Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Austin now posts police misconduct reports online; shouldn't everybody?

It warms Grits' heart and even inspires a moment of nostalgia to see that Austin's Office of Police Monitor now posts disciplinary memos involving Austin police officers online, as I was reminded when compiling Sunday's post on Ofc. Christopher Van Buren (his 90-day suspension would have ended last month). That information was not always so accessible and in the past there have been costs, both monetary and otherwise, to acquiring and publishing it.

Grits should know. In 1997, your correspondent launched a now-defunct website, all hand-coded in html, titled the "Austin Police Department Hall of Shame." The previous year, working as a opposition researcher, I'd created an online "city council candidates hall of shame" in which I dumped oppo research on four candidates who all lost, including Kirk Watson's then-mayoral rival, Ronney Reynolds. Often, reporters not only picked up the oppo research but frequently presented it as original reporting (which for my purposes - defeating those four candidates - was fine by me). That experience in the early days of the web (the term "blog" wouldn't be coined until 1999) gave me insight into how reporters and pols interacted with the online world which influence Grits' approach to blogging and advocacy to this day.

With the launch of the APD "Hall of Shame" in 1997, I predictably made many friends among the local PD and in union-friendly political circles. The project at first amounted to acquiring disciplinary memos for Austin police officers from the civil service commission under the Public Information Act, combining it with press coverage of local police misconduct, and posting it all online, usually transcribed and coded by hand. Like Grits, it was a labor-intensive hobby. Later, the website name was changed to the (bland) Texas Police Reform Center and its subject matter expanded to cover police misconduct statewide, a project which lasted until Grits launched on this platform in 2004. At that point, I expanded coverage to a much wider array of issues than just police misconduct and began focusing more on public policy than individual cases.

It's especially sweet to have the Office of Police Monitor doing this, since at one point I'd essentially given up on the agency. Former Travis County Sheriff Margo Frasier has been a breath of fresh air compared to all prior occupants of that position. Your correspondent along with a handful of allies launched the political action committee back in the '90s which successfully campaigned to create the Austin Police Monitor's office as part of the city's first "meet and confer" agreement. (I'd have preferred it be done through ordinance instead of via union agreement, a misstep that in some ways neuters the project to this day.)

So the police monitor's office we pushed to establish back in the day now operates a website performing essentially the same function as my activist site that earned me so much criticism two decades ago. There were some angry people when I started that thing, especially some angry cops (the most angry were a handful of officers' wives, who were also the scariest). Activities which got me dubbed an anti-police extremist 20 years ago - publicly tracking police misconduct and shootings online - have become so mainstream they're now government functions.

That's a remarkable shift in the terms of debate on these topics, even if it took 20 years to get there. (Big ships turn slowly, people!) Still, most cities a) don't have a police monitor and b) aren't so transparent about police misconduct. Texas law makes police disciplinary memos in civil service cities public records if they result in suspension without pay. But "public" is not a synonym with "easily accessible."

This might be a good, if modest, 21st century statutory upgrade: Why not require departments to post disciplinary memos related to sustained allegations of police misconduct on their websites, the way Austin's police monitor has done voluntarily? They're open records anyway, you just have to go through a lengthy bureaucratic process to get information that could just as easily be posted online. Why not do so up front as a matter of course?

1 comment:

Lee said...

Now that is an open transparent government accountable to the people.

You see it so rarely you almost forget what it looks like.

But credit must be given where due.