The fatal shootings of three young blacks by white police officers in Austin, Tx., in 2002 and 2003, and the fact that the three officers kept their jobs, reflect a pattern of racism within the police force and throughout the city, critics say. The Washington Post says the accusations have put city leaders and police on the defensive and called into question the city’s self-image of tolerance and diversity.
Home to the University of Texas, a thriving music scene and a robust high-tech industry, Austin markets itself as an outdoorsy city of laid-back brotherly love, the Post says. It’s staunchly Democratic and has been noted as one of the nation’s best-managed cities. To some local black leaders, that rings hollow. “This city is very tolerant of certain alternative lifestyles,” said the Rev. Sterling Lands, head of the Eastside Social Action Committee. “When it comes down to the area of race, that’s where the tolerance ends.”
The Austin Police Department’s use-of-force rates are far below the national average, said a 1999 Justice Department survey. The police have a reputation for helping illegal immigrants collect wages from employers who seek to take advantage of them. The department’s ethnic makeup roughly reflects the local population — 66 percent of officers are white, 21 percent are Hispanic, and 11 percent are black.
The Austin American-Statesman has reported that between 1998 and 2003, local police were twice as likely to use force against blacks as against whites, and 25 percent more likely to use it against Hispanics than against whites. Two other studies found racial profiling common in Austin and across the state.
Police Chief Stanley Knee has proposed equipping police officers with stun guns and has called in national experts to evaluate the department’s training and evaluation procedures. Officers are now required to get signed consent from suspects before performing vehicle searches, which Knee said turn up contraband 12 percent of the time.