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Police panel reviews death of Tasered suspect

Tuesday, March 7, 2006 by

APA leader doubts utility of review process

A public hearing last night on the September 26 death of Michael Clark while in police custody turned into a debate over APD’s policy over the use of Tasers. A number of speakers at the Police Citizen Review Board (CRB) hearing questioned the way police used Tasers on Clark and cast doubt on a medical examiners’ report that said the cause of death was due to drug use complicated by sickle cell anemia. When the hearing was over, Austin Police Association Mike Sheffield questioned the usefulness of the panel itself.

The CRB was taking public testimony to get input and before they deliberated the case and made any recommendations to Police Chief Stan Knee, according to Acting Police Monitor Susan Hutson.

According to police reports, Clark was taken into police custody last fall after officers responded to a call of a man fighting with a woman on East William Cannon Drive. The first officer on the scene put Clark in the back seat of his car, with in-car cameras taping the incident. A second officer arrived and sought to do a mental health evaluation on Clark, who refused to be handcuffed for the exam.

After an extended period of time, Clark still refused to be handcuffed, and was forcibly removed from the police car. Three different officers used their Taser weapons to subdue Clark, who was then handcuffed and left outside in 108-degree heat for another period of time. Clark complained to officers that he was in distress, and EMS was called, but the ambulance took more than 15 minutes to arrive. Clark died after being taken to a hospital.

Deputy Medical Examiner Elizabeth Peacock listed Clark’s cause of death as resulting from a "massive intravascular sickling associated with extreme physical activity due to PCP and cocaine induced excited delirium." In essence, she concluded, due to the presence of narcotics and sickle cell anemia, Clark’s blood could no longer carry enough oxygen to keep him alive.

Several speakers at the hearing questioned the need three different officers to use a Taser on Clark in an attempt to subdue him. Charlene Harris told board members that to her, police using three Tasers to arrest Clark was abusive and a violation of his rights.

“They looked at him like he was an animal in cage,” she said. “They pulled him out the car, Tasered him, and then left him there in the heat. It’s not right. Because he was black, he was treated differently.”

Matthew Bay with the Austin People’s Legal Collective (APLC), reported that – partly because of the Clark case – his group had requested APD records on use of force and compiled statistics on the use of Tasers over a two year period.

“About 45 percent of those on whom police used a Taser were passively resisting arrest,” he said. “They were not being violent or threatening. During the span that we collected data, there was one death due to the use of a Taser, besides the incident with Mr. Clark. That means statistically, that we can expect one death for every 400 police encounters that involve a Taser.”

Carly Jo Dixon, also with APLC, added that statistics showed that Tasers were disproportionately used on minorities.

“We found that 67 percent of people Tasered were people of color,” she said.

NAACP Director Nelson Linder characterized the Clark case as one more incident where a minority dies while in police custody.

“Police in this situation continued to escalate,” he said. “We need to train our police officers how de-escalate a situation. We must address the initial approach these officers make to a situation, and include in their training ways to keep a situation from getting out of hand.”

The meeting took an emotional turn when Clark’s mother, Mary Clark, addressed the board. “He has a four-year-old child that doesn’t have a father now,” she said. “Nobody from the police has come to me or to him or to anyone in the family and apologized for what happened to Michael.”

She said she hopes he will be that last black Austinite to die in the hands of police. “Enough is enough,” she said. “My son was only 33 years old. How would it feel if it was your child? It has to stop.”

After hearing public testimony for about two hours, board members adjourned to executive session to deliberate on making a recommendation to the police chief in the incident. That recommendation will not be made public.

APA President Mike Sheffield was dissatisfied with the proceedings. Many of the speakers, he said, presented incorrect information during their testimony but were not challenged by the Police Monitor or the members of the Citizens Review Panel.

“I wish that when people get in there and want to relate facts, that they relate facts that are true and correct and not some of the false things I heard said there tonight.” For Sheffield, that was a symptom of a larger problem with the overall system of civilian oversight for APD.

“They’re not supposed to be adversarial; they’re not supposed to prosecutorial. That’s not what this was designed for, yet this has become that. It now has become a political arena, and the police officers have become the political footballs.” Sheffield told In Fact Daily he believed the current system was not functioning properly. “We spend a lot of money for this process. At this point, I think people have some questions whether this is the process that’s going to work for Austin.”

Task Force studies documentation

Preservation panel reaches accord on amount of proof needed for historic status

The final meeting of the Historic Preservation Task Force – or what was promised to be the final meeting – was a discussion of the documentation for local historic districts.

City Council has convened, and then reconvened, the Historic Preservation Task Force, which is being chaired by Zoning and Platting Commission Chair Betty Baker. During the latest round in the process, task force members have set out parameters for local historic districts, compiled an appropriate application and defined a process. However, task force members—never hesitant to disagree on an issue—split over documentation.

The neighborhood-oriented members of the task force wanted to minimize the paperwork necessary to create a local historic district. Others, like Baker, didn’t want to minimize the importance of documenting the actual history of the district. A first vote, 4-3, set a threshold of 20 percent for the documentation of contributing structures. Member John Donisi, however, asked that the vote be recalled and a higher standard set for 25 percent in order to capture a unanimous vote from the task force.

The percentage of homes is small – especially in a local historic district with only one block face – but Baker said the point was to maintain some credibility in the process. The purpose of the district, first and foremost, is to preserve the history of Austin. The point is not to make sure every house on a street looks alike.

“It was really important, from the beginning, that there be some validity to this,” Baker told the task force after the first vote. “People come to the commission and say, ‘Gosh, we need a historic district,’ and I want to crawl under the table. This isn’t going to cure everything, but it’s got to be legitimate and it’s got to be credible.”

The standard, which will be recommended to Council, is to document ownership and occupancy of 25 percent of the contributing structures in five-year intervals. To qualify for status as a local historic district, at least 51 percent of the structures must be considered “contributing,” which is defined as architecturally comparable, retaining a historic appearance without major alterations and an age of at least 50 years.

The task force also agreed that homeowners should face increased penalties for illegal actions in historic districts, such as demolishing a home without a building permit.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Vote today. . . Voters in other parts of the state may have exciting reasons to go to the polls today, but for most Travis County voters, this election seems like a snoozer. The GOTV machine will be cranked up for voters in the district covered by Precinct 2 Commissioner, with incumbent Karen Sonleitner fighting what may be the hardest battle of her long career. Novice Sarah Eckhardt is challenging Sonleitner with the backing of some noted environmentalists like Shudde Fath and Brigid Shea and the Linebarger law firm. Both are Democrats. No Republicans volunteered for the job. Sonleitner was instrumental in preventing the firm from landing a contract that would have put delinquent county tax collection into Linebarger’s hands and she has a lot of longtime supporters. But they may not be as motivated to vote as those angry over toll roads, landfills, and in the case of the Sheriff’s Department, what deputies see as an inadequate raise. Eckhardt has been spending a lot of money and worked hard to motivate those folks. Few can remember an uglier fight in the Democratic primary—at least since the Republicans took over almost everywhere else. Sonleitner’s political consultant Peck Young said Monday he expects Precinct 2 to generate 33-35 percent of the vote countywide . . . For what it’s worth . . . Last week’s Austin Chronicle contained two facing full-page ads vilifying Sonleitner for her support of toll roads and landfills. The latter seems particularly disingenuous given the complexities of the landfill issue. But a multitude of environmental leaders’ names are attached to the ad, including that of David Foster of Texas Clean Water Action. After the ad appeared, Foster sent an email to Sonleitner which says, “This is to let you know that I had not (sic) prior knowledge of the ad on page 5 last Thursday's Austin Chronicle, nor did I give my approval for my name or Clean Water Action's name to be included. I strongly doubt that any of the other individuals and organizations listed in this ad in the right-hand sidebar were consulted either. I do not know what the Progressive PAC is, nor do I know Brian Roark.” Roark, an attorney with the firm of Minton Burton Foster & Collins, is the Progressive Action PAC’s treasurer. The PAC paid for the ads, as well as a pro-Eckhardt ad on page 27 of the Chronicle. Roark, who worked for former County Attorney Ken Oden, contributed $6,200 to the PAC; and the firm itself contributed $7,500; Oden gave $6,000. Attorney Allan Williams, who is not a member of the Minton firm, gave $6,000, according to a campaign finance report filed February 24. Those were the only contributions to the PAC . . . The PAC contributed $1,000 to Eric Shepperd, who is running for Judge of County Court at Law No. 2. The group also paid $6,000 to People for Efficient Transportation and spent $9,213 on a mailer in support of Eckhardt’s candidacy. The money spent on the Chronicle ads does not show up on the February 24 report . . . Eckhardt’s party will be at the Amy's Ice Creams & Phil's Ice House 5624 Burnet Road beginning at 7:30pm. Sonleitner will skip the party, as she has in the past, preferring just to watch the vote counting. She plans to be available to the media by phone and at the Travis County Clerk’s HQ on Airport Blvd . . . Runoffs likely . . . The race for District 47 in the Texas House, formerly held by Terry Keel, may be the second most hotly contested local race with nine total candidates. Four Democrats, Eric Beverly, Valinda Bolton, Jason Earle, and Royce LeMoine, are on the ballot. Look for a runoff between Earle and Bolton in the Democratic primary. On the Republican side, there are five candidates, Dick Reynolds, Bill Welch, Rich Phillips, Terry Dill and Alex Castano. Look for Welch and Phillips in the GOP runoff. . . Parties. . . Earle and Bolton will each host an election night party for campaign supporters tonight. Earle’s party will be at Cypress Grill, 4404 W William Cannon, from 7pm – 10pm. Bolton will be at the Brick Oven Pizza at Slaughter and Brodie Lane from 6:30-9pm . . . . Not interested in Democrats or Republicans? . . . A couple of independent campaigns will also begin in earnest the minute today is over. Both independent candidates for governor, author and musician Kinky Friedman and State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, can officially begin gathering signatures to get their names on the November ballot. Only registered voters who did not vote in either party primary are eligible to sign independent candidate petitions, according to state law. With both candidates needing to collect more than 45,000 such signatures over the next several weeks, it will be an uphill battle for both of them. The Friedman campaign is planning a “Midnight Rally and Petition Drive Kick-Off“ at 12:01am Wednesday on the South Steps of State Capitol ( http://www.kinkyfriedman.com) The Strayhorn campaign is distributing petitions and instructions to her supporters over her campaign website. ( http://www.carolestrayhorn.com) . . . Listening cards . . . Representative Mark Strama—unopposed in the Democratic primary for House District 50—will be posted along with his supporters outside polling places in North Austin and Pflugerville throughout the day today passing out “listening cards” to Republican and Democratic primary voters alike. The listening cards survey voters’ opinions on issues including education, transportation, and property taxes. Over the past two months, Strama has hosted dozens of “listening sessions” with parents, taxpayers, and teachers from District 50 on the issue of public education, in preparation for the upcoming special session on school finance. Strama volunteers will be at polling places primarily from 7 to 9am and from 5 to 7pm on Tuesday . . . Meetings . . . The Residential Development Regulation Task Force meets at 7:30am in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall . . . The Austin City Council/AISD Board of Trustees Joint Subcommittees meets at 11:30am at the AISD Board Auditorium at 1111 West Sixth St. . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Travis County Commissioners Court meets at 9am in Commission Chambers at 314 W. 11th St. . . . The Williamson County Commissioners meet at 9:30am in Pct. 3 JP Courtroom on inner Loop Drive in Georgetown . . . Adoption fees cut . . . The Humane Society of Austin and Travis County (AHS), Austin’s largest no kill animal shelter, has lowered the price of adoption for dogs, kittens and cats, “The price change is permanent . . . to save more animal lives by increasing adoptions,” said Frances Jonon, AHS Executive Director, “and although the average cost for an animal stay has not decreased ($270.00), we wanted to adjust our prices so that cost would be one less barrier to adoptions.” Prices have decreased from $125 to $90 for adult dogs (over 6 months), and from $115 to $90 for cats and kittens. The fee for puppies will remain the same, at $150. The adoption center at 124 West Anderson Lane is open from noon to 7pm on Mondays, Wednesdays through Saturdays. Sunday’s hours are 1pm to 5pm and is closed to the public on Tuesdays .

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