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Oversight Board Calls Out Austin PD For Revamping Policies To Minimize Citizen Complaints

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Tim Cushing
2020-04-20 18:43:12
www.techdirt.com

from the [PD-divests-trustworthiness] dept

The Austin (TX) police department barely avoided being hit with a DOJ consent decree a little over a decade ago. The sheer number of recommendations makes you wonder where the consent decree bar sits at the DOJ.

The U.S. Department of Justice has made 160 recommendations to improve Austin Police Department policies and procedures, as part of the ongoing federal investigation of department practices. APD Chief Art Acevedo said Jan. 5 that his department has implemented, or is in the process of implementing, the majority of the recommendations, outlined in a 50-page letter of “technical assistance” delivered to city officials late last month.

If the name Art Acevedo rings a bell, it’s because he’s now the head of another problematic police department. Acevedo runs the Houston Police Department — now mostly known for being the home of corrupt cops, who strung together a bunch of lies to engage in a drug raid that resulted in the senseless killing of two residents.

The DOJ also recommended the APD make it easier for citizens to file complaints.

A majority of the DOJ recommendations involve policies governing police use of force. The DOJ also makes substantive suggestions on how citizen complaints should be classified and reviewed by Internal Affairs and recommendations that emphasize the need for comprehensive and ongoing police training.

The city did set up an Office of Police Oversight to facilitate the filing of complaints against police officers. The Office is supposed to provide a layer of independent oversight. But investigations are still performed by the Austin PD personnel, which makes this a bit of a closed loop.

Grits for Breakfast reports the Austin PD is looking to close the loop even further by revamping the complaint process. Nothing about the alterations will make it easier for citizens to file complaints or for the PD’s independent overseers to, you know, actually oversee the process. Maybe it’s just bureaucracy rather than malice, but the re-categorization of complaints seems geared towards making it more difficult for everyone (outside of the PD, that is) involved.

Without getting too deep into the weeds, the new orders… changed how complaints submitted to the OPO are classified by the department. Previously, there were three complaint categories at the OPO: formal complaints, supervisor referrals, and citizen concerns. Now, “citizen concerns” will be recorded as “external information,” and may be closed by IA upon initial categorization with no investigation required.

Supervisor referrals, bizarrely, will now be categorized as “citizen concerns,” while a new category called ‘Minor Policy Violations’ will now be labeled “supervisor referrals.” Got that?

Finally, incoming complaints historically are categorized A, B, C, or D, depending on an initial assessment of their validity/severity by either IA or the officer’s supervisor. Another big change is that only those classified A or B will now be considered “formal” complaints.

The weeds are indeed very deep. This nonsensical reclassification of complaints is listed towards the end of a 783-page PDF. (The section on “Administrative Investigations” starts at page 548.) The new designations seem designed to obscure the origin of the complaints and to facilitate the wrist-slapping of misbehaving officers.

This hasn’t escaped the attention of the Office of Police Oversight. A letter [PDF] to the PD from its director, Farah Muscadin, calls the PD out for needlessly complicating the complaint review process.

The OPO asserts that this unnecessary change and filtering of complaint data will mislead the public and continue to feed a false narrative that complaints filed with the OPO against APD are not rigorously assessed. More importantly, it will leave complainants without any meaningful resolution or sense of procedural justice. Furthermore, the OPO contends that this new category is detrimental to the established process and attempts to minimize complaints from the public. The OPO recommends that “minor policy violations” continue to be handled through the OFCA process already outlined in APD policy.

And that’s not all. It’s more than just making the process complicated for the apparent purpose of making citizen complaints more difficult to identify and track. The PD also ignored recommendations from the oversight committee even though it specifically asked the Office of Police Oversight for its input. The letter points out the Department’s Internal Affairs office has been particularly resistant to Oversight suggestions, refusing to sign a joint agreement that would have made the complaint process an actual collaboration between the OPO and APD. Instead, the PD has decided it can handle citizen complaints on its own without outside input. Without this, the APD becomes its own oversight and literally any police department in the nation can demonstrate why allowing law enforcement agencies to self-police is a terrible idea.

The Austin PD is not alone in its thwarting of its oversight. It’s a longstanding law enforcement tradition that reaches all the way up to the agencies the DOJ directly oversees. That’s a shame. But law enforcement agencies have proven themselves shameless. When given the opportunity to restore trust and repair relationships with the communities they serve, they opt for obfuscation and opacity almost every time.

Filed Under: austin, austin police department, citizen complaints, consent decree, doj



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