Hundreds Tell Council, APD That Big Change Must Happen – Now

Voices of sorrow and rage


Police in riot gear confronted protestors in front of APD headquarters on May 30. (Photo by John Anderson)

"We thought he was going to die. We just didn't know."

With those words, Edwin Sanchez kicked off 12 hours of City Council meetings that began with emotional testimony from those brutalized by Austin police officers at the prior weekend's protests, and ended with some council members' calls for police Chief Brian Manley's resignation.

Between sobs, Sanchez recounted what his family endured after his brother Brad Levi Ayala was shot in the head with a lead-pellet bag fired by an APD officer. Doctors at Dell Seton Medical Center told the family the 16-year-old was in critical condition. Initially, doctors thought he was shot with a rubber bullet, but after examining the wound, found it was one of the lead-pellet bags Manley described as "less than lethal."

The bags create a larger wound, with a greater risk of infection. The impact fractured Ayala's skull, and doctors told the family that he suffered permanent damage to his prefrontal cortex. Ayala is having trouble regulating his emotions, Sanchez reported, and will have to go through a recovery that may last years. This was after the unbearable period of not knowing if he would survive at all: "I was [at the hospital] with my mom and we prayed all night."

Ayala's shooting was captured on video that has now been shared widely on social media, in which he can be seen standing, alone and away from crowds, on the grassy hill above I-35 at Eighth Street. Then, suddenly, he drops.

Ayala attends KIPP's Austin Brave High School, and several callers from the charter school spoke to the 16-year-old's character. One teacher said the young honors student was leaving his job at a sub shop and wanted to see the protests for himself. "When he was walking home that day, he called his mom and told her he'd be home safely, but first he wanted to view history," the teacher recalled. "But he never made it home."

How Lethal is Less Lethal?

In response to the shootings of Ayala and other unarmed protesters, and the resulting life-altering injuries many received, Manley said he had updated APD policy on use of "less lethal" rounds. "Bean bag munitions will not be used in a crowd situation," the Chief told Council on Thursday. "It is still an appropriate tool in many other circumstances, so it is still approved for use, but not in a crowd situation."

But, as numerous callers (and council members) reminded Manley, Ayala was not in a crowd – nor exhibiting any behavior that warranted being fired upon. On Friday, Manley announced another forthcoming policy change, instructing officers to not shoot "less lethal" rounds at the head or neck of a subject unless in a situation where lethal force is necessary. Currently, the policy just says that officers should "not intentionally target" the head or neck.

At the Council briefing on Friday, June 5, Chief of Austin Travis County EMS Ernesto Rodriguez reported that medics responded to 53 calls at protests from May 30 to June 2. Out of those, 29 required transport to the hospital, and 11 of those injuries were believed to be caused by APD's lead-pellet bags. Some, like Ayala's, carried the risk of brain damage, Rodriguez told Council, and many were life-threatening.

Samuel Kirsch, another protester, called in and described the trauma he endured. While running away from tear gas (used to clear I-35 on Sunday), Kirsch said he was shot with one of the lead-pellet bags. "I was hit in the face," Kirsch recalled, "and if I was not wearing sunglasses, I fully believe I would be blind right now." The impact resulted in at least five broken bones supporting his eye, Kirsch said; he now has to undergo surgery, which itself carries risk of blindness, to implant titanium plates that will support his eye.

In all, more than 300 people called in, nearly all to voice anger, pain, and frustration over APD's response; dozens told Council of demonstrating peacefully but still being subjected to police violence. Manley stiffly offered an explanation for why such force was used: Department leaders watched events unfold across the nation – including the burning of a police precinct in Minneapolis – and received reports that some groups attending local protests were preparing for violence.

Ultimately, that violence was limited to rocks and water bottles thrown at police. "Whether or not there's a response depends on what officers are confronted with," Manley told Council at one point. To rocks and bottles, officers responded with chemical agents and munitions that caused brain damage and other life-altering injuries. "I have come to the conclusion that we have had some results that were not intended," Manley said.

Consequences

As of Friday's hearing, according to Manley, APD's Special Investigations Unit is looking into 10 incidents of potentially improper use of force. The chief also said that Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore has expressed interest in bringing criminal charges against officers should these investigations conclude they are warranted. The D.A.'s Office has not secured a single indictment in a police shooting in the last five years, despite several cases being brought to a special grand jury for review.

Farah Muscadin, director of Austin's Office of Police Oversight, reported her team had advanced for APD Internal Affairs review 159 formal complaints made against officers since the protests, "That is unprecedented," she told Council, noting that the previous Office of the Police Monitor received, on average, around 50 complaints a year for the 15 years it existed. Those 159 are just some of the hundreds of complaints OPO has received; around 250 alone came on behalf of Justin Howell, the Black 20-year-­old who was hospitalized after being shot Sunday with a lead-pellet bag.

The vast majority of callers sent a common message: Fire Manley. A handful of callers did defend the chief and the department, but Manley, a 20-year APD veteran who earned local and national acclaim during the Austin bombings in 2018, has lost the faith of much of the community he was appointed to protect and serve.

After two days of testimony and briefings, four council members indicated they had also lost confidence in Manley. CM Greg Casar, often the most outspoken champion of progressive values on Council, was the first to ask Manley to resign. "In this moment we need our police department to be able to work together with our community," Casar said. "We have to repair what is tearing at the seams ... Chief, for our city to heal and make progress, I believe the honorable thing would be for you to resign as police chief."

It was a striking moment, as elected officials began to join the growing calls from activists and community members for new leadership to transform a department that has resisted such changes for decades. Soon, three other CMs would join Casar in calling for Manley to resign. Pio Renteria, a lifelong Austinite who has witnessed firsthand the failure of many attempts to reform and improve APD's performance, said he was "really losing confidence" in Manley. "I'd like to have a feeling we have a chief willing to implement these policies that would prevent police shooting our citizens here in Austin."

CM Jimmy Flannigan joined the call next, if in a less direct way. Flannigan, who chairs Council's Judicial Committee, told of concerns with APD leadership that existed long before the weekend's violence and told the Chief: "Ultimately, I would encourage you to consider a path in this movement for big structural change and reform where your role may not be in the seat you are in now ... including what you might do as a private citizen."

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, a former Austin firefighter, also shared her exasperation. "I know that these problems are incredibly complex and it takes more than one decision to move in a different direction," she said. However, "I don't know how we move past this, how we retain faith in our community after this weekend, after seeing that video ... of a 16-year-old boy just go limp. I don't know how we move past this without a change."

At Council's work session on Tuesday, June 9, CM Alison Alter joined her colleagues in calling on Manley to resign. She indicated that coming to the decision was not easy for her – like Flannigan, she does not represent a district that will be as supportive of replacing the chief as Casar, Garza, and Renteria do – but, she said, achieving "transformation" in public safety would require new leadership. "We need to breathe new air into a department that time and time again has fallen short," Alter told her colleagues, adding, "I believe, at this point in time, we need different leadership of our public safety department."

Where the rest of the CMs stand could be answered by Council today (Thursday, June 11), when it will consider a resolution (one of several) that states CMs "have no confidence that current [APD] leadership intends to implement the policy and culture changes required to end the disproportionate impact of police violence" in marginalized communities. The "no confidence" vote is as close Council can come to formally declaring that Manley needs to go, so its inclusion in Harper-Madison's resolution – expected to pass unanimously – is significant.

Reform or Replace?

In his two years at the helm of APD, Manley has more than once proven an uncooperative partner in progressive reforms endorsed by Council. Though Mayor Steve Adler stopped short of calling for Manley to resign, he made explicit reference to these rifts. "We need a police force that supports and implements and shares that [progressive] Austin culture to which we aspire," he told Manley, citing APD's recalcitrance as Council voted to decriminalize homelessness in June 2019, then to end arrests for low-level marijuana possession in January. Adler, usually restrained in his criticism of other officials as he seeks common ground, took Manley to task. "When the city adopts a policy [like that] on marijuana possession ... we need a police force again that adopts and tries to further the policy direction that the city has taken," Adler said. "I did not feel we had a real partner in that regard."

The calls to fire Manley have spread far into the community from the activist circles where they began – but it's not that easy. The police chief is not one of the few employees Council can hire and fire, though they do vote to ratify a chief's appointment by the city manager – in this case, Spencer Cronk, who hired Manley and whose own job should be on the line if he doesn't cut him loose, according to dozens of callers on Thursday. But a new wrinkle has emerged; city attorneys interpret the Texas Civil Service Code to say that even Cronk cannot fire a public safety chief. He can only demote Manley to his previously held rank – chief of staff, the job currently held by Troy Gay.

The calls to fire Chief Manley have spread much farther than the activist circles where they began, into the wider community – but the rules around who has the authority to fire him are complicated.

Even given that, Cronk could reassign Manley to a role that would sideline him while new leadership reforms the department. But then who would replace Manley on an interim basis, let alone permanently? That hire could need to be made from outside a department plagued by revelations of a culture of racism and sexism that critics say has been allowed to fester by executives including Manley, Gay, Assistant Chief Jennifer Stephenson, and others.

But simply changing leadership at APD is not the whole solution. Chris Harris, a justice advocate with Texas Appleseed, told Council Thursday that "this violence demands not another study, or another round of training, or another piece of tech, but a fundamental restructuring of how we police. Now that we all see how broken the institution of policing is around the country, how it enables horrific violence, especially against Black people, we must recognize the limits of reform."

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