NYC police officers — Photo by Felix Koutchinski on Unsplash

Austin Police Chief Manley isn’t the problem. The Police Union is.

Rachel Wright
Jun 11, 2020 · Unlisted

For over a week, there have been renewed calls for Manley to resign. Without dismantling the Austin Police Association, Manley’s resignation will change nothing.

It was just over a week ago when footage of peaceful protestors being shot with so called “bean bag rounds”, which are actually lead pellets wrapped in fabric, spread like wildfire through the city of Austin, lighting the spark on a fierce debate about the role and culpability of police within the city.

Two young men are in the hospital with severe head injuries after being shot in the head by Austin Police during peaceful protests. Justin Howell was in the middle of a crowd during a protest when he was shot in the back of the skull by police. He is currently unconscious in the hospital with a fractured skull and permanent brain damage. Brad Ayala, a 16 year old high school student, had stopped by the protests to “see democracy in action” and was standing alone on an embankment, observing in silence, when police shot him in the head with a bean bag round. The footage of both scenes is extremely gruesome.

Many more Austinites were hospitalized with severe injuries and hundreds more suffered minor injuries from the Austin Police Department’s deployment of “bean bag rounds” and tear gas throughout the first weekend of protests.

DC protestors — Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

Let me be clear — I agree wholeheartedly with the Austinites calling for Police Chief Brian Manley’s resignation. Not only has he refused to condemn these shootings, he has actually defended them as “within policy”, despite evidence to the contrary. He has clearly continued to foster a culture that exists to protect police, not the constituents. Despite Austin police officers having the “duty to intervene” if they see another officer violating policy, Manley admitted that zero reports were made of any officer intervening during the recent protests.

However, the truth remains, even if Manley resigns, that culture of racism and brutality will continue. The true culprit in perpetrating a culture of police violence and zero accountability is the Austin Police Association, the local police union.

Ultimately, while the City Council and Police Chief hold a great deal of decision-making power, the Austin Police Association can undermine a frightening amount of their decisions using a number of tactics. Whether it’s flat out refusal to enforce resolutions passed by the Council, citing “qualified immunity”, or enlisting a third party arbitrator, the Police Association has an excessive level of power when it comes to law enforcement and police misconduct cases.

Rejecting the Reality of Racism

In 2018, the Austin City Council passed a resolution discouraging the Austin Police Department from making arrests for low level marijuana possession. After hemp was legalized in Texas, cities ran into the difficulty of testing cannabis to determine whether or not it exceeded the legal limit of THC. The testing was expensive, time consuming, and possession arrests were disproportionately affecting people of color, so the Austin City Council passed a resolution to both effectively end arrests and fines for low level marijuana possession and refuse to allocate funds for THC testing in such cases.

The resolution passed unanimously. The only person who spoke in opposition of the resolution was Ken Casaday.

The President of the Austin Police Association, Casaday has repeatedly shown Austin that he has no interest in truly acknowledging and getting to the bottom of the racist policing trends or misconduct issues in the Austin Police department.

Council member Greg Casar, who authored the resolution, explained, “Black residents are seven times more likely to be arrested for low-level marijuana violations despite having comparable rates of usage of marijuana to white residents.”

Ken Casady attempted to refute Casar’s statements, claiming, “We do arrest more blacks and Hispanics but the problem we have is that people do not want to look at the reasons why.” Casaday went on to state that he believes African Americans and Latinos use marijuana in public at higher rates than Whites.

While Casaday’s claim is based purely on conjecture, research has shown that “minorities have fared poorly when unclear laws, such as loitering, are applied to target them”. Minorities are more likely to be stopped by police for traffic violations and low level offenses like loitering and trespassing, greatly increasing their risk of being arrested for marijuana possession.

Chief Manley also spoke publicly to the issue, announcing after the resolution passed that, within the Austin Police department, “nothing will change” and officers will continue to use their judgment in determining whether or not to make an arrest for marijuana possession.

Both Manley and Casaday appear unwilling to accept any of the relevant cultural context and instead insist on defending the policing that leads to these arrests.

“We will not tolerate being called racists… He’s trying to stir up hatred towards police officers,” Casaday said about Casar when the resolution passed.

Funny statement coming from a man who is now claiming that “institutional racism must be eliminated and police procedures must be reviewed with vital reforms enacted to prevent this from happening in our community.” Surprising to no one, Casaday only seems willing to mention this obvious truth now that the Austin Police Department is under fire and facing a public call for defunding.

LA police during protests — Photo by Sean Lee on Unsplash

The Price of Police Unions

Police unions aren’t like other unions. They don’t exist just to ensure fair working conditions. They also exist to protect officers from being held accountable for their abuses. Written into most police union contracts are things like “qualified immunity”, which protects officers and government officials from lawsuits, except where officials violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right. Sounds reasonable, but in reality, it’s too often used by police unions to protect officers from consequences by citing technicalities and procedural process, instead of the issue at hand.

Qualified immunity has become such a hot topic that the Supreme Court is now considering whether or not the policy should remain at all for police accused of misconduct or violence.

Another accountability loophole that police unions have worked hard to establish and protect is the third party arbitration process. This longstanding policy is a perfect representation of the real dynamic at play in the Austin Police community.

Take, for example, the situation in Austin in 2018 where 2 police officers were found to have lied about their reasons for tasing a witness to a downtown shooting. The officers claimed he was trying to get away in their written account of the interaction, but body cam footage released later showed the witness was kneeling on the ground with his hands up when the officers tased him.

A trial held a few months later found the officers not guilty of several charges, including assault and tampering with government records. Despite this exoneration, after reviewing the body cam footage and the situation, Police Chief Brian Manley fired both officers, claiming they violated multiple department policies, including inappropriate use of their taser and working together to falsify their reports.

Ken Casaday responded to the firing, calling Manley’s decision “rash” and the prosecution a “witch hunt,” defending the officers’ actions by claiming “just because you’re on your knees with your hands in the air does not mean that you’re no longer dangerous”.

A separate lawsuit filed by the victim of the tasing resulted in a $75,000 settlement by the city and just last month, an independent arbitrator determined the officers should be reinstated with full backpay, in addition to having the entire incident expunged from their record. These third party arbitrators, tasked with making the final call in many police misconduct and brutality cases, are typically chosen by the police unions and departments themselves, making it all too easy to ensure the officers get their desired outcome.

To be clear — 2 officers tased a man kneeling with his hands in the air and the Austin Police Association saw absolutely nothing wrong with that, going so far as to imply that the man on the ground was still somehow dangerous. Then, the city of Austin taxpayers not only footed the bill for a $75,000 settlement but also for the backpay of the 2 reinstated officers.

It’s glaringly obvious who pays the price in these situations — and it’s not the police department. Citizens end up footing the bill of the settlements, paying officers’ salaries for time they weren’t working, and are left with officers with poor judgment and questionable behavior as public servants.

Manley did the right thing by firing the officers after they clearly lied, but in the end, his actions didn’t matter because the police union made sure they were overturned, and the residents of Austin paid the price.

Even if City Manager Fronk fires Chief Manley and hire a new Police Chief who is determined to help the city and hold officers accountable, the police union can continue to undermine the Chief’s decisions and the wishes of the Austin citizens seeking accountability and transparency.

Studies have shown direct correlations between police unions and police brutality. A University of Chicago paper found violent misconduct among police officers increased about 40 percent after departments were granted the ability to unionize from the Supreme Court.

Minneapolis police during protests — Photo by Munshots on Unsplash

A 2006 report found police departments who have unionized are more likely to receive use-of-force complaints: 9.9 for every 100 officers, compared with 7.3 for non-unionized departments.

Part of the Austin Police Association contract requires that any investigation into officers that lasts longer than 90 days cannot result in any type of discipline. This policy alone can lead to officers accused of violence and misconduct to remain on the force simply because enough time has passed. As Police Chief, Manley has the ability to intervene in this situation, if he felt longer was required for any such investigation, but there’s no guarantee that he would.

Considering the Office of Police Oversight in Austin has now received over 300 complaints from the first weekend of protests alone, it’s easy to see how this policy could be used to sweep the complaints aside in the name of “due process”.

Concern with Citizens

In 2016, as Austin citizens fought for tougher police oversight, Casaday made his viewpoint clear: “My concern with [citizens having more say in policy-making at the department] is that police chiefs have been policing for several years. There are assistant chiefs. Together, they make policy,” he said. “That’s why we hire police chiefs. These citizens wanting to have more input have no experience in law enforcement. In my opinion, the more power they get, the more they tend to get in the way of police work.

The Austin Police Association doesn’t want citizens involved — which is exactly why, along with pushing for significant defunding of the Police Department, we need to push for considerable renegotiations of the Austin Police Association contract.

We can fire Manley and implement the “8 Can’t Wait” policies like banning the chokehold and requiring warnings before shooting. But unless we make big changes in how the police union affects policy and influences misconduct cases, Manley will simply be a scapegoat and the 8 policies will simply be additions to a list of guidelines that the department and union don’t care to respect, leaving the city of Austin to continue suffering at the hands of racist policing, unsound policies, and an unjust system.

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Rachel Wright

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Opinionated. Sober. Creative. Obsessed with personality tests, sunshine, and rainbows. Eternally curious. Perpetual truth teller.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn | Tune in at aoapodcast.com | Connecting 500k+ monthly readers with 1,200+ authors

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