Ten Defining Moments of Austin's Intense Year of Police-Community Conflict

We Fought the Law

Photo by John Anderson

1) April 22: Tatum Report Paints Bleak Picture Prompted by controversy that arose at the end of 2019 around abruptly retired Assistant Chief Justin Newsom, a third-party investigation known as the Tatum report revealed a police force beset by a culture of racism and a fear of retaliation that prevented many from speaking out against it. The release of the report, which described the Austin Police Department's limited prior attempts at self- reform as "aspirational at best," gave energy to activists, and eventually council members, seeking to oust APD Chief Brian Manley.

2) April 24: Mike Ramos Dies Two days after the Tatum report dropped, Michael Ramos was killed by APD Officer Christopher Taylor, one of eight officers who confronted Ramos in the parking lot of his Southeast Austin apartment complex, prompted by an unconfirmed and inaccurate 911 call claiming the Black and Latinx man was armed and dangerous. This latest in a years-long string of controversial officer-involved shootings raised the temperature of Austin's police/community relations, a month before George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police.

3) May 31: "I Want Peace, but I Want Jus­tice First" Floyd's killing moved Austin's own police-reform activism into the streets, including direct action by leftists calling themselves the Mike Ramos Brigade. During the first weekend of protests at the end of May, more than a dozen participants in the nonviolent demonstrations were brutalized by police officers, mostly near APD headquarters at I-35 and Eighth Street. Brad Ayala, a 16-year-old who was just observing the protest from afar, was among those suffering life-altering injuries due to APD's use of force, including "less lethal" lead-pellet munitions and tear gas.

4) June 4: Council Moves Quickly on Public Safety That brutal weekend kicked off a summer of protest and organizing to pressure City Hall into removing Manley and scaling back the investment made in APD at the expense of other services. Council listened to hours of testimony on June 4 from people urging them to take action to constrain APD; that night, Council approved four resolutions that prohibited the use of certain tactics and crowd control weapons, set goals for eliminating racial disparities in policing, established a new Council committee to oversee the public safety departments, and most consequentially, set the course for reducing APD's budget.

5) June 11: Manley Holds On as APD Chief Texas law makes it nearly impossible to simply fire a police chief, and City Manag­er Spencer Cronk told the new Council Public Safety Committee he would let Manley cling to his post despite growing calls for him to resign. The chief, who remained largely defiant and uncooperative as council members attempted to act on their June resolutions, did finally agree to stop arresting or citing people for possessing small amounts of marijuana – something Council tasked him with way back in January (No. 1 under "Best of the Rest").

6) July 13: Cronk Makes Token Cuts to APD Budget As the pressure increased on City Hall to take greater steps toward more ambitious reforms, Cronk released the proposed fiscal year 2021 city budget, the first in more than a decade to actually reduce APD's funding – but not by much. Instead, the manager announced he would begin a large-scale community-engagement process aimed at "reimagining public safety," with ambitious aims and no real timeline. This led to more urgent activism organized by groups such as Just Liberty, Austin Justice Coali­tion, and Communities of Color United to push Council into adopting a budget that included real, substantial reductions in the near term and a plan forward to de-police services that should be provided by others.

A memorial for Garrett Foster, a Black Lives Matter activist who was killed during a demonstration Downtown (Photo by John Anderson)

7) July 25: Garrett Foster Killed at Fourth and Congress Then, another tragedy: Foster, a regular at protests Downtown who open-­carried a rifle for protection after previous threats, was shot and killed by a driver who encountered the march, later identified as U.S. Army Sgt. Daniel Perry, whom APD apprehended but then controversially released without charges several hours after the shooting. Foster's killing galvanized the protest movement, which in turn motivated an increased presence of demonstrators in the street – met with less force from APD than at the end of May, but with an increasing number of arrests.

8) July 27: Manley Finally Releases Ramos Video Meanwhile, Taylor and the other officers involved in Ramos' death remained on the job. Manley deferred APD discipline at the request of Dis­trict Attorney Margaret Moore, who then postponed her office's plans to take the case to a grand jury following her loss to José Garza in the July 14 primary run-off election (No. 5 under "Vote Early"). The chief did, after an initial false start, release the "critical incident video" of dashboard and body-worn camera footage from the Ramos killing, which even with the department's efforts to provide "context" showed just how excessive APD's tactics were. Summer also saw the release of two internal reports highlighting systemic cultural problems within Austin's police academy.

9) Aug. 13: FY 21 Budget Passes Unani­mous­ly That dysfunctional culture at the academy became pivotal in Council's effort to substantially reduce police spending. In August, when Council adopted the FY 2021 budget, $20 million was immediately cut from the APD budget – mostly from canceling three scheduled cadet classes. The budget vote also paved the way to divest another $129 million to invest in other services that could be alternatives to police response.

10) Aug. 18: Gov. Abbott Threatens to Punish Cities That "Defund the Police" With adoption of the 2021 budget, Austin became one of only a small number of cities to make good on promises to reduce police spending; now, City Hall and the activists who pushed for de-policing have to deliver on those promises. They're working to do so while facing intense blowback from the state's GOP leaders: Gov. Greg Abbott, during the homestretch of the November election campaigns, rolled out multiple sketchy proposals to hobble Austin financially or to put state troopers in charge of local law enforcement in retaliation for the police-reform agenda that enjoyed unanimous Council approval.

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