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NAACP discusses police shooting, AFD hiring

Wednesday, May 27, 2009 by Michael Mmay

Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder spoke with members of the organization Tuesday at Ebenezer Baptist Church, first about the fatal police shooting of 18 year-old Nathaniel Sanders II, and then about the City Council’s postponement of a decision to allow Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr to create a new assistant chief position. That change could help diversify the upper ranks of the fire department.


Usually, when Linder speaks to City Council or the press, he channels the outrage of the African American community, and demands accountability. But he showed a much different side during the meeting with the NAACP membership. Rather than stoke the fires of anger, he spent much of the time urging calm, asking the community to respect the city’s process and pressing the audience to get more involved. “This is not the 1960s,” he said. “This is not Oakland. We’ve got our own issues, there’s enough blame to go around. We’ve got to take more responsibility for what happens in our own community. If we do that, we can better hold bad cops accountable.”


This attitude put Linder in conflict with some of his own members.  One woman stood up and accused the police of “coming into our community and killing our children. You don’t see cops going to West Lake to kill kids.”  At one point an elderly African American woman said that the police have “no respect for black people, they want to kill our children before they get old.”


Linder cut off many of the angrier speakers, which frustrated some in the audience. Instead, he steered the conversation towards the process going forward, which will include an internal police review, and oversight by the Citizens Review Panel (CRP) and the police monitor. He urged people to go to the monthly CRP meetings, and City Council meetings.  “We’ve got to show up before there is a crisis,” he said.


Linder also had some pointed comments about the new makeup of the City Council. “We’ve got a new City Council,” he said. “But the same old problems.”


He was particularly critical of the City Council’s vote to postpone a decision on Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr’s desire to hire five assistant chiefs.  Kerr has said she would like to diversify the upper ranks of the fire department, by hiring a black and a Hispanic assistant chief. “We have racism in the Fire Department, but it’s never challenged,” said Linder.


Linder said that the unions have gotten too powerful in local politics. “The chief wants to promote diversity,” he said. “But the unions didn’t like it, so they called their friends on City Council.”


He took particular aim at Mayor-elect Lee Leffingwell and Council Members Mike Martinez, and Laura Morrison. “We’ve got to let them know we want them to let the fire chief run the department,” he said. “I don’t like voting blocks. I’m very concerned about the new mayor.”


Chief Kerr was in the audience, and afterward she told In Fact Daily that “the union does have a firm position. But we all want the same thing – the best fire department possible.” She disagreed that the department was racist. However, she did acknowledge that the upper ranks of the fire department are not very diverse. “We need to address it,” she said. “I want to restore balance to the team.”


Kerr said diversity at the top was important, because it sets the tone for the department. “We are role models,” she said. “But more than that, it’s important to have different perspectives at the top. Also, I hope to create a diverse pool of prepared leaders, so that when I retire, the toughest challenge for the city manager is what internal person to pick.”


Earlier in the day, Leffingwell told In Fact Daily he hopes the Council can consider the assistant fire chief question again on June 11. He said the prior postponement had nothing to do with ethnic diversity and everything to do with the fact that the chief wanted to create a new assistant chief position at the same time firefighters’ hours were being cut to save money. Leffingwell said he wants the Council to approve promoting one Hispanic and one African American to assistant chief, and leave the question of whether to create a fifth chief position until the budget is done in September.

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