TCDP Holds Police Accountability Forum

APD goes on the defensive

Art Acevedo and Nelson Linder
Art Acevedo and Nelson Linder (by John Anderson)

On Tuesday night at the North Door, the Travis County Democrats held a public forum on police accountability, a topic that’s received heightened attention since the shooting of Mike Brown and the subsequent response in Ferguson, Mo.

However, the event’s organizer, TCDP Political Director Kristian Caballero, said that the forum had been planned for a while, in order to build on the TCDP’s recently passed resolution calling for improved accountability from the Austin Police Department.

In keeping with the topic, the night’s first question was about the effectiveness of APD’s current policy, and how it could be improved. Almost immediately, APD Chief Art Acevedo went on the defensive, claiming that Austin does much better at holding its police force accountable than most places, and that a lot of the criticism leveled at APD was actually misplaced outrage over the death of Missouri teenager Brown.

Austin Police Association President, Sergeant Wayne Vincent was even more hostile to the question. As a “working cop,” he feels that there’s often a “rush to judgment from society” against police when it comes to use of deadly force. He said that the community has a responsibility to make sure that its members don’t “run or fight” when approached by an officer. Throughout the night, his argument was consistently that the department doesn't have a problem, but that people have a “preconceived notion” about institutional racism.

The other panelists appeared to be more interested in improving APD policy. Texas Civil Rights Project Director Jim Harrington cautioned against victim-blaming and suggested that supervisors be held accountable when deadly force is used inappropriately. Former police monitor and Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Committee Chair Ashton Cumberbatch advocated for officers to be more “culturally responsive,” and said that many officers may not have much experience interacting with black people before they join the force. Given Austin’s dwindling black population and its history of segregation, his point was especially salient. Police Monitor Margo Frasier called for more transparency, and more willingness to talk about race and “intrinsic biases.”

Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder, a longtime advocate for greater police accountability, repeatedly reminded the audience that the problem isn't a new one, recalling previous instances, including the shooting of Jesse Owens in 2003. He said, “We’re not learning the lessons [...] everybody has to share responsibility.” He mentioned the Department of Justice’s 2011 investigation into complaints about the APD’s use of force, and said that the DOJ’s recommendations aren’t being enforced by city officials. He urged audience members to demand that City Council, the mayor, and the D.A. hold law enforcement accountable.

Acevedo’s combative attitude was somewhat understandable: He’s in a tough spot. As much as his detractors might demand that he denounce Charles Kleinert, the former detective who shot and killed Larry Jackson Jr., or admit that APD has a race problem, there’s not much he could have said to appease the audience Tuesday night. There’s no guarantee that any admission by APD that it could've possibly done better wouldn’t affect Kleinert’s prosecution for manslaughter, which has yet to go to trial. And even though it’s surely cold comfort to Jackson’s sister, who was in attendance, or the family of the small child who was reportedly recently struck by a police Taser, APD has improved its record on police brutality since Owens’ shooting.

However, Acevedo seems to be falling into a bad habit of defending his department perhaps a bit too lustily. In February, he made international headlines after video of a UT jaywalker’s arrest went viral. In the course of justifying the APD officers’ actions, Acevedo said, “In other cities, cops are actually committing assaults while on duty, so I thank God this is what passes for a controversy in Austin, Texas.” Nothing Acevedo said Tuesday night was quite that tone-deaf, but he came close in his response to a comment by a Dove Springs kindergarten teacher, who said that many of her minority students were already distrustful of the police. Acevedo shot back that the reason for that could only be a “problem in the home,” and that those children must be being raised by their parents, who “aren’t responsible adults,” to have that attitude toward cops. As he deflected jeers from the audience, he dug into his argument, rather than consider any other reason for the children’s fearfulness. It was a surprisingly angry response to what seemed to be a genuine question, especially considering that he managed to calmly deal with other, more provocative inquisitors.

That anger, combined with both Acevedo’s and Vincent’s refusal to acknowledge the audience’s concerns about institutional racism within APD, had the unintended effect of illustrating some of the reasons for those very concerns: How can Austinites feel confident in APD’s ability to hold itself accountable when its representatives can’t seem to bear any real criticism?

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Austin Police Department, Travis County Democrats, Larry Jackson Jr., Art Acevedo, Nelson Linder, police brutality, Janiyah Wheeler

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