Police reform items head to Austin City Council vote Thursday

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Four members of the Austin City Council held a press conference at 11:30 a.m. Monday to discuss resolutions related to police reform on the June 11 meeting agenda.

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, along with council members Natasha Harper-Madison, Greg Casar and Jimmy Flannigan discussed items they’ll put forward in Thursday’s regular meeting.

City leaders are calling for major changes to police staffing, among other reforms.

One of the most noteworthy proposals would cut any additional sworn police officer positions from next year’s budget.

It’s a shift from recent fiscal year budgets, which added new officers following the directives of a city-funded report by the Matrix Consulting Group several years

The group recommended hiring dozens of officers to keep up with Austin’s growth and allow for more community engagement.

Even in this year’s budget, City Manager Spencer Cronk added money for 30 new police officers.

But after more than a week of protests where demonstrators were seriously injured by police beanbag rounds, council members say it’s a new day.

“This is a call for change, institutional change to move from the status quo,” said Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza. “The Matrix report is based on the status quo.”

Casar will introduce Item 95, which includes:

  • Banning the use of tear-gas, rubber bullets, bean bags, etc.
  • Banning chokeholds/strangleholds
  • Using deadly force as a last resort, using de-escalation tactics first, banning shooting at people fleeing
  • Reducing military-grade equipment
  • Ending no-knock warrants
  • Not using enhanced facial recognition
  • Delaying the July cadet class for the Austin Police Department

Garza will introduce Item 50, which she says “lays out clear goals we can set right now and hold ourselves accountable” to these charges:

  • Zero racial disparity in traffic stops
  • Zero racial disparity in arrests and citations that result from traffic stops
  • Zero use-of-force incidents
  • Zero deaths at the hands of APD officers

Flannigan will introduce Item 93, which converts the Council Judicial Committee to the Council Public Safety Committee.

Casar said it may take time for these items to go into the manual, but if the items are passed at Thursday’s meeting, they should go into effect immediately.

Flannigan, meanwhile, realizes that bureaucracy slows things down and they will move as quickly as the system allows them to on implementing what passes Thursday.

“That’s what I mean when I say it will be frustrating,” Flannigan said.

When asked about the Austin Justice Coalition’s charge to the city council to reduce the Austin Police Department’s budget by $100 million in the next budget cycle, Garza said she’d be willing to sign on with that.

“I’ve been on board since the first year I was on the council to put money where we can actually make an impact,” Garza said.

Casar agreed.

“We need to talk about treating homelessness with housing, not just jail,” Casar said. “Just another patrol car going up and down the street doesn’t necessarily make everybody safer.”

Flannigan said there’s a lot of stuff in the police budget that doesn’t have to be there because the police shouldn’t have to be involved in the first place.

“When we start digging into what these line items mean, it might be more than $100 million,” Flannigan said. “This is not about doing things in a different way, it’s about doing them in a better way.”

Law enforcement expert weighs in

KXAN consulted law enforcement expert and current Ennis Police Chief Andy Harvey for perspective on why police use some of the tactics Austin council seeks to do away with. Harvey is a former Dallas Police Commander and authored the book, “Excellence in Policing”.

Harvey agrees police reform is needed, but he warns that changing the structure of policing will take time and conversation from both sides.

“You can’t just disband an entire police department tomorrow and just expect everything to be okay. That’s not the way this works, but I do think allocating more money to mental illness and drug addictions and those things that are plaguing us are going to help society. We are part of that,” Harvey said, referring to law enforcement, “And I think we should be part of that conversation.”

Harvey says historically, police have used chokeholds to quickly subdue someone who’s resisting.

However, in the case of George Floyd, he says, “This eight minutes and 46 seconds, no. I’m talking about restraining someone, subduing a person in order to affect an arrest safely and then we’re done– we get that person medical attention.” 

After what happened in Minneapolis, Harvey agrees that new training and technology can provide better ways to restrain people.

“If society’s saying, ‘We don’t like you to perform the chokehold on us,’ then we need to listen,” he said.

However, Harvey worries some of Austin city council members’ other proposals might go too far.

He says tools like tear gas or rubber bullets still need to be an option in crowd control situations.

“Do we go back and think through things and do we have better training as to when and where and how we use them? Absolutely, and I think we can do a better job of that,” Harvey said. “But when we get to taking away everything, then you’re going to have officers standing there with nothing, and you don’t want that. That’s not a good thing, either.”

Harvey didn’t speak to the Mike Ramos case specifically, but said there are rare instances in which people fleeing in a vehicle could pose a threat to others, and those situations may justify officers firing.

“We have to be very careful if and when we do that,” Harvey said. “Gone are the days when we just say, ‘We feared for our lives,’ because we have to be able to articulate, but also prove that your life was actually in danger.”

Defunding Questions

KXAN reached out to a Texas State University Criminal Justice lecturer. Howard Williams is the former Chief of Police in San Marcos and was also once an Austin police officer. He spent 36 years on the job.

Williams said when it comes to defunding police departments, he believes people should instead insist on continuous reform, but if the community wants to defund the police, he just hopes there is an alternative.

“If you want to defund, defund but you better have a transition plan in place and some options available on how to get the work done in some other fashion because if you don’t you’re just inviting chaos,” Williams said.

Dr. David Lauderback, a history professor at Austin Community College said what that change and potential defunding of police departments could look will depend on the community.

“Something as significant as defunding and starting from scratch that may be a decision the citizens of Austin decide to do, but if we do as a matter of policy we have to do what? We need to be thinking about how we’re going to handle that transition, we’re going to have to decide who is going to perform this function in the future, and we’re going to have to decide if we want to keep any of the people who were here and make sure that we protect that process as we do?” he asked. “It’s a very serious and significant thing.”

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