Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Police shooting triggers calls for widespread culture change among Austin PD leadership

"Off with their heads," the Queen of Hearts famously declared in Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass."

Yesterday the Austin Justice Coalition, more than two dozen other community groups including Just Liberty, and numerous other community leaders (many of them appointees to city boards and commissions) made that same declaration, calling for the firing of Austin police chief Brian Manley, his chief of staff, the assistant city manager in charge of public safety, and for the reassignment of city legal staff advising the department.

See the letter here, and some initial press coverage. I'd encourage anyone interested in the topic to read the whole thing, it conveys quite a compelling indictment of policing in this town, including a litany of specific complaints against the Austin PD leadership team.

The letter was issued in the wake of Austin PD killing a man named Mike Ramos on Friday evening, although the critique of the department was much more wide ranging than just that incident.

Ramos was standing next to his car with his hands up when Mitchell Pieper, a rookie officer three months out of the academy, fired a shotgun at him using a bean bag round. Ramos retreated into his car and tried to drive away when another officer, Christopher Taylor, fired three shots with a rifle, killing him. Taylor, who had been on the force for five years was involved in another questionable shooting at a downtown Austin condo in 2019.

Notably, former Chief Art Acevedo had forbidden officers from shooting at moving vehicles in 2012 unless they were part of a unit specially trained to stop vehicles. But Chief Manley reversed that policy, one of a series of regressive policy changes he's made in recent years. As a result, Mike Ramos is dead and, if there's any justice in the world, Manley should lose his job.

The fact that a fresh-out-of-the-academy officer fired the first round speaks directly to critiques in the letter of Austin PD training at the academy. Advocates, the city's Public Safety Commission, a clutch of former cadets suing the department, and even city council members have suggested APD should cease holding new academies until they revamp their "warrior cop," command-and-control approach, shifting cadet training toward a more service-oriented model that emphasizes deescalation techniques as a central aspect of the use-of-force continuum.

Couple that with the fact that the officer who fired the lethal round has now killed two people in five years on the force, and it's hard to escape the impression that Austin is churning out new officers who are ill-equipped to handle the job. Most officers go their entire careers without ever firing their guns in the line of duty.

As is his typical approach, Manley attempted to blame the victim in the Ramos incident, refusing to say whether a search of the car revealed a firearm (it didn't) and claiming with no evidence or justification that the car had been involved in other criminal incidents.

None of that changes the facts on the ground. You can view bystander video of the incident here. Austin PD policy does not make bodycam footage public, taking advantage of a terrible law passed at the Legislature on the topic, although the District Attorney and others have called for its release in this incident. So far, all we have is cell phone footage shot by neighbors.

Officers had approached Ramos and his girlfriend after someone reported them allegedly doing drugs and claiming to have seen a firearm. As it turns out, the pair were smoking cigarettes in the car outside his girlfriend's home. Police found no drugs or guns, Grits can say with absolute confidence, or there's no question they'd have touted those facts from the rooftops by now. His girlfriend was taken into custody, held almost 48 hours without ever being booked into the jail, but ultimately was released.

These advocates weren't the only one finally fed up with Austin PD and their mealy-mouthed approach to dealing with the community. Also yesterday, several local groups (Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, Grassroots Leadership, and the Immigrant Legal Resource Center) and a UT law prof backed out of a proposed grant application aimed at pre-arrest diversion in drug cases, claiming Austin PD was acting in bad faith. Here's a notable excerpt from their email:
In 2018, our organizations began a two-year project to better understand why Austin/Travis County produced a 66% increase in new felony drug possession cases within a five-year period despite no discernible increase in the drug prevalence rate. Our intention was to identify the locations and circumstances where pre-arrest deflection programming would have the greatest impact on reducing arrests and connecting people with meaningful harm reduction services. We remain committed to that goal, and we are grateful to have had the opportunity to work with city/county officials on a new vision for addressing substance use within our community.

What our study demonstrated, however, was that the increase in drug arrests was generated through police practices long believed to exacerbate racial disparities. Moreover, the arrests resulted in lengthy periods of detention, loss of income, increased homelessness, loss of immigration status, and collateral consequences that create lifelong barriers to employment and housing. In short, our study showed very clearly that the criminal legal system actors were doing harm.

Yet, the tone and content of the grant application shifts the responsibility entirely to the individual at risk of arrest for drug possession, not to the system actors who have done such harm to people suffering from substance use disorder. We provided lengthy comment on the current draft, but we simply do not see how these issues can be addressed satisfactorily before the grant application is due.

We believe that it is time to press reset. We urge the Austin City Council and City Manager to take decisive action to change the culture of law enforcement in this city.
The Greater Austin Crime Commission issued a statement cautioning against a "rush to judgment" after the Ramos shooting, but that misapprehends the situation. Elements of this episode speak directly to known problems at the department that should have been addressed long ago. Those include deescalation training that's disconnected from use-of-force policy, a lack of transparency around body cameras, the chief's misguided approval of officers shooting at moving cars, not to mention issues of bias raised in the Tatum report. Again, read the full letter. The list goes on and on.

It's become clear in the span of just a few days that Brian Manley and the entire city leadership team over public safety has lost the public's confidence. So what happens next?

Under the city charter, the city council cannot fire the chief, or even publicly declare they support his termination. Only City Manager Spencer Cronk can do that, and he should.

In the meantime, though, the charter does authorize city council to launch their own investigation into the chief and others criticized in the AJC letter. And they could also issue a "no confidence" vote exclaiming their dissatisfaction. We've reached the point where, if the city manager won't immediately act, it's absolutely time for them to embrace such tactics.

Manley, his chief of staff, assistant city manager Rey Arrellano - all these folks have entirely lost the faith of the community. It's time for them to go.


Anonymous said...

Why is it that the more progressive the city or state is perceived the more regressive the police seem to be? Austin, Houston, California, Illinois.....are are touted to be progressive, but the police actions all seem to be totalitarian. Just an observation.

Anonymous said...

Someone once said, inside of every liberal is a totalitarian dying to get out.