Police reform and “defunding” therein is at the top of the campaign issue list after months of protests and riots in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Many cities have responded by stripping large swathes of funding from their police department budgets and implementing other specific reforms.
The City of Austin is chief among those cities in Texas after officials cut and redirected $150 million from the police budget. And in the Austin elections, this issue has taken center stage — especially in one of its statehouse races.
House District 47, which sits on the west side of Travis County, turned blue in 2018 after Rep. Vikki Goodwin (D-Austin) upset longtime Republican incumbent Paul Workman by about 5,000 votes.
This time around, Republicans have nominated Austin Police Officer Justin Berry as their man to flip the seat back in their favor.
Now he will face Goodwin, who had the luxury of no primary election. Goodwin declined to comment on this story, telling The Texan, “It’s a local issue and I’m a state representative.”
However, in the Austin-American Statesman’s endorsement interview, Goodwin remarked on the subject, stating “[Police] do keep us safer. However, more police doesn’t make us more safe in my opinion.”
She added, “I think we have to ask ourselves why so many people, citizens of Austin reached out to the city council asking for the change in funding.”
“I think it’s a tough question. I respect the police in what you do. But you can’t be at every single incident beforehand. [Police are] oftentimes there cleaning up afterwards. And so I just don’t believe that increasing the number of police all the time is the answer. Particularly at a time when we have so much unrest over racial issues,” she concluded.
As an officer, Berry has staunchly criticized the Austin City Council for its budgetary decision. He called it a “radical, irresponsible decision [that] is yet more proof that they believe partisan politics now take precedence over public safety.”
Pointing to Seattle and its Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, Berry added, “With the Austin City Council voting unanimously on a resolution to defund APD, this kind of anarchy is what Austin can look forward to if current trends continue.”
A historically low-crime city, Austin has seen drastic increases in certain categories of violent crime this year compared with the same period in 2019. The Austin Police Department (APD) has been understaffed for some time, and was down 150 officers as of June.
According to Jennifer Kendall with FOX 7, APD has suffered 35 resignations and 77 retirements this year alone — the most in the department’s history. And of those resignations, most had over 10 years of experience on the job — something not easily replaced in smaller quantities, let alone nearly two-score.
But Berry has also advocated some reforms for police departments. “I believe in fully funded, effective, and responsible policing. That means body cameras, de-escalation training, accountability, and giving officers the resources they need to do their jobs well,” he stated in a campaign video.
One of the big rallying cries about a specific reform since the death of Floyd has been eliminating “qualified immunity” for officers. Qualified immunity is a legalism which exempts government officials, not just police officers, from civil suits unless an explicit and “clearly established” violation of statutory or constitutional rights is found.
The issue transcends ideological fault lines as both progressives and conservatives have prescribed their opposition to qualified immunity, specifically in terms of police who are in a direct position of power over the populace.
But proponents of qualified immunity say it protects officers from frivolous lawsuits and prevents individuals from going bankrupt defending themselves in court.
Berry shares the latter opinion, telling The Texan, “The thing with ‘qualified immunity’ is you must meet those qualifications for it.”
The qualification, in essence, hinges upon whether the accused conduct is “clearly established” as unconstitutional.
Opponents object that courts effectively made the definition of “clearly established” such that it’s next-to-impossible to meet the standard. Additionally, courts look to past examples to guide the case in front of them. And so, critics say it establishes a kind of circular practice of deference to accused officers.
However, proponents rightly highlight that a lawsuit-prone society requires a high standard of proof. Berry echoed this, adding, “Without [qualified immunity], you’d see even more good police officers leaving the profession because of the threat to their personal finances.”
“Eliminating qualified immunity will also create the need for individual officers to purchase personal civil liability insurance, which is very costly,” he continued.
“There already exists solid oversight mechanisms such as Internal Affairs and, ultimately, juries.”
According to Berry, a vast majority of complaints against officers pertain to alleged “rudeness,” something that no constitutional right exists to protect against. That doesn’t mean, however, that politeness is not a best practice for officers — something Berry reiterates and believes additional de-escalation training can improve.
Berry, himself, is a testament to this, as his specialized training helped him to talk an Austin man off the ledge of the Congress Avenue bridge back in May.
He concluded, “A better solution [than eliminating qualified immunity] is to focus not on radical reforms but on sound ones like improved training and mental health services.”
Moving into the home stretch, both candidates have pulled in large amounts of campaign dollars. But the most recent filing period shows Berry outraised Goodwin over three to one, while Goodwin has the cash-on-hand advantage by $125,000.
The Texan’s Texas Partisan Index rates the district as R-53%, meaning HD 47 leans Republican by three percent based on 2016 and 2018 voting trends.
Republicans control the Texas House by 16 members, however, Democrats cut drastically into their lead in 2018, flipping 12 seats. One of those was HD 47, but the GOP hopes it can regain the seat and prevent Democrats from riding the 2018 “Blue Wave” like Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High into this year.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include Goodwin’s comments from the endorsement interview.
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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.