We can't count on convictions for police reform

We shouldn't need a murder conviction to fire bad cops.

We can't count on convictions for police reform
A police vehicle on St. Elmo Rd.

Yesterday a judge declared a mistrial after jurors could not reach a verdict in the trial of Austin police officer Christopher Taylor, who is charged with murder for shooting and killing Mike Ramos as he tried to drive away from police in an apartment parking lot in the spring of 2020. Taylor faces a separate murder charge for killing Mauris DeSilva the previous year in the lobby of a downtown condo building.

There is plenty of other news coverage that offers greater detail on the trial and the facts of the case. I did not attend the trial and I do not intend to argue for Taylor's guilt or innocence.

What I would like to stress is that the jurors were not tasked with determining whether what Taylor did was OK. Or if he should remain employed as a police officer. Their charge was very specific: to determine whether he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of homicide.

As a citizen of Austin, I do not feel comfortable with Taylor being a police officer. The most charitable view of his behavior is that he has very poor judgment. Other officers on scene testified that they did not perceive Ramos as an imminent threat.

But I can believe that without being confident that I would vote to convict him of murder if I were on the jury. Much in the same way that I strongly believe OJ Simpson killed his wife but I don't hold it against the jury for acquitting him based on the evidence they were presented.

I am concerned, however, that many in the public don't appreciate this distinction. As a result, the frequent acquittals of police officers accused of misconduct are often interpreted as vindicating the accused cop. Accountability advocates mourn what they view as the jury's endorsement of brutality, while the #BackTheBlue crowd celebrates the acquitted officer as a hero.

Taylor's attorneys told reporters on scene yesterday that the jury voted 8-4 in favor of acquittal. If what they say is true, it's a good indication that he likely won't be convicted in a retrial.

Reform advocates would be wise not to raise the public's expectations of justice via conviction. Instead, they should focus their energy where they are more likely to influence the actors: City Hall.

Here's the question for Police Chief Robin Henderson and every member of City Council:

Regardless of the outcome of Christopher Taylor's trial, do you believe that Officer Taylor's conduct was in line with the policies and values of the Austin Police Department? Are you confident that his continued presence on the police force makes Austin safer, rather than more dangerous? If they can't respond to both questions with an enthusiastic "YES!" then he has no place patrolling our streets.

"Slightly less expensive housing" is an important policy goal

As you'd expect, relatively few of the comments made to the Planning Commission during the seven hours of citizen testimony on the HOME initiative Tuesday night offered any new information or arguments.

One comment made by veteran environmental activist Roy Waley stood out to me.