“Freedom City” laws could protect Texans from unnecessary policing

Photo by Austin Price / The Texas Tribune

Before my election to the Austin City Council, I was a community organizer. Through that experience I learned that political transformation is most powerful when multiple constituencies in solidarity come together to make change.

This year, people who are a part of the immigrant rights’ movement and the Movement for Black Lives are coming together to demand reform at Texas police departments. Elected officials should take note.

These movements have traditionally worked in silos. But when traffic stops too often escalate into deportation, violence or worse for people of color, it makes good sense for their communities to work together.

That’s why in Austin, in partnership with these groups, I’m proposing a package of reforms — called “Freedom City” policies — to eliminate unnecessary arrests by our police department, ensure police officers inform residents of their rights related to immigration enforcement and start confronting the disproportionately skewed arrests of Austin’s black and brown residents. The City Council will take a vote on these policies on June 14th, and I’m already hearing from activists and elected officials from across Texas that they’re interested in pursuing similar reforms in the months to come.

In our city, hundreds of people are arrested at officers’ discretion every year for nonviolent misdemeanors. A discretionary arrest is one where a person who has no arrest warrants and poses no threat to the public could receive a ticket or a citation, but is instead arrested and booked into jail. According to the Austin Police Department’s 2017 data, they arrested people of color at unacceptably disproportionate rates instead of citing them.

For the misdemeanor of driving with an invalid license, around 75 percent of those arrested were Latino or African American, though those demographic groups represent less than 45 percent of the city’s population. Austin police were seven times more likely to arrest black residents than white residents for possession of small quantities of marijuana, even though federal data shows that marijuana usage is roughly equivalent across racial groups.

When police resources are spent arresting people for low-level offenses, instead of focusing on more serious public safety issues, families suffer — and because of the racial inequality in our criminal justice system, families of color suffer most. A recent report by the ACLU details how Nick Smith, an African American Austin resident, has endured the loss of his job, more than $10,000 in legal costs, and the loss of his driver’s license — all because police have arrested him multiple times for marijuana offenses. When immigrant parents are unnecessarily arrested, they can be separated from their children in the jail-to-deportation pipeline. In the case of Sandra Bland, a nonviolent misdemeanor led to her unnecessary, violent arrest, incarceration and eventually to her death in a Waller County Jail. Freedom City policies aim to end these sorts of unnecessary arrests.

In Texas, immigrants come from every part of our world. They’re Latino, black, Asian, white and more — but primarily, they’re people of color. Under the racist law Senate Bill 4 signed by Gov. Greg Abbott, police departments are not allowed to prevent officers from questioning these diverse residents about their immigration status. Unfortunately, many residents aren’t aware of their right, clarified by courts during the continued legal battles around SB4, to not answer any officer’s questions about their immigration status.

The proposed Freedom City policies comply with the law — Austin police would still be allowed to make immigration inquiries — however, police officers will be required to inform anyone that they question about their right to not answer these questions about their status. Police departments should also produce reports about whose “papers” they’re asking for, which neighborhoods are being targeted and how they’re spending their time and city resources.

If the Austin City Council votes for these Freedom City policies, it will be an important win for racial justice and immigrant rights in Texas. Elected officials must follow the leadership of people directly impacted by policing and the criminal justice system. The coalition between the immigrants’ rights movement and the Movement for Black Lives can grow, build support and push other Texas cities to pass similar measures and more. In partnership, these movements can have a greater impact and build a better future for our cities.

Greg Casar

Member, Austin City Council