Naked City

NAACP targets APD funds

Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder
Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder

The Austin chapter of the NAACP is asking the U.S. Deptartment of Justice to withhold federal funding from the city of Austin and the Austin Police Department until city officials agree to implement a series of "remedial measures" that address APD's "systematic practice of racial discrimination and police misconduct."

In the official June 19 complaint filed with the DOJ, the NAACP alleges that Austin's black and Hispanic residents are disproportionately met with excessive force at the hands of police, are routinely harassed through police abuse of so-called consent searches, and that complaints of police misconduct are often dismissed and the offending officers unpunished – allegations that the NAACP is urging the DOJ to investigate. In its 16-page filing, the NAACP alleges a pattern of abuse and discrimination, offering the officer-involved killings of Jessie Lee Owens Jr. and Sophia King, state-collected racial profiling data, and the SXSW Ozomatli incident as examples.

"The police misconduct and violence suffered by the minority communities stretches back decades and has created a profound lack of trust between African Americans and Hispanics with APD," reads the complaint. "A police force that has lost its credibility within its community has failed, and a police force that operates outside the bounds of the law and the Federal Constitution must be restrained."

The city's failure to remedy the situation is a federal problem, in part because APD receives federal criminal-justice grant funding, said Jim Harrington, who, as director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, filed the complaint on behalf of the NAACP. Federal funds – nearly $3.2 million last year – flow into the police budget but must be spent in compliance with various federal statutes, including Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination "under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance" – the law under which the NAACP and TCRP are requesting an investigation. "It is clear that no matter how many federal lawsuits we file, we do not see any systemic change," Harrington said at a Juneteenth press conference outside NAACP offices on East 12th Street.

If the charges are substantiated, the NAACP is asking that the city be allowed to keep federal funding only if Austin enters into a written agreement with the Feds and demonstrates compliance with a list of specific guidelines – including new training requirements, a new policy on deadly force that would require police to "shoot to disable," the abolition of consent searches, and new requirements on data collection and public dissemination. "Maybe now, once and for all [there will be] proper reform and proper redress," said Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder. "We talk about justice and equality, but we really don't have it. Look at the police brutality, look at the economics: It's a grand illusion."

If instituted, the proposed agreement would function similarly to a federal consent decree – a binding, federal-court-ordered oversight agreement. Texas has experienced the claw of federal oversight before – notably, during the 20 years of federal oversight of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, under the terms of the Ruiz case, which addressed a host of civil rights concerns and finally came to an end in 2002. Police departments in a number of U.S. cities are currently operating under consent decree or DOJ monitoring agreements – including Los Angeles (since 2000), Cincinnati (since 2002), Pittsburgh (since 1997), and Detroit (since 2003). These arrangements can be expensive, officials at times gingerly complain. In Los Angeles the decree, tentatively slated for dissolution in 2005, reportedly costs the city $50 million per year.

Whatever the cost, the arrangement demands change – which is what the NAACP and TCRP hope to win with their complaint. "Don't think for a minute that we're asking that [the government] not fund [Austin] police," Harrington said. Rather, he said, the goal is to ensure that the money goes toward "just and equitable" policing.

Responding to the complaint, Assistant Chief Rick Coy said, "We're surprised that this would be filed. We thought we were making a lot of progress." Coy says that several of the NAACP's proposed changes are things the department has already done or is actively doing – including training and equipping officers with Tasers, equipping more officers with less-than-lethal shotguns, and putting video cameras in every car. Additionally, the department and police union have teamed with community members for additional training and sent a delegation to take the Tools for Tolerance training. "We're always looking for better training," Coy said.

Coy added that the department has eliminated "random searches" – for which an officer doesn't have "reasonable suspicion" that a crime has occurred – and is in the process of reducing so-called consent searches – conducted on the reasonable suspicion standard.

It is ultimately up to the federal government to decide whether the NAACP will win the chance to negotiate with the city over their proposed changes, since it is the DOJ investigators that ultimately will determine where and how far the investigation will go.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

NAACP, Texas Civil Rights Project, TCRP, Austin Police Department, APD, Nelson Linder, Department of Justice, DOJ, federal investigation

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