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Austin City Council Passes Measure To Reduce Racial Disparity In Misdemeanor Arrests

Nathan Bernier

If an Austin police officer stops someone for a nonviolent misdemeanor – such as possessing a small amount of marijuana or driving without a valid license – the officer has a choice: issue a citation or arrest the person. Simply put, the officer has discretion.

Austin City Council members voted 9-0 (two council members were not present) Thursday to do away with some of this discretion. Proponents cited police data that show black and Hispanic people stopped for low-level offenses are more likely than white people to be arrested than cited.

When officers decide to arrest someone for a misdemeanor, under APD policy they take into account several factors, including the person’s criminal history.

“Right now, the rules are pretty unclear,” Casar said last week. “It makes sense for us to take a look at our policies and say, ‘How can we make this better? How can we make the rules more clear?'”

The item passed Thursday asks City Manager Spencer Cronk to work with the Austin police chief to do away with discretionary arrests when possible.

“When it is feasible and when it’s reasonable," Casar said, "we give people a citation or a ticket for the kinds of misdemeanors that are nonviolent.”

Cronk will also publish quarterly reports detailing specifics of discretionary arrests, including the race or ethnicity of the person arrested.

APD statistics provided by Casar’s office show that in 2017, 43 percent of people arrested for possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana were Hispanic. Only about a third of Austin residents identify as Hispanic, according to 2013 Census estimates.

Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday had argued discretion is necessary for officers.

“My opinion is that you leave the discretion there,” he said last week. “That’s why they call it 'discretion' – it’s up to the officer whether you arrest or not. It’s not a good thing to take a tool off the tool belt of a police officer.”

Audrey McGlinchy is KUT's housing reporter. She focuses on affordable housing solutions, renters’ rights and the battles over zoning. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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