Criminal JusticeLocal NewsActivist Group Behind Effort to ‘Reimagine’ Austin Police Shapes Public Safety Fight

Chas Moore launched his organization in 2015 and has since influenced massive policy changes in Texas' capital city.
October 20, 2021
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“Imagine a world without police.”

Those are not the words of an obscure, insulated activist whose website is a cobbled together hodge-podge of HTML coding and clip art.

It’s the first thing seen on the sleek, professionally constructed website of the Austin Justice Coalition (AJC), a non-profit activist group driving significant changes inside Texas’ capital city.

As a slogan, “defund the police” has been used as a catch-all for anything from eliminating law enforcement’s use of less-lethal ammunition to abolition of police departments across the country. But there is little ambiguity in the AJC’s use of the phrase, even if the organization places a few steps between point A and point B.

Founded by Chas Moore, the AJC has reached new heights of influence within the City of Austin. Before launching the coalition, Moore “served as a student activist fighting many social issues at The University of Texas at Austin and in the broader Austin Community.”

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Moore — who grew up in Houston where he “went weeks, months, even years without having white people in proximity to [him]” — told The Texan in an interview that in his time at the University of Texas he heard the n-word used derogatorily, saw students in blackface, and observed public defacings of the Martin Luther King, Jr. statue. These incidents, according to Moore, would occur about once a semester and drove him to move toward what would become AJC.

Moore describes himself ideologically as a “liberal, radical, abolitionist, [and] afrofuturist.” He founded AJC in 2015.

According to the Internal Revenue Service, AJC had its tax exempt status revoked in August of 2019 for failing to file a Form-990 return for three consecutive years. 

Moore said that there was a misunderstanding between himself and the organization financing AJC at the time, the Texas Fair Defense Project, as to who was responsible for the tax filings. He said that the misstep was rectified by filing backdated 990s and their status was reinstated in 2020.

Under Moore’s tutelage, AJC has prodded the progressive-dominated city council to adopt a sea change in policies.

One of AJC’s biggest triumphs includes its successful effort lobbying council to scrap a 2017 APD labor agreement and the eventual final product that included the creation of the city’s Office of Police Oversight — which expanded on the responsibilities of its predecessor, the Office of the Police Monitor. Another more recent and monumental gain is the 2020 cut and redirection of $150 million from the Austin Police Department (APD) budget.

Other big issues AJC and its sister organizations, such as Texas Appleseed, the Texas Fair Defense Project, and Just Liberty, pushed for include a 2017 ordinance mandating the municipal court prioritize personal recognizance (PR) bonds for defendants classified as indigent, the subsequent ousting of five judges who did not abide the policy change, and the 2019 recission of the citywide prohibition on camping and laying.

The groups all work together but some take the lead on different veins of the larger criminal justice reform issue. AJC has assumed the mantle on the “reimagine APD” effort, but is far from the only cook in the kitchen. Moore chalks up the various policy wins to a group effort, adding, “[W]e’re only good at it because we work with our partners that have expertise in different areas.”

Now among the biggest achievements of that progressive coalition, last month Austin hired interim APD Chief Joseph Chacon as its permanent chief over two outside candidates.

One of those candidates, Emada Tingirides of the Los Angeles Police Department, was the choice candidate by three-quarters of the Austin Police Association’s (APA) membership, according to the organization. Tingirides is a black woman who’s been recognized nationally for her work at LAPD.

The APA and other police groups are diametrically opposed to AJC and the two sides spar often over public safety policy in Austin.

Dennis Farris, a retired APD officer of 30 years, has sparred frequently with AJC and Moore. In an interview with The Texan, Farris said of AJC, “They are the puppet masters; they’re paid for chaos.”

Farris placed substantial blame for AJC’s rise and influence on the 2012 council reform that switched its makeup from seven at-large districts to 10 single-member districts. This, Farris hypothesized, paved an easier path to council for further left members like Casar and Natasha Harper-Madison than otherwise would have existed.

AJC played a role in torpedoing Tingirides’ candidacy with its criticism. During a forum, she declared skepticism at the assertion that APD is “institutionalized with a bunch of police officers that are racist.”

In their report card grading of the three finalists’ forum responses, AJC marked Tingirides’ response as a “red flag.” But Moore said “there’s no way to know for sure” how much its report card influenced the decision. 

Tingirides, who said she had no personal interaction with the AJC during the six-month-long process, was reached by The Texan. About the report card, she said, “I really didn’t give it any credence whatsoever. It was extremely opinionated based off a response that I had.”

“It was not objective, then it shouldn’t be given any weight whatsoever and the decisions that were made.”

“And my response,” she stated, “was really about equity, and inclusion, and having fair practices, and creating an environment where everybody has an opportunity to excel or promote or be heard within an organization.”

Tingirides further added that she was notified of the decision by an employee with the firm hired by Austin to conduct the search — not anyone officially affiliated with the city.

The APD chief opening came earlier this year when former Chief Brian Manley was pushed out after three years on the job. AJC was a chief and consistent proponent of removing Manley. In a now-deleted post, AJC penned an open letter with other groups calling for Manley’s resignation.

In March, it obtained that scalp.

Moore and his organization have the ear of Austin’s elected officials, so much so that Moore calls Mayor Steve Adler a friend and was featured in his first Facebook Live segment after the protests and riots of May 2020. Emblazoned in an “Anti-racist AF” shirt and flanked by a stack of books, Moore declined to criticize the protest’s vandalism during the segment.

“I’m not here to condone what was going on, but I’m also not here to knock it. People that felt the need to express their anger and frustration in the way that they did on Saturday by taking over [I-35] and spray painting — that’s all fine with me,” said Moore in the video.

Of course, that’s not all that happened in the aftermath. Businesses were looted, miscellaneous items were lit on fire (including a homeless man’s bed), and general chaos reigned supreme. Police clashed with protesters as tear gas and rounds of less than lethal ammunition were fired into the crowd after miscellaneous projectiles soared into their ranks from the hordes. One protester suffered brain damage after being struck by a bean bag round, falling, and then striking his head on the ground.

Other injuries, among both protesters and police, were sustained during the multi-day pandemonium.

It got so bad that Moore and the AJC canceled its planned joint protest with Black Lives Matter that Sunday. 

In last week’s interview with The Texan, Moore tempered the Facebook Live stance saying he regrets how some things unfolded that week in 2020, specifically the vandalism and rioting. “We just had concerns about it being co-opted by people that just wanted to come out and tear shit up,” Moore added about the canceled protest.

But the protests and general animus about the death of George Floyd set the table for pushing across the finish line an objective Moore and AJC had advocated for a long time: making substantial cuts to APD.

The “Defund the Police” movement nationwide was a bona fide scatterplot of progressive demands for anything from minor tactical tweaks to shaking down police departments for every last dime.

For Moore, the mantra means “getting to a world where we don’t actually need police because we’ve figured out that community involvement, and community-based solutions are the only true way to guarantee public safety.”

Asked if that’s a realistic goal, Moore said, “I have to believe that. If I didn’t, that makes me a fraud.” He thinks a dispatch service may always be needed but the current makeup of “an institution that is patrolling neighborhoods and stopping people for petty crimes” is outdated.

Moore admitted the difficulty inherent in his objective, specifically in the current climate which he likened to the movie Idiocracy.

In a June 9, 2020, email obtained by The Texan, Moore made his position clear, calling on the Austin city council to “pledg[e] to defund the Austin Police Department and invest in the resources that really keep us safe and health, especially in Black communities and other communities of color.”

That was days after the initial wave of protests and riots swept across the city and nation.

Moore further explained his position, pushing for a commitment from the council to cut $100 million from the APD budget and to “significantly decrease” the APD budget in following years.

Two months thereafter, the Austin City Council exceeded that demand, removing $150 million from the APD budget. Part of that was the elimination of 150 authorized patrol positions within APD that still haven’t been reauthorized, on top of 200 vacancies and 104 officers on leave.

This year, the department is bleeding between 15 and 22 officers every month to attrition and lost 25 in September alone. Officers from specialized units are being redeployed to beat patrol as their units are either mothballed or disbanded entirely.

APD response times have ballooned to nearly 10 minutes, and officers are no longer responding to non-emergency calls per a department policy change.

Moore was one of many people urging the council to approve the cut at its July 23, 2020, meeting. And that goal was reached after months of prodding by Moore and his allies.

“You look at anything that is anti-people, anti-people’s rights [and] the police are part of that,” Moore said during a conversation in an August 12, 2020 video that occurred before the council’s final approval of the cut. The conversation ended after an individual with Tribune of the People, a self-described “revolutionary news service,” became confrontational with an individual from Alex Jones’ InfoWars network.

Moore is steeped in the language of critical theory, within which critical race theory is one strand. In that same video, he says, “All white folks are racist, and it’s not their fault — they benefit from the system.”

Another reform made in Moore and his allies’ push to “reimagine” policing is racial sensitivity re-education training for APD officers and cadets in its academy. Since June, the city has paid Joyce James Consulting $10,000 per day for such trainings for current APD officers and brass.

Moore said he and the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force (RPSTF), on which he serves, supported the general idea of the trainings but that he did not play an active role in designing it.

Joyce James, with whom Moore is familiar but not close, is a Round Rock-based consultant who was given a say in the APD chief search and whose study was cited by Moore and the rest of the task force in its mid-year report.

These activist organizations operate in a veritable web connecting each one to the others. AJC’s senior policy director, Sukyi McMahon, formerly worked at Just Liberty — one of the groups that led advocacy for the 2019 camping ban recission and also joined the police cut fight.

Another advocate of the camping ban policy, Chris Harris — a regular at Austin City Council meetings recognizable from his tall, lanky figure crowned by his signature afro — is a member of the city’s task force with Moore and is the director of policy for AJC. He was formerly with Texas Appleseed.

Harris spoke against the October 2019 reinstatement of some camping restrictions that city council implemented. It came after waves of blowback from the initial period of recission during which shanty town encampments cropped up overnight on Austin’s boulevards and creek beds.

The array of progressive groups intertwined in this web of activism issued a statement condemning the city council’s March vote to restart cadet classes that were put on ice during the 2020 budget maneuver.

It takes 46 weeks for cadets to graduate from the academy and become fully-fledged patrol officers.

Many of the activists involved in this issue mounted political opposition to May’s Proposition B, which reinstated the pre-July 2019 camping ban, but were outmaneuvered and outhustled by Save Austin Now, the group behind the overwhelming reinstatement, and its allies.

The progressive groups, AJC chief among them, are all uniting again behind opposition to November’s Proposition A that would establish a 2 officers per 1,000 residents minimum staffing level for APD. Prop A is also spurred by Save Austin Now.

This time, the leftist organizations hope to mount a more organized and well-funded campaign to defeat their rivals made up of moderate Democrats, Independents, and Republicans.

Moore, just like Austin Mayor Steve Adler has done, chalked up the pro-Prop A side to “this kind of last ditch effort by the super right wing conservative Republicans to make their daddy Trump proud.”

“[T]his whole proposition is all bulls— and is based in fear and right wing conservatism,” he added.

With a million dollars in donations from billionaire and progressive benefactor George Soros, $200,000 from the Fairness Project, a national activist arm funded by a California health care workers union, and a concerted messaging effort from city elected officials like Adler and Casar, the anti-Prop A campaign is already better suited this time around.

Equity PAC is the committee directing the opposition’s spending and has received a combination of $15,000 from AJC, Just Liberty, and Homes Not Handcuffs, the group formed specifically to oppose May’s Proposition B.

Emphasizing his current focus, Moore tweeted on October 1, “It’s October now. Let’s go full tilt to defeat Prop A. Sick and tired of the lies and fear mongering coming from the folks of Save Austin Now.”

When asked what it means for himself and his organization if Proposition A passes, Moore channeled introspection, saying, “If we lose this then it means people really didn’t buy into any of the s— I’ve been saying for quite some time.” 

“It means that I may become irrelevant; I think if it wins then we have a slight identity crisis on our hands.”

The group’s pitch to voters, described by Moore, is: “We know that crime in [the city] seems to be moving in direction that doesn’t feel like Austin … but there has to be other ways to make sure people have the safety or the feeling the safety that they have come to know and love here in this city without it costing the city so much.”

The city’s estimated cost of Proposition A over five years falls somewhere between $271.5 million and $598.8 million. Annually over that span, that’d amount to between $54 million and $120 million per year. The current APD budget is $442 million after the council restored about $133 million of the 2020 cut, mostly by replacing the 911 call center and forensic lab back under the APD umbrella.

Moore’s and AJC’s influence has grown significantly over the last half-dozen years, but the group’s initiatives have drawn substantial push back from the state.

During the 87th regular session, the legislature passed House Bill 1900, legislation that sets recourse for big cities in Texas that make cuts to their police departments. The state also passed a statewide public camping ban. Both were in direct response to the City of Austin and its policies goaded by AJC. Less directly aimed at Austin, but for which it is intended, was the state’s bail reform restriction on judge’s ability to issue PR bonds to violent offenders.

This year, the city reached heights previously unseen in certain violent crime categories. With two and a half months to go in 2021, Austin’s has 71 homicides. That total is close to 80 percent higher than the year-to-date in 2020, which was itself a massive increase from preceding years.

APD is stretched thin trying to respond to the city’s emergency calls. So much so that Chief Chacon has established a new policy restricting police units from responding to “non-emergency” calls. Some specialized units — such as the DWI, officer level anti-gang, and highway enforcement divisions — have been disbanded, its officers cannibalized back into street patrol.

In Moore’s opinion, a higher level of APD staffing would not make a difference in any current crime trend. Mentioning the gunfight that recently occurred in downtown Austin, he said, “I believe in my heart that that could have been solved with proper mediation and conflict resolution.”

While AJC touts its efforts as a valiant movement toward “reimagining” policing, those opposed to the AJC-spurred policies believe that APD is teetering on the brink of calamity with its staffing hemorrhage. And standing behind the elected officials who approved the policies is the activist group driving its direction.

“I’m deathly afraid,” Farris concluded, “that I’m going to get that call in the middle of the night about my son because of the climate these people have created.”

Moore and the Austin Justice Coalition invoke grandiose imagery of an Austin without police that is safer for everyone but finds itself in a reality marked by the city’s record-setting homicide levels and its hemorrhaging police department.

The November 2 election offers another referendum not only on the policy shift in Austin, but also on the vision of the group at heart of it all.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.