Before dawn on March 21, 2018, interim Austin Police Chief Brian Manley stood on the side of I-35 in Round Rock, flanked by federal officers, and announced that the suspect in a series of bombings was dead.
For weeks, Austin had been terrorized by a 23-year-old bomber who left explosive packages on front porches and set up a tripwire across a sidewalk. The bombs killed two people and injured several others.
Hours before Manley’s highway-side press conference, police had tracked the bomber to a hotel parking lot north of Austin. When they approached the car he was in, the bomber detonated one last explosive, killing himself.
“This is the culmination of three very long weeks for our community," Manley told reporters that morning.
Two months later, City Council members debated whether to remove the “interim" that had been part of Manley’s job title since Chief Art Acevedo left to run the Houston Police Department a year and a half earlier. Elected officials cited Manley’s work during the city bombings as a reason to swiftly give him the permanent job – without considering other candidates.
“While many watched the news safely from home, but on edge, the men and women of law enforcement ran to the bombs and explosions,” Delia Garza wrote on the City Council message board before urging her colleagues to confirm Manley as Austin’s new head of police.
They did just that, with a unanimous vote on June 14, 2018.
“You are a servant leader and you have my complete confidence, or I have complete confidence in you,” then-Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo told Manley.
But almost exactly two years later that “complete confidence” was gone: Those same council members voted that they had no confidence in his leadership and his ability to make policing in Austin safer for people of color.
While it took time for elected officials to realize their doubts about Manley, others were hesitant about his leadership from the start – exactly because of how police handled the bombings.
“You had a white community looking at him like he was a hero,” said Alberta Phillips, a freelance journalist and former editorial writer for the Austin American-Statesman who wrote about Manley's promotion. “And you had many people in the black community who were looking at him very skeptically. You know, is he up to this job?”
The first bomb killed a 39-year-old father, Anthony Stephan House, on the morning of March 2. House, who was Black, picked up a package left on his front porch when it exploded.
Police initially would not call House’s death a homicide.
“We can’t rule out that Mr. House didn’t construct this himself and then accidentally detonate it,” Assistant Police Chief Joseph Chacon said days after House was killed. “In which case, it would be an accidental death.”
Manley later said police had been working off the theory that the bomb was related to a drug raid police had conducted down the street earlier in the week.
“Questions linger about whether Austin police would have been so quick to reach for racial stereotypes in discerning the reason behind the first bombing if the first explosive had killed a white person in a more affluent neighborhood west of Interstate 35," Phillips wrote at the time.
It was only a month later that City Manager Spencer Cronk announced the city would not do a national search for a new police chief; Manley would be the sole candidate.
Looking back, Survivor Justice Project co-founder Amanda Lewis said it all happened so fast.
“This is like a huge trauma bond,” she said. “We go through this experience where bombs are happening randomly and then it ends. Of course, we're all relieved. And we feel bonded [to Manley]. Is that a time to go and get married, or is that a time to reflect and heal and really assess what happened?”
Eighteen months after urging her colleagues to appoint Manley, Garza said there needed to be a leadership change at the police department.
“I was an early supporter of Chief Manley, and I’ve been incredibly disappointed,” she said during a council meeting last December. “Repeated incidences by our department have really shaken my faith in many ways, and in some ways, I've lost a lot of faith.”
Garza was speaking before council members voted to hire a third party to investigate racism and bigotry throughout APD. Former police cadets, some of whom sent the city a letter in 2018 describing “aggressive” training practices, testified during the meeting.
“Instructors made derogatory statements about homeless people, telling us that if we did not already hate them, we soon would. We were told that if someone resists arrest they had earned quote, ‘a legal ass-whooping,’” former cadet Summer Spisak said.
Cadets said trainers referred to homeless people as “cockroaches," KVUE and the Statesman reported at the time.
But council’s decision to hire an outside investigator turned on something more recent: complaints made public in November that a high-ranking officer had used a racist term for Black people multiple times over at least a decade.
A week before the complaints surfaced, Assistant Chief Justin Newsom retired, collecting his pension.
While an investigation into what happened could not corroborate claims against him, what it did find was this: a culture of racist and sexist behavior and officers who had a “very high level” of fear of retaliation for speaking against the department.
Council members say they have noticed police resistance to the policies they have instituted. In January, Manley said police would not stop ticketing and arresting for small amounts pot, despite a measure they passed.
Prosecutors in Travis County and other parts of the state had stopped prosecuting low-level and non-violent marijuana cases after hemp became legal in Texas. Officials said they didn't have – and couldn't afford – testing to distinguish one substance from the other.
"It's the right thing for criminal justice reform, from a common-sense perspective, and it's the right thing for racial equity," Council Member Greg Casar said after the unanimous vote.
As evidence that enforcement had been biased, activists pointed to the racial breakdown of who gets cited and arrested for small amounts of marijuana. In 2019, 38% of people cited for a low-level marijuana offense in Austin were Black, even though Black people make up about 8% of the city’s population.
“Our own city’s enforcement can be pretty selective; just spend five minutes at ACL Fest or Eeyore’s Birthday if you don’t believe me,” Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said at a news conference, implying police look the other way at those events.
The day after council members passed the item, however, Manley said nothing would change; marijuana was still illegal.
“We will handle it as we have," he said at a press conference.
Chris Harris, director of the Criminal Justice Project for Texas Appleseed, said this showed a chasm between council and police.
“It seems as though the chief has just disrespected and ignored the will of our civilian elected leaders,” he said.
But Manley told KUT it was his job as "lead public safety official for the City of Austin" to share his opinion based on his training and expertise.
“As staff, that's what we are expected to do,” he said.
Six months after council voted, though, Manley changed his mind; police would now follow council’s direction and stop citing and arresting people for low-level marijuana possession.
When asked what happened to make him reconsider, Manley said police were able to confirm prosecutors were no longer trying these cases.
“Once we came to the realization that they were not doing anything with those tickets, it became apparent that our efforts in that area were not having an impact,” he said.
Travis County Attorney David Escamilla, whose office is in charge of prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana cases, has said since last summer prosecutors are no longer trying these cases. As of early July, Escamilla told KUT his office had rejected or dismissed roughly 4,500 misdemeanor marijuana cases since the hemp law went into effect.
Emily Gerrick, a managing attorney with the Texas Fair Defense Project, said she was confused by why this wasn’t clear to police early on.
“[Manley’s] answer does not make sense to me at all,” she said.
The call for Manley to resign came from community activists in late April.
On April 24, APD Officer Christopher Taylor shot and killed 42-year-old Mike Ramos, a Black and Hispanic man, in Southeast Austin. Police had been called to the parking lot of an apartment complex because people were allegedly using drugs and a man was holding a gun. In a video shared on social media, Ramos can be seen driving away from police when Taylor shoots at him.
“The deadly shooting of Mr. Mike Ramos by Austin police on Friday, following closely on the publication of reports affirming a culture of racism within the police department, patterns of racial profiling in policing, and a fear of retaliation against those who report it, require us to call for new leadership over public safety,” community groups said a letter to City Council and the city manager. “We ask that you terminate the people who are standing in the way of change and instead find people willing and eager to do this.”
APD policy allows officers to shoot at a moving vehicle when they believe it is being used as a weapon, a change from 2017 when APD’s manual stated only specially trained officers could shoot at moving vehicles.
Council members recently asked police to ban the practice. In a memo sent to the mayor and council members last week, Manley said the policy would stay the same, citing a report about how driving cars into public crowds has become a common tactic used by terrorists.
While the calls for Manley to be removed began in April, they grew significantly louder in the following weeks. During protests against systemic racism and police killings, APD shot protesters with lead-pellet-filled bags, seriously injuring at least 10 people.
At a council meeting held days later, demonstrators testified about the police violence they’d experienced, many ending their stories with calls to remove Manley and to transfer money out of the police department.
“We need Chief Manley fired,” said Jon Cowart, assistant principal of the school attended by a 16-year-old who was injured. “We need to defund our police department right now.”
It's important to note Texas law allows a city manager to only demote – not fire – a police chief. Cronk said last month he has no plans to demote Manley, however.
Council members told the police chief they’d lost faith in the police department; Garza and Casar asked him to resign.
Some people are surprised he hasn’t.
“If you say that you're here to serve the public and the public is saying step down, then at that point what is of service to the public is to step down,” Janis Bookout, director of performance and evaluation at the nonprofit Measure, said.
On June 11, council members unanimously voted on a resolution saying they had “no confidence” that current APD leadership intends to make changes to end police violence against non-white people in Austin.
Garza said she’s now ready to call for council to fire Cronk.
“I’m willing to do anything I have in my power to change the leadership at APD,” she said.
“That’s disappointing,” Manley told KUT. “I think that we do have a history of following their direction and trying to implement policies based on resolutions that they pass.”
On Monday, Cronk revealed the proposed budget for the city’s coming fiscal year; the unveiling was highly anticipated after weeks of calls to defund the police department.
The city proposed cutting $8.1 million from a forecasted police budget of $445.6 million – a total of roughly $150,000 less than last year’s budget.
The proposed cuts were far from what community groups had asked for. Cronk has said he wants to hold meetings to understand what Austinites want public safety to look like before making substantial cuts to the police budget.
“We have an opportunity right now to take this roadmap and make the change,” Austin Justice Coalition co-founder Chas Moore said in a statement. “But this budget … doesn’t free up enough of the money we need.”
Another local group, Communities of Color United, called for the city to cut $225 million from the police budget this year – about half – and then dissolve the department entirely over the next several years. The group has for years demanded money be moved from policing to things like low-income housing.
One of the organization’s members, Maya Pilgrim, said the calls to remove Manley obscure a larger concern: how the city continues to uphold systematic racism.
“If APD has a racism problem, it’s because the city has a racism problem. It’s because Austin has a racism problem," she said. "They just happen to be the armed part of our racism problem."
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