AUSTIN (AP) – As national unrest swells over police officers not indicted in high-profile shootings, a Texas House panel on Thursday heard testimony on bills seeking to calm public concerns of bias.
Officer-involved incidents are investigated by the law enforcement officer’s local district attorney’s office. But the very same prosecutors work closely and frequently with local police, leading some to draw the conclusion that the two are on the same team.
To eliminate that perception, bills by Democratic Reps. Harold Dutton Jr. and Ron Reynolds would require the incidents to be investigated by someone else. Both were left pending in the newly-formed House Select Committee on Emerging Issues in Texas Law Enforcement.
Dutton, of Houston, told committee members he worried about the “lack of public confidence in our system of criminal justice,” adding, “Police officers can’t do their job without a public that’s engaged.”
Since 2004, Harris County juries have cleared 288 police officers of misconduct, Dutton said. One such officer fatally shot Jordan Baker, 26, in January of 2014.
Baker’s mother, 48-year-old Janet Baker, tearfully pleaded with legislators to “please consider” passing the bills.
Jordan Baker died after being shot by an off-duty Houston police officer outside of a shopping center three blocks away from home. After a months-long inquiry, a Harris County grand jury did not indict the officer in the fatal shooting of Baker, who was unarmed.
The elder Baker, who lost her only son, told committee members that law enforcement’s story never changed in her son’s case. But her son wasn’t a criminal, she said, adding that she doubted Jordan Baker reached into his waistband and charged at police as law enforcement claimed.
“There was an extreme loss of confidence on my part in the investigation,” Baker said. “I always felt that perception.”
Dutton’s bill, which would cost the state $7.4 million the first year and $6.2 million each year after, would create a special prosecution division in the state attorney general’s office to investigate police misconduct complaints, of which there are about 1,140 a year, a fiscal note states.
Under Reynolds’ bill, prosecutors from neighboring counties would be assigned to incidents in which a police officer injures or kills someone.
He said that his bill was “not about Ferguson,” referencing a police officer who was not indicted after fatally shooting unarmed Michael Brown near St. Louis, Missouri.
Police officers, sheriffs and prosecutors from across the state testified against the two bills.
Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne said the proposals would make it harder for the public to hold elected officials accountable.
“I took a duty and an oath to see that justice is done,” Yenne said. “I want my head on the line if I do something wrong.”
Scott Henson, policy consultant for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said his organization supports both bills because they would remove potential conflicts of interest.
“However you decide to go about it, separating it from the locals, we think, is going to be a benefit,” he said.
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