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City, APA boss dispute paper's view on force

Monday, November 29, 2004 by

With the publication yesterday of another article in its series on the Austin Police Department’s use of force, the Austin American-Statesman has renewed what has become a bitter and divisive issue involving city officials, the Austin Police Officers Association, the daily newspaper, and some leaders in Austin’s minority community. Starting in January, the Statesman published a series of controversial articles, using statistics obtained from APD to accuse the police of regularly using excessive force, and using force disproportionately against African-Americans and Hispanics.

Earlier articles cited several high profile incidents where minority subjects were killed during encounters with Austin police, including the cases of Sophia King and Jesse Lee Owens, in which the officers involved were cleared of wrongdoing.

Police and city officials were caught off guard by the ferocity of the reaction to the January reports, both from minority leaders and from their own police officers. The Austin Area Baptist Ministers Union called for the resignations of Police Chief Stan Knee and City Manager Toby Futrell, and the Austin Police Officers Association complained of a lack of public support by Knee and Futrell for the city’s rank-and-file officers.

When city officials—still stinging from the earlier reports—recently saw indications that the Statesman was planning another article on the subject, they launched a pre-emptive strike, of sorts. Acting Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza issued an eight-page memorandum to the Mayor, City Council, Police Chief and City Manager on Nov. 19, outlining the information that the city had provided the Statesman under an open records request, an analysis on how the Statesman reporters were likely to interpret the information, and numbered talking points on how the city sees the those issues.

According to Garza, 232 whites, 199 blacks, 242 Hispanics and 28 persons listed as “other” were named in use of force reports between January and September. Compared to the total number of persons arrested, which is listed as 35,328 for this year through September, the total is about two percent of those arrested. The vast majority of use of force reports are related to arrests.

Garza’s memo emphasizes APD’s voluntary gathering of use of force statistics. “Use of force reporting is voluntary to each jurisdiction – there is no Federal, State or Local mandate requiring the collection of this information,” he wrote in the memo. “We started collecting the use of force information in 1998 to better understand when and why officers are using force, and it is mandatory for APD officers to submit use of force reports for each incidence in which force is used.” He also noted that increased used of tasers, or electronic stun guns, had decreased the number of incidents in which APD used force to subdue a subject.

Copies of Garza’s memo were provided to a number of local media outlets, including In Fact Daily, last week by APA President Mike Sheffield, and was published concurrent to its article on the Statesman’s web site. “In February, the Austin American-Statesman did an analysis of our use of force that we found to be one-sided and very biased towards a preconceived conclusion,” Sheffield wrote in a cover note to the media. “I am releasing this memorandum . . . because it is a more accurate, fair and balanced analysis of the data.”

The Sunday article, written by reporters Erik Rodriguez and Andy Alford, stated that while statistics shows that Austin police officers “are using force against civilians less often than in past years,” its use against blacks and Hispanics continued at a higher rate than against whites. “Blacks remained twice as likely as whites to be on the receiving end of force during the first nine months of 2004.”

In his memo, Garza predicted that the Statesman would interpret the available data that way, countering:” We continue to believe that it is wrong to do percentage differences in the rates because it over inflates the differences in the numbers.“ The Statesman article acknowledges the city’s interpretation of the data, and presents both sides’ numbers on an inside page.

Reflecting on Sunday’s story, Sheffield asked, “Why are minorities disproportionately represented in our statistics? You would almost have to ask that question—why are they disproportionately represented in crime? There’s a larger question here, a question that’s been asked since the War on Poverty was started in the '60s.”

“The police are not the answer to that question. We’re doing an outstanding job. We’ve just been identified as the fourth safest city in the country of major cities—and all we hear from the Statesman is a constant criticism. Austin is a wonderful place to live,” Sheffield concluded, adding that the department and the APA are working to reduce crime as well as minority complaints.

Both city staff and the APA complain that the officers the paper primarily interviewed for the article lent to an inherent bias in the story. Sheffield says the paper interviewed the 10 officers who submitted the most use of force reports during 2004. “Like last time, most of the officers (interviewed) work in the Downtown Area Command,” he wrote. “All ten of the officers, the Downtown Area Commander and the Training Commander all had interviews scheduled during the week of November 8.” Officers in the Downtown Command often work the Sixth Street area, where their encounters with the public tend to be inherently more hostile, the memo noted.

“We’re trying to meet the demands of a city that has extremely high expectations in all areas of its government,” Sheffield said Sunday. “The Statesman has failed to remember it was the Austin Police Association that called for video cameras and having video cameras in all of the police cars. We’ve been calling for that ever since 1998. And as far as tasers, we’re the ones that held a press conference calling for tasers,” after the first series of stories.”

Community reaction to this latest profile of APD is yet to emerge, but it’s clear that city officials are not going to let the newspaper’s interpretation of the data go without a challenge.

Riley sees need for changing zoning code

The Planning Commission last week endorsed a zoning change for a .4 acre lot at 1500 Summit Street that will allow the construction of a new condominium complex. The change from general office (GO) to retail-mixed use (GR-MU-CO) will allow smaller set backs, giving the property owners more flexibility in designing the complex and allowing the units to be closer to the street. However, they did agree to a conditional overlay that will limit them only to GO uses, prohibiting most retail operations. One possible exception would be a coffee shop or other use that would be classified as a limited restaurant, but that would still require a conditional use permit from the Planning Commission.

The change highlights the need for changes to the city’s zoning regulations, according to Chair Chris Riley.

According to consultant Ron Thrower, the site had been zoned "O" for office use in the mid 1970's, then converted to GO zoning in the early 1980's when the city revised its codes. While that office zoning close to IH-35 and Riverside had been appropriate at the time, he said, the situation in the neighborhood has changed. "An MU (mixed-use) zoning on the property is warranted given the conditions of today," he said. "The current owners bought it with the full intent of utilizing the GO zoning on the property and putting in medical office condominiums. They advertised it, and more calls came in for residential uses than medical office condominiums. So they changed their whole game plan and decided to go outside the neighborhood plan, because their idea is to put a quality project on the ground sooner rather than later. They are aware that neighborhood plans can be delayed, and this site at .43 acres should not have that big of an impact on the overall neighborhood plan."

The long, narrow tract is only 115 feet deep, which would make construction of a parking facility difficult. The net effect of the upzoning from GO to GR, Thrower said, would be to give the designers additional flexibility and move the condos closer to the street. While GR would normally allow 90 percent impervious cover as opposed to the 80 percent allowed under GO, the owners have agreed to a conditional overlay designating the maximum impervious cover at 80 percent. The CO will also limit the number of condos to 18, although Thrower said the site would likely only accommodate 12 units of the size envisioned by the developer. The property owners are also considering some office space for the site, but are focused on residential development.

The proposal got a mixed response from neighbors. "I'm really excited about having something happen on that site other than another office building. I feel pretty good about what they're planning on doing," said Larry Sunderland. "I think something is going to be built there, and this seems like a pretty nifty project." Long-time neighborhood resident Peg Treadwell agreed, praising Thrower and the developers for their attempts to respond to the neighborhood's concerns. "I am not opposed to this zoning change. When it comes to quality development, our area of town has been ignored for years," she said. "This project appears to be sensitive to the neighborhood and appears to give us something good."

Other neighbors opposed the zoning change on the grounds that new development would bring more traffic and parking problems to their already crowded neighborhood. "We have excess traffic on Summit. We're concerned about the parking on Summit and Elmhurst because the visibility is so poor," said Gayle Goff, who also expressed concern about the loss of trees on the lot, which is currently undeveloped. The 10-foot setback requirement of GR, compared to the 15-foot requirement of GO, also posed a problem for Goff. "We basically want to protect the set-back requirements that make neighborhoods feel like neighborhoods. That's the space in between the concrete. We want projects that respect the characteristics that make this neighborhood so special for those of us who live there." Goff also questioned whether the developers would follow through on their condo plans. "We also really wish that there was some mechanism to tie a site plan to a proposal, because all of these proposals are just that, they're proposals. Has anyone ever come to you and proposed a low quality project? Probably not, they're all going to be 'high quality', but all of that is subjective."

Thrower countered that under the existing GO zoning, the site could hold up to 18,000 square feet of office space and generate up to 400 trips per day. The proposed residential project, he said, would generate somewhere between 70 and 80 trips per day, thereby decreasing the potential impact on the neighborhood.

Commissioners were sympathetic to the concerns raised by the neighbors in opposition, but felt the property owners had adequately addressed them. "I understand the neighbors' desire to maintain neighborhood character," said Commissioner Jay Reddy, who moved to approve the applicant's request. "This seems like a fairly mild transition. I also heard a lot of thoughts on traffic. It seems like the proposed project would actually decrease trips as opposed to what they could do now with the GO zoning." Commissioner John-Michael Cortez seconded the motion. "With the restrictions to GO uses and site development guidelines, I think we're holding back some of the negative consequences of development there," he said.

The vote was 7-0 in favor of the requested GR-MU-CO zoning, with Commissioner Cid Galindo absent in order to attend a meeting of the Parks and Recreation Board. The only negative comments came from Commissioner Dave Sullivan. “Personally, I have a problem with giving zoning that is mislabeled relative to the actual use that is going to be there," he said. "You're not planning on doing a community commercial retail project, your plan is just for the office and residential." That prompted Chair Chris Riley to repeat his call for a revision of the city's zoning code to keep up with changing market demands. "I wish we did have a better zoning category than we have here, and we are in fact working on one. I think this would be a great site for what we're calling a UAB, an Urban Apartment Building," he said. "The existing zoning categories we have are just so clumsy, they just do not fit."

Recount today . . . Democrat Kelly White’s requested recount in the race for State Representative District 48 will begin at 2pm today, according to a memo from Travis County Clerk Dana de Beauvoir. Incumbent Republican Rep. Todd Baxter won on election night by 171 votes, but White is one of a handful of losing candidates who want the ballots recounted. She is the only one, however, in Travis County. The Legislature will be given the thankless task of deciding whether Vietnamese immigrant Hubert Vo really won the seat over Republican heavyweight Talmadge Heflin, the District 149 incumbent from Houston . . . Doggett press conference. . . Congressman Lloyd Doggett plans to join a number of Austin non-profit organizations this morning for a major announcement regarding local at-risk infants. The event is set for 11am at Family Connections, 825 East 53½ Street, Building E, Suite 101 . . . Meetings. . . Today is the fifth Monday of the month and there are no city boards scheduled to meet today . . . Don’t confuse them with the City Council. . . The Lower Colorado River Authority's Board of Directors intends to hold a special meeting at 2:00pm on Dec. 7 on the controversial issue of a proposed water line along Hamilton Pool Road. According to an LCRA press release, the Board has invited representatives of three area planning groups to make presentations and has extended a similar invitation to specific stakeholders, including landowners who have requested water service. Other members of the public who have signed up to speak may be given three minutes each to address the board—if their names are selected at random via a drawing. The Board has allotted one hour for those comments . . . UT asks alums about putting a hotel on MLK . . . The University of Texas has sent a survey out to Texas Exes to gauge the interest in the proposed UT Austin Hotel and Conference Center. According to the survey, the hotel and conference center will include a 250-room four-diamond hotel with spa services and an executive conference center targeted for group meetings of between 40 and 200 people. The hotel would be located at the corner of University Avenue and MLK Boulevard, directly between the Main Tower and the State Capitol Building. That means the site will be next door to the university’s 1,200-space parking garage, within a block of the Bullock State of Texas History Museum and within two blocks of the new Blanton Art Museum. . . Dealey’s absence . . . Mandy Dealey, who plans to run for Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman’s seat on the City Council, has been in McKinney for several weeks, tending to her critically ill brother. Last night, Dealey said she would be in Austin for a day or so to pick up mail and attend to vital errands, but intends to return to McKinney to be with him. Although they have been estranged, Dealey said she is her brother’s only family.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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