Activists Call for Firing of APD Leadership in Wake of Officer Involved Shooting
Racism probe, weekend shooting heighten reform demands
By Austin Sanders,
4:15PM, Mon. Apr. 27, 2020
A coalition of grassroots groups has called on city leaders to fire Austin Police Chief Brian Manley, his Chief of Staff Troy Gay, and Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano.
Momentum behind this effort by justice activists has been building for months, but the release of a third-party report detailing a culture of racism at the department, and the weekend killing of a man in Southeast Austin by an APD officer, has accelerated the calls for new leadership.
On Friday, April 24, 42-year-old Michael Ramos died after being fired upon by APD officers as he attempted to leave the scene of an encounter at an apartment complex near Oltorf and Pleasant Valley in Southeast Austin. Bystander video shared on social media shows that one of the two officers engaging Ramos fired at him with a non-lethal bean bag – while his hands were in the air. Ramos then got back in his car and began driving away, at which point the second officer fired his rifle at Ramos. He was taken to the hospital where he died that evening.
As is standard procedure, an internal investigation has been opened into the actions taken by the two officers. At a press conference Monday, April 27, Manley announced that the Texas Rangers would also assist in that investigation. The officer who fired the beanbag, Mitchell Pieper, had three months of experience on the job, while the officer who fired the lethal shot, Christopher Taylor, had five years’ experience. At the Monday press conference, Manley confirmed that Taylor was one of the three officers who fired shots when Mauris Nishanga DeSilva was killed at a Downtown condo tower on July 31, 2019.
Manley declined to comment on the bystander video showing Ramos with his hands raised, but said APD would conduct a thorough investigation into the incident. “This is a trying time in our community,” the chief told reporters. “I share concerns, and that’s why we’re going to the extent we are – to ensure we not only conduct a thorough investigation … but we do so in a way that fosters community trust.” He added that multiple officers were at the scene, and that he would commit to releasing footage from their body and dash cams as quickly as possible.
In a statement, District Attorney Margaret Moore agreed it was important to get that footage out soon. “I will approve Chief Manley’s release of body camera videos collected by police officers, as soon as is practicable,” Moore wrote. “In this instance, I do not see how the release of these videos would compromise the investigation or any subsequent prosecution.”
In a statement issued Monday morning, Mayor Steve Adler noted, “The use of force is the most potent and irreversible of a police officer’s tools and requires trust between officers and the communities they protect. We may not yet know all the facts and we need to before we pass final judgment, but we know what we see, people are hurting, and there are many questions. We must respond to this moment and also to the fear, anxiety, and lack of confidence expressed by communities of color.”
Activists point to the killing of Ramos as another example of Manley’s failure to reform the department despite the clear push from community groups and City Council in that direction. Over the past two years, activists have advocated for reducing APD staffing, revising training, increasing transparency and accountability, and most fundamentally acknowledging the department has a problem with racial bias.
Justice advocates say APD leadership has been resistant to making those necessary changes. “This deadly shooting demonstrates what happens when long-awaited changes are shelved or not taken seriously,” community groups wrote in a letter to City Manager Spencer Cronk, City Council, and Adler calling for a change in leadership at APD. “But it has become clear to us that actual change – as opposed to words about change or promises of future change – is not a priority for the current leadership of the Austin Police Department.”
Along with the firing of Manley, Gay, and Arellano, the letter calls for an independent investigation into Ramos’ death, the delay of the June police academy class, and immediate implementation of “training reforms” to ensure that cadets are adequately trained in de-escalation as part of all use-of-force and scenario training.
The letter says that “culture change in a police department requires a vision for where the department must go, both on the sworn and on the civilian side of management,” and that Manley and Arellano are not “visionaries in the rapidly changing world of policing and public safety.” Some point to Manley’s response to Council’s vote to limit city enforcement in marijuana cases – with a press conference the next day stating officers would not change their current practices – as an illustration of the chief’s position on reform.
Some believe that Manley’s long history at APD makes him ill-suited for reforming the department. He rose through the ranks at a time when policing looked different, the letter argues, and equity was not as much of a concern. “APD tried this whole approach about moving someone up from within,” Austin Justice Coalition co-founder Chas Moore told the Chronicle. “But APD has to do some tremendous soul searching to achieve real reform, and we don’t think Manley is the one to do it.”