Bombings show why Austin no longer can afford a small-town attitude

Three package bombings this month, which have left two Austin residents dead, another seriously injured and much of the minority community in fear, have raised questions about how the Austin Police Department handled those tragic events and whether it did enough to help safeguard the public.

Those are legitimate concerns that Austin interim Police Chief Brian Manley must answer better than he has up to this point, given the department’s initial response to the first bombing March 2 that took the life of Anthony Stephan House. In that case, police landed on a theory that left the public with a false sense of security.

Austin exhaled a collective sigh of relief after police told the public that House, a 39-year-old father who is African American, was killed by a small package containing a bomb in an isolated incident that posed no continuing threat to the public.

“Based on what we know right now, we have no reason to believe this is anything beyond an isolated incident that took place at this residence, and no reason to believe this is in any way linked to a terrorist act,” Manley said hours after the explosion . “But we are not making any assumptions. We are conducting a thorough investigation to rule that out.”

With that, the city shifted off high alert. It’s now clear that was premature: The first bomb was not an isolated incident. Ten days later, two other bombings carried out in a similar way shook the city to its core.

In these cases, we are reminded of the words of former Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, who constantly cautioned both the public and his officers that Austin is no longer a small town, but a metropolis. As such, he would say that when usual or unusual events occurred, they should be evaluated through a big-city lens that included terrorism and hate crimes.

And while police understandably want to put an edgy city at ease, they shouldn’t offer assurances before their own investigation can provide a clear picture of who planted the bomb and why.

Obviously, no one knows whether the response of the Police Department would have been more forceful under Acevedo. That requires a crystal ball that none of us possesses. What we can say is that in the first bombing, which killed House, the department was too quick to embrace parochial theories that crowded out other possibilities.

Initially, police were working on the premise that the blast that killed House might have been intended for a suspected drug dealer who lived near him. When that theory evaporated, they shifted to another one that also gave the impression that House’s killing was an isolated incident, focusing on his financial dealings as a possible motive. That unfortunately spurred some negative speculation about House. And it led to police reclassifying his killing from “homicide” to “suspicious.”

Those confusing signals left the public unprepared for what was to come next: two more bombings whose victims were black and Latino. The fallout has stoked fears and anxiety in the minority community about hate crimes or some other sinister motive as facts emerge, linking at least two victims and their families.

Last week, package bombs were left at the doors of two homes. They exploded after victims handled the packages. Austin lost a budding talent in Draylen Mason, 17, whose skill as a double bass player won him admission to the University of Texas Butler School of Music. Later that day, another package bomb seriously injured Esperanza Herrera, 75, who was beloved by family and friends. We join others in prayer for her recovery.

Police now are leaving no stone unturned, examining whether the bombings are hate crimes because victims are people of color or if they are connected in some way to the families of House and Mason, which knew each other. Manley’s officers are working closely with the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Texas Department of Public Safety in what he called “a task force like we’ve never had before.”

To be fair, Manley called in the feds, including the U.S. Postal Service, on day one, when House was killed. Clearly their work was affected by the early focus on House’s case being an isolated incident. We wonder whether valuable time and clues were overlooked and the public’s guard was weakened by confusion and misinformation.

Going forward, there are lessons to be learned. But the department must not continue to cling to a thin defense that says, “If we had known on March 2 what we know today, we would have been stronger in putting out a safety message.”

Much of police work deals in the unknown, which is why preparation must incorporate possibilities that aren’t always found in the familiar or traditional motives for crimes. That is especially true for big cities like Austin, where crime can be local or global.

Manley notes that public safety is a shared responsibility between the public and police. He is right. See something, say something.

For Manley and his brass, it’s time for some serious reflection to identify better methods and skills that help officers resist narrow interpretations and stereotypes and improve the quality of information and warnings that go out to the public. That kind of unvarnished examination might require policy changes.

The Austin metropolitan area has more than 2 million people and counting. That means the challenges and problems will be larger and, unfortunately in some cases, more consequential. Meeting that challenge means police and the public must, as Acevedo cautioned, see Austin as it is — not as it used to be.

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