Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Chief Art Acevedo has lambasted top brass over high-profile incidents of violence in his department. We need more of this.
This special report from the Austin American-Statesman is worth a read for a glimpse into just how difficult it is for a police chief to change the culture of local law enforcement. On October 20, investigative reporter Tony Plohetski released audio of a private meeting that Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo held with police department commanders in August. The chief was miffed about two publicized instances of police violence. One involved police officer Bryan Richter, who was caught on film slamming Breaion King, a 26-year-old African-American teacher onto a parking-lot pavement after a traffic stop. The other involved officer Geoffrey Freeman, who shot and killed David Joseph, a 17-year-old African American. The teenager was not only unarmed, but was completely naked when Freeman shot him.
Acevedo fired Freeman—a move that upset many of his commanders. But, as the audio from the August meeting makes clear, Acevedo was all out of damns to give about the firing. Said Acevedo:
The union got all pissed off because I fired Freeman. Some of you might have gotten pissed off. I’m going to tell you right now, if we have another Freeman tomorrow, that is what’s going to happen. I didn’t lose a minute of sleep. If you can’t handle a kid in broad daylight, naked, and your first instinct is to come out with your gun, and your next instinct is to shoot the kid dead, you don’t need to be a cop. I don’t give a shit how nice you are.
Acevedo was just as unbridled when speaking about officer Richter and his rough handling of King:
That was a horrific video, and if you don’t look at that video and aren’t horrified by what you saw, shame on you, because I guarantee you, if that was my wife, we’d have some problems. … And I am sickened that somehow people are still trying to justify Richter. Nobody wearing stripes, or bars or stars should even think about justifying a woman—that the reason that woman got pulled out of that car is because she had the audacity to tell him to hurry up. She wasn’t going with the program. Who gives a shit? You know what? Millennials ask questions. Get over it. That was such an easy stop to de-escalate.
This is the kind of verbal bullying we’ve come to expect from police, particularly when stopping African Americans, as a way of asserting their power over civilians. But rarely does the public hear this kind of verbal berating handed down from police to police—and police brass, at that. Acevedo apparently didn’t know that this meeting was secretly being recorded. But now it’s out there, and what we hear in the recording is a police department grappling with what kind of vessel for law enforcement it needs or wants to be. Said Acevedo in one key part of his tirade:
If your heart isn’t in this job, either step down, or step out, so you can leave with your integrity and maintain your integrity before we have to take action because I’m not opposed to taking action against a commander, and you guys know that. And we are at a crossroads in American policing. and the problem ain’t the cops. The problem is the leadership.
Plohetski reports for the Austin American-Statesman that Acevedo has been catching a lot of heat from his fellow commanders about this. The president of Austin’s police union, Corporal Ken Casaday, complained to Plohetski that police commanders “do not have a voice with Acedevo.” And it turns out that Austin’s police brass don’t like receiving the kind of verbal lashing and threats that police officers often heap on civilians. Who would’ve thought?
The frustrations voiced by the Austin police chief in the recording weren’t coming out of nowhere. As this report, released earlier this month from the Center for Policing Equity, shows, Austin police officers are more likely to use force—and to use severe force when dealing with African Americans and Latinos than when dealing with white civilians.
According to the report, Austin police officers gave citations and/or arrested black drivers at far higher rates than they did white drivers in 2015. This is despite the fact that “while the fewest number of vehicle stops occurred for black drivers, a higher proportion of black people was stopped than Hispanic or white people.” No wonder Breaion King had so many questions for Officer Richter when he stopped her. Not only that, but the report found that Hispanic drivers were arrested at twice the rate of white drivers when stopped.
The Austin police department is less lenient than other police forces when it comes to disciplining offending officers. For instance, an Austin officer can be fired if their bodycam is not on during a deadly force incident. Austin cops can also be terminated for repeatedly failing to report complaints from civilians—and after only the second failure to do so. Starting next year, all police citations will come with a form that allows the person cited to either file a complaint or give positive feedback about how the officer handled the interaction.
Perhaps this is why Austin police commanders are feeling unsettled: Between these reforms and the chief’s verbal reprimands, they are dealing with a level of accountability that has not historically been the norm. But as the Center for Policing Equity’s report demonstrates, such reforms are needed precisely because of the ongoing problem of racially discriminatory policing.
Last week, the International Association of Chiefs of Police President Terrence Cunningham apologized for the “historical mistreatment” of people of color. This is a move that is sure to upset police commanders and union presidents across the nation. But hopefully, such upset will only become more the norm. When it comes to race and policing, there need to be more police leaders like Acevedo—leaders who are pissed for all the right reasons.