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Audit finds APD failing officers who need help

Wednesday, July 21, 2021 by Jo Clifton

The Austin Police Department’s system for identifying officers in need of help and connecting them with support or wellness services is failing both the officers and the department, according to an audit released Tuesday.

The audit, which was conducted by the Office of the City Auditor, found that the early intervention system used by APD is ineffective, has significant data collecting and reporting issues, and fails to connect officers to services that might help them. In addition, auditors found that there is minimal reporting on what is called the Guidance Advisory Program (GAP), insufficient officer training about the program, and that the program lacks transparency.

Auditors found that the program may not be tracking the right information to identify officers truly in need of assistance. Additionally, in some instances the program may be indicating a need for assistance when that need does not exist, resulting in “unnecessary activation.” However, it appears that APD does not take “activation” very seriously.

“We reviewed a random sample of 60 activation response memos,” auditors wrote, “and found that 93 percent of the time, supervisors and the chain-of-command did not identify any issues to address. While informal counseling or conversations were noted in 7 percent of the memos, none of the memos recommended a formal action plan or referral to services.”

The Austin program, which was implemented in 2006, only records three indicators that may reveal the officer’s need for assistance. Those include use-of-force (called response to resistance), Internal Affairs complaints and use of sick leave. Auditors found APD’s “performance indicator thresholds may be too low and result in unnecessary activations.”

Other cities, including Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, look at more possible indicators of problems. According to the audit, more recently designed, data-driven early intervention system programs track 20 or more indicators and claim to be more predictive of officers needing support. Indicators used in Houston include misconduct including racial profiling, citizen injuries or deaths as well as citizen complaints, vehicle crashes and damage to city property, disregard for policies or procedures, low performance and extra employment violations.

Austin’s performance indicators have not been reviewed in years, according to the audit, although APD recently began looking at those indicators and plans to revise them with an eye to improving the program, auditors wrote.

According to established APD rules, the GAP coordinator – the staffer overseeing the program – performs an analysis each quarter to indicate which officers the department has identified through its performance system.

The coordinator then notifies the officer’s supervisor. If a supervisor identifies issues he or she thinks need to be addressed, the next step is to draw up an action plan. However, auditors found “significant data integrity and procedural issues” with the quarterly report, resulting in missing or inappropriate activations. In addition, auditors said due to limitations of the current system, “supervisor reviews rarely identify behavioral or wellness issues to address and officers are not connected to resources” via the program. “Finally, the program is not actively monitored or evaluated to ensure its success or effectiveness.”

In looking at use-of-force data, auditors found, “The query did not identify about a third of the officers it should have, based on the preset thresholds. As a result, those officers did not activate. In addition, we identified several officers who should have activated in more than one quarter in fiscal year 2020 and those officers only activated once.”

Under the Internal Affairs category, auditors identified two officers who should have been activated that were not. A third officer who was activated “was mistakenly removed” from the program report.

Finally, auditors found that there were mistakes in looking at sick-leave hours in at least 6 percent of the cases. Although the coordinator manually checked sick leave activations for three of the four quarters, he did not do so as a result of pandemic assignments. Auditors found that APD staffers were not checking the payroll data to see if there were other officers who might have been called out for problematic sick leave.

APD staff told auditors that they were aware that their program “was not consistently pulling accurate information,” and that they did not know how to fix the programming. Staff members also told auditors the department is transitioning to a new software system to track Internal Affairs complaints and use-of-force incidents. The city also plans to replace the payroll system and staff members are in the process of determining how to operate and get data from the new systems, they wrote.

Unsurprisingly, auditors found little buy-in for the program. They recommended that the chief of police work with staff to identify and implement corrections for data collection issues, among other things, and try to align with best practices as set forth by the Department of Justice.

Auditors said that staff members convened focus groups in March 2021 to discuss changes and additions to indicators being tracked, the thresholds for those indicators and how the data will be collected. “APD executive management said that the (Guidance Advisory Program) is a priority for the department and they want to better support officers” with an effective system. Management agreed with all the recommendations set forth in the audit.

Members of the City Council Audit & Finance Committee are scheduled to receive the audit and discuss it at today’s committee meeting.

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