Central Texas chiefs tackle race, community relations, mental health

A coalition of civic activists brought together top Central Texas law enforcement officials Wednesday to talk about race relations, policing and other issues.

Although fewer than 50 people attended, the public safety officials used the subdued setting to dwelve into a variety of challenges facing law enforcement officers, from being de-facto caretakers of the mentally ill to understanding the distrust among black and Hispanic communities.

Speakers included Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton, Bastrop Police Chief Steve Adcock, Travis County Precinct 1 Constable Danny Thomas, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo and Cedar Park Police Chief Sean Mannix.

The following is a sampling of some of their remarks:

Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton

  • On empathy for suspects: “Everyone has broken the law at one time or another in their life,” Hamilton said. “The only difference between the people in khaki uniforms and those in stripes is those in stripes got caught.” An important way to defuse the sorts of tensions that lead to violence between officers and minority civilians, he said, is to treat them respectfully and remember that someone being arrested is also someone’s friend or relative. “I can vouch for this: Sometimes it’s your son,” he said, referring to his son’s DWI arrest last year.
  • On cooperating with immigration officials: Unlike presumptive successor Sally Hernandez and many fellow Democrats, Hamilton is unambiguous in his belief that the sheriff’s office should continue to fully cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement during his final two months in office before he retires. He said he also sees hypocrisy among his critics. “We’ve got a lot of people talking right and walking left,” he said.
  • On housing the mentally ill: Austin State Hospital serves 36 counties but has only 150 beds. That leaves the Travis County Jail as a default place to house people who have severe mental illness when they are arrested, Hamilton said. At any given time, around 600 inmates are suffering from some form of psychosis, he said. And the sheriff’s office is seeing an uptick in the number of mental-health related calls for service. “A jail is not a place for people experiencing (a mental-health) episode. County jails are the largest mental-health institutes in the country. Something needs to be changed,” Hamilton said.

Bastrop Police Chief Steve Adcock

  • On community forums: The police department has held five forums recently. By the third, “We weren’t having any attendance. I don’t know how to take that,” Adcock said. “Do we not have the racial issues (that other places have between police and minority communities)? But I know it’s our job to reach out to the community.”
  • On the strain placed on police responsible for dealing with mental-health-related service calls: One quarter of the Bastrop officers are certified in mental-health intervention, Adcock said. But “the system was never set up for the police to be in charge of (the front lines of) mental health … we got dumped on,” he said.

Travis County Precinct 1 Constable Danny Thomas

  • On the need for community connections: Law enforcement can only be effective if it has a consistent presence, Thomas said. The former police officer and city of Austin council member said that means everything from keeping a community safe to simply being available when things aren’t bad. His office is re-instating quarterly town hall meetings. “If you don’t hear the heartbeat of the community, you don’t know what they need,” Thomas said.

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo

  • On the causes of the tensions between police and their communities: The root is more than just police and civilians, Acevedo said. It is about, as Mayor Steve Adler also has noted, systemic issues such as healthcare, access to investment capital and housing. “The challenges of law enforcement don’t end with law enforcement,” he said.
  • On the difficulties of carrying out mental-health services: Austin State hospital takes patients from 36 counties. But some patients, if they refuse a ride home, are just turned loose on North Lamar Boulevard, even if they are psychologically unfit to decide whether they should return home, Acevedo said. Austin, he said, will seek a state law change requiring those patients be returned to their hometowns, where family and friends are in a better position to care for them.

Cedar Park Police Chief Sean Mannix

  • On the national mood, and the notion that tensions between police and minority communities are simmering: There is such huge variety in policing policies across the country, and communities are so different, that painting a broad nationwide picture is difficult at best, Mannix said. As a result of the media’s coverage, the public is being “fed a false narrative,” he said.
  • On the notion of institutional racism: It exists, he said. Mannix himself has served with racist cops, he said. And the United States has only just started to address the notion head-on. “I don’t think we’ve been involved in an honest discussion of race relations very long,” he said. Mannix cited the second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independence to note how deeply racial issues are rooted in American history: “‘All men are created equal’ … the guy who penned that was a slave owner.”
  • On the mistrust minority communities can harbor toward law enforcement: They have good reason for it, Mannix said. Many members of those communities personally have experienced blatant racism. “You don’t get over that,” he said.
  • On those who have run-ins with officers: “There are officers who do not live up to” the standards by which law enforcement should abide, Mannix said. Whenever possible, “comply, then complain,” he said.
  • On building trust in those communities: Honest, full-throated discussions are important, but merely a starting point, Mannix said. “An honest discussion does not breed immediate trust. It takes time,” he said.

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