Residents Seek More Cop Accountability
Questions remain unanswered on police shooting of Byron Carter
Local officials shouldered some predictable heat from community members gathered at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center in East Austin on Monday night, where just under 100 people gathered to discuss police use-of-force, and in particular the May 2011 officer-involved death of Byron Carter, who was shot four times by Austin Police Officer Nathan Wagner as he sat in the passenger seat of a car driven by a juvenile friend. Police say the juvenile attempted to run over Wagner's partner, Officer Jeffrey Rodriguez, after the cops tried to stop the pair for casing cars just east of Downtown. A grand jury last year declined to indict the juvenile – a circumstance that casts doubt on the officers' assertion that the car was being used as a weapon. Wagner's use of force is currently under consideration by a grand jury.
There was frustration displayed Monday night from community members who say too many young minorities have died in Austin at the hands of, mostly, white police officers. "You have to have positive change, or you have to have personnel change," said Anthony Walker, a member of the New Black Panther Party who helped organize the event. "Something has got to change and it has to change right now." Both city Police Monitor Margo Frasier and District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg were the focus of some hostility over the process – the D.A.'s Office has taken heat for grand juries that have consistently declined to indict cops in shooting cases. That criticism isn't entirely fair, in part because the D.A. does not choose grand jurors; having a diverse grand jury is important and has been a subject of some debate during the current race for D.A. between Lehmberg and her challenger, former Judge Charlie Baird. Frasier took some guff for the police oversight process being shrouded in secrecy, a circumstance dictated by the terms of the city's contract with the Austin officers' union, which created the oversight system.
Activist Debbie Russell suggested that now might be the time to encourage changes to and transparency in the process, especially with contract negotiations scheduled to kick off next year. The process as it is now, she told the audience, hasn't created any accountability. Russell said it would be better if the public had access to reports and recommendations made by the Citizen Review Panel to the APD chief, regardless of whether the chief decides to act on them. Presently, most of those recommendations remain hidden from the public.