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Council postpones decision on City Marshal Office

Wednesday, October 20, 2021 by Kali Bramble

Last Thursday, City Council considered the creation of a new municipal court division that would replace its use of sworn Austin Police Department officers.

The ordinance would create a City Marshal Office, an agency separate from the Austin Police Department, whose members would handle enforcement of Class C misdemeanor cases. City marshals would carry out duties such as issuing warrants, processing arrests and transporting convicted individuals between courts and detention facilities. 

Following a memo citing the need for “additional communication with stakeholders,” Council agreed to postpone the item until Nov. 18.

Still, speakers chose to voice their concern over potential repercussions, particularly for Austin’s homeless population. “The municipal court handles Class C offenses associated with poverty and the state-wide camping ban … under the marshal program, police with a new name will serve warrants as well as book and transport these folks to detention centers,” said Amelia Casas, commenting on behalf of the Texas Fair Defense Project.

Since the implementation of Prop B and the state-wide camping ban, factions with conflicting opinions have been racing to address the crisis in their preferred way. As the city has rushed to clear encampments via shelter and housing projects, the Austin Police Department faces pressure to enforce the voter-backed camping ban in the form of ticketing and arrests. 

Advocates for people experiencing homelessness expressed concerns that the new marshal office will expand the policing and incarceration of homeless people, conflicting with efforts to provide alternatives.

Jessica Johnson, a member of the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, said, “Coupled with the implementation of the state-wide camping ban, creating an agency that will have the power to serve low-class warrants and put people in jail means further entrenching low-income Texans into the tangled and often inescapable web of the criminal legal system.” 

The Reimagining Public Safety Initiative, formed in response to the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, has steered the development of policy recommendations for police reform. Members of the task force found it alarming that the proposal for the marshal office came out of this initiative. 

“I find it incredibly concerning that this measure was allegedly proposed as part of the reimagining initiative,” Johnson said. “The creation of another law enforcement agency and hiring more police officers, regardless of the agency name, is antithetical to the work of the task force.”

Council Member Ann Kitchen spoke to these concerns, advising that staffers take a closer look at the item before it returns to the agenda.

“I’m requesting that between now and Nov. 18 this item be brought to the Public Safety board and commission,” said Kitchen. “This is an item that needs some public engagement.”

The Public Safety Commission meets Nov. 1, when it will likely open up further dialogue on the proposal.

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