Will APD change its militaristic academy?

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On Dec. 29 the city of Austin released two reports prepared by two different consultants that examined the police department’s approach to race and diversity. These reports were prompted by Council actions that preceded the turmoil over police violence this year.

The first report was prepared by Raymond Weyandt, a grad student at the LBJ School of Public Policy and founder of the Peace Mill, a policy consulting group whose website could definitely benefit from a little more information about the group and the people behind it. He was tasked with assessing seven of APD’s 48 divisions on diversity and equity. The second was a report by Joyce James Consulting to “help identify racial inequities within APD and develop immediate and prolonged strategies to eliminate them.”

There’s too much go through in one day, so today I’m just going to focus on what I view as the most topical part of Weyandt’s report: his assessment of APD’s training and recruitment division, which is responsible for the 8-month cadet academy that every officer goes through before joining the force.

City Council members have been calling for reforms to the academy long before the George Floyd protests, citing claims by some former cadets that the training championed a militaristic, antagonistic approach to policing. After last year’s protests, Council, as part of its “reimagining public safety” thing, cancelled three cadet classes –– one that was scheduled for last November, one this spring and one next summer. The idea was that training shouldn’t resume until it is reformed, but in response to a wave of retirements and resignations, the mayor and Council are under increasing pressure to re-open the academy.

Some of the most notable findings by Weyandt:

Of the 70 employees of APD’s training division, only one is black

From 2015-20, only 48% of black men cadets graduated. They were much more likely to quit or leave due to injury, while 83% of Hispanic men and 82% of white men graduated. I would be wary of the stats on women due to their much smaller sample sizes, but about two-thirds of white women graduated, as did just over half of black women and Hispanic women. An oft-cited fact by those who opposed delaying the cadet classes was that the most recently-cancelled class was the most racially diverse in the city’s history.

“Multiple former cadets” in “separate” interviews said training staff denigrated the homeless and recommended the homeless as easy targets for citations on a “slow day”

”Multiple cadets stated that they and their colleagues had been screamed at or punished for checking on one another or drinking water during intense physical drills, which last for hours in sweltering summer heat”

“Data provided by APD confirms that a troubling number of cadets were treated for heat exhaustion and dehydration during the academy”

“The academy’s training staff employ dangerous training tactics that have been described by cadets with military backgrounds as ‘worse than anything I went through in [US military training].’”

Concerns that the academy promotes a Lethal Weapon mentality to policing go back many years. The Matrix Report, published in 2016, said the department’s marketing focused on “adventure, danger and the stress of a military-style academy” and that “APD staff should reconsider the image they are invoking to the public regarding police officers in Austin.”

That’s certainly the impression you get from this video of the academy done by APD. I’m not sure when it was filmed (it was uploaded by someone not affiliated with APD in 2018), but it seems to have been done in the last few years and features a lot of footage of training leaders cursing out cadets for shortcomings.

In the video, officers justify the abuse, saying that part of being a good cop is being able to cope with stress. This is definitely true, but I think a more appropriate test of dealing with stress is how you respond to abuse from non-officers. I don’t care if you can stand there while your boss heaps insults on you. Does that teach you how to resolve a tense situation as peacefully as possible? Does that teach you how to gain the trust of the people you’re serving?

Interestingly, one of the cadets undergoing training in this video is Jeremy Bohannon, who is now an APD recruiter. For what it’s worth, Bohannon’s Twitter is focused on community-minded policing. One recent tweet stressed a person’s right not to consent to a search and another lauded patrol supervisors “who question and cancel ambiguous 911 calls which lead to unneccesary profiling by proxy.”

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Traffic on I-35 is the same as it was 20 years ago. But we’re expanding anyway.

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I-35 expansion divides public opinion during economic downturn - Austin  MonitorAustin Monitor
A rendering of the planned expansion of I-35 downtown. The overhaul adds two HOV lanes in each direction.

Wanna hear something incredible? Traffic on I-35 isn’t any worse now than it was 20 years ago.

That can’t be right, you say. Austin’s most prominent traffic pundit certainly didn’t believe it:

But check out this article in the Austin Chronicle from 2002:

Each day, more than 200,000 cars and trucks cross Town Lake on I-35, making that road the busiest six-lane highway in Texas. By 2020, TxDOT consultants predict, 330,000 cars and trucks will cross Town Lake each day — the transportation equivalent of trying to shove the Colorado River through a garden hose.

This article, by the way, described the plan, which had been in the works since the late 80’s, to expand I-35. Back in 2002, the plan was for the expansion to be complete in 2020.

Twelve years later, in 2014, traffic levels were exactly the same. In a report, TxDOT conceded that traffic hadn’t grown on I-35 but attributed it to a national decline in vehicle activity from the recession as well as the opening of SH 130 and SH 45. However, the report warned that traffic had begun to pick up again and would eventually balloon to more than 300,000 by 2035.

Alas, five years later, in 2019, daily traffic was still hovering at around … 200,000. Here’s the daily traffic count at Lady Bird Lake & I-35, year by year:

Just as it did before, TxDOT has simply moved the projection up by a few years. Now instead of talking about 300k vehicles by 2035, they’re talking about 300k by 2045. This is from the Statesman article last month:

Pre-pandemic, more than 200,000 vehicles traversed the highway each day. TxDOT estimates that number will grow to more than 300,000 by 2045.

I have not been able to get in touch with someone from TxDOT to talk about this today but I feel compelled to share this ASAP because the public comment period on the proposed I-35 expansion ends on Dec. 31.

There may be some nuances I am not accounting for. It’s not clear to me, for instance, whether the projected traffic takes into account the proposed expansion or not. If it does, then it aptly illustrates why expanding will simply induce demand and not relieve congestion. However, what is clear is that the projections 20 years ago assumed that the road would roughly stay the same but that traffic would explode. That did not happen. Nor has traffic increased in the past decade –– it’s actually declined.

This is not an uncommon issue in highway planning. The U.S. Department of Transportation systematically exaggerates future highway use when justifying expansions.

It appears that U.S. DOT, which gets its data largely from local agencies, like TxDOT, always assumes that traffic will be higher than it actually is.

For instance, in 2012 Eric Sundquist, a transportation policy wonk at the University of Wisconsin, took a look at the U.S. DOT’s annual traffic projections and found that they always overestimated future traffic:

When the U.S. DOT’s most recent Conditions and Performance Report to Congress hit the streets in 2012, it forecast that national vehicle-miles traveled would reach 3.3 trillion that year. A few months later we learned that their estimate was almost 11 percent too high.

Enough time has passed by now that 61 yearly projections can be compared to the reported VMT. And in 61 cases out of 61, the C&P estimates were too high. For example, the 1999 C&P overshot 2012 reported VMT by more that 22 percent—almost 11 extra states’ worth of driving.

In fact, though the national VMT trend line began flattening in the 1990s and actually turned down in the 2000s, the slope of the C&P projections has remained nearly constant.

State and local agencies, like TxDOT, have an incentive to overestimate future traffic. The more traffic they can project, the more likely they are to convince the feds that they need more money.

As is the case with so many other highway expansions, the proposed expansion of I-35 is paved with bad data.

You’ve got two days left to tell TxDOT what you think about expanding I-35. You can tell them by submitting a comment here.

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City Council races: Win for GOP, loss for housing

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Two runoff elections in West and Northwest Austin were decided by razor-thin margins last night and ended with the defeat of City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan by Mackenzie Kelly and the reelection of Alison Alter over Jennifer Virden.

Results from KVUE.

Since both Alter and Flannigan fell well short of a majority in the general election, my initial inclination was to believe they were both in trouble heading into the runoff, since the small number of voters who show up in runoffs tend to be older and more conservative. And yet, some Dems were still confident that they’d win both runoffs, perhaps easily. They believed that although these were two of the city’s most conservative districts, both have become clearly Dem-leaning in state/national politics and they believed their advantage might be even greater among the small group of weirdos who turn out for runoffs. By highlighting Kelly and Virden’s ties to Trump and right-wing extremists, they hoped partisan polarization would deliver for both incumbents.

Mackenzie Kelly.

In the end, turnout in the runoffs were much higher than ever before. In Alter’s bougie West Austin District 10, turnout rose from 14,820 in the runoff four years ago to 24,109 last night –– an increase of 63%. As I indicated in yesterday’s analysis of early vote figures, there was a particularly big increase in the number of voters with no history of voting in primaries, which made it hard to project their party/ideology. In the early vote (which was 75% of the total vote) in D10, these no-primary history voters accounted for 15.8% of the electorate, up from 6.5% in 2016. (To be clear, few of these people were first time voters –– they simply didn’t have a history of voting in party primaries, suggesting a lower level of political engagement)

As many suspected, it appears that most of these voters with no primary history were activated by the conservative candidates or causes.

As for D6, the conservatives showed strength in last month’s general election, when Flannigan finished with only 40% of the vote, while Kelly took 33% and Jennifer Mushtaler, who ran as a moderate but embraced Kelly’s positions on the biggest issues (police/homelessness/LDC/Project Connect) got 19% and then endorsed Kelly last week.

In other words, liberals can’t just blame the loss in D6 on a low turnout runoff where nobody under 65 voted. Runoffs are still a terrible way to select public officials, but in this case it looks like the conservative message legitimately carried the day in Northwest Austin.

There are many different variables that affect the outcome of a race. In races these close, it’s almost impossible to know what could have changed it.

When Alter trounced Gallo in the runoff four years ago, the conventional wisdom was that Gallo lost because of highly motivated voters upset over Gallo’s support for two controversial developments (the Grove and Austin Oaks) and because liberals were reeling from the shocking victory of Donald Trump the month before and wanted to take it out on anyone vaguely associated with the GOP.

The most obvious analysis of last night is that a large group of voters –– including a fair number of Biden voters –– were unhappy with the handling of the homeless and policing issues. My sense is that those had a bigger impact than Project Connect taxes or the land development code, but I could be wrong. And did the outcome of the presidential election affect the runoffs? Was it Republicans this time who were out for a consolation prize? Perhaps.

Flannigan: Proud of “hard work.”
Addressing a gathering of supporters on Zoom, Flannigan said he was proud of the work he had done during his four-year term and said he believed the city would be better off because of the moves Council made on police reforms, Project Connect, homelessness and racial equity.

“This is a tough night for all of us, but it doesn’t mean that any of this work ends,” he said. “And of course none of us are going away. We didn’t go away when we lost in 2014, and we’re not going away now.”

“Just because the path to equality isn’t straight doesn’t mean we’re not on the right path,” he later said.

He said he was proud to be the first openly gay man on Council and the first Williamson County resident. He urged his supporters to continue pushing on the issues –– saying that the “hard work” will continue.

He didn’t specifically congratulate Kelly but said, “To the new Council member, I hope she does her best to represent this district with honor.

Neither victor show much love for opponent
Kelly released a statement to the press:

“From standing courageously behind our law enforcement community to demanding safer conditions for our homeless population to fighting for transparency at City Hall, the voice of Northwest Austin has been heard. Considering the stark differences between my campaign’s priorities and the platform of the incumbent, their united voice is resoundingly clear this evening. I am honored to be the next District 6 representative and will work immediately to begin healing the divisions in our community.”

The “healing” comment was Bidenesque, although the rest wasn’t particularly conciliatory. In another message she sent to media, Kelly said:

“Congratulations to Council member Jimmy Flannigan on a hard-fought campaign. I, along with my staff, will look forward to working with Austinites from all backgrounds and political persuasions to build a better future for the greatest city in Texas.”

In District 10 Alter posted a FB message with only a veiled (and unflattering) reference to her opponent:

“Thank you to the voters of District 10 who voted in favor of my integrity, policy experience, and proven leadership, and against the politics of fear. “I look forward to serving another four years representing District 10. Austin’s best days are in front of us!”

I haven’t seen anything from Virden yet.

RIP LDC? A setback for housing
Kelly’s victory over Flannigan is a setback for housing and smart growth. Project Connect is a done deal, thanks in part to Flannigan’s advocacy, but the path to a new-and-improved land development code has grown much narrower with his departure. Even piecemeal efforts to address the city’s housing crisis may be doomed.

Land use was definitely not the focus of Kelly’s campaign, but she has said that she opposes the new LDC. Her statements on housing in general have been vague: she has expressed support for reducing regs on development but says she wants to protect the character of single-family neighborhoods.

But it’s hard to know from Kelly’s statements how she’ll vote on the many zoning cases she’ll see every Council meeting. It’s definitely too early to assume she’ll be a reliable vote with the preservationist bloc. Maybe she’d even be willing to support some relatively big reforms if they weren’t accompanied by the political baggage associate with the LDC rewrite.

At the very least, however, there is NO LONGER A MAJORITY in support of the proposed land development code on Council. With Flannigan and Delia Garza on Council, there was a 7-4 majority in favor of the new LDC and in favor of the city appealing the ruling by a county judge that Council needed to approve the new code by a 9-2 vote. With Kelly replacing Flannigan and Vanessa Fuentes, who said she does not support the LDC in its current form, we now have a 6-5 majority against the LDC.

What about Vanessa Fuentes?
Or do we? A lot of that depends on Vanessa Fuentes, the new CM for Southeast Austin’s District 2. Fuentes is an across-the-board progressive who says she supports increasing housing stock in all parts of the city. Her campaign generally did not talk much about development but when I asked her about housing in October this is what she said:

We need more missing-middle and multi-family housing in all areas of this city. I do not support the current LDC. I wish the equity overlay would have come in at the beginning of the process and not the 11th hour.

The equity overlay was the policy championed by Garza and Greg Casar aimed at “protecting” certain low-income areas from gentrification/displacement. The idea was to upzone them less than the rest of the city. (I actually think that’s a recipe for more displacement, not less)

Fuentes certainly enjoyed support from both groups. She took part in the ATXcelerator, a program run by former RECA president Ward Tisdale that tries to get growth-friendly people across the political spectrum involved in city politics. Tisdale, who lives a block away from me, had a Fuentes sign in his yard. But her contribution list also showed support from a number of prominent anti-development types.

The first question is whether Fuentes would side with the five other anti-LDC folks in trying to get the city to stop appealing the court ruling, which a fair number of insiders believe has a decent chance of getting overturned. And if the ruling were overturned, and Council only needs six votes to approve a new LDC, what changes could be made to the draft to get Fuentes to support it?

And if a new LDC isn’t in the cards, can Fuentes be counted on to usually vote for more housing on zoning cases? Are there other reforms aimed at boosting housing supply and reducing sprawl that she will support?

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Statesman journalists take a stand

The staff at the Austin American-Statesman and its six community affiliates have announced plans to unionize. The newly-formed Austin NewsGuild says the “vast majority” of newsroom employees have signed union authorization cards that have been sent to the National Labor Relations Board and are asking Gannett, the media conglomerate that owns the paper, to voluntarily recognize the union and to begin bargaining with it over wages, benefits, staffing, working conditions and hiring practices. 

A press release released by the union included statements of support from a variety of reporters young and old, including 47-year sports vet Kirk Bohls, 14-year food writer Addie Broyles, 16-year editorial assistant Veronica Serrano. Over on Twitter just about every Statesman reporter/editor I follow has expressed support.

The Austin NewsGuild is an affiliate of NewsGuild, formerly the Newspaper Guild, a division of the Communication Workers of America that represents thousands of reporters at national and local publications. Unions used to be common in the news industry and many of the most prominent publications — the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal — have remained unionized. However, in the last few years a rising labor consciousness, particularly among young journalists, has led to widespread unionization in media. Recently-unionized outlets include major dailies such as the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune, prestige publications such as the Atlantic and the New Yorker, and digital outlets like Buzzfeed, Salon and Slate. 

Two years ago, when I was writing about the challenges facing the Statesman in the wake of its acquisition by Gatehouse (which has since merged with Gannett), I spoke to numerous current and former Statesman employees about the prospect of unionization and encountered little interest. Some didn’t understand the benefits and some mistakenly believed that unions couldn’t really work in Texas because it is a “right to work” state. 

In fact “right to work,” a cynical misnomer concocted by anti-union Dallas Morning News editorialist William Ruggles in 1941 and embraced by businesses in the years since, only prohibits union contracts that require workers to pay dues. It is a transparent attempt to weaken unions by creating a “freeloader” effect, but unions in RTW states enjoy all of the same federally-protected rights to bargain. Nevada, for instance, is RTW but is nevertheless home to extremely powerful unions that are credited with winning middle-class wages & benefits for unskilled workers in the gaming industry. 

In the last couple years, other papers in historically union-hostile states have organized, including staff at a number of Gannett or Gatehouse-owned papers  who have grown sick of the company’s relentless gutting of newsrooms. Notable examples at Gannett/Gatehouse include the Arizona Republic, the Southwest Florida News, the Palm Beach Post, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Delaware News Journal. 

And most notably, in October staff at the Dallas Morning News voted overwhelmingly to unionize. Days later management at the Fort Worth Star Telegram didn’t bother forcing a vote and elected to voluntarily recognize their staff’s union

According to sources, the organizing drive at the Statesman kicked off in April. As is usually the case in successful union drives, a relatively small number of employees worked deliberately and quietly to gain support for the concept among others before submitting the union petition to management. Although you only need a majority of workers to vote in support of unionization, the goal is generally to have a much stronger majority. First, because you can expect management to work hard to dissuade workers from voting yes, and second because a union that only has the support of a slim majority is not particularly strong. 

Gannett has tried to fight back against union drives in the past but in many, many cases in the last few years it has failed. I should be wary of confidence projected by the union organizers but support certainly seems to be pretty high among staff. 

I wish the Statesman staff the best in this fight. Like any community institution, the local paper is frequently flawed. But we must work to make it better. Part of making it better is supporting its workers fight to earn a decent living.

You can email letters@statesman.com to tell management in less than 150 words that you support the Statesman workers’ bid to have a seat at the table. You can also follow the union on Twitter and Instagram and make your support known to management there.

SOLIDARITY! 

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What was Adler thinking? And will Dems ever learn?

In a video posted online last night, Adler says he regrets his trip to Cabo.

You’ve probably heard the news by this point. Tony Plohetski of the Statesman/KVUE broke it:

In early November, as health officials warned of an impending COVID-19 spike, Austin Mayor Steve Adler hosted an outdoor wedding and reception with 20 guests for his daughter at a trendy hotel near downtown.

The next morning, Adler and seven other wedding attendees boarded a private jet for Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where they vacationed for a week at a family timeshare.

One night into the trip, Adler addressed Austin residents in a Facebook video: “We need to stay home if you can. This is not the time to relax. We are going to be looking really closely. … We may have to close things down if we are not careful.”

I’m as cynical as the next journalist but I was legitimately shocked. How could he make such a stupid decision? It seemed out of character –– Adler is such a square. He’s cautious to a fault.

Alas, if Adler has an even greater fault than excessive caution, it’s that he’s vulnerable to peer pressure. He doesn’t want to be the deciding vote on an issue. In instances when he has taken controversial stances –– lifting the camping ban, paid sick leave, the APD cuts –– it’s after he has been pushed to take them by much bolder pols (notably Casar). Perhaps the same dynamic is at play in Adler’s personal life: he couldn’t resist turning down an idea that friends and family assured him was fine. 

Suffice it to say, it was not fine. Sure, it was nowhere near as bad as Trump’s massive unmasked gatherings. They took precautions. The crowd was relatively small, the event was outdoors and they all apparently got Covid rapid tests. But it’s still hypocritical and certainly violates the spirit of what Adler has urged Austinites to do, even if, as he repeatedly mentioned in a lawyerly video response last night, his behavior didn’t technically violate the Stage 2 guidelines that the city was recommending at the time, which advise people to avoid gatherings greater than 25.   

The fact that he took a private jet to Cabo is icing on the cake. Similar to the revelation about the California governor and San Francisco mayor dining at an obscenely expensive restaurant with other Very Important People, it’s hard to fathom how politicians who are so used to behaving strategically could do something that they must know will be perceived so badly. It’s like they sat around thinking about the most elitist, out-of-touch thing to do and then did it.

I suppose he displayed a modicum of political caution by waiting until after the election to take the trip, although there are still two City Council runoffs that could be affected by this news. 

As Adler conceded in his video last night, the consequences of this clueless behavior are far greater than whatever direct risk the wedding/trip posed to the community. It sows distrust of government and even greater resistance to the sacrifices we’re being asked to make. It validates the belief held by a significant minority of the population that the pandemic is overblown and/or that few of the precautions we’ve been asked to take are necessary. It also fuels the even more extreme belief, held by a smaller portion of the population, that the pandemic is a complete hoax manufactured to subjugate, enslave us etc. 

Adler’s colleagues staying mum 
Late last night I emailed all 10 City Council members asking them for comment on the matter. As of noon  the only response I have gotten is from Jimmy Flannigan, who directed me to tweets criticizing his opponent, Mackenzie Kelly, who the Chronicle reported was on a family vacation recently. Flannigan’s only comment on the mayor is, “It’s a bad look for any elected — and the mayor has apologized.” Hogue, of the Kelly campaign, tells me that she was in Austin the whole time and was simply taking “time off.” 

Will Democrats ever learn? 
It’s fitting that this news came only hours after I’d been expressing frustration at some of Joe Biden’s brain-dead appointments. Neera Tanden, who he has named to lead the Office of Management and Budget, and Rahm Emanuel, rumored to be a frontrunner for the Dept of Transportation, are both cartoons of the entitled and ethically flexible political class. There are emails of Emanuel, whose professional life has been a meandering journey between Wall Street and government, bragging to a hedge fund manager about gutting health care benefits for retired government employees. Tanden, who led the Center for American Progress, used that organization to raise millions of dollars from middle eastern despots, defense contractors and other major businesses whose interests were in direct conflict with the stated values of the “progressive” group. What they all shared was a desire to crush the insurgent populist wing of the Democratic Party. 

And then of course there are the clueless decisions made by Joe Biden and the previous Dem nominee, Hillary Clinton. Hunter Biden likely didn’t do anything illegal by taking a high-paying position for which he was woefully unqualified at a Ukrainian energy company. It was still completely nuts that he did it and his dad, who was already planning a presidential run at the time, should have done everything possible to prevent him from doing it. There was nothing illegal about Hillary Clinton making gobs of money speaking to Wall Street banks as she prepared to run for president. But it was monumentally stupid and completely discredited her as somebody who is going to work for regular Americans. Years later, bitter partisans still blame her opponents and the media for highlighting this behavior, and refuse to concede that the behavior itself was a problem. 

Don’t you people get it? It’s this type of deception that completely undermines faith in our institutions. And when people lose faith in our institutions, the idea of electing someone who will destroy them entirely, like Donald Trump, doesn’t start to sound so bad. When the leaders who tell you to take Covid seriously go to fancy restaurants or fly to Mexico, why not vote for the guy who tells you there’s nothing to worry about and then holds massive rallies? If the liberal is making more money talking to a group of lobbyists for an hour than you make in five years, why not just vote for the mobster-in-chief who proudly admits to dodging taxes and ripping people off? It’s the Democrats’ hypocrisy that makes Trump, the most prolific liar in modern American political history, appear honest. Because at least there’s a certain consistency to him. 

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Why did Austin police let Ivan Hunter go?

The magazines found in Ivan Harrison Hunter’s car.

In late October, federal agents arrested Ivan Harrison Hunter on charges related to his participation in the destruction of a police precinct in Minneapolis during the initial George Floyd protests. He is accused of firing 13 rounds from an AK-47 into the building. Hunter was not a Black Lives Matter supporter or even a mere looter. He was a member of the far-right Boogaloo Bois, a loose affiliation of extremists seeking to provoke a civil war. 

A few days later, Hunter, who lives in Boerne, Tex., was in Austin for the protests here. According to a federal affidavit, he was pulled over for “numerous traffic violations” at 2 a.m. on June 3 near the site of protests downtown. From the affidavit

During the ensuing traffic stop, officers observed a baggie of suspected marijuana in plain view. HUNTER – the front seat passenger – claimed ownership of the marijuana. Officers saw that HUNTER had six loaded magazines for an AK-47 style assault rifle affixed to his tactical vest while the two other men had AR-15 magazines affixed to their vests. Officers found an AK-47 style rifle and two AR-15 rifles on the rear seat of the vehicle plus one pistol in plain view next to the driver’s seat and another pistol in the center console….

…HUNTER denied owning any of the weapons found in the vehicle but volunteered to APD officers that he was the leader of the Boogaloo Bois in South Texas and that he was present in Minneapolis when the Third Precinct was set on fire. After the marijuana, weapons, and ammunition were seized by APD, HUNTER and the two other men were released from the scene.

So the good news is that APD appears to be following Council’s guidance to not enforce marijuana laws. The bad news is that APD is not offering any explanation for why Hunter’s weapons were confiscated but his person was not. If the weapons weren’t illegal, why were they seized? And if they were illegal, why wasn’t he charged with an offense? Or was he charged but simply not detained? 

I have reached out to APD with questions about this and was told I need to talk to the FBI about it. But why? Even if the criminal charges against Hunter are the FBI’s domain, why wouldn’t APD answer questions about its interaction with the suspect? 

In a letter he sent to APD several days before the election asking for the department’s plans on potential post-election unrest, CM Greg Casar and three other Council members asked for an explanation of why Hunter was released. They also asked for a response to allegations that APD officers refused to intervene when Women’s March demonstrators on Oct. 17 were attacked by far-right activists. On Election Day, Chief Brian Manley offered this terse response

APD has closely examined the June 3, 2020 and October 17, 2020 incidents referenced in your letter. Our review shows that the officers involved abided by all applicable policies, did not exhibit selective enforcement, nor did they show favorable treatment of individuals.

I asked Casar for a response. He said: “There are Office of Police Oversight complaints filed, and I think Chief Manley and OPO need to review this before coming to a conclusion.” 

Interestingly this case, which I admit I likely overlooked due to my preoccupation with the election, hasn’t gotten much local media coverage. We’ll see how this progresses.

The FBI affidavit also claims that Hunter was in regular communication with Steven Carrillo, a fellow Boogaloo who has been charged with the May 29 killing of a contract Federal Protective Service officer in Oakland, Calif. and the June 6 killing of a Sheriff Deputy in Santa Cruz, Calif. Four hours after the killing of the FPS officer, Carrillo allegedly exchanged Facebook messages with Hunter:

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Prop A = 4% tax increase. NOT 25%

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A repeated assertion by opponents of Prop A is that it will increase your property taxes by 25%. That statement is flatly untrue. 

Here are the facts: Prop A will increase the amount that property owners pay to the city of Austin by 20% but that only amounts to a roughly 4% increase in the overall property tax bill. Most of your property taxes go to the school district, and much of that goes to the state of Texas due to the state’s (still) grossly unfair school financing system. 

Again, even if we’re just talking about city property taxes, Prop A amounts to a 20% increase, not a 25% increase. The 25% figure that Prop A opponents cite includes a small tax increase that is going to happen anyway just due to the rising cost of existing government services (rising health care costs for city employees etc). 

If Prop A is defeated, there’s a good chance that confusion over this will have a lot to do with it. The opposition understands this, which is why they continue to say 25% tax increase over and over again.  

This is what greets you when you visit the website for Voices of Austin, the dark money group run by Peck Young:

And here’s former Council Member Ellen Troxclair:

I suppose Troxclair could feign innocence by pointing out that she said “Austin” property taxes but it’s still obviously misleading. Every Austin property taxpayer pays taxes to multiple entities. People see that tweet and think of their overall property tax bill, not just the amount going to municipal government. 

Evil Mopac, the wildly popular anonymous “pro-gridlock activist” Twitter account, took the former Council member to task for misleading the public:

In most media coverage that I’ve seen, the numbers have been technically correct but often confusing and may lead voters to subscribe to the opposition’s lie. Ryan Autullo of the Statesman got a lot of grief from Prop A supporters for this tweet:

Yes, it’s accurate because it says city taxes but many –– probably most –– readers won’t understand that city taxes are but a small slice of their overall tax bill. Unfortunately, a lot of Prop A supporters jumped down his throat and ridiculed him, rather than engaging more constructively in shaping the coverage. Sigh.

If Project Connect is defeated, it will likely have a lot to do with the success of this disingenuous talking point and the failure of the Prop A campaign and the media to correct it.

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Natasha Harper-Madison: Single-family zoning is rooted in racism

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A conversation about a proposed rezoning in Montopolis prompted the best impromptu description of single-family zoning that I’ve ever heard in my five years of covering City Hall.

The case involves a large lot at 508 Kemp St. After being told that Council was unlikely to grant an upzoning to facilitate a development that consisted entirely of market-rate homes, the developer entered into a deal with Habitat for Humanity to provide a mix of income-restricted and market-rate units. In the end, they proposed 33 single-family homes and duplexes, 17 of which will be restricted to homeowners making under 80% of the area median income. That’s $62.5k for a two-person household and $78.k for four people. 

Nevertheless, Community Not Commodity, the NIMBY outfit run by Fred Lewis, is still opposing it. In a blog post, the organization mocked the projected, deriding the income-restricted housing for being available to those “earning over 250 percent of the Montopolis neighborhood’s median family income.” The post further quotes an anonymous neighbor who describes the project as a “displacement scheme.”

The deceit is utterly remarkable, especially considering that it’s coming from an organization led by people who are regarded, at least by some, as members in good standing of Austin’s liberal establishment. If this project is defeated, what income range do they think the brand new market-rate single-family homes will serve? It wouldn’t be hard for them to figure out — all they have to do is ask the numerous recent homebuyers who they got to protest the project how much they paid for their homes. 

Harper-Madison took the opportunity to share some thoughts on single-family zoning. According to at least some sources, single-family zoning traces its history to a developer in Berkeley, Calif., who wanted to prevent black families from moving into neighborhoods adjoining the subdivisions he was building in 1916. He feared that lower-cost apartments serving black tenants would reduce property values. And he was particularly worried about a black-owned dance hall moving in.

I’m not usually one for long quotes, but in this case I think it’s warranted. Here’s the slightly condensed version of what she said:

“So he and the other developers, they got the city to do something that no other city ever had: they made it illegal to build anything other than a single-family home on a single lot in certain neighborhoods. So this trend, it began in Berkeley but it spread like wildfire. And that includes right here in Austin, Texas.

“And unlike the racial covenants (that existed on many properties), there really wasn’t anything explicitly racist about zoning, but what this did was it used economic segregation to separate neighborhoods in the city. Single-family neighborhoods were just more expensive because buying a house on a large lot costs more than renting or buying an apartment. And so this is about institutional racist policies, period. Wealth and race were inextricably linked. And there’s not much difference today, frankly. 

“So we’re talking about history but we’re also talking about the present. I think decades of single-family zoning in our metro area has led to an affordable housing shortage. 

“…We really are experiencing what I imagine will go down as one of the biggest movements for racial justice in our history and it’s still going strong. This is the time I think to reconcile for all the wrongs, all the things that are rooted in racism. I think Americans of all backgrounds are really engaged in a new frankly uncomfortable conversations about the role of systemic racism and we can’t miss the opportunity to call it what it is in these kinds of situations. 

“I’m often asked, ‘How can I be an effective anti-racist? How can I do my part?’ There’s obviously a lot of answers to that question but one answer should be to ditch that ’Not In My Backyard’ mentality. Embrace more dense, missing-middle housing types to accommodate more residents with less land, more affordable housing right in your neighborhood. 

“And not only would that help to put an end to our segregated communities, but it’ll also help to create more connected, more prosperous, more vibrant places live for more people in more parts of the city.” 

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Why Project Connect deserves your support

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If you’ve been a regular APN reader for a while, it’s already apparent to you that I’m a strong supporter of Project Connect (Prop A) and the active transportation bond (Prop B) that are on the ballot this year. So why am I wasting time and space on an old timey newspaper endorsement? 

First, because I know that I have a fair number of you are still not convinced of Project Connect’s merits. Second, I hope that the arguments I present will help those of you who do support it to become more effective advocates in the coming days and weeks. There’s very little you can do to change someone views on national/state partisan politics, but you can have a big impact on how your friends and family vote in down-ballot races such as Prop A and Prop B. Your cousin or neighbor or the guy you met at that party one time may very well have no opinion on the issue until they see a Facebook post from you on the matter.

Vote YES on Prop A
Opponents of Project Connect levy numerous arguments against Prop A, but perhaps their most appealing one to otherwise liberal voters is this: “Now is not the time.” 

In the midst of a deep recession and uncertainty about if and when the pandemic will end, is it really the time for a 4% property tax hike? It’s never a good time, but the alternative simply isn’t acceptable. Forfeiting the opportunity to invest in mass transit doesn’t simply commit us to the unacceptable status quo, it commits us to a future that will be significantly worse.

The Austin metro area is going to continue to grow rapidly in the coming years. As much as I hope and believe the pandemic will result in a big shift towards remote work, we’ve already seen traffic return to 80% of pre-pandemic levels and the eventual defeat of the pandemic, combined with population growth, guarantees that there will eventually be more cars on the road than there were before COVID-19. The idea that this region will double in population over the next 20 years but somehow traffic will get better is utterly delusional.

Like every other major city in the world, Austin car traffic will always be bad. Despite what this city’s gang of Know-Nothing transportation gadflies would have you believe, this is not because our city leaders “hate cars.” It’s because cars are an ideal form of transportation in low-density settings but cannot efficiently scale in large population centers. Just look at what the 26-lane Katy Freeway did for congestion in Houston: jack shit. Greg Abbott himself has said that TxDOT will soon be done building new highways, meaning that all of the state’s major metro areas, all of which deal with serious congestion, are going to have to find alternative strategies.   

To be clear, the purpose of Project Connect is not to combat car congestion. The goal is to provide a long overdue alternative to car travel because continued car-dependent growth is not sustainable. There simply isn’t enough space left in Austin to pave over with new roads and parking lots. Mass transit offers us the opportunity to dramatically increase the carrying capacity of our existing corridors, so that we don’t have to build new roads and new parking lots everywhere.

In many other parts of America, high-capacity transit doesn’t make sense economically. In a city that is approaching 1 million residents, it is the absence of high-capacity transit that doesn’t make sense. 

Beyond being the most practical response to our mobility challenges, mass transit at this moment in Austin’s history is a moral imperative.

Our car-dominant transportation system is economically unjust. It forces poor and working class families to commit an enormous share of their income to car ownership. When you take into account the cost of fuel, insurance, maintenance and repairs, there’s no such thing as a cheap car for low-wage workers. Strategic investments in mass transit will help thousands of families become less dependent on cars, allowing them to go from two to one cars or one to no cars. It’s hard to imagine a more effective form of economic relief targeting those who need it the most. 

Our car-dominant transportation system is also an environmental disaster. It dirties our waterways, pollutes our air and is the most significant contributor to global warming. It’s incredible to me that this even has to be said, but global warming poses an existential crisis. It requires every community in the world to step up. If “progressive” cities such as Austin won’t, then who are we expecting to stand up for the planet?

The past 70 years vs the next 70 years
In a recent debate hosted by the Austin Board of Realtors between County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty and mayoral aide John-Michael Cortez, Daugherty, a longtime transit critic, noted that overall Cap Metro ridership is similar now to what it was 30 years ago. That is evidence, he argued, that there simply isn’t much demand for transit among Austin’s growing population. 

Cortez replied that our lackluster transit ridership reflects the fact that we simply aren’t offering transit where people live. And why aren’t we offering transit where people live? Because over the last 70 years we have planned and grown with cars in mind. City leaders have blocked growth in the central neighborhoods that are best-served by transit and instead encouraged sprawl. The city heavily subsidizes driving via mandates that require builders to provide parking –– often far beyond what the market demands –– in residential and commercial developments. When you look at the thousands of miles of absent sidewalks, the huge city-mandated parking lots and the general misery involved in trying to cross many of our roads as a pedestrian, it’s not an exaggeration to say that cars are prioritized over people. 

It wasn’t always this way. The city’s earliest neighborhoods around downtown and the university (East Austin, Hyde Park, Clarksville, etc) were built with walking and streetcars in mind. They blended commerce and residential, apartments and single-family homes, and tended, as much as possible, to have logical street grids that make it as easy as possible to get around on foot, bicycle or (at the time) horse. 

Unfortunately, like many other cities that “grew up” after World War II, Austin bought into the idea that people would be better off living separately from the places where they work, shop, and socialize. Residential areas would be strictly separated from commercial areas. If people wanted to get something to eat, they could drive there. 

As a result, the city has continued to grow “out” but not “up.” Public transit cannot effectively serve low-density sprawl. This helps explain why our transit ridership, although it increased mightily in the first 20 months following the service changes in June 2018, has generally been stagnant over the past 30 years. 

Aha!You just admitted that Austin isn’t made for public transit! No, we already have big parts of the city that are transit-friendly and generate high bus ridership, notably the Lamar/Guad/SoCo and Riverside corridors that are being targeted for light rail. Those corridors will continue to densify in the coming years, making the future routes even more productive. 

But the thing is, these routes are just the beginning of what should be a long-term transformation in transportation and land use. We need to think not just about the next 20-30 years, but the next 50-70 years. As the population of the metro area doubles and likely doubles again, the city will be forced to change the way it accommodates growth. Unless we want to pave over Barton Springs, we’re going to have to allow more people to live in our central neighborhoods and the most logical and sustainable way to move them around is with mass transit. I understand that there is still staunch resistance to this type of change, but I am confident that that will eventually give way to the more progressive attitudes held by younger generations. Millennials and Gen Z are nowhere near as attached to the car-centric lifestyle as their parents and they feel more strongly about the threat posed by climate change.

Whether we have a new land development code in the next few years or not, Project Connect is a key investment in building a city that is able to absorb the massive population growth that is coming in a way that actually enhances quality of life, with walkable neighborhoods, green spaces, and affordable housing and transportation. That stands in sharp contrast to the alternative: more environmentally destructive sprawl that further entrenches economic and racial segregation. 

Indeed, the $300 million for affordable housing included in Prop A is just the beginning of what will hopefully be a long-term effort to provide housing near transit for those who are most likely to benefit from it. 

Betting on proven technology
Finally, I need to address the argument that “choo-choo trains” will soon be obsolete. Simply put, there’s no evidence that that’s the case. Those who make such claims conjure up a future in which we eschew fixed route mass transit in favor of door-to-door solutions, notably autonomous ridesharing vehicles. But they never explain how that system will resolve the geometric challenges that bedevil today’s cars or why it will be more affordable than today’s Uber and Lyft. The prices Uber and Lyft currently charge are not low enough for regular people to use on a day-to-day basis and yet neither company has ever turned a profit. The prospect of driverless cars cuts out one big cost (the driver) but presents another major cost that they have thus far avoided (the vehicle itself). Ridesharing, autonomous or not, is an important part of the mobility mix, but it’s not a substitute for mass transit. 

Light rail is still the best bet we have. The technology governing whatever runs on those tracks will inevitably change in the coming decades, but what’s important is that we dedicate the right-of-way and reserve it for moving large numbers of people in an efficient, sustainable way. It’s the least we can provide to future generations. 

You can read more about Prop A in this lengthy Chronicle article I wrote the other week. 

Please Vote YES on Prop B too!
Prop A isn’t the only important mobility initiative on the ballot. Prop B is another long-overdue investment in multi-modal transportation. The $460 million for sidewalks, bikeways, urban trails and safety improvements will make it much easier for Austinites to get around on foot, wheelchair or bike.

Like Project Connect, Prop B is both a practical investment and a moral imperative. Practical because this type of infrastructure is extraordinarily cheap but, if done right, can have a meaningful effect on the number of people who walk or bike instead of drive. The key investments in urban trails and bikeways are particularly important: it’s been proven in cities throughout the world as well as in public opinion research that people will bike if they feel safe from cars. That sense of safety is what protected bike lanes and urban trails provide.

No, for the umpteenth time. Not everyone is going to start biking everywhere. That’s not the point. But wouldn’t you like to have the option to bike at least sometimes? Or at least feel safe letting your kid bike to school or to a friend’s? 

Making it comfortable and easy to bike is a great act of economic and environmental justice. It’s an extremely cheap way to get around and I believe it will become even more popular, even in the hot summer months, as electric bikes continue to drop in price. Believe me –– I got one in January and it was the best $1,200 I’ve ever spent. In the coming years they will only get cheaper and the prospect of biking will become attractive to an even larger share of the population because of the speed and comfort e-bikes offer. But we need to have the infrastructure in place first.

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There’s no evidence Austin’s Black population is declining again

Since moving here five years ago I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say that Austin’s Black population is in decline. The claim probably hasn’t been true for at least a decade, but it’s still treated as unassailable fact in many conversations about the city’s future. 

Part of the confusion is due to the fact that there was a significant exodus of black residents in the first decade of the 21st century and that an academic study examining that decline was published in 2014, prompting umpteen rounds of navel-gazing among the city’s political class about how Black Austin could be saved. 

The good news is that, beginning four years ago, we started to see evidence that the Black population was growing again. Here is what I wrote at the time: 

…city demographer Ryan Robinson explained to Council members that the black population within Austin’s city limits increased by an estimated 8,000 in the four years following the 2010 census. In the entire Austin metropolitan area, it grew by an estimated 20,000.

The figures are not based on a survey as comprehensive as the decennial census, but rather on estimates from the annual American Community Survey. The margin of error for the estimate of the city’s total black population from the (ACS 1-year estimate) was +/- 4,771. The five-year estimate from the American Community Survey, which only has a margin of error of +/- 2,036, estimated that the black population had grown by roughly 7,000. 

As you can see, the margins of error are very big, particularly for the 1-year ACS estimate. The 1-year estimates are OK for analyzing trends for much larger population groups, but they’re really not supposed to be used to look at something as small as Austin’s Black population. 

But that’s exactly what the Statesman did two weeks ago, resulting in an alarming claim that the Black population is once again dropping fast (emphasis mine):

The latest numbers show an abrupt about-face for Black residents in Austin. From 2010 to 2018, the number of Black residents grew 29%, from 63,504 to 82,148 — outpacing the city’s overall population growth, along with increases in Latino and white residents. The 2019 numbers show a sudden decrease of nearly 5,700 Black residents.

It looks like what they did was simply take the figures from the 2019 ACS 1-year estimates (below):

And then they compared them with the figures from the 2018 ACS 1-year estimate:

But just check out the margins of error in the right-hand column. The 2019 MoE is +/- 6,997, which exceeds the total change in population the Statesman is reporting.  

The ACS comes out with new 1-year estimates every year and they invariably show wild swings for small subgroups simply because the sample size isn’t large enough to be reliable. The 2019 estimate showed a decrease of 5,700 Black people while the 2018 estimate showed an increase of nearly 9,000. Absent a Hurricane Katrina-type population disruption, none of this actually took place. It’s just statistical noise. 

That’s why it’s better to look to the five-year estimates. If you look at the five-year estimates, which are updated each year, you’ll see a slow but steady increase in the black population throughout the decade. The 2018 5-year estimate (2019 isn’t available yet), shows 73,390 people who identified black as their only race, with a MoE of +/- 1,926. That’s up from 67,000 in the 2013 5-year estimate. 

This is an understandable oversight by the Statesman, especially given how thin the reporters are stretched by the horrible company that owns the paper. Everyone makes mistakes; my goal is not to beat up on the Statesman but to prevent another round of baseless speculation about why Black people are leaving Austin.

There’s another issue with the data that trusty Twitter pundit Julio Gonzalez Altamirano commented on:

In conclusion, the evidence suggests that Austin’s Black population has increased in the past decade, but the growth in the Anglo, Hispanic and Asian populations means that Blacks will continue to be a smaller proportion of the population than they were 20-30 years ago. 

Despite all of the problems with the 2020 census, it will still provide a much more reliable picture of population trends and hopefully put much of this confusion to rest.

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