AUSTIN, Texas—This hip, easygoing college city is generally regarded as one of the most progressive communities in conservative Texas. But some blacks believe a large cultural divide dating to the Jim Crow-era still exists, and they say tensions have been enflamed by a string of police shootings of black suspects in 2002 and 2003.
The shootings have led to weekly protests and federal civil rights investigations.
“We talk a good case here, but we don’t carry through on the promise of a city that reflects all communities and cultures,” said the Rev. Sterling Lands II, a civil rights leader.
Police Chief Stan Knee has defended his department and vowed to improve its relations with minorities.
“We’ve had to rebuild some bridges,” said Knee, . “But we have construction well under way.”
Tensions peaked when the Austin American-Statesman ran a series of articles this year that reported that between 1998 and 2003, police were twice as likely to use force against blacks as they were against whites, and 25 percent more likely to use force against Hispanics than against whites. During that period, 11 people, all but one of them minorities, have died at the hands of police. Some were shot, others were beaten.
“Those were the issues we had been screaming about, but nobody paid attention to them,” Lands said. “When reporters started to look with diligence, all of a sudden, now all the things came to the surface.”
The Justice Department, FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office are all conducting investigations to determine if the shooting victims’ civil rights were violated.
The NAACP filed a complaint last month with the Justice Department that outlined other alleged civil rights abuses by officers and requested that federal funds for the police department be put on hold until those cases were investigated.
Austin, a city of 656,000 people, is 54 percent white, 29 percent Hispanic and 10 percent black, according to the 2000 Census. It is home to the University of Texas, which has more than 50,000 students, and promotes itself as the Live Music Capital of the World because of its thriving music scene. Dell Computer, based in an Austin suburb, helped establish the city as a high-tech hub in the 1990s.
The racial makeup of the police force largely reflects the community. Department figures show out 66 percent are white; 21 percent are Hispanic; and 11 percent are black.
The three most recent slayings all took place in East Austin, the city’s historically black neighborhood, separated from the rest of Austin by Interstate 35.
In June 2002, Sophia King, a mentally ill 23-year-old mother of two, was shot once in the heart by Officer John Coffey as she allegedly threatened her apartment manager with a knife. Police said King was warned several times to drop the knife.
A year later, Jesse Lee Owens, 20, was shot five times at close range and killed by officer Scott Glasgow. Owens was driving a car that had been reported stolen. Glasgow said he fired his gun when he got trapped in the door and Owens began driving away, dragging him down the street.
In July 2003, Sheriff’s Sgt. Gregory Truitt shot Lennon Johnson, 27, after he also apparently tried to escape an officer by driving away with the officer halfway inside the car.
Internal investigations found Coffey and Truitt acted appropriately, and neither was indicted or disciplined.
Glasgow was indicted on a charge of criminally negligent homicide, but it was later dropped, angering the black community. Frustration grew when the police chief did not fire him, despite a review panel’s recommendation. Instead, Glasgow was suspended for 90 days without pay. Knee said that Glasgow did not follow procedures, including waiting for backup, but that the officer had to make a quick decision because he believed his life was in danger.
The shootings have led to demonstrations each Friday outside the Austin police headquarters, where protesters carry signs that declare, “Police Brutality is Lynching” and “Prosecute Bad Cops.”
“The police are just a metaphor for the whole city,” said Austin NAACP chapter president Nelson Linder.
The chief said he has worked to create more racial harmony, and taken specific steps since the shootings, including diversity training, several community meetings and an audit of police training programs. The department also has bought new stun guns and beanbag shotguns to give officers options other than deadly force to subdue suspects.
“If I can’t regain the trust of the entire community, people won’t have to ask me to resign,” Knee said.