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APD community engagement audit finds some improvement but data lacking

Thursday, May 28, 2020 by Jo Clifton

Although the Austin Police Department has put considerable effort into improving its community policing efforts over the past four years and there have been some positive impacts, an audit by the Office of the City Auditor concluded there was insufficient data to determine how effective those efforts might be. A subsequent survey found that APD has considerable work to do to convince the public that officers will treat them professionally.

Senior Auditor Maria Stroth presented the audit’s findings to the City Council Audit & Finance Committee during a Zoom meeting on Wednesday. Stroth reported that APD has taken a number of positive steps in response to a 2016 report from the Matrix Consulting Group assessing APD’s community policing efforts.

Auditors conducted a survey of APD employees and members of the Austin community in 2019 and compared results to the 2016 Matrix report. According to the audit, among APD employees, 7 percent more agreed in 2019 that the department does a good job planning services to the community. Within the same group, however, 11 percent fewer respondents than in 2016 agreed that APD has the support of the community.

When auditors compared the two surveys, they found that in the most recent survey respondents rated individual experiences with Austin police staff more highly, but “about 20 percent fewer respondents agreed that officers were professional in their contacts with them.”

In 2016, Matrix recommended that the department increase the amount of time patrol officers have for community engagement to at least 35 percent, auditors wrote. APD reported to the auditors that an increase in uncommitted time – time not spent answering a call – has increased from 22 percent in 2016 to 27 percent in 2018.

However, auditors found “this measure does not accurately represent the time officers can spend on community engagement,” because time between calls can be extremely short, not sufficient for community engagement, and because officers frequently have other responsibilities, including reading emails and writing reports. Officers told auditors they do not have enough time “to engage with residents because of high call volume and issues with understaffing. APD managers said similar things during interviews.”

In addition, auditors wrote, “APD’s ability to improve community policing outcomes may be limited because of issues with the way it measures performance.” In other words, while the department may make positive changes in support of community policing, it is very difficult to assess what changes have had a positive impact because APD has no single place for reviewing the data on the subject.

In a letter to City Auditor Corrie Stokes, Chief Brian Manley said his department concurs with the audit’s findings and recommendations. As for the 27 percent uncommitted time, he said it allows officers to complete required activities. But he recognized that “having only seconds to several minutes between calls may allow for a handshake or short exchanges. Connecting on a personal level in such a short amount of time is difficult, particularly when trust and bias are at issue in a community.” He said APD will be seeking community and stakeholder input on quick engagement activities and neighborhood-specific plans.

Chief of Staff Troy Gay told the committee the audit shows that “APD has made great strides in our community policing efforts.” He added that APD will soon be hiring a chief data officer, “which will allow us to have a subject matter expert that will help us to dive into our data and … come up with the effective performance measures to develop the necessary strategy.”

Council Member Leslie Pool asked Gay whether the department had considered giving officers more uncommitted time, such as an hour at the beginning or end of their shifts, to be involved in community engagement.

Gay said if an officer responds to a burglary call and spends 30 minutes with the complainant, APD expects that officer to ask additional questions, “such as whether there are additional problems in the neighborhood, in order to build relationships” and “get additional information beyond the problem they were called to address. So those are the things that we’re trying to roll into every call.” But as for talking to more business owners, that’s difficult with the department’s current high vacancy rate. He said that number of vacancies limits APD’s opportunities to engage with the public.

Pool said she did not think the extra time an officer might spend with a complainant, for example, would fit her definition of community policing. Pool later told the Austin Monitor she was surprised to learn that APD was counting those extra few minutes with crime victims as time spent on community policing.

There are strong opinions on both sides about adding officers to the police force, even though there have been many retirements. Committee Chair Alison Alter said, “As we think about the budget, we obviously don’t know yet whether we’re going to be able to increase staffing for APD, given the Covid implications, but if we do I think that this audit does suggest that we should prioritize additional district representatives as part of that discussion.”

APD has requested a $28.8 million budget increase, mostly related to personnel costs.

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