Beginning July 1, an amendment to the Austin Police Department’s mission statement will instruct all employees to preserve human life, especially in instances calling for use of deadly force.
Assistant Police Chief Sean Mannix said Police Chief Art Acevedo approved the changes to APD’s mission statement May 15 and the language will officially be implemented next month. Mannix said the new language will clarify the police department’s central philosophy but will not change how police officers operate or how they are held accountable for their use of force.
“As a law enforcement practitioner, I don’t think the language in the policy manual is going to change our operations,” Mannix said. “The protection and preservation of life has always been the cornerstone of our philosophy. We’ve just gone the extra step putting it in the beginning or our mission statement.”
Once enacted, the revised mission statement will read: “The protection of life is the primary core value and guiding principle of the Austin Police Department. As such, all employees will strive to preserve human life while recognizing that duty may require the use of deadly force, as a last resort, after other reasonable alternatives have failed or been determined impractical.”
Rudolph Williams, president of the Austin Center for Justice and Peace, said adding new language is a tacit acknowledgement by APD that the department is under pressure to improve its record of using deadly force.
“[Adding the ‘preservation of life’ statement] is like an alcoholic admitting that he’s an alcoholic without going through the 12 step program yet,” Williams said.
Williams said the police department needs to add more detail to its “preservation of life” statement. He said APD should follow the lead of the Los Angeles Police Department by including objective guidelines for when an officer can and cannot use force.
“The rules have to be objective so that they can be assessed by APD’s internal affairs department or by the district attorney,” Williams said. “If an officer shot a suspect who was in a car, an internal affairs officer could look at the rules and say, ‘Did you use the loudspeaker before approaching the vehicle?’ The officer would then have to explain why they didn’t use that method and could be easily held accountable.”
Debbie Russell, an activist affiliated with the Austin Center for Peace and Justice, said she hopes the new language is a first step in reforming APD’s use of deadly force.
“[Austin residents] have a citizen review panel, we have a more engaged citizenry, we have the means to apply pressure and make police officers more accountable,” Russell said. “If Police Chief Acevedo buys into this and says it’s more than a [public relations] stunt, then we can change things here and make things safer for both citizens and officers, who, if they take less risk, will not be harmed as often.”
Mannix said the department’s critics cannot be satisfied, no matter how its policy manual is changed.
“[APD’s critics] would like the department to go beyond what the Supreme Court has determined,” Mannix said.
In many cases, the Supreme Court has ruled police officers may use deadly force if they feel their life is threatened as well as in varying situations.
“Hindsight is 20-20,” Mannix said. “Critics would like us to use a policy to order back officers as if there was [always] a different avenue of action. You can’t look at it that way.”