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Public Safety Committee to hear testimony on changes to police tactics

Thursday, July 2, 2020 by Nina Hernandez

City Council’s newly revived Public Safety Committee convenes today at 2 p.m. to discuss the Austin Police Department’s General Orders and tactics. It’ll be a different kind of committee meeting: Rather than lead the discussion, committee members will listen to community members and gather feedback on a new vision for the department.

The meeting comes just weeks after protests calling for justice in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Mike Ramos in Austin. The tactics police deployed against protesters – pepper spray and “less lethal” ammunition – drew ire from the community.

“I’m trying to be very intentional with how we have the public conversation on the work,” Committee Chair Jimmy Flannigan said. “What I’m trying to do is bring the folks to the table that have the background or professional experience” to explain how to move forward and navigate the challenges the city faces.

Flannigan said because of the state laws governing a police chief’s powers, Council has to be “very engaged” in making changes, rather than delegating to City Manager Spencer Cronk.

Cronk, Police Chief Brian Manley and representatives from the Austin Police Association were not invited to the meeting.

“We’ve had those conversations,” Flannigan explained. “Now I want to hear from the officers who we’ll be asking to do a lot of this work. And I want to hear from, not advocates whose job has been successful, but from academics and the lawyers and the researchers who have a broad understanding of the challenges of implementation.”

As Flannigan noted, making changes at the city level doesn’t necessarily mean the police department will comply. Therefore, the city must partner with the department and its officers to make changes that will stick.

From his conversations with union leadership, frontline officers and district representatives, Flannigan said there are things officers would like to see changed. “It’s like turning a cruise ship – you’ve gotta start turning it way before you see it change course,” Flannigan said.

He acknowledged that there might be some things the community wants changed that the union doesn’t agree with, but “can we at least get the 85 percent done while we figure out the last 15 percent? I think we can.”

Flannigan also stressed that the meeting is not going to be a space to relitigate the public outrage over the use-of-force incidents at the protests over the past month. Questions about discipline and the fate of Chief Manley are for another day.

“What we can acknowledge is, the public did not like what they saw,” Flannigan said. “So rather than try and rewrite this last month, let’s just talk about what we do want to see moving forward.”

Another thing Flannigan would like Council members and the community to discuss is the role of police officers in managing protests that are specifically about law enforcement.

“When the protest is about police, that is a very different thing than literally any kind of protest,” he said. “Beyond general crowd control techniques, we need to explore crowd control techniques specifically for police protests.”

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