Texas Gov. Greg Abbott forming work group for legislative responses to George Floyd’s death

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott forming work group for legislative responses to George Floyd’s death

Abbott has called Reps. Nicole Collier and Harold Dutton, two Democrats from the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, to form part of the group


Protesters gather at City Hall for an 8 minute and 46 second moment of silence after marching from Klyde Warren Park during a demonstration against police brutality on Saturday, June 6, 2020 in Dallas. (Ryan Michalesko/The Dallas Morning News)(Ryan Michalesko / Staff Photographer)

By James Barragán

12:36 PM on Jun 18, 2020

AUSTIN — In response to social unrest and nationwide calls for change after the death of George Floyd, an African American man, at the hands of Minneapolis police, Gov. Greg Abbott is forming a work group to tackle criminal justice issues ahead of the 2021 Texas legislative session.

During a virtual town hall meeting Wednesday night, Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, said the governor had called him and Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, about joining the work group.

“I want to tell him that rather than trying to design something that will pass, I think we need to start with designing something that takes care of the problem,” said Dutton, who leads the Texas Legislative Black Caucus.

John Wittman, an Abbott spokesman, confirmed the governor’s request to the lawmakers. He could not provide more information on the work group.

Dutton criticized Abbott earlier this month for not including black lawmakers in discussions about how to respond to Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police last month, which has sparked national unrest and calls for systemic change against police brutality and racism. Derek Chauvin, the white police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes while Floyd said he could not breathe, is charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

On a town hall with the caucus’ North Texas delegation on Tuesday, Collier had also criticized Abbott.

“Following the death of George Floyd and all the countless other deaths that have happened across Texas and the United States, Gov. Abbott held a press conference, expressing his response to the murder of George Floyd stating he was in discussions with lawmakers about police policies and practices,” she said. “But when he made that statement, he had not spoken to one member of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus.”

Also on the Tuesday call, State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said he would send a letter to Abbott asking for a round table on police brutality. Abbott previously put together round tables to prepare legislative responses to mass shootings at a Santa Fe high school in 2018 and an El Paso Walmart last year. West is in a July runoff for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.

“He has put together round tables for everything and I understand COVID is here but he should be able to put together a virtual round table to deal with this particular issue,” West said. “He’s voiced his opinion about his displeasure about what’s going on. Let’s put together a round table, make certain we get to work on this before the next legislative session.”

Dutton said Wednesday that he didn’t know if discussions around police brutality and racism had shifted enough to lead to legislative change. The Houston lawmaker, who has served in the Texas House since 1985, said he’d seen a push for similar changes to no avail when Democrats held control of the Legislature.

“I don’t think it’s as much a partisan issue as much as it is one that recognizes that we want a Texas that has a future totally different than what it looks like in the past,” he said.

Michael Lawlor, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven, said momentum was growing for changes to policing and the criminal justice system even in conservative states like Texas.

“What we’re seeing this week and last week and the week before, it’s completely unprecedented,” Lawlor said. “In city halls, Congress and [state] capitols, people are talking about the same topics and in the same way. Specific remedies tend to differ but you’d be a fool not to see the direction this is headed in.”

“These events happen once in a while and when they do there’s going to be a big change,” he said. “Only question is, will the change work or will it be just symbolic and sound good in a press conference?”

Lawlor, who served 24 years as a Democrat in the Connecticut House of Representatives and worked on criminal justice reforms, said successful pushes begin early and bring in stakeholders from all sides of a political issue.

“These big, complicated reform initiatives are really painful because you really have to invite everybody in and listen on and on and on to people tell their stories,” he said. “I’m talking about months and months of meetings and hearings and broadening the circle. All the successful reforms in Connecticut, that’s how it happened.”

“Texans are sick of working groups and round tables without deeds or actions. If Governor Abbott was serious about police reform, he would have invited black lawmakers to take part in his response immediately following the death of George Floyd,” Abhi Rahman, spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party said in a statement. “If Abbott is serious about making substantive change, he should start by repealing SB 4, the bill he shepherded through that allows for racial profiling in the state of Texas.”

In their virtual town halls, black lawmakers said their reform efforts had been constantly thwarted by powerful police unions in the state.

But Lawlor said law enforcement plays an important role in these discussions.

“You gotta bring in the NAACP, the ACLU, the mental health providers, police unions, everyone’s gotta be involved and you’ve gotta listen for hours,” he said. “A lot of time the people you don’t agree with have legitimate concerns.”

Rep. Rhetta Bowers, D-Rowlett, said the momentum started by protests and civil disobedience actions throughout the past weeks are changing the minds of many people, including Republicans in the Legislature. Bowers, who is African American, said some Republican colleagues have reached out to her to ask how they can help.

“The first step to rectifying or the first step to transformational change is accepting and acknowledging that there is a common concern,” Bowers said. “I do feel a difference. I do feel that George Floyd — that this was the tipping point.”