City action would target racial disparity in Austin police arrests


Greg Casar said police made discretionary arrests of more than 1,000 offenders eligible for a ticket in 2017.

Casar said ending discretionary arrests would reduce racial disparities and save money.

City Council will vote on a resolution to end discretionary arrests on June 14.

If you run into Austin police for a nonviolent misdemeanor offense, such as having a small amount of marijuana or driving with an invalid license, one of two things can happen: Officers can write you a ticket, or they grab the handcuffs and place you under arrest.

For these nonviolent offenses — and others, including city ordinance violations, disorderly conduct and criminal mischief — officers can either give you a citation and send you on your way, or use their discretion to arrest you and take you to jail.

City Council Member Greg Casar has proposed a resolution, scheduled for a vote June 14, that calls on City Manager Spencer Cronk to work with Austin police to end most discretionary arrests, and to track when, where and why they are made.

Casar cited police data from 2017 that showed Austin police arrested African-Americans at an officer’s discretion at more than double the rate of white and Latino residents, and that blacks were seven times more likely to be arrested for low-level marijuana possession than whites.

“I think this is a clear-cut case of a simple policy change that the city of Austin can make that would address serious racial disparities,” Casar told the American-Statesman on Wednesday.

“The vast majority of people who commit nonviolent misdemeanors — and who are legally eligible to receive a citation — receive a citation and are not arrested,” Casar explained on the council’s online message board Tuesday. “However, according to APD data, more than 1,000 people in 2017 were arrested for these kinds of citation-eligible offenses via discretionary arrest.”

For some who fall into this category, an arrest could mean hours, or even a night in jail. But for undocumented immigrants, the stakes are higher. Casar said landing in jail could put some on the path to deportation.

The resolution also asks that city and police leaders work together to identify more documents that could be used to establish identity, including library cards or utility bills, so more people would be eligible for citations.

Austin police union President Ken Casaday said Police Department brass have been working with Casar on discretionary arrests, but Casaday cautioned that discretion is an important tool for front-line officers. He said police face tough situations every day that require discretion.

“Let’s not forget that victims of crime and property owners have the right to be protected,” he said.

But Casar said his resolution doesn’t eliminate discretion for violent crimes or when someone poses a threat to public safety. He also said stepping away from discretionary arrests for nonviolent offenses could cut costs associated with detaining and booking people into jail who could be cut loose with an order to appear in court instead.

“Our intent is to ensure that residents who pose no public safety threat and are eligible for a citation or ticket are not arrested unnecessarily,” he wrote.

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