Initial public safety reforms gain unanimous Austin City Council support ahead of vote

Austin City Hall was one of several downtown buildings to get vandalized. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin City Hall was one of several downtown buildings to get vandalized. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austin City Hall was one of several downtown buildings to get vandalized. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

In Austin, policymakers are poised to initiate a deep dive into public safety reform this week, as the city stakes its position in the growing debate over policing in America following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, while in custody of Minneapolis cops and heightened demands for police accountability.

Floyd’s May 25 death spurred a marathon of protests against police brutality in all 50 states. Demonstrations in major cities grew violent, including in Austin where protesters also demanded justice for Michael Ramos, another unarmed black man shot three times and killed by Austin police on April 24. As protesters clashed with police in front of the department’s headquarters and along and on I-35, the department drew heavy criticism for its aggressive tactics and excessive use of force. Twenty-nine protesters were transported to the hospital for injuries sustained during the protests, 11 of which were hurt by beanbag bullets fired by officers, according to local emergency medical officials.

City Council members, after listening to eight hours of testimony from Austinites mostly demanding police accountability, cuts to the police budget and a change in department leadership, promised the community that changes were on their way. On June 11, City Council will approve the first round of those changes.

During a work session held June 9, the mayor and all 10 City Council members signed on as co-sponsors to four resolutions that take aim at the racial disparities in police stops, police oversight, use of force and the budget. The move essentially ensures all four resolutions will pass unanimously June 11.

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, who led on one of the resolutions that sets goals of zero racial disparities in traffic stops and to reduce to zero use-of-force incidents and deaths at the hands of officers by 2023, said a shift in thinking is needed for the necessary and drastic reforms ahead. She said policymakers need to embrace the fact, when it comes to the public safety issues currently facing the community, no one’s hands are clean.

“It’s important that we all admit that there were things we did not do right in our path,” Garza said, citing her initial support of Police Chief Brian Manley in 2018 and desire to move past the stalemate during the police contract negotiations in the same year. She, along with City Council Members Jimmy Flannigan, Greg Casar, Pio Renteria and Alison Alter, has since called for Manley to resign from his post. Manley has not publicly responded.

Garza contended this debate was one-sided and about providing public safety that eliminates bias.

Included in the reform resolutions is one that curtails use of force by police officers in the city. Following the violent protests from May 29-31, officers’ deployment of tear gas and indiscriminate firing of “less-lethal” rubber bullets and beanbag rounds into crowds and at protesters was heavily scrutinized. Victims of the “less-lethal” rounds incurred critical injuries that, according to EMS Chief Ernesto Rodriguez, will take years of recovery and could have resulted in death. One 20-year-old black man, Justin Howell, remains in critical condition. Another, 16-year-old Brad Levi Ayala, who stood alone and away from the mass of protesters, sustained a skull fracture and emergency surgery after an officer shot him in the head.

Casar’s resolution sets policies against using “less-lethal” ammunition and tear gas on protesters; chokeholds, such as the one used by the New York City police officer who killed Eric Garner in 2014; facial recognition technology; and deadly force, including on those fleeing, unless the officer needs to use self-defense or is defending others. Ramos, the Austin resident killed by police on April 24, was shot to death while attempting to flee the scene in his car.

Casar said he is considering amending the resolution to ban tear gas completely. The Geneva Convention, which established the international rules of war, banned the use of tear gas.

The resolution also seeks to reduce the department’s use and stockpile of military-grade equipment “to the greatest extent possible” and places strict limits on the use of no-knock warrants—warrants that allow officers to enter a home without first announcing themselves.

Lastly, the resolution would delay the department’s July cadet class—initially scheduled for June—until the office of police oversight, the innovation office and the equity office feel that their efforts to reform police training have been appropriately applied.

City Council will also set standards for City Manager Spencer Cronk’s fiscal year 2020-21 budget proposal that seek to reduce the police budget and reallocate funds to “alternative” public safety programs, such as those based in public health, housing, affordability and family violence prevention. It asks Cronk to fund no new sworn officer positions and consider taking roles currently handled by the police department and reassigning their duties to other departments, such a code enforcement or Austin Public Health.

Holding city staff and the police department accountable to these changes will be crucial, Flannigan said. His resolution converts the City Council’s existing judicial committee, of which he is chair, into a new public safety committee that he promises will ensure these resolutions are accomplished.
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, USA Today and several other local outlets along the east coast.


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