APD funding initiative will be up to voters, but opponents say efforts to get it on the ballot were misleading

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Wednesday, Austin’s city clerk certified a petition to put the #MakeAustinSafe initiative, which is aimed at increasing police staffing, training and funding, on the November ballot. Voters will now decide whether or not to pass an ordinance that would require city leaders to meet demands laid out in the petition.

The city clerk’s office estimates from a sampling of signatures tested that more than 25,000 signatures on the petition were valid and unduplicated, surpassing the requirement of 20,000 signatures for a petition to create a ballot item.

One day earlier, a coalition of 25 groups that oppose Save Austin Now’s initiative released video of apparent canvassers asking voters to sign the petition based on statements that are not written in the petition’s language.

Four videos released appear to show canvassers saying the petition, if turned into a ballot item that’s passed by voters, would force de-escalation, anti-discrimination and mental health training for officers.

However, the petition, which does mention a requirement of 40 extra hours of yearly training for officers, does not specify requiring those types of training.

Other claims in the videos say officers would be trained in foreign languages and a police oversight coordinator would be appointed — neither of which is written in the petition.

In one clip, an activist with the Austin Democratic Socialists of America recorded an alleged canvasser trying to find where in the petition de-escalation training is mentioned, after he told her that was part of the petition he was working to get people to sign.

“I can’t find it,” he said after looking for it in the petition for a couple of minutes.

The alleged canvasser went on to say, “My manager basically is the one that told me about the de-escalation, and so, I’m gonna have to get him to point that out to me specifically, because I can’t find it.”

“If it had just been one or two canvassers here or there, you know, it could be confusion, or first time canvassers, right? However, this was clearly a coordinated effort,” said Travis County Democratic Party Chair Katie Naranjo, who is part of the coalition against the initiative.

Naranjo recorded a discussion with an alleged canvasser about another claim that’s not actually in the petition. In her video clip, the woman told Naranjo that if passed, the initiative would appoint a coordinator to oversee police activities for accountability purposes.

“I think it’s really hard, you know, to go through and say every person was misled, or you know, you don’t really know what happened in these conversations. But that is proof that there are people being misled,” Naranjo said of the conversations she and her peers witnessed. “And they signed something that they didn’t think that they were signing, and as a result of that misleading campaign, I ultimately think voters are going to take some time to get educated.”

Naranjo finds particularly concerning are the types of police training promised in the conversations.

In one video recorded by Grace Gibson, who’s a member of Austin Democratic Socialists of America and Homes Not Handcuffs, a man can be heard talking about de-escalation training, anti-discrimination training and mental health training.

The petition calls for 40 additional training hours annually, but it does not mention those types of trainings specifically.

Dennis Farris, who’s a trustee for the Austin Police Retired Officers Association, which is part of the coalition supporting the ballot item, says even though the proposal doesn’t spell out de-escalation, anti-discrimination or mental health training, it’s designed to give the Austin Police Department the discretion to decide.

“We did not dictate nor would we dictate to the department what that training should be,” Farris said. “We are going to leave what type of training up to the department, because the department does know best what type of training the officers should get.”

Farris says the group has discussed the need for more of the types of training mentioned in the videos with police leaders. He also points out the group leaders have also publicly talked about hopes for those types of training to be implemented.

“Had we never brought it up and had we never used the words, ‘This could be used for de-escalation training, this could be used for additional mental health training,’ then I would say it probably would be deceiving, but we’re talking semantics,” Farris said. “Could they have said, you know, ‘This training would be left up to the department?’ ‘It could be used for things like…?’ Yes, that would have been better, but it’s not misleading, because we have brought that up before.”

Naranjo, however, says, “When you see people talking about values that we know the majority of Austinites support and doing it in a disingenuous way, it’s just really disappointing. It makes you lose faith.”

Naranjo later continued, “I just think of myself as like a citizen. If I’m hearing that my police force is going to get more training on de-escalation, and then there are, God forbid, further incidents in which unarmed people are shot in our community, I’m going to demand answers. And so, this also seems like an injustice for the police officers who are being misrepresented, because it’s putting a higher threshold and burden on them to perform when they aren’t getting the support.”

KXAN asked Save Austin Now’s co-founders for an interview and to confirm whether the people in the aforementioned videos were indeed their canvassers.

Instead, Save Austin Now co-founders Matt Mackowiak and Cleo Petricek sent a statement, saying, “Save Austin Now PAC has always operated with integrity and we are immensely proud of our 1,600+ volunteers and canvassers who collected nearly 28,000 signed petitions in 55 days in the heat of the summer. Every petition collector was provided clipboards that included the entire petition, with clear instructions about how to collect signatures and inform potential signers, including to offer them the full petition so the voter could understand the intent of the initiative.  Save Austin Now PAC has always been fully committed to the integrity of the citizen initiative process as a way for the people to have their say in how Austin is governed. Selectively edited videos released by radical activists only demonstrate their desperation about voters weighing in on the absolutely catastrophic effects of Defund the Police on Austin residents.”

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