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What happens when top public safety officials are accused of harassment?

Tuesday, March 13, 2018 by Jack Craver

Members of the Public Safety Commission expressed concern and befuddlement over policies that the Police, Fire and EMS departments rely on to hold their top officials accountable for harassment.

“It doesn’t make sense to me that the policies are so different (between departments),” said Commissioner Rebecca Gonzales.

In all of the departments, said Chair Rebecca Webber, “the chief has a lot of discretion regarding who will conduct the investigation, who will sit in on the investigation. For me that’s problematic. It can just look squirrely for these cases to be handled differently.”

Asked to submit a written response about how a member of the executive staff of Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services would be investigated, the department replied that there are numerous entities that could conduct the investigation: the EMS Office of Professional Conduct, EMS Human Resources, EMS Operations Command, the EMS chief of staff, the city of Austin’s Human Resources Department, and finally, an “independent investigator designated by the chief or his designee and/or the city manager.”

The Fire Department said that a complaint against one of its executives would be handled by the department’s Professional Standards Office. The investigation would be led by the PSO battalion chief, unless the investigation relates to an executive who the battalion chief reports to in some capacity. In that case, the chief of the Fire Department would “request the assistance of the Police Department or some other department with similar resources.” The fire chief would review the findings of the investigation and determine what disciplinary actions to take, if any.

If the complaint was directed at the fire chief, the investigation would be conducted by the city’s HR department.

Assistant Police Chief Troy Gay similarly said that the Police Department would assign an assistant chief to investigate a complaint against a fellow member of the executive staff. The department would try, he said, to assign somebody who does not report to the subject of the complaint.

Webber was unconvinced that an assistant chief would be able to objectively investigate a longtime colleague.

“That assistant chief is overseeing an investigation of someone they’ve (potentially) worked with for 15 years,” she said.

Ultimately, replied Gay, “the decision-maker is the chief of police.”

That is a problem as well, said Webber.

Commissioner Kim Rossmo noted that some cities have a policy of outsourcing investigations of top police officials to outside law enforcement agencies. The city of Austin could hire the San Antonio Police Department, for instance, to investigate a complaint against a member of APD executive staff.

Commissioner Sam Holt suggested the Texas Rangers might do the trick.

Webber suggested an option closer to home: the city auditor. Asked if that had ever been considered, Gay said it is “always considered.”

Asked by Webber if their departments had had to investigate harassment complaints against top officials in the past five years, representatives of the Police and Fire departments said they did not recall any such cases. EMS Chief of Staff Jasper Brown said he believed there had been one case in his department.

Brown was ostensibly referencing a case involving former EMS Assistant Chief James Hawley, who retired at the beginning of February amid an investigation into two harassment allegations. That investigation was being conducted by the Police Department, but it was closed when Hawley retired.

Webber said that an investigation shouldn’t end due to the targeted official’s retirement. The point of the investigation was not just to stop the accused person’s behavior, she said, but to gain insight into whether the incidents were part of a pattern of behavior and whether there were systemic issues that enabled the behavior to take place.

“It’s important,” she said, “to understand as much of the truth as we can when somebody is in a position of power.”

Webber said that she plans on crafting and a recommendation to develop a clearer set of harassment policies. She hopes to present it to the commission at its meeting in May.

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