Photo by city of Austin
Thursday, July 22, 2021 by Jo Clifton

Council members seek better system to help troubled officers

In response to an audit that found Austin Police Department is using an outdated system to identify police officers in need of help, interim Police Chief Joseph Chacon told the City Council Audit & Finance Committee Wednesday that while his department is aware of the problems with its Guidance Advisory Program, or GAP, that does not mean it can immediately move to fix those problems.

The audit, conducted by the Office of the City Auditor, looked at APD’s early intervention system, finding that the system is failing both the officers who might need wellness services or other assistance and the department overall.

Although other police departments track more indicators that might show an officer in trouble, APD’s system, instituted in 2006, only “activates” when there appear to be problems with use of force, Internal Affairs investigations or overuse of sick leave. The program was not set up to track individual problems except on a quarterly basis, and auditors found mistakes in analyses that were supposed to identify officers in need of assistance.

Chacon told the committee that his department reviews every use-of-force complaint it receives. Recently, the department decided that all of those complaints should be reviewed by the same unit within APD, he said, to make sure there is consistency in the reviews.

APD has a Wellness Division, established about four years ago, which offers various services to assist officers. Participation is voluntary and confidential, which the audit noted is consistent with what peer cities do. “However, without tracking access to and use of these services in relation to the GAP, APD has no way to determine if these interventions are working,” the audit said.

Auditors cited a Department of Justice report about how early intervention programs can be used to “detect emerging patterns or trends in an agency which might call for policy revisions, training, change to existing practices, or investigations into other factors not tracked by the system.” However, APD personnel told auditors that “there are no performance metrics reported in relation to the GAP and they have no way to measure the program’s success. In addition, the department is not analyzing results to identify trends or determine if certain officers, assignments or supervisors need additional support services.”

In response to questions from Council Member Kathie Tovo, Chacon said the auditor’s office found mistakes in GAP reporting, such as failing to note problematic use of force in some instances, by manually going through the records of each officer. He explained that the department simply can’t do that and needs a new computer program for that task.

When Tovo asked when the department might get that program, Chacon replied, “We don’t have a timeline on it yet.” He said APD is going through the process of collecting stakeholder input and expects to get a new system in Fiscal Year 2023, which begins in October 2022.

He thought that any replacement program would be expensive, noting that there are a number of other APD programs that are near the end of their usefulness. Chacon also said it is important that the various programs are compatible.

Council Member Alison Alter, who chairs the committee, also had some tough questions for Chacon and was clearly dissatisfied with the department’ s projected timeline for coming up with a new early intervention system.

Alter pointed out that the audit was the result of two Council resolutions, one in 2019 and another in 2020, affirming the city’s commitment to reimagining public safety and directing the city manager to improve the police department. She told Chacon that she wants him to bring back a detailed action plan in response to the audit.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council Audit and Finance Committee: a sub-group of the Austin City Council. It's members are charged with oversight of city fiscal operations and anything that falls under the purview of the Office of the City Auditor.

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

Office of the City Auditor: This city department is created by the city's charter in order to establish and ensure "accountability transparency, and a culture of continuous improvement in city operations."

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