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Office of the Police Monitor looks to revamp complaint process

Wednesday, September 5, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

According to a recent study by the Office of the Police Monitor, for many in Austin, being seen is being heard.

At the Sept. 4 special called meeting of the Public Safety Commission, Police Monitor Farah Muscadin explained that many people first come into contact with the Office of the Police Monitor when filing a complaint about police matters. In an effort to increase the office’s engagement with the community as well as transparency around its role, she said revamping the complaint process is a logical place to begin.

After conducting research in partnership with the Austin Tech Alliance, the office discovered that the overarching critiques about the current complaint system center around barriers to access, lack of transparency, and absence of institutionalization within the public safety departments.

“I would concur … this process is something that’s been needed,” Austin Police Department Assistant Chief Troy Gay agreed.

He noted that in order for the new design to be effective, complainants need to not only understand the process but be comfortable with the process itself. “We (the working group) were all very, very supportive in the recommendations that have been made so far.”

The recommendations presented to the commission include changing the name of the Office of the Police Monitor to the Independent Office of Police Accountability, sending feedback surveys to citizens after every interaction with the police, having the Office of the Police Monitor and Internal Affairs document their case notes independently for “analysis that could be important if there are disagreements,” implementing a “pizza tracker” style status bar and offering confirmation numbers so complainants can track status, and streamlining the process down to one online form.

Commission Chair Rebecca Webber told the Austin Monitor that although the dynamic of the working group involved in creating the recommendations for the design process has sometimes been contentious, the involved parties were in agreement that “low-hanging fixes” were needed.

“I sincerely believe that 85 percent of the issues that were communicated by the community … can be ameliorated just by doing these things,” but as it stands, the process is “so hopelessly complicated right now” that it deters people from giving feedback, she said.

“I feel like you’re trying to fix the outward problem, but if the back-end process is still broken, how do we get there?” said Commissioner Rebecca Gonzales. Her concerns were echoed by Commissioner Ed Scruggs, who was particularly anxious in light of the recent audit conducted regarding the now-decommissioned Citizen Review Panel.

Although Muscadin noted that the working group is having trouble getting “past the difficulty of even having a conversation about the community panel,” she said that retooling the complaint process would affect the structure of the office internally to make it more responsive.

Muscadin noted that the office is seeking a senior research analyst to comb through the city’s open data portal regularly looking for trends to help prevent complaints in the first place. Commissioner Kim Rossmo said he wants to “emphasize the value of someone who looks for patterns.” According to him, identifying “patterns can lead to proactive efforts that can reduce complaints.”

In an effort to encourage more data analysis and community engagement within the police monitor’s office, Webber made a motion that the commission recommend that Council fund two additional positions – one policy analyst and one community outreach specialist – at the Office of the Police Monitor for 2019.  The motion passed unanimously. Commissioners Brian Haley, Sam Holt, Carol Lee, and Michelle McCurdy were absent.

Photo by WhisperToMe [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

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