Texas Governor Proposes Harsher Penalties for Rioters

September 24, 2020 Updated: September 24, 2020

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday unveiled a slate of legislative proposals that would up penalties for being involved in or helping financially aid riots, including an automatic jail sentence of at least six months for those who strike law enforcement officers.

“Today, we are announcing more legislative proposals to do even more to protect our law enforcement officers as well as do more to keep our community safe,” Abbott, a Republican, said at a press conference.

While the Constitution guarantees the right to peacefully assembly, it does not provide the right to riot, the governor said.

“Texas will always defend the First Amendment right to peacefully protest but Texas is not going to tolerate violence, vandalism, or rioting,” he added.

The proposals would make causing injury or destroying property in a riot, blocking hospital entrances or exits, or using fireworks during protests or riots, a felony offense with mandatory jail time.

Striking a law enforcement officer during a riot would land the offender a mandatory jail sentence of at least six months. People convicted of using lasers against officers would face mandatory jail time.

And aiding or abetting riots with either funds or organizational assistance would bring mandatory jail time. That proposal would also give the state attorney general the power to pursue civil penalties against both people and groups.

Abbott pointed to rioting that took place in Dallas in May and June and the recent blocking of a hospital entrance in Los Angeles after two sheriff’s deputies were shot in an unprovoked shooting.

The mandatory jail time would prevent people committing crimes from being released and going to commit more, according to officials.

“Criminals charged with these offenses must remain in jail, at least until their first court appearance,” Abbott said.

“This will prevent the mockery of the revolving door rest that we saw in Dallas during the riots that occurred earlier this year, and will ensure that these dangerous rioters will not be immediately released back onto the streets to engage in further riots without first having to go before a court.”

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Demonstrators march near a Dallas police car during a protest against police brutality and racism in Dallas, Texas, on June 6, 2020. (Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

The governor announced the proposals with law enforcement and political leaders, including Michael Amato, president of the Dallas Police Association, and Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, a Republican.

“What governor Abbott’s laying out today brings honor and dignity and respect to the cause. When someone peacefully and respectfully and passionately is protesting, they should not have that belief destroyed by people who have ill intent, by people who want to throw a brick at a law enforcement officer who’s trying to keep order for that protesters voice to be heard,” Bonnen told reporters.

Amato said he wasn’t sure when “public servants became public enemies.”

There are bad police officers but the vast majority are risking their lives for their communities, he added.

“Do we have to change our profession? Are there things that we need to fix? Absolutely. But they need to be done in constructive ways,” he said.

“If we’re going to take money from police departments, we should not be taking money because somebody is yelling and screaming, telling us we should. If we’re going to fix problems, let’s fix the problems of homelessness. Let’s fix the problems of drug addiction. Let’s fix the problems of alcoholism, mental health care. These are the problems that officers are having to deal with that we are not trained to do, not adequately enough. Fix those problems. And if you’re going to use money, use money directly for those causes.”

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A police officer stands between Police Appreciation rally attendees and counter-protesters at the City Hall in Houston, Texas, on June 18, 2020. (Mark Felix/AFP via Getty Images)

Republicans hold both the state Senate and House of Representatives, as well as the governor’s office in Texas.

Abbott last month proposed freezing property taxes to cities that vote to defund the police, or cut funding to police departments.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, unveiled a slate of similar proposals on Monday, including a bill that would withhold state funds from cities that defund the police.

DeSantis also unveiled legislation that would up the penalties for those who target law enforcement or participate in violent demonstrations.

“Our right to peacefully assemble is one of our most cherished as Americans, but throughout the country we’ve seen that right being taken advantage of by professional agitators, bent on sowing disorder and causing mayhem in our cities,” the governor said in a statement. “I will not allow this kind of violence to occur here in Florida. The legislation announced today will not only combat rioting and looting, but also protect the men and women in law enforcement that wake up every day to keep us safe. I look forward to working with the Florida Legislature next session to sign this proposal into law.”

Florida is a trifecta state; Republicans hold the governor’s office and majorities in both state legislative chambers.

While Texas Democrats didn’t appear to react to Abbott’s proposals, Florida Democrats spoke out against their governor’s plans.

“The governor is attaching himself to Donald Trump’s propaganda and manufacturing a non-existent law and order crisis in Florida,” said Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson. “It’s political fearmongering to bolster a president’s re-election bid.”

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