Thursday, July 19, 2012

Austin police monitor finally doing its job, but still a poor substitute for transparency

After years of inactivity and malaise under previous management, Austin's Office of the Police Monitor (OPM) has been much more active under former Travis County Sheriff Margo Frasier, and this week produced its latest annual report. I may have more to say later on the subject, but wanted to provide the link (pdf) and point to brief, initial Statesman coverage, which highlighted the OPM's finding that "One out of every eight traffic stops involving a black Austin resident included a police search, compared with one out of 28 times for white residents." However, said the report (p. 16), "Despite the percentage of searches, there is virtually no difference in the likelihood of contraband being discovered within the three groups."

Frasier has made this office about all it can be, actually performing all the tasks (including publishing this report so the public can glimpse into the process) that most of her predecessors inexplicably failed to accomplish. Whether or not the toothless agency can make a difference by merely pointing out problems (often behind the scenes) and making much-resisted recommendations, at least Frasier is doing those things. That hasn't always been the case.

One interesting thing to see is how seriously complaints by police officers against other officers are taken compared to those from civilians. Officers complaints were sustained 83% of the time in 2011 compared to 20% of civilian complaints (and that 20% figure was up from 10% and 11% in '09 and '10 respectively).

Where you really see the difference, though, is in punishments. Police officers in Austin are FAR more likely to be punished based on a sustained complaint from a fellow officer than a member of the public. See tables 27 and 28 on pp. 50-51 of the report (pdf), for example, which inform us that 272 disciplinary actions resulted from police officer complaints against colleagues, compared to just 43 resulting from complaints from the public* (see below).

So the public's complaints are less likely to be sustained and when they're sustained they're less likely to result in disciplinary action than if misconduct were reported by a fellow officer. Perhaps this is because Internal Affairs thinks officers have more credibility, or maybe when officers show up to complain they do so with better evidence. But for whatever reason, officers' complaints have much more juice.

As one might expect, just a few officers are generating a disproportionate number of complaints from the public. "When aggregating the complaints brought by members of the public against officers within the 2007‐2011 timeframe," said the report (p. 64), "the OPM found that 19% of officers [who received External complaints in 2011] had just a single complaint; the remaining 81% had two or more complaints." Indeed, "There were twelve (12) officers who had ten or more complaints (i.e., External Formal complaints and Supervisory Inquiry complaints). A full 52% of the officer complaints comprise officers with 2, 3 or 4 complaints each."

Grits should remind readers that because of amendments to state civil service laws passed at the Lege by police unions in the '80s, cities like Austin that opted into the civil service code decades earlier now for the most part have completely closed records about police misconduct: Only summary information is available about discipline under open records, and then only if the officer was suspended for two days or more. By contrast, much more detailed information would be available about the same misconduct by a deputy at the Travis County Sheriff's Office, or at non-civil service agencies like police departments in Dallas, El Paso, and hundreds of others.  The records blackout on police misconduct at Texas' 70 or so civil service cities does citizens in those towns a great injustice.

That early carve-out from the Open Records Act is part of the reason, for all its faults, that Austin's Office of the Police Monitor was created in the first place. But frankly, even in full flower under Margo Frasier's leadership, it's a poor substitute for actual transparency.

*Some officers may receive more than one disciplinary action in response to multiple allegations in a single case, so those numbers don't equate to the total number of officers disciplined. See the caveats on p. 50 of the report.


Don Dickson said...

Grits, complaints by officers against officers probably ARE likely to be deemed more credible than complaints by civilians, and not necessarily without reason. Some civilians take offense at things which simply don't amount to violations of law or policy, including perceived rudeness. And perhaps reading this report will answer this question for me, but I'm curious to know whether "multiple complaints" equates with "multiple incidents." For example, when a civilian complains that "Officer Jones stopped me for no reason, cussed at me and searched my vehicle without my consent," is that one complaint, or three?

Anonymous said...

Austin is the bastion for liberalism in Texas so, I guess the cops are mostly conservative. At this point they're serarching one group more than another but, the findings of contraband is even across the board. Look on the bright side, at least they're not planting evidence.

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Deb said...

Margo should get at least partial credit for increased firings and disciplinary action simply by 'doing her job' since the beginning of 2011. If the PM is doing her job right, the chief has a harder time ignoring her recommendations.

The other thing she should get credit for is raising an important issue: that of probable cause and whether APD has a pattern of stops and searches with lack thereof. I hope this spawns more discussion amongst city leaders and leads to further accountability.

On the cusp of negotiations for the next meet and confer contract, there are many changes she could push forth on...I hope she further takes advantage of her position to that end.

Phillip Baker said...

Good to hear that the OPM is doing its job better under Frasier, and a little amazing. I worked in the SO while she was sheriff, and the woman could not pander to the cops and deputies any more than she did. It often seemed as if she wanted to be accepted as "one of the boys" so desperately that she'd tolerate any misbehavior by officers.

I find nothing surprising in officer on officer complaints resulting in more actions. Given the extreme reluctance of LEO's everywhere to break ranks with their brothers, these complaints would be a huge red flag.Even another cop is calling the guy out.

And it is true that many citizen complaints are just foolish attempts to hassle the cop who did his job with you as the target. But that being said, the most frequent complaint I hear- and make, myself- about APD is their rudeness. Many times I have seen cops deliberately trying to provoke a reaction from someone detained, as an excuse to escalate the use of force. APD unfortunately tolerates a lot of bullies- the guys armed to the teeth, armored, who get inches from your face, scream so loud their spit is flying, calling the detainee the most filthy things far beyond just cursing, just itching to provoke any reaction. He gets to act like that, humiliate anybody he chooses, while knowing full well that the slightest reaction will allow him to use lots of force and then compound the injury by filing charges. Cowardly bullies hiding behind a badge. Not all the cops, but a significant portion. I like our chief, but he has totally failed in even trying to cull out these misfits.