Human Rights Commission calls for democratically elected police chief
On Monday, the Human Rights Commission agreed that City Council should change city ordinance to allow Austin to democratically elect its police chief.
Under the proposal, which was put together by commissioners Nathan White, Kristian Caballero and Alicia Weigel, Austin voters would select a new police chief in a local election, and then the mayor would appoint that person to the position.
“The current structure of policing has been well-documented to be a problematic and racist institution, which was initially organized as slave patrols,” the recommendation reads. “The current chief of police is complicit in the violation of Austin residents’ human rights according to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human rights.”
After the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Michael Ramos in Austin, protests broke out nationally. Many criticized APD’s use of “less-lethal” munitions on protesters and Chief Brian Manley’s response. Though reform activists and even four Council members called for his resignation, Manley has kept his job.
The recommendation points to APD’s “known reputation for unfair and racially biased practices,” and slams the current appointment process as one that hands “a distorted amount of power to representatives.”
White said that the city would use the process already in place to appoint a new chief after the voters decide which candidate is best for the job. That could take the form of a special-called election or an informal, city-administered process.
“The goal is to put the chief of police in a position to be subject to public pressure,” White said. “They’d have to win an election, they’d have to campaign on their values. The hope is that people would be able to make a much more transparent decision.”
The current process is largely left to the city manager. In 2018, then-interim Chief Manley was named the sole finalist for the position by newly minted City Manager Spencer Cronk. Manley received universal praise for his handling of the Austin bomber situation that spring.
“Effectively, what we were trying to do was make a change without making a big charter change and just changing from the city manager having hiring-and-firing power to the mayor having hiring-and-firing power,” White said.
But that might not be so easy.
Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said that the change would require a charter election. And he’s not sure what would be on the table for a May 2021 charter election. Council could move to put such an amendment on the table, or citizens could put forward a petition.
This proposal is parallel to the push to amend the charter to make Austin a strong mayor city. That would eliminate the city manager position and delegate the duties to the mayor.
The commission voted 6-4-1 to pass the recommendation.
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