Council Dives Deep Into Racism at APD, Land Use

Busy week isn't over yet, with development code hearing Saturday

Photo by John Anderson

City Council had a busy week, with two work sessions focused on the Land Development Code, as well as its regular meeting, which saw the passage of a resolution directing a sweeping investigation into the culture at the Austin Police Department.

And Council members aren't done for the week; they have been posting amendments to the LDC draft ahead of a first-reading vote scheduled for Monday, Dec. 9; and on Saturday, Dec. 7, they will hold a public hearing on the LDC, beginning at 10am at City Hall.

A new, wide-ranging investigation into the culture at APD was authorized by City Council on Thursday, Dec. 5, with the unanimous approval of a resolution brought by CM Natasha Harper-Madison. The investigation will have multiple fronts, all with the stated goal of understanding “the full extent of bigotry and systemic racism and discrimination” at APD, and “considering reforms to APD’s policies, protocols, and training curriculum.”

A focus of the inquiry will be on training and recruitment, with hope that if APD better trains its new cops to perform their duties without bias – and if the good ones are promoted – the city is less likely to be surprised by the revelation of closeted racists in the force’s top ranks in the future. An independent third party will review the department’s training materials, hiring practices, and promotion process to ensure people of color, women, and LGBTQ officers have as fair a shot of joining the force, and rising through its ranks, as their white male counterparts. Additionally, the investigator will study use of force incidents, complaints against officers, and incidents of alledged misconduct that lead to lawsuits against the department to better understand the extent racism and other forms of discrimination may have permeated the work of Austin’s police force.

Separately, City Manager Spencer Cronk is directed to conduct a thorough audit of the training materials and courses used to prepare police cadets to do the work of unbiased, culturally competent officers in a department focused on community policing – a demanding, nuanced role that requires officers to do much more than just arrest the bad guys. The resolution lists a whole host of topics that audit should consider, including how officers are taught about subjects like de-escalation, proactive policing, mental health response, addressing bias, and how to best interact with non-English speakers and people with disabilities.

Cronk's audit has a deadline of June 1, 2020, and he will be required to report on six milestones outlined in the resolution. One is an assessment of how department training can reduce racial disparities in use of force cases and generally improve communications between officers and marginalized groups in the city. Another will be on “retention practices and procedures” and how they can be improved to “retain ethnic and gender diversity in cadet classes.”

How much time is devoted to each training area will also be examined, and whether that allocation needs to be tweaked – to devote more time to training officers how to de-escalate a situation, for instance. Cronk is directed to look at other police departments around the country who have reformed their academies to inform this work, and any recommendations for changing training procedures should be approved with input from “community groups representing those disproportionately affected by policing.”

Before the vote, Harper-Madison said the need for the work called for in her resolution was not “as simple as good cops, bad cops.” The problem of systemic discrimination in any institution is more nuanced than that, she said, but it’s not an unsolvable problem. "It is my hope that you leave here tonight feeling inspired by the opportunity we have before us to take a system that's not working and make it right,” she said. “I see that as an opportunity, and I really look forward to working alongside my colleagues, the community, and the Austin police department to get it right.”

The audit comes, partially, in response to complaints lodged in 2017 by 10 former cadets who dropped out of the academy after discomfort with a culture that overly emphasized violence, that pushed cadets into extreme scenarios and demeaned them when they resisted, and that encouraged cadets to use dehumanizing language to describe some people in the community.

Three of those cadets were at the meeting to share their firsthand experience with the academy. They each described how what they saw, heard, or were put through forced them to resign. Summer Spisak recalled how a trainer told her, “I’ll punch you in the fucking face if you tell me you want to help people.” This was a surprise to Spisak, who had left a career in tech to join the force because she wanted to help people.

Another cadet, Mona-Lisa Brock, said she was injured on the second day of the academy and put on light work as a result. But not long after that, she was subjected to intense workouts before her body was ready, resulting in her passing out from exhaustion during one of the training sessions. Afterward, she was told she wasn’t fit for the force and ultimately dropped out of the academy. “It sent me into a depression,” Brock, a black woman, told Council. “I wanted to put a new face on what it meant to be safe in this city.”

Although the claims from the cadets were already familiar to the Council, several CMs said they were impacted by the testimony. “Hearing the cadets come and tell their story was incredibly powerful,” Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said. “Those allegations shake my faith even further, of the vulgar and violent behavior in our cadet class.” CM Alison Alter responded to the cadets, saying “it feels like we have a really long way to go and we do have a lot of work to do.”

Earlier in the week, City Council met for two work sessions focused on the Land Development Code. The Tuesday, Dec. 3, session featured a question-and-answer period with Travis Central Appraisal District Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler to address an issue raised by many property owners in the city: How will the widespread increase in zoning entitlements in the draft code impact my property taxes? Short answer: It’s too soon to know, and in any case, the market will decide.

Crigler reiterated TCAD would need at least 3-5 years of data from property sales, following implementation of a new code, to determine its effect on the market. It’s possible that the fears expressed by density skeptics could play out: Upzoning could exacerbate land speculation based on increased development potential, leading to higher selling prices and higher taxable land values for people wanting to stay in their homes.

Although Crigler does not have a crystal ball allowing her to confirm whether or not the new LDC will raise or lower land valuation, she did point out that the loosened regulations on building accessory dwelling units (ADUs) adopted by City Council in 2015 have not increased land values. “Lots with ADUs built thus far have not impacted the appraised value of lots that have potential for ADU development,” Crigler told Council.

Crigler was able to bring much more clarity to another question: How will sales of homes around me to investors for redevelopment impact my property and land value? In the short term, Crigler explained, not much. The reason is simple: TCAD has different classification codes for different housing types, and they don’t influence one another in assessing value. For example, when assessing the value of a single-family home that is homesteaded (that is, the property is the primary residence of its owner), TCAD will only compare it to other SF homesteads in that area. If your neighbors own a single-family homestead, and they decide to sell to an investor who intends to redevelop the property into a six-unit multiplex, that sixplex would be moved into a different category of structures and appraised against the values of other six-unit buildings.

TCAD has another way of ensuring homesteaders aren’t unfairly taxed if their neighbors decide to sell to investors (i.e., non-homesteaders). If the selling price of a property is at least two standard deviations outside of the norm in that area, the sale would be flagged and could be considered in potential protests of a property tax bill.

Of course, the homestead exemption only applies to homeowners, so renters would not receive the same protection. If an investor bought a single-family home over market value and redeveloped it into a multiplex of rental units, the landowner could, in theory, pass on their increased property tax costs through increased rent for the lessee of each unit. This is the fear of preservation advocates; but the counter view is, again, that increased housing supply would theoretically help level out housing costs.

The Wednesday, Dec. 4, session saved some airtime for another point of confusion: Can individual landowners protest zoning changes made during a comprehensive rewrite of land-use rules? Opponents of the LDC overhaul have argued that yes, property owners can protest the changes, because the zoning of their individual lots are changing.

The city’s Law Department disagrees: They argue that a comprehensive code rewrite is more informed by broad policy goals defined by Council and less so by the details of an individual’s property, so the same protest rights do not apply. City attorneys also note that it would be difficult to provide notice of zoning changes to neighbors, required by state law, because they won’t know what the changes are until the new code and map are adopted.

Deputy City Attorney Deborah Thomas read a lengthy statement at the session addressing the legal question. “In individual tract rezoning cases, Council is evaluating a very specific piece of property. Is the use compatible with neighboring existing uses? Will the height authorized by the requested zoning district hinder the air and light available to existing residents?” she explained. “On the other hand, with the comprehensive revision, Council is looking at the bigger picture. What do we want our city to look like in 20 years? What overarching goals do we want the code to effect?” She concluded, “The revision is the policy decision affecting a large number of property owners, and a vast area of land based on general criteria, and not on the details of any particular property.”

But that legal opinion – untested in court, at this point – has not stopped property owners from submitting zoning protests to the city, even though the city does not have a process to accept them. Staff said that thousands of people had already submitted protests based on the draft map (more than 5,000 filed online and another 550 delivered physically) and currently they are just being collected by the city’s communications department.

It’s unclear what, if anything, the city will do with those protests, but in her statement, Thomas left the door open for something to happen. If 20% of all landowners in the city file protest, individually or together, the petition would be considered valid. If that were to happen, the LDC overhaul would need to be approved by nine CMs instead of a simple majority. That could prove fatal to the rewrite, because even the most agreeable version of a new code is likely to garner eight votes – getting to nine would prove difficult.

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Austin City Council, Austin Police Department, Natasha Harper-Madison, police academy, Spencer Cronk, Travis Central Appraisal District, TCAD, Marya Crigler, Deborah Thomas, Land Development Code

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