Lawmakers push for transparency in police use-of-force cases

AUSTIN — As protests and riots continue in Baltimore, some Texas lawmakers are pushing for more transparency to help prevent police violence in the Lone Star State.

Police around the country are under scrutiny for using excessive force following the deaths of several unarmed black men in the last year. Texas legislators are pushing to equip officers with body cameras and reaffirm citizens’ right to film officers in action.

In Baltimore, Freddie Gray, 25, suffered a spinal cord injury and died after an arrest on April 12 by police. It has not yet been determined when Gray sustained his fatal injury, but the police commissioner said Gray was not wearing a seat belt during transport to the station. Protests leading to riots began after Gray’s funeral Monday.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, proposed a grant program to help cities purchase body cameras for officers and provide training and guidelines for using them. His bill passed the Senate last week.

West said that officer cameras may not have prevented what occurred in Baltimore, but it could have provided clarity. Complaints against officers and their use of force has decreased in cities that arm officers with body cameras, he argued.

“It will protect police officers against frivolous complaints, and it should be able to protect citizens from overzealous police conduct,” West said.

Officers support the measure and see body cameras as a tool that can protect them, said John Moritz, spokesman for Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. Some officers have raised concerns about logistics and privacy in some situations, though West tried to address that by allowing an amendment to his bill.

Measures to provide support for people’s right to film the police were proposed by Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, and Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas. They would create a legal defense for people charged with interfering or failing to obey an officer’s request to stop filming.

“Citizens are harassed by law enforcement for exercising these rights, and that’s absolutely unacceptable,” Estes said. His bill would allow people acquitted of those charges to seek reimbursement for attorney fees. It has not yet been considered by a Senate committee.

Johnson pointed to the shooting death of Walter Scott, 50, in Charleston, S.C. Video appeared to show Scott running from an officer. The national discussion would have been much different if not for the recording, Johnson said.

“We’d be talking about why this poor, black guy with a long rap sheet was going for this officer’s Taser and got himself shot,” Johnson said. Instead, the officer faces a murder charge.

“That’s only happening, if we’re honest, because that civilian video existed,” the Texan said.

Johnson’s proposal would also trigger an automatic license review by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement if an officer damages or erases audio or video taken by a bystander. The measure is stalled as Johnson works to address concerns raised in committee.

In Missouri, a St. Louis County grand jury declined to bring charges against the officer who shot teenager Michael Brown.

That case and hundreds of Houston police shooting incidents that weren’t prosecuted led Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, to file a bill to eliminate conflicts of interests in investigations of police brutality.

Ellis’ proposal says district and county attorneys can’t represent the state when an officer from the county is being investigated for criminal conduct that allegedly occurred on duty.

It has not yet received a committee hearing.

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