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SB 4 is Already Reshaping Police Department Policies in Texas

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SB 4, the discriminatory law signed by Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this year and currently being challenged in the courts by major Texas cities and community organizations, is already impacting the work of local police departments. And, that was on vivid display as Hurricane Harvey wrecked havoc along Texas’ Gulf Coast as SB 4 added another level of uncertainty and confusion to Texas police departments.

A piece by Gus Bova in the Texas Observer outlined the difficulties faced by Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo in implementing a law that most police chiefs in Texas agreed made their communities less safe and dealing with one the worst natural disasters to hit the Lone Star State.

From Bova’s piece:

“Right in the middle of our Harvey response, we had to actually send out policy and everything to make sure we were compliant with the law,” Acevedo told the Observer.

Though news of the policy change was lost in the chaos of the storm, and the law’s future remains tied up in the courts, SB 4 quietly upended a progressive policing practice in Texas’ largest city. The San Antonio Police Department was also forced to weaken its pro-immigrant stance.

HPD is the fifth-largest police department in the nation, and Houston is home to an estimated 575,000 undocumented immigrants. Acevedo said the department’s old rule was to only ask about immigration status if there was a direct “nexus to a crime that’s being committed.” He gave an example: If an officer was pursuing a van and saw “30 people pile out,” she might suspect human smuggling and have cause to ask whether the individuals were undocumented. Otherwise, he said officers were forbidden from making immigration inquiries in order to prevent racial profiling and encourage witnesses of crime to come forward.

The department’s new policy broadly allows cops to ask about immigration status, with some boundaries. Officers can’t stop someone or extend detention solely to ask about a person’s immigration status. If an officer learns that someone is undocumented, the policy states, “he may only do one thing: share this information with ICE or other local entities.” The policy makes clear that no one is obligated to answer such questions, and cops cannot hold someone for refusing.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is set to hear arguments on the full merits of SB 4 on November 7 in New Orleans, which will determine if SB 4 becomes the law of the land in Texas.