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Election protests could test new APD policies, but city officials and activists worry they don’t go far enough
When David Frost was arrested while attending a Sept. 18 protest in downtown Austin, he was a seasoned participant.
Frost had first protested on May 30, in support of Black Lives Matter. That night, Austin police officers used bean bag bullets and tear gas against screaming protestors, who had gathered on I-35, blocking traffic, and near the department headquarters on East 8th Street.
Frost pulled out his phone and started recording videos. One showed a group of protesters carrying the limp body of Justin Howell, a Texas State University student who had been shot in the head with a so-called "less lethal" round.
Outrage over the video, and similar ones posted on social media, led Austin Police Department Chief Brian Manley in June to ban bean bag bullets in crowd control situations. Austin City Council soon voted unanimously to ban the use of tear gas and facial recognition technology against protesters—and promised more reforms would come.
Union officials said the changes compromise public safety, while activists said more needs to be done to hold police accountable.
Since then, Frost has regularly attended local protests—about every other week—and has noticed a shift in the crowd control tactics used by police.
"I've been in about four or five marches already that have resulted in multiple arrests," he said.
At the Sept. 18 protest, organized in response to the decision of a Kentucky grand jury to indict only one of three Louisville police officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor, Frost was one of several protesters who were arrested.
Frost said he had broken apart from the group and was leaving to attend his birthday party. Instead, he spent the night in jail and was later charged with impeding a roadway and evading police on foot.
A member of the Austin Lawyers Guild is representing Frost pro bono, but the 23-year-old plans to keep on protesting—and recording, if necessary. He expects there to be mass events downtown this week related to the election.
"I'm definitely going to be down there to watch what happens," he said.
In late May and June, Austinites gathered en masse to protest the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Mike Ramos in Austin. Hundreds of residents called into City Council meetings to demand policy changes and to voice support for the newly mainstream push to "defund the police," or otherwise reallocating police funds.
Local elected officials responded, banning certain interventions in crowd control situations and unanimously approving a vote of no confidence in APD's leadership to end police violence against communities of color.
Although local protests have continued, they are on a much smaller scale than they were in late May and early June and have not escalated to the level of those in Portland.
Despite calls from activists, many residents and some council members, Manley has kept his job. His department, however, has changed its crowd control policies.
In the last few months, APD officers have relied more on arrest tactics, Assistant Chief Joe Chacon told Austonia.
"It's been very effective," he said.
The department also deploys mounted, or horseback, patrol units in some protests, Chacon added.
"The sheer size of the horse up against you—people just move," he said. "It's just a safe and more effective tactic."
Chacon is optimistic that the department will be able to manage any election-related protests effectively, as it did in 2016.
"I truly feel like this one will be manageable as well," he said.
But others are not so sure.
On Thursday, the Austin City Council's public safety committee sent an open letter to Manley, requesting updates on how his department will ensure any protests in the aftermath of Election Day will proceed "without injury either to the public or our own public servants."
In addition to raising concerns about the department's crowd control tactics and ability to rebuild trust with the community, the committee's members asked Manley to respond to recent reports that APD has treated domestic terrorist and white supremacist groups "differently and less forcefully than peaceful protesters."
They mentioned two specific incidents.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, APD pulled over a vehicle downtown for numerous traffic violations on June 3. The individuals in the vehicle were "heavily armed, dressed in tactical gear and had access to hundreds of rounds of ammunition," per the letter.
One individual claimed to be a South Texas leader of the Boogaloo Bois, a far-right extremist group whose members have committed terrorist acts. The same individual admitted to being present for the vandalism and burning of a Minneapolis Police Department precinct building earlier this year.
APD, however, apparently released the group without charges or further investigation.
More recently, some participants in the Oct. 17 Women's March Austin reported harassment, assaults and other acts of violence from far-right groups such as the Proud Boys—whose members President Trump recently told to "stand back and stand by"—to council. One plans to file suit against APD for refusing to charge their attacker, according to the letter.
Protesters listen to speakers at the Oct. 17 Women's March in Austin.(Heather McKenzie/Austonia)
Gaubrielle Pritchard, event manager of the Austin Justice Coalition, said the march was scary, not only because of the Proud Boys' presence but also because APD officers allowed it. "You don't really know when they're going to have your backs," she said.
The letter also asked for an update on ongoing investigations into officer misconduct during the protests in May and June. APD has placed seven officers on administrative duty as a result of protest-related incidents.
"We want to be absolutely clear what the expectations are for a response to any peaceful protests this November," Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said in a statement. "And we want Chief Manley to help assure Austinites that we will not see a repeat of the violent tactics APD used against peaceful demonstrators this spring."
An APD spokesperson said Manley would respond to the letter when he returns to the office this week.
On Tuesday, Manley responded to City Council. In a letter, he said that APD supervisors have been trained "to lead their officers in managing peaceful protesters with the least amount of physical intervention necessary." Further details about how the department will avoid the casualties seen earlier this year were not included. "To avoid compromising operational security, I cannot offer specifics of the plan," he wrote.
As far as combatting extremism, Manley said the department reviewed the two incidents mentioned in the initial letter and did not find any misconduct.
APD is not alone in these policy changes. Departments across the country have been forced, by local officials or public opinion, to change how they approach protest situations.
But Merrick Bobb, executive director of the Police Assessment Resource Center and former court-appointed monitor of the Seattle Police Department, said it remains unclear how effective they will be in practice.
"It's too early to tell because most of these changes were adopted after the protests over the death of George Floyd and we haven't, knock on wood, had a lot of serious protests since then," he told Austonia.
Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association, is concerned about what might happen this week—especially if the election results are delayed. Although he understands the decision to ban bean bag bullets in crowd control situations, he feels the tear gas prohibition goes too far.
"Would you rather see someone get tackled and handcuffed or a can of pepper spray get opened up and people run away?" he said.
Casaday claimed 120 members of APD's special response team—which is trained to handle protests—have quit or retired as a result of the policy changes.
"The officers didn't feel safe," he said.
Bobb said this type of response from union officials is to be expected.
"The unions have been pretty much uniform in their not wanting to see these changes made," he said.
Others feel the policy changes don't go far enough.
Warren Burkley, community outreach director for AJC, said a prohibition on tear gas "doesn't really matter" if APD officers are now arresting protesters unnecessarily.
"It's definitely more of intimidation than outright violence because the outright violence backfired on them," he said.
In any case, it's likely Austinites will know more soon.
"The next big challenge may be Election Day," Bobb said. "I really hope not."
This story has been updated to include APD Chief Brian Manley's Nov. 3 response to Austin City Council.
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17 years and three medals later, Osterman's last ride with USA softball is over. What's next for Cat?
Nearly two decades after her debut with the University of Texas and 17 years after her first Olympic gold, softball icon Cat Osterman stepped off the Olympic pitcher's mound for the last time with a silver medal to take back home.
Osterman, a three-time Olympian who has been called the "Michael Jordan of softball," will officially retire from the international realm at 38 after a decorated career that included Olympic golds, years of retirement and plenty of adversity—from a worldwide pandemic to dashed gold-medal dreams.
Osterman and her crew left Tokyo on a bittersweet note on Tuesday with a silver medal in hand.
Osterman with Team USA in 2008. (Antoni Majewski/Twitter)
Osterman in the final in 2021. (Antoni Majewski/Twitter)
After a year of sparse in-person training and over a decadelong hiatus, Team USA and Osterman flew to the finals. In five games, the team beat Italy (2-0), Canada (1-0), Mexico (2-0), Australia (2-1), and Japan (2-1).
Deja vu struck in the final match. On one side, Osterman and fellow 2008 Olympic teammate Monica Abbott took the mound; on the other was the 39-year-old Yukiko Ueno, a familiar foe who helped the team beat Team USA last go-round.
"Just like 13 years ago," Ueno said in a press conference, "we were facing each other in the final."
Ueno, who had lost hopes at gold to Osterman in '04, outpitched her longtime opponent with six scoreless innings as Team USA was held to just three hits. The same team that squandered their gold-medal hopes 13 years before had done it once again.
Your Tokyo 2020 Olympic Silver Medalists 🇺🇸#TokyoOlympics | @TeamUSA pic.twitter.com/MOMNOedHUd
— USA Softball Women's National Team 🇺🇸 (@USASoftballWNT) July 27, 2021
"There's a little bit of disappointment in not bringing home the gold since that's the eye on the prize when you go over there and you know you have a shot at it," Osterman told Austonia. "But more than anything, I'm very proud of the way our team handled everything that was part of this journey and not just the six games."
It's that very loss at the 2008 Olympics that partially motivated Osterman to get back on the mound. She officially put down the glove in 2015 after six seasons with the USSSA Pride, took time with family and began coaching at Texas State University.
Osterman helped ace Randi Rupp to greatness while a coach at Texas State University. (Active Voice Health/Twitter)
She thought her Olympic endeavors were well over—until talks of reinstating softball into the Games reentered the conversation.
"It wasn't until 2016 or 2017, that it ever crossed my mind to possibly put the USA uniform on again," Osterman said. "After the World Championships in 2010, I walked away, and I thought that my career on the international stage was done. So this was a pleasant kind of new opportunity."
Three years after facing any competition, Osterman was on the field once more with world-class athletes. Some, like Osterman and Abbott, had been playing together long enough to form a formidable "Fire and Ice" duo on the mound. Others had just graduated college.
Osterman said playing with a younger generation of athletes was one of the most rewarding aspects of this year's Games.
"It can be very different when you have 24- and 38-year-olds on the same field," Osterman said. "The adversity put us in some challenging positions and we came through with flying colors. And this group will forever be special just because what we had to go through is so different."
While on the mound, Osterman's job was to give the team a calm start. Off of the field, she felt her role had much of the same effect: she knew that new Olympic feeling, and she served as a deep breath to her first-time teammates.
"There's no words to explain how nervous and excited you get knowing that the whole world can be watching," Osterman. "I think using those emotions and figuring out how to get all our butterflies lined up and going in the right direction, so that way we were all moving together, was kind of my role outside of pitching."
We've heard her retire once before, but this time Osterman said she's gone for good—even from coaching. After her final time with Team USA on Sept. 27, she plans on returning to Austin, where she'll look to work for a nonprofit.
A gold and two silvers will have to do for one of the most decorated athletes in U.S. softball history.
"To be able to say you're a three-time Olympic medalist is a pretty special deal, right?" Osterman. "I played for a long time. But those are the pinnacle, in my mind, and kind of what elicits the dream to keep playing."
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Hospitals are facing a "significant" increase in admissions of pregnant women due to COVID-19 complications, Austin-Travis County health officials say, revealing what could be a long-term side effect of the virus.
Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes met with three maternal medicine specialists on Monday morning to warn of yet another COVID-19 Delta variant concern: severe cases of the disease affecting unvaccinated mothers-to-be.
The doctors said unvaccinated pregnant women face an increased risk of preterm births, long-term effects, preeclampsia, ICU stays, stillbirths, being put on life support and even death if they are unvaccinated.
"We are really concerned that we are not getting that population of folks to hear this message of the safety of vaccines, so today we're assembled, one and all to say, wear a mask and please get vaccinated," Walkes said. "Vaccinations are the way to prevent severe disease and hospitalizations and death."
Medical Director of Maternal Fetal Medicine at St. David's Women's Center of Texas Dr. Kimberly DeStefano said 95% of pregnant women admitted with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, stressing that all pregnant and lactating women should get the vaccine not only to protect themselves but to protect their babies from infection, which can be passed through breastmilk or birth.
"We know that the earlier in pregnancy you are vaccinated, the more antibodies are present at the time of birth for the infant," DeStefano said. "This is something that's very important, both during the pregnancy and postpartum."
Catching COVID-19 while pregnant can cause adverse effects on the baby, particularly because it increases the risk of preterm births. Baylor Scott & White Maternal Obstetrics Chief of Maternal Medicine Dr. Jessica Ehrig, said that preterm births are one of the "biggest impacts" on childhood development.
"We know that (preterm births) can have long-term effects depending on how early a baby's born," Ehrig said. "It increases the risk for long term respiratory issues, for blindness sometimes (and) for neurologic development delays."
Since mid-July, COVID-19 hospitalizations have been on a steep rise that sent the city back to recommending Stage 4 guidelines. As the seven-day rolling average of hospitalizations surpassed 50 admissions, Stage 5 guidelines could be on the horizon. The city reported 54 new admissions and 546 total new cases on Friday.
Delta is more contagious than chickenpox, Walkes said, and even vaccinated individuals can catch and spread the virus without symptoms. The group of doctors asked everyone, especially pregnant women, to mask while in public as local hospitals pass the Stage 5 threshold.
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