This week marks one year since the terrible public murder of George Floyd, which captured the attention of the entire country. The video of Floyd’s death sparked a summer of marches and protests as people demanded change. We witnessed countless commitments from our institutions, elected officials, and businesses to take action for racial justice and reimagine our existing criminal legal system.
However, despite all of the protests and commitments, a year after George Floyd’s death, Black people are being incarcerated at five times the rate of white people, and more than 180 Black people have been killed by police officers.5 The federal George Floyd act remains stalled in the US Senate. The Texas legislature resisted any progress with the state George Floyd Act, and instead prioritized doubling down on cash bail practices that were proven to be racially discriminatory in federal court.
The guilty verdict in the case of Floyd’s murderer, while important, cannot bring Floyd back. It cannot bring back Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo, or Ma’Khia Bryant. The verdict doesn’t change the thousands upon thousands of black and brown people continuously forced to spend their lives in cages because of our nation’s “New Jim Crow” system of mass incarceration, which discriminatorily criminalizes communities of color for poverty, mental illness, substance use, and other public health issues.
Progress has been slow, but we cannot be deterred. With persistent effort, these unjust systems can be changed by the people to advance holistic community wellbeing and safety. The scale of our solutions much match the scale of the problem we face.
And there are glimmers of hope. In Harris County, we promised action and real change after George Floyd’s funeral service, and passed a sweeping package of reforms to move away from discriminatory systems of mass incarceration towards of true community safety and justice.
This starts with accountability in our justice system. Residents across the country and county are calling for more oversight and transparency in use of force polices. Our County’s Justice Administration Department is working with law enforcement agencies to develop a common policy to minimize use of force, and to create a publicly accessible dashboard documenting use-of-force incidents. We are exploring the possible legal powers of a civilian oversight board. And we are doing a deep dive into the racial disparities throughout all steps in our criminal justice system; we can’t fix problems if we don’t diagnose them.
The pandemic has reinforced that our community can only be strong if it is healthy. Our programs—including and especially public safety ones—will center health and community-based approaches. This year we will launch Holistic Alternative Responders Teams (HART), in which first responders trained in behavioral health and medical care will address many 911 calls that currently get routed to law enforcement as the default responder. We are developing violence interruption programs that include hospital- and community-based interventions to support survivors of violence and de-escalate conflicts.
We are also working hard to implement systemic changes to our misdemeanor cash bail system. We must respect everyone’s constitutional right to freedom and that means that no one should spend months in jail just because they cannot afford to pay their way out.
Finally, we are also increasing our support for indigent defense, because everyone has a right to quality legal counsel, regardless of their ability to pay. This means investing in a strong Public Defender Office and improving our system of appointed attorneys through a Managed Assigned Counsel program.
We need more than lip service to racial justice in order to truly move forward as a country. We have to redefine how we understand safe and healthy communities. The safest communities have affordable housing, quality public education, economic opportunity and accessible health care. We must invest in this new vision for our communities and for our country, from the White House to County Commissioner Precincts.
We can build a system truly rooted in community safety, health, and well-being, but we must sustain our efforts. My hope is that all of those people who marched, who protested, and who committed to racial justice one year ago will use this solemn occasion as an opportunity to redouble their efforts to realize this new vision. We must keep fighting, not just in honor of George Floyd’s memory, but for all those who continue to suffer and are still with us, in the hopes that stories like Mr. Floyd’s no longer happen in our country.
Rodney Ellis is the County Commissioner for Harris County’s Precinct 1, and has been one of the leading national voices on racial justice and criminal justice reform.