Our readers talk back.
Fri., Feb. 13, 2004
The City Manager Responds
The media appears trapped in a numerical vortex. The recent frenzy of articles on police use-of-force reports is polarizing our community and our police officers with an endless supply of statistics and questionable interpretations.
What the data is and what it isn't. Force reports are not complaints of force, but self-generated reports by the officers involved in an incident where some level of force was used, usually during the course of an arrest and in response to some form of resistance. A force report is not an indication of excessive or inappropriate force. Almost two-thirds are reports of minor interactions. No law requires us to collect this information we do so to improve training and thoroughly document our actions. Many officers overreport use of force well beyond our policy requirement to be scrupulous in their incident reporting.
Whose statistics are right? This is our own data, and we understand its limitations. On one hand, the Statesman overstates the disparity in force reports by using police contacts as the base when 88% of all force reports are tied to arrests, a smaller subset of police contacts. And more importantly, they ultimately lose the context of the data, leaving an impression of departmental racism and abuse with most readers. On the other hand the Chronicle mirrors the city's methodology, which understates the disparity in force reports by only using arrest numbers as the base. This method still shows disparity for African-Americans, while ignoring the 12% of force reports that occur outside of an arrest scenario.
The Statesman inflames. The Chronicle diminishes. Neither statistical analysis is the beacon of truth because statistics never are. The city of Austin never accepted the context or slant of the Statesman articles, but we chose not to argue the data itself. Why? Because no matter how you manipulate the data, ultimately some level of disparity is shown in use of force and in four other areas: number of complaints, car stops, consent searches, and lethal force. At some point you are simply arguing the magnitude of the disparity.
Assessing blame. Acknowledging the disparity in the data does not determine the causes for that disparity. And it is not an indictment of our police officers or our department. This type of disparity is true in police departments across the country and much less so in our department. The Austin Police Department is a diverse, professional organization whose record of force is far below the national average, using force in only 1% of all arrests. And more importantly, disparity such as this has many socioeconomic causes not attributable to or controllable by police officers that deal with disparity at the tail end of the problem. The whole community owns a piece of the disparity problem, not just APD.
However as the city manager, I believe we have an obligation to acknowledge the concern raised by the data and to look at our operations to see what might contribute to or impact that disparity. There's no shame in that. It's called perfecting policing. We do that every day. We did that before the articles, and we will be doing it long after the articles are forgotten.
Speaking of cowardice. Mike Clark-Madison's article ran with the incomprehensible header "A Cowardly City Hides Behind a Dishonest Daily's Tall Tales" ["Austin@Large," News, Feb. 6]. Our chief and our officers are gutsy enough to collect the data that few other major cities in the country collect as stringently as we do for self-assessment. We are not afraid of the data, and we are not afraid of accepting accountability for correcting any role we may play in contributing to the disparity the data reflects. These are the very characteristics that make APD an exceptional organization.
Meanwhile everyone else is pointing fingers. Some want to blame officers, while others want to blame the chief and City Hall. Maybe the real cowardice is in those who are unwilling to examine their own role in contributing to the disparity behind the numbers.
Where the community goes from here. We have a lot to be proud of. Today, Austin is the second safest major city in the country an achievement largely attributable to the hard work of the men and women of APD. We are one of only four major police departments in the country to have achieved the rigorous standards of police accreditation. My job as your city manager is to provide our officers with the support they need to do their jobs while ensuring our organization is accountable to all segments of the community it serves. That requires the courage of self-assessment, not the cowardice of blame or denial.
Much interested in the Statesman's work on the use of force by our police. So too was I interested and a little alarmed by The Austin Chronicle's Mike Clark-Madison's "the daily [the Austin American-Statesman] played games with numbers it doesn't understand, pulled meaningless statistics out of its ass." Then Mike again on Rich Oppel: "I don't even know how to be that sleazy. Perhaps Oppel can teach me, because he is, after all, a recognized leader in the profession" ["Austin@Large," News, Feb. 6].
Mentally I turned back to "Page Two" where Louis Black solemnly intoned, "In general I resist criticizing the Statesman in this column and urge the staff to do likewise." What a relief, a perfect prophylaxis that. For should the Chronicle and the Austin American-Statesman truly get into a pissing contest, all Austin residents would have to don raincoats daily. The whole city would seem on its way to or from a screening of hard-on-core pornography.
I'm an easy lay (intellectually, at my age that's about all I can manage) so Jordan Smith's judo with the data would have convinced me, save for the deflating vituperation. Could we have a third round? Would a team of social scientists from UT be foolish enough to enter the fray? The questions are really too important not to take seriously.
Dear Editor Black:
I've been following the Statesman's "exposé" of police brutality against Austin African-Americans and Hispanic Americans with mild interest. It looks like another effort to slightly sensationalize a sensitive issue, and then kill it without beginning to get at the real meat of the matter. Any real journalistic investigation will reveal that poor people of color in Austin are not only being manhandled by police, they're being run out of town as the gentrification of East Austin proceeds apace.
Imagine my amazement when the current Chronicle weighed in on the side of the police. Your own editorial and a lead article ("The Figures Do Lie," News, Feb. 6) castigate the Statesman for basing its conclusions upon shoddy data analysis. The article's arguments seem pretty convincing actually, but so what?
So the Statesman drew correct conclusions incompetently. Is the Chronicle saying the Statesman may be right but the Chronicle is afraid people might discount their findings because they sort of made it all up? Meaning that we need some really decent investigation of this issue? If that's the Chronicle's intention, then hurrah for them!
But if the Chronicle's only goal here is to blast the Statesman, then I have to accuse the Chronicle of a worse journalistic crime than the Statesman's. This crime would be prioritizing issues of competition between newspapers over the community issues both papers merely exploit in order to sell copies. Somehow the people whose health and livelihoods are at stake get lost in the shuffle.
In other words, I'm hoping that the Chronicle will announce in its next issue that its exposé was intended to highlight the issue, not the Statesman, and to attract lots of attention to the real investigation it intends to initiate. This would be an in-depth, longitudinal exposure of how poor people of color in Austin are treated by police in comparison with other citizens. The fallout from such an exposé would indeed be to call attention to the difference between good journalism and poor journalism. But in a constructive rather than a destructive way.
Left as it is, the effect of the Chronicle's criticism of the Statesman is to silence even more the voices of racism's victims. Very much as though two emergency medical teams had arrived at an accident scene where instead of saving the injured, they argued about methodology until the injured died.
Professor of sociology
Austin Community College
'Chronicle' Is Anti-Austin, Dentler Is Schizophrenic
It is disappointing that the Chronicle, one of the nation's most important weekly alternative papers, printed Matt Dentler's Feb. 6 review of Oliver Future's first record ["Texas Platters," Music].
Dentler's rant is strikingly schizophrenic. After a couple of hundred words of scowling and tisking at OF's album, he finishes with a complete turnaround, calling the record "expertly produced and solidly penned." He scoffs at OF for trying too hard and then scolds the band for not having tried hard enough to match a Radiohead or Bowie album. Finally, the Chronicle and Dentler show a confusing, confused anti-Austin bias by calling OF one of the best bands in Texas and then pouting that OF's music is unsophisticated compared with out-of-state bands. The new avant-garde is apparently incubating somewhere in Idaho.
Clearly, no one expects the Chronicle to be a blind, deaf cheerleader for Austin artists. But it's shooting the town in the foot to publish uninsightful, bilious journalism such as Dentler's piece.
Long Live the Cactus!
It sure makes me feel like an old man to realize that the Cactus Cafe is 25 years old ["TCB," Music, Jan. 30]. That oasis surely holds a special place in the hearts of all of us who witnessed the magic that could occur in that room. May it live another 25.
Be More Careful
I am boggled by Michael King's response to a letter ["Postmarks," Feb. 6] about the article "The Death of Ben Brownlee" [News, Jan. 30] wherein King says, "Ben/Tesía was not a transsexual."
As the article's second paragraph quoted, "he felt that he was a female trapped in a male body." If that's not transsexual, then what is?
I can only guess that King misunderstands the word "transsexual" and mistakenly equates it with having had sex-reassignment surgery. If this were the meaning of TS, then the notions of pre-op, post-op, and no-op TS would not exist.
The Chronicle seems to be unduly dismissing the questions raised by letter writers about this article. I certainly appreciated the article's goal of raising awareness of how schools are letting down students who are struggling with issues like this, but especially when you get a slew of letters raising the issue of name and pronoun of transfolk, I would expect the Chronicle to be more careful. Claiming that "Ben/Tesía was not a transsexual" is absurd, based on what the article reported.
I thought your story on the death of Ben Brownlee/Tesía Samara was outstanding ["The Death of Ben Brownlee," News, Jan. 30]. What I can't stand is the multitude of people writing in who seem to be more shocked over pronoun ambiguity than anything else.
This kind of pickiness is why I despise identity politics. It is all trees and no forest ideology. Somehow a good story became a monument to PC absurdity. I don't mean to say that transgendered persons should be denied the use of the proper pronoun, but that the people that are so indignant over an editing call should be thankful the story was even written in the first place and the issue was raised.
A pronoun does not ruin a story or define a life. A young person tragically took their own life, and the main point of debate seems to be how many pronouns can fit on the head of a pin.
Charge Was Not Accidental
Thanks for the coverage of the case with APD and the "DC Five" ["Democracy Five Appeal Case," News, Feb. 6] there are a lot of fine details to this case which would take a great deal of your time to review, but I wanted to point out one fact I consider important in relation to your statement:
"An APD horse either charged or was spooked and bolted into the demonstrators."
Part of the evidence of the case is that the mounted police were ordered by APD to charge the protesters. It came across the APD radio, heard in the video that is in evidence. I feel this is an important fact as it paints an entirely different story than an "accidental" charging or a lone officer deciding to charge on his own accord. I do contend there could have been a premature charging (hence not all the horses going in) and that officers were still deciding whether to comply (you may have heard their testimony in the first case that they didn't want to hurt anyone/comply with the order) when one got spooked or one officer complied while others didn't but the fact remains that the order was given ... and that is part of the APD policy in question here.
This fact is very much tied to why the jury didn't find for the plaintiffs previously; what jury would convict an officer who is merely carrying out his orders? That is precisely why we want APD/the city held accountable for its policies and why we are appealing: so this won't happen again.
We feel very strongly that the outcome of this case will greatly affect the public at large, and thank you for recognizing that and for keeping up with it.
PLUR, Debbie Russell
Ha Ha Ha Ha
The Jan. 30 installment of "After a Fashion" contained a glaring misprint. It stated "Few things in life are more important than the eyebrows." Clearly, it should have read, "Few things in life are less important than the eyebrows."
Demand for Lower Prices
In his report this week, Jim Hightower describes how companies are jumping on the bandwagon to relocate jobs overseas ["The Hightower Report," Feb. 6]. While greater profits from lower operating costs are certainly a part of the equation, I think Mr. Hightower has missed out on a crucial element in the story the relentless demand for ever-lower prices.
Wal-Mart reportedly insists on a 5% reduction in price from its suppliers each year, bankrupting many and forcing others to either skimp on quality or move jobs overseas in order to meet price targets. As a powerful force in the retail market, the discounters force prices down across the board. Levi's recently closed its last U.S. plant because it can no longer produce jeans at the prices demanded by powerful retail outlets who have created a cutthroat market where price means everything and quality means nothing. Are the pair of 501s you bought last year anything like or as good as those you bought 20 years ago?
The reasons that wages are so low abroad is not just because of lower standards of living, but also lower employment standards. Working conditions and labor laws in many of the countries where jobs have been relocated are far from what you or I would tolerate. Abuses are widespread, and workers are treated appallingly, all for the sake of another dollar off the price of something.
My wife recently bought a new keyboard for her computer. It cost the grand sum of $6. I'm using it to type this letter, and I'm embarrassed at the fact that as a spoiled Westerner, people should have to suffer the degradation of being forced to work for starvation wages on contracts which often last no longer than a month, just so I can pay less for something today than I did last year, and so that shareholders can get a fatter dividend.
It just ain't right.
It Belittles the Bible to Have a Different Reading Than Mine
"The existence of the Bible, as a Book for the people, is the greatest benefit which the human race has ever experienced. Every attempt to belittle it is a crime against humanity." Immanuel Kant (philosopher)
Bible Support for Abortion
Just thought, for the fun of it, I'd respond to Alanda Ledbetter's Bible quotes with a few of my own ["Postmarks" online, Jan. 30].
Psalm 137:8-9 "O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones."
Hosea 13:16 "Samaria shall become desolate; for she hath rebelled against her God: they shall fall by the sword: their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up."
So much for unborn babies having a "right to life."
See, you can use the Bible to support or oppose just about anything, and often the same thing. It's the big book of multiple choice!
I Ride a Bicycle
I ride a bicycle.
You perhaps will assume that I'm too cheap for a car, am a student, an environmentalist, and have particularly toned buttocks. Quite true.
But when you assume that I am not riding on the sidewalk, crossing the street as you speed to the very edge of traffic to turn, and therefore over my pathway; when you turn right without looking right (or left, whatever) keep in mind that human guts are a pain to clean off your front grill.
I got hit yesterday; just thought I'd say something.
'Chronicle' Staff Old Hens
You're dragging the Chronicle behind the Statesman again on critical local issues, like the series on the APD ["The Figures Do Lie," News, Jan. 30], and Barton Springs before that ["Austin@Large," News, Jan. 24, 2003, and "Page Two," Jan. 24, 2003]. Every time an opportunity arises to write something big for Austin, we see your foolish attempts to go "deep" only to act like old hens in a small gallinero, just messing everything up under your belly. You are really offending people's intelligence with your shyness.
Going to Hell
I've compiled a list of hip new street names that should please the "Keep Austin Self-Consciously Weird" contingent:
North Burnet = NoBu
Red River = ReRi
Cesar Chavez = CeCha
Ben White = BeWhi
It also appears that the only store on South Congress that could possibly be called weird, Just Guns, is no more. Fear not loyal patrons, for in a matter of weeks, I imagine that it will soon be replaced by a more SoCo friendly "Passive Ethnic Weaponry Boutique" or something along those lines. I can see it now: "Hey Cory, I just picked up some punji sticks from SoCo, how about you stop and pick up some Pabst and a pack of Parliaments, and we'll hit up some vintage stores on NoBu." Austin is going to hell in a handbasket, and an ironic trucker-hatted doofus is at the wheel (if handbaskets have wheels).
Would Have Killed Owens Twice
I'll keep this short and simple. It's a sad day when a law officer [Scott Glasgow] gets punished for doing his job ["Earle Blasted in Owens Case," News, Jan. 30]. A stolen car, driver pulls away, dragging me ... I'm going to shoot. This has nothing to do with race or color, plain and simple a cop doing his job. I would have shot 10 times.
Another Weak Hitler-and-Bush Comparison Why?
Mr. Black, your dismissal of anyone who dares to draw a comparison between Adolph Hitler and George W. Bush struck me as crass and rather callous ["Page Two," Jan. 23]. Now, of course, we can go back and more leisurely contemplate the monsters of the 20th century. Hyperbole is always a problem, but so is underestimation.
I will be 93 this September. According to a long tradition in the Walker family, I was sent abroad to receive my college education. I displayed a natural gift for math, as fate would have it, and studied at university in Berlin during the consolidation of Hitler's power. 1934 was a bad year in Germany. People couldn't find work, inflation was intractable. The academic community, however, remained steadfastly removed from the turmoil, even during the most extraordinary circumstances. Homosexuals, feminists, vegetarians, anarchists, and nationalists of every stripe formed the milieu in which I found myself. It was a great period of liberation for the youth, though we understood that preparations were being made.
Then the Reichstag building was destroyed by an act of terrorism. Everyone whispered Hitler's name. He demanded and immediately received emergency powers from the government. Thus the first protective custody camps were opened to prisoners detainees, incidentally, without legal recourse. Hitler soon burned thousands of books by Jews, intellectuals, and other so-called "degenerates." Within six months after coming to power, it became a crime to criticize Hitler's regime. From that moment forward, the Nazi party was the only legal party in Germany. Sound familiar? Fifty-three million deaths were the result of a temerity that was permitted to take hold, Mr. Black. I don't consider myself indecent to draw comparisons between the policies of Adolph Hitler and George Bush. It seems unrealistic not to.
I remain yours, Opal Walker
Libertarians Outraged by Clean Air Force Plans
You may be interested to know that after 10 years of diligent work the Clean Air Force has presented its plan for cleaning Centex air. It will cost between $200 million and $300 million over five years and lower our ozone level by one part per billion. That stunning result will be achieved just about the time that our ozone level has already permanently declined to less than 85 parts per billion. I am not making this up.
The plan has received the blessing of every elected politician, conservative and liberal, in the five county area save the city of San Marcos where some of the council members have science degrees. They were smart enough to reject the most expensive and least effective part of the plan tailpipe testing of vehicles. While tailpipe testing will reduce ozone levels in suburban areas, it will cause ozone to increase in downtown, East Austin, and parts of North Austin. I am not making this up.
Meanwhile the Clean Air Force has given its blessing to Austin Energy's plan to build new power generation facilities in Austin neighborhoods. They are small enough to escape regulation but numerous enough to cancel out any benefits of tailpipe testing. The Libertarian Party suggested that new capacity be sited at least 75 miles downwind of our air supply, but Democrats and Republicans thought that that was unreasonable. I couldn't make this up.
Vincent J. May
It seems quite apparent that the article in The Austin Chronicle, [News], Jan. 30, titled "The Death of Ben Brownlee," was not intentionally disrespectful and in considerably bad taste.
I wish that I could rewrite the article, but its length prevents that. Instead, I would ask that each of your readers reread the article, and please do, inserting the proper name of "Tesía, Tesía Samara" or "Tesía Samara Brownlee" in their proper and respective places; as well as replacing the male references of "he" with the proper female pronoun "she." I feel certain that she would like that.
The article further went on in great detail about how no one seemed to know or realize that Tesía was being continuously and inexcusably abused. Even after her death those responsible continued going on about their daily lives with the inappropriate inner solace that "everything is alright; life is good; I am good; I have destroyed a beautiful young life, but that's OK!"
How wrong can they be!? The students (and their parents who have passed on to their children their own destructive attitudes of GLBTs); the faculty (especially the school counselors); the investigating law enforcement agencies involved; the ministers whose righteous indignation allowed these destructive attitudes to continue unchecked; or for that matter, anyone and everyone in Rockdale who heard, or even suspected, Tesía's hurting and suffering. Their silence alone approved of her abusive treatment.
The citizens of Rockdale cannot alone be held to blame. Reread the article. Then, honestly search your own heart, mind, and soul accordingly. All of us that believe in some sort of God would do well to judge our thoughts and feelings as though we were standing before that God on our final day of judgment judging ourselves. Those of us who have no sort of God but believe in the truth, honesty, and judgment of our nation, perhaps we should study its Constitution. If we belong to both, perhaps we should study ourselves and our Constitution.
After all, either way we have the guidelines for treating others, whether it be as Christians, U.S. citizens, or both.
Goodbye, Tesía Samara Brownlee. I did not know you, but I do know the hurt, the sadness, and the heartbreak that you knew.
Understanding Green Cards
While I enjoyed your review of "In America" [Film, Dec. 19, 2003] and the film itself your closing line containing "after their green cards expire" is wildly inaccurate and strikes a false note.
As a former green card holder (now a citizen) please allow me to gently explain that:
1) The family in the movie does not have green cards (which are tough to get). They cross from Canada illegally, as vacationing tourists ("My daddy's not working," pipes one child potentially arousing suspicion). They are in the USA illegally, making their story more poignant.
2) Green cards do not "expire" but are renewable indefinitely. I know people who've lived here for 30 years with a green card.
More awareness of and sensitivity to immigration issues would be welcome in future references to this subject one about which most Americans are abysmally ignorant.
Let's Bring Hope Rather Than Despair
I was terribly disturbed by the article on Ben Brownlee ["The Death of Ben Brownlee," News, Jan. 30]. I felt special contempt for the lack of regard exhibited by the adult teachers and administrators within the school district. They should each carry with them some of the blame for Ben's unfortunate end.
Now, I don't really understand the worries but let me entertain the concern that children are impressionable. So, there is this fear that addressing sexual orientation with youths is not a socially responsible thing to do, rather it will lead many to homosexuality, etc. To me that is preposterous, and it is a huge disservice to let homosexual/transgendered teens battle against their merciless peers without official consolation and support. Why must these teenagers be ostracized, and why do so many adults refuse to show them compassion? It is so disheartening, and to me it is unbelievably cruel.
I will carry Ben's poem with me for the rest of my life, and I will find a way to bring hope into some of these young teens' lives.