AUSTIN (KXAN) — Four Austin City Council members sent an open letter to Austin Police Department Chief Brian Manley on Thursday, calling on him to publicly share his department’s plan to protect both safety and freedom of expression in any demonstrations that may unfold in Austin following the election results. The council members also expressed concern in the letter about a repeat of tactics used by the department in recent months during demonstrations in protest of policy brutality.

(Picture: KXAN/Kaitlyn Karmout)

The letter—penned by Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and Council Members Greg Casar, Jimmy Flannigan, and Natasha Harper-Madison—asked for clarity on Manley’s plan to ensure safety during any demonstrations during the election season, citing “the probability of activity involving free speech and assembly.” These council members are all on the council subgroup called the Public Safety Committee, which was created in June as part of a host of reforms the council passed related to police reform and racial justice.

“We write to you publicly because private communications leading up to the demonstrations this spring were apparently insufficient,” the council members said in the letter.

“As we’re sure you agree, what happened at previous Austin protests this year represented a failure to keep people safe,” they continued.

Protester sprayed by Austin police during protests over the weekend at the end of May 2020 (Courtesy: David Bradham)

The council members request a written response from Manley’s office about his plans to ensure community safety during demonstrations. They also asked the department to share how it will “ensure that real threats of violence, such as those posed by domestic terrorist and white supremacist groups, are addressed with the seriousness they deserve.”

In an interview with KXAN Thursday, Flannigan acknowledged there may be some details of APD’s planning for potential protests that the department can’t release due to security reasons.

“But what is not a security risk is assuring the public that there is a plan, and that we are confident that it will work, and that we are confident that Americans will have full access to their voting rights and their full ability to exercise their First Amendment rights,” Flannigan said.

He added these topics and the content of this letter are part of ongoing conversations the council members are having with the police department.

“We could ask for this privately, but actually I think in something like this, it’s best for it to be public so that everyone can see that plan, and everybody can weigh in about whether the changes that have been made and the lessons that have been learned since the spring are enough,” Casar added in an interview with KXAN.

Casar said constituents in Austin have come to his office expressing concern about what APD’s response will be to demonstrations around election time.

“We all recognize the important social justice movement and moment we are in right now and want to ensure that the safety of everyone, both residents and officers, is a priority for APD. We want to be absolutely clear what the expectations are for a response to any peaceful protests this November, and we want Chief Manley to help assure Austinites that we will not see a repeat of the violent tactics APD used against peaceful demonstrators this spring.”

Austin Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza

The group of city leaders requested that Manley detail how he will ensure that violent tactics are not used against demonstrators.

Austin Police response

A spokesperson for APD told KXAN Chief Manley will respond to this letter when he returns to the office next week. The department directed KXAN to a briefing from Oct. 13 with Assistant Chief Joseph Chacon related to citywide safety during the election season.

Chacon said during that briefing his department is not stationed nor actively observing any of the polling locations, though they may respond if there is a specific disturbance at a polling location.

Demonstrators gather at APD headquarters Wednesday night, June 3. (Andy Way/KXAN)

“There has certainly been talk on social media and in the general media about is it possible there might be unrest? I can tell you that we have no specific information here at the Austin Police Department of anything that is set to happen at any of our polling locations or any specific dates or anything like that,” Chacon said during the briefing.

“But I can certainly tell you that the Austin Police Department will be prepared should something like that pop up unannounced,” he added.

Chacon explained during the week of the election, APD will be on “tactical alert,” meaning every officer will be in uniform and have their equipment ready to respond wherever necessary in the event that a protest or a disturbance at a polling place were to become unlawful.

“We certainly respect people’s right to peacefully assemble and voice their opinions, they just have to do it within the law,” Chacon said.

He added the department is adequately staffed for the weeks heading into the election and had not increased staffing levels.

A briefing on October 13 from APD Assistant Chief Joseph Chacon on safety during the election season.

APD will routinely increase staffing ahead of anticipated demonstrations. In late July when Austin police expected possible protests in Austin, they called on the Texas Department of Public Safety to help assist them with staffing.

Concerns about use of force

Following APD’s use of force during demonstrations in late May and early June, community members voiced their concerns at Austin City Council meetings by the hundreds, sharing stories of injuries and individual interactions with officers.

In late May, a 16-year-old attending a protest was seriously injured and a 20-year-old was left in critical condition after being struck in the head with an APD bean bag round which the department describes as “less lethal.” A pregnant woman at an Austin protest also reported being struck in the belly with those “less lethal” rounds. A street medic told KXAN she had broken bones in her hand from those bean bag rounds after trying to help an injured protester that weekend; she sued the city months later citing excessive force.

Other demonstrators spoke with KXAN at the time about their injuries from the bean bag rounds or from being dragged by police officers.

Scene from Austin protests 5-31-20
Photo: Frank Martinez/KXAN

Initially after those incidents, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said those uses of force were within policy. Days later, the department announced it would no longer use the bean bag rounds in crowd situations.

In June, the Office of Police Oversight sent 82 vetted complaints from protesters who believe officers violated department policy to APD Internal Affairs.

In a release Thursday, the city shared it has placed two more officers on administrative duty as it continues investigating the nine “protest-related critical incidents” that happened in late May.