by Daryl Slusher

Let’s take a look at the very fluid situation between the Austin Police Department, the Austin City Council, the City Manager, activist groups, and protestors. In one of the more controversial issue on the table, the Council is responding affirmatively to calls from the Austin Justice Coalition (AJC), Indivisible, and other advocacy groups and protestors to cut $100 million from the Austin Police Department’s (APD) upcoming 2021 Fiscal Year budget. The activists want the money redirected to social and mental health services and other alternate ways of dealing with issues that currently fall to the police. These proposals are consistent with some forms of “Defund the Police” called for by protestors nationally and locally — although that term can mean a wide range of things, something we will delve into in a future column. The current APD budget is $441 million. So the cut would be around 22% of the budget.

At least four Council Members have expressed support for the $100 million redirection: Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and Council Members Greg Casar, Jimmy Flanagan, and Natasha Harper Madison.

The proposed $100 million cut is just one Council initiative in the wake of protests stemming from the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The Council also moved swiftly to pass resolutions directing the City Manager on a number of police procedures, including: banning both chokeholds and shooting at fleeing suspects; increasing deescalation practices; tightening criteria for seeking a no knock warrant; establishing a goal to eliminate racial disparities in traffic stops; and restricting the use of those non-lethal rounds on protestors. While there is always danger of making mistakes or omissions when in a hurry, this strike while the iron is hot approach is time honored in politics and governance. For instance in 1965 President Lyndon Johnson moved swiftly to introduce and push through the Voting Rights Act after Civil Rights marchers seeking basic voting rights were brutally beaten while trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. 

Currently, a number of other states and localities are also moving rapidly against police racism and police brutality. For example a headline in this Sunday’s Denver Post read, “How Colorado found the political will to pass a sweeping police reform law in just 16 days.” The new law, continues the Post is “a sweeping police accountability measure written and passed at a near-record pace, drawing once-unthinkable support [meaning Republicans], and signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis on Friday morning.” The bill ends qualified immunity, which shields police officers from personal liability for misconduct. It, “also bans chokeholds and carotid holds; introduces potential criminal charges for officers who fail to try to stop colleagues from using excessive force; creates a public database of officers who have been decertified, fired, found to be untruthful or in violation of training standards; and significantly increases citizen protections from police tear gas and projectiles.”

The new Colorado law and actions taken by the Austin City Council share some similarities, but the City has to deal directly with something that the Colorado Legislature does not; the funding, staffing and operation of a local police department. In Austin, the City Manager has the authority and responsibllity for running the police department. The manager delegates many of these responsibilities to the Police Chief, but the manager is the one who answers directly to the Council. The City Council scrutinizes and approves the police budget and can set overall policies, but they have no personnel authority over the department.

Firing of Less Lethal Rounds at Protestors Results in Near Political Suicide for APD Management and Police Union

In years past, both the management of the Austin Police Department and the Austin Police Association — the police union — would have a huge say in proposed policy changes, especially any that came anywhere near the magnitude of what is currently on the table. Both management and the union, however, severely damaged their already weakened positions with their response to the demonstrations. Granted, the police were in a tough spot. We now know that at least one group within the crowd was engaging in violent provocations, throwing rocks, water bottles and cups at APD officers. APD responded, however, by shooting peaceful protestors with “less lethal” rounds that caused some serious injuries. That included shooting a pregnant, peaceful protestor in the stomach, while another peaceful protestor was shot in the head potentially incurring permanent brain damage. To make matters even worse, APD officers perched on the freeway ramp like snipers and fired their “less lethal” rounds down on protestors.

Photo by Jana Brchum

Prior to all of that it might have been plausible to argue credibly for a more measured reform approach, arguing that while APD had some real problems, these did not rise to the level of cities like Minneapolis, Philadelphia or others. It could have also been argued that significant reforms were already underway. If any possibility of such an approach existed, however, it was blown to smithereens by APD’s less lethal ammunition.

If any possibility of a more measured approach existed, it was blown to smithereens by APD’s firing of less lethal ammunition.

Instead, the bloody first weekend of protests was instrumental in seven Council Members either calling for or supporting the ouster of Police Chief Brian Manley — even though they have no personnel authority over him. Here too the Council is responding to calls from the Austin Justice Coalition and other groups who want Manley fired. According to the American-Statesman, the seven are: Mayor Pro Tem Garza and Council Members Casar, Flanagan, Sabino “Pio” Renteria, Alison Alter, Leslie Pool, and Paige Ellis. Additionally, the whole Council voted for a resolution stating, “WHEREAS, 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 on Black Americans, Latinx Americans, other nonwhite ethnic communities. . . “

The power to remove Manley, however, rests with City Manager Spencer Cronk. Cronk could not actually fire Manley from the police force, but he could remove him as Chief. Last week, however, Cronk made clear that he does not plan to remove Manley. This clearly reflects Cronk’s desire to keep Manley in place, but there could be other factors as well. Anytime the Council tries to get involved in personnel decisions it presents a quandary for management. The City Charter clearly states that the Manager is the person with hire, fire, and evaluate authority except for jobs called out in the Charter that report to the Council as a whole: the City Manager, City Clerk, City Auditor. The Councl also appoints municipal judges. So it is possible that Cronk’s stance has to do, at least in part, with him defending the powers of the Manager and the strictures of the Charter. It would not be the first time such a standoff has occurred because managers often see this as one of their duties under the City Charter. In other words Council Members may have made it less likely that Manley would be fired by publicly calling for him to be fired.

Another important factor Cronk has to consider is, if he fired Manley, who would replace him in the interim. The AJC has also called for firing the APD Chief of Staff and the Assistant City Manager to whom APD reports. That narrows the field. In fact appointing anyone from the existing APD management team would likely draw immediate criticism from those demanding that Manley be fired. It would be very difficult to find someone from outside the Department to come in on an interim basis. And, anyone Cronk did tap would need to be ready to walk into an extremely tough and thankless assignment. So those are practical concerns that Cronk also has to face.

Council Members may have made it less likely that Manley would be fired by publicly calling for him to be fired.

Meanwhile, several Council Members seem very enthusiastic about cutting the $100 million. For instance Jimmy Flanagan was quoted by CBS Austin, “My instinct is that there is going to be more than $100 million of improvement that we’re going to be able to find.” Flannigan added, “When I talk to my constituents about policing, they ask for more police to address their concerns because that is the only option they’ve ever been given to address their concerns. There are better options.” Flanagan and his colleagues will doubtlessly be coming forward with additional specific proposals on this front. 

Cronk Responds to Council Resolutions

Cronk last week issued a memo intended to “present our immediate actions and outline our next steps.” Therein Cronk described a process featuring a “multidisciplinary team” of City executives to work with community groups to “focus on answering the following question: What is a ‘reimagined’ public safety system in Austin and how do we get there?’” On the upcoming budget, Cronk announced he was considering transferring some current police functions to other departments: “These functions include the Forensics Lab, 9-1-1 Call Takers/Dispatch, Victim Services, Training Academy and others.” And, in the most headline grabbing part of the memo, Cronk also responded to Council direction on the number of officers: “The budget will also reflect Council direction to eliminate existing vacancies that cannot be reasonably filled within the next year and to not add additional officers in FY21 as originally envisioned in the five-year police staffing plan.” Cronk explained that this means there will be 100 less sworn officer positions in the proposed budget than were originally planned. 

Cronk explained that this means there will be 100 less sworn officer positions in the proposed budget than were originally planned. 

The staffing cuts were strongly opposed by Corby Jastrow of the Greater Austin Crime Commission, who was in something a lonely place. “The Greater Austin Crime Commission supports many of the (Council) recommendations,” wrote Jastrow, “such as reducing racial disparity in traffic enforcement, using de-escalation tactics instead of deadly force, increased staffing for mental health response, and training for the use of Naloxone for overdose response.”

“Unfortunately,” continued Jastrow, “commendable policy changes are overshadowed by parts that put the community at risk. Policing reforms are possible without jeopardizing the safety of our neighborhoods.” Jastrow was referring to the cuts of proposed and vacant positions. His plea went unheeded. Jastrow, however, likely speaks for a constituency that the Council is not hearing from right now; people who support police reforms, but are hesitant about cutting the number of police . If the new Council policies, however, result in slower response time, less patrols, or a general lessening of the ability to respond to crime, then that constituency could emerge in force.

Let’s Not Get Too Emotional, and the Thoughtful Analysis of AOC

  On a slightly hopeful note, APA President Casaday expressed interest in moving some mental health and social service responsibilities away from APD. He also, however, told the Statesman that the Council is “reacting” with emotion “to the horrible things that have happened over the past two months in law enforcement around the nation, some of it justified, some of it not.” Casaday concluded, “When you’re thinking with emotion you make mistakes.”

That’s a fair point, but it loses a little resonance if one witnessed Casaday shouting emotionally at the Council during a 2018 meeting. Plus, both he and and Chief Manley might want to reflect on whether it was emotion or reason that resulted in APD officers being perched behind the freeway railing firing down on protestors below — albeit with “less lethal” ammunition. In fact police union leaders all over the country tend to act with unrestrained emotion whenever they are questioned or critiqued. So maybe Casaday can carry his message about the dangers of emotional decision making to national gatherings as well.

. . . police union leaders all over the country tend to act with unrestrained emotion whenever they are questioned or critiqued. So maybe (police union head) Casaday can carry his message about the dangers of emotional decision making to national gatherings as well.

It remains to be seen how far the Council will go in responding to activist groups. For instance the homepage of the Austin Justice Coalition asks visitors to “Imagine a World Without Police.”

That sounds pretty radical, but another way to look at is that it reflects the horrific experiences so many black people have had for so long with the police in America. The members of the AJC, at the very least, do not see the police as protectors, but as threats, as a danger to their lives. They are far from alone in that view, and have good reasons to back it — as technology now often allows all of us to see on video.

Still, no police at all is a radical position. It is at one extreme of the spectrum of opinions among people attending protests and especially among the wide majorities who say in polls that they support the protests. Another goal could be to reform and restructure police departments with the goal that people of every race be able to see, and utilize, the police as protectors rather than threats. (I use the terms “reform” and “restructure” because I think a strong case has been made that some departments around the country are too far gone to be reformed.)

That all remains to be worked out on the local, state, and national levels and will require policy makers to sort through proposals from activists and then pass legislation. One interesting take on this came from Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (AOC) of New York, who tweeted about the difference between protestors and legislators. She referred to criticisms that slogans like “Defund the Police” and “Abolish the Police” are too radical and politically risky: “Poll-tested slogans and electoral feasibility is not the activists’ job. Their job is to organize support and transform public opinion, which they are doing,” tweeted AOC.

She then added, “Our job as policymakers is to take the public’s mandate and find + create pockets to advance as much progress as possible.”

Here AOC defends activists, but also distinguishes between their role and that of policy makers. She makes clear that policy makers will not be able to accomplish every single thing that protestors want done. Such sane analysis of course goes against the image Republicans and their media organ Fox News have tried hard to paint of AOC.

Our local Council might do well to ponder her words as they go about police reform. The most effective Councils sort through what activists propose — as opposed to just adopting those proposals outright. Those Councils also consider a wide array of other information, then determine what they believe is in the City’s best interest. It is not yet clear whether the Austin City Council is taking that approach.

Next: A look at how the current situation compares, and does not compare, to 1968.

To read a previous Ausitn Independent article on APD and the George Floyd protests click here.

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