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More than three years after the death of George Floyd, Harris County Commissioners still are weighing whether to create an independent civilian review board for the county’s law enforcement agencies and expect to make a final decision next year.

County Commissioners began discussing the idea of a civilian review board after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes. Floyd’s death, which was captured on video as he gasped for breath, spurred nationwide protests and a reckoning over police brutality and misconduct. More than 30 states passed over 140 new police oversight reform laws in the wake of Floyd’s death.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis first presented the idea of a civilian review board alongside numerous other criminal justice reforms. Officials also approved a countywide use-of-force policy for officers and the creation of a database for use-of-force incidents.

The court voted in 2020 to request a study to determine the feasibility of creating an oversight board, but the study wasn’t presented to commissioners until June 2023. There were delays in conducting the study, officials said, because of staffing issues.

Then, at the end of October, the Office of County Administration launched the next phase of the process: hearing feedback from the community and law enforcement. Officials will also drill down further on the cost and how an oversight board would function in the county. A detailed plan and cost analysis will be presented to the commissioners in March.

Lindsey Linder Geramifar, deputy director of policy and research in the county’s Research and Analysis Division, said she is excited to be working on an “extensive research plan” that “demonstrates our dedication to evidence-based, transparent and community-driven policing practices.”

“Harris County’s commitment to promoting a positive relationship between the community and law enforcement is reflected in our recommendation to develop a mechanism for civilian oversight of Harris County law enforcement,” Linder Geramifar said in a statement. “Throughout this research journey, our collaboration with community and law enforcement stakeholders is pivotal to shape a Harris County model tailored to our unique needs.”

“I know law enforcement has a tough job to do, but the only way they can do it is if the people they protect have confidence in the system.”

Rodney Ellis, Harris County Commissioner

Ellis said he is happy that the county is finally taking steps to protect the safety and wellbeing of its residents. He also said the county lags behind other large communities for transparency, and a civilian review board would help change that.

“I know law enforcement has a tough job to do, but the only way they can do it is if the people they protect have confidence in the system,” Ellis said. “Part of confidence in the system is equity and transparency and that no one is above the law.”

The sheriff’s office and the constables did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

To create a civilian review board will require the cooperation of law enforcement. Unlike the Houston Police Department, which is directly overseen by Mayor Sylvester Turner and City Council, the sheriff and constables are all independently elected, which limits the power commissioner court can have on implementing changes.

Houston has had an independent civilian oversight board for more than a decade but a 2020 report from Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research found that Houston’s board is among the weakest in the state. Houston’s board meets at police headquarters and is unable to launch its own inquiries or accept complaints directly from civilians. The board of appointed volunteers is also forbidden from discussing any cases it reviews and often, when it makes recommendations, the members never find out the outcome, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The model that is being suggested Harris County adapt is similar to ones already implemented in Austin and Denver.

The first study commissioned by the court recommended that the commissioners first establish a new office, the Harris County Office of Law Enforcement Monitor. The monitor would accept complaints, conduct preliminary reviews, be on the scene of critical incidents, suggest discipline levels and make public policy recommendations to department heads. Each agency head would still be in charge of the final decision of choosing and enacting the discipline. To create the new agency, it would likely require $6 million per year, which is about 1 percent of the current total law enforcement budgets, the study said.

“Given that constables and sheriffs are independent elected officials, wresting authority from them to enact discipline would be legally problematic and practically counterproductive in practice,” the study said. “Better to create systems of transparency and accountability to oversee and report on what these agencies are doing.”

Then, once the agency has been functioning for a few years and “its strengths and weaknesses have been identified,” the monitor could then create a civilian oversight panel with appointees that have civil rights and liberties expertise, the study said.

Dustin Rynders, director of criminal injustice program at the Texas Civil Rights Project, said that he hopes the county takes the timeline seriously and continues to move forward with a civilian review board.

“It is readily apparent that commissioners court has no time to lose if they are serious about making improvements,” he said. “There will always be tragedies that need to be investigated. Not having an independent process and public facing process for how those complaints will be handled and how the public will learn about them is really indefensible.”

About 35.5 percent of all law enforcement in Harris County falls to the independently elected sheriff and constables, the study found, and that more than half of the traffic stops conducted in the county were done by those agencies.

A civilian oversight board would be beneficial for the public, the study found, because each law enforcement agency has its own structure and handles internal and external complaints differently. Even filing a police complaint can differ from agency to agency.

“Among the most important reasons to create a civilian oversight system is its policy role,” the study said. “The gap between what police believe to be reasonable conduct and what the public sees as reasonable has widened. Civilian oversight can help bridge that gap by closely monitoring what happens in a conduct investigation, comparing the outcome to the outcome the public might expect, and identifying system failures including recommendations for reform.”

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    McKenna Oxenden is a reporter covering Harris County for the Abdelraoufsinno. She most recently had a yearlong fellowship at the New York Times on its breaking news team. A Baltimore native, she previously...