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Police Monitor’s report suggests profiling, illegal searches

Tuesday, November 26, 2013 by Mark Richardson

New data released last week by the Office of the Police Monitor show that, based on statistics, some Austin Police officers may be illegally profiling minorities and performing questionable searches of detained individuals.


Austin Police Monitor Margo Frasier also said that her recently released reports – covering all of 2012 and the first six months of 2013 – show that the number of complaints against APD officers is on the rise and the department may be assigning its least experienced officers to cover the patrol sectors on the city’s East side.


The Office of the Police Monitor was created to give citizens a vehicle to register complains against APD officers, and to monitor the activities of the police department. Frasier, who served four terms as Travis County Sheriff from 1997 to 2005, was named Police Monitor in 2011. She spent several years teaching Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas and working as a consultant for law enforcement agencies.


While the Police Monitor reviews complaints and often holds public forums, investigations of alleged wrongdoing by police officers are primarily handled by APD’s Internal Affairs Division, with any sanctions administered by APD commanders.


The reports issued last week showed that the number of complaints against Austin Police officers in 2013 are on a pace to be higher than the previous year.


According to Frasier’s 2012 report, 1,274 people contacted the police monitor’s office or the Austin Police Department’s internal affairs division to file a complaint against department employees. But from Jan. 1 through June of this year, 674 people filed a complaint, putting APD on track to receive some 1,350 complaints.


Frasier says that if that trend continues, it will be the first time in three years that the office has seen the number of complaints increase.


Despite that, Police Chief Art Acevedo said he finds a great deal of value in the work done by the Police Monitor.


“We are always happy to get the input about how we are doing and serving the community as a police department,” he said. “When people stop me and want to complain about how they were treated or handled by an officer, we encourage them to talk to the police monitor. That keeps the flow of information about how we are doing coming to us.”


Acevedo says he has an excellent working relationship with Frasier.


“We probably talk almost every day,” he said. “I’ve got Margo’s number on my speed dial. She provides an invaluable service and her reports, like the ones she put out last week, are very valuable tools for us.”


One of the primary problems with Austin police, Frasier said her reports indicate, is a racial imbalance in the number of stops by police.


“We looked at the data for police stops by race and it perhaps explains why one group, African-Americans, tend to register the most complaints,” she said. “They are 8 percent of the population but they constitute 13 percent of the stops, which is statistically significant. In a situation where you have 42 percent of the population stopped at any given time, it becomes a much higher percentage.”


And once African-Americans are stopped, statistics show, they are much more like to be searched that other ethnic groups.


“If you are African-American and you are stopped, you have a 1 in 6 chance of being searched,” Frasier said. “For Hispanics, it’s 1 in 9, and whites are 1 in 19.” Frasier said that in the recent past, APD has changed the number of people who are stopped, but it is clear that in Austin, blacks are being stopped and searched more often than any other group.


Acevedo said that while the statistics indicate that a large number of blacks are being stopped by his officers, he says the data sample is very small and said the overall number of interactions his officers have with the public are positive.


Another major concern Frasier expressed is an increase in the number of complaints about the way officers handle searches, particularly in traffic stops. She said she has noticed an increase in complains about the way officers gain permission to search a vehicle.


“We consistently get complaints from people who say ‘I didn’t really consent to being searched.’” Frasier said. “Often, it’s in the way the officer would say it, as in ‘You don’t mind if we search? You’re not hiding anything are you?’ When the person says ‘no,’ the officer considers that consent. We recommended that officers have a written consent form and because of that we have seen the number of searches drop.”


Frasier also says her statistics show that officers may also be overusing “probable cause” to effect a search.


“Officers often try and get around the consent issue by saying they have probable cause – that they had seen something that was in plain view,” she said. “And what we found was that in roughly two-thirds of the cases where they said they had probable cause, they found nothing. In many cases where the officer said he actually saw something, they found nothing. This indicates to me that you need to retrain your officers.”


Frasier also noted that when she looked at the data, the officers who are receiving the highest number of formal complaints are the youngest on the force. A close look shows that APD may need to look at how it allocates its manpower.


“When we look to see where the experienced officers are – and we just looked at patrol, not the overall department – they are in the Northwest, Southwest and Central West,” putting the least experienced on the East side, she said. “So one of our recommendations was that they need to look at the deployment of officers by their experience levels, so you don’t just have all these young officers out there training each other.”


The full reports are available on the Police Monitor website.

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