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Austin Council members say they’ve lost faith in the police chief: Next week they vote on changes

Monday, June 8, 2020 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

A fractured skull. A severe chest wound. A broken jaw from where a lead-pellet bag lodged inside a person’s mouth. The injuries to protesters over the weekend could have been fatal, the Austin-Travis County EMS chief told City Council members Friday morning. The physical and psychological recovery could take years.

And all of these injuries were caused by police.

Police Chief Brian Manley told Council members officers shot protesters with bags filled with lead pellets, hitting eight people in the head or neck; at least three people were hospitalized.

EMS Chief Ernesto Rodriguez said some APD officers were injured, too, with one requiring stitches.

In response to the police account of what happened Saturday and Sunday, nearly half the Council members said they’d lost faith in Manley’s leadership or felt they didn’t have a partner in making changes. Council Member Greg Casar and Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, who have voiced their criticism of Manley over earlier issues, asked him to resign.

Council will vote next week on changes to police policy, including banning the use of tear gas and less-lethal rounds during demonstrations and asking the department to significantly reduce its stock of military-grade equipment. Less-lethal ammunition, often made of rubber, wax, plastic or beanbags, are designed to be less likely to cause a fatal injury, in principle.

“I’m distraught by many of the issues raised last night,” Casar told Manley, referring to an emergency Council meeting where residents voiced concerns about police violence.

Council members and Manley had listened, via phone, to more than 100 people who shared their stories of the weekend’s events. Edwin Ayala told Council members through sobs how his 16-year-old brother, Brad Levi Ayala, was in pain after a police officer shot him in the head with a lead-pellet bag.

“All we ask for is transparency, to know the truth,” he said, “to know what happened.”

Ahead of the protests, Manley said, the department had prepared itself for some of the destruction it saw in Minneapolis, anticipating demonstrators in Austin might try to set police headquarters on fire.

When protesters shut down Interstate 35, Manley said, officers used tear gas and pepper spray to move them off the highway because they feared for the public’s safety.

“IH-35 cannot be closed unnecessarily because that is the main interstate highway through our city and that jeopardizes the public safety of everyone,” Manley told Council members Friday. “If our first responders – our fire, our EMS, or police resources – are delayed getting to those emergency calls for service, that puts other people’s lives and safety in danger.”

Manley said officers responded to protesters throwing rocks, water bottles and fireworks by shooting less-lethal rounds, including cotton bags full of lead pellets. He said one officer needed stitches after he had an “explosive device” thrown in his face, shattering his face shield and injuring him.

Protesters who spoke Thursday said they felt that APD’s shooting was unprovoked and that the demonstrations felt at times like a “war zone” and even a “massacre.” Farah Muscadin, director of the city’s Office of Police Oversight, said her office had forwarded 159 complaints from a four-day period of protests to the department’s Internal Affairs Division. In one year, she said, the office typically forwards 50 complaints.

Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison questioned why APD had not used less-lethal ammunition during other recent protests, particularly when people protested the city’s shutdown because of the coronavirus.

“It has nothing to do with who is protesting or what is the subject matter of the protest,” Manley said. “It has to do with the conduct of those protesting.”

“That’s unacceptable,” Harper-Madison responded. “Not to be rude, but that’s a cop out. … We’ve watched, frankly, white people with guns behave badly and they don’t get shot at.”

On Thursday, Manley said the department would now prohibit shooting less-lethal rounds into crowds, saying he had never seen some of the injuries they caused before.

“We are learning some very difficult lessons,” he said. “We are seeing some very serious injuries that I’m not sure anyone anticipated.”

But Council members called many of Manley’s answers to questions about APD’s choices over the weekend “disappointing” and “unconvincing.”

“I believe the honorable thing would be for you to resign,” Casar said, echoing calls from activists for the police chief to step down. Garza said the same.

“I have to join my colleagues who have asked the chief to reconsider your role in this organization, including asking for your honorable resignation,” she said. “I don’t know how we show the community we’re listening. I don’t know how we move past this. I don’t know how we retain faith in our community after this weekend.”

Council members Jimmy Flannigan and Pio Renteria said if they didn’t see clear change from the department soon, they would also call for Manley to step down. Mayor Steve Adler said he’d been let down by Manley’s lack of support in enacting some Council policies, like attempts to decriminalize homelessness, but he did not mention resigning. (Under state law, Council does not have the power to fire a police chief; in fact, no one appears to have that power. The city manager, Spencer Cronk, can only demote the police chief.)

Other Council members said they were disappointed in Manley, and asked him if the police violence over the weekend was indicative of a larger systemic problem in the police department.

“From what you know, chief, do you believe that what we are hearing and seeing from this weekend just represents isolated instances that are just part of error or mistake, or do you agree that we need institutional reform?” Council Member Alison Alter asked.

Manley said in response: “I don’t believe that the occurrences of this weekend should lead people to believe automatically that there’s a culture problem.”

In April, an outside investigator hired by the city to look into allegations of racism among the department’s highest ranks wrote that there “are some real cultural issues that are in need of attention.”

And in December, Council voted on a departmentwide audit of racism and bigotry within the department.

Harper-Madison said she was ready to take action: “The time for us to keep talking in circles is absolutely over.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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