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Public Safety Commission pushes for an independent investigation into ‘endemic’ racism and homophobia in APD

Tuesday, December 3, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Last month, City Manager Spencer Cronk announced that attorney Lisa Tatum would investigate allegations of racism among the executive staff of the Austin Police Department. The investigation follows complaints that APD Assistant Chief Justin Newsom used the N-word to refer to African Americans, including former City Council Member Ora Houston and former APD Chief Frank Dixon.

Despite Tatum’s appointment, the Public Safety Commission remained uncertain that the citizens of Austin would receive any answers.

“This investigation is not independent the way it has been described,” Commissioner Rebecca Webber said at the Dec. 2 meeting of the Public Safety Commission. “What are we paying for here? What answers are we going to get? And is it ever going to become public?”

She called it a “conflict of interest” and “disgusting,” that Tatum was contractually obligated to “discuss with the managing attorney (City Attorney Anne Morgan) the precise services requested and whether a formal option is desired, or informal oral or written assistant.”

Webber told the Austin Monitor that Tatum had “been hired to help defend the city of Austin against allegations.”

Commissioner Meghan Hollis agreed with Webber’s legal opinion, saying, “We need more than just an investigation by a biased party that is controlled by the city.”

In order to initiate an independent and unbiased investigation of APD’s culture, commissioners voted to offer their support for Item 66 on Council’s agenda this week. This resolution directs the city manager to hire an independent investigator to undertake a comprehensive evaluation of the prevalence of discrimination within the Austin Police Department and delay the start of new cadet classes.

In support of this resolution, the commission voted 7-1 to recommend its passage. Commissioner Chris Harris abstained. The commission noted in its recommendation that only the upcoming June cadet class should be delayed while February’s class should continue as planned.

Several commissioners noted that the chronic vacancies at the police department will only be exacerbated if upcoming cadet classes are suspended.

Cary Roberts, executive director for the Greater Austin Crime Commission, told Public Safety commissioners that “suspending academy classes will undermine public safety.”

Other commissioners expressed their displeasure that the investigation is only focused on allegations of racism within the upper echelons of APD and would not examine how the department treats officers accused of racism. Harris said a full inquiry would look into how Newsom was able to retire with full benefits.

Additionally, Harris urged the police department to overhaul its cadet training classes in an effort to eradicate any racist behavior. Not all commissioners agreed, however, that cadet training was the source of the problems within the department.

“It’s not a training issue, it’s a culture issue and it starts at the top,” explained Hollis, who said that the culture of opaqueness and cover-ups remains unchanged. “I am abhorred by the lack of response I’ve seen from the police department.”

City Attorney Anne Morgan prohibited Assistant Chief Troy Gay from answering questions regarding the investigation during the meeting.

Commissioners expressed their unanimous condemnation of Assistant Chief Newsom’s actions. However, there was intense debate surrounding the most effective course of action to eradicate the discrimination and racism within the police department.

Hollis said that since the issue was “endemic,” it will be a slow path toward correction. Even so, she said change requires more than an investigation authorized by the city manager. “Putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound is basically what this pseudo-investigation is doing,” she said.

Webber called for dramatic steps, including halting cadet classes to imbue a sense of urgency. She said with Tatum leading the inquiry, “I don’t think that even now anyone is actually investigating this.”

In addition to their support for an independent investigation of the affair, the commission agreed that more needs to be done not only to repair the culture of the police department, but to heal the department’s relationship with the public.

Photo courtesy of ATXN.

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