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Study Finds Stark Racial Disparities for Low-Level Drug Offenses In Travis County, Texas

The authors reported that 29.4 percent of the possession cases involved Black individuals in a county where Black people make up only 8.9 percent of the population.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.

Study Finds Stark Racial Disparities for Low-Level Drug Offenses In Travis County, Texas

The authors reported that 29.4 percent of the possession cases involved Black individuals in a county where Black people make up only 8.9 percent of the population.


A coalition of criminal justice reform groups has found significant racial disparities in arrests and incarceration rates for people in possession of a gram or less of controlled substances in Travis County, Texas. A new report on the findings comes as the county’s largest police department, in Austin, faces accusations of institutional racism and overzealous policing of people for drug use, even in cases where both the City Council and the county prosecutor have said they will not prosecute.

The report, released Tuesday by four Texas-based organizations, shows a sharp uptick in the overall number of drug arrests across the county. “Between 2013 and 2017, the number of low-level Possession of a Controlled Substance (POCS) cases in Travis County increased by 43 percent,” while the county’s courts experienced a 67 percent increase in new felony drug possession cases, the report states. Travis County stands out from the rest of the state, with an increase in drug possession cases that was 2.5 times higher than other Texas courts.

The study was conducted by Grassroots Leadership in partnership with the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, and the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law. Their report details glaring racial disparities in police treatment of Black and Latinx individuals. During the study period, 29.4 percent of the county’s possession cases involved Black individuals in a county where Black people make up only 8.9 percent of the population.

Law enforcement officials within the county have faced growing criticism in recent months over those disparities. In January, Austin’s city manager released a report stating that “people of color in Austin are still stopped in their motor vehicles at disproportionately higher rates than their percentage of the population in Austin.” The same month, Police Chief Brian Manley said his department would continue to arrest and ticket people for possession of small amounts of marijuana, even though the City Council and the county prosecutor have decided not to prosecute marijuana offenses in light of a new Texas law intended to protect hemp farmers. 

Manley’s comments came after he faced allegations in November that he allowed an assistant chief to step down rather than face an investigation over allegations that he repeatedly used racist language to refer to African Americans.

David Johnson, criminal justice organizer for Grassroots Leadership, told The Appeal: “I can’t ignore the fortuitousness of the situation where we’ve done a data report about drug arrests, and shortly before our report came out, a report on policing practices came out, and shortly before that, APD was exposed as having extremely actively racist individuals at the highest levels of the organization.”

Johnson said the Austin Police Department is, “to put it kindly, enthusiastic, if not doggedly persecutive” about arresting people for marijuana, and the coalition’s report shows that the department is equally aggressive about arresting people for possessing personal-use amounts of any controlled substance.

The majority of drug possession arrests during the study period took place during traffic stops, which, as the earlier city report on traffic stops found, happen to a “disproportionate” number of Black and Latinx residents. According to the study, the majority of drug arrests took place within city limits.

“If we’re going to talk about Austin, we have to look at essentially racist policing policies and procedures,” Johnson said.

Those policies and procedures frequently lead to the arrest of individuals experiencing an overdose or mental health issues. According to the report, roughly 5 percent of possession arrests took place while police were responding to a medical or mental health crisis. Unlike 40 other states, Texas doesn’t have a Good Samaritan law, which would protect those who call law enforcement to help themselves or someone else during a drug overdose.

In one case, the report says, an officer was called to do a welfare check on a man who had passed out from an overdose. Emergency Medical Services revived the man and took him to the hospital; the officer arrested him after his release. In another case, an officer arrested a person experiencing suicidal thoughts after searching the individual and his home and finding “less than a gram of cocaine.”

According to the report, “Half of the cases relating directly to medical or mental health crises resulted in jail time anywhere between two days and two years, delaying or denying the immediate need to respond to medical and mental health needs.”

Johnson said the Austin Police Department isn’t the only law enforcement entity to blame for the increase in drug possession arrests or for the racial disparities in those arrests.

“The simple fact is that we had a district attorney who has simply refused to do anything meaningfully different with drug cases. They’re just pushing people through, pushing people through, pushing people through,” Johnson said. “It’s the district attorney’s office that has the power to not prosecute.” 

District Attorney Margaret Moore, who is running for re-election this year, has been widely criticized for supporting the prosecution of people possessing less than a gram of drugs such as cocaine or methamphetamine, and for continuing the use of cash bail. Her opponent, José Garza, has vowed to address racial inequities in the criminal justice system. Last month, Garza was endorsed in the race by Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren.

The Austin Police Department declined to respond to questions about the report’s findings. The district attorney’s office didn’t reply to requests for an interview or statement.

An earlier version of this article misstated the percentage of drug possession cases involving African Americans in Travis County. It’s 29.4 percent, not 29.9 percent.