Fits to a Tee

Wayne Vincent responds to APA shirt controversy

The offending T-shirt
The offending T-shirt

In a year dominated by headlines about an officer-involved shooting, Austin Police public relations can be tricky. Cops have to be on their toes, always aware that words can be taken out of context. Even the innocent suggestion that cops are at war with citizens can raise eyebrows. It's like people are looking for things to be offended by.

Last week, internal controversy erupted after the debut of an Austin Police Association T-shirt emblazoned with the message, "A society that makes war with its police should be prepared to make peace with its criminals." The front of the shirt prominently displayed the Austin Police Department badge, which includes the city of Austin seal. Although several APA members reportedly purchased the shirt with no objection, some were not as wildly enthused. Almost immediately, the complaints came in. The offending shirts were quickly pulled.

The incident might have drawn little notice, but APA President Wayne Vincent isn't one to shy away from controversy. In the Veteran's Day edition of the APA newsletter, Vincent lengthily defended the choice. Those not up for a long read can get the gist by imagining a high school jock mumbling "bullshit" between coughs.

From the APA Newswire:

I was asked what I was trying to accomplish by printing such a statement on a shirt. My answer is very simple; sell shirts. I suppose I misjudged any potential for a controversy in such an indisputable statement on the back of a shirt. I have seen that same statement on other shirts and items in several parts of the country, and have never heard of anyone taking offense to it. While the administration’s desire for us to soften our message is nothing new, the thought that a number of police officers we represent would feel a little offended by this shirt is surprising to me.

Vincent continued to scoff at the suggestion that the statement T-shirt could rub reasonable folks the wrong way. He seemed equally baffled that a department that has spent much of the year defending itself against criticism should feel squeamish about the endorsement implied by the badge.

This shirt does not say we are at war with the Austin community. The statement is merely a reflection of what is going on across this country. While “War” might be a strong attention grabbing word, there is little doubt the society we live in today sees its police as a necessary inconvenience that must be controlled and restricted in ever increasing ways. Today’s policies change almost daily and are a reflection of a society that continues to lose a real sense of what our police do for our communities, and more importantly, what our police prevent from happening in our communities. The policies that require unprecedented scrutiny of your every thought, intent, and action during a foot pursuit or the physical restraint of a suspect are just two examples among hundreds of changes that have occurred for the working cop over just this last decade. Changes to the environment in which a cop must work are coming in more rapid succession as well. Not too long ago, when a cop wrote a ticket, the only thing that mattered was whether or not the ticket was written legally and reflected a violation of the law. Today, the officer’s motive, approach and demeanor can be closely scrutinized and punishment administered because it was determined the officer was not “customer friendly” enough. This is not just happening here. It is happening in Oakland, Chicago, New York, you name it. 

As for making peace with our criminals, it’s already happening here. Our court system and those who administer that system again, are a reflection of our overall society. May I remind you that our very own officer stabbed purposely in the throat yielded a jury decision of probation for the suspect? Many of you have seen suspects who assaulted you walk away with charges dismissed or significantly downgraded. How many times have you heard of criminals walking away from serious charges because the jury wanted to send a message to the police? 

Some who took offense to the shirt argue that those citizens who do support us will be offended. I respectfully disagree with that contention. I am convinced the vast majority of citizens within our Austin Community are strong but silent supporters of their police. In my daily work I make contact with these good folks and they ask me the same thing our members ask me. They want to know when we are going to speak up for ourselves. They want to know why the criticism of our cops is so one sided, and when is someone going to defend the cops. Those folks would agree with the simple message on the back of a shirt. In my mind that message quite eloquently states the more you handcuff, restrict, and make your police hesitant to do their jobs, the more necessary it will become to appease the criminals and predators among us.

Of course, this isn't the first time when sartorial matters preoccupied the force. Back in 2006, then acting Chief Cathy Ellison banned the patch traditionally given to graduates of the Citizen Police Academy for fear citizens would use it to impersonate cops, only to give away replica badges as swag at a Community Network Conference the following year. It's no wonder that, since then, the APD may be a less than liberal with how the badge can be used.

Vincent, however, isn't sweating it. He ended the letter by insisting he "won’t lose any sleep if we discontinue its sale." Nonetheless, he asked for input about the controversial design, ominously stating, "It was just a shirt; or was it?"

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