The United States of America has increasingly become what can be accurately described as a “police state” over the past several years, particularly since 9/11 emboldened the government to eviscerate civil liberties in the dubious name of fighting terror. Of course, metropolitan police forces across America have followed the national lead of the Nazi-like Homeland Security Department, NSA, FBI, CIA, and gestapo tactics of the TSA to fully beef up and militarize their respective forces into small para-military armies in their own right. These fully militarized police units modeled after SWAT are then foisted on a largely innocent public, where the assumption of criminality is considered the norm, rampant theft through ticketing over the most minor of non-offenses are ubiquitous, and ever increasing numbers of mostly poor black and brown people find themselves under siege from what they rightly see as an occupying gang or army of police thugs using the drug war as a pretext to arrest, imprison, beat up, and even kill those that get in their way. The irony in this scenario is that where once cops were thought to be helpful protectors of innocent citizenry against violent crime…now they are just as likely to be the cause of violence against an innocent citizenry under the guise of “the law” of course.
This issue is far too broad and vast to fully address in one little blog post. So, I’m going to narrow it down considerably and merely address one tiny sliver of this problem that I’ve come to see in my own city of Austin, Texas. I feel that what’s happening in Austin right now is perhaps akin to a microcosm of what’s happening across the country to a greater or lesser degree of severity. After all, Austin (unlike the rest of the state of Texas) prides itself on its “liberal” attitudes and is considered one of the “most liveable” cities in America. It is certainly one of the fastest growing cities, with a vibrant arts community, an extensive night life with 6th Street at the hub, the largest university in the country with UT, and a very diverse and ethnically-mixed population occupying various rungs on the economic ladder. The issue at hand and under present analysis is: “Is the Austin Police Department (APD) Guilty of Racially-Motivated Murder and the Coverup Thereof?” Recently, around the day of my last article, Detective Charles Kleinert shot and killed Larry Jackson Jr. ostensibly for the heinous crime of having a “fake I.D.” and “running away from an interrogation”.
Detective Charles Kleinert was busy investigating the scene of an earlier bank robbery that had taken place at Benchmark Bank, when the bank manager notified him of Jackson who had previously attempted to gain entrance to the bank. After a few minutes or so of speaking with Kleinert, Jackson took off running and was promptly chased after. Detective Kleinert commandeered someone’s personal car in the parking lot and agitatedly ordered them to give pursuit eventually catching up with Jackson, who was by this time walking leisurely along the street. A scuffle ensued, and Jackson was shot in the back of the neck. While it will be at least a month or longer before we learn anything else about this case, it is at least reasonable to ask a few pertinent questions that should come up later in the Internal Affairs and Citizen’s Review Panel investigations. Questions such as: “Given that surveillance video of the robbery shows that it was a white man that committed the crime, did Kleinert really think that a black man, Larry Jackson Jr., had anything to do with it? Also, why did Detective Kleinert give chase when APD policy would likely have precluded him from doing so, absent any relevant danger or extenuating circumstances?” Clearly, Larry Jackson Jr. was little more than a nuisance to the bank’s management and at most a two-bit con artist trying to pass off a fake I.D. or somebody’s ATM card as legit. So, “why not pick him up later on, especially since his face was captured by the video surveillance cameras?” Recently, Marc Ott (Austin’s City Manager) has asked the Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate whether APD’s “tactics and practices” are consistent with departmental procedures and best national practices. This request comes on the heels of Jim Harrington’s Texas Civil Rights Project and the Austin NAACP, who had previously requested the DOJ investigate the APD back in 2004. You can now read the Custodial Death Report of Larry Jackson Jr. out of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbot’s office.
These are the kinds of questions that ought to come up, but, if history is any indication, probably won’t (at least not publicly). Let’s look at two earlier examples of APD shootings of young black men, where the officers involved acted with reckless endangerment to other people’s lives. The first occurred on the night of May 11th, 2009, when 18-year-old Nathaniel Sanders II was shot two times (including in the head) by 9-year veteran APD officer Leonardo Quintana as Sanders and another passenger were jarringly awakened inside a car outside of Walnut Creek Apartment Complex. After arresting the driver, Michael Franklin, Quintana attempted to wake up Sanders when he claimed to see a .38 pistol in his waistband. Quintana told investigators that a tussle ensued for the gun, and that’s when he opened fire hitting Sir Lawrence Smith once in the chest (who survived) and Nathaniel Sanders twice (who didn’t survive). Of course, as Quintana’s dash cam was turned off…we’ll never know just how much of a tussle ensued over the pistol (if at all). Tellingly, there is nothing on the audio from the dash cam of the squad car that caught some of the events to suggest that there was ever a fight for a gun. APD claimed that there were a string of burglaries that had occurred at that apartment complex, and Quintana was investigating the gold Mercedes station wagon as a prime suspect. Internal Affairs exonerated Quintana of any wrongdoing based on the biased leading questions of Chris Dunn, whom even Chief Art Acevedo ended up firing. However, apparently Police Chief Art Acevedo wasn’t convinced that Quintana acted outside of APD policy, when he killed Sanders and merely suspended him for 15 days for failing to turn on his dash cam. Out of the three squad cars that were there that night, only one (apparently) had their dash cam turned on. This fact alone should be suspicious, when it comes to taking the APD at their word in this shooting case. The Citizens Review Panel, seeing the clear public backlash, recommended that an outside investigatory firm be brought in to look at it. This report, known as the Keystone Report, unlike the rubber-stamp denial by IA uniformly criticized officer Quintana for “failure to I.D. himself properly”, “making a dangerous approach on the vehicle”, “reckless endangerment to both himself, the other officers, and the victims of the shooting”, “failure to follow standard operating procedures”, etc.
Instead of releasing this report to the public and the local media, Police Chief Art Acevedo chose to hold onto it. He is, after all, a PR flunky for APD. Right away, regardless of the Keystone Report findings (the complete version can be read here), his failure to release the report publicly due to its findings and the willful coverup of Quintana’s actions in this case should tell you something. He is involved in serious criminal malfeasance, and (in any decently run city) would be thrown out on his ass! Fortunately, someone leaked the report to the Austin Chronicle that published extracts of it.
So, what exactly became of officer Quintana, who had already been charged with several complaints of spousal abuse? If the character of Nathaniel Sanders wasn’t exactly that of a choir boy given the cocaine, Zanex, and marijuana found in his system during his autopsy, one could say that the character of Leonardo Quintana was that of a violent adulterer with megalomaniac tendencies. Right after he posted a Facebook picture of himself holding a machine gun in his hand with a caption that read “Back to Work”, he was picked up in Leander on a DWI, after he left a police party drunk in order to try to chase down some sex with another officer. After this kind of continuing embarrassment to APD’s public image, Acevedo finally “fired” him…again not for murdering an 18-year-old black kid in cold blood and breaking many so-called departmental rules of engagement but for embarrassing the department’s image. In short order, an arbitrator then re-instated Quintana for work within APD saying that his being fired over a DWI arrest was completely inconsistent with what’s occurred previously with other police officers. Basically, while the average citizen will usually end up spending around $20,000 on one DWI, the average cop need not even worry about losing his/her job.
Naturally, the family of Nathaniel Sanders II filed a civil suit and won a $750,000 verdict. However, when it went to the Austin City Council to award it, the decision was summarily turned down! So much for the decisions of a jury in Austin, eh? The Austin City Council finally ended up reversing their earlier decision in 2011 and settling with the Sanders family for the full amount as well as the other passenger, Sir Smith, for $175,000. Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Member Mike Martinez were to the two dissenting votes. I could on and on about the corruption, high crimes, and racial targeting of the APD, Travis County Sheriff’s Department, DPS, and Texas State Troopers….to say nothing of the even worse Williamson County law enforcement that operate with brutal impunity in Round Rock, 15 miles north of Austin.
Let’s now turn to the highly-publicized shooting of yet another black kid, 20-year-old Byron Carter Jr. Back in May 2011, officers Jeffery Rodriguez and Nathan Wagner were patrolling the area around east 8th Street and IH-35 on bicycles. They saw two young black men walking down the street (whom they later said they thought were casing cars to steal) and decided to follow them. The question that remains on the minds of many, especially that of the NAACP, is “were these cops racially profiling these two?” While this is certainly an issue, it is not of greatest importance for what happened next. The bike patrol officers lost sight of the two youths momentarily, and then (at some point) saw them in a vehicle parked on the side of the street between other cars. Here’s where it gets a little fuzzy. Wagner “claims” that the driver attempted to pull out and hit a Jeep in front of it, as he and his partner approached. However, an eye-witness later testified that she never saw the car lunge forward the way that the cops described. Be that as it may, Wagner claimed that the car hit his partner, Rodriquez, and he said he thought he and his partner’s life were in danger. Rodriguez was later found to have never suffered any serious injuries, wasn’t being dragged underneath the car, and certainly wasn’t in life-threatening danger. Despite this, Wagner opened fire upon the driver and Carter (who was sitting in the passenger seat). Byron Carter Jr. was struck at least four times, including in the back of the head, and died on the spot. The driver drove away in a panic and was later seen running severely injured down MLK where he was able to survive after a trip to the hospital. The Carter family sued the APD in district court, but they were unsuccessful in convincing a jury that Byron was the victim of a “wrongful death”. Their defense attorney, Andrew Loewy, was the same defense council in the Sanders shooting interestingly enough.
Needless to say, there is a definite pattern being played out in the City of Austin these days that can be followed with a good deal of regularity. Every year or two, at least one (mostly young) black male is shot and killed by an overzealous, aggressive, APD cop, who is (at worst) fired but never prosecuted and imprisoned. Of course, that isn’t to say that Hispanics and/or whites won’t be killed, but I’m merely discussing statistical probabilities. Any shooting of anybody (no matter their race) by a cop is tragic, but your chances of being targeted and killed are (at least statistically) higher that you will be, if you’re black in Austin. The good news for Austin, these days, is that police accountability is starting to garner more attention not merely in the media but in public activists as well.
In particular, the Peaceful Streets Project is doing fantastic work in bringing police accountability to a much wider public awareness and engaging with citizens all over the country in helping to combat the excesses of police abuse, through filming them wherever a stop has occurred. Former West Point graduate and Army Ranger, Antonio Buehler, started the Peaceful Streets Project after he witnessed a cop being extremely rough with a girl merely for advising her friend in how to deal with DWI stop on New Years Eve night parked at a 7-11. The cop threw the girl to the ground and began twisting her arm behind her back when Antonio began taking pictures of the encounter. Suddenly, the cop got in his face and started threatening him for questioning the assault. Fortunately, a citizen got a video of the incident that night across the street, and it seems to completely exonerate Antonio of any wrongdoing (including ever spitting on the cop, which was used as the bogus justification to jail him that night). The Peaceful Streets Project has bravely engaged the public, media, and the police in civil non-violent cop watch programs and has been willing to go to jail (if need be) to show that the police are supposed to be civil servants that work for the people instead of the para-militaristic thugs that they often act like.
On Saturday August 17th, at the AT&T Center off of MLK Blvd., the Peaceful Streets Project will be sponsoring an all day event called the “2nd Annual Police Accountability Summit” with many wonderful speakers. The keynote speaker of this event will be none other than the co-founder of the original Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale. I strongly encourage everybody that is still committed to living free from the everyday tyranny of the “police state” to join up with citizen cop watch organizations in your city or town. And, start one of your own, if you don’t already have something like it. After all, it’s only when we stand up and stand together against police corruption, abuse, and wanton killing of the citizenry that we can begin to effectively win back the blessings of liberty that the Bill of Rights and Constitution sought to give us as sovereign citizens within a Republic, where public servants swear an oath to uphold and protect against all enemies both foreign and domestic.