For Austin Police, Claims of Racism Are Only the Tip of the Iceberg

An investigation into allegations of racism against a former top cop points to deeper problems of bias and retaliation at the Austin Police Department.

Police arrest Occupy Austin protesters outside Austin City Hall in 2011.
Police arrest Occupy Austin protesters outside Austin City Hall in 2011. Flickr/Ann Harkness

An investigation into allegations of racism against a former top cop points to deeper problems of bias and retaliation at the Austin Police Department.

Police arrest Occupy Austin protesters outside Austin City Hall in 2011.
Police arrest Occupy Austin protesters outside Austin City Hall in 2011. Flickr/Ann Harkness

In December, following the abrupt resignation of an assistant police chief accused of using racial slurs on the job, Austin’s city council launched an investigation to be conducted by San Antonio lawyer Lisa Tatum to determine whether higher-ups at the Austin Police Department (APD) knew about and tolerated bigotry in their ranks.

“Racist and sexist name calling and use of derogatory terms associated with race and sex persists” inside APD, according to the report released by Austin city officials on Friday. Top brass at the department have often known about or even sometimes participated in such behavior, according to the report. As a result, officers who want to improve their workplace have generally feared speaking out due to “almost certain retaliation.”

Tatum’s report also says officers she interviewed were distrustful of an ad hoc disciplinary process inside APD, where, according to the report, complaints of bias have often been ignored and documents related to officer discipline have seemed to disappear. Not surprisingly, Tatum’s report also notes an “extremely low degree of expectation” among officers that internal investigations into racist and sexist behavior will be handled seriously. “We listened to many anecdotes illustrating inappropriate comments over the years through which APD personnel expressed concern about racist behavior, but also sexist behavior, and dissimilar treatment in the handling of officer discipline and those who may be served by APD chaplain services, with the denial of marital services to same sex couples,” the report also states. “There are some real cultural issues that are in need of attention.”

Police reformers in Austin say the departure of assistant chief Justin Newsom—accused of, among other things, using racial slurs to refer to black officers, a fellow assistant chief who was black, and a black city council member—and the subsequent investigation point to deeper problems. The allegations of racism highlight other more identifiable biases: According to one recent study, black people made up 15 percent of motor vehicle stops by Austin police and 25 percent of arrests despite representing only 8 percent of the city’s population. “The major revelations in this report, I think, speak to in many ways a decade of scandals that have plagued APD,” said Chris Harris, a local activist who sits on the city’s Public Safety Commission.

Tatum’s report also speaks to policies within APD that activists like Harris have tried to push the city and police union to reform for years, like a so-called 180-day rule that prevents officers from being punished for any conduct that happened more than six months before it was reported. “There was a high level of frustration expressed because complaints of discrimination are often known to fall on deaf ears, sit in files without action in excess of 180 days, then are discounted or disregarded,” Tatum wrote. “It was reported by several that regardless of how a complaint within the department is initiated, via direct report, an executive officer or even Internal Affairs, there is rarely an outcome about which a complainant is confident that their concerns were investigated fairly; and, it is not unusual for the outcome to provide little to no redress, if misconduct is found.”

The local media’s framing of the report largely seemed to absolve police officials of wrongdoing, focusing on the fact that Tatum never turned up proof corroborating some of the specific accusations against Newsom, like that he sent texts with the N-word. Given the publicity surrounding Newsom’s departure and the length of time that passed before she was called in to investigate his behavior, Tatum described her role as similar to “being named an honorary detective who was assigned to investigate an outdoor crime scene after it had already rained—twice.” Tatum also wrote that, despite no smoking-gun text message evidence against him, “by several accounts, AC Newsom’s use of racist language was well known throughout the department as was the use of such language by other officers who were known to be close friends with AC Newsom and used such language openly and often.”

Scott Henson, director of the Austin-based nonprofit Just Liberty and a longtime advocate for reforms at APD, says the revelations in Tatum’s report are particularly troubling in light of new policy changes in Austin that undermine police oversight and minimize complaints from the public. Henson also says the department should consider disciplinary action against Austin’s police union president, who, according to Tatum’s report, informed Newsom of the complaint against him before the city could launch an investigation, allowing the former chief to retire with a payout of about $137,000 in unused sick time without an official inquiry.

Natasha Harper-Madison, one of several Austin council members who called for the investigation after Newsom left APD, said Tatum’s report “paints a picture of a department in dire need of institutional overhaul.” According to the report, more than a month before he abruptly retired, Newsom told Austin Police Chief Brian Manley that he was worried about some texts becoming public and that he would have to leave if they did. Harper-Madison faulted the chief for not acting until complaints against Newsom became public, saying, “He seemingly buried his head in the sand.”

“It should go without saying that rooting out structural and institutional rot does not equate to being anti-police,” Harper-Madison said. “Everyone should want the best for our officers, and giving them a workplace they deserve concerns everybody, regardless of race, gender, or sexuality.”

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Michael Barajas is a staff writer covering civil rights for the Observer. You can reach him on Twitter or at [email protected].


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