Multiple investigations are under way at APD into the policing strategies of two Henry sector (Southeast) cops and the oversight of their chain of command after dashboard video footage of an arrest and subsequent ride to Travis County Jail was brought to the attention of Police Chief Art Acevedo on Tuesday.
The videos, which chronicle the June 15, 2015, arrest of Breaion King, a black, 26-year-old elementary school teacher pulled over for speeding on Riverside Drive, came into the public eye by way of Statesman reporter Tony Plohetski, who first made contact with King and her attorneys Broadus Spivey and Erica Grigg before taking the story to Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg. (Lehmberg notified Acevedo that the Statesman knew of the incident.) The footage depicts an uncomfortably hostile detainment of King by the responding officer, seven-year veteran Bryan Richter – complete with Richter’s quick escalation of their interaction, his hurried insistence that King be arrested, and his over-the-top use of force to take control of King, who is petite in stature. The footage shows multiple use-of-force tactics, including body strikes, leg sweeps, and Richter picking King up only to throw her back onto the ground. Once she is handcuffed and seemingly in submission, Richter is shown throwing her onto the hood of his patrol car.
Making matters even worse, King’s ride to the Downtown jail – provided by assisting officer Patrick Spradlin, who joined APD in 2001 – provided her with the opportunity to hear the white officer explain to her why “so many people” are “afraid of” black people. He said it was because of the race’s “violent tendencies.”
“99 percent of the time, when you hear about stuff like that, it is the black community that is being violent,” Spradlin continued. “That’s why a lot of the white people are afraid, and I don’t blame them. There are some guys I look at, and I know it is my job to deal with them, and I know it might get ugly, but that’s the way it goes. But yeah, some of them, because of their appearance and whatnot, some of them are very intimidating.”
King was formally charged with resisting arrest – word among police is that she was put under arrest for failing to comply with Richter’s commands to get back in her car and close her door – but the DA dropped the case after reviewing Richter’s dashboard footage, Plohetski reported. Spradlin’s comments never made their way toward his chain of command. Richter’s did; all instances in which officers employ use of force get reviewed by chain of command.
Richter’s use of force was classified as as a Level 3 Force Incident, for times in which a weaponless technique is used with or without complaint of injury or pain, among other techniques. (King never filed a complaint with the Office of the Police Monitor. She is currently considering legal action.) Plohetski reports that Richter’s chain of command only required the officer to attend counseling sessions and additional training – the lowest level of discipline for any offending officer.
At a press conference Thursday evening, Acevedo said that he wasn’t aware of the interaction between Spradlin, Richter, and King until hearing from Lehmberg on Tuesday. He said that he was “sickened and saddened” when he first saw the video, noting that King was “treated in a manner that is not consistent with the expectations of this police chief and most of the officers of this department.”
“The video speaks for itself,” said the chief. “It’s our job to do a much better job of communicating and using our words to gain compliance before we go hands-on.”
He said that both Richter and Spradlin have been taken off the street – both assigned to desk duty until further notice – and that he’s ordered both Internal Affairs (which handles administrative investigations) and APD’s Special Investigations Unit (which looks into whether sworn officers should be be tried in criminal court) to investigate the actions of both Richter and Stradlin – not just during their arrest and transport of King, but “what’s happened with that officer since that time.” Civil service bylaws limit investigations into officer actions to six months. Acevedo said IA and SIU will “start there,” looking at the body of work of both officers, then extend back the full year to determine whether their policing habits comply with his prescribed standards.
Acevedo also noted that he’s ordered an inquiry into the “decision making process” of Richter’s chain of command to determine, in essence, how Richter’s superiors let him off so leniently. “My reaction may be a little different,” said the chief, “but I think I want to withhold my final judgment” until the investigation is complete.
Acevedo was blunt about the racial overtones of the arrest throughout the Thursday presser, affirming point blank that Spradlin’s comments were racist (“I can’t denounce that mindset any further,” he said) and demonstrating a willingness to put King’s arrest in a national context that law enforcement is often hesitant to do. Since the David Joseph shooting, Acevedo has shown (quite often to the dismay of his rank-and-file) a willingness to be outwardly open and endearing with Austin’s black community, beginning with his decision to allow activists from Black Lives Matter and the Austin Justice Coalition to speak at the press conference concerning Joseph’s death in February. Most recently, that effort manifested at the July 14 Capitol vigil for five Dallas officers shot dead at a July 7 protest. There, under the shadow of the Texas Fallen Officers Memorial, Acevedo stood side by side with AJC co-founder Fatima Mann, holding her tight while the names and life stories of each departed officer were told.
“When you have something like [King’s arrest],” Acevedo said Thursday, “what’s really disheartening is that all this great work that goes on in the city of Austin by dedicated professionals … and great work that’s continuing to go on by activists, clergy, and peace officers – it gets overshadowed by an incident that was avoidable; an incident that really should not have occurred.”
The Austin Police Association, the local union of officers who make up Acevedo’s rank-and-file, don’t stand in full concert with their two colleagues. In a statement issued minutes before the Thursday presser, APA vice president Anthony Nelson said: “We understand the public’s reaction to Officer Richter’s response to resistance. Officer Spradlin’s comments were wrong and not reflective of the values and beliefs of the men and women who serve this community. We recognize how incidents such as these can divide our city and cause mistrust. We have met with community stakeholders and begun a dialogue. We hope that the conversation will lead to substantive changes that will help bridge that divide.”
(APA President Ken Casaday, usually the one to make the union statements, was in Cleveland with APD’s Special Response Team Thursday, working the Republican National Convention.)
That dialogue, which Acevedo referenced throughout Thursday’s comments, manifested in the form of a three-and-a-half hour meeting Wednesday afternoon at APD headquarters. Acevedo said attendees included Reverends Daryl Horton and G.V. Clark, Pastor A.W. Anthony Mays, former Police Monitor Ashton Cumberbatch, Austin Justice Coalition co-founders Fatima Mann and Chas Moore, Kristina Brown, and representatives from the APA. Acevedo told reporters Thursday that “something happened” at that meeting: “an open, honest dialogue as people of this community.”
“Where we started and where we ended were two very different places,” he continued. “But the work is not done. The work is beginning. Every time we have these instances, it really does wipe out some good work.”
Speaking Friday, APA Vice President At-Large Andrew Romero agreed that there did seem to be a shift in the discourse at Wednesday’s meeting. “I feel like it was productive,” he said. “It was certainly the first time that we’ve had all those people in the room together.” He said that both the APA and black community representatives arrived at APD HQ at around the same time to view the video, and decided there to watch the video together. The conversation that transpired afterward was not the result of a pre-planned meeting.
“I think it was important for all sides to look at it and have a discussion and go back to our communities and see what we need to do to bridge this divide,” Romero offered. “There are factors that all communities need to realize with all these instances that the other [communities] may not be aware of. I think that it’s important to start discussing that.”
In the case of the APA, the issue that officers want civilians to understand is that even benign situations can turn to violence, and that police need to remain proactive – and maintain the legal protections to work proactively – in cases they consider to be potentially threatening. Romero said the 2012 murder of Austin Police Officer Jaime Padron was not mentioned at the meeting, but that his death, which came as Padron attempted to apprehend Brandon Daniel from shoplifting at a Walmart, weighs constantly on the minds of Austin officers.
“I don’t want it to come across as though every time an officer uses force it’s because Jaime Padron got shot by a shoplifter,” he said. “But that’s a reality that we all live with. Even the most benign crime can lead to fatal consequences for the officer, and we have to allow them a certain amount of discretion to maintain their safety. But we understand that doesn’t have to include the abuse of citizens.”
In that respect, Romero’s motive was in part to dispel the notion that Richter and Spradlin’s actions should be considered as part of one package. “[Richter] was trying to conduct a traffic stop and the driver was not complying with his commands and at one point in time made a movement that caused him to take the action that he did,” he said. “As far as the comments Spradlin made on the way to the jail, you just can’t defend that. That’s not an appropriate conversation, and his ideas and thoughts are not representative of our department or the men and women who protect this community. These are two things that are tied together, but they’re really not. The thoughts of Spradlin should not be transposed onto the actions of Richter.”
Mann agreed with much of Romero’s sentiments, but does not believe Richter and Spradlin’s actions should be considered separately.
“You have one officer who explains the thought process, and another who’s acting on that thought process,” she said. “His slamming down of Ms. King was literally the action part of the other officer saying that black people are violent. That’s a mindset and a culture.”
Mann elaborated further on the culture, noting how inappropriate it is that the community is only seeing King’s video one year later, and that the officers’ chain of command “thought that what happened on this video is okay.” She said that the AJC is working with the department and the union to implement new interviewing habits for potential APD cadets to create a stronger culture of accountability within the department. The idea echoes remarks she made at last Thursday’s police vigil at the Capitol, where she expressed love for upstanding officers but lamented the fact that weeding destructive officers out of police forces is so hard.
“We want to make sure that the good officers are safe,” she said on Friday morning. “But because the good officers aren’t denouncing the bad officers, or because the labor union and police chief don’t tell the community that they can report the bad police officers, there’s a disconnect. We’re not saying all police officers are bad. We’re saying the bad ones make it really, really hard to trust the good ones.”
Which may get down to the crux of the issue. The consensus is that a root cause for the current state of relations between police forces and black communities is broken, but what may help fix it is a mutual understanding of each other’s lines of thinking – including how both parties feel a sense of low morale with regard to their relationship with the other body of people.
“It was hard for us to hear [Romero] tell us that he had officers whose morale was down because officers are getting killed,” said Mann. “We thought, ‘How do you think we feel right now? Our morale is down. We don’t even have morale.’ The thing for us is, every time we turn on the television and pull up our social media, we’re seeing the people who are sworn to protect and serve us treating us in a manner that – we have no morale. We have no trust in the people who took an oath. Once he figured out that nobody’s happy, we saw something shift in him. Nobody is happy right now. That’s why we’re trying to come to the table. Police officers losing their lives. People who look like me are losing their lives. As long as that keeps happening, things will continue to be as they are.”
Copyright © 2023 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.