DPS Partnership Suspended 10 Days After Restarting

Mayor cites “recent events” for abrupt decision

DPS troopers guard the state Capitol during police brutality protests on June 1, 2020 (Photo by John Anderson)

Editor's Note: This story was updated on Wednesday, July 14, 11:38pm. The original story included an account of the traffic stop by DPS of Carlos and Angel Meza, as reported by Fox 7. Acquisition of body-cam footage proved some of the original assertions from the stop were inaccurate. They are corrected below.

The controversial partnership between the Austin Police Department and the Texas Department of Public Safety has been suspended. Interim City Manager Jesús Garza sent a press release Wednesday, July 12, announcing that the decision had been made “in consultation” with Mayor Kirk Watson.

“We have heard Mayor and Council’s concerns about recent events and agree that we must have absolute certainty that any solution we put in place maintains the trust and well-being of our community members,” Garza wrote in the news release, and “that all law enforcement officers working to keep our city safe are on the same page when it comes to policing practices.”

While not explicitly referenced in the announcement, the abrupt suspension of the partnership is likely related to an incident that occurred Sunday, July 9, that was initially reported by Fox 7 as a traffic stop that resulted in troopers aiming their guns at 10-year-old Angel Meza, who lives in South Austin. Wednesday night, July 12, after the Chronicle went to press, we obtained footage from the body-worn cameras of the two troopers who initiated the stop as well as dash camera footage from their patrol vehicle.

The video shows Angel attempt to exit the passenger side of the vehicle and a trooper approaching – with his gun drawn, though aimed downward – while shouting commands for Angel and Carlos. Dash camera footage shows both troopers briefly pointing their guns at the vehicle, though they are approaching from the driver’s side and it is unclear if Angel, the 10-year-old in the passenger seat, would have seen the firearms pointing at him. About 20 minutes into the stop, one of the troopers tells Angel he can go inside.

After the initial confrontation, both troopers holster their firearms and do not draw them again. The stop lasts for another 40 minutes, during which Carlos is given a field sobriety test because he tells the troopers he had smoked marijuana a few hours prior. Later, Carlos notes that “they sell that crap at the store right here,” indicating that he likely smoked Delta-8 or Delta-9, forms of cannabis that are legal in Texas because they contain less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and that are commonly sold in convenience stores and head shops. One of the troopers notes that recreational use of marijuana is still illegal in Texas and that “people are arrested for possession of marijuana every day, right here in Austin, Texas.” It is unlikely that is true, and if people in Austin are being arrested for marijuana possession, it is likely not by Austin police officers. One year ago, Austin voters approved an ordinance directing APD to stop arresting people for most marijuana possession offenses.

In Fox’s initial story, Angel told the TV station he was “terrified” and “shaking” during the interaction. In a follow up story, Carlos told Fox that he stands by his initial criticism and calls for Austin officials to suspend the DPS partnership. Even if the troopers did not aim their guns at his son, Carlos said, they still had them drawn, which is a problem.

“Recent events demonstrate we need to suspend the partnership with DPS,” said Watson in the release. In addition to pulling a gun on a child, troopers initiated a high-speed chase Monday, July 10, in North Austin that ended with troopers shooting a man in the arm. In May, troopers began another chase along U.S. Highway 183; the pursuit ended in Round Rock when the driver’s tires were blown with a deflation device. According to DPS, the person aimed a gun at troopers, who then shot and killed him. “The safety of our community is a primary function of City government,” Watson continued in the news release. “We must keep trying to get it right. This partnership was an innovative approach to address acute staffing shortages that were years in the making. However, any approach must be in sync with Austin values.” In an interview with KXAN following release of video footage of the stop, Watson said suspending the partnership was still the right decision.

The release states without providing evidence that the partnership – which began on March 27 and resumed July 2 after a brief pause mid-May when troopers were deployed to the border – resulted in a decrease in violent crime, fewer traffic fatalities, shorter response times to 911 calls, and seizures of “significant” amounts of drugs. However, when APD presented data on the apparent reduction in violent crime to Council in April, those conclusions were dubious due to the two-week study period and a lack of publicly available APD data. In the initial phase of the DPS deployment, most enforcement activity occurred in East Austin, where 90% arrests were made against people of color.

On Monday, DPS came under scrutiny from the Public Safety Commission, which unanimously recommended Council discontinue the partnership unless there is “significant community engagement” and a Council resolution outlining the exact “goals, time periods, accountability, data sharing, reporting and expectations.” Up to this point, some Council members have publicly expressed concerns about the partnership, but no one has taken any formal action to change or end the agreement. But Austin Justice Coalition Executive Director Chas Moore said it’s vital they do so now.

“City Council needs to do better about reclaiming their power and not letting Kirk Watson run the show,” Moore told us. “If there was true concern from Council members there would have been more opposition from the jump. Moving forward, we need to make sure Council uses their collective power to stop this kind of rogue action from happening again.”

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Texas Department of Public Safety, Jesus Garza, Kirk Watson

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