Following the passage of Texas' anti-"sanctuary city" Senate Bill 4 in 2017, and with evidence of persistent racial disparities in local policing, a grassroots coalition of justice advocates pushed for rules that would protect immigrants and reduce disproportionate arrests. In June 2018, the Austin City Council passed the Freedom Cities Policies, an effort led by groups including Grassroots Leadership, Workers Defense Project, United We Dream Texas, and the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. One year later, the organizations applaud some headway made, but say there's a lot more work to be done when it comes to compliance.
One goal of the policies is to reduce the Austin Police Department's discretionary arrests for such citation-eligible offenses as driving without a license, and racial disparities in arrests generally. This work was informed by Grassroots Leadership's report, based on 2015 booking data, showing black residents experience significantly longer periods of jail time and are incarcerated at much higher rates than the white population charged with the same crimes in Travis County.
The policies also require APD to report to Council every instance in which officers ask about the immigration status of individuals, along with information on any collaboration between APD and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Groups have been meeting with APD monthly to ensure the department is cooperating. To date, APD has issued two reports on its involvement with ICE and one report on discretionary arrests for low-level offenses.
A few bright spots: Class C misdemeanor arrests in Austin dropped by 63% in the first three months of data collection. Latinx residents had made up 36% of all discretionary arrests; now that figure is closer to 30%. Similarly, black residents had made up 31% of those arrests but now account for 27%. However, the advocates note, black residents – making up just 8% of Austin's population – are still heavily overrepresented when it comes to discretionary arrests.
And data shows that APD still made at least 60 discretionary arrests for reasons that should not be allowed by the new policies. In some instances, the reason for the arrest wasn't documented. Advocates are calling for greater transparency in reporting, and accountability for failure to adhere to the policies. "These policy changes can have an impact, and it shows we are on the right track in reducing the criminalization of communities of color and improving the treatment of immigrant families," Emily Timm of the Workers Defense Project tells us. "So while there has been some progress, we are also concerned that APD still isn't fully complying with the policies."
The groups in the coalition also point to an "arbitrary process" when ICE requests assistance from APD. The department grants those federal requests at a rate of nearly 100 per month, they found. Its first report, released in March, showed that between January and December 2018, APD assisted or cooperated with ICE nearly 600 times, including providing utility reports. Federal district court filings have also revealed an apparently much cozier relationship between ICE and APD than that which SB 4 "compels," as the Chronicle has previously reported. The latest report, covering January through March, showed APD provided a total of 130 records in response to 61 requests for assistance from ICE. "It is very troubling to see that the APD continues its entanglement with ICE before first prioritizing the needs of the community they have sworn to serve and protect, and that department policy may allow officers to engage in racial profiling when needlessly contacting ICE," said Anita Gupta, attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
Timm says the advocates have several outstanding questions for APD regarding the extent of its involvement with ICE. While APD must comply with SB 4 and federal law, they want to know if the department is going "above and beyond" what is mandated, and to ensure only minimal local resources are used for activities that don't improve Austinites' public safety. The first anniversary of Freedom Cities is "a reminder that these racial inequities really do exist in Austin and continue to exist," says Timm. "Going forward, we need to ensure clear consequences for not complying with these policies. Our work is not over."
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