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Commission wants more detail and authority behind police oversight findings

Tuesday, July 14, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

The Mayor’s Committee for People with Disabilities has signed on to a resolution passed by the Human Rights Commission that asks the Austin Police Department to investigate all complaints recommended for investigation by the Office of Police Oversight.

The committee voted unanimously and without comment to endorse the resolution, which was approved last month. It asks City Council to direct the police department to automatically conduct investigations into the complaints that the OPO has already vetted and deemed worthy of possible action.

The vote followed a presentation by the oversight office that shared the findings of an analysis of the police department’s officer-involved shootings in 2018, which staff said showed a statistically abnormal number of such incidents.

Among the findings was that Latinx individuals were disproportionately involved in officer-involved shootings, and that all eight incidents involved people in their 20s.

The Human Rights Commission reviewed data showing that in some cases, less than half of the cases are investigated and that it can often take three months or more for investigations to begin. This finding fueled the push to make the oversight office’s complaints automatically subject to a formal investigation.

Alicia Weigel, a member of the Human Rights Commission, told the Austin Monitor the autonomy the police department is given concerning investigations into complaints can create a “domino effect” that makes it difficult for issues within the department to be addressed.

“It is our feeling that any complaints sent for investigation should be investigated, that it should be compulsory. We believe that if they’re sending 10 (cases) that all 10 should get investigated,” Weigel said. “This is not only because of the internal reform that already happened to make sure only substantiated claims were moving over to APD.”

The disability committee spent much of its meeting discussing the ways the oversight office has changed since it was created from the Office of the Police Monitor, and what improvements still need to be made.

Commissioner Joey Gidseg said data analyzed during a recent hackathon showed a low response rate by the department for investigating complaints, and that more accountability is needed.

Gidseg pushed for more data from the oversight office, and also said the city should grant it more authority over its recommendations regarding police department practices.

“It kind of sounds like while there might be more data and hopefully we’ll get even more data and push for more information to be collected and shared, I think that it doesn’t seem like there is any more power to have the recommendations that you all make for disciplinary actions for what the officers are doing, to have that stick,” Gidseg said.

“It seems like that is still kind of the same so it’s like we’ll make the recommendations and get some more information but they’ll still do what they want.”

Maya Guevara, a community engagement specialist for the oversight office, said so far community involvement has been the best means to enforce accountability on the police department concerning its recommendations.

“There’s still a place where oversight needs lots of community pressure,” she said. “We really have to work with the community to hold APD accountable because they are not required to adopt our recommendations.”

Earlier in the meeting, Committee Member Deborah Trejo said the oversight office hasn’t delivered appropriately detailed data on how complaints and other issues it investigates relate to people with disabilities outside of figures on mental health.

“You are one of many city departments who has come to the Commission for People with Disabilities without really bringing up or highlighting issues for people with disabilities, without pulling out that issue and discussing it when that is the purpose of this committee. So it seems that equity doesn’t include people with disabilities,” she said.

“You’ve explicitly talked about mental health as an area that you’re concerned about, but I don’t hear you expressing any concern about people with disabilities. … I don’t see anything on the city website that tells me what your purpose is and what are the things you’re valuing and looking at. If you would say something in your statistics about people with disabilities that would be a way to show that as part of your goal.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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