Police Crimes in the US – A View from Austin, Texas

May 6, 2014

Police Crimes in the US ,
A View from Austin, Texas:
An Interview with Nelson Linder


 Nelson Linder, President of the Austin, Texas, Branch of the NAACP gives us an on-the-ground perspective on the current increasing rate of racist police crimes in Austin, and how the fight for justice led to demanding that the Dept of Justice cut off all federal money to Austin Police Department.

Nelson Linder was born and raised in Georgia and has been living in Austin, Texas since 1981. Amongst many other achievements and successes, Linder in 1992 founded the controversial Garvey/Allen/Washington Project, an organization primarily focused on self-empowerment and social justice for African Americans.  He was elected President of the Austin, Texas, Branch of the NAACP in 2000, continuing the focus on fighting racism, police brutality and misconduct in the Austin, Texas area. Linder is currently working on a new book entitled “Minimum Force Necessary – eradicating police brutality”.

QUESTION: Austin is sometimes referred to here in Chicago, rightly or wrongly, as a progressive liberal oasis of the south.  For those of us who are not so familiar with Austin, its demographics and history of police misconduct, can you give us some details about the make up of this capital city of Texas and the history of how minority communities are effected by practices and policies of the Austin Police Department (APD)?

Nelson Linder:  The City of Austin would be considered progressive compared to other cities in Texas such as Dallas and Houston. The city is Blue compared to most of the state, which is Red.The University of Texas is a major influence and the city is dominated by the high tech industry. The city is currently around 60 percent white, 35 percent Latino, 8 percent AfricanAmerican and 6 percent Asian. The culture of the city is a mixture of various influences, including the South, Southwest and Western migration.

“Beginning in the mid-nineties, the city began to experience a rash of deaths of African Americans involving white police officers. The trend spiraled downward in 2000 and increased again in 2002 with the implementation of police oversight. Although the police monitor office has been criticized routinely by some organizations, the office has helped shine the light and raise the awareness of the community around police shootings of African Americans and Latinos.”

In 2004, the Austin NAACP and Texas Civil Rights Project filed a complaint with the Department of Justice (DOJ) invoking Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, against the Austin Police Department—that would cut them off from federal funds. The complaint included many details of systemic police misconduct, including the fact that between 1999 and 2003, eleven people died from encounters with Austin police. Only one of the people who died was Caucasian, the rest were either Hispanic or African American.

What were the effects on the ground so to speak of this filing?

Nelson Linder: “On June 19, 2004 the Austin NAACP begin to gather data on the racial composition of police shootings to gain the attention of city officials and demonstrate the disparate impact of the shootings on African Americans and Latinos. Once the disparities were made public, Jim Harrington and I jointly filed a Title VI complaint to convey the urgency of the problem to city and federal officials. We knew that the City of Austin was receiving almost 3 million dollars in federal funds. We encouraged the federal government to withhold funds until the city eliminated the racial disparities.

“The purpose of the Title VI complaint was to establish an orderly and systematic way of monitoring police misconduct and to ensure that our approach to eradicating police brutality would be organized and include a legal premise. We got the attention of the city of Austin and the Department of Justice.”

How were police crime victims and their communities mobilizing around this important complaint?

Nelson Linder: “Regarding the community, unfortunately, whenever police shootings had occurred there would be emotional outbursts, but no concerted strategy designed to sustain our efforts to imposed sanctions and pressure at every level on government officials. Between 2005 and 2007, there was a reduction in the shooting ratios involving police and African Americans and Latino victims. In 2004, African Americans were being shot at a ratio 100 times the rate of Caucasians. Latinos were at a rate of about 25 percent higher. Then police chief Stanley Knee, resigned due to the ratios and political pressure.”

How did this decision to make this specific complaint come about?”

Nelson Linder: “In 2007, Art Acevedo was hired as Austin’s new police chief. Acevedo immediately began extensive outreach to all communities and fired Michael Olsen for shooting Kevin Brown. The shootings stopped for two years and restarted with the death of Nathaniel Sanders in 2009. The Sanders shooting was mishandled by Acevedo and the City of Austin, this caused anger and conflict in the African American community. The case was eventually settled in a civil lawsuit for $750,000.

“On May 27, 2011, the Department of Justice ended its investigation of the Austin Police Department. In a confusing statement the DOJ said that while the Austin Police Department did not violate the constitutional rights of African Americans, they did identify concerns that could lead to violations of law. They issued the Austin Police Department a technical assistance letter, which included 165 recommendations for improvement.”

In 2012, the Austin NAACP and Texas Civil Rights Project filed a new complaint against the APD and the City of Austin with the DOJ, again invoking Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. It is a very powerful, detailed and damning document against both APD and the City of Austin [Chicagoans & folk wherever you are – READ IT HERE!

Can you talk about the new complaint–what was added that was not in the first?

Nelson Linder: “The Title VI complaint was updated on June 27, 2012, to reflect our concerns that use of force was increasing again after the DOJ completed its investigations. The revised filing also updated shootings by police and other data that reflected our concerns about excessive force against African Americans and Latinos.”

Is there an increased power of amplification that this second filing enabled, in terms of DOJ’s possible response–with an actual withholding of federal funds to APD, and in terms of the effects of community mobilization as they fight for real change in Austin?

Nelson Linder: “The Title VI complaint has been a valuable tool in keeping vital statistics on police issues in Austin, maintaining data allows continuing access to the Department of Justice.

 “I believe that until the Texas State Penal code is amended to enable prosecutors to focus more on criminal negligence as opposed to intentional police actions, real accountability will be very difficult to achieve. District attorneys around the nations are burying their collective heads in outdated, antiquated penal codes. Even at the Federal level, 18 – USC 242 is ineffective and also focuses on intent as opposed to negligence as well. Willful intent is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Our strategy has to include a focus on police behavior, but we must also focus on the institutions that are supposed to hold them accountable. District attorneys are elected officials. Our state representatives and congress people are missing in action on police misconduct and brutality.

“They must be forced to amend these slavery-based penal codes: the Department of Justice must do a better job of intervening in local shootings when necessary. They should have placed Albuquerque under a federal decree over two years ago. Albuquerque has been violating the constitutional rights of citizens for years. We need to implement a national database where police shootings are reported and evaluated. This would reveal the magnitude of the problem and ensure more communication and pave the way for effective mobilization.”

Why are you participating in the upcoming National Forum on Police Crimes?

“Too many communities are isolated and ignored, now is the time to empower local communities. The National Forum is a very important beginning to the mobilization of local and nationally scaled initiatives and actions through the sharing of best practices and strategies. Really, now is the time…see you all there in Chicago”

Thank you Nelson Linder, we are very honored and excited that you are coming to the Forum.