Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

Victim No. 1: Sophia King is one story. East Austin vs. APD is another

City of Austin Police Monitor Iris Jones
City of Austin Police Monitor Iris Jones

Sophia King was a victim of the system before Austin police ever showed up at her door. She was poor, black, and female, which comes with a familiar set of liabilities, but more importantly she was schizophrenic, and Texas is one of the last places on earth you'd want to be seriously mentally ill. (Even if you had a lot of money, you'd use it to take yourself to another state.)

If you're outraged by King's death and want to express your rage in action, start at the Legislature, which thinks a civilized society doesn't need real mental health care. Sophia King was left alone with her demons, her kids taken away for their own protection, dumped in the Rosewood projects -- not what you'd call a "supportive environment" -- where the Housing Authority of the City of Austin is expected to provide psychiatric care in its spare time. She was one of the lucky ones. She could have been living -- and dying -- under a bridge.

But Sophia King is dead because she was shot by an Austin police officer, and when 200 East Austinites gathered across the street the next day to express their rage, they weren't complaining about the Great State and the tattered rag it calls a safety net. They did not ask why Sophia King could not get the medical care anyone (even poor black women) could receive as a matter of right (though, admittedly, not very easily) if they were diabetic instead of schizophrenic. They were complaining about APD's terrorism against black people.


The Wrong Story

This was inevitable. The first police shooting after the appointment of Police Monitor Iris Jones and the Police Review Panel comes with its own set of expectations, regardless of who got shot or how it happened. We already know that if Officer John Coffey is not indicted or thrown off the force, the NAACP, the Nation of Islam, the ACLU, and the Texas Civil Rights Project will say the system doesn't work, that the cops and the city can't police themselves, that APD will always terrorize black people because, well, they're the police and that's what police do. Sophia King has become Victim No. 1.

The TCRP, under soi-disant civil-rights crusader Jim Harrington, already has its mind made up, having secured a court order preventing APD and HACA from destroying evidence in the case. In itself, this proves very little, but Harrington's press release notes that TCRP "has raised serious questions about the integrity and truthfulness of the police version of the killing." Quoting himself, Harrington says the order covers both APD and HACA "because they together set in motion the events that caused Sophia to be killed."

And so the counter-narrative is furiously spun: Sophia King, known by seemingly everyone in the neighborhood as a violent schizophrenic, was the passive victim of a conspiracy of official oppression. (We wonder what the HACA manager who was being attacked by King -- knife or no knife -- is getting for her role in this plot.) Of course Sophia King didn't have to die last week. She was only 23. Would she have lived to see 30? How would she have died instead -- of exposure under a bridge? In a fight with someone who had their own knife? In jail, where medical care is even worse? At her own hand, either accidentally or intentionally? All are more common fates than being shot by the cops.


Open Questions

Our point here is not that APD (or HACA) couldn't do better, and it's certainly not that APD doesn't need or deserve oversight, from either Iris Jones or the Nation of Islam. But Sophia King represents a particular set of intolerable facts about life in Texas that need their own scrutiny, and her memory deserves better than being made a martyr for a different cause. In this case in particular, we are glad that the Iris Jones show is insulated from direct political heat, since even hotheads can see we're talking about systemic problems, not a naked case of abuse by a bad cop. We might not feel that way about the next police shooting, but it hasn't happened yet.

Both APD and HACA need better training and more resources to deal with the mentally ill, and the benefit of real-life community policing would have been obvious here. (Even the officers who answered the call knew Sophia King, having gotten her committed to psychiatric care in past incidents.) But hindsight is 20/20. Even the blind, though, can see that, right now, the enmity between APD and East Austin is real and ripe for release, and that was true long before Sophia King fought her last fight. Whatever improvement was brought to blue-black relations by the Cedar Avenue agreement seems either to have stalled out or been forgotten.

We want to know why, for example, Police Chief Stan Knee, or whoever it is who actually runs APD, was not talking -- okay, being screamed at, but that goes with the job -- with community leaders as soon as possible after Sophia King died. (Assistant Chief Rick Coy met with Eastside leaders on Friday, four days later.) Mayor Gus Garcia was on his way to Germany, which is a sufficient excuse, but we would expect the same of him had he been available. Or perhaps we shouldn't. Perhaps this is why we have Iris Jones.

As it happened, the council's appointed Public Safety Task Force met Monday night, and Sophia King's name did not come up once. That's not a knock on the PSTF, which has plenty of other mandates, but when the group brainstormed its expectations for high-quality public safety, "protecting civil liberties" got mentioned once, and "equity" not at all. Maybe they went without saying. We hope so.

What did get said, though -- quite eloquently, by Travis County DA Ronnie Earle -- was that too often our public safety, public health, and social services agencies function in silos, don't work together, and miss opportunities to prevent crime and disorder from happening. As Sophia King's family tries to find money to bury her, we have no choice but to agree. n

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Sophia King, Austin Police Department, Housing Authority of the City of Austin, Rosewood, Iris Jones, Police Review Panel, John Coffey, NAACP, Nation of Islam, ACLU, Texas Civil Liberties Project, Jim Harrington, Cedar Avenue agreement, Stan Knee, Rick Coy, Public Safety Task Force, Ronnie Earle

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