Knee, Wynn, Futrell Austin's 'A' Team

On Jan. 28, city leaders announced a three-part plan to improve relations between Austin police and the city's minority communities. APD Chief Stan Knee told reporters that the press conference was intended as an update on city plans to address concerns raised by the Travis Co. grand jury that indicted Officer Scott Glasgow on Oct. 20. In their two-page report, the grand jurors expressed concern over a "different brand of law enforcement" in Austin's minority neighborhoods and called on city and county leaders to open a public discussion about "race and the distrust that runs in our community." Knee said that it was a mere "coincidence" that the event took place on the last day of the Statesman's four-part series on police use of force, in which the daily concluded that APD officers use force against blacks and Hispanics at substantially higher rates than against whites. But other city officials – including City Manager Toby Futrell and Mayor Will Wynn – seemed to direct their comments squarely as a response to the daily's statistically questionable exposé.

Knee offered an apology to Austin's citizens for the "history of the policing profession," he said, which has compounded the distrust some minorities feel toward police. "Historically, local governments used the police department to enforce laws that were inappropriate," he said. "Laws that encouraged segregation, kept some school children from going to school, and kept people from voting." Still, he lauded the APD as one of the nation's most professional policing organizations – noting that the APD is one of only four agencies nationwide to have received national accreditation.

Nonetheless, Knee was joined by Futrell and Wynn to announce their "Action, Accountability, Access" plan for improving police-community relations. Knee – master of the Action segment – told reporters that he wants to reduce the number of random searches of vehicles conducted by police, provide officers (especially cadets) with additional communication-skills training, and supply more officers with less-than-lethal weaponry, including Tasers and beanbag shotguns. Specifically, Knee said he'd like to see APD reduce the rarely fruitful random searches by 40% over the next two years and will require officers to get written consent before conducting a search. Veteran officers have better communication skills, he said, honed from years of street-level interaction, skills that Knee wants to teach younger officers through additional training. And less-than-lethal weapons, he said, could reduce the number of incidents where officers use "deadly force." By the end of the year, he pledged, the department will have added 122 Tasers to the current total of 144, and 37 additional beanbag shotguns, to augment the current complement of 33.

Futrell – captain of Accountability – said she would ensure that Knee follows through with the three Action items, analyzing "data to ensure that we see change," and promised that city management will stay "open to new approaches and solutions." And Wynn – the plan's Access commander – said he would set up a series of "nontraditional street-level discussions" between city officials and residents, to try to determine whether the perceived minority distrust of police is actually "bigger than that and, essentially, bigger than our police department," he said.

Aside from the Action items, the comments of the chief and assembled city leaders appeared tailor-made to assuage hostilities whipped up by the Statesman series. Knee commented – twice – that the APD does not calculate a rate of force the same way that the Statesman did, but aside from those brief jabs, not one person questioned the validity of the daily's findings. Instead, they focused their energy on more conciliatory remarks. Wynn said he has never met a victim of police force, "especially lethal force," at any of APD's regular Commander's Forum meetings in the community, but said he'd like to meet them and "facilitate patrol officers meeting them." (The mayor's misstatement went largely unnoticed.) Futrell said that Austin was recently ranked the second safest major city in the country, and that APD officers are far less likely to use force than their counterparts in comparable cities – but added that the city "cannot ignore" data that suggests there is a disparity in "how policing works among the minority neighborhoods." Acknowledging the problem offers the city a chance to "take real identifiable steps to address" it, she said.

Meanwhile, on Jan. 30, the Austin Police Association and Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas responded with their own press conference, calling for the city to step up its Action. "We want action, not words," said APA President Mike Sheffield, "before we have another incident." The APD rank-and-file have "nothing to hide," he said, adding that if the city really wants change, there's no reason to wait: City officials should immediately equip every officer with a Taser, install video cameras in every police vehicle, and ensure that there is enough staffing in each sector of the city so that officers don't have to wait for backup. Sheffield and CLEAT President Ron DeLord said that they were angry at Knee for not standing up for his officers. "If he doesn't have the backbone to stand up, then we have no confidence in him," said DeLord.

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