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Ott asks for federal investigation into APD policies in wake of shootings

Tuesday, August 6, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Manager Marc Ott has invited US Department of Justice officials to once again examine the Austin Police Department. In a letter to US Attorney Robert Pitman, who serves the Western District of Texas including Austin, Ott asks for a review of the “policies, procedures and practices of the Austin Police Department based upon specific incidents that have occurred within the past two years, and general concerns raised within our community during that time about APD.”


Ott announced the request at a hastily called press conference at City Hall late Monday afternoon. There, he carefully delineated the difference between what might result from his request for DOJ action and the separate investigations into the officer-involved shooting of Larry Eugene Jackson Jr. “My request is not disconnected to officer-involved shootings. But again, the issue is…to ask (DOJ) to take a look at the alignment between, again, our tactical practices and our policies and procedures at APD,” he said.


Afterward, Ott told In Fact Daily that he had no preconceived notions of what an investigation might turn up. “I do not have (any expectations),” he said. “I’m certainly looking forward to their findings.”


A similar request made in 2005 brought Department of Justice officials to Austin for a look at Austin Police use-of-deadly force procedures. That effort ended with 165 recommendations for changes at the department. On Monday, Ott noted that Chief Art Acevedo had implemented many of those recommendations, but that it might be time to check back on the department’s progress in that regard.


Acevedo indicated his support for the new study via Twitter. Acevedo remains in California where he went to be with his mother, who died with him at her bedside last week.


The letter to Pittman did not specifically mention the Jackson incident, or any of the other recent officer-involved shootings. Instead, Ott refers to the situation generally, and more vaguely. “We have seen strong negative reactions to officer-involved shootings that have occurred since 2011, and numerous media stories questioning the tactics and motives of APD officers in these and other incidents,” Ott writes.


He continues on to frame the situation from the perspective of Austin Police officers and leadership: “While perhaps understandable, such reactions are disheartening for our police officers and our City leaders, who have set the highest possible service standards for APD, worked hard to achieve those standards, and for whom keeping the public trust is of paramount importance.”


Ott was more candid in an email he sent to Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council members announcing his intent to request Justice involvement. “I am taking action today in response to the officer-involved shooting that occurred Friday, July 26, and the strong community reactions we have received concerning that incident and incidents involving APD over the past two years.”


Later in the email, Ott signaled his support for APD. “This step should not be seen as a lack of confidence in APD or its leadership,” he wrote Council members. “I continue to believe that we have the best police force in the country. However, in light of the events and community reactions we have seen over the past 2 years, I also believe this step will be positive and constructive for both APD and our City.”


Should the Department of Justice choose to intervene, it would mark the second time in a decade that the federal agency has conducted an investigation into APD policies and procedures. Ott notes that his request specifically seeks “an independent assessment of how APD’s policies and procedures align with (1) its actual tactical practices, and (2) national policing best practices.”


Council members generally received the news of Ott’s request with favor. “I have discussed with the City Manager his decision to ask the U.S. Department of Justice to review APD’s policies and practices and I am very supportive,” Mayor Lee Leffingwell said in a statement released late Monday. “I believe we have the finest police force in the country and this step should not be seen as a lack of confidence in APD or Chief Acevedo.  As I have said, any loss of life is a tragedy and any efforts we can take to facilitate healing, trust and confidence within the community are steps well taken.  I also believe this decision will be constructive for APD and our City.”


Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole called Ott’s request “appropriate.” “An officer-involved shooting death grips our city’s attention, causes us to morn, and it should be investigated,” she told In Fact Daily Monday afternoon. “However, when the circumstances involved question whether the policies and procedures used by APD are consistent with its actual practices and national best practices, it is appropriate to request Department of Justice’s assistance.”


She continued: “I support City Manager Ott in his efforts.”


Council Member Mike Martinez told In Fact Daily that he also welcomed the news. “It’s something we were talking about internally in this office – about how can we further this conversation in light of the tragic situation,” Martinez said. “I talked to the City Manager about it, and (told him) that I would certainly be supportive of his request, if that’s what he chose to do.”


Council Member Kathie Tovo told In Fact Daily via email, “I believe that the Department of Justice’s review and assistance will prove valuable to our police force and the broader Austin community, and I commend the City Manager for making this request.”


Council Member Laura Morrison said she is also “supportive of the City Manager’s action to connect with the Department of Justice.”


Morrison further noted that she was glad to see city Police Monitor Margo Frasier at Ott’s press conference. “She is a trusted independent person in all of this,” Morrison continued.

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