Austin @ Large: The Real 'Victim No. 1'

Another summer, another shooting, and a moment of truth for police oversight

Austin At Large
For the second year in a row, East Austin's celebration of Juneteenth has been clouded by anger over the fatal shooting of an African-American citizen by a white Austin police officer, and for the second year in a row I've spiked an already-written lighthearted column out of respect for the tragedy. And like last year's shooting of Sophia King -- but even more so -- the most recent case raises unavoidable questions about the relationship between Austin police and Austin citizens of color. They are questions that, if there is justice in the world (or at least in our small corner of it), will be raised with vigor by Police Monitor Iris Jones and her citizen review panel.

Last year, I wrote -- to the dismay of some readers -- that Sophia King was ill-suited to be "Victim No. 1": the first case to be brought before the police monitor as an example of the need for citizen oversight of APD. Sophia King's civil and human rights had been violated, repeatedly, long before APD showed up at the Rosewood projects on the morning of her death; she had plummeted through every hole in the ragged local safety net. It's not Iris Jones' job to sew up those holes and point Austin toward a future where adequate community mental health care could allow others like Sophia King to be healed instead of harmed, or to harm themselves, or to harm others. Or worse. (But that could be a mission for community advocates who instead rushed solely to judgment of APD; even if their judgment was accurate, their efforts are needed elsewhere.)

The case of Jessie Owens, known also as B.J., is clearly different -- even though, as usual, the details are shrouded in investigatory secrecy. Owens, who was unarmed, was shot five times at close range by APD officer Scott Glasgow, who had apparently gotten trapped in Owens' car door when Owens attempted to flee after being stopped by Glasgow on East 17th Street driving a car that had been reported stolen. Owens was facing a prior charge of auto theft, but had no felony convictions or history of violence.

Five Times

At this point in a story like this -- with inquiries under way by a Travis Co. grand jury, by the department, and inevitably by Jones' Office of the Police Monitor -- it's often deemed scandalous to even report the known facts, lest they not seem "fair" to one or another side. But let me repeat them anyway. Five times. Close range. Unarmed. Nonviolent. According to the autopsy report, any one of the five wounds could have been fatal.

I don't know about you, but I don't want to live in a city where it's considered normal, or even occasionally acceptable, for unarmed young black men to be shot five times at close range by the police. I can envision the scenario in which Sophia King's death, tragic as it was, did not represent "oppression" or "misconduct" or "negligence" on APD's part; indeed, it's the "official" scenario of her shooting, in which she was attacking a citizen with a knife. (A year after the fact, with lots of people working for truth and justice in the King case, an alternative narrative of her last day has yet to emerge.)

I'm having a very hard time coming up with any similar justification for the death of Jessie Owens.

That would be true even if it turns out that Glasgow himself really isn't culpable here, although to let the officer off the hook would seem to take a much different scenario than the one currently on the table. Two questions already arise over APD's broader responsibility: Why didn't a backup unit arrive after Glasgow radioed for one? And why wasn't there a video camera in Glasgow's squad car, as required by both the state's racial-profiling law and the city's Cedar Avenue settlement, the sourcebook for APD's efforts to improve relations with the black community? Is this a budget issue? (The APD says it began installing cameras two years ago and expects to have them in all patrol cars in three more years.) A camera would have helped the community verify whether the admittedly unusual scenario recounted by Glasgow actually happened. A backup could have helped avert that scenario in the first place. And Owens would still be alive.

Had this happened between two private citizens, the survivor would almost certainly face a manslaughter charge ("recklessly causing an individual's death," says the penal code). But felony indictments of police officers are so rare that many community leaders are already looking past what they see as an inevitable no-bill of Glasgow by the grand jury, and what they expect to be an insufficient investigation by APD Internal Affairs, right to Jones and the Office of the Police Monitor.

The Truth Matters

And the Owens/Glasgow case will do a lot to establish why, exactly, it is that we have a police monitor. Are Jones and her blue-ribbon panel of citizens there to serve APD and City Hall, as a quality control and process improvement system? Or are they there to serve the community, particularly at times like these, as a constructive way to channel outrage into real reforms? It's basically the same quandary that confronts any city board or commission, but most of them aren't dealing with life and death.

Officially, it's the first one; Jones works for, and the panel is appointed by, the city manager, not the City Council. But unofficially, it's the second one; that's why Iris Jones, a former city attorney and well-known figure in Austin's African-American elite, is the police monitor, and not some anonymous City Hall drone. (That's not a slam on Jones' qualifications, but her reputation contributes to whatever influence she currently has and was surely considered when she was recruited for this job.)

In its two highest-profile cases so far, the OPM and its review panel have sent mixed signals. In the Sophia King case, the monitor has pushed farther than APD (and, more openly, the police union) might like. But in the Lucy Neyens case (see "Did APD Panel Fumble," p.18), the panel hasn't gone as far as the complainant would like, or that appears at a distance justified. This may reflect the understandable difference between a fatal shooting in broad daylight and a decade-old allegation of a perhaps unprovable sexual misdeed. Or it may reflect something less easy, and less pleasant, for those of us not on the police review panel to grasp.

The Owens case is already unpleasant, and it also features a level of black power and celebrity, if I may be so blunt, that puts Iris Jones' rep in the shade: Hazel Obey is a grande dame of African-American, and Democratic, activism, not just in Austin but throughout Texas, and B.J. was her nephew. It's because of the Hazel Obey connection that five of seven City Council members attended Owens' funeral at David Chapel, where her husband, the late Rev. James Obey, was pastor for decades.

I think we can safely assume that this case will be taken all the way by Jones and her review panel. The community will -- and should -- settle for no less. By pushing as hard as it can for the truth and for change, the OPM will hopefully establish whether the current system of police oversight -- which certainly falls short of the ideal originally advanced by reform advocates -- is really good enough when Austin needs it the most. end story

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Austin Police Department, Scott Glasgow, Jessie Owens, B.J., Sophia King, Office of the Police Monitor, OPM, review panel, Iris Jones, police shooting, Hazel Falke-Obey, Rev. James Obey

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