Don't Leave Us in the Dark

Local activists sign on to letter asking city manager to ensure public participation in process of selecting a new police chief

A coalition of 15 local activist groups, joined by 10 prominent Austinites, on Aug. 10 signed on to a letter asking City Manager Toby Futrell to ensure public participation in the process of selecting a new Austin Police chief. "We … write to demonstrate [our] concern regarding the relationship between the Austin community and the Austin Police Department," reads the letter, signed by a diverse list of groups, including the NAACP, the Gray Panthers, the Austin Neighborhood Council, and LULAC. "Austin residents are asked to invest in our [city's] guardians often without access to pertinent information or input into [the] selection processes of key leadership positions. [We] write to announce our joint request that the process … be made open to the public."

The letter comes on the heels of an independent arbitrator's decision to uphold retired Chief Stan Knee's termination of Officer Julie Schroeder for violating the department's use-of-force policy in the shooting death of Daniel Rocha last summer during a drug-related traffic stop in Southeast Austin. The stop lead to a struggle between Schroeder and Rocha (who was wanted on a felony warrant) escalating into a fight also involving Schroeder's supervisor, Sgt. Don Doyle. During the struggle Schroeder's electroshock Taser gun was knocked from her police vest; Schroeder, however, thought Rocha had taken the weapon and was preparing to use it on Doyle, and as Rocha crouched over Doyle, Schroeder shot him once in the back, killing him. A grand jury declined to indict Schroeder on any criminal charges, but Knee later fired her, charging her with several policy violations – including a violation of the department's policy on the use of deadly force. Schroeder appealed her termination to civil service arbitrator Norman Bennett, who last week upheld the firing. In his decision, Bennett said that Rocha was not trying "to harm" Schroeder or Doyle, but was "only trying to get away." Thus, he concluded, in part, that Schroeder's reliance on a series of "assumptions" – that Rocha might have had the Taser and might have shot Doyle – did not meet the legal standard for the "'reasonableness' of a particular use of force … judged from the perspective [of] a reasonable officer on the scene."

The decision to uphold Schroeder's termination was a relief to many of the activist groups signing on to the Aug. 10 letter to Futrell, said Selena Walsh, national director of the grassroots Latino activist group Buena Vista, who penned the letter on behalf of the groups. "It is always positive when a system realizes its mistakes – that is the sign of a healthy system," Walsh said. Indeed, with the final word in on Schroeder's employment, the time is right for a greater partnership among groups and city leaders, she said. "Let's keep moving forward with the strengthening of community relations."

The letter asks the city to make sure the search for a new chief to replace Knee is "open to the public." Specifically, the groups ask that the city "establish and post a calendar of public hearings" related to the selection, make public the selection "criteria or guidelines," and allow citizens to ask direct questions of the candidates for chief during public hearings.

Garza says the city hopes to have a new chief by April 2007.

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