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Civilian oversight can be done without APA agreement

Thursday, February 12, 2004 by

Police "reserve chairs" for Council members at their rally

Now that the Austin Police Association has officially notified the City Manager that the union is pulling out of talks on a new Meet and Confer agreement, the union and City Hall officials are split over what impact that will have on the future of a high-profile provision of the agreement. Union leaders say it could mean the dissolution of the Police Monitor’s Office and the Civilian Police Review Panel, but Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman promises to establish civilian oversight through the Police Department’s Standard Operating Procedures.

In a brief letter delivered to City Hall late Tuesday afternoon, APA President Mike Sheffield wrote, “On behalf of the Austin Police Association, we do not believe it is in the best interests of our members to continue the meet and confer process at this time.” The union and city have been in negotiations off and on for several months. The actual Meet and Confer agreement expired last fall, but contained an extension clause. On Wednesday, new APA spokesperson Lt. Kim Nobles explained that should the Memorandum of Understanding that continued the contract lapse, standard state civil service rules would then apply. “Once the contract expires, we would return back to what our pay and our situation was prior to that,” said Nobles.

The Assistant City Manager over Public Safety, Laura Huffman, met with reporters Tuesday afternoon to express regret at the union’s decision to withdraw from talks. “The city’s position is that we are open and we want to continue negotiating,” she said. “We believe the contract negotiation process offers wins for both sides and we’re ready to wrap this contract up. And our hope is that the association will come back to the table so we can do that.”

Huffman pointed out that several benefits to the association’s members were contained in the contract, including a pay raise, pay for special skills and the ability to hire officers based on factors other than their scores on a standardized test. “Officers lose the certainty about base wage increases; they lose the certainty about specialty pay; the association loses its full-time president,” she said. “I think both department and the city lose access to a much better hiring and promotions process.”

But Huffman also stressed that the Police Monitor’s office would continue to exist, with or without a Meet and Confer agreement. “In the absence of a contract, one element of oversight could be threatened. That element is the Citizens Review Panel and its access to the confidential files,” she said. “However, our position is that we’re going to maintain oversight as it’s currently structured, including a Police Monitor and Citizens Review Panel, all with access to the internal affairs files. We will have to describe how that process works, and we’ll do that through a Standard Operating Procedure.”

While she said that including the civilian oversight function in the contract was preferable, she said it could be done legally outside of the agreement. As for the possibility of legal action from the association over that move, she said, “Our hope is that we wouldn’t be sued over it. Oversight is something that the association helped to create and it’s something that’s important to this community.”

In an attempt to boost morale for officers, the APA is holding a rally on Sunday at La Zona Rosa nightclub on 4th Street from 1 to5pm. The rally will feature speeches from Texas Monthly publisher Mike Levy and relatives of Officer John Coffey (who was involved in the fatal shooting of Sophia King). The discipline handed down for another officer involved in a fatal shooting, Officer Scott Glasgow, has recently been a sore spot for APA officials. But they said on Wednesday that Glasgow’s 90-day suspension was only one factor in the overall political climate that made continued negotiations impossible. A larger concern, they said, was the lack of support for officers displayed by the Police Chief, City Manager, Mayor and Council members following questions about the use of force by officers against minorities.

Thomas, Goodman support both police and civilian oversight

As a retired APD officer and longtime resident of East Austin, Council Member Danny Thomas has a unique perspective on police actions and civilian oversight. The APA is asking for a statement of support from the Council at today’s meeting, but Thomas says Council members have already indicated they support the police. In addition, he said, “We’re on the side of the citizens of Austin. We serve the citizens, and we serve the officers also. But nobody can dictate what to do on making decisions,” about individual officers. Thomas said he would always support supplying the needs and benefits of police officers. “But also, I will be supporting the community—which has some concerns.”

Thomas said he would not second-guess Police Chief Stan Knee’ s decision to suspend Officer Scott Glasgow for 90 days. “I wouldn’t go there. I feel it was his judgment,” he said, adding that Glasgow will be required to undergo additional training and go through psychological evaluation when he returns to duty in mid-May. “The chief wants to make sure (Glasgow) is back on the right track when he comes back,” Thomas said. He noted that the chief had suspended Glasgow for the maximum amount of time allowed under civil service law. Toni Chovanetz, public information officer for APD, said the chief can orders a suspension of 15 to 90 days with the officer’s agreement. If the officer did not agree, he would be suspended indefinitely—the same as termination—and then it would be up to the officer to appeal. Glasgow’s suspension in connection with the death of Jessie Lee Owens last June 16, began on Tuesday.

Glasgow was indicted by a Travis County Grand Jury for criminally negligent homicide in November. (See In Fact Daily, November 14, 2003). District Judge Brenda Kennedy dismissed that charge in January. Knee announced his decision to suspend Glasgow on Monday.

“I challenge the association,” and others involved in the process, “to come to the table and have a dialogue and a healing process—not to put salt on a wound,” Thomas said.

The association has also sent an invitation—with a lightly veiled threat—asking Council members to attend their rally on Sunday. It says in part:

“As you are aware, this is a critical time for the men and women of the Austin Police Department. We have been under a biased and unprecedented attack by the Austin American Statesman on the very integrity and reputation of the Austin police officers. It is time to let the police bashers know that the public supports its police officers.

“We will have a chair reserved for you on the stage with your name on it. We would hope that the crowd at the rally will see you sitting in that chair and showing support for the mean and women in blue. Please RSVP by 5:00pm on Friday.”

Thomas said he would not be attending the Sunday afternoon rally because he will be in church all day.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said she plans to attend the rally. But Goodman’s support for the police may not include what the APA wants for the civilian review panel and the Police Monitor’s Office. Although the monitor’s office has not yet achieved the goals envisioned for them by the Council, she said that was to be expected. “There were many difficulties,” she said, but she noted that the office was “still in its infancy. I thought that over time it would become a much more efficient, effective office.” The biggest problem now, she said, is that there is too much heat around the whole subject of civilian review.

Goodman said she is not sure exactly what the APA wants right now, but said there needs to be a cooling period so that those involved can move forward. “We need to figure out exactly what we need to do and do it. When are we going to be ready to take that step?”

Texas Highway Commission must approve truck lanes

Local jurisdictions bear costs of enforcement

The Transportation Policy Board of CAMPO will hold a hearing on truck lane signage next month, but the board’s authority over truck lanes through the Williamson-Travis-Hays county region will be restricted to approving the use of federal funds for the project’s signs.

The board’s role is planning, not operational, said Executive Director Michael Aulick. As the regional transportation planning body, CAMPO’s power is limited, in this case, to the approval of $750,000 in federal funds to put up signs along the route.

The use of federal funds for any transportation project in the region must pass through the CAMPO board for approval. The cost of the truck lane, however, will be the responsibility of TxDOT and those jurisdictions that support the program.

Local law enforcement agencies, as well as the Department of Public Safety, will enforce the truck lanes, says Carlos Lopez, director of traffic operations for the state office of the Texas Department of Transportation. Final approval of the truck lanes themselves would lie with the Texas Highway Commission. Lopez said the lanes could be in effect sometime this summer.

House Bill 1208 gives TxDOT the right to create “exclusive lanes” for long-haul trucks. In the case of the Austin region, trucks will be prohibited from using the left lane, Lopez said.

If, after hearing testimony on the TIP amendments in March, the CAMPO Transportation Policy Board decides to reject federal funding for the signs, the state could still pursue the project by using state funding, Lopez said.

TxDOT has scheduled its own public hearing on the truck lanes on March 4 at the Austin Regional Office. If the feedback is positive, the Austin region will submit a proposal to the state office of TxDOT in April, Lopez said. Commissioners are likely to consider approval of the truck-only lanes on I-35 this summer.

Lopez confirmed that the lanes would run from Georgetown to San Marcos wherever there are three lanes in each direction. Some areas in Hays County have just two lanes. That means the signs would only be put up after a lane was added, Lopez said.

Houston is the only area to have implemented trucks-only lanes, although San Antonio recently approved trucks-only lanes on I-10. The signs have yet to go up on that project, Lopez said. The exclusion of trucks from the fast lanes along I-10 in Houston cut traffic accidents by 68 percent, Lopez said.

Mitigation policy request . . . Mayor Will Wynn and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman put an item on today’s Council agenda directing city staff to come up with a policy regarding mitigation of impervious cover in the Barton Springs zone. The Council has considered offers for mitigation on developments that do not meet the impervious cover restrictions of the SOS Ordinance—such as Stratus and the Lowe’s Home Improvement Store on Brodie—but has not had a policy to provide guidance. If the resolution is approved, the City Manager will be directed to bring back a policy for Council consideration on or before May 27 . . . Historic zoning items today . . . The Council is scheduled to consider a number of requests for historic designation today. The processing of these cases had been delayed by the Zoning and Platting Commission . . . Other zoning matters . . . 26th Street Partners are asking to rezone some UT area property to provide for the highest density multi-family zoning at 713 W. 26th Street. Some areas residents may be unhappy with the prospect of further densification of the area . . . Community workshop on East 11th and 12th Streets . . . The Austin Revitalization Authority will host a community workshop entitled, “Reaching Consensus on the Future of East 11th and 12th Streets.” The forum, which is scheduled for Thursday night at 6:30pm at the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex, will review changes to the Community Redevelopment Plan . . . King shooting report released . . . In the midst of the controversy surrounding the Meet and Confer contract on Wednesday, the Austin Police Department released a portion of the police report into the death of Sophia King. Officer John Coffey shot the mentally ill woman in June of 2002 at an eastside housing complex. The department’s Public Information Office issued a statement that “Chief Knee believes that by releasing the criminal portion of the investigation the community will have a better understanding of the incident and it will give the community insight into the depth of the investigation conducted by the Austin Police Department.” About 200 pages of documents, video, and still photos are included in the public portion of the report, which describes Officer Coffey shooting King to prevent her from stabbing another woman with a knife . . . Black History month unveiling . . . Banners celebrating Black History Month will be unveiled at 11am Friday in the atrium of the LBJ Library. The public is invited to attend.

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