Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Rocha case shows Austin police oversight toothless

I've got a confession: I was one of the folks who pushed for years to install Austin's police oversight system -- consisting of a "Police Monitor" and a civilian review board that recommends punishments to the chief -- but at this point I'm embarassed by my involvement. We did our best, but the case of Daniel Rocha shows that the compromised system Austin wound up with is a severe disservice to complainants against police -- a pointless insult tacked on to often extreme injury.

Current Police Monitor Ashton Cumberbatch has turned Austin's system into a big-league joke. Already toothless regarding its ability to impose discipline (the panel can only make recommendations), Cumberbatch could still use it as a bully pulpit -- instead, he's been bullied right off his pulpit, failing to communicate with the public even in the ways formally mandated by his job description. Not only has he never produced the semi-annual reports on police misconduct his office is charged with publishing, he has made virtually no recommendations for policy changes or other improvements. To judge by Cumberbatch's public pronouncements, there's almost nothing he would suggest changing about Austin PD's disciplinary system, though it's riddled with obvious loopholes and flaws.

Last night's civilian review board hearing on the killing of 18-year old Daniel Rocha in June made it clear: Austin's police oversight system simply offers complainants zero means for pursuing justice in their case (See the Austin Statesman, "
Residents complain that Austin police 'above the law,'" Nov. 1). The hearing was the only opportunity for public input on the matter, and about 40 people signed up to speak to the panel.

Rocha family attorney Bobby Taylor opened up the public testimony by posing the obvious query: given the panel's lack of authority, "Why are we here?" There's no question from the record, he noted, that Rocha was shot point blank in the back and killed, that officers ignored standard operating procedures including those regarding escalation of force, and that three or four police cars conveniently had video malfunctions or tapes show up missing. Finally, he said, there's no question from the public record that Officer Julie Schroeder lied when she said Rocha was fighting when she shot him -- the medical examiner's report and other police officer witnesses confirm that he was running away.

Taylor suggested that the panel recommend termination for Officer Schroeder, and that the Travis County District Attorney should examine whether to file perjury charges for falsehoods told to a grand jury. He also called for a federal investigation, opining that the community has lost faith in the city's ability to discipline its officers.

"How would you want this case handled if this was your child?" Taylor asked.

(Perhaps if Officer Schroeder were a Republican congressional leader, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle would be more interested in pursuing the case?)

Outgoing state senator Gonzalo Barrientos raised the hearing's profile by showing up to comment "as a citizen." "These things happen," he said," but they shouldn't happen this often and it shouldn't happen only to minorities."

St. David Chapel's Rev. Joseph Parker and former Austin Mayor Gus Garcia both said the Rocha case posed the question, "What does it mean to be an American?" Both men said officers treated minority youths as though they didn't deserve the constitutional rights the police are sworn to uphold. After the shooting of Jessie Lee Owens last year, Parker said, he went to the home of the grieving parents to find "a house full of black and Hispanic young people ready to take to the streets." He calmed them down, he said, temporarily averting violence, but he lamented that Rocha's and Owen's families "will never know the real truth."

Former Mayor Garcia described a recent visit to Mendez middle school in Austin, where he said students asked him directly about the Rocha case and said they feared the police. "So many young minority men and women don't trust the system at all," he said.

The Central Texas Chapter of the ACLU came forward with three proposals that were also endorsed by several other groups and the Austin Human Rights Commission: 1) New protocols to prevent officer tampering with in-car cameras and microphones, plus requiring them to run all the time, 2) pairing experienced veterans with rookie officers, and 3) creating a "uniform disciplinary matrix" to ensure that fired officers aren't reinstated through arbitration because of varying punishments.

All of those ideas could be implemented immediately, without renegotiating the city's labor contract. Other proposals for reform -- giving the oversight panel subpoena power and a stronger role in discipline -- must wait until the contract ends in several years before the city could act.

Rocha's family and friends deserve to see something positive come from the young man's pointless death, and surely Officer Schroeder should have been terminated long ago. But nothing will bring Daniel back. Nothing will assuage their loss. Nothing. One youth, whose testimony called for Schroeder and Chief Stan Knee's firing, wore a t-shirt bearing Rocha' likeness on the front. On the backside it announced, "I'll Mourn U Till I Join U." One hopes he won't have to wait that long to see justice done.


Anonymous said...

hopefully your involvement to nearly end the task forces won't come back to bite you in the ass too

Catonya said...

"1) New protocols to prevent officer tampering with in-car cameras and microphones, plus requiring them to run all the time,"

This would be a step in the right direction. Unfortunately it too would lack the needed bite. Exceptions under the Freedom of Information Act are such that police departments can refuse viewing/access to the tapes.

Anonymous said...

Ronnie Earle's role in overseeing internal police activity is a little hazy to me. Regardless, if your comment is meant to imply that Earle only pursues indictments that benefit him politically, then you need to take a moment and review his professional history. And maybe switch off the Fox News channel. DeLay and his PAC apparently broke the law. How can you call the indictment into question? It's up to the courts now.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@ anonymous 2: DAs can indict cops when they break the law -- that's Earle's role. He has no role in "internal police activity," but when cops allegedly lie to the grand jury that's not internal anymore.

I don't question the indictment of DeLay. I'm glad he's going after DeLay, actually. I just wish Earle was equally diligent in seeking indictments when he has STRONGER cases against bad cops. He has always been especially weak in that regard - on that score I assure you I know his "professional history" quite well.

@ Catonya, that's true, and I agree, lamentable, but attorneys can still get the information with a subpeona when they go to court, which would include most controversial wrongful death cases involving police. Also, it would give supervisors more info and ammo to use when cops do misbehave on camera. Best to all,

Anonymous said...

For those interested in advocating for substantive accountability of police officers, go to Neil Nelson & Associate's Taped Interrogation Resource Page http://www.neilnelson.com/pages/2/index.htm If you go to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers link, they have resources for advocating for mandatory taped interrogations within your state. Although advocating for taped interrogation does not address the abuse of force, it does work towards protecting some of the Constitutional provisions that police are supposed to be protecting.