By Cassidy Kenyon, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group
On March 25, the George Floyd Act (House Bill 88) was heard in the Texas House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety. The legislation is authored by Chairwoman Senfronia Thompson, Chairman Harold Dutton, Vice Chairwoman Yvonne Davis, Chairman Garnet Coleman, and Chairwoman Nicole Collier.
The George Floyd Act addresses qualified immunity by creating a cause of action for deprivation of rights; requires corroboration for the testimony of undercover police officers; adds a duty to intervene and to render aid; prohibits chokeholds and limits lethal force to imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death. It also ends arrests for many non-jailable fine-only violations and mandates creation of a progressive disciplinary matrix establishing different disciplinary actions for policy violations and violations of law by police. The law would call for these actions to be developed through a statewide process with stakeholders using evidence-based practices.
Chairwoman Thompson, who holds the 2nd longest tenure in the Texas House of Representatives with over 40 years of service, laid out the bill before the committee, emphasizing that the George Floyd Act is not about defunding the police, but about the sanctity of human life. Then George Floyd’s brother, Travis Cains, came to the witness stand and described to the committee what it was like to watch his little brother publicly lynched by the police in 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
His story was one of over a hundred shared with the committee that day. Dozens of witnesses followed, many described the violence inflicted on their families by the police. As Celeste Brown, family member of Darrel Zemault Sr. stated, “families who are victims of police brutality should not have to stand up here and re-hash our trauma to get you guys to see us as human beings. But we must and we will.”
Barbara Coats and Ali Amron were there on behalf of their son, Jamail Amron. According to articles recording the event, he was out one night and had taken cocaine and then called 911 for help. When the police came, they injected him with a sedative. Jamail fell onto the ground. An officer then put his foot on Jamail’s face and neck for several minutes. Jamail vomited and suffocated.
Maria Cordero and Romona Casas told the story of Jorge Gonzales. During his arrest for a class C misdemeanor, an arrest that would not occur under the George Floyd Act, his neck was broken. He was not given medical treatment or taken to the hospital. Police had to hold his head up for his mugshot and then placed him in the “drunk tank” for 21 hours.
Bernice Roundtree told the story of San Antonio police department officers walking into her house, saying “what’s up,” without identifying themselves or their reason for being there, and then shooting her teenage son Charles Roundtree. The officers left him on the floor to bleed to death while forcing the other children out of the house. If the police officers had rendered aid, her son would still be alive today
The family of Alex Gonzales stood before the committee only a few months after his death at the hands of the Austin Police Department. While Angel Gonzales and her mother showed unmatchable strength speaking out against the injustice in the face of unfathomable loss, the cops who shot him are still walking free.
Brenda Ramos told the story of her son Mike Ramos, who was shot by Austin Police Department multiple times after it was known he didn’t have a gun: “I just don’t understand why they kept screaming at him when he said he was scared. I just don’t understand why they couldn’t talk to him like he was a human being. Like he mattered at all.”
Many witnesses described their children being shot in the back while trying to leave:
Marian Tolan was slammed against a garage door by police officers as they accused her son Robbie Tolan of stealing his own car. He was shot by the police as she was restrained.
Pamela Barnes’s son Adrian Barnes was leaving a party at the home of an off-duty police officer when the officer shot her son in the back as he drove away from the party.
Deborah Bush’s son Marquise Jones was shot 9 times in the back after walking away from a fight that broke out in a drive-thru. As Ms. Bush eloquently stated, “Families will never be able to heal because we turn on the TV and see another one. Another one. Another one.”
Family after family stood and told similar stories about police violence. Across these stories, no officers stepped in to help. Few of the officers were permanently terminated. Most civil cases were dismissed using qualified immunity or were fought in the courts until the family couldn’t afford to fight any more.
The most intensely symbolic moment came when Trina Miller testified about the death of her son Tre’Shun Miller, who was brutalized by Arlington Police Department. He was beaten to death by Robert Coleman, who was then put in charge of the subsequent investigation. As she ran past the two minute mark telling the story of her son’s death, Chairman James White attempted to cut her off, but she continued her story. She described Tre’Shun bleeding out while many first responders refused to render aid to her son; the officer who refused to render aid later received a reward. While staff attempted to remove her and Texas Department of Public Safety officers came to the room, people stood in front of her. The Sergeant-at-Arms stopped DPS from intervening and allowed the family to finish giving testimony on the murder of their son.
The room was filled with suffocating pain and anger and gut-wrenching stories from people who lost their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, and friends. While representatives on the committee and those watching were brought face-to-face with this pain for 6 or 7 hours, it is these people who must spend the rest of their lives missing their loved ones. Family members robbed from them at the hands of state sanctioned violence, each death entirely preventable. The George Floyd Act is not about politics, it is about the stories of people who are deeply suffering a pain they will never heal from.
Through the George Floyd Act, we were able to hear some atrocities of what Texans have suffered as a result of police brutality empowered by qualified immunity. Many witnesses who were victims of police violence or whose family members were victims were kept from justice by qualified immunity. Several civil rights attorneys, including Gary Bledsoe, the president of the Texas NAACP, described the failings of qualified immunity. For example, cases against police officers fail if there hasn’t been a similar case in the past. The rights violation in both cases has to be almost identical; differences that have led to case failure include things like the victim sitting up instead of lying down. When no case can be established in which it wasn’t used, qualified immunity is used de facto.
Many police officer representatives testified against ending qualified immunity, reasoning that it punishes good police officers for the actions of bad police officers. They also tried to say that ending qualified immunity would lead to recruitment issues. However, as Vice Chairwoman Bowers pointed out, “good cops have nothing to worry about from this bill.”
The truth is that many police officers who may conduct themselves ethically on the line of duty are complicit in the system that produces and protects bad cops. We heard stories of a police officer shooting a child, then the police department putting this same officer in charge of his own subsequent investigation. In this case, the entire department is complicit with enabling a bad cop. Multiple officers stood by while an officer had his foot on the mouth and nose of Jamail Amron while he was unconscious due to drugs injected by the police, and he died as a result. Every officer on the scene and all those who came after corroborating different testimony than the bystanders are complicit with enabling a bad cop. Families taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court and winning because the conservative fifth circuit court dismissed appeals. It is not just the actions of bad police officers that enable state-sanctioned violence. It is police chiefs, city courts, county courts, the fifth circuit, and many more who propagate and continue the vicious cycle of white supremacy in policing. These entities must be held accountable if good police officers are to stop being punished for the actions of bad cops.
Nothing will ever help the families of loved ones lost through the completely preventable deaths created by state sanctioned violence. Ending qualified immunity will not bring back these human beings sacrificed to the regime of white supremacy. But the George Floyd Act is a start to making sure more lives are not unjustly robbed, and honestly, it’s the very least we can do to bring any semblance of justice for these families who have suffered so much.
Throughout the hearing, I frequently thought of protests over the summer after George Floyd’s death, especially the chants of “silence is violence.” In that committee room on March 25th, I saw firsthand just how much silence truly is violence. The silence of police officers complicit in the deaths of Black and Brown people, the silence of the courts refusing to bring about justice, the silence of government doing nothing to fix qualified immunity, and the silence of 8 minutes and 46 seconds are all the cause and product of state-sanctioned police violence enabled by white supremacy. Families of victims stood in front of state representatives, many not even shedding a single tear despite all their pain, and boldly sent the message that they will not be silenced and they will not go away. It was truly a privilege to witness their testimony, I will never forget the stories and pain from the George Floyd Act.
72% of Texans support this criminal justice reform legislation. On the Federal level, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 was voted through the U.S. House of Representatives and is soon to be heard by the U.S. Senate. I hope the passing of federal legislation can spur legislators in Texas to make much needed changes ending qualified immunity and starting the process of holding our state government accountable for crimes committed by police officers. Until then, silence is violence and without justice there will be no peace.
Tre’Shun Miller. Patrick Warren Sr. Jorge Gonzalez. Jamail Amron. Marquis Jones. Michael Brown. Charles Roundtree. Alex Gonzales. Botham Jean. Sandra Bland. Stephon Clark. Michelle Cusseaux. Atatiana Jefferson. Jordan Edwards. Aura Rosser. Botham Jean. Freddie Grey. Gabriella Nevarez. Tanisha Anderson. Akai Gurley. Daniel Prude. Rayshard Brooks. Jonathan Price. Michael Ramos. Javier Ambler. Yvette Smith. Jordan Baker. Larry Jackson Jr. Michael Brown. Timothy Russell. Alesia Thomas. Clinton Allen. Shelley Frey. Raymond Allen Jr. Jason Sierra. Jose Roman Rodriquez. Jose Pena. Christopher Reyes. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Ahmaud Arbery. Eric Garner. Philando Castile. Kenneth Chamberlain. Alton Sterling. Walter Scott. Tamir Rice. Vinny Belmonte. Elijah McClain. Gregory Edwards. Samuel DuBose. Brendon Glenn. Aiyana Stanley-Jones. And many more.
That you for sharing. Extremely hard to hear, but it needs to be told. It unbelievable that this happens every day. Something has to be done.
Thank you for writing this. As painful as it is to read, the story needs to be told. My heart breaks from the injustice and shear brutality faced by these boys and young men. The fact that this happens on a daily basis in this day and age speaks volumes about the need to abolish qualified immunity.