Breaion King, a 26-year-old Austin teacher who overnight became the newest face in the nation’s ongoing struggle with police and race relations, said a public apology from Austin’s police chief is a “step in the right direction” as she continues to mend after a violent clash with an officer 13 months ago.
King, who was distraught in her first interview with the American-Statesman earlier this week, said Friday that she feels relieved and stronger knowing that details of what happened during a traffic stop for speeding in June 2015 could lead to reforms in the Austin Police Department and discipline against the two officers and their supervisors.
“I’m no longer living in fear,” King said. “For a while, I felt like I was alone. I believe that this may be the avenue for me to help people.”
King’s comments came one day after the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV first aired video footage from police patrol cars showing her interaction with officer Bryan Richter, who pulled her from her car and threw her to the ground; he said she resisted his commands to close her car door.
In a separate video, officer Patrick Spradlin discussed race relations with King, saying blacks have “violent tendencies” and that he can understand why many whites fear them.
The videos led to widespread national media coverage Friday and a social media firestorm. The case has spurred multiple investigations, including an examination of how Richter’s supervisors concluded that he should receive the lowest level of discipline.
For many in the community, it is yet another example that shows there is still important work to do in a department investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice a decade ago amid complaints about excessive force.
“The videos of Ms. King’s arrest were deeply troubling,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said in a statement Friday. “They were a window into something that is outrageous, offensive, and counter to the values of our community, and that includes our police force.
“I am grateful that Chief (Art) Acevedo spoke so clearly on this matter and has assembled so many diverse voices from the community to help fix this problem,” Adler said. “We can’t un-see the videos, and nor should we. But we can continue to work together to build a community that treats everyone with respect. We as community will get it done.”
Police charged King with resisting arrest, but prosecutors dismissed the case after reviewing the videos.
The footage emerged this week as felony prosecutors opened an investigation into whether Richter’s actions constituted an assault and King hired a civil attorney for a possible lawsuit against the department.
“I feel that we have to come together as a unit, as a people, in order for us to promote change,” King said. “If something is wrong, everyone needs to be held accountable. So for me, I feel we are starting to take the necessary steps.”
Within 90 minutes of the video’s airing Thursday, Acevedo called a news conference to ask residents to remain calm and promise action.
Acevedo said he only recently became aware of the case after the American-Statesman began its inquiry and was disappointed it had not previously been brought to his attention.
“I’m sorry that in the day you were stopped for going 15 mph (over the speed limit), you were treated in a manner that is not consistent with the expectations of this police chief, of most of the officers, and most importantly, of all of us as human beings,” Acevedo said. “There’s a way to do this job, and we didn’t approach anywhere near where we should have approached it.”
“The lessons of APD is we still have work to do,” Acevedo said.
A day before the Statesman’s report was published, Acevedo hastily called a meeting with community leaders and local ministers. He showed them the video and asked them to help keep the community calm in coming days.
“As disheartened as I am as your police chief to stand here apologizing to the community, we had some really heartfelt conversations, and I think we are going to see some great things moving forward,” he said.
Richter has been the subject of previous complaints regarding his use of force, but those complaints were not sustained, and therefore he was not punished, city Police Monitor Margo Frasier said.
The case raises questions not only about how the department handles misconduct by officers, but also about its hiring processes.
Alex Del Carmen, executive director of the school of criminology, criminal justice and strategic studies at Tarleton State University, said departments everywhere should better focus on screening for bias. “All of us have implicit biases; no one is immune,” Del Carmen said. “The question is whether (the biases) are substantial enough to become racism or can be reduced by exposure.”
Most experts say reducing or managing bias comes with the kind of positive interactions with diverse residents that is a trademark of community policing but can also be achieved through frequent training. On the other hand, repeated negative interactions can increase bias, experts say.
“We don’t want implicit bias to result in racism,” Del Carmen said.
Activists have called for Acevedo to discipline the police officers and midlevel supervisors involved in the incident.
“The first thing is that the guys that saw this tape should face severe consequences,” said Nelson Linder, president of NAACP Austin. “By not holding these guys accountable, this stuff is going to continue. They did this community a disservice. They should be in the spotlight big time.”
He said supervisors should have recognized Richter’s response as worthy of more than the department’s lowest level of discipline — Richter was counseled and given training — and characterized their decision not to do so as a “chain of command issue.”
“These first-line guys see these guys every day,” he said. “If they don’t catch this stuff, we don’t see it.”
If he had known about the incident when it happened last June, Linder said, he would have called for the officers involved to be fired. Instead, he said, the department has had potentially problematic officers on the beat for more than a year.
Acevedo has ordered an audit of the work the officers have done over that time, which is one of the ongoing investigations.
“This is incredible brutality and force, and the racism is mind-boggling,” said Texas Civil Rights Project Director Jim Harrington, who, with Linder, called for a Department of Justice inquiry into the Police Department’s use-of-force practices in 2004. “Why they didn’t feel the need to push this up the ladder is beyond me. This is awful. It’s Exhibit A for police training across the country for how not to do something.”
He said Acevedo needs to fire the supervisors involved to show accountability.
“He knows that holding supervisors accountable is critical, and if he does, why is he not enforcing?” he said. “They’re not getting the message from Acevedo if they do this.”
Police said supervisors had not seen the video of Spradlin saying black people have “violent tendencies” before the American-Statesman began its investigation.
But Linder said the video confirms what some Austinites have suspected for a long time: a bias against communities of color within the Police Department.
“When you do catch them, they should be terminated,” Linder said. “We can’t afford that kind of person in uniform.”
Additional material from staff writer Jeremy Schwartz.