It’s docket call in the 331st District Court, Judge David Crain presiding. Court is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. and Judge Crain blesses us with his presence at ten minutes to 10. The sign on the front door says no drinks and no telephones allowed. The judge is carrying his coffee when he takes to the bench and he continues to sip until his cell phone begins to ring. Welcome to the Travis County criminal justice system. There are rules—but they may not apply to you.
It was interesting to watch a few weeks ago as one of the other district judges, Cliff Brown, negotiated a payment plan with a defendant. It lasted almost 10 minutes, like a session with a bank loan officer. “Can you,” the judge asked, “do $100 a month?” For some of the defendants $100 per month is a lot, they may have been stealing in the first place because they are poor. Two of the district judges have a reputation for actually throwing defendants into jail for missed payments. In that case the court doesn’t get their money either, by the way. A lot of what happens in the courtroom may depend on what the prosecutors heard while listening to the defendant’s personal telephone calls from jail, from the night before. You know, whether to go for the jugular or not. Much of the punishment can actually be financial and much of that happens before there’s even a verdict. It’s a system, more like a mechanical process than anything else, a machine that must be fed and in this county what it usually consumes are black people and Mexicans.
Those ankle monitors that everyone seems to like, that the judge can order to show he or she has done something? Even if unnecessary—the person is not a real flight risk, or a threat—as one judge explained in chambers—the monitor costs the defendant $330 a month and he hasn’t been convicted of anything yet. The fees alone are murder and that’s before the judge levies a fine. It’s said, this is purely rumor, that the City of Austin also makes a killing on these folks, on the morning of docket call, by sending out parking wardens to ticket the cars of defendants on the streets near the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center, because the courthouse doesn’t have any parking for them—and parking enforcement managers know the courts always run late. My personal favorite in the how-to-screw the poor and uneducated sweepstakes are the poor bastards who’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for their case to be called and step outside the court, to make a call, and then go out on the grass to have that cigarette they’ve been craving—this is a smoking population—and that’s just when the judge calls their name. Bail revoked. Warrant issued.
Judge Crain doesn’t require the defendant to appear at all hearings—if they have a job or family commitments for example, as long as their lawyer is present—you can say that much for him, more than anything else he looks bored on the bench. He’s been a judge a long time, he’s just part of the machine and at least he’s not wrapped too tight: that would be Judge Julie Kocurek of the 390th District Court who someone recently took a shot at but is now back on the bench with a bodyguard next to her—and a mouth on her. Judge Kocurek was first appointed by W when he was governor back, back in the day, she was a Republican then and it’s hard to imagine anyone dealing with the stress of being a crime victim less gracefully than Her Honor.
“I need to see him! I need to see him!” she told her courtroom recently, visibly distraught at her own docket call, in between revoking bail and issuing bench warrants for people who didn’t need to be there, either. She likes to see everyone in person—apparently like it’s a test. As a South Asian defendant—a Mr. Khan—approached Kocurek’s bench one recent morning, smiling because in his country of origin apparently people smile more than do white Texans like Judge Julie, God forbid—out of fear, for example, or in the presence of power, Kocurek let fly: “What are you smiling at? Do you think this is funny?”
Walking back to his seat Mr. Khan, obviously shamed, said by way of explanation to his attorney—you could hear him in the first row of seats—“I always smile!” He was smiling as he said it. Welcome to the Travis County Courthouse where your culture can influence your outcome.
“If it’s anything involving violence . . . .” a black defense attorney explained outside Kocurek's courtroom, noting Her Honor’s recent close encounter with a nine mil—which the police are ascribing to a black male “person of interest,” the daily newspaper called him, whom the judge had threatened with prison for a non-violent offense, not that that’s an excuse, more an explanation of what a brother may have been thinking if he squeezed the trigger on Her Honor. What it means for defendants, especially minority defendants appearing before this wounded woman, “she’s going to send you,” the black lawyer said, as in send to prison.
Before the next question could even be asked, however, he caught himself and added, “Of course she was like that before.” Gallows humor aside, there’s a sense even among the people who work in the Travis County Courthouse, in the liberal mecca, the capital of Texas, that it’s a dysfunctional environment and a particularly punitive one if you’re poor or a member of an ethnic minority, like Mr. Khan. And which would actually include most of the people seen in our felony courts, actually. That’s probably true of all courthouses in the country but we live in a city where it’s not supposed to be like that. River City is better than that, or so it’s said.
Of these eight felony courtrooms, five of the judges—Kocurek, Kennedy, Sage, Brown and last but not least Wil Flowers, who was the first black assistant D.A. and the first black district judge and is officially retired but still hears criminal cases as a substitute—are of the hanging variety. And like the system they administer, they prefer Negroes and Hispanics, too. So, there’s a problem with six of the judges, if you include David Crain who is mailing it in. Kocurek is racially-challenged or unbalanced, whatever the cause, Kennedy is on a mission, Cliff Brown is an Uncle Tom and Wil Flowers is what can charitably be called an old school Negro, who made his way in the courthouse by selling out his race, too, but on a more fundamental level than Judge Brown who is merely an opportunist. Jim Coronado, the only Latino on the criminal side, was just defeated in the Democratic primary by a white female defense lawyer who didn’t like how he handled a case. He outspent her five to one, had been a judge in this community forever and still got beat.
Karen Sage, the fifth of the prosecution-minded felony judges is a garden-variety white female prosecutor, most of the big-city D.A.’s in Texas are now women and it’s hard to see how they’re any different from the men, Sage is now on the bench doing the same thing she did in years past as an assistant D.A. under Ronnie Earle, sending the Black Man to prison. Even though Kennedy, Brown and Flowers as African-Americans would be presumed—wrongly—to have some kind of sympathy for the colored defendant population, it’s just not true. In the cases of Brown and Flowers they are often described as being harder on their own race than on whites. Judge Kennedy is hard on everybody. Judge Flowers was quoted a couple of years ago, speaking of race relations, he comes from the Golden Triangle, that all that’s necessary is for people to get to know each other better, which means his thinking about societal dynamics in Texas is plantation-age. To the degree “disproportional” prosecutions and punishments are the fault of the judges—they say they’re not responsible, the judges say that the courts are not the place to approach fairer outcomes for minorities in the criminal justice system. Instead it’s at the time of arrest. Some worst practices began under Judge Flowers and have continued under his successor. Another African-American defense attorney said he prefers now to practice in Dallas because the judges are not as hard on minorities. If he has to try a case in the Travis County Courthouse he prefers one of the white jurists, Judge Clemmer, the lone Republican, “because he’s fair.” Recently for example Judge Brown seated an all-white jury in a capital murder case for an African-American defendant. Even a white judge would have thought twice. Judge Brown could have called for another jury panel, it’s his courtroom, especially after one of the potential jurors went on at length, in front of all the other potential jurors, about why the defendant was guilty—before actually hearing the evidence.
Back in the day Ronnie Earle, whose name will soon appear on a county building housing prosecutors, ran the courthouse and among his assistants at different times were Wil Flowers, Rosemary Lehmberg who is present D.A., and John Dietz who recently retired as presiding judge of the civil courts. Earle’s assistants in his later years in office, called his dark period, not because of his mood but because that's when he was sending so many niggers to prison, included Cliff Brown, Karen Sage, Brenda Kennedy and Gary Cobb who was just defeated in the race to succeed Lemberg as D.A., thanks be to a merciful Allah. Brown, Kennedy, Cobb and Flowers, African-Americans all, have been responsible for some of the worst outcomes for blacks in the courthouse in our age. Racial equity in prosecutions is at the top of the list of BlackLivesMatter and other protestors, and problems with the police seem to meld seamlessly in Austin into problems with the courts, which is what’s happening in other cities too. Chicago for instance is being seen now as not just an example of racist policing but of prejudice in the courts as well.
“I had no idea I would be a judge,” Brenda Kennedy told Austin Lawyer a few months ago when she took over as presiding judge from Judge Kocurek. Unlike Flowers and Brown, Kennedy seems to be hard by temperament, not because she expects white patronage in return. “When I went to work at the DA’s office I had a knack and a desire for trial work. I got to try a lot of cases and do a lot of things. And I enjoyed that. But once you try just about everything there is to try, you start looking for what’s next. I was having a discussion with my boss at the time, former District Attorney Ronnie Earle, about what my next career move should be. He was the one who encouraged me to be a judge.” Judge Kennedy is probably the single most feared jurist in the criminal courts—although she has mellowed recently, “just a little,” according to her colleagues. And this is regardless of personal experience: Brenda Kennedy had a well-reported Driving-While-Black incident a few years ago, pulled over in the wrong neighborhood somewhere out in the county. While Judge Brown who is also black was the city’s police monitor he didn’t find any substantive reason to disagree with the police union for years—when the same issues that are headlines today, killer cops and bad stops—were worse then than now. He’s as pro-police on the bench as he was as police monitor and as prosecutor before that, for Ronnie Earle, assigned to Wil Flowers' court. Wil Flowers swore Cliff Brown in as a judge and they both believe in the same kind of justice.
If you walk the halls and talk to the lawyers today, only two judges on the criminal side, handling felony cases, get high ratings for fairness and hard work and neither of them, not to belabor the point, worked for Ronnie Earle. These two men are the least like their colleagues: Don Clemmer—the Republican who was appointed last year by Gov. Abbott and who invariably draws the same response from colleagues and from the bar, “He’s actually very good!” as if the fact that he’s a Republican means he couldn't work in a Democratic town. The other judge who is highly praised is David Wahlberg of the 167th District Court, who was a long-time defense attorney before running for the bench on a campaign platform of not being an ex-prosecutor like everyone else. Apparently it’s now the fashion, after Wahlberg’s success—he’s unopposed for reelection this year—two other defense lawyers just won Democratic primaries, campaigning on their experience from the defendant’s side of the courtroom. The system has been out of balance forever. Post Jim Crow the police chiefs, for example, have come and gone but the shadow of Ronnie Earle was a constant then and is still a constant now. This is the snapshot of today’s environment, the system you’re going through if you’re black or brown and you’ve been arrested by Austin police for a crime: A judge has been shot, or shot at, D.A. Rosemary Lehmberg’s legal troubles have made national news including the indictment of the Governor of Texas for alleged intimidation (one of the district judges said, by the way, his impression of the evidence in the case pointed to Perry’s guilt, but the Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed) leading to a warning from the judge who was shot, or shot at, to the governor to back off. The African-American sheriff who runs the jail and whose deputies arrested the district attorney, not that that’s important, is retiring because he cooperated with the feds on immigration enforcement, against the wishes of the community that elected him. A civil court judge was arrested for DWI on Barton Springs Road and prosecutors dropped the charge, something about the lab report on the blood-alcohol level. Most pertinent—more important than level of intoxication—she actually looked pretty hot in her mugshot, not that that’s important either—statistics from the state prisons indicate that of all the people being sent to Huntsville from “the liberal mecca,” Austin, Texas, about one-third are African-American in a town where the black population is lucky to scrape eight percent on a sunny day. The dreaded Republican-run Williamson County, our rustic and un-hip neighbors to the north, under departing D.A. Jana Duty has a better record, statistically, in obtaining justice for minorities than does liberal Travis County. How did that happen? Everyone is looking for a fall guy. It’s an Austin tradition, you don’t have to solve the problem but you do need to find someone to blame it on.
Former Judge Charlie Baird was mocked a few years ago when he first began to question the nature of outcomes handed out in our courthouse, the very thing that everyone is wringing their hands over now. He formally raised the issue when he ran against Rosemary Lehmberg for D.A. four years ago. Baird’s approach in obtaining justice for minorities was noted favorably in the New Yorker a few months ago, in an article that praised both Judge Baird and Gov. Perry who, when he was on the side of the angels—which may not have been as often as we all would have liked—it was often about race, in this instance involving a black defendant in Lubbock who was wrongly identified as a rapist. The guy died in prison but his name was cleared, if that means anything. Today Judge Baird says that those who wring their hands trying to square the city’s liberal reputation with the fact of disproportionate prosecutions of minorities are chasing their own tails. It’s impossible to do.
“Austin is the liberal mecca in so many areas, ” he says, citing the environment, gay rights, the arts, “everything except criminal justice.” This issue of disproportionate prosecutions for minorities has a powerful new proponent: During a brief interview at a campaign event, Margaret Moore, the Democratic nominee for D.A. said that a review of racial disparities in prosecution is “at the top of my list.” She’s another one of Ronnie Earle’s former assistants, from back in the day, when Earle was still on a mission and before he was corrupted by power. Moore has been away from the courthouse for many years, which is a good thing, working in the AG’s office with the Republicans, which is also a good thing. As her top investigator—if elected—she’s promised to hire Mike Lummus, a former president of the Austin police union and, in a more general sense, a good guy. “Good guy” is a vague description, admittedly, but may be a big plus in the present policing environment. Because it’s a mess right now in the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center. The reasons are race, class, bad practices and laziness.
If you ask the judges on the criminal side about the outcomes they’re producing, those who will discuss the issue at all report a disquiet about jailing so many minorities and sending so many to prison. But as one judge noted, “We’re not social activists.” The courts can only play the cards they’re dealt, he said, in terms of cases and defendants. This particular jurist pointed to arrest not trial as the place for correcting the system. “If I send them to prison,” said one of the hanging judges, “there’s no chance at rehabilitation. Let’s take that as a given from the start.” Which raises the obvious question: why are you doing it? The judges point especially to the police station as the source of the problem and also the location of the solution. Arrests are where the system must change first, to say nothing of the shootings of unarmed black men which the police in Austin, Texas, the liberal mecca, are also famous for. Which means unjustified traffic stops and searches of minority motorists have to end too, or come down to a community-agreed level. Despite the primacy of the police role—everyone seems to have great hopes for the presumed new district attorney, Margaret Moore, who is walking on water as the newbie. It’s said that one of her first edicts after winning the Democratic primary was that she won’t accept campaign contributions from any assistant D.A.s, which may mean that heads will roll. The point of praising Margaret Moore now also seems to be to lock her in. The Nobel Prize Committee did something similar to Barack Obama not long after he was elected—premature praise—just after he was sworn in as president, giving him a peace prize he had not earned in order to make sure he stayed on the side of the angels. So, too, one hopes—Margaret Moore. If we praise her as a moderate with a conscience when she enters office, perhaps she’ll still be one when she leaves. Hopefully the heavy hubris and surfeit of self-satisfaction here along the banks of the mighty Colorado—in the Live Music Capital of the World—won’t corrupt her as it has Ronnie Earle’s other former assistants.
But we have insurance. There’s a different big man in town these days, who has replaced the D.A.'s Office at the center of the criminal justice system. A handsome stranger rode to our rescue. In fact, he’s been here almost a decade already and no matter how bad it is, it’s gotten better since his arrival. Or not gotten worse, which is the case elsewhere. Now it’s up to Police Chief Acevedo more than any one other individual, more than the D.A. or the district judges, who must solve the problem of disparate enforcement against minorities and try to stop disparate prosecutions at the courthouse. It’s a tall order. In an uncertain age he’s become the adult in the room, together with Marc Ott, the city manager. Ott and Acevedo had words recently—you might say—the chief walked away with a suspension, everyone was under a lot of stress, there’s more now, but these two men, one brown and one black, as corny as it may sound, have worked together in the past. They both received the instructions from the Justice Department, in 2008, about how to fix policing in this city—some of which has been done and a lot which has not.
There’s one historical incident and one fact of life that are important in understanding the dynamic of policing in the city. The cops are rude. Which is one of the few things both the chief and the union agree on. One possible reason is that the public also has a mouth on it, this is a pretty high-brow community and talking back to a police officer when stopped, for whatever reason, has a certain appeal, especially among racial minorities. The problem with all the rudeness is that it’s also where interactions go bad. It’s hard to believe that a lack of courtesy can lead to gunfire but that’s a theory in modern criminology. The “incident” happened a long time ago and may also have a role in creating the troublesome dynamic for the police here today.
The year was ’80, or thereabouts, and at that time there was a bus station downtown on Congress Avenue about where the office of the Texas Tribune is today, if memory serves. And at that time the city had a vice squad for those behaviors that were not permitted, even among consenting adults. One day two undercover vice cops made an arrest in the bus station, for a behavior that today would probably be considered the business of the person involved—it was something about a hand on a dick, in the bus station men’s room, a block from the Capitol, and at the time was a crime and called, colloquially, “weenie-wagging” but may have been more weenie-holding or an offer to hold, which was also illegal between men at that time in the state of Texas. What’s important here is that the arrested suspect turned out to be the chairman of the Texas Pardons and Paroles Board. Who had friends in the upper ranks of the police department.
And the next time we saw the two vice detectives—shortly thereafter—they were still on Congress Avenue but in uniform, doing parking enforcement, riding three-wheelers. The point here is there are a lot of VIPs in this town, Austin probably has more powerful and rich people per capita than anywhere else in the state, and when the police have done their jobs, on DWI arrests for example, there’s sometimes been blowback for the officer who made the collar. Every year, or every couple of years, a major official gets popped for drunk driving—it’s usually during legislative session, or it seems that way—D.A. Rosemary Lehmberg was the last but by no means the first, this is a hard-drinking town.
One of the district judges with criminal jurisdiction mentioned recently that when Chief Acevedo is questioned about the department’s approach to law enforcement in the minority community, Acevedo invariably talks about his support from black organizations like the NAACP and Urban League. Indeed the NAACP protests police shootings but on its website has pictures of Chief Acevedo at NAACP events. How cool is that? Ideologically-speaking—speaking as a Black Nationalist, for example—the correct take would have to be that Chief Acevedo is a "pig," doctrinally-speaking of course. As chief in fact he’s the biggest pig at the "pig pen," as offensive as that term may be to some. Those may actually have been the first words out of my mouth when we met. But he’s actually a pretty good guy when you talk to him. It’s not that Art Acevedo is hard not to like—it’s that Art Acevedo is impossible not to like. And that’s the point: Chief Acevedo talks to everyone. He’s on speaking terms even with the people who want to get rid of him, which included me. The guy is everywhere, “engaging the community,” which is a trite phrase but is still a pretty accurate description of what he does. And he was doing it long before Dallas or Baton Rouge which gives him credibility that some others don’t have.
When he begins a sentence, “As a person of color,” speaking of himself, it’s totally calculated on Chief Acevedo’s part, totally—but still a powerful message in this town which historically has been segregated even down to the city infrastructure, worse sewers and sidewalks on the eastside, to say nothing of worse treatment by the police. There’s an attitude here, especially in the Travis County Democratic Party and especially at the courthouse, that it’s a club, a closed shop, and people who are in are in: do as you’re told, keep your mouth shut and you’ll be rewarded. That’s how Wil Flowers broke in, for example, all anyone asked of him was that he send his people to prison and he did, that's how he became district judge. Chief Acevedo is now in the mix and he’s shown different judgment and has shown something approaching a moral center, for a cop. One of the frequent comments heard about Acevedo is that he’s looking for a bigger job somewhere else (he’s been a finalist both in Dallas and in San Antonio) and that he’s motivated by where he’s going next. But what ambitious person isn’t? Born in Cuba and raised in this country, a better description of Acevedo than "ambitious" is hungry. More important than where the chief is going next is where he’s coming from, California, where the job of police chief is much more political than we are accustomed to in Texas. Some sort of charm or media presence can be a prerequisite even for law enforcement in the Golden State. In Los Angeles, the longest serving mayor was a former L.A. police lieutenant, and black. A white former chief of LAPD became a long-serving California state senator and another black L.A. former chief just left office as one of the longest-serving L.A. council members and as an unsuccessful candidate for mayor. Other examples in California are even more analogous to what’s happening in Austin. The present D.A. of San Francisco is the former S.F. police chief. The longest-serving mayor in San Diego, of recent years, was the former San Diego chief of police. Chief Acevedo comes to us from a law enforcement culture where chiefs are political figures and if you watch him in public, giving talks to business organizations for example, meeting and greeting—there’s a lot of “engagement,” everything except kissing babies—which is how the chief became such a popular figure, while our prior chiefs have been more technocrats, when we were lucky, and old boys when we weren’t. In fact a high-ranking member of the union claims to have seen Chief Acevedo kiss babies. For a guy with a gun he has people skills that City Council members can only envy. The danger for him is they will become jealous first.
One of the judges who spoke to the chief directly about those bad minority arrest statistics, said that the Acevedo’s answers indicated he is very concerned with what the business community wants, as much as what the city council or the judges demand. Another judge who hangs defendants for a living suggested that if Acevedo is going to run for office—he was expected to run for sheriff, earlier this year, but his friend Sheriff Hamilton waited until the last moment not to run. Well, the idea is the chief is laying the groundwork for support from the business community, which will translate into contributions. That’s the theory and it may be correct. Acevedo’s been on the job almost a decade. He knows a lot of people and he knows a lot of secrets. He knows all the things that don't appear in your morning newspaper. He knows Austin. He would be a formidable opponent but he has a commitment to solve this problem first and judges who would talk said the police department under his leadership has improved, without a doubt—the question is, will it get where it needs to go in terms of some semblance of colorblind justice on Chief Acevedo’s watch? That is the question of the hour. Can he seal the deal in other words or will he split for greener pastures? Asked in a recent interview if he plans to run for office one day, the chief replied in a matter-of-fact way, “I never say never.”
He’s everywhere at once. If you look at his calendars for a few months you may learn as much about him as talking to him. There’s obviously quite a bit of cop-stuff in his daily life: A lot of time set aside for meetings with the assistant chiefs, “the fifth floor,” as it’s called inside the Department, which is said by some officials to be the location of many of the profiling problems, the old boys who ran the police department back in the day and some say still do. That’s what people at City Hall mean when they say, “the fifth floor,” and roll their eyes, believe what you will. Acevedo’s calendars also show an occasional meeting with the FBI assistant agent in charge and conference calls with Homeland Security, probably for all the big-city chiefs, threat assessments one presumes. He has to qualify with his weapon once a year but seems to spend more time than that on the range which may mean he’s expecting trouble or he's a cautious guy or both. This is important: If you look at his continuing education course transcript, available from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, he’s taken a lot of in-services, including on diversity—at last count more than Col. Steve McCraw across town, head of the state police who also has a profiling crisis. If bias in policing really is an education problem, it’s nice to see Acevedo has taken the same classes required of the troops. Chief Acevedo also seems to see in person the officers he’s going to suspend or fire, which is kind of ballsy, doing his own dirty work, but that may be a department custom, or a police thing. During the period in question, the three months last year covered by release of his daily appointments, he saw in his office the black community’s poster boy for Rogue White Cop in Austin, Texas—Officer Eric Copeland—who was first feted by the city and by Chief Acevedo as a hero, in 2012, when he chased down African-American motorist Ahmede Bradley and killed him in a struggle over a loud music complaint. Since then, Copeland began showing up in other high profile cases involving minorities and the chief said publicly he will be fired the next time there’s a justified complaint. There are media interviews during Acevedo’s day, obviously, and for the talking dogs of TV news he sometimes does it in Spanish. But that’s not what sticks out. Pick a day at random.
This one is a Thursday, last August, almost a year ago before so much blood started to run in the nation’s streets. For context, Austin P.D. was killing about one unarmed black man a year at the time, which is still the rate more or less today, give or take a dead Negro. (Not to worry, we’ve had ours for this year.) That Thursday the chief’s calendar reminded him that it was the day of a City Council work session, meaning he might be called in to answer questions. For an hour in the morning he met with the fifth floor. After that it was a half an hour in his office with a Google representative about the company’s self-driving car. Then another half hour, written in, with a note on stage management, as “Teddy bears from Austin Junior Forum—Chief Will Take Lead with Victim Services.” Next there was a "Back to School safety press conference"—two hours of birthday lunches for the troops—followed by a reception for the fired medical director of Austin-Travis County EMS. The day ended with a conference call, presumably threat-related but that's been redacted for public release. The same week, two days later, he came in on a Saturday to have a meeting with the mayor and the leader of the NAACP, which protests in front of the police station every time there’s a police shooting but seems to approve of Acevedo personally. Later that evening he did a ride along with an Alzheimer’s researcher, she was kind of a babe, in a scientific way—Google indicates—so it presumably wasn’t hard work.
People also report seeing Chief Acevedo at restaurants downtown during the day, when he lunches with his driver. He’s an outgoing guy. The troops say he knows them well. “He never forgets a face,” a sergeant working patrol mentioned recently, while waiting for paramedics to finish working on a guy who wasn’t going to get any better. You may think a lot of this is extraneous to his job leading the police department, catching crooks, keeping us safe—but suppose this is what he’s most needed for, to keep people talking in a community on edge. In a country on edge. Art Acevedo isn’t a hero, he’s a sign of the times. The job of police chief has been redefined and Acevedo was one of the first big-city lawmen to realize that. So, about this theory, though, that the chief’s weakness isn’t minority relations—that doesn’t mean he won’t take a fall, you feel me? It just won’t be about race or not directly. The idea is that whatever happens to him won’t happen on the Eastside but downtown, where he has a big blind spot. Ronnie Earle used to say he didn’t prosecute “sin” and Acevedo has said, basically, he doesn’t arrest it. But one of the judges mentioned the department’s heightened enforcement, for drugs and prostitution, for example, in the minority neighborhoods of northeast Austin—Rundberg Lane and environs—where blacks and browns have been pushed due to gentrification of old East Austin: arrests which are showing up in the criminal courts. Which the chief insists the community itself asked for, but the evidence on that is still out.
This judge, though, mentioned heightened enforcement downtown, also, which His Honor describes as enforcement that ends on the sidewalk. All those big hotels—all those conventions—all that sex, some of it paid for—and all those drugs—all that dirty money that could be seized, from white people especially during SXSW or ACL—everything happens just like out northeast, except the arrests. What is considered “sin” downtown is a crime in East Austin. People are doing the same thing in both places, but those on Rundberg Lane end up in front of Julie Kocurek when she needs to feed the machine.
“I re-started the vice squad!” Chief Acevedo insisted recently, rather defensively one must say. The vice squad was apparently disbanded by one of his predecessors, who sensed Austin’s drift in terms of consensual activity. Today the chief admits that the same behavior that people of color are getting busted for in northeast Austin does not normally result in arrests downtown. Gee. P.D.’s official explanation, the department’s rationale for disproportionate arrests, is that a lot of what happens in minority neighborhoods is happening in public, solicitations for example, “in the middle of the street,” in view of children—and that’s a fair explanation.
“Consenting adults,” chimes in the Department’s number 2, Assistant Chief Brian Manley—in a recent discussion of how this can be—because if you think about it, it’s completely discriminatory. The same behavior that puts blacks and browns in jail is tolerated in the big hotels among the affluent and mostly white. So, the theory is that could spell trouble for the chief because, clearly, it’s bad karma in a town where your karma is still believed to be your fate.
What’s going on downtown, you never hear much about it—you don’t read much about in on the police blotter, either. Have you noticed? Unless it’s Shia LeBouef being an ass on Sixth Street (he gets arrested everywhere) you never hear about it. You feel me? People may not have been arrested but that doesn’t mean P.D. doesn’t know what’s going on, up in the penthouse, especially if they do it on the balcony or roof—the police system of cameras downtown alone is worthy of the NSA. (If the chief offers you a tour of the room at P.D. where the monitors are, don’t take it—you don’t want to know.) It’s been effective, that’s a good argument, what has happened in Austin has happened year after year, only to people of color, shooting by shooting, not to white people and not all at once like in Dallas or Baton Rouge. But if the chief’s luck is going to change, if his karma is going south, it’ll be because something happened somewhere close to the river, that’s a good guess, between the Colorado and the Capitol, that’s the smart bet, you heard it here first. This town, the last ten years? Even the activities when people didn’t get arrested—especially the activities when people didn’t get arrested—shit can start in one of the big hotels, or end there, and in between there’s a body at a house out on the lake—Texas noir—that’s the Austin way, a body in a lake house, and we’re due. That would be a possible hit on the chief’s career, this is only speculation, because the karma is pretty bad. Or his numbers will catch up with him. That would be worse and is actually more likely. The City Council relies heavily for its numbers, for example, on former council member and LBJ School of Public Affairs Professor Bill Spelman who has repeatedly claimed, through the years, that policing problems in the minority community are not the result of any kind of prejudice on the part of the cops. Just two months ago he made a presentation at the invitation of the council’s Public Safety Committee in which Professor Spelman cited figures and his conclusion that frequent stops of blacks and browns are not the result of profiling. Who would agree with that assessment today? Only in a subsequent email did he make clear that his conclusion about police intentions was not drawn from the figures he presented, but was his own opinion, which is not the impression he gave in front of the Public Safety Committee. In any case it’s all about stats—numbers—figures. Liars can figure but it's rarer than figures lie.
Recently the Police Monitor, former Sheriff Margo Frasier, tried to present her stats to the Public Safety Commission, a different body than the council's Public Safety Committee which handles a lot of the nuts and bolts of public safety. Sheriff Frasier was shot down by the mayor’s representative, former Canadian police detective Kim Rossmo who is a criminology professor at Texas State. Rossmo was longtime chairman of the Commission, appointed by then-Council Member Spelman and—perhaps because he comes from a more homogenous racial environment like Canada—he has seemed to be a tad dubious over the years regarding minority complaints about police misconduct. Professor Spelman and Dr. Rossmo have been the intellectual forces behind policing in the city for a long time and until recently it’s been unclear how either man has contributed to any kind of solution. But Dr. Rossmo who is a smart guy has latched onto the root of a very important idea. The numbers need to be right. Bad stats are worse than no stats at all. Also, separately, P.D.’s data need to be made completely available to the Police Monitor which has not been happening—in violation of the best practices laid down for Ott and Chief Acevedo by the Department of Justice in 2008. This is not rocket science. But it does involve higher math. And for that the Police Monitor needs to have her own numbers-cruncher. Because that’s what Chief Acevedo has. His name is Alex Del Carmen and he's said to be Texas’s premier expert on racial profiling.
Dr. Del Carmen started the ball rolling earlier this year by dinging our department on identifying Latinos as whites. It’s a very common problem or tactic among Texas police forces and blocks any effort to break out stats on arrests of Hispanics. This is what the state police and Col. McCraw were very publicly busted for by a local TV station earlier this year. District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg has also been describing Latinos as whites in her in-house statistical analysis, which they very well may be, but nonetheless giving no indication of how many Latinos she has prosecuted—which is a hefty number, based upon what you see in the courts. It’s all about the numbers. Austin’s are bad no matter how you crunch them if this is supposed to be a progressive city and not a segregated one. What everyone has been relying upon are communitywide stats, however, showing for instance how many blacks have been sent to prison from Travis County, versus the percentage of blacks in the local population. That’s kind of the sledgehammer approach. New techniques may point more towards individual police officers.
“For instance,” Dr. Del Carmen explained in a recent email, “if you have an officer that searched 1,000 African-Americans in a year but found contraband in only 3 searches, that would obviously constitute a problem.” Let’s see, what else—recently, Travis County was the only major metropolitan area in the state to decline to participate in a study of personal bond. Increased use of personal bonds would cut back on the cash bonds (read, bail bondsmen, who kick back a part of their bond fees to judges through campaign contributions) required so often now, which defendants must also pay for. Apparently, the study would have been conducted directly, with the investigators collecting and running their own numbers—not relying on Travis County’s Probation Department to do it for them. Whoever has control of the numbers controls the system. It’s all about metrics, who has the best figures—they don’t even have to be true if they look good—that’s what Mark Twain famously meant. You know how the cop takes your license and runs your name through the Big Computer during a traffic stop? The day will come when you can run the cop who has stopped you on your phone and see his record of arrests while he’s looking at yours. The union might not like it of course. Data is power.
One last note: Those two vice cops at the bus station? One of them was Mike Lummus, who will presumably become chief of the D.A.’s investigators. After the bus station bust—and after he got off parking enforcement—Lummus became president of the police union and in recent years has been chief in a nearby community: presumably he realizes there are bad cops and bad arrests. He’s a good guy, for a cop, as is Acevedo. Margaret Moore is a good person as is Rosemary Lehmberg, who just had some bad luck. Rosemary's defenders say that she never really wanted the job, we can leave it at that, except it's probably safe to say Gov. Perry's interventions did not help. City Manager Marc Ott took a lot of grief for suspending the chief of police but some of the success Ott has actually had in City Hall has been on race and on the police department. Suddenly it’s looking like the most important issue for the city, if it wasn’t already. The hanging judges are still a problem, many of the racial disparities in this community have actually been created by blacks ourselves, by Toms in black robes, but Judges Clemmer and Wahlberg are good guys, so everybody says. So, it’s a pretty good crew and maybe they’ll have some luck before Austin has its day from hell and the blood starts to flow.