Monday, November 01, 2004

Kicking them upstairs

APD ignores past disciplinary problems when promoting officers into supervisory positions, the Austin American Statesman reported (registration required).

The editors at the Statesman deserve credit for giving some reporters enough leeway to perform long-term investigations. Their detailed stories over the last two years about the Austin Police Department have easily been the best of their reportage since Richard Oppel took over the helm.

On Sunday, Tony Plohetski delved into a long-simmering police accountability issue -- the department's tendency to promote people to supervisory positions who've had prior disciplinary problems. APD briefly wouldn't allow officers to take the corporal's test if they'd had a suspension in the previous year, but the police union shot that reform down.

Plohetski found a lot of new information. A quarter of APD's 224 supervisors have received a disciplinary suspension at some point in their career. What kind of things have police supervisors been suspended for? Reports Plohetski:

"The disciplinary incidents, tallied through August, may have provided a window into each officer's judgment and performance, but Police Chief Stan Knee's options were limited when their promotion papers reached his desk. Rather than bypass them, he moved them up the ranks based on their scores on oral and written exams.

"The misbehavior that resulted in suspensions for the 55 supervisors included kicking a handcuffed suspect, lying to internal affairs and driving dangerously with a prisoner. Knee promoted 31 of the officers after their suspensions — three of them within a year of being disciplined.

"The 31 include four who had two suspensions before Knee promoted them and three who were suspended again after promotion — for infractions that included knocking a man's feet out from under him, conducting an illegal search and failing to arrest a fellow officer who appeared to be driving drunk.

"The disconnect between discipline and promotions is by choice. State law sets up written and oral exams as the measure for who gets to rise in rank, and the city can alter that through employment contracts with the police union."

What he doesn't say is that these suspensions are only a small subset, a minority at most, of the total number of sustained complaints. Under Texas law, even sustained complaints at civil service cities are closed records unless they result in a suspension without pay. That means if an officer is reassigned instead of suspended for kicking a prisoner, neither the Statesman nor anybody else can look at the records. It's likely up to two thirds (see the chart) of sustained complaints against police supervisors remain shielded from public view. And since Chief Knee has long refused to install a uniform disciplinary matrix prescribing minimum punishments, and we know from prior court testimony that APD brass treats Internal Affairs cases unequally, ignoring or downplaying misconduct from more senior officers, there's a good chance some of those secret disciplinary problems were of a serious nature, but swept under the rug.

Oddly, Plohetski did not report that the Texas Legislature took up this topic in 2001. Then-House Criminal Jurisprudence Chairman Juan Hinojosa (he's since become a state senator) proposed HB 3492 (search on the bill number in the 77th session here), which would have subtracted points from promotions exam scores for sustained allegations of serious misconduct. See the ACLU fact sheet supporting the bill here for more detail. Testimony in committee (I know because I gave it) focused in part on former Austin police officer Hector Polanco, an officer who allegedly coerced confessions and was promoted to lieutenant, even after Chief Knee's predecessor tried unsuccessfully to fire him.

The police unions reacted to the bill as though we'd proposed eating their children, issuing the most grave pronouncements about our cop-hating motives. I was always pretty proud of that bill, even if it still doesn't get much attention.


Prentiss Riddle said...

I was once told that the easiest route to job security for a Houston bus driver was to get involved in a serious accident. According to the story, Houston Metro viewed firing or disciplining a driver as tantamount to an admission of guilt, so to protect themselves from lawsuits they would dig in and keep those drivers behind the wheel.

If it's true, could that strategy apply to police departments as well?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I think there's something to that.