Revealing a race-related schism at the Legislature on police reform, members of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus on Thursday called for legislative action in the wake of the police killing of Jordan Edwards in North Texas.
Jordan, an unarmed, 15-year-old, African-American, was killed Saturday by a white Balch Springs police officer as Jordan was riding in a vehicle leaving a party.
“There’s not a person here who thinks this would have happened in an Anglo community,” said Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas. “I’m not playing the race card; I’m playing the reality card.”
Among the measures proposed by the African-American lawmakers that they say have largely been ignored by Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, none of which have made it to the floor of the Senate or House for a vote are:
• The appointment of a special prosecutor for officer-involved shootings.
• Changing the standards for which the use of lethal force is acceptable.
• Reforming the way police arrest and send people to county jails, as part of a suite of changes inspired by the arrest of Sandra Bland, the African-American woman who was found hanged in a Waller County Jail cell three days after a routine traffic stop escalated into a confrontation with a Department of Public Safety trooper and led to her arrest.
Of the measures mentioned at Thursday’s press conference, only West’s Senate Bill 30, which calls for instructions to high school students on how they should communicate with officers during a traffic stop, has passed through a chamber: It won unanimous approval in the Texas Senate; a companion bill has been placed on the House floor calendar for Tuesday. The Senate bill also calls for officers to complete a “civilian interaction training program” involving traffic stops.
West’s bill “is a priority” for the lieutenant governor, Patrick spokesman Alejandro Garcia said.
“There is nothing more important at the Legislature than eradicating this disease that’s taking out young black men guilty of nothing more than being black in Texas, in America,” said Rep. Helen Giddings, D-DeSoto, who teared up at the press conference as she said she thought of one of her grandchildren — also named Jordan.
‘Black lives matter, too’
The black caucus includes 12 members, all but one of whom are Democrats; the state’s three top leaders are white, all of them Republicans.
Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, said leaders at the Capitol “have to get their heads out of the sand” and “get it done.”
Abbott spokesman John Wittman said the governor “supports efforts by the Legislature that seek to improve the relationship between Texas communities and law enforcement, and he looks forward to signing legislation that achieves that goal.”
But even as he has tweeted over the last several days about tornado victims and about a paramedic getting shot while responding to a call in Dallas, Abbott didn’t tweet about the Balch Springs incident. He did provide a statement to some news outlets expressing his sympathy to the Edwards family and calling for “a fair and full investigation into this tragedy.”
At root, suggested black lawmakers on Thursday, is a political choice to defer to law enforcement.
“Yes, blue lives matter, but black lives matter, too,” said West. Noting that Balch Springs police changed their description of the circumstances of the killing after officials reviewed video of it, West said, “Thank God for the body cameras.”
Straus said Thursday he was willing to work with lawmakers on “preventing similar tragedies in the future,” but didn’t specify which bills he might push.
“The death of Jordan Edwards was an absolute tragedy, and all of us grieve for Jordan, his family and the community,” Straus said in a statement. “Some very critical questions about Jordan’s death need to be answered fully and transparently. All of us should be deeply concerned about these tragedies and their frequency, and I will work with any of my legislative colleagues who are interested in preventing similar tragedies in the future.”
‘We need action’
The lawmakers — who were joined by the chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and by a representative of the NAACP — said they wanted real movement on the bills.
“We need not only thoughts and prayers; we need action,” said Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, who is white and chairs the House Democratic Caucus. “People who look like me don’t have to have the same talks with kids and grandkids” as his colleagues of color, he said.
Among several police killings of unarmed black people across the state in recent years, at least three have occurred in Central Texas:
• In 2013, Larry Jackson Jr. was chased by Austin police Detective Charles Kleinert and fatally shot during a struggle. In 2015, a judge granted the former detective special protective immunity, shielding Kleinert from prosecution.
• In 2014, Bastrop County sheriff’s Deputy Daniel Willis, responding to a domestic disturbance call, shot and killed Yvette Smith, who he believed to have a gun. In 2016, a judge found the former deputy not guilty.