Police chiefs from Texas' largest cities rallied outside the state Capitol Tuesday in opposition to a "bathroom bill" targeting transgender people, just as Senate Republicans inside lurched toward a new vote on restrictions similar to those approved in North Carolina.
The chances of the bill ultimately reaching the desk of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott remain tenuous despite overwhelming GOP control of the Legislature.
Abbott summoned lawmakers back to sweltering Austin for a special legislative session, largely because the first efforts to put bathroom restrictions on transgender people collapsed in May. The bill has ripped clean open a rancorous split in the Texas GOP between moderates who stand with high-profile opponents -- including Apple and the NFL -- and social conservatives who drive the state's political agenda.
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The Senate is again poised to overwhelmingly approve the bill, but Democrats were trying to stall a vote with procedural challenges and drawn-out debate.
State troopers removed a few protesters in the mostly empty Senate gallery who shouted "This is a farce!" and unfurled a banner that read "Y'all means all" over the second-story railing.
Republican state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst described the bill as an "opportunity to shut down predators and voyeurs" upon bringing the measure to the floor. She spoke just as police chiefs and top commanders from the four biggest cities in Texas -- Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin -- stood on the Capitol steps and told reporters they had not found examples of restroom-related sexual assaults.
They said forcing police to combat non-existent crime will increase discrimination, make Texas more dangerous and waste their time.
"Folks will feel emboldened, they will feel that they can discriminate, they can target and they will feel they can have vigilante justice out there because of this law," Houston police Chief Art Acevedo said. "Please don't put another handcuff, another burden on the overburdened law enforcement community in the state of Texas."
On Monday, police in Austin filed court documents alleging that a Texas transgender activist beaten in a carjacking was targeted because of her gender identity. Two brothers were charged with beating and pulling a gun on Stephanie Martinez before stealing her car last week.
Court documents show that one of the suspects allegedly told police they targeted Martinez because she was transgender. The day after her attack, Martinez was among hundreds who packed the Capitol to testify against the bill before a Senate committee.
The bill is the second time this year that police leaders from Texas' biggest cities, which are also some of the largest in the U.S, are at odds with a marquee piece of Republican legislation. The same chiefs also unsuccessfully railed against a "sanctuary cities" ban signed by Abbott in May that lets police ask people during routine stops whether they're in the U.S. legally.
Asked about police opposition by a Democratic colleague, Kolkhorst said her bill is about privacy and protection. She pointed toward a male senator and said it was meant to stop him from "saying today I feel like a female and I have the right to go into these intimate spaces."
The Senate first approved a proposal mandating transgender Texans use public restrooms corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate during the regular legislative regular that ended Memorial Day. Business groups complained it would wreak havoc in Texas similar to one approved last year by North Carolina, which has since partially repealed its law following political and economic backlash.
The Texas House eventually approved a weakened version applying only to public schools, which the Senate rejected. Abbott, who is up for re-election in 2018, called a special session to revive the bill and 19 other pieces of conservative legislation.