The City of Austin recently released a report detailing the persistence of racial profiling within the Austin Police Department. Vehicle stop data revealed traffic stops are more likely to end in a ticket or arrest on the northeast side of Austin, where the Black population is more concentrated, and more likely to end in a warning on the northwest side.
Office of Police Oversight Director Farah Muscadin said there is a fundamental disconnect in the way police officers are viewing the data and the experiences citizens of Austin — particularly Black citizens — are experiencing interactions with the police.
“When we look at the outcomes for African-Americans, why are we three times more likely to be arrested and three times more likely to be searched? I think one of the things that we’ve been … talking to the department about is you need to acknowledge your history and the systemic racism and explicit and implicit violence that stems from policing,” Muscadin said.
Most police officers, particularly those under 45, she said, don’t know the history of policing, particularly the fact that the institution of policing was created to catch runaway slaves and suppressing slave rebellions. During Reconstruction, local sheriffs continued to operate in the same manner, and over the ensuing decades throughout the South, their primary function was to enforce segregation and reinforce the disenfranchisement of the Black population. In Austin, the first Black police officer was hired in 1947 — the same year Muscadin’s father was born — and he wasn’t allowed to carry a gun or arrest white people.
If we are 8% of the population, why are we 14% of the stops?
“Without that acknowledgment, I don’t know how to move forward,” said Muscadin. “When we look at traffic violations like someone being stopped for a tail light or speeding, those shouldn’t be life-threatening situations.”
“If we are 8% of the population, why are we 14% of the stops?” The answer is police bias and the overall culture of policing, which stems from its history, she said.
“The biggest and hardest thing that needs to change is the culture. There’s a culture of ‘us versus them.’ And I can’t figure out how we got there, because 99% of officers who became officers became officers because they wanted to help people. But somehow, over the course of their policing, it became, ‘we’re police, you’re community, and we’re on opposite sides.’
It just doesn’t make sense to me, when this is the community you put your life on the line to protect. You can’t only want to be supportive of the people who support you. That’s not how it works. Officers personalize any critique of policing,” she said.
This summer, following the death of Houston native George Floyd, Houston Democratic state Rep. Garnet Coleman approached the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement to expand their peace officer training to include implicit bias training. The provision was excluded from the final version of the 2017 Sandra Bland Act that now requires all Texas police officers to take de-escalation training. The commission adopted the policy one day after Coleman made the initial request, proving the administrative route to be faster and more effective than waiting for the legislature to reconvene in January.
Simultaneously, the country saw protests break out in cities from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. against the institution of policing, which had proven again it did not exist to protect or serve all members of the community. Austin wasn’t exempt, and Muscadin said many police officers took those protests personally. In August, the Austin City Council responded to a national call to defund police departments by voting to cut the police budget by one-third, reallocating $150 million to other areas, including violence prevention, food access and abortion access programs. The reorganization will also move services like forensic sciences, support services and victims’ services outside of police purview and into other city offices.
“We need to stop associating public safety with law enforcement,” said Muscadin. “Public safety is putting lights in the parks. It’s social programs and putting after-school programs in schools. It’s community wellness and economic development in communities.”
“What we really need to do is look at the instances where we absolutely need law enforcement and remove the instances where we don’t,” she continued. “I think that one of the things that is going to be important is that there are instances where police are called that police are not necessary.”
The actions of state and local legislators following public outcry this summer are exactly the ways Muscadin said she wants to see the city’s citizens work with each other, community organizations and elected officials to hold police accountable.
“Particularly with communities of color and also some allies, there is a real push for change, and fundamentally, there are people who will need to be held accountable if change doesn’t happen. I just think that for some, they see this as ‘oh this will blow over, it’s just another thing,’” she said, referencing how easily agencies dismiss the claims of the community if there isn’t a push for real accountability from the affected populations.
“A lot of the white power structure relies on the lack of collaboration among (and accountability from) the community,” she said. “I think there are certain things that we just kind of accept because we’re black. I get it, but racial profiling shouldn’t be one of them. ”
I feel like part of my job is to give the community the receipts, and then the community has to take it from there.
“This for me is a quality of life issue,” she said. Muscadin said she does not believe in leaving police departments to figure out the issues themselves, because many of them, even after diversity and bias training, “don’t have the lens.” Instead, she believes the Black and Brown residents of the communineed to come together to apply pressure from the outside, while committing to work with allies on the inside to effect meaningful and lasting change.
“I want everybody in Austin to be policed equitably,” she said. “I feel like, in terms of my office, my office can only go so far. I feel like part of my job is to give the community the receipts, and then the community has to take it from there. I want there to be more community pressure, particularly from the Black community.” This includes contacting elected officials — and voting them out if they are unresponsive.
“Everybody has a council member. You have city government. Obviously, the police officer has a boss, i.e. the city manager, but in my mind, police officers work for the people. Your real boss is the people,” she said.
If you need to file a complaint, or a compliment, regarding an Austin Police Officer, please reach out to Office of Police Oversight.