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Austin To Investigate Claims Of Racism Against Former Police Assistant Chief

Martin do Nascimento for KUT
Newsom at a public meeting on K2 overdoses in 2017.

The City of Austin hired a third-party investigator to look into allegations of racism against former Austin Police Assistant Chief Justin Newsom, who abruptly retired from the department last week after 23 years with APD.

In an email to Mayor Steve Adler and members of the Austin City Council Thursday evening, City Manager Spencer Cronk said anonymous complaints had been filed with the Office of Police Oversight.

“Racist language, slurs, intolerance, and derogatory behaviors are completely unacceptable in our community,” wrote Cronk, who did not clarify the complaints against Newsom in his email. “I am saddened to have received these anonymous allegations, and I intend to fully understand if there is any truth to them.”

Cronk said he hopes to hire an outside investigator by next week.

KUT obtained a copy of the complaint late Friday morning. An anonymous complainant alleged that Newsom used a racist term to describe black people, including former City Council Member Ora Houston and former APD Chief Frank Dixon, both of whom are black. Newsom allegedly used this racist term "on a continous [sic] basis for at least the last decade," according to the complaint.

A second complaint alleges that an assistant chief made derogatory comments about African-Americans, although the complaint does not name Newsom. That complaint alleges that Police Chief Brian Manley agreed to keep it a secret.

City leaders began reacting to the news Thursday.

"The allegations in the complaint are horrible and disturbing,” Mayor Steve Adler wrote in a statement Thursday night. “Each of us has a duty to be proactive when incidents of racism are alleged or arise. The Manager is correct to initiate a third party, independent investigation. The community needs to know and then deal with the truth."

At a press conference Friday morning, Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison called the allegations "disturbing" and "reprehensible." She also characterized the complaint as "highly credible."

“The idea that an open racist could rise to the top of the ranks of our police department should shake every Austinite to their very core," said Harper-Madison, who is Austin's only black Council member. “But it would also validate the lived experience of black and Latinx members of the community of the city of Austin.”

Going forward, Harper-Madison said she hopes Council will take action to investigate racism within the Austin Police Department. Chas Moore of the Austin Justice Coalition echoed concerns about racism within APD and called for a department-wide audit of officers' social media use; Harper-Madison expressed interest in that idea. 

Newsom led enforcement efforts in the downtown area and was particularly visible during city discussions surrounding homelessness. 

In a text to KUT, Newsom said he didn't remember having made those statements, but said he has used "inappropriate language in private conversations with friends" in the past.

"Racial insensitivity is inexcusable and doesn’t reflect my values, the values of our community, or the Austin Police Department," he wrote. "Despite using poor judgment, I hope my 23-year career as a police officer who treated everyone with dignity and respect will reflect my best intentions to serve this city."

Cronk said he hopes to have an outside investigator hired by next week and that if the allegations are true he will take "appropriate action."

"The integrity of that investigation must be a top priority and its breadth must be deep and long to determine who knew what and when did they know it," Harper-Madison said, "[and] whose lives and careers were affected and how entrenched any culture of racism is in our police department."

This story has been updated.

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.
Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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