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APD needs more oversight, Public Safety Committee is told

Tuesday, September 21, 2021 by Amy Smith

Police transparency and accountability are still sorely lacking in Austin, according to statistical information presented to the City Council Public Safety Committee on Monday.

Farah Muscadin, director of the Office of Police Oversight, or OPO, provided several grim findings in her report, which grew out of the Austin Police Department’s violent response to the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted here following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020.

At the time, Austin community members were already expressing outrage over the death of Michael Ramos, who was shot and killed by Austin police the month before Floyd’s death.

While Muscadin’s office based its analysis on complaints made between May 29 and Nov. 30 of last year, the most serious charges of police misconduct stemmed from the late spring and summer protests that centered on police reform, social justice and police brutality. As in other cities, Austin police responded with pepper spray and less-lethal weapons that caused serious injury to protesters. Some of those cases are under review by the Travis County District Attorney’s Office.

“This is clearly unprecedented for our city,” Muscadin said of the number of complaints that immediately followed the May 29 protest. Of the 1,000 individual contacts made by phone, email or online, OPO identified 308 complaints and determined that 106 of them were duplicates.

OPO asked APD to investigate 202 complaints, and of that number, the department’s Internal Affairs investigated just 27. Meanwhile, Internal Affairs investigated 21 complaints generated internally by the department.

By August, Muscadin said, OPO was seeing a clear lack of progress in the investigations, with the majority of the 202 complaints dismissed. “Given the enormity of the complaints that we received, we were starting to see some red flags,” Muscadin said of the number of cases that were being rejected outright, or closed without a thorough investigation. On Aug. 12, 2020, she sent a memo to Brian Manley, then chief of police, to express OPO’s “grave concerns.”

As Muscadin told the committee, “We had ongoing issues with cooperation between the department and our staff (regarding) review and access to information.”

Muscadin offered a list of 10 recommendations for APD; chief among them is the necessity for the department to investigate all complaints, regardless of where they originate. Additionally, OPO recommends that officers have their names and badge numbers visible at all times; that APD provide semi-annual crowd-control training to all personnel on duty during community events; and that APD implement crowd management policies “to ensure the safety of all involved and focus on maintaining the value of human life and upholding individuals’ constitutional rights.”

Council Member Greg Casar, vice chair of the committee, issued a press statement shortly after Monday’s meeting, making clear his intent to ensure City Council strengthens the powers of of the Office of Police Oversight.

Voters in May overwhelmingly approved a proposition to place OPO under Council’s authority rather than the city manager. According to Casar, the voter mandate has not been fully implemented.

“Young people were maimed and nearly killed while exercising their right to peacefully demonstrate,” Casar said. “If we don’t want this to happen again, we should be embracing police oversight, not ignoring it.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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