Wow. It has not been a good week for Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo. He just fired two officers in an incident where one of them slapped a suspect strapped to a gurney.
Now, Chief Acevedo is going mano y mano with local criminal justice critic Scott Henson, who writes for a blog called Grits for Breakfast.
Last Saturday, Henson detailed on his blog the events surrounding how he and his 5-year-old granddaughter were detained in East Austin. Henson is white and his granddaughter is black.
Henson was walking his granddaughter home from the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex on Friday. Someone at the park called 911 and reported that a white man was chasing a black girl into the woods and trying to kidnap her.
Cops responded en masse to the area. They cuffed and questioned Henson before sorting his story out and realizing that the kidnapping call was bogus.
But Henson is a well known cop critic and he was mad. On Saturday, he posted a highly critical account of the incident, condemning the cops and their actions. He called it “Babysitting while white” and he accused the police officers of what amounts to racial profiling.
Henson also said that officers pulled Tasers on him.”The officers got out with tasers drawn demanding I raise my hands and step away from the child,” Henson said in his blog.
But Acevedo claims the video shows that no Tasers were involved and that Henson was lying to his readers.
None of this bodes well for Henson’s credibility as a journalist or his blog, Grits for Breakfast.
Henson has been a harsh critic of the police for a long time. He once served as a director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas’ Police Accountability Project. He then went on to work for the Innocence Project of Texas, a group that seeks to overturn wrongful convictions. He also did a stint as an associate editor at the far-left Texas Observer.
According to The Texas Tribune, “(Henson’s) interest in criminals justice issues started with a police brutality issued in his neighborhood, and he later co-founded the Sunshine Project for Police Accountability.”
Henson lists testimonials on his website from some heavy hitters in journalism:
Grits for Breakfast “is the best blog about criminal justice in Texas” and “as usual extremely fair” – Erica Grieder, The Economist
“A protein-laden dose of big thinking on criminal justice reform.” – Evan Smith, Former editor, Texas Monthly and current editor of The The Texas Tribune
But if Acevedo releases the 911 call and patrol car videos (he intends to do so) and it shows that Henson’s account of the incident to be overblown, his credibility will go out the window. If the video doesn’t show Tasers, then he will be proven to have flat out lied.
Henson’s post received national and international attention from the news media who jumped on the story about the white grandfather and black granddaughter bullied by a bunch of Texas cops. None of the press was good for APD.
Henson and Acevedo have talked. They have also been exchanging emails. Acevedo has made Henson’s emails to him public and it seems as though Henson is not as angry or as emotional about the incident as he was when he wrote the story on his blog.
Henson also privately asked Acevedo not to make public the bogus 911 call or the video from officer’s squad cars. In an email to the chief, he repeatedly tells the chief that he doesn’t think it should be released to the news media.
Henson wrote to Acevedo in an email, “I’m not sure it’s much of a news story, and I’m still not, but people seem entertained by debating it and apparently that’s what passes for ‘news’ these days.”
Well, if it wasn’t news, then why did Henson write the post in the first place? Clearly he thought it was news until the facts turned against him.
Acevedo is not honoring Henson’s request and will make all the patrol car videos and 911 call public. “Scott, unfortunately we can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube,” Acevedo wrote.
In a sense, Acevedo has no choice. Henson made APD look like a bunch of racist, knuckle dragging bullies when in fact, they were responding to what they thought was a legitimate 911 kidnapping call.
Acevedo is steamed. It’s obvious in the following statement he released defending his officers and their actions:
Thank you for including me on this e-mail. I had the opportunity to visit with Mr. Henson yesterday and provided him an overview of the facts and evidence in this incident. Unfortunately, as is too often the case, my officers are unjustly criticized for simply doing what any reasonable person would want them to do, which is to respond in an appropriate and lawful manner to calls for assistance from our residents.
In this case, we have been vilified for doing what I, as a father, would not only expect, but would absolutely demand the Austin Police Department to do in an instance where the department receives reports of a little girl being kidnapped. I can only imagine what the criticism from the same people casting aspersions via the internet and blogsphere would have been had the APD responded in a nonchalant manner and this had turned out to be a legitimate kidnapping. The flavor of the criticism would be “APD only sent one or two cops or “jump-out boys”( as many critics prefer to call our officers) to reports of a black little girl being kidnapped by a white man from a predominantly minority community center because it was on the eastside and they could care less about people of color; had that report been of a white child being kidnapped by a person of color, or in an affluent part of the city, they would have sent the cavalry.”
I have reviewed all of the tapes in this incident and can say without hesitation that I am extremely proud of the personnel involved in this incident and the text book, competent, professional response by all the members of the department (from our 911 call-taker, to our communications operator, to the sergeant and all of the responding officers).
If you perceive the tenor of this e-mail to be one of frustration, you would be correct. Our officers are operating in an environment where they are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. I will apologize to Mr. Henson for not having 2,300 clairvoyants in the midst of the Austin Police Department and for not knowing that the woman who called us screaming that “a black little girl was being kidnapped by a white man chasing her into the woods”, turned out to be what appears to be a well intentioned mistake. I will not apologize to Mr. Henson for my officers doing what they are paid to do which is to safeguard the people of this city, especially little girls, and for responding in a quick, professional manner without regard to geography, race, creed, or social economic standing. I only hope that when a call comes in that turns out to be a legitimate kidnapping that we will have the fortune to have our thinly stretched resources readily available to respond in the same manner and a tragedy averted. Mr. Henson believes the fact that the little girl identified him as her “grandpa” to the officers should have been sufficient for them to allow her to leave with him, but fails to recognize that a majority of child abductions in this nation involve family members.
In closing, I want you to know that we will be releasing the tapes in this matter and I challenge Mr. Henson to show us where in the World he felt it was honest to write the following in his blog, “The officers got out with tasers drawn demanding I raise my hands and step away from the child. I complied, and they roughly cuffed me, jerking my arms up behind me needlessly…….” I have included a string of e-mails between me and Mr. Henson that will shed further light on this matter and on my position.
Please feel free to contact me or a member of my staff if you have any questions.
Chief of Police
Here is the rest of the email chain.
Thanks for the follow up. Like you, I wish this thing hadn’t grown legs and grew to the extent it has. However, this incident has garnered international attention as a result of your blog going out with insufficient or misleading information. My department has taken a black-eye for a response that was reflective of best practices in keeping our community safe. I’m sure you will agree that if Ty was actually being kidnapped, which is the best information we had at the time, you would expect nothing less than the response provided.
We will certainly work to protect the privacy interests of a five year old child and will withhold release of the video footage of her in the police car.
Scott, unfortunately we can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. You called us out on our response and I am in a position that I must show those interested that our officers not only reacted properly, but in an outstanding manner. When I came here almost five years ago, I promised a department that would be accountable and transparent to this community. Under other circumstances you would be one of the loudest voices demanding APD’s transparency and would be generally critical of us withholding information just because we can.
So far, the only story that has made the news is the distorted picture that one would paint from the content of your original blog posting. Race and geographic location had no role in how APD responded to the 911 call we received, yet that is foundational to your messaging. If this had been a true kidnapping in progress, as my officer’s were responding to, they would be heroes for thwarting the crime and keeping your grandchild safe. I owe it to my officers and our community to set the record straight and give people an accurate accounting of how and why APD really responded to this event.
I hope we can work together on setting the record straight. Please call on me if you need anything.
From: Scott Henson
Sent: Friday, February 17, 2012 10:45 AM
To: Acevedo, Art
Cc: Sabana, Anna
Subject: followup on yesterday’s discussion, re: records, privacy
Chief Acevedo (and Anna),
I spoke to the my wife last night and my daughter this morning, just to to get my ducks in a row before proceeding – especially since I’d told Ty’s Mom I wouldn’t do any media on this
Before getting to that, though, I’d like to raise something that should have occurred to me while we were talking (as it did in a V-8 moment while I was driving away): Despite the fact that media have filed open-records requests, it’s not at all clear that you’re obligated by law to release everything. Under Section 552.108(a)(2) of the Government Code the department is not required to release records “in relation to an investigation that did not result in conviction or deferred adjudication.” You “may” do so at your discretion, but it is not mandatory.
In addition, my wife (who as luck would have it is a recognized open-records expert who helped draft parts of Texas’ last major open records revision), says that all the material related to Ty – any video of her, the audio of her interrogation, etc, could be eligible for an exception under constitutional privacy provisions incorporated under Section 552.101 of the Government Code, as well as Sec. 552.305 which protects privacy of third parties. She and I believe, and Mom concurs, that exception should apply in the case of a five-year old child and her family, particularly since under 552.108 the case “did not result in conviction or deferred adjudication.”
In light of my belated comprehension of the Open Records laws surrounding this complicated circumstance, I would like to reiterate that my first preference would be that you decline media requests, as I have – tell them it’s at my request – and ask for an Attorney General’s opinion whether the department is required to release any information at all about the stop at all under 552.108 of the Government Code. That’s my preference as well as Ty’s mother’s.
Obviously, though, 552.108 gives the agency discretion to release information if it chooses to about investigations “that did not result in conviction or deferred adjudication.” If you insist on going that route despite my stated first preference, I’m willing to do one MSM interview as we discussed, but I’d please like you to provide certain information to me directly, and also to redact from any information released portions in response to public information act requests directly related to or depicting Ty, requesting an AG opinion on whether its release is appropriate. Specifically:
First, I’d respectfully request that before you release anything to the media, you send me (at a minimum) the following documents, so I’ll have it in hand before I’m asked about it.
The constable’s offense report.
The audio of the 911 call.
The dispatcher/officer audio we listened to leading up to the incident.
Second, in the event you choose to release records in response to public information act requests without requewting an AG’s opinion (using your discretion under 552.108), I would respectfully request that you still send the following items to the Attorney General to ask whether the department is required to release them considering the totality of Sections 552.101, 552.108 and 552.305 of the Government Code:
Any audio or video including from traffic cams or from her interview that depict Ty, her image or her voice
Ask to redact portions of APD offense reports that include Ty’s interview or any other details about the child, or any investigation, background checks, personal information (including names or descriptions) of the child, her mother, my wife, or anyone other than me. I was the suspect so I’m fair game, but under 552.305(a) we think it’s reasonable to redact information about “third parties,” as the statute puts it.
Under 552.305, you can explain to the AG the family asked you to withhold this information. Ty’s mother plans to write a Third-Party letter under 552.305 on Ty’s behalf. Under the statute, a 552.305 request could come from from either us or y’all, but I think it would be good if it came from both of us. Please consider this notice that we’ll soon be filing such a letter.
Finally, just so you won’t think I’m sandbagging you, please know that if we’re going to follow up on this in the MSM together (which I’d still prefer not to do unless you insist), I’ll likely post about it at least once or twice more on my own blog, updating errors in the first post with new facts and alerting folks to our little MSM followup on the topic.
Thanks so much for taking the time to go through everything with me yesterday and I regret this 20-minute episode has taken up so much of both our time this week. Also, I’m sorry for this lengthy addendum to our discussion yesterday, but while you’re “chief” in your shop, I’m not necessarily “chief’ in mine. This is how the missus thinks we should handle it, and I agree.
I told Patrick George when he first emailed about it that “I’m not sure it’s much of a news story,” and I’m still not, but people seem entertained by debating it and apparently that’s what passes for “news” these days.
Give it some thought and let me know how you’d like to proceed.