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Texas Legislative Black Caucus starts planning legislative responses to police brutality, racial inequality

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Members of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus at a press conference in Houston earlier this year. The caucus held its first town hall on Tuesday to discuss police brutality and police reform. Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

Black Texas lawmakers seeking constituents' input on potential criminal justice reform legislation said Tuesday that they support reallocating police department funds to social services, but not completely defunding law enforcement.

Those and other comments about policing in Texas came during the first in a series of virtual town halls held by the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, which announced the conversations in the wake of protests across the state and nation sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black man who died at the hands of Minneapolis police.follows protests across the state and nation sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black man who died at the hands of Minneapolis police.

“There has been racism throughout all parts of government, and until we have people who are uncomfortable with the way things are, we’re not gonna see change," said state Rep. Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat.

The conversation focused largely on what kinds of legislation lawmakers could craft next session, and included at least one criticism against Gov. Greg Abbott for excluding black elected officials from conversations about potential reforms.

The discussions are also happening after the caucus met virtually with Abbott last week to talk about potential criminal justice and police reforms the Legislature can work on when state lawmakers reconvene in January. The caucus requested the meeting after members said they were “somewhat perplexed” that Abbott hadn’t included them in talks about potential legislative responses to recent examples of police brutality.

Asked about it Tuesday night, state Rep. Carl Sherman, D-DeSoto, said “absolutely we’re being excluded” from conversations with the governor about reform.

“You would think that this issue, that is related to the African American population, you would ask for the representatives who represent that population,” he said. “But we are not at the table when it comes to real discussions about reform.”

Later Tuesday, Abbott spokesperson John Wittman told The Texas Tribune that the caucus is "absolutely not being excluded and they're going to be involved in anything that comes out of this."

Abbott has condemned Floyd’s death — calling the incident a “horrific act of police brutality” — and has said repeatedly that discussions are already underway about how to prevent such tragedies from happening in Texas in the future. But the governor, who has often touted the state’s successful track record with criminal justice reforms, has not yet addressed the numerous police reform proposals that have failed at the Legislature in recent years, often after facing opposition from law enforcement.

That opposition from certain law enforcement groups came up multiple times during Tuesday’s conversation, with lawmakers referencing powerful police unions as one of the reasons why key reforms could not make it across the finish line at the Legislature in recent years.

A push to defund law enforcement has meanwhile gained steam in at least two major Texas cities, with officials mulling the possibility of spending less on law enforcement and more on social services like job training and housing assistance. During Tuesday’s conversation, lawmakers said they did not support actually completely defunding law enforcement, but rather moving money from police to fund other services, such as mental health.

“I think the wording is what has everyone kinda not wanting to say they want to defund police, but I do believe that funding from the police can be reallocated,” state Rep. Toni Rose, D-Dallas.

“It can be misleading to say that we’re about defunding the police,” said Collier. “We’re all about reallocating the funding that goes into the police department — we can’t ask them to do everything … It’s about investing in our communities and not militarizing our police.”

As details emerged last week of another black person dying at the hands of Texas law enforcement, some Democrats called on Abbott to order the Legislature back to Austin for a special legislative session to work on policing and criminal justice reform. Their calls are not likely to prompt a special session. As of last week, the governor had not publicly responded to such requests.

State Sen. Royce West, a longtime Dallas Democrat who is now running to take on U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he wants Abbott to hold a roundtable to study the issues.

“He has put together round tables for everything, and I understand [COVID-19] is here, but he should be able to put together a virtual round table to deal with this particular issue,” West said.

Tuesday’s conversation was the first of a series of virtual town halls the caucus is scheduled to hold this week. Additional events are set for Wednesday and Thursday, featuring delegations from southeast Texas and the Houston area respectively. The caucus has said that the series will be capped off with a statewide virtual town hall Friday.