For the past four decades, leadership of the Travis County district attorney’s office has essentially been an unbroken chain, which has not kept pace with a changing criminal justice arena that requires not just toughness, but transparency, compassion, community outreach and new-age reforms.
In Travis County, it’s an office that also needs a heavy dose of independence in matters regarding law enforcement as there has been a steady erosion of public confidence in the DA’s ability to hold police officers accountable when they use excessive force in dealing with suspects, particularly people of color.
Voters have an enormous opportunity in the Nov. 8 race for Travis County district attorney to reshape the office so it better serves the whole community. Two candidates are vying for the position: Democrat Margaret Moore, a retired state assistant attorney general, and Republican Maura Phelan, a local lawyer in private practice.
Voters would be wise to look over those candidates’ positions and vote for the woman who is best suited to make the needed changes. Some wisdom on that front can be gleaned from answers they gave to questions we provided on this page and online.
In this race, it’s best not to focus on partisan labels — but on positions. If history is any guide, the next DA, or her hand-picked successor, will occupy or attempt to occupy the post for several terms. What Travis County residents can’t afford is more stagnation in the DA’s office or a continued erosion of public confidence in criminal justice matters.
While the DA’s office alone is not responsible for a current crisis in community confidence, it is an important segment of a broader system, and as such, helps set the tone and course for criminal justice matters.
To that point, Travis County needs a more visible district attorney who will aggressively go about rebuilding bridges with people of color with an eye toward addressing the root causes of crime. That requires greater transparency, but also deconstructing bureaucratic walls that keep the public at bay.
Along with that, the next DA must establish and expand research-based reforms to steer the homeless, nonviolent drug offenders or people with mental disabilities to treatment or other help to keep jails free for violent offenders or bad actors. That means breaking down silos to bring together law enforcement, business and school leaders, city and county elected officials, the courts and community organizations to create sensible, sustainable approaches to crime prevention as well as rehabilitation.
On that front, we agree with Democratic and Republican leaders who lament the large number of people with criminal records who are excluded from the workforce at a huge expense to taxpayers when they end up back in jail or on the welfare rolls. The solution for that problem starts, though doesn’t end, at the local level.
The next district attorney also would be wise to establish the office’s independence in addressing police misconduct cases regarding critical incidents. In our view, the best way to do that is through an independent prosecutor, meaning outside counsel would handle excessive force cases involving police. We’ve endorsed that position in the past as a way of countering a perception that prosecutors are too cozy with law enforcement.
That view has been fueled by circumstances of numerous cases that involved police shootings or excessive force against suspects, many who were minority and unarmed, during the tenures of former District Attorney Ronnie Earle and current District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg in cases that ended without indictments or criminal prosecution. Such outcomes have raised legitimate questions about whether prosecutors are up to the task of holding law enforcement accountable.
It’s a fair question, given the close working relationship between law enforcement and prosecutors.
Prosecutors, for instance, rely on officers as witnesses and experts to make their cases. As elected officials, they vigorously pursue the endorsements of police and other law enforcement groups to advance their political goals. It’s prosecutors who make the decision about when it is appropriate to investigate cases of police misconduct or take them to grand juries.
In recent times the Austin-area has witnessed several high-profile cases that have shaken the public’s confidence.
In May, a grand jury declined to indict Geoffrey Freeman, who as an Austin Police Department officer, fatally shot unarmed teenager David Joseph earlier this year. Joseph, a high school student, was naked and behaving erratically at the time he was shot. Police said Joseph charged at Freeman, who was fired after the incident.
That was followed by the release of video this summer that showed an Austin officer using brutal force to arrest Breaion King, a 26-year-old Austin teacher with a thin frame. Add to that another officer’s comments as he transported her to jail that the reason so many whites fear blacks is because African-Americans “have violent tendencies.”
The officers involved so far have received little or no punishment.
For her part, Phelan says she would establish an independent prosecutor system to address such cases. Moore, however, would not. Instead, she would establish a Civil Rights Unit that would be “independent within the DA’s office” and report directly to her.
That might have worked two district attorneys ago, but at this point, it’s too little too late.
As the clear frontrunner, we urge Moore to reconsider. Her proposed special unit in the DA’s office — no matter its label — won’t be viewed as an independent entity. And public distrust left unchecked only will fester, spread and undermine the safety of all Travis County residents.
The challenges and opportunities are high in this race. We ask voters to take the time to look at the candidates and review their positions, then cast ballots for the person who will reform the office, install greater transparency, reach out to disaffected communities and rebuild public confidence.