Friday, June 12, 2020

Austin Council demands reform; police chief touts toothless half measures

Whether history will view the resolutions passed at the Austin City Council yesterday as a true turning point for policing in this city remains to be seen. But the resolutions at least opened up the possibility we could witness change on a scale previously unseen at the police department in the Texas capital.

Leadership Change: Council has "No Confidence"
Item #96 on yesterday's agenda included a statement of no confidence regarding Police Chief Brian Manley and the city's public-safety leadership team: "The elected members of City Council have no confidence that current Austin Police Department leadership intends to implement the policy and culture changes required to end the disproportionate impact of police violence." 

Two more city council members last night - Alison Alter and Leslie Pool - openly called for a change in leadership at Austin PD, adding their voices to four others who'd already said they've lost faith in Chief Manley to lead the department. Pool's comments were particularly surprising as until now she's been the police department's foremost champion on the council. Yet, she insisted, "We cannot move forward and heal without a change in leadership."

Alter went further, calling out city manager Spencer Cronk in no uncertain terms for his conspicuous silence during the city's tumultuous last two weeks, accusing him of failing to lead. She said her office had received more than 13,000 emails supporting change, with many of them calling for Chief Manley's ouster. Why had he not acted?

Meanwhile, although the news pages of the Austin Statesman continued their lapdog ways (more on this in a moment), the editorial staff issued a commentary accusing APD of succumbing to "cultural rot" under Manley's rule. "As a leader," they wrote, "Manley has not demonstrated the resolve to push for deep-seated cultural changes at the agency where he has spent his entire law enforcement career."

I don't know if having a "no confidence" resolution unanimously pass and six of 11 council members openly calling for Manley's ouster will be enough to get rid of him, but certainly the pressure is mounting.

Item #96 also included a call for divesting from Austin PD and spending more money instead on alternative approaches to public safety. Four council members from the dais echoed calls from the Austin Justice Coalition to reduce the APD budget by $100 million, while the rest agreed there should be some reduction but declined to put a number on it.

If it happens, it will be a big deal: Austin PD's budget has only ever gone up in my adult lifetime. Paying for policing has supplanted other public expenditures to address issues like homelessness, mental health, and addiction, and is the primary driver of city property-tax increases.

However, this aspect of the resolution is purely aspirational and the council will very soon get an opportunity to put the taxpayers' money where their mouth is: The council returns in late July to hammer out the next year's budget, already facing constraints from falling sales tax revenue. How much APD's budget is reduced and what those funds will be used for instead will all be decided in August. Whether they implement the priorities evinced in this resolution will be determined entirely by whether the local reform movement can keep up the pressure they were able to exert on the council this week. We'll see.

Limiting Use of Force
Item #95 on last night's agenda directed the Austin PD to rewrite its general order provisions related to use of force, restricting when officers can use deadly force, making explicit their duties to implement de-escalation tactics wherever feasible. The resolution prohibits the use of tear gas, limits deployment of impact munitions, and discourages acquisition of military-style equipment, including from the federal government's much-maligned 1033 program.

This may be the most substantive change of the evening - it's certainly the one where Chief Manley pushed back the hardest - but it, too, amounts merely to an opening gambit. Now the general orders must be rewritten, and although the City Council insisted that the Office of Police Oversight be a big part of that, Chief Manley is the person who issues those orders.

So the questions become: 1) will the rewritten general orders faithfully implement council's direction? And, 2) will APD leadership enforce changes to use of force policy with which they disagree? The latter question is a big reason why most of the city council has spoken up to call for Chief Manley's ouster: They keep enacting policies that he simply doesn't implement.

Indeed, in many cases Austin has decent policies on the books, but current management won't enforce them. For example, APD already has rules on the books creating a duty to intervene when officers see their comrades-in-arms engaged in misconduct. But the entire city has seen videos of APD officers indiscriminately firing impact munitions into crowds, and even shooting at medical personnel: No officers intervened and no officers have been punished for failing to do so.

Writing better policies is only important if departments then train on them and enforce them when violated. Otherwise, culture eats policy for breakfast. That's why changing leadership is so important.

Manley's PR Pushback
With these changes as a backdrop, let's turn to Chief Manley's PR offensive launched during the day while the city council listened to hours of public testimony. He held a press conference with a group called JUST America purporting to announce new reforms. But those reforms ranged from achingly modest to non-existent, not remotely approaching the changes for which the city council is asking. When grilled by the City Council last night, Manley announced that really there was nothing new in them and the press conference had only clarified existing practices in order to educate the public.

Manley's new partner, the group JUST America is an odd duck: Nobody in the movement whom Grits works with had ever heard of them or their leaders when their press conference was announced. And it's remarkable that such a new group could get so much press coverage of their efforts when organizations like the Austin Justice Coalition capable of putting 10,000 people in the street (as they did last Sunday) can't get their agenda covered in the local press.

JUST America portrayed itself as a community group formed in the wake of the recent protests. But there's a debate on an Austin subreddit on whether or not they're a front group for the Austin Police Department.

I don't know which is true. As I'd said on Twitter, I "can't tell if they're straight-up Astroturf or just naive young people being used by Chief Manley to undercut real reform. At this point, I'm inclined to think it doesn't matter which is the case - the result is the same."

If they're a front group trying to give APD and Chief Manley positive PR, so far it's worked. The Statesman treated their PR gambit as a news event on equal footing with the City Council's actions, though the latter was objectively a far more serious and important development than the former. If they're sincere, JUST America's failure to engage or coordinate efforts with established civil rights activists has led them to a strategy that undercuts more serious reform.


If Austin City Council members follow through, what they did yesterday could be the beginning of significant change at the police department. If they chicken out and local media continues to provide the department cover, as we saw with their lapdog coverage of the JUST America presser, momentum could easily be lost. My crystal ball is hazy and Grits can't say what will happen. But the possibility for real change exists where it did not three weeks ago, and as my father likes to say, that's "better than a sharp stick in the eye."


evmick said...

Grits has got someone spooked.
It's blocked from facebook.

M. D. Cohen said...

I'm not sure I understand, please clarify:
So.... .Grits is blocked, i.e. links to the grits for breakfast blog that are posted on Facebook are blocked?

Anonymous said...

Politicians wishing to have a future are trying to assess the strength of the storm and gauge whether or not the winds of change will continue to blow in their current direction. Historically conservatives have been slow to acknowledge when the majority sides with African Americans.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

M.D./evmick, apparently the Facebook links are working now. Nobody's sure what was going on, but temporarily Grits links published on Facebook weren't showing up properly. Nobody changed anything on my end, but they're working fine now, I'm told. (I have an old Facebook account but haven't used it in years.) Regardless, this post has received plenty of traffic.

At Anon 8:39, that's an interesting article. The details of George Wallace's political shift was fascinating, and the NAACP endorsement of his 1958 governor's run was new history to me. Hadn't realized he'd made such a dramatic U-turn.