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Public Safety Commission: Who polices the police?

Friday, April 6, 2018 by Jack Craver

Last month, members of the Public Safety Commission voiced concerns about the lack of consistent rules or guidelines on investigating senior members of the police, fire and emergency medical services departments for harassment or discrimination.

On Monday, a representative of the city’s Human Resources Department conceded that the city did not have a defined process for investigating chiefs or assistant chiefs of the departments.

“The difficulty, when it comes to executives, is who are we going to assign those investigations to, and what are they going to look like,” said HR Assistant Director Monika Arvelo.

In addition, she explained that personnel policies for public safety staff are distinct from civilian staff. The city updated its harassment policy for civilian employees in December 2016 and is currently in the process of updating its policies for “sworn” staff, she said. The latter group is restricted to a certain degree by Chapter 143 of the state civil service code.

Arvelo explained that disciplinary action for rank-and-file employees, whether sworn or non-sworn, is the responsibility of their department director, not the city HR department.

“Our role is to provide advice to ensure consistency. Consistency is the process, not the outcome,” she said.

Arvelo also said that investigations of top-level managers, whether civilian or sworn, are handled differently. Sometimes the city will contract with an independent investigator.

“Whenever you’re talking about executives, whether it’s sworn or non-sworn staff, HRD has to take a step back,” she said.

Austin Police Department Chief of Staff Troy Gay assured the commission that his department was working with city HR to update its harassment policy, and asked that the department be given “a couple months” to craft a proposal that the commission could review.

“Ultimately, I think we all agree with your concerns,” he said.

Chair Rebecca Webber reiterated that she wanted to develop a more concrete policy for responding to complaints against high-level public safety officials.

“I think the jobs of our public safety staff front line are hard enough without them not being able to count on being treated fairly when they’re accused of something, and I think part of that is knowing that their superiors will be treated in a consistent, fair way as well,” she said.

Bob Nicks, a battalion chief in the Austin Fire Department as well as the head of the Austin Firefighters Association, told commissioners that the current process does not hold executives accountable. He recently filed a complaint accusing an assistant fire chief of lying to the Public Safety Commission last year. The complaint was dismissed, and Nicks was reprimanded for filing the complaint too late, he said.

A spokesperson for the Fire Department said that Assistant Chief Aaron Woolverton had been cleared of the allegation that Nicks referenced in October. The department would not comment on whether Nicks was reprimanded, saying that it only would comment if a Notice of Disciplinary Action had been issued by the chief, which had not taken place.

“I think it’s contrary to reason to think that any department can police themselves,” Nicks said.

He said that even other city officials outside of the department should not be entrusted with investigating police, fire or EMS chiefs. The city manager, he said, has an incentive to hush up complaints against top officials that he hired. The only solution, said Nicks, is to contract with an outside investigator.

Commissioner Kim Rossmo agreed, arguing that it might be worth the cost to set a policy of always contracting with an independent investigator to examine complaints against top-level staff.

“The relatively small number of senior command staff … means that it shouldn’t be onerous to figure out a special way to handle those investigations because the volume would be relatively low,” said Rossmo.

The commission is going to wait a couple months, said Webber, to hear back from the HR department and the public safety departments about the updated disciplinary policies.

The meeting also shed light on the difficulty of defining harassment violations for city employees in general. Asked whether employees can be held accountable for behavior outside of work, Arvelo said that it depends on whether the conduct “is related to employment” or if it “impacts the workplace.”

“What if someone online or on social media, in their own spare time, is posting just horrific things,” asked Commissioner Ed Scruggs. “They might be legal but they’re just completely offensive – racist, sexist, terrible. Would that be defined as impacting the workplace?”

Arvelo said that it was hard for her to comment on the hypothetical without a concrete set of facts.

“It really depends,” she said. “It’s a moving target right now. It is something we could investigate and look into.”

Photo by Junior Libby [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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