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Mayoral challengers: APD has a “race relations problem”

Monday, April 16, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

Just over a week after Austin Police Officer Eric Copeland shot and killed Ahmede Jabbar Bradley, an African-American man, during a traffic stop, mayoral challengers Brigid Shea and Clay Dafoe pointed to the incident as proof that there need to be fundamental changes in the way the Austin Police Department and the city as a whole do business, particularly concerning issues of race. That left incumbent Mayor Lee Leffingwell to defend the department’s policies during yesterday’s heated KOOP mayoral debate.

Shea told the small audience at Scholz Garten that the shooting was a tragedy but also a symptom of a larger, institutional problem.

“The truth is there is a race relations problem between the police department and minority communities,” Shea said. She said she has been in discussion with community leaders, including NAACP President Nelson Linder, to try to get civil rights attorney Connie Rice to come to Austin and help the city address the deep-seated mistrust between APD and minority communities. Rice, Shea pointed out, has been very successful at bringing civil rights cases against the Los Angeles Police Department but has also been instrumental in helping the newest chief of police in that city improve relations between LAPD and minorities.

Leffingwell, however, disputed Shea’s contention that APD has an issue when it comes to race.

“I do not believe there is a race problem in the Austin Police Department,” the mayor said. “I believe our police department is very race-sensitive. It’s ethnically diverse in its composition from top to bottom. We have a police monitor and an oversight board.”

Leffingwell also took issue with Dafoe’s argument that APD needs to adopt a “preservation-of-life” standard for its use-of-force policy, which, according to Clay, means that officers would have to “exhaust all non-lethal options before they even think about pulling a gun on one of our citizens.”

“We do have a very strong preservation-of-life standard,” Leffingwell said. “It may not be called that, but officers do not use lethal force unless they’re trying to protect their life or someone else’s life. That’s the only time they use deadly force.” Leffingwell acknowledged there have been “some incidents” but pointed to Austin’s low crime rate and relatively small number of police-involved shootings as proof that APD and the city are implementing the right policies

But Dafoe said as mayor he would “educate police officers about the importance of really preserving our citizens’ rights” in order to reduce the number of police-involved violent incidents and improve relations the police and the people.

“I honor our police department’s willingness to serve, and they do a great job of keeping us safe, but these are serious instances that need more investigation,” Dafoe said. “And we need to adopt a new policy so these mistakes are not happening again, and our citizens’ lives put at risk by a policy that does not protect us and certainly doesn’t hold our police officers accountable.”

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