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Police monitor finalists share visions for a more transparent APD

Wednesday, December 8, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

Yesterday the four finalists for the city’s police monitor position met with the press to discuss their positions on police accountability, procedural transparency, and the often-contentious relationship between Austin’s citizens and its police force. Although all four spoke on a wide range of issues, they all agreed on the one thing needed to improve the effectiveness of the police monitor’s office: letting the people of Austin know there is a police monitor’s office.

 

Case in point, the first speaker of the afternoon, Cristina Beamud, said her top priority as police monitor would be to “engage with the community and make people know the service exists.” The current executive director of the Atlanta Citizen Review Board, which oversees complaints and investigations involving police and corrections employees, Beamud said it’s important for the police monitor to make him/herself more accessible through community outreach.

 

“There are the traditional methods of community outreach,” Beamud said. “Number one: attend community meetings. Number two: make your meetings accessible to the public and publicize them through the media. Move the meetings around to different parts of the city.

 

“Anyone who takes this job needs to integrate themselves into the fiber of the community, and I think most people have the most success by just talking to people and being accessible.”

 

According to the City of Austin Web site, the “police monitor has the responsibility of promoting mutual respect between the Austin Police Department and the Austin community and ensuring that complaints about police from the public are handled fairly.” All of the finalists talked about being more proactive and public about improving relations between APD and Austinites, particularly Austinites of color, who have long been wary of the police.

 

“I think you have to be able to listen to the concerns of the citizens,” said Margo Frasier, the second candidate to speak. “The monitor has to be out there, has to be available, has to provide transparency.”

 

Frasier is the former sheriff of Travis County and the only former police officer among the four finalists. She said in order to earn the trust of skeptical citizens, APD and the Office of the Police Monitor need to make the process of investigating complaints more open. For example, had the investigation of the 2009 police-involved shooting of Nathaniel Sanders been more transparent, Frasier believes, much of the resulting animosity could have been avoided.

 

“I think what hurt the community during the Sanders case was not only, obviously, that there was a death, but also the feeling among some people that perhaps the investigation was biased,” Frasier said. “And that’s one of the monitor’s main jobs: to make sure the investigation is conducted – since it’s not actually the monitor conducting the investigation but instead auditing and monitoring the investigation — that it’s being done fairly and justly.”

 

Fairness and justice are two issues the third candidate, Ann del Llano, also spoke of as priorities. Referencing a troubling racial-profiling report put out by APD in March – stating that black people are twice as likely as whites to be stopped by police in Austin – the trial attorney and former board member of both the ACLU and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition said that if she is hired as police monitor she will expand the office’s responsibilities beyond merely responding to complaints and into policy-making.

 

“The police monitor’s department has only worked on individual complaints one at a time, and it has authority under the contract to work on policy issues, the broader issues,” del Llano said. “If I’m monitor I want to move into looking at policy issues, like racial profiling and others.”

 

Del Llano was actually a member of the Police Oversight Focus Group that wrote the recommendations that helped establish the Office of the Police Monitor in February 2002. Since then she has sometimes been critical of the office and of APD, citing instances of breakdowns in officer discipline and calling for changes to the department’s “meet and confer” contract that would favor citizens seeking redress.

 

So it wasn’t a surprise that she was asked why, considering her criticisms of the police monitor and APD, she wants the job. “I’ve always been a police lover,” she answered. “I wouldn’t contribute so many hours of my time to make the department better if I didn’t love the department and love my city. I was disappointed that the police monitor office was created weaker than what the citizen panel wanted. One reason I would like to be monitor is the next monitor will probably help renegotiate the next police contract and help renegotiate the monitor’s office.”

 

That office was represented by the last speaker of the afternoon, Assistant Police Monitor Renita Strange-Sanders. During her four years in the position, she said, it has become clear to her that what the job calls for is more community awareness and trust of the office and more community outreach by the office.

 

“We need to be more visible, especially the complaint specialists,” Strange-Sanders said. “I always ask people at outreaches and public events, I ask them to trust me … I always tell them I’m doing everything I can for the community as well as the police department and that I need them to trust me.”

 

City Manager Marc Ott is hoping to have the position filled by the end of this month to fill the hole left by current Police Monitor Clifford Brown, who will be leaving the office January 1 to become the new judge of the 147th District Court.

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