City at a Crossroads: Experts say Austin lacks unity but must keep pushing for police reform
A year after leaders aimed to make Austin a national model in police reform, the city is stymied by a lack of cohesion about what it wants from a modern police force. National experts in policing and race and the new police chief say Austin must press forward with reforms nonetheless.
Their wide-ranging comments came Monday during a televised forum on policing in Austin hosted by the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV. The town hall followed a recent series analyzing the impact of the City Council's decision last year to remove about $150 million from the police budget, separate operations from law enforcement oversight and plot a new path for policing.
“What the city is trying to do right now, and certainly the Police Department, is trying to figure out what reimagining really means,” said Chief Joe Chacon, whose permanent title was confirmed by the council in a 9-2 vote Thursday. “This is not something we have a blueprint for. We have to be very critical and learn from our mistakes, but also learn from our successes. Have we gotten it right every single time? I don’t think that we have, but we are certainly trying to figure our way through this.”
Austin embarked on the reforms after local protests of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis and the police shooting of Michael Ramos in Southeast Austin a month earlier. An officer is charged with murder in the death of Ramos, who was unarmed and in a moving car when he was shot.
Margo Frasier, who served as Travis County sheriff from 1997 to 2004 and was later Austin's police monitor, said she was heartened that Austin prioritized reform and took such “bold steps.” However, she said, Austin leaders fell into a common pitfall by listening to the loudest voices instead of all segments of the community.
“I was disappointed in the fact that I think what we wound up having was a lot of one-way communication where people were talking at each other instead of to each other,” said Frazier, who is vice president of the National Association of Civilian Oversight in Law Enforcement. “We ended up with a lot of unintended consequences.”
Peniel Joseph, founding director for the Center for Race and Democracy at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs, said such cultural shifts are often disruptive but necessary to an equal society.
“We have to remember that abolishing slavery upset people in the 19th century, too,” Joseph said. “There is going to be a reaction, and we have to remember that. I would consider the conversation to be the beginning of the beginning.”
The panel also addressed issues such as Austin’s spike in murders and gun violence and department attrition.
By June, the Police Department had lost at least 130 officers to retirements or resignations and was unable to fill vacant positions after suspending its police academy to reform its curriculum.
Frasier said it is important to discuss police accountability while also supporting community-oriented officers.
“We ended up with a lot of officers feeling like they were under attack and leaving,” she said.
Austin also is experiencing a significant increase in murders, with the death toll of 66 higher than it has been in the six decades that police have kept records. The rate per capita is also higher than it has been in at least a decade at about 6 per 100,000 residents; In 2011, it was about 3 per 100,000.
“We are trying to come up with a model that will deliver the police services in the way that our community desires and still keep the public safe,” Chacon said.
As the city looks forward, Joseph said, it should remain focused on recommendations that have emerged from a city task force on police reform. Those have included ending the use of police dogs against people and ending officer-initiated calls.
“Instead of having police that stand for centuries between segregated neighborhoods and segregated communities in Austin, we would have public safety be the priority,” he said.
The series and forum came as Austin voters consider a measure on the November ballot that would set minimum staffing levels for the Police Department. It also comes as Chacon assumes the role of the city’s leading law enforcement official.
He was appointed after serving as interim police chief for seven months. Some groups, including the Austin NAACP and the Austin Police Association, did not support his hiring, but Chacon said he will work to earn their trust as he leads the department through reform.
“I have been moving in the direction of change,” he said. “I feel confident that I am going to be able to win the hearts and minds of those who have doubts about me.”