Editorial: Austin voters should relax pot laws, outlaw no-knock raids

American-Statesman Editorial Board
A state trooper photographs a rally to legalize marijuana at the Governor’s Mansion on Wednesday, April 20.

Austin residents will be able to cast one vote May 7 to make two decisive changes to the law regarding police policy: A ban on so-called “no-knock” raids in criminal investigations and the elimination of most low-level marijuana arrests and citations.   

We recommend a vote for Proposition A, which would codify into law policies the Austin city council adopted in 2020. Both police reforms reached the ballot through a petition by Ground Game Texas, a social justice advocacy group. Early voting begins tomorrow, April 25, and ends on May 3.

Proposition A would forbid Austin police officers in most cases from ticketing or arresting people for possessing small amounts of pot (less than four ounces) or related paraphernalia, unless the offenses are tied to more serious crimes. 

We support Prop A's marijuana provision, not least because data shows that enforcement of pot laws is often inequitable. For example, the ACLU found in 2020 that Black people in the U.S. are nearly four times as likely as white people to be arrested for pot possession, even though its use is fairly even among all races. Austin police data showed that of 432 marijuana citations issued in 2019, 201 were issued to Hispanics and 163 to African Americans, making up 84% of all citations. An arrest and conviction for a low-level marijuana offense can create a criminal record for otherwise law-abiding citizens, preventing them from obtaining certain jobs, student loans and more. Three-fifths of Texas voters across partisan lines say at least a small amount of marijuana should be legal, according to a poll last year. 

Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association union, told our board the department has no official position on the marijuana component of Proposition A. Police stopped issuing possession citations or arrrests six months after the city council adopted its policy in 2020. That's all the more reason to give the policy the weight of law.

We also strongly support Prop A's call to ban no-knock warrants that have led to injuries in Austin and killings of innocent people in other cities. This type of warrant, an outgrowth of the war on drugs launched decades ago, allows heavily armed officers to enter a residence unannounced, sometimes with weapons drawn. 

A policy adopted by the city council in 2020 says "no-knock warrants should be restricted." Prop A would ban the raids outright. Under APD’s current policy, the department can use no-knock warrants with approval from both a commander and a judge when officer safety is at risk. Under Proposition A, officers would be required to knock, announce their presence and wait at least 15 seconds prior to executing a warrant.

A ban on no-knock raids wouldn't just protect suspects and innocent people who might be on the other side of the door, it could also protect police, who in some cases have been shot when mistaken for intruders. 

It's unclear how many no-knock raids APD conducts each year. Casaday told us the number was less than five last year, but APD did not provide us an exact number when we requested it last week. Casaday said the union is strongly opposed to eliminating no-knock warrants because they can offer protection for officers arresting potentially violent criminals. But based on the number of violent incidents stemming from no-knock raids around the country, we think their use poses more problems than they solve.

Proposition A would take two important steps toward making Austin's police policies more equitable, less punitive and more safe. We recommend voters support it.