Texas lawmakers seek to force police officers to develop a ‘Duty to Intervene’

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In the weeks following George Floyd’s death, the Dallas Police Department implemented what’s become known as the department’s “Duty to Intervene” policy. The policy mandates officers to work to stop fellow officers engaging in excessive force.

The policy went into effect June 4, 2020.

Just 10 days later, Texas State Representative James White, a Tyler Republican, sent the Texas Attorney General a letter asking whether state law requires an officer to intervene or report “violations of the constitutional rights of Texas citizens by another Texas peace officer.”

White mentioned the Dallas PD policy change in his June 14 letter.

The Dallas Police Department issued this press release on June 4, 2020 detailing its new “Duty to Intervene” policy in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.

“There seems to be an assumption that since there is not specific state statutory guidance for one Texas peace officer to ascertain if another peace officer is violating the rights of a detainee,” White wrote. “Thus, there is not a requirement of any Texas peace officer to guarantee any constitutional protections.”

It took Attorney General Ken Paxton nearly six months to answer White’s letter.

“We cannot conclude that there is an absolute duty for an officer to intervene under the circumstances you describe,” the AG’s office wrote in a Dec. 7 letter to Rep. White. The letter is signed by Paxton. The opinion letter went on to describe how there is no judicial opinion in Texas where a court sought “civil or criminal redress against a peace officer for failure to intervene.”

Texas lawmakers have pre-filed three separate bills, which would criminalize an officer’s failure to intervene in an excessive force incident.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson’s bill, House Bill 88, would also remove qualified immunity from any Texas peace officer who deprives any person of their constitutional rights. Currently, officers are protected under what’s known as qualified immunity, which prevents them from being sued so long as they have not violated any “clearly established” rights.

Qualified Immunity does not prevent lawsuits against the government itself and only protects the official from litigation. Those bills could be debated as early as January when the legislative session begins.

The Austin Police Department also has a policy similar to Dallas. APD’s policy goes a step further by requiring officers to “promptly” report these instances to a supervisor under the department’s “Duty to Intercede” policy.

Austin Police Department General Orders issued November 2020 contain a “Duty to Intercede” policy, which requires APD officers to report the incident “promptly.”

A Hutto Police Department excessive force case from 2018 would likely have fallen under a duty to intervene law. Officer Gregory Parris was caught on body camera video punching a man in the face, then using a stun gun on him while he had the man on the ground.

The Williamson County grand jury indicted Parris on one count of assault causing bodily injury and one count of official oppression. Parris wasn’t alone during the assault. Parris pleaded not guilty to the charges and is awaiting trial.

Parris’ supervisor, Officer Jamie Alcocer was by his side during the entire encounter. It was Alcocer’s body camera that caught the wide shots of the Parris attack and what happened when Parris had Jeremy Rogers on the ground outside his friend’s Hutto home.

Rogers filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Parris, Alcocer and the city. The lawsuit also accused Parris and Alcocer of unlawfully arresting him and of working together to have him prosecuted for crimes he did not commit.

Rogers and the city settled the lawsuit in September with the city paying him $225,000.

Parris’ spent nearly a year on paid leave while under indictment, but he was laid off in March 2020 when the pandemic cost multiple Hutto city employees their job. Many of Parris’ court appearances during 2020 were canceled and rescheduled.

Parris’ next court date is set for January 2021.

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