Parsing Buehler for Public Safety

Police accountability activist's commission nomination makes waves

Buehler leaves court after his acquittal last October.
Buehler leaves court after his acquittal last October. (Photo by John Anderson)

Friday’s news that Council Member Don Zimmerman plans to nominate controversial cop-watching activist Antonio Buehler to the city’s Public Safety Commission doesn’t mean yet that Buehler’s actually on the commission, but it does mean that associated parties have had to establish their positions.

Zimmerman did not respond to a request for comment from the Chronicle, but Buehler told the paper that he expects significant opposition from other members of Council, as well as the police association and police department, when the application and appointment process gets under way this summer.

“They’re not thrilled with the nomination because they know that I’ll ask questions that other people won’t,” said Buehler about his early skeptics. “I don’t have political aspirations, and I don’t care to necessarily give the benefit of the doubt to police over and over again because they’ll one day donate to my campaign.”

Indeed, the issue may not be his opponents’ unwillingness to allow his line of questioning so much as their belief that Buehler won’t prove to be an objective commissioner. The 37-year-old has spent much of the past three-and-a-half years since his controversial New Year’s Eve arrest in the public eye for his opposition to local police practices, founding the police accountability group Peaceful Streets Project and filing a civil lawsuit against the city, APD, Police Chief Art Acevedo, and four police officers (which was dismissed in February, though that decision is currently being appealed).

On Friday, Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday said that he wasn’t excited about the prospect of Buehler – and his “pre-determined agenda” – sitting on the commission, and told the Chronicle that he plans to lobby against the nomination before Council. He said that he believes Buehler is unqualified to sit on the Public Safety Commission, which advises the police department, fire department, and Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services, and worries that Buehler will spend too much time focusing on police issues to be an asset to the commission’s other components. Casaday also expressed concern over appointing an individual to the commission who has an active lawsuit against the city.

“Buehler’s done a lot of good things in his life, and we don’t deny that,” said Casaday. “He has a distinguished military career. But right now he’s not qualified to sit on this committee. I think he’s very qualified to talk about military logistics, but I don’t think he’s qualified to talk about EMS.”

Buehler, however, believes that his inexperience may prove a virtue, and that he can represent an underserved voice on the commission. “Instead of having 11 people who generally agree with everything the police say, it’d be nice to have someone on the board who questions that rhetoric,” he said. "I think that the police issue is a very important one and one that a lot of people are concerned about, but I’ve run companies and been on the board of nonprofits. I have an MBA from Stanford, was in investment banking. And I was in the military for five years. I understand management, I understand financial management. I understand how government entities are supposed to run, and I think that would be a very valuable benefit to the committee. The one thing you can’t say is that I don’t have the credentials to serve on a public committee.”

As for that lawsuit he’s got standing? Buehler doesn’t think it should be an issue.

“The fact that I’m suing the city because of what the police department did, I think that’s a benefit,” he said. “It would be extremely valuable to have a voice who represents some very different constituencies within the city.”

Which might not be the way everybody involved in this development’s thinking.

“We’re surprised and disappointed,” summarized Casaday. "We do realize that there’s a process you have to go through, and we will be participating in that process.”

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