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Police Oversight Focus Group haggles way to final consensus

Tuesday, March 28, 2000 by

Marathon meeting jells most issues for report but will not be unanimous

The baby has been gestating for nine months and after an intensive seven and a half hours of labor yesterday the delivery was a success, more or less. The baby in this case is a final agreement among members of the council-appointed Police Oversight Focus Group that the Austin Police Department (APD) should have civilian oversight consisting of a Police Monitor (a new term adopted instead of police auditor, the term previously used) and a Police Review Panel (or PRP, a new term adopted instead of a Civilian Review Board).

The Focus Group has been meeting regularly since last June 30. Members have taken two out-of-state trips to investigate how civilian oversight works elsewhere, and held two public hearings in Austin to listen to citizens. One more meeting will be scheduled to sign the final report for submission to the City Council by April 15. The City Council is not expected to decide whether to adopt civilian oversight but instead would refer the recommendations for negotiation through the Meet and Confer Agreement. This agreement is a contract between the City of Austin and the Austin Police Association (APA) governing the city's relations with its police officers. The current contract expires Sept. 23. The first meeting to begin negotiations for a new contract is scheduled for April 23.

Basics of recommended police oversight

The Focus Group will recommend that the Police Monitor be a lawyer with at least eight years experience, who has practiced criminal law with actual trial experience. The police monitor would monitor all investigations of police officers and have unfettered access to the APD disciplinary process. The police monitor would be hired by and report to the city manager.

The PRP would consist of nine members and two alternates appointed by the City Council. Members would serve two-year staggered terms. Members would receive two to three days of training from parts of the Austin Police Academy, ride with patrol officers for at least three hours in each of the city's six police sectors, and meet with community groups or individuals with interest in police oversight.

The police monitor would be the nonvoting chair of the PRP. The PRP would review complaints which were not upheld and were appealed and not resolved to the complainants' satisfaction. The monitor would present information from the investigation. The complainant will be allowed to speak. The officer will be invited but is not required to attend or speak. Witnesses may be heard. The PRP can recommend to the police chief that Internal Affairs Division (IAD) conduct further investigations, request the chief to reconsider disciplinary decisions, make policy recommendations to the police chief, or request an independent investigation if prescribed conditions are met. The conditions are that a majority of the PRP recommends it, the Police Monitor concurs, and either the police chief or city manager concurs.

Final report based on many compromises

Neither the police officers on the Focus Group nor the strongest advocate for police oversight are getting all they wanted in the final recommendations. Detective Mike Sheffield, APA president, brought nine pages of suggested changes to the report, and much of the yesterday was spent reviewing, modifying and in most cases adopting the changes.

Sheffield's most controversial recommendation involved qualifications to serve on the PRP, whose members would be appointed by the City Council. Sheffield sought standards for PRP members similar to the qualifications to be hired as an Austin police officer, to include a background check for credit history, criminal history, and driving record, plus psychological screening and compliance with APD policies concerning drug use and drug screening. The Focus Group agreed only to recommend that convicted felons or people under indictment for a felony be barred from serving, and even that was controversial.

Dissenting voices

At least two Focus Group members are expected to dissent from the majority view. Former Mayor Roy Butler has not changed his stance since the group voted 7-0 on last October 13 to agree that the APD needs civilian oversight. Butler abstained from that vote and two members were absent. (See In Fact Daily Oct. 14, 1999.) Yesterday Butler said he would sign the group's final report but he also will submit a one-page dissenting opinion which concluded, "In summary, I do not feel the need for a CRB (Civilian Review Board) has been established. However, if the mayor and council, in their wisdom, do deem a CRB in the public interest, I join my colleagues in recommending this one."

Officer Lisa Morrill shocked most Focus Group members when she said she would not sign the final report, citing issues that had not been laid on the table for discussion. She supports the establishment of a Police Monitor's office but not a PRP. Further, she said the Police Monitor should not be on the list for notification to observe critical incidents or be allowed to sit in on interviews that IAD conducts with suspects and witnesses. However, Morrill said she would reserve her final decision about signing the report until she gets to read it in its entirely in its final form.

Morrill's unexpected resistance caused Attorney Ann del Llano to confront Morrill during a break, with del Llano clearly frustrated over Morrill's defection. Outside the meeting, Morrill told In Fact Daily that she differed with Sheffield on several points. She said her viewpoint had been molded by discussions with other officers, including members of the IAD, who objected to having anyone present while interviewing witnesses or suspects.

Police disciplinary records will remain shielded from public view

Strong debate fails to convince majority records should be open

At present, the APD constitutes a closed society. Disciplinary actions that do not result in a suspension are quietly handled within the department and the written records of investigations and disposition are shielded from public view. Only when the punishment rises to the level of suspension or there is a criminal charge does the public have the ability to see any information about the infraction.

Attorney Ann del Llano, past president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Central Texas and co-chair of the Sunshine Project for Police Accountability, has been working to open up the disciplinary process. At yesterday's meeting of the Police Oversight Focus Group, she sought to make public access to APD disciplinary records equal to those of the Travis County Sheriff's Office. ( Sheriff Margo Frasier has appeared before the Focus Group to discuss how that works. See In Fact Daily Feb. 29.) This provision would allow members of the public to obtain copies of investigative files after an investigation has been completed, with no documents released that would affect the officer's Constitutional rights. While three other Focus Group members agreed with del Llano, none were willing to force a vote on the matter.

Detective Mike Sheffield, president of the Austin Police Association, argued that under the proposed process the complainant and the accused officer would have access to the investigative files and could make them public if desired. Del Llano said that was not a practical way for the public to gain access, as the public would not know who the complainants were. Sheffield said the goal should be to have the department police itself. "This department isn't like L.A. ( Los Angeles)," Sheffield said. "How can we know that?" retorted del Llano. "No one knew (in Los Angeles) until that officer spoke." Sheffield remained unmoved, saying, "I'm seeing this as a heck of a start." Del Llano noted that three civilians had been "gunned down" by the police in early 1999. Because the investigative records are closed, she said, "We'll never know what those cases were about. We can never look back and see what happened. If we make a system that works, we want to be able to show the public that it does work." Even del Llano's fallback request to have investigative files made available two years later, after legal liability expires, was not accepted.

After some 45 minutes of debate on the matter of open records, attorney Eric Galton of Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody, who serves as pro bono mediator for the Focus Group, said, "I don't want consensus to collapse." Noting that some people never expected the Focus Group to be able to recommend civilian oversight, Galton said, "We're on the precipice of something historic." He proposed a compromise for Sheffield to drop Police Review Panel (PRP) member qualifications in return for del Llano dropping the request for open records. That didn't work and Galton called a break, in which he took Sheffield and del Llano aside to discuss the matter further.

After the break del Llano called for a vote on her suggested language for making records open as in the Sheriff's Office. That request was rebuffed. Attorney Tom Kolker said, "Things in the report are consensus (items)…Things we don't have consensus on we don't include…It's an impasse."

Galton tried to put the situation in perspective, saying, "We are occupying a moment in history where something that didn't exist will exist…In 2,100 mediations I've never been at the end of the day where everybody was happy, but with something everyone could live with…We have to be left with a sense of hope that we did something good for a community we love."

Galton suggested that Sheffield and del Llano include their unresolved points in individual member's observations to be attached to the report but not make them part of the recommendations. "Maybe we all thought at the end of the process we'd feel delirious, but I'm just happy we're together," he said.

Del Llano said she couldn't agree because Sheffield will pursue his aims in negotiations for a new Meet and Confer Agreement. "Mike Sheffield will take everything he wants to Meet and Confer and have little opposition across the table," she said. Sheffield said he would not push for investigation of PRP members' driving records but added, "I would not have a Pee Wee Herman or someone convicted of lewd conduct (sitting on the PRP). Officers will say, 'absolutely no way.'" (After the meeting, Galton told In Fact Daily that the Focus Group's previous request to be allowed limited participation in the Meet and Confer negotiations concerning police oversight has not be answered by the city manager.)

When del Llano continued to push for a vote on the matter of open records, members agreed to go around the table and express their opinions but not vote. The three police officers on the Focus Group, Sheffield, Detective Craig Howard, and Officer Lisa Morrill, were joined by Robert Martinez and former Mayor Roy Butler in objecting to the requirement being put into the report. Del Llano, Kolker, Janet Blake and Michael Supancic, who teaches criminal justice courses at Southwest Texas State University, said they favored open records. "As for open records, it's a must for external accountability," Supancic said.

The Focus Group was split on requiring even felons to be disqualified from serving on the PRP as it establishes a background check not required for other city boards and commissions. "In Austin we're carving out special requirements for the APD," del Llano said. "No other department has special qualifications (for its board or commission). No other department's records are confidential." Sheffield replied, "No one else does what we do." To which del Llano replied, "No one else in town has the legal right to kill people while getting a pay check."

No rape by cops…That's the theme of an photo exhibit this Saturday, April 1, by the Texas Center for Documentary Photography. The photos arise from the alleged rape of a pregnant African-American woman by an on-duty Austin police officer, Samuel Ramirez. The exhibit includes a meeting, set for 4 p.m. at 2104 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. For more info, check the web site or call 478-8387… Transportation confab set…The Urban Land Institute's Austin District Council will host Transportation 2000: National Trends, Regional Solutions Wednesday, April 12, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The event features Robert T. Dunphy, ULI senior fellow on transportation; Robert D. Miller, chair of the Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority; and Michael Weaver, principal in Prime Strategies Inc. The program will be held at the Omni Austin Hotel, Lone Star Room, second floor. For more info, call 494-8301… Call for recognition…The sponsors of Community Collaboration Awards 2000 have issued a call for nominations. Awards recognize individuals, businesses, communicators, health care providers, organizations, schools, and government entities which have collaborated to strengthen the community. For more info, call 472-6600. Nominations are due by Friday, April 14. An awards ceremony is slated for May 10.

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