Saturday, September 12, 2020

Police complaints and the politics of public-safety budgets

Just to see what was there, yesterday Grits went through recent, formal complaints against Austin police officers from protests last month, as compiled by the Office of Police Oversight. For highlights with links to the complaints, see this Twitter thread. This is information that was made public as a result of the Austin Justice Coalition's victory in the 2018 police-union contract fight.

Until recently, no one could see this information unless 1) the complaint was sustained and 2) the officer was suspended. That's still true in most other Texas cities under the state civil service code. Under the contract in Austin, however, formal complaints processed by the OPO are public (though de-identified - officer names and badge numbers are redacted).

A notable one: An APD sergeant alleged that a lieutenant ordered her to illegally alter officer time sheets related to protest events. Another officer complained of "racial slurs" and derisive comments from an APD Detective about black people.

And then there were numerous allegations of police violence against protesters. Somebody pepper sprayed. Somebody punched. Somebody shot in the face with a 40mm foam baton round. Video of an officer in a "state of rage." These were all from protests in the days leading up to the city council's police-budget vote on August 12th. But it's not like more bad stuff hasn't happened since.

Grits thought these were worth mentioning because the goals of reform and the true importance of ongoing public safety debates are being lost in a sea of election-season silliness. It was episodes like the ones described by these complainants, officer and civilian both, that brought us here, but the coverage of Governor Abbott's earned-media electioneering seldom brings the debate back to its roots.

Coverage of the governor's various proposals over the last week woefully lacked context: Despite eye-popping headlines and repeated statements by reporters that Austin cut $150 million from its police budget, the actual cuts - as in deleted dollars - amounted to less than 5% of the department's budget, about 4.7% or around $20 million. By contrast, the Governor wants to cut at least five percent from healthcare and safety net programs in the middle of a pandemic/depression. With more than 14,000 Texans already dead from COVID this year, it's hard not to see that as a far graver threat to public safety than cuts to Austin's police force, which incidentally resulted in no officer layoffs.

Regardless, I can't keep track of all the governor's strategies to attack Austin for its budget cutting, much less how he justifies them. First he declared he'd mandate property tax relief for Austin and any other city that "defunded the police," whatever one means by that Rorschach test of a phrase. Then he declared he'd de-annex parts of those cities that had been included over the last 30 years, thus in Austin's case disempowering local voters most supportive of the Governor's position. In other words, his solution is to remove voters who oppose the council's agenda in order to ... let them win?

Former state representatives Terry Keel and Ron Wilson have proposed that Texas DPS take over the Austin Police Department. This one makes me giggle a little bit, tbh. DPS doesn't remotely want that responsibility! (They briefly took over Austin's DNA lab, then declared the staff unteachable and shuttered it instead of fixing it.) And the Austin Police Association types blustering against the city council today would wish to their unlucky stars they were back under the city budget the first time they came to the Texas Legislature asking for a pay hike. Good luck convincing legislators to pay Austin cops far higher wages than their local officers!

It's clear the governor is looking for ways to punish Austin, but these inchoate and profoundly un-conservative suggestions (until now, most Texas conservatives thought property-tax relief/freezes were a good thing, not a punishment for liberals) make little sense as policy. They're just election fodder; red meat for the base.

To me, though, Abbott is misreading his state-level base in an attempt to coordinate messaging with national Republican campaign themes. More than a few long-time Texas conservatives find themselves torn between Trumpian touts of "American carnage" and their traditional values of smaller government and local control. The state punishing local government for budget cutting flies in the face of GOP messaging since before Reagan. It's one thing to pivot from those views, but it's being done without explanation beyond "the Democrats are so scary we must abandon our principles."

Some conservatives believe that; others do not. Even if those who don't remain quiet during election season, one wonders about the wisdom of a party abandoning the guiding foundations of its four-decade ideological base in order to prevail in a single campaign cycle.


Charles Kuffner said...

"Former state representatives Terry Keel and Ron Reynolds have proposed"

Just a minor correction here, but Ron Reynolds is still very much a State Rep, in HD27. The former Rep you are thinking of is Ron Wilson. Those of us who remember his time in office are not at all shocked by his current actions.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Great catch, Chuck, totally my error, will correct. And all due apologies to Ron Reynolds, he's a reform supporter and not at all of that political stripe. You're definitely right, this is not Ron Wilson's first round of Austin bashing.

Charles Kuffner said...

Sure thing, and thanks for your coverage of how dumb Abbott's "support the police" pledge is. Whatever happens this November, the next Legislative session is going to be another humdinger.

Anonymous said...

If defunding the police means re-allocating funds so that trained mental health professionals respond to mental health emergencies. I am for defunding. BCSO deputies killed Damian Daniels recently. Daniels was an army vet diagnosed with PTSD experiencing a mental health emergency. He needed help, not excessive police force resulting in his death.

Personally, we have been blessed. On two occasions when we had to call 911 due to the mental health of our developmentally challenged adult son, the San Antonio PD responded and behaved admirably, even taking our son to the hospital instead of to jail per our request. They de-escalated and listened, rather than tase and shoot. But as I was calling 911 on both occasions, i wondered if i was setting up my son's death? That is a worry and a choice parents and loved ones should not have to bear or have to make.

Reading the fine print, i believe no one wants to leave any PD with zero funds. What i have read seems to mean that people want to reallocate funds so that all first responses for all cases are not based on officers who may be inclined to settle calls with tasers or even worse with firearms. The officer who shop Daniels had "justifiably" shot and killed another individual with mental health issues on a prior occasion. He should have never been sent out on the Daniel's call.

We expect, possibly too much from our police officers. They cannot be expected to be all things for all calls for all people as we currently expect them to be.

To repeat, if defunding means reallocating funds so that PDs can concentrate on law enforcement. I am for defunding.

Lee said...

I have a 8 year old nephew that wants to be a police officer for Halloween. I fear he may be arrested for impersonation of a public servant? Legal research indicates that if all the elements of the crime are met, he could be criminally charged. In a Texas trigger happy world, a young black male with a fake gun could be considered a threat. Anybody care to weigh in?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@Lee, tell him he has to go as an undercover officer then make him wear a suit and a wire. ;)

Anonymous said...

This is very thought-provoking and a difficult subject to discuss in today's social climate. Thank you for writing a great article, you've given me something to think about.

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