Sixth Street Showdown
APD's Downtown Area Command contends with the unique pressures of the city's entertainment district
Matthew Wallace wasn't planning on spending the night in jail, but shortly after 2:30am, on Friday, Nov. 6, that's where he found himself. Wallace and some friends, most visiting from San Antonio, were crossing Sixth Street after a night out enjoying Downtown Austin. Caught crossing against the light, Wallace and two others were arrested and sent to jail for a violation that usually results in a ticket.
Three-year veteran Daniel McCameron was the Austin Police officer who decided to arrest Wallace. McCameron wrote, in an arrest warrant filed that Friday morning, that a "Solid Red Hand" pedestrian signal was shining over Sixth Street as Wallace stepped into the crosswalk. McCameron "approached and asked Wallace to come forward." Wallace "refused," wrote McCameron, so "I approached Wallace on foot."
It was during McCameron's second "approach" toward Wallace that Rolando Ramiro turned on his camera. Ramiro had been crossing the street with Wallace. His video, which he posted to Facebook when he got home, begins by showing McCameron pushing Wallace against the wall of a building. Wallace's friend Jeremy King can be seen in the video's background being physically restrained by two officers, identified later as 12-year veteran Brian Huckaby and 20-year veteran Richard R. Munoz. The video shows all three officers, as well as a few others assisting, simultaneously taking King and Wallace to the ground. The officers knee and strike Wallace and King with their hands, while commanding them to stop resisting. The video also shows Wallace and King's friend Lourdes Glen rushing over to King's side as he lies facedown in the street. An officer points at Glen and shouts: "Back up or you're going to jail." She moves left; it's not possible to tell from the video whether she also backs up. Officer Vanessa Jimenez grabs Glen by the arm and places her under arrest.
Wallace, King, and Glen were taken to Travis County Jail. King and Glen were released later in the morning. A prosecutor decided several hours in Travis County Jail was even punishment for jaywalking, a Class C misdemeanor that rarely leads to arrest. Wallace, who was charged with resisting arrest in addition to jaywalking, was kept until that evening. His attorney told the Chronicle that his case is yet to be processed through the District Attorney's intake division.
Seemingly everybody in Austin had seen the video by Friday's lunch break. At 2pm that day, APD released a statement saying they had "been made aware" of the incident and would review the officers' response to resistance, as well as the incident in general, to determine what led up to the events captured in the video, and whether the officers' actions were in compliance with department policy. The Austin Police Association's meet-and-confer agreements grant APD Chief Art Acevedo 180 days to consider disciplinary action, which in this case means a deadline of May 4. King, Wallace, and Glen all say that they've yet to be contacted by Internal Affairs.
The three are hoping that they will eventually. Given the opportunity, each would dispute the officer's description of events. They say they were already midway across the street when they were told to stop walking: Did the officers want them to stop dead in the roadway? According to Wallace, who spoke with the Chronicle shortly after the incident, he heard McCameron's commands and acknowledged them with King, but both agreed without consulting the officer that they could continue crossing the road. Six minutes after the incident began, the police conducted an informal interview with Ramiro, which was captured on his video. Ramiro said Wallace and King were both midway through the street when first told to stop walking. Ramiro also told the officer interviewing him that the pedestrian signal changed from "Stop" to "Walk" immediately after the group was told to stop walking and that either Wallace or King said "Man, fuck you, [indecipherable]" to the other before continuing. Both Wallace and King maintain that they were never asked for identification nor told they were under arrest. They remain puzzled as to how a petty misdemeanor sparked such an aggressive reaction from patrolling officers.
On Monday, Feb. 15, King and Glen filed suit in federal court alleging that Munoz, Huckaby, Jimenez, and Officer Gustave Gallenkamp used excessive force arresting them, and discriminated against King because of his race. (Both King and Wallace are black. Glen is Latina. Wallace was advised against filing suit because of his pending charges with the D.A.'s office.) The lawsuit also argues that Glen's arrest violates her right to free speech – questioning why King was being arrested.
"What happened here was outrageous," says attorney Brian McGiverin, who represents King and Glen. "Everybody here deserves better. They deserve a police department that abides by the Constitution."
A "Dirty" Job
When people think of resisting arrest in Austin, they're likely to think of Sixth Street. Last year alone, there were 230 Downtown arrests that included accusations that the arrestee resisted, according to numbers provided by APD. Those numbers have grown significantly since 2005, when only 99 people were handed the charge (see chart, below).
Search YouTube for the words "Austin Texas cop takedown" and there's a good chance that eight of the first 12 videos you'll see are of nighttime arrests Downtown. The officers assigned to APD's Downtown Area Command – DTAC, the patrol sector that runs from Lamar Boulevard east to Chicon Street, 12th Street south to Lady Bird Lake – have an unenviable job, comparable in many ways to patrolling New Orleans' French Quarter. They're responsible for keeping order among thousands and thousands of drunk Austinites and out-of-towners, in a rapidly expanding entertainment district that happens to contain the city's nexus of homeless resources.
Consider this: In 2005, Austin's entertainment sprawl had not yet reached East Austin and Rainey Street, and was just beginning to hit West Sixth, then a much more sedate stretch of beer bars than the scene it is today. A Chronicle story from last decade ("Sixth Street Blues," March 18, 2005) notes that Downtown patrol carried 103 full-time positions – including sergeants, corporals, and lieutenants – back then, when "Downtown patrol" stretched from I-35 to Lamar, and Dean Keeton to the lake. Today, DTAC supports 110 sworn full-time employment positions (FTEs), a difference of seven positions over 10 years.
Yet DTAC patrol has seen an unimaginable amount of growth in that time. Eight thousand new Downtown residents accompany 2,479 new condominiums, 4,353 apartment units, and 8,000 new hotel rooms. More than 1,500 of each are either in construction or planning stages, according to numbers provided by the Downtown Austin Alliance. An entertainment district once confined to Sixth Street's four blocks, the Warehouse District, and Red River Street's rock clubs now extends two miles east-to-west. The Greater Austin Crime Commission estimates that 20,000-60,000 people go Downtown each weekend night.
Then there's the homeless population. Front Steps, the organization that operates the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, did not respond to requests to confirm the number of individuals they serve. But the population that does live Downtown survives in a volatile environment, which has the potential to exacerbate the mental problems that landed some people on the street in the first place. APD says that 26% of DTAC calls concern the transient population. Of those, 39% lead to transient arrests. The listed victim is considered transient in 12% of the aforementioned calls. Assistant Chief Chris McIlvain, who oversees DTAC and Region 1, says APD can tweak those statistics either way by changing the degree to which it enforces certain ordinances, an option that's typically contingent on creating overtime shifts for officers. (The department is constantly threatening to exceed its overtime budget.)
The officers assigned to DTAC divide into shifts of 12 officers, though each shift throughout the department currently runs at a one vacancy minimum, meaning that in practice the DTAC shifts never consist of more than 11 officers. When officers are suspended, put on administrative duty, or need to go on family or medical leave, those shifts shrink even smaller – and therefore more reliant on overtime dollars to fill what's missing. On a typical weekend night in DTAC, APD deploys three shifts around the city, with a few on bikes, a few in cars, and the rest on walking beat. Come midnight, those officers assemble into three groups – DTAC calls them pods, for the way the officers arrange in a circle with their backs facing one another, so they can see fully around the area – stationed one-block-and-a-half from one another, along Sixth Street's four-block stretch of bars.
"What we have seen in the Downtown area: Any Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night has almost become a mini-special event," McIlvain tells the Chronicle. "We've grown and grown," extending to Rainey, West Sixth, and East Austin. "Sixth Street alone requires almost every foot patrol resource we can throw at it at the witching hour – midnight until 3am. That is very manpower-resource-intensive on those nights."
It's a constant refrain in civil service that you do the best you can with the resources you've been allotted. That's nowhere more evident than with DTAC police on weekends.
Bringing Order to Chaos
In January 2013, after considering that the Downtown beast had grown four heads, APD extracted its Downtown Area Command from the larger Region 1 so that it could more accurately track what was happening within the area, and better allocate resources to the unique stretch of the city.
McIlvain was Region 1 commander in 2011. "What I quickly found was that DTAC was borrowing resources from those other areas at such a regular occurrence that it almost made sense," he says. "Why split these duties over three very time-intensive areas when DTAC could use all of those resources itself? The gentrification, the expansion, it just made sense to have a chain of command that could just focus on Downtown."
The chaotic street has yielded to a flexible form of patrol.
"We don't just say, 'Okay, you guys are walking, you guys are cars, and you guys are bikes,'" McIlvain continues. "It's a very fluid assignment based on what we're dealing with. On a busy, very congested night, you might take extras from cars and make sure more officers are on foot – or put them on bikes. If it's cold out and we don't have the foot traffic, you might have more cars out on the perimeter."
He says DTAC Commander Pat Cochran tries to keep at least four officers in cars at all times so that responses can be made around the other entertainment pockets within the area. On weekends that assignment typically falls on Metro Tactical Teams (street-level response teams that specialize in criminal and narcotic arrests) that are brought in on rotations from other regions. The department used to pull individual officers from the five surrounding regions to handle vehicle patrol, but found that communication breakdowns often popped up when the officer needed assistance – tough for your chain of command to help with anything Downtown when that chain of command's station is off Slaughter Lane. A switch came this last November.
APD deploys additional patrol through its mounted unit – two teams of a sergeant (or corporal) and four officers riding horseback from the department's Special Events Unit – to traverse Sixth Street every night. Officers consider the horses to be "force multipliers" in the area. They're able to break up any groundswell just by walking through.
There are constant groundswells around Sixth Street: outside the bar, in line for pizza, or simply standing in the street. It's a phenomenon I witnessed firsthand in early October when I shadowed a pod of officers between Toulouse and Bar 512 to see the commotion from their sight lines. The team of 11 had two officers on family leave and another out due to injury. Others were in on overtime.
Much of the evening's earlier hours are spent taking pictures with tourists and giving out directions to lost partiers. The job takes a while; APD shifts have officers out 10 hours at a time, no matter the region. DTAC officers get to know Sixth's regular players: bouncers, food truck owners, and transients. They point to teenagers they say sell baking soda masked as cocaine, and visit with one grown man wearing an ankle monitor, whom a few of the veteran officers used to arrest on drug busts throughout his youth. One officer who built a smartphone app with information on Downtown businesses got clever and convinced a homeless guy who often stands in the middle of Sixth Street holding a cardboard sign to let him run advertising for the app on the sign's blank backside.
Most of these officers learn to enjoy Sixth Street, but they can be hesitant going in. Part of that reticence has to do with the demands of the beat: They're on their feet for the full shift, and use of force is standard. It's their job to quell drunks, or bust homeless people when they sleep in doorways. There are thousands of people around them; they go to work expecting to break up fights.
"Almost every time, you know [you will] have to put your hands on someone," admits McIlvain. He adds that the department recently raised the threshold on Downtown officers for activating a Guidance Advisory Program, an early warning mitigation system employed when officers show signs of what the department calls "potential areas of concern," from six instances of response to resistance per year to nine. (Five officers exceeded the threshold in 2015, he says.) "You could go a whole shift in another part of the city; aside from putting handcuffs on them and taking them to jail, that would be the extent of your physical altercations. Downtown, you are in a scuffle and you've got this huge crowd around you. It's not just doing your job, it's doing your job in this environment."
Should that happen – should an officer put their hands on a civilian, whether to arrest them or just attempt to calm them down – it's become routine someone will film it.
"Five years ago when a fight broke out you saw the crowd move back and let [the officers] do their job," says McIlvain. "We're seeing the opposite now. You see the crowd close in; generally [because they want] to get a picture of what's going on. You got social media, cameras. You have people climbing on officers' backs to get the first photo. What used to take four officers responding to a disturbance is now going to take more." APD procedures currently send additional officers to arrest scenes on Sixth Street to establish space for the arresting officer to work.
Last fall, changes in DTAC working conditions led Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday to take a tour of the local TV newscasts to talk about how the officers assigned to DTAC didn't want to work there any longer, and lament the process by which the chiefs' Fifth Floor has chosen to staff the area. To hear Casaday tell it, staffing Downtown – once the choice beat of patrolling officers – is now the bottom of the rung, with officers – often young officers just off their 15-month probationary period – getting assigned to work there against their wishes.
It's menial, he says, unless they've got to make a potentially violent arrest. (Another unofficial axiom of law enforcement is that response to resistance arrests will almost always appear overly violent.) Casaday has stressed that overexposure to the area can lead to work fatigue. But he says the process for getting disgruntled officers out of DTAC is tough. A patrol freeze brought on by the current staffing shortage (APD currently claims more than 130 FTE vacancies) keeps current regional patrol counts set. Both Casaday and McIlvain say reassignments are only being executed in extenuating circumstances.
Speaking for the department, McIlvain tells the Chronicle that Casaday's claims that officers don't want to work DTAC anymore are more likely representative of a few outlying instances. And he maintains that DTAC is not getting staffed with rookie cops. Only 27% of patrolling officers have been on the force for fewer than three years, he says, and 21% have been on for 3-6, leaving 52% of the officers as having six years of experience or more. McIlvain says the department would never staff DTAC with officers still on probation, but concedes that the area patrol is shifting younger. "Seniority counts for something down here," he says. "We're not going to pull a 10-year officer [from another region] when a brand-new guy off probation who did good is available. There's no expectation that you have the same tenure."
McIlvain admits that the command region puts officers in difficult circumstances. But while the Fifth Floor believes that sending a green cop to DTAC to get some experience can be beneficial, Casaday worries that throwing an officer to the wolves Downtown can wreak havoc on employee happiness – and potentially damage the early stages of their career.
One such example of the unique rigors on Sixth Street became evident shortly after 1:30am on the night that I went out. A report came in that multiple gunshots were fired around Seventh Street and Neches, between the ARCH and the Caritas building, which on weekends converts to a booking station and staging grounds for officers patrolling DTAC. The pod split up; half of the officers broke for the scene of the shooting, and found two shells but no assailant. (A suspected shooter was arrested later in the evening.) On our way back to Sixth Street, a young couple ran up to the officers upset about how one of the cops had pushed the boyfriend out of his way in his pursuit of the crime scene. The officer explained that they were on their way to a potential live shooting, apologized, but made clear that in this case his physicality was merely the cost of doing business.
While this was happening, the girlfriend had started an argument with a cop-watching activist she believed was getting in the way of her boyfriend's conversation with APD. I noticed upon hearing her complaints how close he was when filming the discussion. One of the officers speaking with the boyfriend asked for the activist to step back. He moved the prescribed distance back and shouted the words "Disturbance!" and "Unlawful!" through the remainder of the officer's interaction with the couple.
Cops Vs. Cop Watchers
The activist was Julian Reyes, a 47-year-old street artist who identifies as semi-homeless. He's a known figure among DTAC patrol, having first started cop watching in the summer of 2013 after an officer shot his dog outside of a South Austin storage facility Reyes rented. He currently has a civil case pending against the city and members of APD.
Reyes has been arrested for interfering with police activity, and for crossing against a light. Both times he was filming law enforcement with his camera. He says that he's routinely subject to intimidation and harassment by APD, whether by way of an officer putting hands on him or telling him to stop filming from a certain location already being occupied by other people.
Most cops associate Reyes with the Peaceful Streets Project, the most visible cop-watching activist group in Austin; but Reyes considers himself more independent. He touts his connection to the homeless newspaper The Challenger Street Newspaper. Reyes believes in filming everything. In three years, he's captured thousands of hours of city business – a large portion of it uneventful – uploading it to one of his many YouTube channels. His most active channel is called Lizzardo Giganticus. Earlier that night on Sixth Street, shortly after assembling into a pod, one officer spotted Reyes filming from behind a nearby tree.
The topic of Peaceful Streets came up frequently that night. Most of the conversation concerned how many nights its membership has spent documenting menial police activity. "They never catch anything," say officers. PSP membership refutes this, saying it captures tiny infractions all the time. Members say it's only when a video captures the general public's attention that the department chooses to investigate.
Indeed, it was a February 2015 video from Peaceful Streets that got Officer Otho DuBoise in trouble. The 14-year veteran was working DTAC patrol on Feb. 15 when he saw Joseph Cuellar dance too close, he believed, to one of the mounted patrol units walking by. Video recorded by PSP member Richard Boland shows DuBoise approaching Cuellar from a distance, throwing him to the ground, and arresting him without Cuellar offering any resistance. (Cuellar was charged by APD with public intoxication, interfering with police animals, and resisting his arrest. The first two charges never made it to court. Downtown Community Court Administrator Peter Valdez told the Chronicle that the PI charge is still pending.) Nightly news caught wind; the Fifth Floor launched an investigation. Six months later, news emerged that DuBoise received a written reprimand, the lowest form of punishment passable through civil service – a citation not open to public records. He also received a promotion from detective to sergeant. The department declined to confirm whether the promotion was the direct result of any hearing.
Additionally, it was Antonio Buehler, PSP's founder, who captured footage of Detective Ricky Jones refusing to identify himself to Buehler, and making threatening statements about Buehler's First Amendment right to film police from a reasonable distance (which fluctuates based on discretion but often extends to 15 feet). Buehler posted the video to Peaceful Streets' YouTube page and filed a complaint against Jones. Jones received a 10-day suspension for violating APD Policy 302.2, Interaction With Community, and Policy 900.3.2, Acts Bringing Discredit Upon the Department.
"We have [caught things]," says Buehler. "The problem is, Internal Affairs is always like, 'Nope, we don't see anything here.' Even though everybody can just go to YouTube and say, 'That [officer] is assaulting someone.'"
Both the department and association routinely contest PSP's assertions. They say that civilian footage often fails to capture an incident's full context, and rarely depicts use-of-force arrests in an accurate manner. Casaday accuses the activists specifically of antagonizing and routinely interfering with the work of his patrolling officers. "There's a problem when you violate someone's space," he says. "Don't get in my face and start cursing and yelling at me. It's absolutely inappropriate and unprofessional. You can, but expect a bad reaction."
On June 7, 2015, after a Saturday night spent on Sixth Street, a gamer visiting town for X Games weekend posted a video to YouTube that shows nine DTAC patrol officers executing the arrest of a black male. (To reiterate McIlvain's assessment: A public desire to film fights has required more officers to secure arrest scenes.) In this case, officers called in the mounted patrol to help establish a safe working area.
Twenty seconds into the clip, one mounted officer making her way around the north side of the scene passes by a man who's holding his phone high in the air so that he can record the scene. The officer grabs his cell phone. Immediately after, another officer pepper sprays the person. 350,000 people watched the video in its first week online. The department acknowledged it and said an investigation was ongoing.
Veteran officers noted privately the manner in which the filmer who got pepper sprayed was holding his phone up in the air when it got snatched – an indication that it was closer to the mounted patrol officer's face than the YouTube video let on. In December, a source told the Chronicle that the mounted patrol officer received a written reprimand.
On Feb. 1, 2016, after complaints made to the Office of the Police Monitor alleging APD misconduct were found to be unsubstantiated by APD Internal Affairs, Reyes went before the Citizen Review Panel to voice his concerns in public forum. The panel heard testimony on three incidents: two that occurred on Feb. 15, 2015, and a third from June 2014.
The first complaint dealt with Boland's video. In addition to issues with DuBoise's actions, Reyes accused the mounted patrol officers of violating the department's responsibility to the community. Reyes said that the mounted units function as "battering rams" to break up crowds, and wondered aloud if their presence was truly necessary. He also mentioned how another officer, who declined to identify himself after the incident, told Boland: "Get a life."
The second derived from an incident later that same evening. Reyes alleged that DTAC Officer Thomas Griffin walked deliberately toward him while he was filming and forced him out of the way. Another officer, Aljoe Garibay, followed Griffin in his path. Garibay stood in front of Reyes and yelled at him to get out of the way. Reyes said the two officers intentionally targeted him and that certain DTAC officers routinely take extraordinary issue with activists who film police.
Reyes' final complaint detailed an incident last June in which he was arrested for jaywalking. He stated that he believed the arresting officer, Spencer Bradley, busted him for the rarely enforced ordinance because he was annoyed that Reyes videotaped an earlier detainment that he worked. Bradley confiscated Reyes' camcorder and stopped it from recording during Reyes' arrest. Reyes believed that both actions were retaliatory.
Because the three complaints were heard together, Reyes was given 30 minutes to speak before the volunteer panel. He pointed to other incidents in which he believed he was retaliated against, and times in which he considered officers to be antagonistic or rude. He spoke of how APD officers take an Internal Oath of Office and have a code of ethics by which they agreed to abide.
After his time was up, he ceded the floor to Boland, who spoke briefly and reiterated much of what Reyes had said. Boland's last remarks were clear: "Obviously, we return the hatred for them, but we're not under policy not to."
The panel broke into executive session after Boland's comments. One week later, the CRP issued a memo to Acevedo. The memo made clear that the panel agreed the officers involved in Reyes' three complaints did not violate APD policy; however, it also issued a recommendation to the chief.
"We urge you to review – and revise if necessary – if APD's policies and/or standard operating procedures with regards to staffing the Downtown Austin area. While not rising to the level of a policy violation, the obvious antagonism between some of the accused officers and the Peaceful Streets Project activist is troubling because we know that the weekly contact between APD personnel and PSP activists will continue. The situation seems ripe for a blowup and should be addressed.
"We ask you to consider whether APD command staff is asking too much of the officers assigned to the evening and night in the Downtown Austin area. We fear that over time, the repetitive use of force required to address the needs and demands of the homeless, the Downtown Austin businesses, the hordes of intoxicated individuals, the unruly crowds, and the activists may cause DTAC officers to, perhaps unknowingly and unintentionally, use an ever increasing amount of force. We also fear that over time, the constant stress of working amongst all these individuals will become unmanageable for DTAC officers. If either of those fears come to pass, our Downtown will be less safe for all involved.
"We ask you to consider whether other staffing models and crowd management tools – for instance: shorter DTAC tours before officers are rotated out into the other areas of the city and innovative 'softer' crowd control techniques that have been successfully used by other police departments – would better serve Austin's public safety and our frontline officers and supervisors."
Time for a Change?
Tensions have historically run high between the review panel, department, and the union, often due to disagreements over the CRP's recommendations to the chief on critical incidents. That's only one half of the CRP's job, however: to review and offer recommendations for APD's critical incidents. History has shown that neither department execs nor the rank-and-file see eye-to-eye with the folks appointed by the city manager to act as civic liaisons. (Certain CRP critics contest that the board shouldn't consider specific critical incidents at all.)
The other half of the job authorizes the panel to submit recommendations for review on departmental issues and patterns it believes could become harmful to both officers and the public. That's different. It's a bit more humanizing. It applies more basically to a situation like the one currently relevant to Downtown.
Casaday tells the Chronicle that he was happy to see the panel address the issue via memo. He says he asked the department to make it possible for officers to get transferred out of DTAC once they've been there for two years, but says staffing shortages and trouble keeping patrol numbers level throughout the city have made adjustments like that more difficult. He says that Acevedo has been more diligent of late responding to officers who say they need out of Downtown.
"[Right now] the only way to identify the problem is if the officer acts out," he says. "Maybe [that officer's] fuse is a little short because he's been down there too long. I know some people who have been down there for five years; they love it. They love that area. But not everybody's meant for that job."
Police Monitor Margo Frasier reports the chief met with the CRP in early February to discuss the DTAC region. "I appreciate [the CRP's] frustration," she says. "I have a great respect for the individuals who serve on the panel. I think they're dedicated. I watch them in action. I think they take their job seriously and don't make recommendations willy nilly. I think they make recommendations with the eye on improving police relations with the community."
Acevedo told the Chronicle last Thursday that his executive staff and DTAC command were considering an analysis and response to the panel's recommendations and expected a finalized version early this week. On Tuesday (Feb. 23), Cochran reported that a draft was sent to Internal Affairs for review. Acevedo told the Chronicle the memorandum was still in draft; he had not had the chance to review Cochran's response.