, according to the department’s website. Only sustained complaints are then made public.
According to Hunt, many complaints against a police officer are filed by criminals or people with political agendas who want to get an officer in trouble.
“The public deserves to know (about sustained complaints)…” Hunt said. “But they don’t have a right to know if a known criminal on the street or an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend wants to file frivolous complaints against police officers.”
Houston Mayor Annise Parker created the Independent Police Oversight Board to review complaints made against officers and to recommend action to the police chief. The board is made up of citizens appointed by the mayor.
Hunt said he believes there is no need for a civilian review board because this is already in place in Houston.
“We have lots of things in place, but we do not want someone who has an ax to grind or a political agenda to try to get on one of these civilian review boards and try to railroad an officer,” Hunt said.
Miles said he has many personal ties to the issue and hopes that this legislation will control police officers who are overextending their authority.
“I’m a former police officer, I grew up in an urban city, I have a teenage African American son, and I realize that a large majority of our police officers are good officers,” Miles said. “I’m just trying to put things in place for that small percentage of rogue police officers so that we can deal with them on a complete picture knowing who it is and what it is.”