AUSTIN - Law enforcement and community leaders shook hands and sat down together at the Texas Capitol Tuesday, summoned by state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) in response to recent deadly police interactions.
"We can't keep talking. What, specifically, can we do?" Whitmire, who chairs the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee, asked the invited panel composed of African-American community leaders and representatives from law enforcement.
Among the proposed solutions, Whitmire plans to file a bill that would require Texas ninth graders be instructed how to interact with police.
"I think you've got a captive audience, first of all, and you've got minds that can be impressionable. And it's before they ever start driving," Whitmire explained to KVUE. "If you have an encounter with law enforcement, behind the wheel or in the community, everyone needs to de-escalate matters. If you get a rude officer, don't be rude back. You can't win that on the streets of Texas. You need to report it the next day to the proper authorities, and then we need to make certain that it's acted upon."
"Unfortunately, not every parent takes the time to teach their kids how to interact with the police," Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, one of the panelists, told media, "And some parents, quite frankly, may try to sabotage their kids' future by not teaching them the right things."
"We have not yet seen the written proposal or any details of the potential legislation, and we do not yet know what the impact might be of adding something new to the curriculum that is already required to be taught," Association of Texas Professional Educators government relations director Jennifer Canaday responded in a statement Tuesday.
"We do know that student safety is always a top priority, and we support collaborative efforts to keep our schoolchildren safe," continued Canaday, noting that many teachers have already taken the initiative to discuss law enforcement interactions with their students. "Local schools are partnering with the law enforcement community to create positive interactions between students and police. Some campuses have open forums where students can ask officers questions in a safe, open, and honest environment."
Acevedo joined Texas Department of Public Safety director Steve McCraw Tuesday in announcing immediate plans for each agency to include information explaining how to file a formal complaint on each citation. The additional verbiage doesn't require legislation and is expected to be incorporated within the next few weeks.
"When we have a few bad apples that aren't doing the right thing, it's important for us as a police department to identify those employees and either correct behavior so people can conduct themselves in a manner consistent with the expectations of this police department and the community we serve, or cut our ties and have them move on with their careers," said Acevedo. "We'll also put information on how to give feedback, good or bad, because we also want to reinforce good behavior."
Along with the need for more body cameras, access to video and more deescalation training for police, African-American community leaders emphasized the importance of mutual education.
"I think we've made progress," said Bishop James Dixon, pastor of Community Faith Church in Houston. "The preponderance of evidence that people of color do get stopped more often than others and have different experiences with law enforcement officers than others. The evidence is overwhelming. It's time that we stop defending and feeling offended by the facts but we've got to now go on offense to determine how do we, as a community, bring solutions to the table."
Dixon suggests those solutions should be incorporated into a statewide manual.
"If we had a statewide standards manual, then all law enforcement agencies and citizens across the state of Texas would know this is how you react to a policeman: These are your rights," Dixon told KVUE. "If we know what those standards are, communicate them now, communication can turn into education, and education can turn into expectation."
"What we've got to do is: One, acknowledge that we've got a problem," Whitmire told KVUE. "Then we've got to get responsible law enforcement to talk to responsible parents and responsible community leaders, their elected officials. And we need a plan, a plan of action."
A working group including Tuesday's panelists will meet again this week and over the remaining months before the next legislative session. Their recommendations will be reported to the committee, which will consider relevant legislation when the Eighty-fifth Texas Legislature convenes in January.
(© 2016 KVUE)