Austin chief tackles racial divide, lethal force
By Kelly Shannon
The Associated Press
AUSTIN — When an Austin police officer shot Kevin Brown twice in the back outside a night club, it was like a replay of an old scene: White officer. Black suspect. Deadly force.
Episodes like that one last June are too common, civil rights activists say, and expose a disturbing underside of life in Austin, where racial divides run deep despite the city's image as Texas' most laid-back, liberal town.
In one five-year period, 11 people died in confrontations with Austin police. Only one was white; the other 10 were blacks and Hispanics, according to the Austin NAACP.
Officers' use of force against black and Hispanic residents is the subject of an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, and mending damaged relationships with the city's minority communities is a top priority for new Police Chief Art Acevedo.
So far Acevedo is winning cautious praise from longtime critics of the department.
"I see a lot of good stuff happening," said Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project. "It's going to take a long time. This doesn't happen overnight. It'll take years, but progress goes step by step."
Acevedo signaled change was in the air in late November when he fired Sgt. Michael Olsen for using excessive force in the fatal shooting of Brown. The chief said a second volley of shots, fired at Brown as he lay wounded face down on the ground, was not justifiable.
"We just felt the force under the circumstances was not appropriate — the second volley," he said. "So we terminated him."
The shooting came after a foot chase by the white officer. Olsen said he thought Brown had a weapon and posed a deadly threat. A gun was found about 25 feet away from Brown's body.
Acevedo said Olsen used poor judgment and unsafe police tactics. Olsen is appealing his firing. A grand jury declined to indict him.
Three days after disciplining the sergeant, Acevedo spoke at an Austin NAACP banquet, a first for an Austin police chief. His message to the crowd of about 600 people was "that he was going to hold the department accountable, to a much higher standard," said Austin NAACP president Nelson Linder. "He's trying to turn things around."
Acevedo, the city's first Hispanic police chief, arrived in July from Los Angeles after a long career with the California Highway Patrol.
At the NAACP banquet, he said, he asked the group to help him by taking notice of good police behavior so it can be reinforced in the department.
"The vast majority of police officers are outstanding," Acevedo said. "Unfortunately, sometimes in law enforcement, people are real quick to criticize."
The Justice Department investigation was announced in June, before Acevedo arrived and right before the Brown shooting death. The NAACP filed a complaint in 2004 citing a series of police actions between 1998 and 2003 involving unarmed black and Hispanic victims.
Most Austin residents, or 53 percent, are white. About 31 percent are Hispanic; 10 percent are black; and 5 percent are Asian, according to the most recent U.S. Census.
Sophia King, a 23-year-old black woman with a history of schizophrenia, was shot and killed by an officer in June 2002 as she was chasing and threatening to stab a local housing authority supervisor. The NAACP complaint said the supervisor and Austin officers provoked a confrontation with her, knowing she was mentally ill.
Twenty-year-old Jesse Lee Owens, a black man, was shot by an officer as he attempted to flee an arrest in June 2003. Police said he was suspected of driving a vehicle with stolen plates.
"This pattern of unnecessary killings by the police has inflicted a deep wound on the African American and Hispanic communities in Austin," the NAACP complaint stated.
The Austin American-Statesman reported in 2004 that over a preceding five-year period, police were twice as likely to use force against blacks as they were against whites and 25 percent more likely to use force against Hispanics than whites.
Acevedo said he expects a written response from the Justice Department probably in the next two months and hopes it's in the form of a technical assistance letter, the least severe outcome for the department. The federal agency could take much more stringent action, up to seeking a court-ordered remedy.
"It's a pretty serious investigation. The consequences could be great," said Linder of the NAACP. "Force should be the final option, the last option, when there are no available alternatives."
A Justice Department spokesman did not return calls from The Associated Press.
Acevedo said he is already implementing new reporting and investigating procedures for use of non-deadly force while maintaining strict rules for reviewing deadly force.
Rifts between Austin's minority and white communities aren't limited to police actions, Linder said. He and others contend the city is in many ways racially and ethnically divided.
That may be news to those who view Austin as an easygoing, music-loving town and a Democratic political bastion in conservative Texas.
But Linder said, "I don't think the city is really that liberal."
It's well known that Interstate 35 running through the center of Austin divides people by color and socioeconomic status in places.
Even the migration of more whites across I-35 into east Austin, where they are buying homes and gentrifying old minority neighborhoods, contributes to division because blacks and Hispanics are being priced out and displaced, Linder said.
Unlike many other cities in Texas and elsewhere, which elect city council members by ward or district, Austin still elects its council in at-large citywide elections. Linder said that allows powerful whites to decide in a "gentleman's agreement" which people of color get elected.
The city is studying a switch to single-member districts, which would assure each a council representative.
Shortly before Acevedo took over as chief, the police department and city leaders found themselves in an internationally embarrassing situation involving race after a group of three or four people beat to death a passenger in a car that struck a child.
Initial statements from the police department said the crime was committed by a mob of up to 20 people and occurred near a crowded Juneteenth celebration, a gathering to commemorate June 19, 1865, when word reached Texas that slaves had been declared free.
Police and city officials soon called a news conference to say they weren't trying to link the black celebration and the attack.
Besides building relationships with all communities, Acevedo said, one of his top goals is getting accurate information to the public fast.
That, he said, will prevent chasms between the police and local residents from widening.
"If we make a mistake," he said, "hiding it doesn't help."