No Response to Letter on Austin Police Use-of-Force Training

In December 2014, in collaboration with other concerned Austinites, I sent this letter to Austin’s Chief of Police, asking about specific elements of our police department’s use-of-force training. After applying some pressure through the Austin City Council, we finally received a reply. In response, we sent the following letter, asking to meet with relevant city representatives to discuss how police use-of-force training could be improved. Four months later, we still have received no reply from any of the twelve city officials to whom the letter was sent.

Two days ago, Austin police shot and killed a naked, unarmed, 17-year-old black boy who was behaving erratically.

October 13, 2015

Art Acevedo, Chief of Police
Austin Police Department
715 E. Eighth St.
Austin, TX 78701

xc: Mayor Stephen Adler
Council Member Ora Houston
Council Member Delia Garza
Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria
Council Member Gregorio Casar
Council Member Ann Kitchen
Council Member Donald S. Zimmerman
Council Member Leslie Pool
Council Member Ellen Troxclair
Council Member Kathie Tovo
Council Member Sheri P. Gallo

P.O. Box 1088
Austin, TX 78767

Dear Chief Acevedo,

Thank you very much for your response to our previous letter about police use-of-force training. We are heartened to learn that the Austin Police Department takes de-escalation training seriously, and exceeds state training requirements. And we deeply appreciate your willingness to help us understand how APD handles this portion of its officers’ training.

The training requirements you describe in your letter are laudable. We are glad to know that APD exceeds TCOLE standards for cadet training. However, in-service training for officers seems much less intensive, apart from the monthly firearms training. As you are no doubt aware, communication, cultural awareness, and emotional regulation are skills that must be practiced regularly in order to be used effectively in an emergency. Additionally, your letter states that tactical communication training is elective, not mandatory. For these and other reasons, we feel there is still room to strengthen APD’s use-of-force training procedures. Recent events in Austin and across the country should strengthen our resolve to do so.

Law professor and former police officer Seth Stoughton, writing in publications such as the Harvard Law Review, has recommended that police departments prioritize the following updates to their training:

  1. Add ongoing risk calibration training. As Stoughton explains, police training needs to go beyond emphasizing the severity of the risks that officers face by taking into account the likelihood of those risks materializing. For all of its significant risks, policing is safer now than it has ever been. In percentage terms, officers were assaulted in about 0.09 percent of all interactions, were injured in some way in 0.02 percent of interactions, and were feloniously killed in 0.00008 percent of interactions. Adapting officer training to these statistics doesn’t minimize the very real risks that officers face, but it does help put those risks in perspective. Officers should be trained to keep that perspective in mind as they go about their jobs.
  1. Training should compensate for the unconscious racial biases that lead officers to perceive a greater threat from black men than from others. Officers are not unique in having racial biases, but it is of special concern in the context of policing because officers use more force when they perceive a greater threat. While the cadet Community Immersion projects your letter described are no doubt helpful, research strongly suggests that other methods could complement and deepen this important training. In particular, scenario training that takes place in a de-adrenalized setting not only improves subjects’ decision-making processes, but trains the body to be calm in decision-making moments. Such experiences can actually lower trainees’ cortisol levels in the moment and help them plan ahead, thinking about possible scenarios, which makes it easier to respond more effectively (and calmly) in the moment. These somatic approaches to crisis response can lead to more accurate threat identifications, and help correct for racial bias that officers may not even be aware of.
  1. Use-of-force training should also emphasize de-escalation and flexible tactics in a way that minimizes the need to rely on force, particularly lethal force. Police agencies that have emphasized de-escalation over assertive policing, such as Richmond, California; Kalamazoo, Michigan; and Seattle, Washington, have seen a substantial decrease in officer uses of force, including lethal force, without seeing an increase in officer fatalities.
  1. Officers should be trained and required to initiate non-enforcement contacts with community members. Building on training that grew out of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Strategic Social Interaction Modules training, a “non-enforcement contact” means an interaction in which officers are prohibited (except in emergencies, of course) from taking enforcement actions: no asking for identification, no running criminal history checks, no issuing tickets, and no making arrests. The purpose is threefold: give officers and community members the chance to get to know each other as individuals, emphasize the agencies’ visible commitment to community policing, and teach officers communications skills that they will use countless times over the course of their careers.
  1. When violence isavoidable, officers should be required to use tactical restraint even when that means holding their position or temporarily withdrawing. We are curious about APD’s official policies on tactical restraint, and whether its use might be expanded.
  1. Police executives need to move beyond the reflexive refusal to engage in meaningful review of police uses of force. Walter Katz, Deputy Director of the Inspector General’s Office that oversees the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, has suggested that police shootings be reviewed by applying the Human Factors Analysis and Classification system used to investigate plane crashes. The emphasis is on identifying that factors that contributed to incidents so they can be prevented from happening again. Officer training should be constantly revised to incorporate the lessons learned from those reviews. We would like to know more about APD’s review process, how it compares to the Human Factors system, and what changes have been made in recent years as a result of use-of-force incident reviews.

We want the community we live in to be a national model of respectful, just, community-oriented policing. Many changes are needed locally and in the larger culture in order to realize that ideal, but ensuring the very best training for law enforcement is an important step in the process. We know that APD’s officer training program faces many constraints and challenges. However, we believe that improved training methods would significantly improve citizen safety and community relations with APD. We also feel that state-of-the-art de-escalation training would significantly reduce the risk and stress experienced by the officers who serve our community. Therefore, we would like to further discuss these types of training with you, and to advocate with the city on behalf of the police department for appropriate training resources.

To that end, we are requesting a meeting with available City Councilmembers, relevant APD and City staff, and interested citizens to further discuss these and other suggestions for stronger de-escalation training at APD, and how we can best contribute to making Austin’s police force a model of responsible, community-based policing.

We look forward to continuing this conversation with you, and further strengthening the spirit of collaboration between APD and the greater Austin community.

Sincerely,

Susan Schorn, PhD
1900 Forestglade Dr.
Austin, TX 78745
(512) 693-8020

Scott Swearingen, PhD
Paige Schilt
Tina Posner
Jason Craft
Michael Craigue
Dr. Lisa Lynne Moore
Jack Kaulfus
Laura Hayden
Carmel Drewes, MSW
Laura Gomez-Horton
DeAnna Harris-McKoy
Wen Nguyen
Dr. Pauline Strong
Dr. Trish Roberts-Miller
Victoria Davis
Lisa Rawlinson
Doris Ann Newton
Coty DeLacretez
Graham Smith
Alicia Philley
Dr. Barbara Jones

Remarks from Gun-Free UT Rally

Gun-Free UT rally

Gun-Free UT rally

Today I spoke at a campus rally against the implementation of a state law that will allow concealed carry of firearms on public college campuses throughout Texas. For an hour, informed, compassionate, articulate staff and faculty at UT spoke out about the many ways this law will endanger the campus community. I was particularly struck by the words of Matt Valentine, a fellow staff member here at UT, who told us something remarkable about the Founding Fathers’ interpretation of the Second Amendment as it pertains to college campuses:

The University of Virginia Board of Visitors took up the issue of campus carry in 1824, and didn’t have to look far for an originalist perspective—Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were in attendance. The board resolved that “No Student shall, within the precincts of the University … keep or use weapons or arms of any kind, or gunpowder.”

Tragically, while our rally was in progress, a mass shooting was taking place on the campus of Umpqua Community College in Roseberg, Oregon. Initial reports indicate ten people have died and another 20 are wounded.

Here’s a rough transcript of my remarks:

I work in the School of Undergraduate Studies here at UT; I was an undergraduate and graduate student here, and I’ve taught here. I’ve also taught self defense for over fifteen years. There are some counter-protestors here with signs about how guns are necessary for self defense, and I want to speak particularly to them today. I teach and write about violence prevention and self defense policy, so I want to talk about the impact this law will have on women’s safety, and I especially want to address supporters of the law who claim it will reduce campus sexual assault and make women safer. It will not.

Sociologist Jennifer Carson, writing in the journal Violence Against Women, has described our culture’s “fetishizing of the gun as the primary tool of self-defense. The NRA,” she points out, “has become the predominant public face of self-defense, and its positions and politics are often seen, erroneously, as representing those of all self-defense advocates.”

As a teacher of feminist empowerment self defense, I’m here to tell you the NRA does not speak for me, or our movement. the NRA’s insistence that women must have guns to stay safe is unsupported by data. There is a robust research base to the contrary, most recently a random controlled trial involving 900 college women that was reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, showing that women who participated in feminist-informed self defense–not gun-based–experienced a 50% reduction in sexual assault. Resistance can and does stop sexual assault, without guns. It does so every day. Despite the proven effectiveness of such training, the NRA claims that women have no power or agency over their own safety unless they carry a gun. Their support of this law, their desire to flood our campus with guns, is an attempt to make women complicit in the ongoing militarization of our communities. We will not comply.

If we allow guns in classrooms, office, and dorms at UT, more women will die. This is a fact. Dr. Deobrah Azrael at the Harvard School of Public Health said the following about campus carry laws earlier this year: “What we know is where there are more guns, more women die. That’s just incontrovertibly true. . . . everything we know suggests that access to firearms increases the likelihood of death and injury. Disproportionately to women . . . . If more women have guns, have them accessible, the likelihood that more women are going to die by suicide goes way up. What we know is that . . . when there are more guns and they’re more accessible, unintentional gun deaths will increase. What we know is that alcohol and guns are a terrible combination.”

All of which is incredibly relevant to the college environment. If there is a gun in your dorm room, actuarial evidence shows—the statistics compiled by insurance companies, not lobbyists—that you are at greater risk of dying from that gun than from any other possible event happening. Having a gun in your dorm room is the greatest threat to your life on campus.

I’d also ask everyone here to remember that if we allow concealed carry all over campus, we are giving rapists and potential rapists permission to carry a weapon everywhere with them, which will make the commission of rape that much easier for them. Rape is already a crime of power. The last thing we need to do is give rapists firepower.

Thank you.

Two New Pieces: RAD and DIY

hvmagykahlhlnapmhuliJezebel featured another thing I wrote! This one is about the horrifying student manual for Rape Aggression Defense, the most popular women’s self defense program on college campuses. Take a RAD class and you will learn, among other things, that you shouldn’t try to run away from an attacker unless you get 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at least three times per week. Otherwise, running may make you too tired to fight. Yes, they really tell you that.

I have new column up at McSweeney’s as well–this one about those darling Do-It-Yourself “anti-rape gloves” featured recently on Instructables:

What I find fascinating, reading through these directions, is the way the glove-maker’s amorphous anxiety about his sister’s safety is transformed, through a laborious 15-step process, into a tangible object, a comforting piece of proof against the risks his sister faces: a weapon. You can almost see the therapeutic benefits accrue as the worried man applies his knowledge and skills to the problem. In his workshop, he has tools to help him create safety: clamps, vice grips, an angle grinder, a drill press, an automatic center punch, a vernier caliper. Every material he handles is measured, every step is planned. The process offers control. It requires precision. It lets the glove-maker think creatively, consider options, make choices—all things that help us feel we’re in command of our lives.

 

Are the gloves he produces going to help to his sister? It’s possible. Unfortunately they aren’t dressy enough to wear on dates, which is when women are most likely to be assaulted.

 

 

Update on Police De-escalation Dialogue

mayor-clipart-COV_Cop_clipArtFor those of you who signed our letter to APD, here’s the email I sent today to every member of the Austin City Council, plus the Mayor:

Dear [Council Member or Mayor X],

 

On January 2nd, I sent the attached letter, co-signed by 31 Austin community members, to Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo. The letter requests some information, and an open dialogue, on the type and amount of de-escalation training APD officers receive.

As of today, we have received no reply to this letter. As the letter states, we feel that the issue of police use of force is an important one for our community, and we believe that an open conversation on this topic will help us collaboratively reduce violence and build mutual trust among all Austinites. We are asking for your help in encouraging Chief Acevedo and the Austin Police Department to respond to our initial requests for information, and begin a conversation on a topic that is becoming increasingly important nationally as well as locally.

Thank you for all you do to help keep Austin a safe and just place to live.

Sincerely,

Susan Schorn

The body and signatories of the original letter were appended.

I’ll keep people apprised of any response. Our next level of amplification will be contacting local media, which doesn’t strike me as a particularly soul-enriching activity, but we’ll do it if necessary.

Convention Harassment Materials

Concerned about potential harassment at a convention you’re helping to run? Want to advocate for better anti-harassment procedures at a conference you’ll be attending? My friends Jeremy and Alex put these materials together (with a little input from yours truly) for Sun Dragon  last year. They got lost in Sun Dragon’s recent website redesign, so I’m posting them here in PDF format:

CON Handling Harassment Complaint – Suggested guidelines for convention staff or volunteers when they are approached by someone who has been harassed.

CON Safety Team Incident Reporting – Suggested procedures for formal reporting of an incident by designated staff.

CON Witnessing an Incident – Advice and suggestions for those who witness harassment–includes common attributes/examples of harassment, What you can say/do to interrupt an active situation, and how to report.