You’ll excuse Nelson Linder if his heart is heavy and his mind is weary.
Consoling the families of African-Americans shot and killed by Austin police exacts a toll like that. He’s been doing it for 17 years as president of the Austin NAACP, and on Thursday, Linder found himself in that wrenching situation yet once more, meeting with the family of a woman shot dead by police the night before in South Austin. Officers said she tried to run them over and approached one with a knife. The woman’s pastor said she lived with mental illness.
“I’ve got a son. I’ve got family. I’ve seen these deaths up-close now and, yes, I have to carry a burden,” Linder told me. “It just brings it home to me once again why we need change.”
The change Linder is talking about is how to prevent the high-profile police shootings of blacks that have become part of an ugly, long-running story in Austin. Linder believes they are the product of systemic racism and that they continue because law enforcement and institutions are not held legally accountable.
Change, he says, must begin with finding solutions; talk alone, like the one Austin residents will engage in Tuesday at a public forum, won’t do it.
Hosted by the American-Statesman and KLRU-TV, the forum is intended to generate dialogue and a better understanding about how African-Americans and police handle potentially explosive situations. Those issues were mined in an in-depth American-Statesman special report called “The Talk,” a reference to the conversations generations of black parents have had with their children about how to survive interactions with police.
“I’m a little tired of having conversations,” said Linder, who expects to participate in Tuesday’s forum nonetheless. “We should be looking at solutions and best practices and learn how to prevent these things.”
Linder sees a starting point in a remarkable 2003 report by the grand jury which indicted Austin police officer Scott Glasgow in the shooting death that year of Jessie Lee Owens in East Austin. A judge later dismissed the indictment.
In its report, the 12-member grand jury said it felt a duty to alert citizens about “a different brand” of law enforcement in minority communities.
“We see what appears to us to be a double standard and we are disturbed by it,” the grand jury said in a cover letter.
Signed by all 12 jurors, the report said that officers patrolling minority neighborhoods were typically white and had little training and little experience interacting with people who did not look like them. The situation, grand jurors said, had built a disturbing level of distrust between police and minorities.
“Austin and its citizens are fond of boasting of our diversity and tolerance, yet we find it difficult, even painful, to have a public conversation about race and the distrust that exists between certain segments of our community,” the letter said.
The grand jury called on Austin and Travis County officials and leaders to do something, beginning with leading hard conversations about race and policing. “We need to ask ourselves some tough questions and work together to find answers,” the letter said.
So, even then people were talking about the need for more talk.
The difference, says Linder, is that the grand jury took the extraordinary step to challenge institutions — including Austin Police, the City Council, district attorney, sheriff’s office and Commissioners Court — to do something.
It should be said, as “The Talk” special report noted, that Austin police acknowledge that their department had troubles in the past, but they stress positive changes undertaken over the years. Among them, the department overhauled its use-of-force policies and training, and, under former Chief Art Acevedo, it began forming relationships with groups such as the local NAACP and Black Lives Matter.
Still, problems persist, Linder says. “There have been no indictments in police shootings in most cases,” he said. “Therein lies the problem.”
Linder said public institutions must demand best practices, best training and most of all accountability from law enforcement. The Austin City Council can do more, he said. So can the Travis County Commissioners Court.
Conversations are fine, Linder said, but real change will only come when they lead to answers.
“Why are we still having this conversation in 2017?” he said. ”Why don’t we hold our institutions as named by that grand jury to a higher standard?”
“Austin Talks about ‘The Talk’ – A Community Forum” is Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2017 at 7 p.m. at KLRU Studio 6A. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Entrance is based on capacity.