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Waco Police Chief Holt to address city council on calls for policing reform

Full interview

Crowds of hundreds chanting “no justice, no peace” have gathered in downtown Waco this month to call for racial justice and systemic police reform following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

And Waco’s top law enforcement official said he is listening.

Waco Police Chief and Assistant City Manager Ryan Holt plans to give the Waco City Council a report Tuesday on steps the department has taken to prevent police brutality and build trust with communities of color. And he said he welcomes a conversation about how the department can do that better, even if it means rethinking some roles police have traditionally played.

The report is scheduled for the council’s 3 p.m. work session preceding the 6 p.m. business session. Both sessions will be held online and can be viewed at www.wccc.tv.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson 

Waco Police Chief Ryan Holt speaks to the Tribune-Herald about national police reform and how Waco officers can adapt to the request for systemic change following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

In an interview, Holt said Waco police have long embraced training and protocols police reform advocates are calling for, and he has had good communication with black community leaders and organizers of the recent protests.

He said many of the frustrations he has heard in recent weeks cannot be solved solely by police reforms.

“The truth is there are deep systemic issues about race and mistreatment of communities of color that reach far beyond policing,” Holt said. “So it’s got to be a robust conversation about all of those things.”

Holt, who promoted to assistant city manager in February, remains as Waco police chief and has coordinated with organizers of local protests and rallies in recent weeks. Tuesday’s meeting will be the city council’s first discussion of policing and reform since the recent demonstrations.

Holt will outline options for consideration on the safe and effective delivery of policing services, using as a starting point former President Barack Obama’s final report for the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. He said he will highlight police work as an essential element in the stability of communities and the integrity of the criminal justice system.

“It turns out we are human beings, and so it is about setting expectations, having the right policies and holding people accountable,” Holt said. “Holding people accountable and getting justice does not always mean retribution, so you have to be methodical about that because sometimes holding people accountable and seeing justice done does not get you retribution.

“That has to be a conversation, too, about what we expect from people.”

Community activist Justin Rice, a member of the Waco NAACP chapter, said the nation long has looked past police brutality that has killed African Americans. Local policing efforts have not created the national outcries that followed other high-profile killings in recent years, but systemic change is needed, Rice said.

“When the black community hurts in one area in the country, we all show our support in solidarity, and it is a systemic issue,” Rice said. “While I’ve never had any issues with the Waco PD, and they’ve done a fine job, the goal is always to show solitary with our people across the country and to keep all people accountable.”

Data source: City of Waco budgets 

The city of Waco’s police budget has risen an average of 4% per year over the last 10 years, from $29.9 million in 2010-11 to $41.8 million budgeted for 2019-20, a total increase of $11.9 million (40%).

Over the same span, the general fund budget has grown more than 5% per year, from $94.3 million to $152.7 million, a total increase of $58.4 million (62%).

The general fund is the tax-supported portion of the annual budget that includes functions such as fire, police, libraries, streets and parks but excludes debt-funded projects and fee-supported functions such as utilities and solid waste.

While Waco police have not been thrust into the national spotlight, Holt said all police officers are human and do make mistakes. In 2018, the Waco Police Department’s Professional Standards and Conduct Unit received 134,367 calls for service throughout the city. Of those calls, five citizen complaints were sustained, or .0037%.

In 2016, Waco Officer George Neville was fired and two other officers served unpaid suspensions after Neville for about six seconds choked a black man who was handcuffed on suspicion of a misdemeanor violation during a traffic stop. In 2018, Neville was convicted of Class A misdemeanor assault and official oppression and placed on probation.

During the trial, a retired police academy instructor who trained Neville testified that Neville’s actions amounted to use of deadly force. A prosecutor asked him what he would have done if he saw a trainee do what Neville was seen doing on police dash camera video.

“They wouldn’t have liked me very much that day,” the instructor said. “I told them to never go to the throat because there is such a high likelihood of injury. It’s not a viable target. They would get a royal chewing and if they did it again, I’d kick them out the door.”

Trial testimony showed the two officers suspended in the case said they were shocked by what they saw but did not tell a supervisor about it until after it had been reported in a citizen complaint.

Holt became police chief the same year as Neville’s conviction.

“That incident happened when I was a candidate for police chief, but when I was named police chief I made sure we put in our general orders that officers are required to intervene,” Holt said. “I think police officers should be held at a higher level of accountability, because of our duty to the public.”

Staff photo — Jerry Larson 

Waco Police Chief Ryan Holt speaks to the Tribune-Herald about national police reform and how Waco officers can adapt to the request for systemic change following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Holt said the eight policies promoted by the social movement Campaign Zero’s 8 Can’t Wait initiative are written into the department’s handbook for all officers to adhere to.

The policies include a ban on chokeholds, requirement for de-escalation training, requirement a warning before shooting, exhausting all other means before shooting, a duty to intervene, a ban on shooting at moving vehicles, requiring a use of force continuum and requiring comprehensive reporting. The campaign also has broader long-term goals to reduce the presence of policing and ultimately abolish policing as it now exists.

“When you put on that uniform, you put on all the sins of all the fathers and mothers who have gone before you,” Holt said. “So, we owe it to our young officers … to have diversity training, implicit bias training, the history of policing in this country training and not just look at race, but religious affiliation.”

Holt said police take on responsibilities beyond enforcing laws that simply are not fully addressed by anyone else, whether handling civil parental custody disputes, issues related to homelessness, or serving as an entry point to mental health services. While officers receive ongoing mental health training, they wind up expected to handle situations that would be challenging and complex even for someone whose career is dedicated solely to the study of mental health.

“Why is it you would want the police to be your entry into mental health services, as a community?” Holt said. “But as I said on a radio show the other night, when nobody else is willing to do the work, who do you call? The community calls the police and expects the police to solve the problem.”

While city officials are considering these issues, they will be working to hire a new permanent police chief, possibly by late summer. Holt said the city is in need of a leader that will help bridge communities and police together in understanding.

“I wish, more than anything, our community could know all the officers, see their hearts and see it in action. … They are in it for the right reasons and are doing the hard work,” he said.

Baylor expecting fewer new international students next semester due to COVID-19

International students have difficult decisions to make now that many classes have shifted online, changing visa laws could leave them high and dry, and COVID-19 has spread throughout the United States.

Last fall, 949 international students attended Baylor University’s growing program and 1,000 American Baylor students went abroad. This spring, those abroad returned home abruptly in March, and international students in the United States faced the dilemma of whether to return home.

About 500 of Baylor’s international students stayed in Waco, including about 200 who stayed on campus, after all Baylor classes shifted online, said Mark Bryant, director of international student and scholar services. Some others remained in the United States but went to stay with family outside Waco, he said.

“A lot of the work now is answering just an enormous number of emails from students saying ‘Well, here is my situation,’” Bryant said. “‘I went home, can I get back?’ ‘I found a flight so I can go home that leaves in two weeks. If I go home, will I be able to come back?’”

Jinni Tang, who just earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in public health in a joint program, said her last semester was a live lesson in how unprepared the world was for a pandemic.

“I think now it’s really hard for students to go home,” Tang said. “The border has been closed, and the ticket is super expensive to go back to China now.”

Tang moved to Waco from Shanghai, and is among the 567 students from China or Hong Kong who attended Baylor last fall. She said she plans to move to Houston in August as she pursues a Ph.D. but is not sure whether her classes will be in-person or online.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte, file 

Baylor international students carry flags while marching along Austin Avenue in last year’s homecoming parade.

Changing travel restrictions and student visa policies have make things more complicated. In May, the Trump administration announced plans to further restrict legal immigration and curb the Optional Practical Training program. The program allows international students to work for up to a year in a job directly related to their field of study without the need for a work visa, separate from their student visa.

Baylor, for one, is expecting a 30% to 40% drop in enrollment of new international students in the fall, said Jeffrey Hamilton, vice provost for global engagement and The Jo Murphy Chair in International Education.

“Our retention of returning students is very, very high, so our overall number isn’t going to drop even by that,” Hamilton said. “But other universities are seeing anywhere from 50% to 80% drops in international enrollment.”

He said there is now a backlog of visa applications after consulates and embassies closed throughout spring, particularly in Asia and South America, and he expects most new students to defer until January.

“They’re open now, but appointment times have been pushed pretty far out,” Hamilton said. “It’s going to be difficult to get one in time for the start of fall classes in many parts of the world.”

Hamilton said some students chose to leave because of the uncertainty, taking their fall classes online and hoping to return in January if possible.

Very little financial aid is available to international students in the United States, and they have to demonstrate they can cover the cost of attending Baylor, including their cost of living, and mostly pay tuition out of pocket.

“At any point, they can be denied,” Bryant said.

Joseph Thangraj, a 28-year-old geosciences graduate student from Mumbai, India, is in his fourth year at Baylor. He was able to bring Baylor computers home and continue his work remotely. His department asked him to err on the side of caution and not travel this summer.

“If some rule changes while you’re outside, that could seriously affect your education or your Ph.D.,” Thangraj said. “We keep checking the news constantly.”

He said while he has had years to make friends in Waco, international students can easily feel isolated. When the campus closed, the group activities and intramural soccer games his department planned came to a stop, and maintaining social contact became difficult.

“When I first came, I hardly knew people over here,” Thangraj said. “I have a car now, but at first I didn’t have a car. As an international student, I think that getting basic stuff can be quite difficult for an international student. If it’s the first year for someone, they might find it difficult to ask for help because they don’t know people outside their department.”

He said he tries to focus on things he can control instead of the things he cannot.

“Being away from family, on top of that you’re hoping your research is valuable and you can make the most out of it, and staying safe,” Thangraj said. “Those are the top three things running around an international student’s head.”

Himasha Mariann Perera, a chemistry graduate student from Sri Lanka, planned to visit home this summer before the pandemic hit. But she cannot risk it because she needs to have access to the Trakselis Laboratory for Research on DNA Replication and Repair for her experiments, a requirement for her to finish her Ph.D. Like Thangraj, she said she had worried about Optional Practical Training and other temporary work authorizations long before the pandemic.

“I think even before COVID-19 there were concerns about OPT being canceled, H1-B (temporary work) visas being canceled,” Perera said. “It was always in the back of my mind, but now it’s really alarming. I see posts on Twitter, on Facebook, everywhere, of people not wanting international students working.”

State historical marker on Jesse Washington lynching progresses

After a four-year effort, installation of a state historical marker for the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in downtown Waco is coming into sight, with a dedication possible on the May 15 anniversary of the atrocity next year near City Hall, a local organizer of the effort said.

The Texas Historical Commission is moving forward toward the marker’s completion after about a year’s delay in processing the application and the supporting historical background for the marker, said Jo Welter, board chair of the Community Race Relations Coalition. Varying efforts over the years have pushed unsuccessfully for a public memorial to the lynching, which was by no means an isolated incident but sparked an international reaction in large part because it was photographed while in progress.

Welter talked with a commission official last week and found the commission has the proposed text for the marker ready. After coalition members revise and approve the text, the state marker would be cast and delivered to the city for installation.

“It was really great news,” Welter said. “It’s definitely the closest we’ve been. It’s moving ahead, and the timeline is short.”

Though organizers of the historical marker project could decide on an earlier date for installation, Welter said the next anniversary of the lynching should provide sufficient time for the marker’s casting, installation in front of City Hall near Heritage Square and dedication.

“That’s probably what we’ll be shooting for,” she said.

The Texas Historical Commission had approved the Waco marker last year as an Undertold Marker, a designation meant to address historical gaps, diversity of topics and significant underrepresented subjects.Welter said state officials attributed the delay in part to the temporary loss of the foundry used to cast markers and delays this spring because of COVID-19 shutdowns across the state.

The effort to secure a state historical marker for the 1916 public lynching in front of City Hall started with the coalition and the Waco chapter of the NAACP as part of the event’s centennial recognition.

Washington, an 17-year-old African American farmhand in Robinson, was accused of beating a white woman to death and was sentenced to death after a trial that lasted just minutes. Immediately after the sentence, a mob that had been allowed to overwhelm the courtroom seized Washington and brought him outside City Hall.

A crowd estimated at up to 15,000 people watched as Washington was hanged, tortured, burned and mutilated, captured in photos by Waco photographer Fred Gildersleeve.

News of the lynching spread across the nation, picking up the nickname of the “Waco Horror” and becoming a seminal event in the young NAACP and its early anti-lynching mission.

City leaders tried to backpedal the stain on the city’s image in the years after it, though two more public lynchings would occur in the next six years. As the decades passed, the “Waco Horror” had largely been suppressed in the local public’s memory. In the 1990s, Waco City Councilman Lawrence Johnson called for a public acknowledgement of the event, and a series of books, articles and exhibits on lynching in subsequent years brought Washington’s torturous execution back to national — and local — attention.

The lynching’s centennial brought renewed calls for a public recognition of the event so that it could not so easily be overlooked.

Toni Herbert, a former Waco City Councilwoman and a member of the Jesse Washington centennial committee, wrote a detailed 15-page history of the lynching and its aftermath submitted to the Texas Historical Commission about a year ago.

“I knew it couldn’t be a simplistic treatment, but it was a challenge,” Herbert said. “There was so much information.”

Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver said the marker and its placement at City Hall would represent an important step in Waco’s acknowledgement of its past.

“It’s important for us to do this for future generations who will be learning the story,” Deaver said.

For people who travel to Waco to learn about the 1916 lynching, marker near its location would also ground that story and lessons learned from it, he said.

“It’s important for the city to confront racist acts in our past and (which) occur now,” he said.

Peaches Henry, president of the Waco NAACP and a McLennan Community College English professor, agreed that a community must recognize what has happened in its history.

“Knowing that not only African Americans, but Mexican Americans and Native Americans have been lynched in our county is important for our history and is especially important at this time,” Henry said. “It’s always a good thing when a community recognizes the truth.”

Floyd's death spurs question: What is a black life worth?

MINNEAPOLIS — For 12-year-old Tamir Rice, it was simply carrying a toy handgun. For Eric Garner, it was allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. For Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and Ahmaud Arbery, it was the minor offenses of jaywalking, failing to signal a lane change and trespassing on a residential construction site.

And for George Floyd, it was an accusation he used a fake $20 bill at a grocery store. While in police custody on May 25, Floyd repeatedly pleaded “I can’t breathe,” as a white officer in Minneapolis pressed his knee into the black man’s neck for what prosecutors say was nearly nine minutes.

“George wasn’t hurting anyone that day,” his brother, Philonise Floyd, said Wednesday in testimony to a House Judiciary Committee hearing on policing practices and law enforcement accountability.

“He didn’t deserve to die over $20. I am asking you, is that what a black man’s life is worth?”

Twenty dollars: To some, that’s chump change. But George Floyd was not a chump, family and friends in Houston, where he grew up, asserted when they laid him to rest this week in a golden coffin. Those who mourned him at memorials held across three states said the value of the 46-year-old’s life far surpassed that.

In death, Floyd has created an invaluable and, some say, unprecedented moment for the national struggle against institutional racism and inequality.

In Minnesota, across the nation and around the world, outrage turned into action as protests grew, propelled by the reality that African Americans become martyrs of the Black Lives Matter movement over such trivial activities — in circumstances where their rights are discarded, their liberty deprived, their lives devalued. And where they’re far more likely than whites to die at the hands of police.

“What’s exposed in this moment is something black folks have always known: How quickly we can be killed by law enforcement over the most trivial things,” said Chelsea Fuller, spokesperson for the Movement for Black Lives, a national coalition of more than 150 black-led grassroots organizations seeking the liberation of black people.

“This is now clear as day to everyone, including white people, and we all need to face that the solution to this endemic problem won’t be quick or easy, but it is urgent and necessary,” she said in a statement.

For some who now seek change, the fix starts with reforming police departments and the U.S. criminal justice system. Others favor a deeper reckoning to address centuries-old assumptions that black lives hold only a fraction of the value placed on the rights, liberty, lives and property of the white majority in America.

“Human life (does not equal) 20 bucks,” read a protest sign during a rally last week at the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul.

A week after Floyd’s death, Miski Noor, an activist with the Twin Cities-based Black Visions Collective, visited the area around Cup Foods, the grocery store at Chicago Avenue and 38th Street where an employee called police to report a man who allegedly bought cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill.

The intersection has become a makeshift memorial, where flowers, teddy bears, candles, artwork and protest signs surround the spot where Floyd breathed his last breath. Floyd’s younger brother, Terrence, stood there on June 1 to urge calm after protests turned to looting and vandalism.

The circumstances of Floyd’s death are “the reason why we have to get at the conversation around anti-blackness,” said Noor, who lives just blocks from the grocery. Noor said the Floyd arrest started over a “store owner in a majority black and (nonwhite) neighborhood who decides a counterfeit 20 is enough to call the police.”

But Jamar Nelson, a spokesman for the owners of Cup Foods, said it was important to recognize who is responsible for Floyd’s death.

“We do our community a huge disservice if we continue to focus on the call and not how police officers have a reckless disregard for the lives of black and brown men,” he said.

Echoing that sentiment, Mahmoud “Mike” Abumayyaleh, co-owner of the grocery, attended the Minneapolis memorial for Floyd wearing a T-shirt that read, “We can’t breathe,” a reference to the man’s last words under the knee of Officer Derek Chauvin. The officer, who has since been fired, is charged with second-degree murder.

Various studies of criminal justice data show that African Americans are far more likely than whites to be pulled over by police, and are as much as three times more likely to be searched. Black people are roughly 13% of the population, whereas the white population is about 60%.

Black men were about 2.5 times more likely than white men to be killed by police between 2013 and 2018, according to an August 2019 study published by the National Academy of Sciences. Black women were 1.4 more times likely than white women to be killed by police, according to the same study.

The Movement for Black Lives is behind a push for local communities to defund police departments, and reinvest in struggling black communities to address economic inequality and disparities in education and health care.

Though the Minneapolis City Council recently announced intentions to disband and re-purpose the police department in the wake of Floyd’s death, such efforts have drawn strong rebuke from President Donald Trump.

“There won’t be defunding, there won’t be dismantling of our police,” Trump said this week, adding that police were doing a “fantastic” job.

The response to the outrage over Floyd’s death doesn’t have to be defunding police, said Arthur Rizer, who directs the criminal justice program at R Street, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that favors limited, effective government. The response could instead be to reform laws and policies that disproportionately criminalize black people, he said.

“There’s so many nickel-and-dime laws around that we really have to review what we have, what we need and then get rid of some of these things,” said Rizer, who is white and previously worked as a patrol officer in Washington state and as a federal prosecutor in California.

Under Minnesota law, the counterfeiting charge that cost Floyd his life carries a jail sentence of up to a year, or a maximum of five years of imprisonment for a repeat offender. Even if there was probable cause to investigate Floyd, the law doesn’t require “a very intense arrest on the spot,” Rizer said.

“If I would have been (Floyd), they would not have assumed that I was trying to do something bad,” he said. “They would have probably assumed that it was some type of accident. That is a big piece that I think we need to focus on.”

Last week, Floyd’s family forwarded their pleas for racial justice to the United Nations. It’s at least the third time in the last six years that black American families made appeals for the U.N. to intervene to hold police accountable.

During Floyd’s funeral in Houston on Tuesday, Rep. Al Green of Texas called for the creation of a federal “Department of Reconciliation” to address systemic racial inequity that dates back to the abolition of slavery.

“This country has not reconciled its differences with us,” said Green, who is black. “We survived slavery, but we didn’t reconcile. We survived segregation, but we didn’t reconcile. In the highest land, the highest office, it’s time to have someone who’s going to make it his or her business to seek reconciliation for black people in the United States of America.”

Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights lawyer and former president of the Minneapolis NAACP, said the demand that black lives are valued like white lives must begin at the community level.

“I know that if George Floyd were alive today, he would want us to continue this fight, continue holding the powers that be accountable, and remembering all of those who are not here to speak for themselves,” she said.