As Houston's new police reform task force prepares for its first meeting this week, community members are calling for changes to the city's independent police oversight board — part of a national conversation about police brutality and accountability since George Floyd's death in May.
Just one month ago, thousands of Houstonians joined George Floyd's family in a march against police brutality. Last week, hundreds spoke at a virtual town hall, hoping to turn that protest into public policy, as Houston City Council's public safety committee heard testimony for seven hours.
Many told council members they want to defund the police. Some called for the city to change the way it negotiates the contract with the police union, arguing those negotiations should happen in public so people can follow the conversation.
Others said they want to see a stronger police oversight board, which has been around in various forms for decades. The current iteration was created by former Mayor Annise Parker. The 21 civilians on the board review cases of alleged police misconduct.
As members of the public called for change — arguing the board needs subpoena power, for example — board chair Marvin Hamilton struggled to come up with answers as to whether those changes could be implemented.
"That's a good question and I don't think I can answer that without putting a lot of thought into it. And you don't have time for me to really think about it,” Hamilton answered when asked for his input at the public safety committee meeting. "There's probably a lot of things that would make it more effective but I can't give you much on that off the top of my head."
But while Hamilton didn't have specific suggestions to share, other board members did.
"As you know, there is no transparency for us and we are not allowed to speak on any of the cases," board member Shelley Kennedy said. "And for an activist like myself, sometimes it keeps me up at night."
Gerald Birnberg, another board member, said the same thing: Transparency is the single most important way to make the board more effective.
When asked about police misconduct cases that have stood out to him over his six years on the board, Birnberg couldn’t respond.
"I can't tell you what they are, what the facts of those were, what the outcome of them was, and that's a problem," Birnberg said.
Birnberg said another important change would be the inclusion of a Houston Police Department representative at their board meetings to help members better understand police terms that are relevant to the cases — like in one incident, for example, that involved a “drive stun” with a taser.
"You know what a drive stun is?” Birnberg asked. “Well, neither did I. And neither did anybody else on our panel.”
They ended up Googling it — it's a technique that involves pressing a Taser directly into a person — but it would be better, Birnberg said, to learn that directly from police.
His third request: more members of the public should apply to serve on the board. Birnberg said sometimes it's hard to fill seats on the police oversight board, and that it needs more diverse voices — people from the community, psychologists, experts in criminology, and civil rights attorneys like himself.
“If folks want a good board, they need to volunteer to serve on the board,” Birnberg said. “People who can legitimately bring to the board some expertise in these areas.”
Volunteers can apply online to serve on the board — ideally they’re also recommended by their city council member or a local civic organization. The Mayor appoints members to the board and they’re approved by City Council. There is currently one vacancy on the board.
Birnberg said strengthening police oversight in Houston requires changes at all levels — state laws, federal laws — but some of it could happen locally, for example, in an executive order from the mayor.
Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday his newly convened police reform task force will consider ideas put forth at the public safety committee at its first meeting. The group is expected to present final recommendations in the fall.
But not everyone is optimistic about what the task force will accomplish. When the mayor announced the members of the task force, critics like Ashton P. Woods, the founder of Black Lives Matter Houston, argued on Twitter that the task force is an empty gesture that excluded many community activists who wanted to participate.
In June, City Council passed a $5.1 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2021 that included an increase in police funding, despite calls from protesters demanding a decrease in HPD’s almost $1 billion budget.
Council rejected two police reform measures — one that would have provided the independent police oversight board with subpoena authority, and another that would have allocated funding to implement a mental health crisis intervention program that would not rely on law enforcement.