After a new analysis found clear racial disparities in the Austin police department’s use of force across different neighborhoods, the police chief in the Texas city is pledging to continue the department’s training programs on implicit and explicit racial bias.
The analysis, which looks at racial disparities after controlling for crime rates and income and education levels, is designed to be easily adaptable to other cities. Guardian US spoke to police chief Art Acevedo about the new findings, why he’s making them public, and why he hopes other cities will follow Austin’s example. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Guardian US: What made you feel willing and interested in having this data analyzed and looked at – knowing it would open the department up to criticism?
Acevedo: First and foremost, as an organization, we’re committed to the concept of procedural justice. We’re also sophisticated enough to realize that as much as we are always pursuing excellence, that we’re an imperfect organization, as is the human condition. We’re committed to transparency and we’re committed to any process that will help us identify areas where we can do better.
You’ve seen the report. What do you make of it?
My reaction is, we are doing a lot of things really well, including demonstrating to our community our commitment to transparency and our commitment to always trying to do better.
In terms of how we’re policing and who we’re searching, we’re doing a heck of a job of identifying folks involved with criminal behavior and criminal conduct, and our methodology in terms of the way we search people, when we search people, are probably looking pretty good. When you look at our hit ratio, it’s one of the highest in the nation. We have one of the most restrictive consent search policies in the nation. What that does is it makes police officers actually do police work, and rely on probable cause.
We don’t subscribe to the notion that just because somebody lives in an area that is disproportionately affected by violent crime or any type of crime that people should be treated any differently. When a person gets stopped for the 10th time in these communities where they subscribe to the notion of stop and frisk – stop anything that moves, and frisk everybody in that drag net – by the 10th time that you’re stopped, you end up creating a lot of problems in terms of legitimacy.
The part that obviously we read in there in terms of some disproportionality in use of force, is something that we are somewhat aware of.
We’re a department also that takes use of force, response to resistance, very seriously. I think what it tells me is that we still have more work to do. We have to continue to work in terms of our training on implicit and explicit bias for our department. Dr Lorie Fridell is here this month from Florida, to be providing more training in that area.
How will you explain to your officers what this report found, and why you decided to go public with it, and what you’re going to do about it?
My cops will not be surprised by the fact that we’re participating in this. They know that this is a journey. We will talk to them about the fact that there is a use of force disparity and our next step for us is that we continue to evaluate our training in terms of de-escalation.
Part of the problem of bias is that too often we don’t create a safe space for people to be able to talk about their feelings. By having these trainings that we’re having, we’re hoping to create some safe spaces for people to be able to openly talk about their perceptions and their feelings and their experiences. Self-awareness goes a long way, so they can maybe have that second thought in their mind to evaluate: “Am I acting because I have to, or am I acting because of a bias?”
Everybody needs to do their own self-assessment and make sure they’re using force not because they can, but because they completely, absolutely need to. Making sure they’re treating people through the prism of a suspect’s action and not through the prism of race or the prism of ethnicity or what part of the city I’m patrolling in.
We are going to talk to our officers that our belief and the community’s belief that the very vast majority of them continue to do the right thing for the right reasons.
We’ll also talk to them about our commitment to continue to work with the community in terms of building relationships of trust. One of the causes of response to resistance issues is when there’s a challenge with trust, and right now there’s a challenge with trust nationwide.
Do you think other departments will follow your lead here? How would you talk to chiefs or mayors in other cities about the risks and benefits of doing this?
Listen, you can be an ostrich as a leader, and bury your head in the sand, or you can be forward-thinking and be scanning the environment constantly for threats or for opportunities to do better.
I would rather always be transparent. I really think that people are smart. I think that most Austinites that you talk to, including our communities of color, know that although we’re not a perfect organization, they know that on balance we’re a pretty damn good organization. They know and they trust that we’re always trying to do the right thing. We are looking forward to setting the tone for the rest of the nation.
The problem being the only department that does it, there’s no other points of reference. How do we stack up?
With 18,000 police departments, I really believe that we’re only as good as the weakest department in the nation. We’re all a reflection of one another. When things go sideways, it impacts police departments and relationships, it has an impact nationwide.
It seems that almost weekly we have a use of force incident captured on camera that goes viral. People don’t know where one jurisdiction ends and another begins. And I think the standing of the profession is probably being challenged more than ever in the history of our policing in this nation, and the professionalism of this noble profession and the commitment to legitimacy is being questioned like it’s never been questioned.
I’m starting to hear folks say: “Well, even when we do everything that’s required of us, we might end up getting killed by the police,” and that’s a challenge because when people have that mindset, I think it creates more potential for people not to submit to the lawful authority of law enforcement officers.
We don’t just need to be data-driven, we also need to be relationship-driven.
The more departments that do these things – the more departments that collect data, that actually are committed to transparency – when communities see the profession willing to be committed to transparency, the community knows that’s the first step to building legitimacy.
When you look at what’s going on with government, mistrust of government in our nation’s history is a historic high. The most visible cog of the wheel we call government is law enforcement. It’s police departments. We’re paying the cost of not just our own actions, but we’re paying the cost, as a profession, of the mistrust of government in general.
What kind of response do you expect from community groups in Austin?
We’ve had, over the years, a couple of really challenging use of deadly force encounters. What’s happened around the country hasn’t happened here in terms of some of the violence in response to these use of force encounters. We spend a lot of time building emotional capital with the community that we serve, working with Black Lives Matter, working with the Austin Justice Coalition, working with Measure Austin – these are all young activists here in our city.
All of those things that we do help us overcome issues when we’re not quite to where we want to be, or when we have an incident where we fall short.