AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin’s newly-formed Public Safety Committee met to discuss Austin Police General orders and police tactics Thursday at 2 p.m. The committee is a subgroup within Austin City Council, designed to follow through on a host of police reform and racial justice measures the council approved in June.
The meeting started shortly after 2 p.m. and can be viewed live here.
Council Member Jimmy Flannigan chairs the committee and spoke with KXAN News this morning about his expectations for the meeting.
On the Austin City Council Message Board, Flannigan posted that panelists would include members of the Austin Police Department including Sergeant Mike Crumrine, Officer Anna Jackson, Corporal Marcos Johnson, and Officer Thomas Villareal. Other panelists will include Rahki Agrawal of MEASURE, Jennifer Laurin who is the Wright C. Morrow Professor of Law at the UT School of Law, Adriana Pinon of ACLU of Texas, and Carl Webb who is a community member as well as a U.S. Military veteran.
Flannigan said on the message board that this will be the first workshop in a series “created to tackle the challenges of redefining policing in our community.” The next workshop, he noted, will happen on July 9 at 2 p.m.
The meeting was adjourned and Council Member Flannigan explained to KXAN that city staff will use the insight from this conversation in the workgroups they have created to carry out the process of “reimagining public safety” in Austin. Flannigan also added that another object of these discussions is to show “this is good work that we can all support.”
The committee is preparing three more of these workshops to happen in the weeks to come.
As the conversation was wrapping up, Professor Jennifer Laurin, encouraged the committee to look at the big picture.
“The really essential question is: what do we want police to be doing? What are the harms that we see are created when they are doing that? And can we bear that?” she suggested.
“I think it would be a mistake to focus so much on equipment issues or very specific tactic issues and sort of miss the broader questions about how should police interact with the community. How should they think about when force is necessary and what level it should be?” Laurin added. “Because the risk is creating sort of a whack-a-mole problem.”
For example, she said the community could make a call for getting rid of all militarized equipment, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t other equipment out there that can be equally as damaging.
Sergeant Mike Crumrine responded that he agreed with Laurin’s call to look at the big picture.
“I agree 100% we need to expand this conversation to look at what is it that the community here in Austin expects out of their law enforcement,” he said.
“Law enforcement has kind of become the junk drawer for everything people don’t want to have to deal with in society and they’ve asked us to be the ones to try to fix it,” Crumrine continued. “There are many things we’re really really good at. I will be the first one to tell you there are things we are not good at and we could be better at.”
“But we could focus on exactly what you’re talking about, where do you want us to put our attention? Where exactly should that lie? And let’s be the very best we can be at that,” he said.
Officer Thomas Villareal responded to the portion of the council resolution which calls for the council to be updated about purchases of what is referred to as military-grade equipment.
“I would say a vast majority of the military equipment we have at the police department is stuff the city has purchased,” he said.
“I also recognize that there are bad people in this world,” Villareal said, noting that APD’s armored vehicle has been shot at twice.
“I will maintain that there are moments within our very very safe city that we do need an aggressive image, we do need these aggressive tools so people understand that we take crime seriously and we are going to invest in the safety of our police officers,” he said.
Adriana Pinon of ACLU of Texas pressed back on that point with questions about how SWAT teams are being used in local policing.
“You see this connection between the militarization of police and of no-knock warrants,” she said.
She suggested that the community should be asking whether it wants its local police force to be using SWAT teams to perform functions such as searching for drugs.
“We need to recognize and we need to have some type of working understanding of what de-escalation means,” Corporal Marcos Johnson said to the committee.
He explained that APD officers may see using less-than-lethal weapons to diffuse a situation that may have otherwise turned to deadly force as a tool for de-escalation.
Conversely, Johnson said, if an officer pulls out a weapon and points it at an unarmed subject, that officer may have escalated the situation.
“Whenever an officer does use force, part of my job is to review that force, interview officers, witnesses, suspects, I am making sure this is all in compliance, this takes several days,” he said.
Officer Thomas Villareal spoke to what his experience has been like with APD documenting his own use of force while on the job. Villareal explained that after an officer documents the use of force, it goes off for review by two different commanders. Sometimes, he explained, these reviews go before a force review board to review at a higher level and look for patterns.
Villareal shared concerns about calls city leaders have made to limit the use of different types of less than lethal force.
“I don’t know if that’s reasonable to say you have to use everything else before you use a taser,” he told the committee. “My feeling is that it will push officers to not use less lethal options, and the reason those options exist is because people in the community were tired of having negative outcomes.”
The discussion pivoted to the use of what APD calls less-than-lethal munitions.
Sergeant Mike Crumrine talked about the use of these munitions during situations when people are exercising their first amendment rights.
“Where it becomes an issue is where it turns into not just [exercising first amendment rights] but some other criminal aspects of either assaulting someone else or creating damage to property,” he said.
“We can’t allow people, no matter who they are to harm others,” Crumrine added. However, he noted, he doesn’t think bean bag rounds are an effective use for crowd control.
Bean bag rounds, he said, are used by officers on patrol “quite a bit” and they are “incredibly effective in doing that.”
Professor Jennifer Laurin said based on what she had been hearing from APD panelists what happens at APD training academy sounds to be largely in line with the council’s resolutions. However, she had questions about the rest of APD’s general orders as written, which she said use standards set up by Supreme Court rulings.
“Its really a mistake for police policy on use of force to simply parrot the Supreme Court,” Laurin said to those at the meeting.
Laurin made the case for changing use of force policies “from policy being used when reasonable to use to using force when necessary and there are no reasonable alternatives.”
The first item the committee discussed was the APD deployment of tear gas. The resolution council passed on June 11 aimed to completely ban tear gas use by Austin Police.
APD Sergeant Mike Crumrine spoke about the use of tear gas. Crumrine explained that “all of us have been exposed in it, all of us have been trained in how to use it or when to use it.”
He said that occasions when APD may use tear gas include the need to clear a large area. Crumrine gave the example of recent Austin protests where demonstrators got onto I-35 blocking the freeway. He said, in that situation, police did not want to have I-35 shut down because its an important artery for the city and the region.
“We could physically try to remove people, that takes a bunch, quite a bit more resources than we have available to us,” he said. Crumrine added that before APD officers deploy tear gas, they give a number of warnings that it is going to be deployed in the hopes that people will comply before tear gas is used.
“The long term side effects of being exposed to CS gas is pretty minimal,” Crumnine said.
However, community members present on the panel pushed back on Crumrine on this idea, suggesting that CS gas can cause harm particularly during a pandemic with a virus that targets the respiratory system.
“If we’re now as a community saying these are not the tactics we like, what are the other options before us?” Flannigan asked the panelists. Flannigan suggested to Crumrine that the dynamic is different at protests where demonstrators are specifically protesting police.
Meeting called to order. Council Member Flannigan explains that the sole focus of this meeting is to address the council’s Item 95 passed on June 11 which called for specific changes to Austin Police tactics and general orders. Flannigan said the focus of the meeting will be on what appropriate tactics are moving forward. Four Austin Police Officers and Four community members joined in for the meeting.
Public Safety Committee
The Public Safety Committee is a relatively newly-formed group for city council. It formed out of the Judicial Committee. Last month, members discussed possibilities for reform that included how the Austin Police Department responded to protests, allocating next year’s public safety budget and the future of APD cadet classes.
Flannigan said before the committee was created, members of city council were not having regular, public and formal conversations with the police chief, city manager and other stakeholders about this type of reform.