The Austin Chronicle

Council Set to Approve Settlement for Sexual Assault Class Action Lawsuit

2018 lawsuit argued systemic flaws in justice system failed survivors

By Austin Sanders, January 28, 2022, News

City Council meets for the first time in 2022 today, Jan. 27, to take up an 89-item agenda. Most of the business deals with renewing or beginning routine contracts, but there are a few notable items dealing with local law enforcement on the agenda.

First, Council is set to approve a settlement in the class action filed in 2018 by eight survivors of sexual assault against the city and the Austin Police Department, Travis County and the District Attorney's Office, and other defendants. The lawsuit highlights what the plaintiffs argue are systemic flaws that created a justice system that routinely failed survivors and allowed sexual assault offenders to "walk freely to rape again," according to the initial complaint filed nearly four years ago.

Individual defendants include former police Chiefs Art Acevedo and Brian Manley, former D.A.s Rosemary Lehmberg and Margaret Moore, and Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez, the only one who remains in office; Moore's successor, José Garza, has supported the plaintiffs. The original federal class action was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel but was reinstated by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Terms of the settlement are unclear at this stage, although they will be paid through the city's Liability Reserve Fund, funded annually to help settle claims against city departments. In June, the Travis County Com­mis­sion­ers Court voted unanimously to settle, paying a total of $580,000 in attorneys fees, damages to the plaintiffs, and a $250,000 commitment to fund programs to enhance the prosecution of sexual assault.

Meanwhile, a proposal that would create a City Marshal Office to provide security at the Municipal Court has been postponed once again – this time to Feb. 17. Following pushback from justice advocates, Council postponed a vote in November to allow for the City Manager's Office and Municipal Court to engage with community stakeholders on what security should look like and if a new law enforcement agency was needed. Currently, APD provides security at the court alongside a privately contracted security firm. At the time, the Municipal Court judges and clerk said that they preferred to maintain the ­status quo but that this was the best option available.

It appears not much engagement has happened yet. A number of justice groups – including the Texas Fair Defense Project, Austin Justice Coalition, and the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance – co-signed a Jan. 19 letter to Council demanding further postponement. The letter praises efforts at increasing law enforcement accountability through the Office of Police Oversight, but the authors write that creating a new agency where "specific training, trainers, and accountability measures are undefined" could undermine those efforts.

At its Jan. 24 meeting, the Council-appointed Public Safety Commission voted unanimously, with Commissioner Rebecca Bernhardt absent, to recommend Council reject the the Marshal Office and continue securing the Municipal Court with APD ­officers.

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