More than 300 people have signed up to talk about what transpired during weekend protests against systemic racism and police killings, at an emergency Austin City Council session Thursday.
Council members will reconvene the following morning to hear from Austin Police Chief Brian Manley. No immediate action is expected to be taken.
According to Manley, police injured at least three people – including a 20-year-old black man who was hospitalized in critical condition – when they shot "less lethal" rounds at protesters on Saturday and Sunday.
On Tuesday, Natasha Harper-Madison, Austin’s only current black council member, appealed to her colleagues to take action on changes within the police department.
“I am angry and I am hurt and I am sad and you should be, too. And if you’re not, then I don’t know what to tell you," she said.
“Our residents, they want us to hear their pain, they want us to hear their outrage,” she said. “They want this long-overdue change to systems that protect the privileged while traumatizing black, brown and other marginalized people. … We cannot continue to stick our fingers in our ears and just wait for the next eruption of anger.”
In November, the city hired an investigator to look into allegations of racism and homophobia against two of the city’s highest-ranking officers after allegations that included a charge that Manley unfairly treated some staff. While the investigator had trouble corroborating the main allegations, she noted in her report “real cultural issues that are in need of attention,” including a significant fear of retaliation for speaking out against the department, and racist and sexist behavior within it.
In December, council members voted to hire a third party to do a department-wide investigation of discrimination. Council members had asked the city to publish those findings, plus any recommended departmental changes, by December 2021. The city has not yet started that investigation, however, and, according to its website, is still accepting bids for a company to do the work.
At the end of last year, council members also asked City Manager Spencer Cronk to review and revise training materials for new officers; originally, council members asked that this be finished by June, but Cronk said the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed this work.
Harper-Madison spoke with profound urgency Tuesday.
“The time for talk is absolutely over,” she told her colleagues over Zoom. (The council has been meeting remotely because of the pandemic.) “We absolutely have an obligation to respond and my hope is that we will and do so in a way that is substantive and meaningful.”
“We have got to start to root out the racism in our police department and to create a truly just and truly equitable system that ensures public safety is accessible to all members of our community,” she said.
Activists have called on Cronk to fire Manley and other city leaders. In an emailed statement Wednesday, Cronk spoke in support of the police chief.
“I want everyone in Austin to know that I am committed to continuing the hard work, having the difficult conversations, and finding a way forward that rebuilds that loss of trust while improving our police force to ensure it is reflective of the community values Austin holds dear,” Cronk wrote. “I am committed. My executive staff is committed. Our Chief of Police is committed. And I believe that our community is committed.”
Harper-Madison said Tuesday she wanted the council to look at changes in how police are held accountable for violence and how the police department is staffed and paid for. Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza told KUT Wednesday that some council members have discussed changing policies surrounding how APD uses rubber bullets, bean bag rounds and tear gas, all of which protesters say were used this past weekend. (Manley said police did not shoot rubber bullets.)
Harper-Madison's colleagues responded to her call for action with promises.
“I am ready to do bigger work … to contemplate the types of changes maybe we didn’t think were possible before, but are necessary now,” Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said. “We got to make those choices and we got to make them soon.”
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