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Council questions need for Municipal Court marshal program

Thursday, November 18, 2021 by Jo Clifton

During Tuesday’s work session, City Council had numerous questions about a plan to establish a city marshal office as a division of the Austin Municipal Court and seemed ready to postpone taking action on the item on today’s agenda. The mayor and several Council members seemed surprised to learn that they had authorized creation of the court security officer program and budgeted funds to do just that in the current budget.

Currently, APD officers provide security for the Municipal Court and the Downtown Austin Community Court. As Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano explained to Council, the approximately 12 APD officers performing those duties would be reassigned to regular law enforcement work, such as patrolling the streets.

No one on Council questioned the need to protect judges and the public attending court. According to a memo from the court, “Although there has been a reduction in cases filed, security incidents are increasing at a higher rate. From 2017-2021, there was a 75 percent reduction in cases filed and a 275 percent increase in (the) security incident rate.”

As the memo notes, “Judges and prosecutors at (Municipal Court and DACC) have had their lives threatened; a DACC client slit their wrist in court with scissors; staff members have been sexually harassed as well as verbally and physically assaulted.”

The memo also notes that employees who work at Municipal Court have had to contend with so-called “sovereign citizens,” a fringe movement of individuals who believe that the government and the court system are not legitimate. The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies these people as domestic terrorists. The memo says, “for decades there’s been frequent interaction with sovereign citizens at AMC, including disruptive and threatening behavior to members of the public and court staff.”

According to the memo, court management preferred to keep APD officers in their current positions, “but that is not an option. In collaboration with the city manager’s office, we have determined that a hybrid of peace officers in the courthouse and unarmed guards posted at entrances is the best option.” However, they noted that some public safety reform advocates had expressed concerns about creating a new program.

Municipal Court Presiding Judge Sherry Statman and Municipal Court Clerk Mary Jane Grubb explained to Council that, while it was not their preference to create a new marshal unit, they were not given the choice. “It’s going to be a lot of work,” Statman said.

Grubb said once Council approves creation of the marshal service, the city must apply to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement for authorization. Then the court will hire the chief marshal, who in turn will help design the new program. She said the court has hired an outside security firm to perform the duties currently being done by APD, but that contract will run out in June.

Mayor Steve Adler said it was important for police officers to be engaged in actual law enforcement. “I like the idea of having a marshal program with all the safeguards,” he said, but wanted to make sure that there were “guardrails” so that the marshals were not performing other law enforcement activities. He also said he wanted an explanation of how budgeting for APD might be impacted because of switching officers back to regular duties. That concern is a result of the pressure put on the city by House Bill 1900 not to reduce funds spent on police in the future. Such a reduction might jeopardize the city’s authority to collect taxes.

Adler urged city management to come back quickly with answers about funding and responsibilities, so Council can make a decision this year.

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