Floyd’s persistent cycle through Harris County’s criminal justice system during the War on Drugs was remarkably routine for Black people like him.
“Nobody is going to look out for you,” Floyd’s siblings recall their mother, Larcenia Floyd Jones, saying as she admonished them about how to survive an interaction with police.
The rules were: Speak the King’s English. Try to comply. Don’t give White folks an opportunity to think you did something wrong.
And perhaps most critically: Respect the police.
Sports kept Floyd out of trouble during his youth, friends and relatives said. But as he aged into adulthood, that changed. His friend Travis Cains struggles to distinguish their many encounters with police during their time in Cuney Homes. But he does recall the pebbles of broken street gravel that stung his cheek when police pushed him and Floyd to the ground. He remembers the “jump-out boys,” a plainclothes Houston Police unit of the gang squad known for flying out of cars after a drug transaction and pouncing on anyone they could arrest. He recalls officers finding drugs where there had been none.
“Injustice has been happening to us all our life,” Cains said.
Show-ups and throw-downs
The year Floyd’s family moved to Houston in 1977, city police officers faced murder charges in the slaying of a Mexican American war veteran who was arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct at a bar, then tortured and pushed into a bayou to drown. A judge sentenced the offending officers to probation and issued a $1 fine for negligent homicide in the killing of Joe Campos Torres. Protesters chanted, “A Chicano’s life is only worth a dollar!”
Tensions exploded on the first anniversary of Campos Torres’s arrest at Moody Park, when officers arrived to break up a fight during a Cinco de Mayo celebration. The crowd retaliated, invoking Campos Torres’s name. People ransacked stores, torched police cars and threw rocks at officers in bloody bedlam.
Brown came in to shift the policing paradigm through a neighborhood-oriented model that put officers in precincts inside communities, including Third Ward. Floyd’s neighborhood was an easy target for “bean-counting officers,” said Bradford. Federal grants provided perverse incentives for locking up people, doling out overtime money based on the number of arrests, tickets and calls.
Being an officer in Texas was like “a Black man joining the Klan” in the eyes of many, McClelland said. It made little sense to the Black residents of areas such as Cuney Homes to see a Black face in uniform when they viewed police as the state’s instrument of oppression. He remembered feeling the same way growing up in East Texas, where police enforced Jim Crow laws and kept people from voting.
“They overreacted, sometimes, out of fear,” he said. “They didn’t understand Black people or minorities; they didn’t understand their culture; they didn’t grow up around Black people or minorities and they always felt a greater threat when we would engage minorities. They always had a sense that they would get hurt or killed, and I rarely felt that.”
Parts of Third Ward were simultaneously over-policed and under-policed, said Scott Henson, a Texas criminal justice reform researcher. While officers were incentivized to aggressively police low-level crimes, “if someone was shot or threatened, Black folks were not finding police at their beck and call,” said Henson, who also worked on police accountability for the ACLU of Texas and was a policy director for the Innocence Project of Texas.
Brown, tried to stop the racially disparate treatment of Houston residents, or at least curtail it, former officers said. He recruited and promoted Black and Hispanic officers, developed youth programs and brought citizens — including local ministers — into the public safety strategy.
But little had changed by the time Bradford, an acolyte of Brown’s, became chief in 1996. He took a similar approach, wanting his officers to be problem-solvers who help prevent crime and not just enforce the law. He fired criminal officers, opened a victim services unit and encouraged de-escalation training.
[Who was George Floyd? Post Reports explores the experiences of the man who sparked a movement.]
A year into Bradford’s tenure as the head of Houston Police, Floyd was charged with his first drug offense.
The 23-year-old was back where he had started after a promising collegiate athletic career disintegrated, and he came home from college with nothing to show for it. He was charged with selling less than a gram of cocaine, a state jail felony. After a 10-month sentence at Lychner State Jail, Floyd returned to Cuney Homes with a couple hundred dollars in court debt and few ways to pay.
“Now he’s walking the street, he can’t get an education, he can’t get a job, he can’t get a place to live. So what is he going to do?” said longtime activist James Douglas, who leads the Houston NAACP and is a Texas Southern University law professor.
Cains, Floyd’s longtime friend, said he and Floyd were harassed regularly by police who knew they had records. One night, officers detained them during a trip to the corner store on suspicion of driving a stolen car, and threw the pint of ice cream they had bought to the ground. The officers’ suspicion was unfounded, Cains said.
Prosecutors ultimately reduced the charges to theft, leaving out the firearm charges. Floyd took the deal, but it would not be the last time he would serve time based on questionable eyewitness identification.
Police were operating on a belief that the more arrests they made, the safer the community would be, McClelland recalled. They believed that locking up young offenders for a long time and releasing them as older adults would push them to age out of crime.
“But we didn’t understand — and I don’t know if people in Houston Police management, at that time, understood — the long term consequences of that type of philosophy,” he said.
As a result, a generation of young Black Americans could never fully return to society......
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