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As Austin reimagines public safety, new police findings emerge

Friday, January 28, 2022 by Amy Smith

Arrests made by Austin police declined 51 percent from 2017 to 2020, yet use-of-force incidents increased 58 percent, according to an independent review of the Austin Police Department.

A city-retained consulting firm, Kroll Associates, spent 48 months reviewing Austin’s police practices, particularly as they relate to race and ethnicity, and provided the second phase of its findings to City Council on Tuesday.

The report comes at a time when the city is shouldering the massive undertaking of reimagining public safety. A new cadet class will graduate today, Friday – the first class to graduate under the reimagined training program that is still being refined.

At Council’s work session Tuesday, one of the most striking revelations of the Kroll report came midway through a PowerPoint presentation, when consultant Rick Brown identified Austin as a “stop-and-frisk” city – a controversial practice that has carried a much higher profile in large cities such as New York and Chicago.

Brown, a nationally recognized police expert with 28 years in law enforcement, focused his presentation on a six-month period between June and November of 2019, drilling down on 1,321 incident reports involving 2,960 uses of force.

Brown and his team identified issues of concern in 112 incidents, or 8.5 percent. He found that 88 individuals were subjected to inappropriate force or unnecessary escalation. Of these 88 individuals, nearly 48 percent were Hispanic, 28.4 percent were Black, 21.6 percent were white, and 2.3 percent were identified as Asian or other.

“The handcuffing involving stop-and-frisk appears to be aggressively employed by some officers in Austin,” Brown told Council. “Most officers in their report state that they’re doing the stop-and-frisk, the physical detention of a person, for officer safety. And they’re not really articulating reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is happening or is beginning to happen.”

In some cases that Brown reviewed, the officer told an individual, “You’re not under arrest, you’ve done nothing wrong,” and then proceeded to handcuff and pat them down for weapons. “And when the subject asked why or displays uncertainty or tenses up … they’re charged with resisting arrest and there was no underlying charge for criminal activity that led to this encounter,” Brown said.

Of the 112 cases reviewed, Kroll found nine incidents of an officer unjustifiably pointing a firearm at a person. Five of the cases involved questionable neck restraints or choke holds, and there were two cases in which head strikes were used. Force was used against 21 people experiencing mental health issues, and 19 of these cases were determined to be inappropriate, said Brown.

In this segment of cases, Brown found 15 incidents in which officers either failed to activate their body cameras or the incident reports conflicted with the video footage. Finally, three problematic incidents involved field training officers who were in the process of mentoring new officers who had recently graduated from the police academy.

Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison spoke for many in expressing her shock over the use of stop-and-frisk in Austin. “Frankly, I’m blown away,” she said. “I didn’t realize that Austin was customarily a stop-and-frisk city.”

Brown agreed that the practice is a constitutional issue that requires reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was in progress. In some of the cases he reviewed, individuals were “actually taken to the ground and handcuffed and charged, but there was no crime that led to that encounter to begin with,” he said. “In my experience, when you’re not a witness, you’ve got to do a little due diligence to see what’s going on around you. There’s a lot of good police work out there, but in some of these cases (the arrest) was a quick call.” He added that in some cases a person would be in handcuffs mere minutes after police arrived on the scene.

Council is expected to receive another set of Kroll findings in mid-February.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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