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Grand jury says APD using double standard

Friday, November 14, 2003 by

Grand jurors cite 'a different brand of law enforcement' for minority neighborhoods

Sounding an alarm, the Travis County Grand Jury that last month indicted an Austin police officer for criminally negligent homicide, has warned that community leaders and law enforcement officials must work together to “reduce the level of distrust” between the police and members of the minority community.

“In the last three months, our grand jury heard many cases where a different brand of law enforcement appears to occur in the minority neighborhoods of East Austin. We see what appears to us to be a double standard and we are disturbed by it. Furthermore, young police officers with limited training and little life experience in interacting with those who look different than they look are often assigned to patrol in these minority neighborhoods,” they wrote in a report to District Judge Brenda Kennedy. Although local law enforcement agencies are well intentioned, according to the grand jury, “it appears to us that they are placing the officers with the fewest skills and least experience in situations they have not been prepared for. This is not fair to these officers or to our community.”

The grand jurors included retired Austin Police Department Captain Freddie Maxwell, an African-American, and former criminal defense attorney Gordon Rubinett, who served as the grand jury’s foreperson. Last night, Rubinett said only, “the report speaks for itself.” Last month, the grand jury indicted Officer Scott Glasgow in the death of Jessie Lee Owens, shot while trying to drive away from the officer, who was caught in the car door. The incident followed last year’s shooting death of Sophia King, a mentally disturbed woman who was threatening to kill another person. Although there was no apparent wrongdoing on the part of the officer who shot King, East Austin activists argued that the matter might have been resolved peaceably.

Council Member Danny Thomas, a former APD officer, also has been concerned about the relationship between the department and members of the minority community. He said, “East Austin is not as bad as people made it out to be . . . I hope somebody’s listening now.” Thomas said he thought it was significant that the grand jury would feel strongly enough to issue yesterday’s statement. “Somebody needs to wake up,” he said, adding that city leaders should face issues like those raised in the shooting death of Jessie Lee Owens, “so we won’t have to have a grand jury” looking into such matters. He said he is personally interested in the training cadets receive at the police academy, noting that members of the community should be brought in to help teach cadets what they need to know to work in East Austin.

Thomas added that he is concerned that contract negotiators for rank and file police officers may try to weaken the Citizen Review Panel and the Police Monitor. “If we lose what we already have or if it’s weakened, we’re not doing what we should do,” he said.

Police Chief Stan Knee said on Thursday that he wanted to hear more from grand jury members in order to solve the problems they perceived in the department. “Hopefully, many of them will agree to meet with me and go over the letter and talk with me about their concerns,” he said, “so that we can get the issues up front and begin to address them.”

City Manager Toby Futrell defended the department’s record in addressing the concerns of minority groups while admitting more needed to be done. “We are in some difficult times, and the grand jury’s report that talks about distrust and race relations is probably not far off the pulse of the central east community,” she said. “This is the time to be doing some bridge building and some discussion of race relations and of trust, and how we build it.”

As for the grand jury’s belief that officers with less experience were deployed in certain neighborhoods, Futrell said, the statistics did not support that. The central east command area has the second-highest tenured patrol force in the city,” she said. “It is true that our patrol officers are younger. We had tremendous growth and we added a large number of officers in a short period of time, and it’s a phenomenon that’s happened in cities all around the country.”

Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield told In Fact Daily that more new officers are assigned to patrol during nighttime hours because that shift has the most turnover. He noted that newly hired officers are usually in their early 20s. “We don’t assign people to sectors based on their physical description,” or race, he said. Assignments are made on the basis of need, with new officers always assigned to patrol duties.

Futrell praised Chief Knee’s efforts to diversify the department and reach out to minority groups. “Their lower ranks, or patrol officer ranks, reflect very closely what our community diversity is. Our gains that are left in the police department in terms of diversity have to do with our higher ranks reflecting diversity, and that happens with time because the state civil service process means promotions and rank happen over time,” she said.

Futrell also predicted that newly appointed Police Monitor Ashton Cumberbatch would help with the effort to improve the relationship between APD and minority groups. “He has a strong standing in the East Austin community. I know that he is going to be helping us with looking at our cadet curriculum and our leadership training. And I think you’re going to see a strong collaboration between our police monitor and our police chief to try to address this issue.” Knee also stressed that improving the training of new officers would be a priority, but noted that it was an ongoing issue not necessarily related to the grand jury’s report. “Training is an evolving process,” he said. “We’re consistently improving not only our recruiting efforts but our training efforts. I think we do a good job of that.”

Hotel on Brush Square seeking garage variance

Getting permits on the proposed downtown Austin Marriott Hotel would be considered a piece of cake by comparison to the challenges faced by the soon-to-be-opened Hilton Convention Center Hote l.

The downtown Austin Marriott will be a 447-room property. If all goes well with permits, construction could be underway by next March. The goal is to have the hotel open by Fall 2005.

Unlike the Convention Center Hilton, which was faced with moving the Susanna Dickinson House, the Austin Marriott only had two significant challenges. First, Ben Turner of Consort had to get the Historic Landmark Commission to sign off on the demolition permit, tearing down three existing warehouses off Fourth Street at Trinity. The permit was approved on a vote of 5-3.

This week, Turner took his one proposed variance to a subcommittee of the Parks and Recreation Board, although it will be the Zoning and Platting Commission that will ultimately decide the matter. Turner wants to put the hotel’s garage entrance across from Brush Square. Austin’s ordinance prohibits unscreened garage openings on any of the city’s three squares.

The historic square ordinance also limits curb cuts and requires glass on the first-floor of any building facing any of the three squares.

The need for the variance is tied to the slope of the property, Turner said. All 250 parking spaces for the Austin Marriott will be located below ground. The grade for the property is 12 feet from the southeast to the northeast corner. The exit on Trinity Street would put the opening to the garage on grade.

Putting the opening on San Jacinto could be done, but would require Consort to construct a sloping drive 240 feet long before the first parking space could be placed. The project would require excavating an extra 13 feet for the garage, which would add $1 million to labor and materials costs. It would also require raising the entire structure an additional 2 feet to clear the site.

Marriott opposed the idea of putting the garage at the hotel entrance, as was done for the Omni Hotel, Turner said. Such a configuration usually causes problems for the ingress and egress of vehicles.

The variance is scheduled to go before the ZAP in December. The Land and Facilities Committee of the Parks and Recreation Board had no problem recommending approval of the variance for Consort with Turner’s assurance that the garage opening would be properly screened with awnings.

The loading dock will be screened and a door rolled down on the dock when it’s not in use. The garage will also provide proper lighting and sound signals for traffic, Turner said.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

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