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Police Monitor says citizen complaints up in 2013

Tuesday, January 27, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

The Office of the Police Monitor, which works to improve relations between the Austin Police Department and the public, is preparing to issue a report showing that citizens filed more complaints against police officers in 2013 than in 2012.

Police Monitor Margo Frasier told the Austin Monitor on Friday that 2012, which had fewer overall complaints than 2011, was “perhaps an anomaly” and that the 2013 jump is “not such an increase that it would cause alarm.”

Frasier, a former Travis County sheriff, said that she and her staff are finalizing the somewhat-belated annual report and hope to post it on the Office of the Police Monitor’s website in mid-February. She added that, though the report may seem late, her office is currently up-to-date on filing citizen complaints.

According to the 2012 report, 1,274 persons contacted the Office of the Police Monitor or the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division to file complaints, an 11 percent decrease from 2011. Less than half of these individuals ended up filing form reports, a 3 percent decrease from 2011.

A mid-2013 report states that there were 674 complaints in the first half of the year.

The major holdup in releasing reports on complaints filed in a certain calendar year, Frasier said, is the fact that her office cannot release details about a complaint until the subsequent investigation is complete. “If somebody walks in on Dec. 31, 2013, that case will be included in 2013, but the investigation may not be finished until July or later of 2014,” she said.

The Office of the Police Monitor is a city administrative office that is independent of the police department. Its staff assesses citizen complaints about Austin police officers, oversees investigations conducted by Internal Affairs, publishes reports, identifies patterns, makes policy recommendations and coordinates with the Citizen Review Panel.

The Citizen Review Panel consists of seven volunteer citizens — appointed by City Manager Marc Ott with input from City Council — who hear disputed Internal Affairs cases.

Though the Office of the Police Monitor has the authority to make recommendations based on Internal Affairs investigations, Frasier said, “the ultimate decision-making authority within the police department as far as whether to sustain allegations and for disciplinary action ultimately lies with the chief of police.”

Complaints related to officer-involved shootings are a significant part of the Office of the Police Monitor’s responsibilities, but they can contribute to delays in releasing reports. Often, Frasier said, Internal Affairs has carried out an investigation, but “the process is not completed, usually, until the grand jury has looked at the matter.”

Once a grand jury makes a decision on a case, Frasier continued, her office will schedule a meeting of the Citizen Review Panel as quickly as possible to determine whether the officer in question violated police department policy and make a recommendation regarding disciplinary action to Police Chief Art Acevedo, who then makes his own decision on handing out any discipline.

At its next meeting on Feb. 2, the Citizen Review Panel will consider two officer-involved shooting cases that took place in 2014.

Sometimes, Frasier said, cases involving a grand jury can delay disciplinary action. “In a lot of these cases, the officers actually have been returned to full duty. It’s not like they’re sitting somewhere on a restricted assignment,” she said.

Frasier added that the grand jury process can take so long, the office will publish a report without a case and include it in the following report.

As for the 2013 report, Frasier said, the next step is to pass it along to the police department for review, which she hopes to do this week. “They don’t get to edit it,” she said, “but they at least have an opportunity to look at it, and if there’s anything that they feel they want to address with me, we can have a discussion.”

Frasier clarified that her staff is not necessarily obligated to make any changes to the report based on police department feedback, and that the exchange has not resulted in any substantive changes during her tenure as police monitor.

Photo by Petr Novák, Wikipedia (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

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