Phillips: Without context, officer’s use of force draws scrutiny

A man pictured in a viral video being punched by an Austin police officer early Wednesday was armed with a knife and threatening staff at a downtown bar, according to court documents.
Justin Grant, 23, was charged with drug possession, resisting arrest and making a terroristic threat and was booked into the Travis County Jail after a clash with police outside the Rain bar early Wednesday that was captured on video and shared more than 5,000 times, documents and images show.

 

The video of an Austin police officer punching a man in the face as he lay restrained on the ground is disturbing. One officer grabs the man’s arms, while the other officer sits on top of his legs, delivering a series of hard blows to a seemingly defenseless suspect. A third person who is not an officer helps restrain the shirtless man.

No wonder the video went viral.

But here’s the thing: Context is important. And as Austin Police Chief Brian Manley cautions, context can’t be seen or determined from a video recording showing only part of the incident, which happened early Wednesday in downtown Austin.

Context, as Manley says, means knowing what happened in the moments before a bystander started recording the incident. That should be available from footage of body-worn cameras of two officers, who arrested the suspect. But here’s another thing: Those cameras failed.

One fell off an officer — or was knocked off — as he was trying to arrest the man, Justin Grant, 23. A second body camera worn by another officer stopped working.

“There was a lot that happened prior to the part that has been displayed in public right now,” Manley said. “I understand the community’s concern with the video as it was posted. I don’t think it was readily known that the suspect at that time was in possession of a deadly weapon.”

RELATED: Video of Austin officer punching restrained man under police review

Manley was referring to a 6-inch knife, which according to police and witnesses, was tucked in Grant’s waistband. A witness said Grant could be seen reaching for the weapon as two officers approached him on Fourth Street. Police also say Grant tried to reach for his knife during the altercation.

Officers were called to the scene because Grant reportedly was threatening staff at the Rain nightclub early Wednesday. Grant ultimately was arrested and charged with drug possession, resisting arrest and making a terroristic threat, according to court documents.

Given what’s on the video, the arrest has become controversial, raising questions about whether the officers used reasonable or excessive force.

Manley has called on his Internal Affairs division to get answers to that question. The inquiry, he said, will turn on information gathered from police, witnesses, the nightclub and viral video, among other things. The chief has asked for others who witnessed the incident to come forward with their accounts or cell phone videos.

Austin police say Justin Grant, 23, was arrested Wednesday, July 4, 2018, after threatening staff at the Rain nightclub early Wednesday.

What won’t be part of the inquiry is what would have been the most objective account of the incident because the officers’ body cameras failed. Those cameras have been successful in providing independent, factual accounts regarding APD’s use of force because they captured the entire episode.

On several occasions, officers were proved to be acting with reasonable force after supervisors reviewed the footage from body-worn cameras. Such evidence was invaluable in how those incidents were perceived by the public and handled by police brass.

This week’s controversial arrest, however, illustrates the limitations — and deficiencies — of body-worn cameras, which were supposed to be sturdy enough to endure contact between police and suspects in arrests that get physical.

What I learned, however, is that the Axon-manufactured body cameras Austin police use are attached to their shirts, using powerful magnets. While hard to pull apart, it’s not uncommon during physical contact for them to slide apart, then fall to the ground. That is apparently what happened Wednesday with the first officer’s body camera.

As for why the second officer’s body-worn camera stopped working, that still is a mystery.

Manley says there is no indication that the officer turned his camera off, and in fact the camera was recording before it suddenly stopped. He added that it didn’t capture any of the incident.

The chief said he is working with Axon to look at better ways of harnessing cameras to officers’ uniforms. As to that other camera that just stopped working, Manley said he would examine whether it is a lemon that should be replaced or whether the malfunction signals something bigger with body-worn cameras.

Do they, for instance, have a technical default that causes them to stop under certain conditions?

In the short run, it’s a problem for APD, which has come under national scrutiny for its use of excessive force. The department has not shaken the stigma of the violent arrest a few years ago of a small-framed African American schoolteacher, Breaion King, after she was stopped by an Austin officer for a traffic violation. That was caught on video, which also went viral.

The city made a huge investment in body-worn cameras in response to King’s arrest and other incidents that involved excessive or deadly force. Those cameras are key to a healthy relationship between police and the public. They protect police and the public and help hold officers accountable. But body-worn cameras aren’t useful if they don’t function in the moments we need them most.

If context is important, then body-worn cameras need to work.

 

Viewpoints: Race, Russian bots and the angst around #AustinBombings

Five bombings in the past three weeks, with two dead, four injured and the culprit still at large, is plenty to put all of Austin on edge. But another incendiary layer to this saga is playing out on social media.

The hashtag #AustinBombings has been trending on Twitter in part because of all of the media coverage — and in part because of complaints about the perceived lack of media coverage, even as the bombings have dominated the Statesman’s online and print editions, not to mention all of the reporting from local and national TV and radio outlets.

Yes, there’s the obvious: Some people aren’t exactly keeping up with the news, especially in their self-contained social media bubbles.

But go deeper, and you’ll find real anxiety about race and distrust of the media.

Go deeper still, according to NPR, and you’ll find Russian bots amplifying the whole thing.

The first three bombs killed two African-American men and injured a Hispanic woman, raising the specter these might be hate crimes, particularly because the two slain men belonged to prominent East Austin families connected to Wesley United Methodist Church. The Statesman has provided extensive coverage of those bombings and the growing investigation, including the latest explosion that injured two white men in Southwest Austin and the early Tuesday explosion of an Austin-bound package at a FedEx facility in Schertz. But for some observers in other cities who, for whatever reason, initially heard little about these bombings, the storyline tapped into longstanding concerns that the media does not cover tragedies in communities of color with the same vigor as calamities affecting whites.

“In general, people don’t trust the media,” Mia Moody-Ramirez, a University of Texas journalism grad and Baylor University professor specializing in media and race issues, told me by phone this week. “They think some stories will be highlighted more than others.”

These reactions reminded me of the social media outrage in 2015, when some indignant posts asked why the terrorist attacks at a Paris concert hall and restaurant drew far more media coverage than did the  slaughter of 147 people in a Kenya school attack. Only the facts didn’t bear that out. Every major news outlet did cover the Kenyan terrorist attack and in great detail.  

Some critics don’t understand why the Austin bombings haven’t drawn the same kind of round-the-clock national TV coverage as other big stories, such as Hurricane Harvey or the contentious 2016 election, Moody-Ramirez said. But these bombings are the subject of an intense investigation that has produced very little information to sustain the cable news channels’ attention.

The American-Statesman has memorialized the victims of these bombings, chronicled the anxiety of a community, illustrated how other bombing suspects were eventually caught and questioned the Austin Police department’s early efforts to tamp down fears by suggesting the first bombing was an isolated incident.

But we don’t know who’s unleashing these attacks and why, or how the victims were chosen — if they were purposely chosen at all.

“I think regarding the bombing, people want a different kind of coverage,” Moody-Ramirez said. “They want answers the media can’t give right now.”

And thanks again to social media, what would normally be the complaints of a few become retweeted and “liked” tens of thousands of times with the help of another divisive force.

NPR’s national security editor Philip Ewing reported Monday evening that some of the activity on Twitter “appears initially to be connected with the Russian social media agitation that we’ve sort of gotten used to since the 2016 presidential race.”

How can we tell?

“There are dashboards and online tools that let us know which accounts are focusing on which hashtags from the Russian influence-mongers who’ve been targeting the United States since 2016 and they, too, have been tweeting about Austin bombings today,” Ewing reported.

And as they did after the Charlottesville protests, last year’s Alabama Senate campaign and the tug-of-war over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, Ewing said, the Russian bots are jacking up the volume on social media debates to make Americans feel even more bitterly divided. All of this comes amid new reporting on the alleged Facebook abuses by Cambridge Analytica to potentially sway elections.

When people distrust reporters and feel overwhelmed by the conflicting noise on social media, some tune out altogether. Jena Heath, a former Statesman editor who now teaches journalism at St. Edward’s University, is glued to current events, but she can understand why some people opt out.

“We live in a surreal time,” she said. “I think people feel bombarded, I think they feel overwhelmed, less in control of the levers of their society, less able to affect change. And so when people feel this way, they pull back, they stop participating.

“Then something really directly relevant to their lives happens, and there’s a sense of, Why didn’t anybody tell me about this?

What does a new citizen have to do to belong?

(Jay Janner/AMERICAN-STATESMAN archives)

After a nerve-racking, 8-month-long naturalization application process and years of legal residency, my mother is finally one of us: an American Citizen.

I have chronicled her naturalization journey for a few months now. In that time, American-Statesman readers have emailed and called to ask about her process, to congratulate her passing her citizenship interview and to share their expectations of news of when my mother casts her first vote. It’s been an exciting and nerve-wrecking process, to be sure.

With the largest of hurdles behind her, my mom looks only forward to her life here as a new citizen of the United States.

Unfortunately for her — and other immigrants like her — citizenship alone won’t provide the reassurance she’d hoped to gain from attaining that 11×14 piece of paper that bestows upon her every single right granted to a person born in this country. (Except the right to be president – which, I can assure you, she has no interest in being.)  Even with the piece of paper to prove she’s a citizen, she still looks and sounds like she doesn’t belong.

As I’ve written before, my mother decided to apply to become a citizen during last year’s presidential campaign season. She feared then-candidate Donald Trump’s immigration platform, which she considered divisive and anti-immigrant.

Trump’s campaign promise to deport the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. worried her most. As she explained to me, an irrational idea like mass deportation could only be followed by more irrational ideas, including one that could target legal immigrants in this country. The very thought made her more anxious about her future here.

A legal resident for years, she lived without fear of deportation. That changed last year when she saw on television news how some groups embraced Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. So, she decided to ensure her future in the country she has loved and considered home for over 40 years and become a citizen.

One reason she’d waited so long to become as citizen, as I’ve mentioned before, was the racism she experienced when she first arrived and the random discrimination she endured since. She was always an outsider. As hard as she worked and as much as she assimilated, she knew she wasn’t an American — and nasty folks along the way reminded her of that.

On May 25, along with more than 540 other immigrants, my mother took her citizenship oath and renounced allegiance to her homeland of Mexico. I’ve never known her to show such pride in her own accomplishments. Until then, that look had been reserved for the accomplishments of her children and her grandchildren. We — my five siblings and more than a dozen nieces and nephews — were so proud of her.

For the first time in months, we allowed ourselves to feel relief on that day. Yes, we too wondered what might happen to our family if Trump created an “irrational” policy that took our mother away.

On our way to celebrate her new citizenship, she asked: So, do I have to carry this certificate around with me everywhere I go here in Texas?

It might have been a funny question for some, but it was a legitimate concern for my mother. No one was laughing.

It’s the same question that many Latinos in Texas are asking since Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law Senate Bill 4, a measure which makes it a criminal offense for any government official to put a policy in place prohibiting cooperation with federal detention requests placed on jail inmates suspected of being in the country illegally. Critics say the law, which goes into effect Sept. 1, opens the door to racial profiling because it allows law enforcement officers to inquire about a person’s immigration status during routine police interactions, such as traffic stops.

Texas’ discriminatory history against Latinos is long and deep. In some parts of the state — and in some parts of the country — looking and sounding different continues to be reason enough to harass. And now, Texas has a law that gives officers the right to openly doubt a person simply for looking differently.

This new law is what prompted my mother’s question. Her accent and still imperfect English, she said, will stand out.

Jokingly she added, “What’s a brown-skin girl have to do to fit in around here?”

Welcome to my world, mom.

Dallas’ deadly shootings: What others are saying

A Dallas police officer covers his face as he stands with others outside the emergency room at Baylor University Medical Center, Friday, July 8, 2016, in Dallas. Snipers opened fire on police officers in the heart of Dallas on Thursday night, killing some of the officers. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
A Dallas police officer covers his face as he stands with others outside the emergency room at Baylor University Medical Center, Friday, July 8, 2016, in Dallas. Snipers opened fire on police officers in the heart of Dallas on Thursday night, killing some of the officers. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

be a peaceful gathering to protest the recent deadliest incident for law enforcement in the U.S. since 9/11. Two civilians also were injured.

The attack on police in Dallas has left many speechless and fearful. Others, however, are putting voice to our worries and fears. Here is a sampling:

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“There are problems that our society has no idea how to fix — and the issues of race and policing are fall in that category. Body cameras help; better training helps; community policing helps; but these are not complete solutions.
Ridding ourselves of these senseless shootings requires a degree of honesty about cultural bias, white privilege and perceptions about black and brown people that I’m not confident our society can muster. And as long as the immediate — and human — instinct is to draw a weapon in the face of fear, it is inevitable that an officer will eventually shoot to kill without cause.” — Tara Doolittle, Viewpoints editor

—————

“(Dallas) Mayor Mike Rawlings’ assessment was tragically correct: ‘Our worst nightmare happened.’
Now we must wake up and unite. If we lead with anger, nobody wins.” — Dallas Morning News Editorial Board

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“As Thursday night melted into Friday morning, Facebook began to send messages: So-and-so is wondering if you’re OK during The Violent Crime in Dallas, Texas.
No, I’m not OK.”  — Robert Wilonsky, Dallas Morning News city columnist

—————

“Because it’s what the heart demands when it aches, we tend to search for brightness among unimaginable darkness. Sometimes the darkness is so dark the search is unimaginably difficult.” — Ken Herman, American-Statesman columnist

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“Yes, the good guys need our support. And I, for one, still believe in good guys.
They are the ones who ran toward the gunfire, who scrambled to get innocents out of the way, who stood in salute of fallen brethren outside the Parkland Hospital ER.
They are the only thing standing between us and the cowards who attack from comfortable perches on a peaceful Dallas street.” — Lisa Falkenberg, Houston Chronicle columnist

—————

“Dallas knows what comes next.
People will talk about guns, and hatred, and race, and Texas.
Everyone will have a hero, and a villain, and a solution, and a way to blame some political opponent.
And none of that will mean anything at all.
Because what happened Thursday night in Dallas will leave us with no easy solutions — just nightmares to haunt us for years after a bloodthirsty ambush attack on police officers of all colors who were guarding peaceful protesters of all colors.” — Bud Kennedy, Ft. Worth Star Telegram columnist

—————

“This horrendous attack on the police and the two killings this week demand sober reflection by the nation’s political and law enforcement leadership….with killings happening in cities, suburbs and rural communities, there needs to be leadership in every police department in the country that insists on cultural and attitudinal change. Credible civilian oversight of the police has to be a factor if community trust is ever to be restored. The latest ghastly images show how much has not been done, two years after Ferguson.” — New York Times Editorial Board

—————

“Brown commands more than 3,500 sworn officers, who patrol Dallas’ 1.3 million residents spread over 385 square miles. He knows, day after day, that his department is one gunshot, one overreaction, one dubious decision from becoming the next national story.
And even when they don’t, when they do their very dangerous jobs with skill and professionalism, when they run toward the gunfire to keep the rest of us safe, it might not matter. It didn’t Thursday night. And that’s the world we now live in.” — Mike Hashimoto, Dallas Morning News editorial writer

 

Homicide at UT should shake us all

dyc weiser presser 08
University of Texas President Gregory L. Fenves, right, speaks during a news conference about the death of UT student Haruka Weiser on Thursday, April 7, 2016. The freshman from Portland, OR., was found in murdered in Waller Creek on the UT campus on Tuesday, April, 5. APD is seeking a suspect shown on video in the area. At left is Associate V.P. of Campus Safety and Security, Bob Harkins. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN STATESMAN

The message was clear the minute University of Texas President Gregory Fenves returned home on a plane Tuesday from a trip in Amarillo to personally address reports that the university was investigating a possible campus homicide.

Whatever happened near Waller Creek on Sunday night to the female victim was likely to rock the feeling of safety and security on the Austin campus and in this city for some time to come. The university, with its community of more than 70,000 students, faculty and staff,  represents the physical center of our city and for many it is the emotional heart as well. So when tragedy strikes there, we all ache.

After turning over the investigation to the Austin Police Department on Wednesday and notifying the victim’s family, the university and investigators were ready Thursday to publicly name the victim. Haruka Weiser, an 18-year-old dance major from Portland, Ore., was murdered on her way home from  the . Investigators are still looking for the suspect and have asked for the public’s help identifying a man on a bike in a video taken nearby.

Investigators were sparing with the details Thursday, though more is surely known to university administrators. What information they do have led Fenves to call for an overall security evaluation of the campus by the Department of Public Safety. The university has also increased patrols and is offering escorts for anyone on campus who feels unsafe moving around on campus.

Our hearts go out Weiser’s family, friends and the UT community. Having a child going off to college is a time of excitement and trepidation for any family. As Fenves accurately put it, the events of this week are a parent’s “worst nightmare.”

He went on to say, “The unthinkable brutality against Haruka is an attack on our entire family. Law enforcement is fully engaged to do everything to bring the perpetrator who committed this crime to justice.”

The video shown by Austin police at Thursday’s press conference shows an active street scene with pedestrians, buses and cyclists moving through the streets not far from where Weiser’s body was found.

To think that a life could be snuffed out in the midst of all that activity is sobering. We’ve written before about the distressing lot of women, who must look over their shoulder’s in dark places. Although this particular incident represents a first for the University of Texas campus, it only punctuates the grim reality that women, in particular must always be on their guard.

Fenves read a particularly poignant statement from the Weiser family at Thursday’s press conference.

Although Haruka loved to perform on stage she never sought the spotlight in her daily life. Perhaps the last thing she would want it to be the poster child for any cause. And yet, as we struggle to understand why she was killed, if her death can somehow make it safer for a young woman to walk home, if it will prevent another assault or murder, then at least we could find some meaning behind an otherwise senseless and tragic death. … No parent, brother, sister or friend should have to face this kind of sadness, this kind of loss.

The Weiser’s family’s grief should be our own. Rest in peace, Haruka Juliana Tsunemine Weiser. Rest in peace.

 

 

 

Austin’s traffic problems hurt more than your commute

rbz Airport Grass Fire 06
The Austin Fire department responded to a grass fire in the 2700 block of Texas Highway 71 in Southeast Austin, just east of the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The fire was contained to 1/2 acres and burned briefly on an old golf course at the site. Crews fill a brush truck from a nearby hydrant to continue battling the fire. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

In theory, the Austin Fire Department should be able to respond to at least 90 percent of its calls in less than 8 minutes.

The reality, according to city statistics discussed this week during the city’s public safety commission meeting, only the firefighters in seven of the city’s 45 stations currently meet that standard.

That difference in response time can mean the difference in an accidental house fire resulting in the loss of a single room versus the entire home.

The commission on Monday forwarded a request to the City Council to identify the areas of need for new stations. The city already knows where at least four of those should be — they were identified as part of the process of the 2012 bond election. Six stations were recommended by city staff, but only one station  — Onion Creek — actually made it into the public safety proposal and it is yet to be built.

The problem is two-fold. The city’s explosive growth means there are more households to protect and the area’s incredibly frustrating traffic inevitably slows emergency reponsiveness. The fact that the areas around Loop 360 and in Travis County are high on the list of needed stations should come as no surprise to anyone who has sat in congestion on the major roads in the area. Both areas are home to lots of roof tops, with few road options for rapid emergency access.

The good news is that there are two stations in South Austin that are close to completion, which should relieve some of the fire response pressure in the Manchaca/Slaughter area, which has also been pinched by growth and traffic congestion.

The situation is one of the truths about city infrastructure, especially when it comes to transportation. There are lots of ways to pay for infrastructure projects. Public safety is just one of them. So the question is not whether Austin will pay for its transportation problems, it is rather, how high a price will be required.