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Audit points out flaws in APD complaint process

Thursday, September 29, 2016 by Jo Clifton

The process for handling complaints against Austin police officers is difficult to use, and even high-profile incidents involving an officer’s use of force – such as the widely covered incident involving an Austin teacher – have not always made it onto the Austin Police Department’s database, according to an audit from the Office of the City Auditor.

APD records show that about 1,200 complaints were filed between Oct. 1, 2013, and Dec. 31, 2015, with about 60 percent being filed by members of the public, according to the audit. The majority of complaints filed by an officer against another officer resulted in discipline, but only 5 percent of complaints from members of the public had that outcome, the audit reports.

Auditors also scrutinized the Office of the Police Monitor, finding that the monitor’s efforts to advertise the process for filing a complaint against the police are “undermined by the city’s culture.”

For example, during the 2014 South by Southwest festival, the city’s Twitter account sent out a message to let the public know to contact the police monitor if they experienced a problem with APD. After a complaint from the Austin Police Association, the tweet was deleted, and “the city apologized,” the audit says.

The audit report, which was discussed at the City Council Audit and Finance Committee meeting on Wednesday, also stated that the department has still not addressed important issues identified in a 2007 U.S. Department of Justice memo.

Neither APD Chief Art Acevedo nor Chief of Staff Brian Manley attended Wednesday’s meeting. Instead, Lt. Kenneth Murphy told Council members he was unable to answer many questions, noting that he had been told to attend the meeting only the night before.

Members of the committee expressed concern about the findings and requested that APD provide an additional memo. They also took the unusual action of scheduling the audit to return for more discussion at the committee’s October meeting.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who is chair of the committee, said she is also concerned about the audit’s finding that if a citizen brings a complaint to a supervisor, that information does not always make it to Internal Affairs, contrary to APD’s existing policy. “It’s not clear to me why that isn’t being followed,” she said.

Council Member Pio Renteria said one of his concerns was that the person APD sent to the meeting could not answer many of the Council members’ questions. He said he was especially concerned about the incident in which an officer threw a young teacher on the ground. Even though it attracted local and national media attention, auditors did not find information about the incident on APD’s database.

“We really want to know where that went wrong. … I think we’re going to get a lot more answers” at next month’s meeting, Renteria said. He also said he wanted to know what procedure APD would implement to make sure the same thing does not happen in the future.

After the meeting, the Austin Monitor reached out to APD Public Information Officer Anna Sabana. She said that Acevedo and Manley were not at the committee meeting because “they were at a scheduled training with the command staff and executive team.” After being informed that the same audit would come back to the committee next month, Sabana said, “I’m sure that they have the next meeting on their calendar – or it will be.”

APD generally processes complaints within 60 days of the date a complaint was made, and nearly all are processed within 180 days. The 180-day window is important because Texas law limits the type of discipline an officer can receive for incidents occurring outside that window.

However, the auditors found that evidence critical to investigations was sometimes unavailable to Internal Affairs. “In at least one instance, Internal Affairs investigators noted that their investigation of a complaint had been impacted because the recording of the police interaction was not available,” the audit said.

Police Monitor Margo Frasier did not attend, either. Assistant Police Monitor Louis Gonzales said she was attending a meeting outside of Austin.

The audit notes that the monitor’s staff does not have automatic access to complaint files within Internal Affairs. The city’s agreement with the Austin Police Association seems to indicate that the monitor’s staff should have that access, stating that the police monitor has “unfettered access to Internal Affairs investigation process,” according to the audit.

The agreement also restricts the ability of the police monitor and the Citizen Review Panel to provide effective oversight, the audit says. “For example, Police Monitor staff cannot solicit complaints, directly question interview subjects, or otherwise gather evidence. Police Monitor staff are also not allowed to participate in determining discipline for sustained policy violations, but can make recommendations to the Police Chief if they disagree with the discipline decision.”

But there’s a catch – if either the officer or the complainant appeals the disciplinary decision, the chief cannot consider the recommendations of the police monitor.

In addition, the Citizen Review Panel may not gather evidence, and although it can access investigation files, “the access is limited to eight hours,” the audit says. Oddly, during the public portion of panel meetings, no one is allowed to discuss the facts about the case, according to the audit.

It should then be no surprise that the auditors find that “Police Monitor disagreements about discipline appeared to have no impact” on that discipline.

The audit notes that the agreement between the city and the police association requires quarterly meetings among the police monitor, the chief, the president of the APA and the Internal Affairs commander, but such meetings are not occurring.

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