Politicians, researchers, Austin police chief discuss diversity and the law at Texas Tribune Festival panel

Katie Keenan

A panel at the Texas Tribune Festival Saturday aimed to address strife between communities of color in America and law enforcement officers by gathering political representatives, researchers and police officers to examine law enforcement practices and the recent shootings of unarmed black people.

Conflicts between minorities and law enforcement officers have been a constant presence in the past few years’ headlines, from the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012 to the recent incidents in Oklahoma and North Carolina sparking a national conversation about diversity and the law. 

“This is not a new problem, it’s an old problem, it has been happening for years,” said Texas state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas. “What you’re seeing is more transparency that is putting these shootings in question.”

West said that with the advent of social media, people are further exposed to the struggles the black community has faced for years.

Texas state Rep. James White, R-Woodville, took an alternative stance on the issue while citing a Harvard study that claims there is no racial bias when police officers employ the most lethal use of force, which includes shootings.

“Our police, who are like the marines of the criminal justice system, they get the brunt of it because they’re the first on the scene,” White said. “They enforce the laws that we’ve passed … and we’ve got to look at some of these stupid laws and the situation they put law enforcement in.”

Excessive use of force and effective policies to address it were at the forefront of the panelists’ conversation in addition to community collaboration. 

Art Acevedo, Austin Police Department Chief, drew applause on multiple occasions from the crowd when he explained the kind of response necessary when dealing with an officer-involved shooting.

“There is a crisis in policing, and that crisis is in leadership,” Acevedo said. “If you look around the country, we have too many police chiefs that still tolerate mediocrity.”

Acevedo said the David Joseph case, which ended in the firing of the officer who shot him, garnered less attention than other shootings of unarmed black individuals. Acevedo used this as an example of how an officer-involved shooting gone wrong should be handled. 

He credited the case’s containment to strong community ties between APD and Black Lives Matter activists.

“When we hide things and are behind closed doors when it relates to the most critical thing we can do, which is to take somebody’s life, it does not breed trust,” Acevedo said. “We need to have a process where it’s an open hearing … when it comes to officer-involved shootings. I believe it needs to be a public process.”