On January 22, 2018, Bryan Richter, an officer with the Austin Police Department (APD), notorious for the brutal 2015 arrest of local school teacher Breaion King, was fired along with another officer for yet another violent arrest. APD changed its use-of-force review policy based on Richter’s abuse of King, so it was only fitting that Interim Austin Police Chief Brian Manley announced Richter’s firing during a press conference outlining the department’s new de-escalation policy. If the story of Bryan Richter can teach us anything, it's that while police policies and officers come and go, the broken culture of policing persists. Austin needs to radically overhaul citizen oversight of police and how it allocates public safety funds to meaningfully combat rampant, largely race-based police violence.
Bryan Richter had a considerable history of violent behavior as an officer that, had it been addressed properly, might have prevented scores of brutal incidents, including King’s arrest. As far back as 2012, internal police reviews released by the Austin American-Statesman noted that Richter led his region in use-of-force incidents along with having been implicated in three officer-involved shootings by that point. Despite this dubious distinction, he had not been deemed to have violated any department policy. A police culture of impunity was teaching Richter that he could get away with violence unscathed, so predictably, he continued to be violent.
A 2013 analysis of arrests involving Richter, comparing him with five other officers from the same police academy class and patrol area, showed that he used force 75 percent more often than his peers on average - or 17.5 percent of arrests versus 10 percent. Nonetheless, his sergeant wrote an unsolicited letter to his commander defending him that claimed paradoxically that he was “near the average.” According to records obtained by KXAN, from 2006-2016 Richter charged more people with “resisting arrest” than any other Austin police officer though he only joined the force in late 2009.
While the release of dashcam video of his brutal treatment of Breaion King brought national notoriety and strong condemnation from then-Police Chief Art Acevedo, his direct superiors saw little wrong with his actions in their immediate aftermath, giving him a slap on the wrist. By the time the Chief and the rest of the world knew what he’d done nearly a year later, no discipline could be imposed due to the 180-day statute of limitations on police misconduct under state law, which was explicitly maintained in the old Austin police union contract. Again, Richter’s violence was protected by the police, and the likelihood he would commit future violence was increased.
Even after the release of the King video, many in the department continued to defend him. In August of 2017, during the negotiations between the police union and the city for a new contract, Austin Police Association (APA) president Ken Casaday famously proclaimed that half of the department didn’t see anything wrong with Richter’s actions in the King case, including “two well-respected commanders.”
Given how favorably many Austin police view what to the world is clearly police brutality, it should come as no surprise that in this most recent incident, Richter stepped on the head of a suspect with all of his body weight. He’d been taught from the beginning that his violent tactics were in alignment with police policy, near the average and not worthy of punishment. The only real surprise is that he lied about this latest assault in his reports.
Despite it all, he continues to be defended by a police force that can’t recognize brutality when it slaps us in the face. Case in point, in response to Richter’s firing, Casaday called this discipline, without a hint of irony, “excessive.” Now, as he appeals his firing, police will again come to his aid and the history of APD leniency towards violent cops will depressingly comprise his best defense. As multiple news outlets put it, “Officer Richter will likely claim as part of his appeal that his punishment was too excessive and that other officers who have done the same thing were allowed to keep their jobs.”
While Richter’s time off of the police force may be short-lived, it's still important. As Breaion King said in response to his firing, “knowing that he is no longer out there hurting other people and he can no longer hurt me, I feel more at peace.” However, as a city we must also confront the larger systems that enabled and protected Richter for so long. As King’s lawyer, Erica Grigg, correctly commented “...the bigger issue we need to be talking about is why did it take so long for Officer Richter to be disciplined?” With a police culture so hellbent on defending police violence, firing individual officers isn’t enough.
Fortunately, with the collapse of the old police contract, the City of Austin now has a real opportunity to address our serious lack of police accountability, oversight and transparency.
Austin’s citizen oversight bodies had no role in either bringing Richter’s behavior to light or in the “indefinite suspension” (aka firing) that he ultimately received. Even prior to the APA’s December decision to abruptly walk away from contract negotiations and leave Austin’s police oversight regime in peril, the Office of the Police Monitor and (now defunct) Citizen Review Panel, as constructed, were powerless to either warn the community about Richter or even recommend discipline for his repeated use of excessive force.
Therefore, a new, more independent and transparent citizen oversight body must be created. It must be specifically authorized to both receive and fully investigate complaints against officers, and to make public all that it uncovers. With a truly empowered citizen oversight body, we can improve accountability by eliminating the secrecy that emboldens violent cops and allows their superiors to repeatedly sweep their brutality under the rug. Many other cities are already doing this, and we need to catch up.
Next, we need City Council to allocate the millions of dollars that the APA walked away from to addressing the public health issues at the root of a lot of public safety concerns. We’ve got the highest paid officers in the state but we’ve not kept pace with spending for health and human services. Drastically reducing police involvement in homelessness, drug addiction, mental health crises, immigration and juvenile justice will not only allow our City to fund programs better designed to address these issues, it's the only way to truly ensure a reduction in traumatizing and potentially deadly police encounters.