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Audit: Citizen oversight of APD flawed

Friday, June 22, 2018 by Jo Clifton

Although the city’s Citizen Review Panel drafted numerous memos to the chief of police in an attempt to bring about change at the Austin Police Department, its efforts “did not create substantive change” within APD, according to a draft audit conducted by the Office of the City Auditor.

Part of the problem, auditors noted, was that city policies prevented the Citizen Review Panel from communicating directly with the chief, “which may have affected the integrity of the oversight.”

Auditors also found that the city did not establish clear responsibility for maintaining the panel’s recommendations. This failure limited the panel’s ability to identify trends or review past activities, the report notes.

Auditors reviewed memos written by the civilian group between Oct. 1, 2013, and Dec. 29, 2017. The panel is no longer operating because City Council failed to ratify a labor agreement with the Austin Police Association that included oversight by the civilian body. Negotiations are continuing between the union and city officials.

However, the police monitor, Farah Muscadin, has continued to participate in reviewing complaints against officers. Muscadin served in the role on an interim basis starting in January, and City Manager Spencer Cronk appointed her to the permanent position earlier this week. She has been doing research on civilian oversight of police and is expected to make recommendations to Council about which form of oversight it should adopt. Whatever form the oversight takes will have to be approved by the union as part of its contract.

Auditors observed that the effectiveness of the Citizen Review Panel also appears to be limited because the memos from the panel go through a convoluted process before arriving at APD. First, the memo goes to the Office of the Police Monitor, which then sends the memo to the Law Department for review. The Law Department sends the final memo back to the police monitor’s office, and it is then forwarded to the Police Department.

The review panel never received copies of the final memos, nor did it regularly receive responses from APD, according to the draft audit.

Kevin Cole, an attorney who served on the review panel for about two years, described for the Austin Monitor the frustrating situation that panel members dealt with on a regular basis.

“We would draft memos to the chief, and it was our expectation that our memos were being forwarded to the chief and that the chief would respond to them. But over the course of time … we began to question whether our memos were actually making it to the chief and to the extent that we got a response whether it was actually a response from the chief,” Cole said.

He added, “At one point I recall us going through the police monitor and questioning why we hadn’t received responses, and then we received a number of responses to prior memos. … And at one point, the chief (then Chief Art Acevedo) came and visited with us after we had raised the issue about not getting responses to the memos.”

Acevedo stepped down as Austin’s chief in late 2016 after being named police chief for Houston. Assistant Chief Brian Manley was named interim police chief not long after Acevedo announced his departure.

Cole said Manley did not visit with the group. Manley got the chief job on a permanent basis when Council confirmed his appointment on June 14.

In addition, Cole said while he was serving on the panel he did not realize that the group’s memos were being sent to the Law Department prior to being sent to APD. “The only impression I had was that the Law Department would get involved if someone made a Public Information Act request for one of our memos to the chief and the Law Department would then review and make redactions that were required. … I had no idea that the Law Department had any involvement with our memos in terms of what we had drafted to be sent to the chief.”

Auditors also found that no single city department had all of the memos from the Citizen Review Panel. Of 28 memos reviewed by the auditors, one memo was held only by the Police Department, eight were held only by the police monitor’s office, 18 were held by both the police monitor and APD, and one memo was not found at either the police monitor’s office or at the Police Department, according to the report.

Of those 28 memos, auditors found just 10 written responses from APD. The memos contained 54 recommendations, but in its responses the Police Department discussed only 17 of the recommendations, the audit says.

Auditors also noted that there was “generally a significant gap” between the date an incident occurred and the date when the panel heard the department’s presentation on the case, “which limited the (panel’s) ability to issue effective and timely recommendations.”

According to the agenda for the Citizen Review Panel’s regular monthly meeting on Nov. 6, 2017, the panel was scheduled to review three officer-involved shootings. Those shootings occurred on June 14, 2016, on April 14, 2016, and on Sept. 5, 2016. At its December meeting, the panel was scheduled to review one shooting from January and one from February, 2017.

In their draft audit, the auditors recommend that the city establish clear responsibilities to ensure that records are maintained and that cases are heard in a timely manner.

In addition, they recommend that administrative procedures align with any labor agreement provisions and that the city proactively release memos issued by any citizen oversight body as well as responses from APD. They also recommend protecting city information by providing appropriate resources and training to any citizen oversight body.

Neither Muscadin nor Manley responded to calls seeking comment. The Council Audit and Finance Committee is scheduled to discuss the audit on Monday.

Photo by John Flynn.

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