Austin police are using force against civilians less often than in past years but have continued to use it against blacks and Hispanics at rates higher than against whites, an American-Statesman statistical analysis shows.
Blacks remained twice as likely as whites to be on the receiving end of force during the first nine months of 2004, police records show, while the likelihood that police would use force against Hispanics increased.
The findings echo those reported 10 months ago when an American-Statesman investigation discovered wide racial disparities in the way police used force between 1998 and 2003. The analysis compares the number of times force is used against whites, blacks or Hispanics with the number of times members of each group have significant enough encounters with police — either as suspects, witnesses or victims — that reports are generated.
Some minority leaders reacted strongly to the American-Statesman's initial findings, demanding the resignations of Police Chief Stan Knee and City Manager Toby Futrell. The series drew criticism from some police supporters, who said the statistics were flawed and unfairly portrayed officers as racist.
The newest analysis, based on statistics from January through September, paints a fresher picture of a department trying to quell concerns about its use of force and reconnect with the minority community.
Officers reported using force 25 percent less often so far this year, according to new statistics derived from forms officers fill out whenever they use force to apprehend a suspect, ranging from pushing and shoving to deadly force.
Injuries to police and civilians also have gone down by about 30 percent.
In turning to new technology — Tasers, or electronic stun guns — to supplant other types of force, the department appears to have saved the lives of two suspects who might otherwise have been shot. But two criminologists questioned whether Austin police are resorting to the stun guns too readily.
In all, officers filed 866 use-of-force reports between New Year's Day and Sept. 27.
A comparison of the latest reports with the 6,447 filed between May 1998 and October 2003 finds:
•The likelihood that force would be used on a person encountering police fell by one-third.
•The number of excessive force complaints filed by citizens fell by half, from about 6 complaints a month to 3, city records show.
•Blacks remained twice as likely to encounter force as whites. Hispanics were 65 percent more likely to encounter force than whites, up from 25 percent previously.
•Taser use skyrocketed, up from less than 1 percent of use-of-force incidents to 23 percent.
•Use-of-force rates plunged in the downtown area, where the largest share of violent encounters with police occur.
Racial disparity aside, Knee and other city officials say the statistics reflect better police training and a concerted effort to reduce use of force.
"We hope ultimately that we get to a point where there would be no need for use of force, but I'm not certain that we'll ever get there," Knee said. "I think the decline is a result of good police work, and we may even have citizens that are complying more often with police."
The department made many changes in the past nine months, including retraining officers on how to fill out the two-page use-of-force report form, hosting community meetings and soliciting help from a national police research group to evaluate police training.
Some of changes followed quickly after the original American-Statesman report.
After the series ran, Knee promised, among other things, to improve relations between police and the community and reduce use-of-force-related injuries by 20 percent.
Two weeks later, the Austin City Council approved a $1.3 million appropriation to speed up already-planned purchases of equipment. Police were given 165 new video cameras for patrol cruisers to record police encounters, 15 beanbag shotguns and the first batch of what eventually would total 900 Tasers.
"We always had a plan to fully bring on the equipment, but there's no doubt the dialogue that happened in the community (after the American-Statesman series) helped push it along faster," Futrell said.
While police and city officials have pledged to rebuild trust between the department and the community, experts warn lasting changes will take time — a matter of years, not months.
"It sounds to me, looking at the numbers, that the Austin police department is making progress," said Alejandro del Carmen, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Texas-Arlington. "They have now implemented a softer tone, one that is indicative of a progressive department. But there are still issues that have to be addressed."
In January, Knee pledged to resign by year's end if he could not improve relations between police and Austin's African-American community. The promise came as passions raised by two police shootings of blacks still simmered.
In 2002, officer John Coffey killed Sophia King, who officials said lunged at her apartment manager with a knife.
A year later, officer Scott Glasgow shot Jesse Lee Owens five times. Officials said Owens tried to drive away as Glasgow approached a car, which had been reported stolen, trapping the officer and dragging him down the street.
King and Owens are two of 11 people who have died during violent encounters with Austin police since 1998. Ten were minorities.
Police investigations and a Travis County grand jury cleared Coffey of wrongdoing. A charge of criminally negligent homicide against Glasgow was dismissed after a state judge determined that his grand jury indictment failed to accuse the officer of a crime and instead focused on department policies and procedures.
Many East Austin activists and community leaders said their suspicions that police treated minorities more harshly were confirmed in January, when the American-Statesman's investigation showed wide disparities between force used on minorities and whites.
The Austin Baptist Ministers' Union, a coalition of 17 ministers, called for the resignations of Knee, Futrell and Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle. Mayor Will Wynn promised improvement, and Knee said the department would work to diminish the disparity with which police use force against blacks.
Ten months later, Knee said he could not explain why disparities still exist but suggested that the cause could be underlying social problems.
"If we could do more to prevent crime from happening — graduation rates, treatment for folks with drug and alcohol problems, job training, mental health — perhaps we would be close to being able to say that use of force would not be an issue," he said.
Knee said he thinks he has fulfilled his pledge, at least enough so that there is no compelling reason for him to step down.
"This is an excellent police department, and the community has been very supportive," he said. "I don't think I'll be resigning anytime soon."
Wynn said he has been impressed with Knee's and Futrell's efforts to improve the department.
"If you judge a tree by the fruit it bears, I think they get very high marks," Wynn said. "We have a fine professional police force, and I've seen and participated in a pretty dramatic effort to literally and figuratively retool."
But at least one minister who called for Knee's resignation said his opinion hasn't changed.
"I think that Chief Knee is a fine person, but he probably should be doing something else other than being chief of police in Austin, Texas," said the Rev. Sterling Lands, senior pastor at Greater Calvary Baptist Church. "If (Futrell) is unable to bring this department into focus . . . . then she should be doing something else."
Still, Lands said, relations between police and Austin's minority community have improved since January, and other members of the Baptist Minister's Union have not repeated their calls for resignations.
Cmdr. Don Bredl, who oversees patrol officers working in the Sixth Street entertainment district, said the difference in rates downtown may be the consequence of illegal activity at nightclubs that cater to particular ethnic groups.
"I don't see the officers picking different races to use force on," Bredl said. "They're responding to the call at the time or what they see."
Futrell disagreed with the American-Statesman's methodology for calibrating the latest use-of-force rates by race, as she did with the paper's original series.
In early February, Futrell and other city officials said they did not dispute the Statesman's findings but said officials think a more accurate picture is painted by looking only at cases where arrests are made, not the broader range of police-civilian contacts examined by the Statesman.
Statistics derived using the city's criteria, which Futrell provided, show that police use force at higher rates overall than the newspaper found. Although the margin was slimmer than in the Statesman's analysis, the city's approached showed blacks were still more likely than whites to be recipients of force, and that gap widened in the last year.
"What would make the difference in this disparity?" Futrell asked. "It could be so many things . . . is it past experience? Is it fear? Is there a cultural component there, what is it that we could do to try to identify this?"
Austin police officers have been given new tools to defuse dangerous situations, and few have been as effective as the Taser, which can briefly incapacitate a person with a burst of 50,000 volts.
Tasers shoot two electric probes as far as 21 feet. Wires carry current that stuns the person by interfering with communications between the brain and the central nervous system, resulting in a temporary loss of voluntary muscle control.
Last year, the police department had 25 Tasers, or one for every patrol shift. Now, each officer on patrol has one of the bright yellow devices.
Officers have used Tasers 246 times so far this year, compared with 31 times during the previous six years.
"I can't tell you how important the Tasers have been," Knee said. "They're the reason fewer officers have been injured, and they're the reason fewer citizens have been injured."
Officers have reported 302 injuries to suspects so far this year, well below the average rate of 574 injured suspects annually from 1998 to 2003. Likewise, officer injuries dropped from about 325 a year before to 177 so far this year.
Officers can fire a Taser from several feet away, and people take notice when a Taser is about to be used, said Assistant Police Chief Rick Coy.
Coy said the device has saved lives. One man who waved a gun at an officer in the hallway of a bar was stunned instead of shot. So was Jackson Fan Chun Ngai, who police said came at them with a meat cleaver as he was arrested on a charge of killing a University of Texas music professor.
The device has been effective downtown, Bredl said.
Experts say Austin's rapid increase in Taser use, while not surprising, is alarming because many officers only recently received training. They may be using the stun guns in situations where the disabling electrical shock is an overreaction.
"You have less incidents (of use of force), but there is more force being used in each of the incidents," del Carmen said.
The department's policy gives officers wide discretion to use Tasers whenever a suspect is actively resisting arrest. The new analysis shows that officers routinely use Tasers before resorting to batons or other hard impact weapons.
William Terrill, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University, said he would question why Austin police are turning to Tasers so quickly. In other departments, they are used only as an alternative to deadly force, he said.
"In theory, it's the final front before bringing out my gun," Terrill said.
And Tasers, which have become more widespread in recent years, come with their own set of controversies.
Critics say the devices might be dangerous for people with heart problems or other medical conditions, and they have called for medical studies to see whether the devices are safe.
No comprehensive state or federal studies have been done. Coroners in a handful of states, including Indiana, California, Florida, Ohio and Nevada, have speculated that the device played some role in the deaths of five men.
Earlier this month, a Fort Worth man died after police shocked him, and police in Miami sparked outrage after an officer shocked a 12-year-old girl, who recovered.
Futrell said the department's record — in the last nine months and the last several years — prove that Austin police have been working to improve and address community concerns.
"There are a lot of public safety cultures across the country who cannot accept change or scrutiny, and that is not what you find here at APD," she said.
But Ann del Llano, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, in Austin, said improved training is not a magic bullet.
"The answer is in discipline, not training," said del Llano, stressing that there should be consequences for officers who break the rules. "The smartest people in the world are not going to follow their training if they don't have discipline."
Although the police experts said the training improvements were a good measure, they called for more attention to training officers in diversity awareness.
Terrill said the department also may struggle in the future if Knee leaves his post.
"Austin would be more the exception than the norm if it lasts," Terrill said of the department's statistical gains. "If these practices become embedded in the department and the leadership stays focused, than this has a chance to become long-term, permanent change. Change is often hard to take hold, because leadership has such a high turnover."
Knee said the department would continue to work on use-of-force issues, monitoring disparities and looking to other departments for examples of good practices. He pointed to the positive statistics — a reduction in injuries and force incidents overall — as a good first step.
"I'm really pleased," he said. "Austin police officers were already using force in very few incidents, and now we're using force in fewer incidents. Over time, that number will decrease even more as we become better at what we do."
http://www.statesman.com/specialreports ... alreports/