PEERS ON THE JUDGING PANEL
The hallway echoed to the strains of “tarrying” footsteps. It was here, in this hallway, that I noticed the Travis County Sherriff, Greg Hamilton. As he ascended into view, I gazed inquisitively at him and introduced myself. Hamilton, the mildest mannered man—received every visitor with plain countenance.
Yes, it was a moment to aid the community in discovery, a day the public—his community would draw a distinction between circumvention and initiative. Sadly, due to prior arrangements, Sheriff Hamilton did not contribute nor participate in the police brutality forum.
A stoic audience patiently awaits dialogue in a nearly desolate room. Where were the Latinos (Latinas) and African Americans? Where was the Black Lives Matter movement? Have they given up hope? The desolate space had one wondering if the northeast community had relinquished their right to feel civil and constitutional emotion. I wondered if they had given up their role and the key they held to address accountability, their voice, lost—the chance to be outspoken, gone. Was transparency important or had the northeast community let go the trust they once held—like releasing an addiction or turning to a source of energy that has a greater negative impact on the mind.
Tracy Martinez, the President for Northeast Travis County Democrats (NETCO) fires the opening salvo, “Conversations aren’t taking place to see resolution….police officers can talk about issues relating to police brutality if they are not constrained by bureaucracy…”
Jamie Lerner said, “Bureaucracy is like a fungus that contaminates everything.” Fungus, much like yesterday’s contaminated ruling in ex-deputy Daniel Willis’ February 2014 shooting of 47-year-old Yvette Smith trial. Once again, a jury finds a policeman not guilty. I sympathize with the pain and anger felt by Yvette’s family. What hope harvested and mustered, now knocked down by this deathblow of a verdict. Thus, a customary verdict to any police officer who has ever sat in the defendant’s seat.
“Police Officer Shoots Black…” has flooded our national headlines for years, and when I listen to those lines: I cringe. There are times when I’ve turned off the television because I know the plot too well—I know the verdict and its origin, how they deliberated, the grounds and other antecedents of how juries reach conclusions like these, how juries, give me a moment—just before the court clerk utters, “We find…” I know. Some of you know.
Nevertheless, I kept an open mind. I listen to the mitigating circumstances, theories, opinions, and convictions of the sheriffs in this room. Then, Martinez merges into a question that has long been the center of American controversy, “How do officers feel about citizens filming them?”
Constable Thomas swallowed and said in a guttural voice, “We always need to know the situation…” (referring to police encounters)…” and went on to say sheriffs don’t know the full circumstances of any given incident. He believes that at times, the media failed to investigate the completeness of a story. “…Sometimes what’s depicted in the media is not always accurate…” says Morales.
Morales elaborated on his involvement in an incident that emerged into the media—the shooting of a local dog. “The news, at times, do not always show the entire clip and why the dog was shot by police…” said Morales. “…Police officers receive threats because of this. All dogs are territorial, police officer are supposed to stand their ground and protect their family.”
I was saddened by Martinez’s inquiry—yes, he lifted the BAND-AID, but didn’t pull it off all the way. An officer’s conduct is delicate—I know, but it’s difficult to make people move against a sensitive issue like the manner in which an officer is trained, a kind of training often called into question by the African American and Latino community when police brutality is at the center.
I wanted him to feel the community’s pain and to withstand the sheriff’s excuses, the malfeasance, the shirking of responsibility. But he didn’t (bureaucracy?)—was it essential for Martinez to be the beacon of political correctness in this forum? Is being the thunder that rumbles the clouds too big of a responsibility and too intimidating to embody to a point it endorsed fear.
Martinez did broach the incident of an unarmed and naked African American teen that was gunned down by police. What was their defense for this, he asked, “Police officers are given a position of trust; they are supposed to lead by example.” Morales responds, “One percent of officers are having issues. Texas has done a good job if it’s one percent, we do our best with what we have.”
The discussion shifted to body cameras. “…sheriffs were the first to put cameras on Tasers…” says Stacy Suits, welcoming body cameras, in that, they help build trust and indict officers that advertently abuse the device. He went on to say that body cameras, “Make officers accountable; makes the general public accountable.”
Are officers accountable? Since the production and installment of police-worn body cameras, have police and the Travis County Sheriff Office accounted for debatable activities in which they find themselves, have they accepted responsibility, and most importantly, do fellow police officers disclose the results of an incident to the public in a transparent manner?
“All situations are different…constables deal with the public also,” reiterates Thomas. He clarifies that sheriff training differs from Austin Police Department’s training. “…If there are unjustified shootings, I believe in letting due process be due process,” said Thomas. He took us back to the theater of his memory, a place where people once respected police officers. For Martinez, things seem to be getting better, it “…seems like an evolution,” he says.
Morales, who was fired 12 years ago for “conduct unbecoming an officer” echoed Thomas, believing police officers are entitled to due process. Some people believe police have enough. “Eighty to ninety percent of people who put on the uniform are good people.” He acknowledges some officers should never be officers because of their misconduct and abuse of power in the community, “…if the officer is doing wrong you should report it to the right authority.” Some have a belief that authority and despotism brews more danger than freedom of conscience.
APD operates under a different structure; sheriffs are aware of what people want, stated Martinez. He asked if his theory were true, that APD operated under a brotherhood, an operation that sticks together as a pact or entered into a sullen blue code of silence.
Thomas chimed in and elaborated on a high-profile shooting he needed to investigate because of his position with Austin City Council. When asked about the emotional state of few police officers who violate the code of conduct, Thomas didn’t hold back and said, “…Officers overreact…you can hold officers accountable…” For anyone having a complaint against a sheriff, Thomas recommends filing a grievance or complaint through the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. Where is the form on the TSCO website where a citizen may file a report against a sheriff? Hopefully they’ll add the link soon in the wake of all this talk on police brutality and transparency.
What about David Joseph, the naked young man gunned down by the police? To what degree is excessive use of force required when dealing with those who have mental health issues? Isn’t the mental health conversation important? Anyone would agree that dealing with mental health individuals requires a great deal of concentration and professionalism. We know people suffering from mental health problems are almost never dangerous to others, so just how do they justify a death like this?
Suits who is running for Constable Pct 3, states if he’s elected, he’ll require every officer to be trained and certified in the areas of mental health. “If someone is high on drugs and comes at me…approach it in a different manner.”
Morales say mental health is big, and an officer needs to know when someone is “…high.” He no longer labels the inebriated—drunk people on the streets but “consumers.” The sheriff’s office would need to participate in conversations that would connect them to the mentally ill, ways that are safe for the consumer, and the community. To find out more about the sheriffs running from office and NETCO, please visit their website below.
|Sheriff Greg Hamilton||(512) firstname.lastname@example.org|
|Constable Danny Thomas||(512) 537-5701||Website Contact Form|
|Stacy Suits, for Constable||(512) email@example.com|
|George Morales, for Constable||(512) 854-6375||Website Contact Form|
|Tracy Martinez, Presidentfirstname.lastname@example.orgNETCO Democrats|