Saturday, May 27, 2006

KLRU documents cold war between Austin police administrators and union

Maybe I've been involved in these local feuds for too long, but I yawned my way through KLRU's Austin Now program last night documenting the cold war between police administrators and the Austin Police Association.

The issue, as it's been for my entire adult life in this town, is whether, when and how to discipline officers for excessive force and misconduct. The union says no, never discipline - officers deserve complete discretion, even or perhaps especially when someone dies. The chief says, well, maybe they should be disciplined, sometimes, when misconduct becomes public and highly politicized. The public says, "Yes, discipline them every time they engage in misconduct, even when it hasn't become public - that way we won't have to make it political in the first place. That's the whole debate, and it's nearly the same players who were making the same arguments 5-6 years ago when Austin's police oversight system was created.

Former APD offiicer Carla Nickerson (she's now on Austin's oversight board) and civil rights attorney Jim Harrington did a good job articulating criticisms of the department. But the show
wasn't very solutions-oriented. Police chief Stan Knee, who just resigned to go train cops in Afghanistan, came off as a man between a rock and a hard place. Police union lobbyist Mike Sheffield stridently declared any decision was justified when made in a "split second." City Manager Toby Futrell came off as defensive and just a little whacko. (Blink, sister!) If you just can't get your fill of petty squabbling and sometimes disingenuous posturing by insiders, cops, and various city bureaucrats, here's KLRU's page on the story and if you've got high-speed access, the full video feed.

I wish producers spent a little more time fact checking their interviewees' comments before airing, or gave voice to a more varied group instead of the same, tired insiders. (I thought the piece they did in 2004 was a little sharper.) Futrell in particular offered some oddly skewed statistics and comparisons to much bigger cities to make her case that Austin really didn't have a big problem. From the opening lines she framed the debate in a particularly ridiculous way. But she ignores the point: We've witnessed undeniable management failures when there HAVE been problems, plus Austin's so-called civilian oversight systems (our police monitor and review panel) are toothless, opaque, distrusted by the community, and ignored when they make recommendations.

Even when the chief finds that misconduct occurred, it's become difficult bordering on impossible to fire officers for misconduct under the current system - in the 70 or so Texas municipalities that have opted into the state civil service code, an arbitrator jointly chosen between the union and the city gets to decide, not the police chief. See a report in the Austin Statesman today on one of the most contentious, politicized arbitration hearings in recent memory - Julie Schroeder, whose termination after killing an unarmed youth named Daniel Rocha was featured in the show. The union is fighting to have her reinstated. This kind of publicity is rare - frequently arbitrators overturn the chief's decision with little fanfare. Arbitrators who want to the unions to agree to hire them again in the future don't choose to fire many officers.

Worse, the City has opted into a veil of secrecy
under the state civil service code concealing records about police misconduct that are public in more than 2,000 other Texas law enforcement agencies. Not a word on that topic in the story, but it's really the key accountability reform needed - if the public can't know what's going on at APD, the department can't be held accountable.


Anonymous said...

Framing the issue as 'misconduct' is an admission of refusal to confront the fact that police officers commit crimes. Texas has a penal code and a death penalty. Enforce the law against cops and bad cops will go to prison or be put in the ground.

Anonymous said...

Not all misconduct is criminal. Some, like the Daniel Rocha shooting, is simply poor judgement.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

The second anonymous correctly interprets my intent in using that language - I used "misconduct" to express a category broader than simply "crimes." In San Antonio officers can be fired for lying, and under Chief Phillippus, some were. There are many actions that are either administrative violations or departmental policy violations, not criminal violations that still amount to unacceptable behavior when routinely engaged in by police.