Friday, November 03, 2006

Kirk Watson between Rock and hard place defending police oversight record

Because of the tremendous influence of police unions in local politics, debates over police oversight often take on a "through the looking glass" feel, where right is left and left is right. Democrats who are frequently accused of pandering to minority voters tend to spite those supporters to gain police union backing, while often conservatives tend to distrust unions and support greater oversight.

That's the dynamic behind the homestretch strategy of GOP Libertarian state Senate candidate "Rock" Howard, who is running against Democratic frontrunner Kirk Watson in Travis County. He issued a press release yesterday suggesting reforms for improving police accountability in Austin that I pretty much agree with - his analysis of the effects of police union influence on the Austin City Council, certainly, is spot on.

What an odd world - we find here the GOP right-wing candidate calling for greater police accountability while the Democrat defends his ignominious history of having gutted the city's civilian oversight process as Mayor. (He really did, too - Kirk Watson and his fealty to the police unions are THE key reasons Austin's police oversight system is a piece of junk.)

Watson's certainly going to win the race. But on this issue, if you ask me, Rock Howard has won the argument. Here's the press release:
NOVEMBER 2, 2006

Improving Police Accountability in Austin

With the announced retirements of Mike Sheffield as President of the Austin Police Association and Ron DeLord as President of CLEAT, it is a good time to reflect on the fact that East Austin's decades long concerns about police accountability have never been properly addressed. I recommend to the new leaders of the Police Association and the Austin City Council to take the following steps to finally address this issue in a meaningful way:
  • Adopt the measures specified by the Final Report and Recommendations of the Austin City Council Police Oversight Focus Group. This report was issued on April 14, 2000 after months of tough negotiations between people on all sides of this issue including past Police Association President Mike Sheffield.
  • Rescind the planned budget cuts for the Police Monitor's Office. Further weakening of Austin's already weak police oversight process takes the city even further in the wrong direction.
  • Work with city lawyers to review the evidence concerning the secret meetings between Mike Sheffield and Kirk Watson that led to the watered down Police Oversight Process that was enacted as part of the original Austin Police Association contract.
Concerning this last item, note that Mr. Sheffield has admitted in writing that these meetings occurred and that they were crucial in overturning the results of the Police Oversight Focus Group. City lawyers need to see if then Mayor Watson asked Sheffield to promise him the CLEAT endorsement that he eventually received for his then upcoming race for Texas Attorney General. If so, then they need to ascertain what ethical or legal statues may have been broken by these meetings and the quid pro quo that seems to have occured. This is an important part of the healing process since the residents of East Austin deserve to know why their concerns about police accountability were never properly addressed.

Additionally the City needs to admit that the current Policy Oversight Process is almost entirely a sham that only has the appearance of improving police accountability. In actuality the power of the Police Monitor's office is incredibly limited and reports from the office have been generally late and miniscule in their impact. The restrictions on the Police Monitor and upon ciitzen access to internal police records have not served Austin citizens well and it time for a change.

For those who don't know. CLEAT is the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. They are the statewide umbrella group for the Austin Police Association and many other police unions in Texas. The Austin Police Association headquarters are in the basement of the CLEAT building here in Austin. Now that Mike Sheffield has resigned from the Austin Police Association, CLEAT has hired Mike Sheffield to teach other police unions in Texas how to pursue the high pay, low accountability agreements that he brokered here in Austin.

Of the many secret deals that Mayor Watson brokered during his prematurely ended tenure as Mayor, this is the one that I imagine that he would not do if he had it to do over. I invite Mayor Watson to support my call for action by coming clean about what happened in 2000 and also calling for the enactment of the recommendations of the Police Oversight Focus Group. The Travis County area cannot afford to be represented by a State Senator with a cloud this deep and dark hanging over his head.

My fear, however, is that Watson will work in office to continue the trend of strengthening police unions legislatively as a part of a plan for an eventual run for higher state office. If this occurs the effect on minority citizens in Texas could be devestating as police accountability recedes and the political power of Texas police expands. If the police reach the point where they effectively select state government leaders as they currently do in Austin City elections, then we will truly be living in a police state.

I, for one, am committed to seeing that this never occurs. While I am the only person in District 14 who was willing to stand up and run against Kirk Watson for State Senator, I am not the only one who understands the truth about the police oversight issue. I am confident that caring citizens of Austin and Travis County will work with me and each other until social justice is achieved, political activities of police unions are strictly limited and levels of police compensation are directly tied to levels of police accountability throughout the state of Texas.

Robert "Rock" Howard
This fascinates me because it highlights a truth I learned working on this issue in Austin for the last half of the '90s. Police unions love to pretend that the left-right debate over law enforcement centers on racial issues, and since they can almost always convince Democrats to sell out minority voters on police accountability, the issue never gets very far. The real axis of conflict over police accountability, though, certainly in Texas and other "red" states, hinges on the question of police union power more than racial politics.

Howard's call for investigating his opponent is gratuitous - those secret meetings occurred now many years ago - but he's exactly right about the rest of his critique. Of course, in politics, being "right" and $2 will get you a coffee at the Starbucks, as long as you don't order one of those fancy ones.


Anonymous said...

Libertarian, not Republican.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks, Chip, I fixed it. My bad - I'm barely paying attention to these elections, frankly - all the downballot ones, for me, are basically uncontested.