Austin Mayor Kirk Watson on dropping police indictments, mending relationship between city hall and APD

Kirk Watson on budget

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Indictments against 17 Austin police officers tied to protests in 2020 will be dismissed, the Travis County District Attorney’s office and the City of Austin announced Monday.

Thousands of people rallied in Austin in 2020, following the death of George Floyd and Mike Ramos, concerned about police violence. During those demonstrations, some officers fired “less lethal rounds,” sometimes called “beanbag rounds,” which left many bruised and bloodied. 

Grand juries indicted 21 officers for their use of force. The officers who had their indictments dismissed will be allowed back on duty.

KXAN’s Jennifer Sanders sat down with Austin Mayor Kirk Watson to discuss why the city made this decision and what work is being done to improve the relationship between the city and the Austin Police Department. 

Below is a transcript of Sanders and the mayor’s conversation, edited for brevity and clarity:

JENNIFER: An attorney with the people who were hurt in 2020 said, “Our clients feel that if there is systemic change brought about, that’s more important than any individual officer being criminally punished.” 

What does systemic change look like for you within the police department to ensure that something in 2020 doesn’t happen? 

MAYOR WATSON: Well, a couple of things have already happened that make a difference. One is the system no longer allows for the use of the so-called “non-lethal beanbag weapons.” In a congregate-type situation, where you have a group of people, that’s a big difference. Another systemic difference already in place is that you have these mobile field units where people move around and are responsive. Where they are moved and sent has changed. And the third thing I would say is there’s been a change with deployment in a crowd-type situation. We’re making sure the training across groups and entities that are deployed is the same. 

 And then the final thing that we have already started putting into place is de-escalation. We want to de-escalate situations as opposed to having to resort to something like what happened in this case. And then the last thing I’ll say about this is that we want transparency. That’s a part of a systemic approach to make sure there’s transparency. And that’s one of the reasons we are agreeing to ask the Department of Justice to come in and look at this specific event and the patterns and practices, including executive-level decisions that were made.

JENNIFER: There are hundreds of vacancies still, as you know, within APD. Is there a short-term or long-term plan to really beef up staffing so we ensure we have patrols on our street?

MAYOR WATSON: A couple of things – one is that when I came into this position, we were hundreds – over 300 – below authorized strength. One of the ways we reacted to that was by passing an ordinance – assuring salaries, retirement and beefed up recruitment. Part of what we want to do is show that we have officers’ backs. One of the things I’ve committed to is bringing forward that ordinance before it expires so that we can repass it and give security to the police officers about salaries and retirement.

Part of the reason I’m pleased to see the dismissals – I mean, there were several months of discussions about those dismissals – part of the reason I’m pleased to see them is I wanted to change the way the relationship is perceived between city hall and our police officers. That was a broken relationship when I came into office, and it’s still not fixed. I’m working to try to do that by working with the city manager, Jesus Garza, the interim assistant city manager, Bruce Mills, who is a former acting Chief of Police for Austin, and our city attorney, Anne Morgan. They did great work on this, but it’s important to show that we have the backs of our police. And we’ll continue to do that. 

JENNIFER: What are you hearing from Officer Bullock and from other officers about what needs to happen to really move forward and mend?

MAYOR WATSON: I believe the relationship has become much better. I think over this past year, there have been clear demonstrations – now, not with everybody. And there’s work to be done. I want to be clear that there’s work to be done. But I think we’ve made progress. 

What I hear the most is that we as a city hall need to demonstrate, when we have the opportunity, our commitment to public safety. I believe we’re doing that, and I look for additional opportunities as time goes by. That’s one of the reasons that I have committed to making sure that ordinance is out by the end of January, which is well before it expires, but also gives us time, particularly with the holidays, to do it in a thoughtful and meaningful way.

JENNIFER: And then, with the DPS partnership we saw this year, do you think that will be resurrected? 

MAYOR WATSON: I don’t anticipate that will be resurrected. I consider it part of leadership to be willing to try new things that may not work but that address a real purpose and a real need.

If they don’t work the way you want, it’s not a failure – it’s a time to step back, reevaluate and try other things. We made an attempt in that regard, but it’s not a partnership anymore, and I don’t anticipate that coming back. We’ll focus on other things.

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