I'm glad to see the chief say he intends to implement all of DOJ's recommendations, but doing so leaves APD facing a significant, short-term revamp of its policies and training. Let's run through a few highlights:
The Justice Department report praises Acevedo, who became chief in 2007, for the changes he has brought to the department, which at times were met with resistance among the rank-and-file.
For instance, Acevedo in May revised the department's use-of-force policy to begin requiring officers to document more actions, including when they point their weapons at suspects, and making front-line supervisors do a more immediate, thorough investigation in nearly all cases when force is used.
"We have been looking at all of these issues," Acevedo said. "As a team, we came in and made a lot of changes. We made these changes because we recognized the need for process improvement. We did not wait for the Department of Justice to tell us what to do."
However, the Justice Department recommendations make more suggestions and point out gaps in some of Acevedo's policies. For instance, federal officials said they noticed "a general lack of consistency" among supervisors on use-of-force reporting and review.
"We were also informed that some of these supervisors (who are to review use of force reports) are not themselves trained in up-to-date, uniform tactics or use of force," the report said. "If these line-level and mid-level supervisors are not trained in use of force themselves, then they are not equipped to assess or counsel on their subordinates' use of force."
The report also gave suggestions to improve the department's internal affairs division, which investigates some use-of-force incidents.
According to the report, the department should develop selection criteria for officers who want to be in the division, including an evaluation of their performance. The document also suggested that the department develop formal policies for how internal affairs investigators interview subjects, for instance.
On use of force policies, in particular, DOJ said, "several of the APD's policies and procedures are inconsistent with generally accepted police practices and are insufficiently detailed to provide appropriate guidance for officer conduct." What's more, department rules "omit any mention of the necessity for use of force" and fail to base definitions of "reasonableness" of use of force on Supreme Court precedents.
Some techniques like chokeholds are typically considered "deadly force" in other departments, according to DOJ, but APD's policies allow the tactic in a broader array of circumstances that the Justice Department said should be restricted to situations when deadly force is justified.
DOJ called APD's reporting form that officers fill out after use of force incidents "inadequate" and said there's a "general lack of consistency" among supervisors regarding use of force review.
The Justice Department report also criticized the department's policy of allowing officers to carry "secondary weapons" without informing their supervisors, and recommended forbidding the practice without documented approval.
The report chided APD for failing to create "specific guidance and restrictions on all intermediate force weapos used, including straight and expandable batons, PR24s, Orcutt Nunchakus, chemical weapons, CEDs ["conductive energy devices," i.e., Tasers], impact munitions, and canines." Indeed, "We received ... a number of allegations that APD officers had used [Tasers] on subjects who were already restrained. Even more troubling, neither the APD's revised duty weapons policy, nor the revised Response to Resistance policy contains such a prohibition on use of [Tasers] against a restrained suspect."
What's more, APD policy specifically allows use of pepper spray against restrained suspects who continue to be "aggressive," but DOJ said the definition of "aggressive" is vague and undefined. They recommended banning this practice and suggested a variety of restraint methods used in other departments that could substitute for macing restrained suspects. The report also faults APD for failing to weigh chemical spray cannisters to monitor their use.
DOJ says many examples of APD use of force go undocumented. For example, "an arm bar takedown [is] not use of force under the policy ... unless there was a complaint of recurrent pain or injury. An average citizen would not know that he or she must consistently or repetitively report pain in order for a use of force against them to be documented."
DOJ also said APD isn't following its own policy of requiring every employee to accept citizen complaints on use of force and other misconduct allegations, and alarmingly reported that "911 operators, on many occasions may have discouraged complainants from filing complaints, faild to contact supervisors regarding complaints, and failed to document the calls and complaints." That's pretty brazen, huh?
The report criticized APD for playing around with complaint classifications to create "'escape valves' that can minimize officers' misconduct."
Finally, DOJ offered a suggestion I've been calling for at APD since at least the mid-90s: The creation of a functioning "Early Warning System" (EWS) to pro-actively identify misconduct problems. Said DOJ, "APD command staff should examine and review officer conduct on a regular basis as a proactive measure to minimize and detect misconduct and to identify training and policy issues." An existing EWS system was seldom used, "did not serve as an effective risk management tool," and was "ineffective" at "predictive modeling."
DOJ emphasized that its report contained recommendations, not mandates, but Chief Acevedo was wrong to portray that distinction as particularly meaningful. After all, this is a public policy report not the result of litigation, so the lack of the mandate would be expected.
What wasn't expected was that DOJ's report would essentially confirm what activists in this city have been saying for years: Citizen complaints about use of force are too often ignored and officers who abuse their positions have been too often tolerated.
Chief Acevedo deserves credit for focusing on supervision and misconduct much more than his predecessor, and for embracing the recommendations in this report. If he follows through on his pledge to implement all its recommendations, Austinites will be better off for it.