Early one morning last June, a white Austin police officer fatally shot an unarmed 20-year-old black man named Jessie Lee Owens as the officer tried to arrest him for driving a stolen car.
Owens was the second of three young black people killed in Austin by white law enforcement officers over a 13-month period in 2002 and 2003. Many community leaders here say the shootings, and the fact that the three officers kept their jobs, reflect a pattern of racism within the police force and throughout the city. Their accusations have roiled the town, put city leaders on the defensive and sparked turmoil among the police. Most of all, they have called into question the city's self-image of tolerance and diversity.
Home to the University of Texas, a thriving music scene and a robust high-tech industry, Austin markets itself as an outdoorsy city of laid-back brotherly love. It is staunchly Democratic and has been noted as one of the nation's best-managed cities. But to some local black leaders, that reputation rings hollow.
"This city is very tolerant of certain alternative lifestyles," said the Rev. Sterling Lands II, head of the Eastside Social Action Committee and pastor of Greater Calvary Baptist Church. "When it comes down to the area of race, that's where the tolerance ends."
Lands and other police critics said they do not have a problem with the entire police force but they believe the department has allowed racist officers to go unchecked. The shootings, they said, are just the most visible example of the racial discrimination they have protested for decades.
Austin's racial divide, some say, is symbolized by Interstate 35, which runs from Mexico to Canada and bisects the city. To the west are the prosperous, predominantly white parts of the city; to the east is a working-class area populated mostly by minorities. Local activists say the city has let the east side's schools, social services and infrastructure languish.
Toby Futrell, Austin's city manager, disputes that the city has turned a blind eye to east Austin. The city invests more than twice as much in facilities in east Austin as in other areas, and in recent years crime has decreased sharply there, she said. Nonetheless, Futrell acknowledged a history of racism in the city.
"It's thick and it's deep, and it's not something you make progress on by denying," she said.
All three of the recent shootings took place east of the freeway. A year before Owens's death, Sophia King, a mentally ill 23-year-old, was killed by an Austin police officer as she allegedly threatened her apartment manager with a knife. Last July, a Travis County sheriff's deputy fatally shot Lennon Johnson, 27, after Johnson pulled the deputy into his car and drove off.
Officer Scott Glasgow, who killed Owens, was indicted on one count of criminally negligent homicide, which a judge later dismissed. No charges were filed against the two other officers; in both cases, independent or internal investigations concluded the officers acted appropriately and no disciplinary action was warranted.
The Austin Police Department's use-of-force rates are far below the national average, according to a one-year 1999 Justice Department survey. Police here also have a reputation for helping illegal immigrants collect wages from employers who seek to take advantage of them. And the ethnic makeup of the department roughly reflects the local population -- 66 percent of officers are white, 21 percent are Hispanic, and 11 percent are black.
Even so, the Owens case became a rallying point for civil rights activists in Austin, as did some stark statistics. In January, the Austin American-Statesman reported that between 1998 and 2003, local police were twice as likely to use force against blacks as against whites, and 25 percent more likely to use it against Hispanics than against whites. In that period, seven people, six of them black or Hispanic, were fatally shot by Austin police officers. All of the officers were white.
Then two studies found racial profiling to be common in Austin and across the state. One, commissioned by a coalition of civil liberties groups, found that Austin police stopped black and Hispanic motorists at least 50 percent more often than whites. They searched blacks and Hispanics more than twice as often as they did whites, but they found contraband on whites twice as often as on blacks or Hispanics.
The reports enraged the department's rank and file, who said they had been unfairly branded racist and abusive. In February, the police union bought radio ads declaring that officers were dedicated civil servants who "have had a rough time recently with all the police-bashing in the newspaper."
Owens had a police record. In recent years, he had pleaded no contest to three misdemeanors -- marijuana possession, a family-violence charge and driving with a suspended license. But things were changing for Owens, said his great-aunt, Hazel Obey, who is a well-known local civil rights activist. After not holding a steady job since he dropped out of high school at 17, Owens had an appointment for a job interview at Jiffy Lube on June 16.
But early on the morning of June 14, Glasgow, a three-year veteran of the Austin Police Department, spotted Owens driving in east Austin in a Dodge Neon that had been reported stolen. Before any backup officers arrived, Glasgow approached the car and tried to arrest Owens. But Owens accelerated, trapping Glasgow in the car door and dragging him down the street, according to the department. That's when Glasgow fired.
In February, the city's civilian police monitor and a citizens review panel recommended that Glasgow be dismissed. Instead, Police Chief Stanley L. Knee suspended Glasgow for 90 days, concluding that he had failed to follow procedures, including waiting for backup. But, Knee said, Glasgow had reason to believe his life was in danger and he made a split-second decision.
The police union called the suspension too severe and accused Knee of not standing up for the force. But to Owens's friends and relatives and other activists, who have questioned Glasgow's account of the shooting, it amounted to a slap on Glasgow's wrist.
The Justice Department, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Texas are investigating possible civil rights violations in the three shootings.
In January, Knee acknowledged long-standing perceptions of racial favoritism of police forces around the country and apologized publicly for the "history of my profession," though he did not specifically include Austin in his comments.
He proposed to equip police officers with stun guns -- which use electric shocks to temporarily immobilize suspects without killing them -- and he has called in national experts to evaluate the department's training and evaluation procedures. In addition, officers are now required to get signed consent from suspects before performing vehicle searches, which Knee said turn up contraband only 12 percent of the time. The purpose of the new consent forms is to decrease searches, which are seen as unfairly targeting minorities. If searches do not drop by 20 percent this year, Knee said, he will resign.
"It's my job to bring the community and police back together," he said in an interview.
The Rev. Ivie Rich, president of the Austin Baptist Ministers' Union, which has strongly criticized city leaders, said he hopes the debate will bring profound changes.
"We're not looking for any quick fix," Rich said. "What we're trying to do is heal our community."