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Public Safety Commission frowns on marshal office proposal

Thursday, November 4, 2021 by Amy Smith

While it took no action on a proposal to create a marshal office within the Austin Municipal Court, the Public Safety Commission largely gave the plan a thumbs-down on Monday.

Last month, City Council heard concerns from residents about the proposal and postponed a decision until the Public Safety Commission could weigh in on transferring class C misdemeanor duties from the Austin Police Department to sworn peace officers, who would also provide security at the city court.

Commissioners questioned how creating such a division fulfills the mission of the Reimagining Public Safety initiative, which grew out of a discussion about the use-of-force tactics employed by police locally and nationally during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.

“I’m not hearing how (the marshal office) is reimagining how we think about public safety,” Commissioner Amanda Lewis said, following presentations from Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano and Municipal Court Clerk Mary Jane Grubb.

Commissioner Rebecca Bernhardt agreed the proposal fails to meet the goals and recommendations put forward by a community task force on public safety.

“I also object to characterizing this as reimagining public safety,” Bernhardt said. “I know it may be a city program, but I think the idea behind reimagining public safety is not using peace officers to solve problems. So just changing the title of the peace officer … is not reimagining anything.”

Commissioner Nelly Paulina Ramirez asked Arellano to explain the distinction between a licensed peace officer and a police officer under the proposed program.

Peace officers working in the marshal office would not require the extensive training that’s required of an Austin police officer, Arellano said.

Karly Jo Dixon, managing attorney of client services for the Texas Fair Defense Project, echoed commissioners’ concerns that the proposal doesn’t seem to mesh with the objectives of reimagining public safety. “If actually feels like using additional law enforcement and creating new roles for law enforcement. It seems a little disingenuous to frame it that way.”

Given ongoing conversations around law enforcement resources, “The court needs to be building trust,” Dixon said. “We need to get people through the door, no doubt, but we need to do that in a way that really shows that there are options for people who cannot afford to pay tickets. People still see the court as a place they go to and they end up in jail.”

The proposal returns to City Council for deliberation and action on Nov. 18.

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