Following last week’s public outcry at the Austin City Council’s virtual hearing, councilmembers unanimously backed new police reform and divestment resolutions.
On June 11, council took comments on five agenda items responding to police brutality against Black Austinites and Black Lives Matter demonstrators. Despite four councilmembers voicing lost confidence in Police Chief Brian Manley, these resolutions are only a first step toward racial justice in Austin.
Ordinance 93 would amend the city code to create a Public Safety Committee in place of the former Judicial Committee. The Committee would have the power to review municipal courts, policing issues, criminal justice, emergency medical and fire services, emergency management, code compliance and related matters. It also declares the creation of the committee an emergency, making the ordinance effective immediately.
Homelessness, and its relation to formerly incarcerated or evicted individuals, remains a flashpoint between community members and APD. The June 2019 ordinance to decriminalize homelessness aimed to reduce police violence and arrests based on poverty or mental illness. Austin’s homeless are disproportionately Black, and have a higher likelihood of former incarceration or evictions.
Resolution 94 directs City Manager Spencer Cronk to develop rental policies that would make it easier for people with felonies and misdemeanors to find housing in the community. This is achieved through shorter look-back periods for convictions and limitations to the consideration of convictions in the tenant application process. Renters would be notified of reasons for rental rejection, and developers might have to consider all other qualifications prior to asking potential renters for their criminal background. These policy directives extend to evictions as well.
The Council further instructed Cronk to collaborate with local stakeholders like affordable housing developers, Austin Area Urban League, the Austin Housing Coalition, Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), and Austin Justice Coalition and Grassroots Leadership. Cronk will update the Council on the progress of the resolution October 22, 2020.
Beginning with the sole clause, “WHEREAS, Black Lives Matter,” resolution 95 starts to demilitarize the police. It won’t disarm police, but it prohibits the use of tear gas and limits the use of deadly force. Less lethal munitions, like bean bags and rubber bullets, cannot be used for crowd control. Furthermore, less lethal force, including bean bags, rubber bullets and tasers, are reserved for instances where a person poses an imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm. The City Manager will annually report on violations of mandatory de-escalation tactics. However, officer discretion and oversight have historically justified excessive force with perceived presence of danger.
Manley stated that chokeholds are not currently permitted by APD policy or taught in training, but the current APD policy manual does not reflect that. Councilmembers were quick to remind him of officers arresting homeless people against council’s decision on decriminalization. She stated that an investigation revealed that no official training was mandated, and the policy change was related to officers via a PDF attachment in an email. Manley stated that there was an “opportunity to attend training.”
As this resolution was discussed by councilmembers, Chief of Police Brian Manley voiced concerns with Council banning the use of military equipment and tear gas. He claimed that these measures were sometimes necessary in the case of armed hostage situations and school shootings. However, when pressed by Councilmember Alter to relate one past experience in which the use of tear gas or military grade weapons helped residents, Manley could not provide any incidents.
The resolution also restricts the use of no-knock warrants, and prohibits the use of facial recognition technology to identify members of public for investigation purposes, law enforcement, or surveillance purposes. An amendment includes that private use of this technology on City property is not allowed. Finally it instructs the City Manager to delay the July 2020 start of APD’s current cadet class until curriculum is confirmed to meet guidelines.
Finally, City Council opened discussion on the final item on the agenda, resolution 96. The resolution is the council’s first steps into what many are calling for across the country: defunding the police. Currently, APD accounts for approximately 40 percent of the city’s general fund. Public services compete for limited municipal resources. Many believe funding alternative first responders and social programs like housing would prevent crime instead of ineffective and punitive policing methods. On top of failed reforms and issues with racial profiling among APD officers, Covid-19 has devastated municipal sales revenues, further constraining already limited city resources.
Past measures adopted by council, like implicit bias training for officers and expanded civilian oversight, failed to prevent the death of Mike Ramos. In fact, the officer who shot him, Christopher Taylor, had killed two other people in Austin prior to Ramos. Body cams didn’t prevent the murder of Javier Ambler, a man tased to death by Williamson County deputies last March after being pulled over for not dimming his brights fast enough. Television reality show Live PD filmed the entire tragedy, but local press outlets didn’t get the story until this February, almost a year later. For many demonstrators, this is justification for a new approach to public safety.
Concrete cuts—and the new programs those cuts will fund—won’t be heard by council until July 23rd, when they begin the budget process for the next fiscal year. The resolution is clear in its commitment to cut funding for prohibited weapons covered in resolution 95, as well as to cut vacant officer positions that APD has not been able to fill. However, as the resolution stands, no dollar amounts are quantified, and divestment measures seek to “explore options” for reallocating positions and funds into new departments.
Austinites Give Feedback
Once again, hundreds of Austin residents signed up to speak on ordinance 93 and resolutions 94, 95 and 96, including Brenda Ramos, the mother of recent police brutality victim, Mike Ramos. Austin Justice Coalition’s Chas Moore thanked Councilmember Harper-Madison for her work on the resolutions, and the council for working toward undoing the legacy of racism. He commended council members who committed to reinvesting at least $100 million of APD’s budget, which include Delia Garza and Greg Casar.
Among supporters of the resolutions on the table were attorney Emily Gerrick of the Texas Fair Defense Project and Chris Harris of Grassroots Leadership. Gerrick referenced the Austin Police Department’s $2.6 million explosives and blasting budget, saying there is no reason for a civilian police force to possess these types of weapons to begin with. Others argued that money in the budget for APD could go toward housing the homeless, who are disproportionately Black. Mariela Lane of People’s Community Clinic voiced concerns about tear gas use on demonstrators during a global pandemic, heightening the risk for Covid infection.
Although critics of the resolutions, like Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday and Safehorns President Joell Mcnew, called in to oppose the council measures, the majority of residents calling for comment supported the resolutions. Notably both Casaday and Mcnew invoked homelessness as an argument for more policing, although Casady claimed homelessness had worsened since homeless decriminalization took effect one year ago while Mcnew pointed to APD’s initiation of HOST, or Homeless Outreach Street Team.
Despite calls for community input in the budgeting process, that process is still a month and a half away. Mayor Steve Adler appeared to send mixed signals via his Twitter page, tweeting two seemingly opposed messages simultaneously after the council adjourned Thursday night. In one tweet he praises the council’s steps to reinvest APD monies into community services and support. In the other, he says “we will neither abolish nor defund the police.”
The resolutions passed this Thursday are only the beginning of a much longer process of demilitarization of the police and divestment from APD into social services like mental health and housing. That being said, activists and demonstrators can see clear success in the outcome of these votes. While Police Chief Brian Manley cannot be fired due to his hiring from within the force, he and City Manager Spencer Cronk are certainly feeling the heat.