Photo by Emree Weaver for KUT
Monday, April 20, 2020 by Audrey McGlinchy

Investigator largely unable to corroborate claims of bigotry against high-ranking Austin police

An outside investigator hired by the city of Austin to look into allegations of racism and homophobia against two assistant police chiefs has largely been unable to corroborate the accusations.

“At this investigation’s conclusion, we can say we have a gathered a great deal of information and have a significantly increased knowledge about the culture at APD, but have not gleaned a large number of answers to the questions asked at the start,” the report reads.

Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk called for an investigation last fall into former Assistant Chief Justin Newsom and Assistant Chief Troy Gay, after the city department that oversees police conduct fielded two complaints. Both complaints accused Newsom of having used racist terms for black people and the second claimed Gay had his son undergo gay conversion therapy, a widely debunked practice that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation.

However, Lisa Tatum, a lawyer and former assistant district attorney in Bexar County, said she and her team were unable to verify the allegations. In a nearly 50-page report, she compared her task to “being named an honorary detective who was assigned to investigate an outdoor crime scene after it had already rained heavily – twice.”

According to the report, the complainants were unable to provide basic or specific information about the behavior they claimed, such as names of people involved or those with knowledge of the allegations.

The report also raised concerns that during the investigation the Austin Police Department was unable to produce documents that employees remember seeing or even signing.

“On the occasions when such documents were not produced, no explanation was provided as to the absence of a record or document,” the report said. “Tatum Law cannot say whether a document in question was lost, damaged, destroyed, destroyed pursuant to a record retention policy or otherwise.”

Investigators wrote about encountering a “quiet resistance” among those interviewed, describing them as at times evasive and deflective. At the same time, the report noted a “very high level” of fear of retaliation for speaking against the department, leading many of those interviewed to request anonymity.

Activists and one City Council member raised that concern earlier this year.

“It seems that people are not able to wholeheartedly and openly and honestly talk about some of the issues regarding racism within the police department,” Chas Moore, founder of the Austin Justice Coalition, said at a news conference in January.

Just weeks before, City Council members had voted to conduct a second, more wide-reaching investigation into bigotry in the department, asking the city manager to review and revise police training manuals. That investigation was set to start once this one finished.

Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, who represents much of East Austin, said Friday she looks forward to beginning this second, larger investigation into APD.

In her report, Tatum and her team called their work a starting point for the city.

“The city’s efforts to learn and understand these issues will require more than what this report and investigation can provide,” the report states.

Investigators mentioned hearing anecdotes that, while beyond the scope of their investigation, raised concerns about racist and sexist behavior in the department.

While investigators wrote that many applauded the city’s swift action in hiring them, those they interviewed felt the city is resistant to change, noting “a historical pattern of the city not taking any action to make situations in need of repair better.”

Moore said while the report couldn’t confirm specific allegations, it left “little doubt” there are big problems in the department.

“Many people are afraid to describe that problem and offer solutions because they fear retaliation,” he said in an emailed statement Friday. “We also learned that people within the department want change, they just don’t think it can really happen. We want those people to know, it can and it will.”

In their report, investigators also laid out recommendations for the police department, including management training, writing that when these allegations surfaced, officers “felt ill-prepared to address the issues of race, mistrust and betrayal that arose, and arose suddenly, within their ranks.” They also recommended employees be retrained on document retention.

“The Austin Police Department remains committed to working within our department, as well as within the community, to address the issues brought forward in the Tatum Law Independent Investigation in a collaborative and solution-based approach,” Austin Police Chief Brian Manley wrote in an email. “We will make all necessary changes to ensure our employees have a work environment and culture that promotes equity, fairness and frees them from concerns of retaliation.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Austin Police Department: the law enforcement entity for the City of Austin.

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