Op-Ed: Misdirection as Political Theater

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By now you’ve probably heard the news that on Tuesday, the so-called Big Three of Texas government held a press conference in Tarrant County and launched their latest salvo in their long held feud with the City of Austin.

In response to the Austin City Council becoming the first city in Texas to enact meaningful reforms to its police budget, Abbott had a bold proposal: “Any city that defunds police departments will have its property tax revenue frozen at the current level.”

This type of threat, to badly hinder a municipality’s ability to function,  is nothing short of political blackmail. It’s also nothing more than political theater.

That this press conference was taking place at all is somewhat curious. In the midst of a global pandemic, the day after Texas surpassed 10,000 lives lost to COVID-19, the top three lawmakers for our state, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lte Gov. Dan Patrick, and outgoing Speaker Dennis Bonnen, travelled considerable distance to rail against a city council that has consistently had to clean up messes created by generations of ineffective, and oftentimes cruel, state government.

And that this press conference was happening in Tarrant County to begin with is no accident. It’s not even a thinly veiled political calculation that led the Republicans to Tarrant, a county they once enjoyed a strong grip on, but that went for Beto O’Rourke in his 2018 Senate race and continues to grow bluer every day, and hosts a surprising number of competitive state house races in the fall.

This press conference wasn’t about standing up for public safety, or criminal justice reform, or backing the blue, or any other catchphrase the Republicans can throw. This was a transparent attempt to fearmonger suburban voters in the hopes that it will help the Republicans maintain their majority in the Texas House of Representatives.

It stinks. It’s cynical, and disrespectful to the Texans struggling to overcome COVID-19 and the more than 10,000 that we’ve lost. It was a blatant attempt at misdirecting Texas reporters, and more importantly Texas voters, from news that broke the same day that revealed massive COVID-19 testing backlogs, from the news that 10,000 of our neighbors have died, from the fact that Abbott has suffered one of the most historic declines in popularity of any governor in the United States.

It was also woefully wrong on the merits, willfully ignorant to the benefits of reimagining the way major American cities approach public safety, and openly disparaging of the Black Lives Matter movement at a time when we should be discussing the George Floyd Act, which was unveiled last week by the Texas Legislative Black Caucus. 

And make no mistake about it: it was not an accident that these three white men felt like they could get away with doing it.

The criminal justice system in Texas is historically broken. Our county jails service more mental health patients than our hospitals do. We experience use of force cases, police shootings and killings at rates that are higher than other states. In Austin alone, in the midst of the George Floyd protests the city was rocked by two police killings: the murders of Mike Ramos and Javier Ambler. Even more mortifying than the killings themselves is the fact that Ambler was killed in 2019 in front of a camera crew for a television program called Live PD. When more details of the case became known this year, residents of Austin were stunned to learn the producers of the show had somehow deleted the footage.

That is how broken this system has become. A young Black man who should be alive today was killed on the streets of our city by a sheriff’s deputy from an entirely different county. And about that county: the Williamson County Sheriff’s Department is under fire for routinely hiring police officers who have been dismissed or otherwise left other police departments under questionable circumstances.

All of this is to say nothing of the millions of lives that have been ruined by other failings in our state’s criminal justice system. Texans impacted by the scourge of addiction, more often than not kickstarted not by a street dealer but by a licensed physician with a prescription pad, found themselves trapped in a system that did not care about them. People in jail for no reason other than not being able to afford bail have lost their jobs, families, and friends. And what’s worse, once these folks get out of jail, the state turns a blind eye to helping them find meaningful work or take steps to rebuild their lives.

Imagine how different life could have been if, instead of sending a police officer simply arrest someone and put them in the system, we sent a trained social worker who could connect with that person on a human level and help direct them to programs that will get them off the streets and on their feet? If instead of making someone an offender we could tap into the empathy that seems so lacking in our politics and truly say that everyone deserves a second chance?

But also take a step back and recognize something Texas Republicans don’t want you to know: successful models for reformed policing already exist across the country and in Texas, and they’re proving to be the most effective tools to combating human trafficking and domestic and sexual violence.

Across the state, but especially in the greater Houston/Fort Bend region, in recent years we’ve seen a proliferation of DART programs. DART, standing for Domestic Abuse Response Teams, is a model that deploys teams that include police officers, trained forensic nurses and social workers to scenes where human trafficking, sexual assualts and domestic violence take place.

Nurses responding to the scene are able to treat victims on sight, which dramatically increases the likelihood that those victims are willing to go to an emergency room to receive further treatment. Social workers educate victims on programs and resources that can help their physical and mental recovery, and crucially, the nurses are all trained on the best practices for evidence collection.

DART teams have conducted numerous raids on human trafficking operations in Texas, and the social workers they deploy are often able to help remove young women from those situations, putting them on a path to recovery and stability as opposed to simply arresting them and treating them like criminals.

Police reform is deeply personal for me, though not in the same way that is for my Black, Latinx, and Trans friends who have experienced police discrimination, abuse of power and use of force firsthand. 

My mother was a survivor. She escaped an abusive relationship when the toll of domestic violence became too much to bear, and she raised my older brother and I on her own, stitching canvasses in a boat factory day in and day out to make sure we never went without anything. 

As we got older, my mother told us about what our father put her through. She told us about the toll that alcohol addiction took on him, that he was a wonderful, funny, warm hearted man who somehow lost those things when he got drunk. 

She told me about the times he got arrested. I asked why he never went to jail and my mother, the toughest woman I’ve ever met in my life, who battled stage IV liver cancer with the type of courage most people only read about, choked up. She told me how he would always apologize. He would send flowers. He would promise to change. 

She would drop the charges.

That experience is at the heart of why I support Joe Biden, and police reform. A few years after I was born, Joe Biden helped author and led the charge to pass the Violence Against Women Act, a law that gave law enforcement and prosecutors more tools to get repeat domestic abusers off the street. He also worked with the late Senator Paul Wellstone to force health insurance companies to cover treatment for mental health issues.

That last part is important. Alcohol and drug addiction are mental health issues, and they are often exasperated by other mental health problems like depression or bipolar disorders. My entire life, I’ve wondered what was really going on in my father’s head, what drove him to drink, how he could become violent.

And for the rest of my life I will continue to wonder how different my mother’s life might have been if, instead of a police officer showing up to shuffle my father to booking before they moved on with their shift, a social worker had ever knocked on the door to ask my mother how she was doing if she needed anything. How different life might have been for my father if a social worker ever sat down and tried to get to the root cause of why he became a monster when he got drunk. 

We can fix our broken criminal justice system. We can reinvent the way we police our streets. We can imagine a world where we really see each other, not for who we are at our worst moments, but for who we’re capable of being at our best.

That’s what Austin is already doing, and what cities across the country are preparing to do. It will make our streets safer and healthier, and will give opportunity to tens of thousands of Texans.

All that it requires is the courage to recognize what’s broken, and a vision to put the pieces back together again.

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Callvia Getty Images

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