The Austin Chronicle

Progressives Push to Get Justice Reforms on November Ballot

Doggett bill gives localities a way past state obstruction

By Austin Sanders, July 2, 2021, News

Ground Game Texas, a new left-leaning political mobilization group founded by former congressional candidates Julie Oliver and Mike Siegel, has launched a petition campaign to place a citizen initiative on the November 2021 ballot that would decriminalize low-level marijuana possession in Austin and ban the use of no-knock warrants by the Austin Police Department.

If approved by voters, both measures would enshrine criminal justice reforms passed by City Council in 2020 in the laws of the city. In January 2020, Council directed then-APD Chief Brian Manley to order officers to stop ticketing or arresting people for low-level possession, unless that would compromise a "high priority" narcotics or violent felony investigation. At the time, Manley simply (and publicly) refused to do what Council asked; it took him six months to come around. Now, cops are bound by APD's General Orders to ­just seize the pot and throw it away. A bummer, but better than a ticket or arrest.

In June 2020, following mass protests over the police killing of George Floyd, Council also passed a resolution restricting the use of no-knock warrants – in which police are allowed to break into a suspect's home without announcing their presence. The tactic has caused needless property damage and death to innocents – such as Breonna Taylor in Kentucky. That resolution, like the decriminalization directive, could only suggest that Manley (or now, his interim successor Joseph Chacon) make this change to the General Orders, which as of this week, a year later, has not yet been done. Ground Game's proposed measure would only allow APD officers to "request, execute, or participate" in the execution of search warrants where they knock on the suspect's door, announce themselves, and wait 15 seconds before entering the property.

At a press conference announcing the petition campaign, Council Member Greg Casar – who, along with CM Vanessa Fuentes, has publicly endorsed the effort – reflected on the intransigence of APD leadership. "It took months of work to finally implement, informally, a policy to end these arrests and citations," Casar said. "Now those arrests and citations have stopped and the sky hasn't fallen. It has made the city a much better place for everyone."

The group will need to collect at least 20,000 signatures by mid-July if they hope to make it onto the November ballot, which it would share with proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution. The deadline for Council to put items on that ballot is Aug. 16, and the city clerk typically needs about 3-4 weeks to validate a petition with more than 20,000 signatures. Ground Game hopes to file its signatures by July 20.

The measure will also likely share the ballot with one from pro-police, anti-homelessness, GOP-backed Save Austin Now that seeks to make "2.0 staffing" – two APD officers for every 1,000 Austinites – a mandate in city code. That outdated model has been shown to have little effect on crime, but it would be a massive burden upon the city's budget. Progress­ives hope that the Ground Game campaign will drive left-leaning voters to the polls who will not only vote for its measures but vote against SAN's. The election is set for Nov. 2.

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