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Statement on Conditions in Austin, Texas from June 1, 2020 PSC Meeting

In starting today’s Public Safety Commission meeting, I want to use my platform as the Chair to make a statement.  This is not how I expected to start our June meeting.  June first marks the first day of Pride Month.  It was my hope to celebrate this and honor this, but it is hard to celebrate with the current state of things in society.  I hope we can find ways to celebrate the progress we have made for LGBTQ populations although we have so much more work to do.

 

Instead, today I have to turn my attention to the turmoil we are experiencing.  Our citizens are hurting.  I have been speaking with citizens, with police officers, and with others.  The message from all of the people I have spoken with is clear.  We are hurting.  Our society is hurting.  I want all of the people I have talked with to know I hear you.  We all hear you.  I hope I can do the job of amplifying your voices.  I am committed to trying for as long as I am on this Commission and in other aspects of my life.  I know that in making this statement I am risking a lot personally, but I choose to speak truth to power.  Paraphrasing my academic colleagues and amplifying the voices of Scholars of Color – Drs. Carter, Johnson, and Jordan in their “Our Next Breath” statement, to remain silent in this moment would make me complicit in the institutional structures, practices, and cultures that continue to marginalize People of Color.

 

For those who do not know my background, I have a PhD in Criminology and Justice Policy from Northeastern University.  My primary area of specialization is the study of policing organizations and evaluation of evidence-based policy and practice.  I also have a secondary specialization in race and ethnicity in the justice system.  I have over a decade of experience in this research.  I want to be clear that I am bringing that expertise to the table.

 

It is incredibly important to reflect on the events that are happening in society at this time.  I would be remiss, as Chair of this body, not to comment on the pain that we are all feeling.  There is a lot of anger, hurt, sadness, and frustration at the moment.  It would take me hours to say the names of those who did not have to die as a result of state action.  It would also take me hours, if not days, to say the names of those we have lost to COVID-19 – deaths that could have potentially been prevented if we had allowed data, evidence, science, and reason to drive action instead of partisan decision making and emotion.  I know that with the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and, locally, Michael Ramos in Austin – to name only two names – many feel like they are screaming into the void.  Screaming without being heard.  That is causing actions and reactions to escalate.  Tensions are building, and the legitimacy of public safety agencies is at stake.  If we can be the body that leads the way in stepping back and critically evaluating the information, evidence, and data in front of us, it is my hope that we can find a path forward that is beneficial to all and allows us to finally start moving forward together.

 

After the previous meeting I received numerous emails and phone calls with citizen concerns.  As such, I want to take a moment to remind my fellow Commissioners, my fellow citizens, and myself of the purpose and mandate of the Public Safety Commission.  Sometimes we need to pause and reset.  The Public Safety Commission in Austin is charged with providing advice to the Austin City Council on matters related to public safety.  As such, we are charged with making recommendations on public safety policies and budgets and providing feedback when requested through City Council actions such as Resolutions.  We also have a responsibility to lead the way in making evidence-based and data driven recommendations.  I know that all of the Commissioners are committed to rolling up our sleeves and doing the hard work to provide this advice and the necessary recommendations to move public safety in Austin into the 21st century.

 

At times, we also serve to point the magnifying glass at the challenges that arise from problematic policies and problematic public safety decision making.  We can be the body that amplifies the voices of those who are harmed by policies and decisions.  We owe it to the community to make sure that our decisions and deliberations are based in fact, not emotion, and that we are considering the evidence-base and data in our decision making, but what do we do when there is no data available and no evidence-base?  I believe that is the path forward for us to have public safety for all in the City of Austin, and for us to have an environment that provides equal access to public safety for all as well as equal application of the law to all citizens.

 

Sometimes the hardest thing for us to do is to listen to critique.  We move into a defensive position and continue to do things the way we have always done things, because it is the easy way to do it.  We choose the path of least resistance.  All organizations, and indeed all individuals, are resistant to change.  We cannot afford to be resistant to change any longer.  We need to embrace it.  We need to work together to move our society forward.  We need to work together to heal the wounds that we are all feeling – the wounds that are so raw today for so many of our citizens and for so many of our police officers.

 

I also want to highlight a critical point that is not being addressed publicly right now.  Police are the most visible representation of the state in our society.  Their uniforms and police cruisers and other visual signals mark them clearly as representatives of the state in our lives.  That makes them a clear target for our anger, our fears, our frustrations, and our sadness.  But the reality is that the problems we are facing with systemic racism in society neither start nor end with the police.  They are just the most visible outlet for those emotions.  We see their actions clearly and can clearly associate those with the presence and impact of the state and the systemic racism that dominates the state in our lives.  The reality is that this is only the tip of the iceberg.  The police are just the visible representation of the deeper problems present in our society.  The policies and laws they enforce come from a different source.  They are not the ones who create these laws, and often they are ruled by other bodies that guide the laws they are asked to enforce.  There have been many cases where police are asked to enforce laws that they do not morally agree with.

 

When we want to dismantle the systems of oppression that promote systemic racism, the police are an obvious target.  But if we don’t start shining a light on other systems that encourage these practices, we will never develop a lasting solution.  The police do not control whether prosecutors file charges against police officers who are bad actors.  Those decisions lie in the offices of our prosecutors.  They do not determine the sentences applied to those convicted of crime where people of color carry the disproportionate burden of punishment in our society.  They do not control the healthcare systems that result in systemic disparities in the quality of care received and the health outcomes in people’s lives.  We can talk about access to education, jobs, equal pay, housing, wealth, and more.  Police agencies are only one entity in a wide network of systems that need to be scrutinized and changed.  We have a lot of work to do, but it is time to roll up our sleeves and do the work.

 

Peter Manning, applies John Rawls’s Theory of Justice and, more specifically, the difference principle, to policing.[1]  The key here is that the police should never serve to exacerbate existing inequalities in society if policing is to be democratic.  Instead, policing should serve to level the playing field.  Policing should help to promote equality of opportunity and equal access to the law.  That is the goal of a truly democratic police force.  It has long been my goal to help public safety agencies become more democratic.

 

At this point, I want to take a moment and have us all observe a moment of silence for those who have been killed at the hands of the state.  And I choose to say at the hands of the state rather than at the hands of police for a deliberate reason.  They are dying because of the policies and actions or inactions of government systems.  We can’t name all of the names, but we can have a moment of silence before we start the official business of this meeting for Mike Ramos and George Floyd, and all of the others who have died at the hands of the state.

 

As we introduce the different items on our agenda today, I hope we can be the voice of reason and can work to make recommendations based on evidence and data – carefully evaluating what is best for the City of Austin and the citizens of the city as we deliberate and make recommendations.  It is also my hope that we can roll up our sleeves and do the difficult work of standing side by side with our police leadership, city leadership, and community groups and working together to bring public safety in Austin into the 21st century.  We have a fantastic opportunity to lead the way and be the example to those across the country in moving forward and finding solutions that are to the benefit of all in society rather than to the benefit of a few.  Opening up dialogue and engaging in civil debate and discussion to try to find common ground is the path to lasting solutions.  We need to find our common humanity and let that guide us to better actions, better policies, and to a better society.

 

The power of this Commission is in our mandate.  Our mandate is to make recommendations to City Council on policies and budget.  It is our responsibility to use that mandate to try to effect change.  As such, I am going to recommend the creation of three Public Safety Commission Working Groups.  The first will be a working group to identify problematic policies, laws, and related practices that contribute to discrimination and/or systemic racism.  The second will focus on identifying and/or developing policies to promote community-oriented policing practices.  The third will be to review policies and procedures related to the policing of protests and riots.  We have a lot of work to do to get where we need to be as a democratic society, but if we work together, I truly believe that we can get there.

 

With that, I will open the public comment portion of our meeting.  If my fellow Commissioners want to respond to what I have said, we can do that after we conclude the business of our meeting, but I want to make sure we hear from our public before we do anything else.  I also invite representatives of our various advocacy organizations and members of our communities of color to reach out to me personally so that I can find ways to use my platform and my privilege to amplify your voices.  With all of that being said, it is time for us to hear from the citizens of Austin.

[1] Manning, P.K. (2010) Democratic Policing in a Changing World. Paradigm Publishers.  Page xi.

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