Article by Delaney Davis
On November 28th, 2017, representatives from Undoing White Supremacy Austin (UWSA), Austin Justice Coalition, Grassroots Leadership, and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition met in Crestview United Methodist Church to discuss the upcoming Austin Police Contract vote. Representatives from these respective organizations believe that the contract should not be passed as attempts to work with the Austin Police Association to improve the contract have proven fruitless.
The panel began with a playing of a recording of the 911 phone call between an Austin Police Department call person and Richard Munroe, a mentally ill man in a suicidal crisis who was killed by police in 2015. During the call, Munroe repeatedly asked simply for someone to talk to while begging the APD employee not to call the police. The woman assured him that she would not send police officers to his house. However, APD officers eventually arrived at Munroe’s residence. Munroe brought a BB gun with him outside to meet the officers, who shot him on site. The woman claims she did not know that police were sent to his location.
The panel cited the 911 call as a piece of evidence supporting their claim that APD has not been held accountable for various wrongdoings, with Texas Justice Coalition grassroots organizer Kathy Mitchell asking the audience during the panel, “Why could APD not send mental health officers to his house instead of police?”
The 911 phone call was followed by a video of the assault of then 26-year-old Breaion King, who was believed to be resisting an officer’s orders when exiting her car after being pulled over for going 15 miles over the speed limit. The video shows King being thrown to the ground by police officer Bryan Richter. After the altercation, the video shows King speaking to another officer, Patrick Spradlin, about race issues while he drives her to jail.
King questions the officer, asking him questions like if he believes racism exists, as she believes whites currently have more rights than blacks and that some individuals are afraid of black people. Spradlin responds by saying, “Why are so many people afraid of black people? I can give you a really good–a really good idea why it might be that way. Violent tendencies.”
The group said this was yet another example of not only the blatant wrongdoing running rampant in the APD, but the blatant racism as well.
The discussion then turned to the group’s experiences negotiating with the Austin Police Association, which were described as “toothless.” The head of the Austin Police Association, Ken Casaday, had the validity of his authority called into question in the summer of 2016, when a video showed him punching a man who punched a police horse.
The city of Austin attends to police misconduct every five years with an agreement between the Austin Police Department and the Austin Police Association. Community organizations, such as the ones represented in this panel, have recommended eight proposals–shortened from an original eighteen–that must be included in the contract to earn their support. The eight reforms include altering the 180-day rule, which limits the amount of time officers have to discipline police officers to 180 days, removing automatically downgraded suspensions, granting subpoena power to oversight bodies, allowing misconduct to be considered in promotion decisions, creating the ability for citizens to voice complaints over the phone or online, allowing the police monitor to initiate investigations without citizen complaint, ceasing the permanent sealing of documents related to police misconduct, and releasing records without the removal of important content.
So far, the groups present and other social justice organizations in the Austin area have been unable to get these eight reforms included in the contract. And it is for this reason that the representatives on the panel hope that City Council will vote “No” on the contract, which would revert Austin back to using the State of Texas Penal Code.
In the minds of the panel, Austin’s “experiment” with meet and confer negotiations in regards to police misconduct which began in 1997 has been a failure. One of the groups represented on the panel, Austin Justice Coalition, said that “meet and confer” has given Austin citizens “civilian oversight surrounded by too much secrecy, without enough authority.” Most counties in Texas do not have the meet and confer process established within their police oversight measures.
Part of the frustration, according to the panel, is that Austin police officers receive the best benefits in Texas. Austin police officers earn the highest base salary in the state. In addition, officers have high step pay–increases in pay due to seniority–as well.
City Council is expected to vote on the police contract on December 14th, 2017, two weeks before the contract expires on December 31st.
Coming from a relatively conservative town, I thought Austin would be a liberal utopia. Texans from all over the state describe the city as the most progressive in Texas. This stereotype is not without truth: A study by The Economist lists Austin as the most liberal city in the entire state.
The stereotype, however, is just that–a stereotype. Sitting in that church hall and listening to that panel speak about their experiences with APD was the wakeup call to me that progressive cities, such as Austin, are in need of reform just like their more conservative counterparts. Because of the city’s reputation, problems with police misconduct were incompatible with my personal idea of the political atmosphere of Austin. Perhaps corruption, especially when police are involved, is such a systemic problem that it is able to permeate Austin’s liberal armor. Clearly, corruption knows no political party.
Either way, Austin’s police problem is a reminder not to blindly trust political labels applied to cities. Differing issues are always present to serve as exceptions to the general rule.