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Downtown Commission to keep closer watch on downtown policing

Thursday, June 18, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

Whatever actions City Council takes to address the Austin Police Department’s response to racial justice protests, the Downtown Commission has voted to keep closer tabs on downtown policing efforts going forward.

The commission approved two proposals from Commissioner Meghan Skornia. The first requests monthly race-specific reports from APD on use of force, police-involved shootings and loitering tickets downtown. The second creates a Safety in Policing working group that will work with the police department on the information in the monthly reports and make recommendations on police leadership, staffing and funding.

“We are stewards of downtown Austin and this is part of our responsibility, although this is a very sensitive topic, to monitor everything that’s going on downtown, because we want to make sure that downtown Austin is a safe and inclusive place for every member of our community,” Commissioner August Harris said.

Skornia said she is “deeply, deeply upset and unnerved” by the violent use of force against protesters in recent weeks, and specifically, last Friday’s incident captured on video showing an officer kneeling on a man’s neck one day after Chief Brian Manley announced a ban on dangerous neck restraint practices.

“I realize you all are fighting for funding for your department and probably pretty scared,” Skornia told Chief Joe Chacon and Commander Ryan Adam on Wednesday. “But I just want to let you know that that incident – after you had said that wasn’t going to happen – has strengthened my resolve to do everything I can to defund the Austin Police Department as much as possible.”

Chacon said the department has footage of the incident, which took place downtown on the Interstate 35 frontage road. Before moving forward with an investigation, he said the department is focused on collecting all video footage from police dashcams and body cameras and hearing all witness testimony to determine if a policy was violated.

Commissioner Chris Kanipe, however, questioned the motive for collecting such extensive video evidence in a situation that appears “fairly black and white” in the footage that has been released.

“The video is very, very good evidence, but you have to look at other angles,” Chacon said. “Personally, I have seen videos that looked really bad, but when you see it from a different angle, you see something off-screen that you didn’t see before, you see a different angle that gives a different perspective.”

Given the broad range of police enforcement disparities, Commissioner David Gomez said he would like the commission’s oversight effort not to be limited to use of force, shootings or loitering incidents.

“Saying that we want at least this, to get started with, is a good beginning,” Gomez said. “Jaywalking is another thing, aggressive panhandling and any number of other citations that are given to individuals who are homeless, but not to tourists, and to people of color, but not to tourists.”

Residents speaking in public comment urged the commission to recommend that Council defund the Austin Police Department’s $435 million annual budget, a conversation that may be continued at today’s first meeting of Council’s Public Safety Committee.

“If the goal of Austin police is public safety then (it) is a broken institution,” Lisa Umhey told the commission. “We do not need an army of weaponized people, the majority of whom are white men, harassing and subjectively putting people under arrest for petty violations.”

“We need to invest in research-based models of safety: support and prevention. If we want safety, what we really need is a well-funded space where mental health service providers, health care providers and social workers can serve the community. We need a lot more affordable housing options, educational opportunities and access to higher-paying jobs; all of this can be funded from the Austin police budget.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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