Leading with Community: How the Austin Justice Coalition is Winning Police Reform that Matters

February 12, 2019

The Austin Justice Coalition (AJC) is a community organization that focuses on improving the quality of life for people who are Black, Brown, and poor, and is a grantee of Borealis Philanthropy’s Communities Transforming Policing Fund. AJC’s mission is to provide the tools for people of color and people who are marginalized to improve their lives by being the driving force behind their own liberation.

We talked to AJC’s Executive Director and Founder Chas Moore, Board Chair and Director of Operations Sukyi McMahon, and leader of Development and Strategic Partnerships Frances Jordan about how they won a police union contract that could make Austin have one of the most transparent police departments in the country and how funders can support systems change policy work.

What brings you to your work?

Chas Moore: I was on track to be this famous comedian, but at 17 I got caught up in criminal justice system. Prior to that, I knew racism existed, but actually living the life of a convicted felon and having to jump over hurdles when it came to housing, jobs, being a college student— that’s what made me more aware of the criminal justice system and how it works. I was trying to maneuver through life with this scarlet letter F. Trayvon Martin’s murder also motivated me. That was our generation’s Emmett Till in a way. I think it’s my turn to try to do something.

Sukyi McMahon: I come from a policing family. My dad was a model for policing to me. He never once drew his gun and didn’t believe that should be necessary in the course of his 40 years as a police officer. I felt like I had a perspective that could be lent to this work.

Frances Jordan:. I’m amazed at what AJC is able to do with so little resources, I can’t imagine what it would be able to do with more resources.

How has the organization evolved since you were founded?

Sukyi: Back when we started in 2015 we were more protest oriented, but we realized that we needed to be more and do more, and pivoted into policy work. That opened us up to different pathways for people to do activism. There is something for everyone—if you come to AJC, you will find work to do. For people who come to activism they ask “what’s next,” and we always have a what’s next. We ask you what are you capable of, and how much of that you can offer to us.

Chas: We had an “aha” moment during the rally for Philando Castile when 2,000 people came out. We had to transfer from that protest to meeting and organizing. Protests are cool because you can galvanize people, but that caused us to think about how to answer the questions people were marching for. How do we get transparency and accountability? The work is not always sexy like marches and rallies, but this is where the fight should take place.

Can you tell me about a recent win you feel proud of?

Sukyi: Inserting community-led reforms into the police union contract in Austin is the culmination of a lot of wins for us. It’s going to elicit so much change in the landscape of reform in Austin.

It’s been a two-year process. Back in 2016 during the budget session, the Austin Police Department (APD) asked for $13 million for new cops. We said: how about you do a bunch of reforms and ensure that police officers aren’t coming into a broken department? We asked for a process for community to be involved in the police union contract. The city agreed and attached our proposal for “Better Before More” as a budget rider. They said, in a year we’ll come back and see what APD has done. Spoiler alert: APD did not get their money a year later.

It was clear there was going to be no process to facilitate us getting involved in negotiations. We pulled a Shirley Chisholm and brought our own chairs. We started a massive public education and outreach campaign. We went to the key districts of swing votes and no votes, had forums, and educated the public. We reached out to key influential leaders around the city. Last year, the city council unanimously voted no on the contract, and sent it back.

The police association decided that they didn’t want to come back to the negotiating table and for almost a year we had no contract. Then finally, we began to have a real seat at the table. This was the first time that a liberal, Black-led group got the city to say to no to a contract and insert our reforms.

We won an independent police oversight office that reports to the city manager, as well as the ability to make complaints against the police department anonymously (and online). The oversight body can make its findings public and tell people what has happened with their complaints. If the police chief disagrees with the recommendations of the oversight office, he must respond publicly. Also, suspensions of police officers will no longer be reduced to a written reprimand.

How did you decide that taking on the police union contract was an effective way to combat police abuse and misconduct?

Sukyi: We can work all day on the policy manual at Austin Police Department, but discipline is held inside of the contract. If the culture doesn’t meet the policy, what’s the use? When we talk about police misconduct and shootings, most of the time it comes down to the contract and how empowered the police feel to do things and get away with them. The culture in policing that allows for bad policing is allowed in contracts. Now we get a deeper look into a black box that we couldn’t see before.

What’s the next step after this win? 

Sukyi: The police monitor has the ability to start reporting and put together what oversight looks like. We’ll have a hand in the inner workings of the oversight system, but we need transparency as well. Part of what AJC does well is holding people accountable.

Chas: The police department still has a lot of policy issues. We also want to work on misdemeanor arrests. We had a work group making sure that people weren’t going to jail for Class C misdemeanors, and now people won’t go to jail for things like public intoxication.

When it comes to law enforcement we need to make sure that cops are not the first responders for mental health calls. We are also looking forward to expanding our Project Orange initiative, which involves registering eligible inmates to vote.

Frances: We have a Higher Learning program, which is a free resource to kids between five and seventeen where we teach kids how to be movement makers themselves. We have adults leading and being excellent examples of being movement makers. Through Higher Learning, we also find ways to lead and teach our youth  as they’re growing up.

How can others implement similar policies in other cities?  

Sukyi: Every place is going to be different. In Austin, we have the unique situation where we are somewhat progressive. It starts with a really good idea of what’s changeable. It takes a significant amount of coalition building. There is no way we could have done this without data analysts, historians, attorneys, full on grassroots rabble rousers, and academics. Campaign zero has a good report on contracts and it’s a good place to start.

Chas: Everybody within movement work wants to use techniques that have been victorious and take it to where they are. A lot of times in the movement we don’t celebrate the wins enough. To us, this was a pretty big blow to the system. Getting our story out can be inspirational for people.

What do you wish funders would do to support systems change work?

Sukyi: Funders should provide access for us. We should be able to tell them what our needs are, and they should tell us who to go to.

Frances: As Chas always says,We like to take a crack in a door and run with it.”  It’s hard to predict the work that happens. If there’s an issue that comes up, we’re tackling the issues as they come and they aren’t going anywhere.

Chas: I think donors need to do more research about groups like ours that are actually doing the work as opposed to just giving funds to organizations that they know because they have been around for many years. Funders need to resource organizations so that they can move freely. That was critical for us in the fight against this contract. We didn’t have to check in all the time and worry about doing the right thing; we could be who we were. 

Learn more about the Austin Justice Coalition: check out their website, follow them on Twitter, and like them on Facebook.