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Panel provides insight on Austin's rocky road to police reform

On Monday, as part of the ongoing series "Reforming the Force," the KVUE Defenders sought answers to community questions as part of a town hall.

AUSTIN, Texas — Austin's path to police reform will likely continue to see a mix of success and shortcomings in the months to come, according to a panel of experts, but the city should continue to try to design a department that will meet the needs of all citizens. 

On Monday, as part of the ongoing series "Reforming the Force," the KVUE Defenders sought answers to community questions as part of a town hall hosted jointly with the Austin American-Statesman

Panelists were newly appointed Austin Police Chief Joe Chacon, former Travis County Sheriff and Austin Police Monitor Margo Frasier, and Paniel Joseph, director of the Center for Race and Democracy at the University of Texas.

In a wide-ranging conversation, each acknowledged that Austin likely hasn't yet become a national model for police reform – a goal that city officials set last summer – but said that it could help design new types of policing in the future.

"This is not something we have a blueprint for," Chacon said. "Have we gotten it right every single time? I don't think that we have, but we are certainly trying to figure our way through this."

Last year, Austin City Council members cut or reallocated about $150 million from the police budget and separated some operations from law enforcement oversight. The budget has since been fully restored because of a legislative mandate, but the daily functions of policing are still a local decision, and the community still has not decided what it expects from a modern police force.

Joseph said that although some have fought against reforms, such opposition is expected.

"We have to remember that abolishing slavery upset people in the 19th century too," he said. "There is going to be a reaction and we have to remember that."

Frasier said that while she appreciated the City leading efforts to make the Austin Police Department a national model, she was disappointed that some of the conversation missed important opportunities for unity.

"I was disappointed in the fact that what we wound up having was a lot of one-way communication where people were talking at each other instead of to each other," she said.

As the city looks to the future, Frasier said she is heartened that the City is revamping its police academy to make it less resemble a military boot camp and to instead structure it similar to college classes.

Joseph said the City should also put recommendations from the City's task force to reimagine the police in place, including ending the use of police dogs and not having officers "self-initiate" calls. 

Chacon said he also is committed to leading the rank-and-file through the transition, despite not being their preferred candidate for chief. 

"I feel confident that I am going to be able to win the hearts and minds of those who have doubts about me," he said.

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