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Police Oversight Focus Group report awaits action as its champion departs

Thursday, May 18, 2000 by

Spelman has less than a month to serve and get negotiations started

Nine months in the making and the final report of the Police Oversight Focus Group (POFG), which was submitted April 14, is still waiting for action by the City Council. Council Member Bill Spelman made a run at getting it on today's agenda but it wasn't posted properly on the addendum and he subsequently yanked the item from consideration.

We didn't have a resolution that would pass on a 7-0 vote without considerable discussion," Spelman tells In Fact Daily. "I wanted everyone to be okay with it walking in."

Spelman, who initiated the POFG, says the report will be posted for the council meeting of June 1. Two weeks after that he will be former Council Member Spelman, as he leaves the council June 15 when the new council members are sworn in. "I haven't found someone to be the champion yet, but it needs a champion on the City Council," he says of the police oversight issue.

While the POFG's recommendations are voluminously detailed they rest on one key fact: the Austin Police Department (APD) should have civilian oversight. The group recommended that oversight be in the form of a Police Monitor, who is hired by and reports to the city manager, and a Police Review Panel whose members are appointed by the City Council (In Fact Daily March 28, 2000).

A complicating factor is that the City Council cannot simply order the city manager to implement the report. To be effective it must be accepted by APD's rank and file, which means the matter must go through negotiations for inclusion in the Meet and Confer Agreement between the City of Austin and the Austin Police Association (APA).

"We cannot just stand up and say, 'Do this,'" Spelman says. "This is something we must negotiate through Meet and Confer."

Detective Mike Sheffield, president of the APA, was a member of the POFG, along with Lieutenant Craig Howard and Officer Lisa Morrill. Sheffield tells In Fact Daily that he and Howard are part of the APA's eight-person team that is sitting across the negotiating table from the police chief, assistant chiefs and assistant city manager who are negotiating on behalf of the city. Morrill is part of the APA's larger 30-person team that is bargaining for the new agreement. Sheffield says the negotiations have just begun, and the first meeting was held May 13 to begin establishing a schedule.

The dynamics of the Meet and Confer process give the APA an unusually strong hand on the issue of police oversight, because no member of the POFG besides police officers will be at the negotiating table. That's a sore point with some members of the POFG, particularly attorney Ann del Llano, who is past president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Central Texas and co-founder of the Sunshine Project for Police Accountability.

Del Llano and Sheffield come from opposite perspectives and they debated to death key points considered for inclusion in the POFG's final report. Sheffield fought for setting standards for members of the Police Review Panel to have the same qualifications needed to be hired as a police officer, including 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.

Del Llano fought to have APD disciplinary records as open under the Texas Public Information Act as those of the Travis County Sheriff's Department. At present, 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.

Although Sheriff Margo Frasier told the POFG she had no particular problems because of the openness of the records, the POFG members chose not to force the point over Sheffield's strong objections, as consensus was the uppermost goal. Likewise, the POFG agreed only to recommend that convicted felons or people under indictment for a felony be barred from serving, and ruled out the other qualifications Sheffield sought. Thus the final report represents a balance and a compromise. Spelman said he wants to preserve that balance when the POFG report is negotiated through Meet and Confer.

"Before adopting a directive of the City Council, I want to ensure the city manager is evenhanded in getting the package as a package," Spelman says. "If I were Mike Sheffield, I'd try to split this package up, and nickel and dime us to get as much in return for the package as possible. We run the risk the package will not go as a whole and we get bits and pieces."

Sheffield says he is not going to bring the matter to the negotiating table at all. "This is not our issue," he says of the POFG report. "This is an issue the city will bring to us. If it comes to the table it will be because the city brings it to the table. At that time, we'll see what will happen."

While Sheffield was a very active member of the POFG and fought hard to get into the report the points important to police officers, that was then and this is now. "Before I was a member of the committee," he says. "Now I'm at the table with the negotiating team. We'll see what the city brings forward."

Del Llano says, "I'm definitely lobbying on that issue," referring to the need to keep the recommendations intact. She says she has already met with Mayor Kirk Watson and Council Members Beverly Griffith and Spelman, and has an appointment to meet with Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman. "My focus is this is a delicate balance," del Llano says. "Taking a couple of more things from the police would not be a small thing. They want those qualifications for the panel to be the same as for new officers. (If adopted) that would breach a lot of trust."

At present, the Sunshine Project must pin its hopes on the outcome of the Meet and Confer negotiations. The extra muscle the project had hoped to exert through its petition drive to get a referendum on the ballot for a City Charter amendment has not materialized. There was not enough money or volunteers to complete the petition drive and it's a dead issue at the moment, although it could be resuscitated if the aid of canvass groups can be mustered. Scott Henson, who with del Llano founded the Sunshine Project, says if POFG's report could be negotiated and adopted it would be a good thing. "It's more than we had, and it's less than we'd like," Henson says, "but it's certainly better for the complainant than the current system–it's light years better."

POFG members were appointed by the City Council last June 3 ( In Fact No. 197, June 8, 1999) and the group held its first meeting June 30. POFG members took two out-of-state trips to investigate how civilian oversight works elsewhere. They listened to APD officials and outside consultants, and held two public hearings in Austin to hear what citizens had to say about police oversight.

Henson says the Sunshine Project has been trying to rally support for the POFG recommendations but it hasn't been easy. "A lot of people who are for police oversight think this is too pantywaist and don't support it," he says. "It's not as strong as those people who showed up at public hearings asked for."

'Hall of Shame' attacks Quintanilla for position on civilian oversight of police

Quintanilla amplifies his position quoted in the Statesman

With the June 3 runoff election just over two weeks away Place 2 City Council candidates Raul Alvarez and Rafael Quintanilla are battling to gain attention and draw supporters for an election that is likely to have extremely low turnout. After all, if only 8.97 percent of voters bothered to cast ballots in the May 6 election when the mayor and three council seats were at stake, then why would a sizable number get excited about a single council seat left up for grabs?

One key issue on which Alvarez and Quintanilla seem to differ is whether the Austin Police Department (APD) needs civilian oversight. Scott Henson, co-founder of the Sunshine Project for Police Accountability, says Alvarez showed up at the group's first fund-raiser, long before he declared for City Council, and has earned the group's endorsement. Quintanilla, on the other hand, has come under attack from the Austin Police Department Hall of Shame web site, which Henson personally maintains as an effort separate from the Sunshine Project. Henson posted to the web site a quote from Quintanilla published in the Austin American-Statesman, "I believe that there are very few cases of actual police misconduct."

In Fact Daily faxed to Quintanilla 19 pages of material from the Hall of Shame web site , detailing incidents in which the actions of APD officers are criticized, including the Cedar Avenue incident, the killings of Rodney Wickware and Johnny Cornell, the alleged rape committed by Officer Samuel Ramirez, the legislation passed to protect the rights of minors in the wake of the improper questioning of then 11-year-old murder suspect Lacresha Murray, and a host of alleged incidents involving spousal abuse, sexual harassment or other gender conflicts.

Interviewed after he had seen the material, Quintanilla told In Fact Daily that the Statesman quote was part of what he had said. "I said I thought there were few cases of actual police misconduct, but even a few could undermine community confidence in the department and some sort of independent review would be helpful.

"The details are being worked out by the Police Oversight Focus Group, and I want to see them before I make any decisions," he adds. "I'm not saying they're were any abuses, or that I would tolerate police misconduct, but I don't want to prejudge all policemen or throw a blanket indictment over all police. They have a tough job and most are never accused of police misconduct."

Quintanilla says he has met with Paul Hernandez, who is on the board of the Sunshine Project. Quintanilla says that Hernandez is disappointed that the POFG report calls for disqualifying from serving on the Police Review Panel anyone who has been convicted of a felony. "He had one at age 17, more than 30 years ago," Quintanilla says.

"Once elected, I will be asked to make decisions and I will look at these issues," Quintanilla says. "Hernandez is one of the people I'll be listening to. I was endorsed by the Austin Police Association and I will listen to their points as well."

As to the Hall of Shame web site, Quintanilla says, "Clearly the article is a pitch for Raul and wants to make it appear I don't care at all, but that's not correct." Quintanilla says he sends contributions to organizations such as the Austin Peace and Justice Coalition. "I believe in people getting those sort of messages out…Even if they are considered fringe people, if they can get their message out we're better off."

Henson tends to downplay Quintanilla's defense. "All but Quintanilla saw the need for reform," Henson says. "But if he's endorsed by the cops and benefiting from their promotion, is it an intentional blind spot?… I don't know how he can run for office and be ignorant of these criticisms (of police)."

Quintanilla gets candidate endorsements…Place 2 City Council candidate Rafael Quintanilla yesterday was endorsed by two of the four candidates who did not make the runoff. Gloria Mata Pennington garnered 11 percent of the votes on May 6, while Montgomery Lee "Monty" Markland got 7.01 percent. Mata issued a statement yesterday saying, "After personal meetings with each of the candidates and much reflection, I am endorsing Rafael Quintanilla for Place 2 on the Austin City Council. Although both candidates are worthy, I found Mr. Quintanilla's experience to be a major factor in enhancing his preparation for best meeting the requirements of the position." Quintanilla got 39.04 percent of the votes in the May 6 general election. The Pennington and Markland figures would give him a clear majority in the June 3 runoff–if he can get those people back to the polls… Quintanilla raising money… City Council Place 2 candidate Rafael Quintanilla will be hosting a fund-raiser from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Schlotzsky's at 6th and Congress. For more information, contact Patricia Camacho at 472-2100… Alvarez hustling greenbacks too… Sierra Club spokesperson Karin Ascot will host a breakfast fund-raiser for Quintanilla's opponent, Raul Alvarez, Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to noon at her home, 405 Academy Drive, in Travis Heights. Academy is the first stoplight south of Riverside off South Congress Avenue. For more information, call the campaign at 478-7969… Environmental nominations sought…The city's Environmental Board, Resource Management Commission and Water and Wastewater Commission are accepting nominations until July 21 for outstanding environmental programs and individuals who have contributed significantly to environmental awareness. Awards are given in the categories of individuals, schools or other educational institutions, community groups or nonprofit organizations, government entities, and private commercial enterprises. Nominations should reflect outstanding service any time during 1999 or 2000. Nominations will be reviewed by members of the three sponsoring groups and winners will be announced in a ceremony Aug. 16. Nomination forms are at city library branches: Central, Milwood, Manchaca and Howson or by calling Roderick Burns at 499-6338.

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