Friday, April 03, 2015

New Austin PD policy takes secrecy about police misconduct to next level

The Austin Police Department has decided to make secret more police disciplinary cases by ordering training-only punishments instead of suspensions, which under law make a summary of the event a public record - the only window into police misconduct the public has in cities that operate under the state civil service code for police and firefighters (Ch. 143 of the Local Government Code).

The problem is LGC 143.089(g), a secrecy provision added to state law decades after most cities (today, a few more than 70) adopted the civil service code in the the '40s and '50s. Of major Texas cities, Dallas and El Paso never voted to adopt Ch. 143, but many other large and mid-sized jurisdictions did back in the day.

In 1989, at the behest of the big Texas police unions, the then-Democratic controlled Legislature changed the civil service law to create a secret personnel file, exempting it from what was then called the Texas Open Records Act. The result created an odd bifurcation where these 70 or so departments operated under different transparency rules from the other 2,500+ law enforcement agencies in the state.

For example, say an Austin PD officer and a Travis County Sheriff's deputy are each disciplined and punished with a one-day suspension. At Austin PD, where LGC 143.089(g) applies, the public would get to see at most a curt one or two paragraph summation of the offense and punishment with little detail or elaboration. There are exceptions, but that's the typical case. By contrast, at the Travis County Sheriff and other jurisdictions whose personnel files are not covered by Ch. 143, essentially the whole investigative file will be available after the disciplinary process is complete.

The difference from a transparency perspective is night and day.

Change the above example so that the punishment is retraining, and nothing at all - not a word nor syllable - is available about the incident from APD. At the Travis County Sheriff, by contrast, virtually everything would be public ("virtually" because there are other privacy, employment, or attorney-client privilege exceptions which may apply to pieces of it).

So APD wants to take suspension-level misconduct - the only type of police misconduct about which even a scintilla of public information is available - and redefine the punishment so that everything is secret. Thanks for nothing.

Why, you might ask, can't Austin PD suspend an officer for a day and require retraining? The only good reason I can think of is, if they did it that way they couldn't place records about the misconduct in the closed personnel file.

Make me Philosopher King and I'd say let the chief punish his officers any way he wants short of flogging, but the Lege should amend Ch. 143 to strike 143.089(g) so that all of it is a public record, just like at the overwhelming majority of Texas law enforcement agencies. It won't happen this session, but it needs to happen.


Anonymous said...

Houston PD has been doing this for more than two decades. Any incident of misconduct is termed a "training opportunity" and quickly covered up so that no one outside of the personnel department ever knows about it.

Anonymous said...

The Secret Police remains the Secret Police, whatever party is in charge.

Baron_of_Greymatter said...

What's so bad about flogging dirty cops? I think it's a capital idea!

Anonymous said...

| The Secret Police remains the Secret Police, whatever party is in charge.

Remind me again what the other party is in Austin besides Democrat?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@3:23, this is most fundamentally a state legislative issue, not a city of Austin one. APD is just taking advantage of a longstanding loophole.

That said, Dems are also the ones who changed the law to cater to the unions. It remains to be seen if Republicans will change them back.

Anonymous said...

Black Lives Matter!

Bomb charges added against two men who allegedly wanted to blow up the Gateway Arch

ST. LOUIS • Two men linked to a plot to blow up the Gateway Arch and kill a pair of top law enforcement officials were named on a federal indictment made public Thursday that accuses them of trying to use bombs in “violent acts” during protests in Ferguson.
The Post-Dispatch reported in November that sources said the men, who were charged then with making false statements to obtain guns, also had plans to bomb the Arch and kill St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch and then-Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson.

The new indictment against Olajuwon Ali Davis and Brandon Orlando Baldwin, both 22, was not that specific. It says only that they tried to “damage and destroy, by means of explosives, a building, vehicle and other property.”

Anonymous said...

Imagine a world where the fire department wouldn't extinguish the flames on your home if you had a yard sign for a political candidate they didn't support... The purpose of the civil service laws is to ensure fire fighting and policing remain non-partisan.

The purpose of the internal (g) file is to allow chiefs some manner of punishing or retraining bad officers without converting the civil service file into a partisan tool. The fix to increase transparency shouldn't break the good things about civil service. For example, a criminal defense attorney should have full and automatic access to the (g) file and IA files of every officer involved in a criminal prosecution. This wouldn't compromise the spirit of civil service but it would probably force bad cops off the streets.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

There are more than 2,500 LEOs operating without Ch. 143, 1:48. Can you provide one example, anywhere, of a "fire department wouldn't extinguish the flames on your home if you had a yard sign for a political candidate they didn't support" or anything similar with police? No? Didn't think so. Secret misconduct is unaccountable misconduct.

Anonymous said...

These laws were created 80 years ago. Perhaps whatever problems these laws were created to solve are moot today. I sort of doubt there would be a situation these days where the mayor or city counsel replaces the police chief with their favorite campaign donor. That but that might have been a real concern in the 1930s.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@7:52, if you're right, and I think you are, then civil service laws are anachronisms causing more harm than good and 1:48's concerns are red herrings.

Also, just to clarify. Civil service laws were created that long ago but the closed records provision was tacked on in 1989, decades after most cities adopted Ch. 143. The closed records piece has nothing whatsoever to do with the "problems these laws were created to solve" vis a vis political corruption, it's instead part of a modern-day bad-cop protection plan.

Anonymous said...

From the complimentary GFB Statesman link -
*Margo Frasier, the city’s police monitor, said she thinks education-based discipline is more likely to change an officer’s behavior. But she expressed concerns about transparency and suggested releasing the number of people participating in training while keeping their names secret.

With her being on board and obviously confused about the definition of 'transparency', it looks like the Monitor needs to be replaced or retrained. (Hmm, tune in next time when we discuss her training, qualifications and term-limits).

*Officers who would be suspended for one to five days will be eligible to participate in training. Violations that could warrant such a suspension include crashes, pursuit violations and behaving rudely. Last year, a majority of all suspended officers would have qualified for training, according to the department.

Remove the part(s) regarding "behaving rudely" (with two reporters you would think one would not be so vague, but that's what you get with co-embedded reporters) and "discharging firearms" and one might consider the rest of the (non-violent, yet, avoidable so called - mistakes of the heart) infractions acceptable for 'mandatory' Probation (with re-training and 'mandatory' re-certification being required 'prior' to reinstating). Since they both decided not to tell us exactly what the majority of all suspended officers allegedly did "Last year..." we will never know if (or exactly how bad) they behaved badly or not.

Failure to suspend the officer's certification while on paid Probation ensures he/she simply can't up and join the Border Patrol or Rangers to avoid punishment with a side of retraining.

Failure to prevent Union's puppets aka: Police Chiefs & Sheriffs from inserting changes in polices that protect what's deemed as - not so bad cop's criminal background's from the public at large in the form of 'secrecy' (that would allegedly saves taxpayers money), reflects on the public at large that knowingly and willingly allows it. It doesn't matter which gang is running the turf. A gang is a gang, and when the public allows a gang mentality to exist and thrive and operate its PDs and Jails, the public becomes silent members of that specific gang.

The year that we allowed police to don ski-mask, cover name plates, proclaim that photography of cops in public is a crime, destroy evidence and personal property in efforts to hide their criminal behavior, raid homes and businesses with no warrants, search & destroy, arrest people vs citing in citing events, beat-tase-pepperspray the non-violent citizens of all ages, colors and genders, shoot peoples pets (the ones that bark at people kicking in doors and manhandling their owners), well, we basically made that year, the year in which we folded.

When the public folds in mass, you get - "New Austin PD policy takes secrecy about police misconduct to next level". Some will blame Obama , some will assume black lives matter more over other shades while some like myself place the problem and the quick fix on those that allow and condone it.

Chuck Bruno said...

Too often we see cases involving police misconduct, if it so happens that we can get evidence showing brutality it is taken to court, but those times are few and far between. This sort of action is inexcusable!

Anonymous said...

Why? We have to protect the worst cops, that's why. If we didn't, we would have almost no one on duty.

Kevin Stouwie said...

Very insightful piece of work Grits! Thank you.