Saturday, July 21, 2018

Austin police oversight ineffective, says audit; local media silent on narrative-busting analysis

The Austin Civilian Review Panel, as it worked under the now-expired police contract, was a failed oversight mechanism, the city auditor found. A  report issued in June concluded that, "Citizen oversight did not create substantive change within the Austin Police Department, largely due to the effects of City procedures and police department practices."

Your correspondent has been saying the same thing about Austin's oversight system on this blog since at least 2005 (and on its now-defunct, antecedent website, earlier than that). Even at its best, it never made any impact on the problems that spurred its creation.

Austin's citizen panel had access to more information about Internal Affairs cases than the public, but less than they needed to do their  job, according to the report.

Moreover, city legal staff edited recommendations from the citizen's panel before the chief saw them, if he ever did, and the panel never knew how they were altered. (The department never responded to most recommendations from the panel.)

Indeed, because the recommendation letters were altered by city legal, the Police Monitor didn't have copies of the final versions, and neither city legal nor APD kept them, at least not systematically. Auditors recreated the recommendations from multiple sources to get a clear view of the system and generate metrics.

Once they made their recommendations, panelists told auditors they went into a "black hole" and the panel never knew what happened to them - neither how the legal department may have changed the recommendations nor whether or how APD responded to them.

It's not that citizen panelists weren't doing a decent job: The appendix at the end of the report lists panel recommendations which, had the department quickly responded and made real changes to policy and procedure, might have saved lives. The panel recommended policy changes related to mental-health first response, firearm discharge, care for injured suspects, ride-along rules and much more. With no public debate and no discussion with the panel itself, these recommendations simply faded to nothing.

That's why your correspondent joined the Austin Justice Coalition in December to ask the city council not to renew the police contract. The oversight system, as I told the city council that night, was a "piece of junk." It was always a piece of junk. And we knew it long before this audit parsed the details. But it's nice to see it in an official city document. It's one thing for Grits or local police critics to say the system isn't working, and quite another for the city auditor to say so. Makes the conclusion harder to argue.

BTW, providing further evidence that local media has been completely in the can for the police union when it comes to debates over the contract and police oversight, this audit has received almost no media attention. The Austin Monitor covered it when it came out, and did a short followup, but neither the Statesman nor any local TV station - where activists' complaints last year about a crappy oversight system were routinely poo-pooed and dismissed - has seen fit to relate the auditors' findings to their readers/viewers.

Funny, that. IMO, if the audit had parroted their police-driven narrative from last year that the oversight system is wonderful and it would be a tremendous loss if it were eliminated, this story would have been front page news and led nightly coverage on multiple local stations.

UPDATE: Three days after I published this, the Statesman finally put out a story about this audit, more than a month after its release (and after the Austin Monitor scooped them). However, covering it AFTER being criticized hardly merits praise. And they quoted the police union spinning the story, but not any of the advocates whose research and analysis was finally confirmed by the audit. I don't know why my local paper has been so hostile to the local police-reform movement, to the point of failing to report news like this audit that supports reformers' positions while touting fact-free spin from the police union and APD management with no basis in reality. But that's what their coverage on these topics has been like these last couple of years. They only seem to honestly address police reform issues when shamed into doing so, and even then they're loathe to provide a voice to anyone actually pushing to reform the police department.


Ray Collins said...

A second mainstream media failure that I noticed is the number of active and retired union people who showed up December 13, 2017 to speak against the police contract.

Did I miss that coverage somehow? I ask that question because we put the TV on the curb back in 2006, so we might or might not find out about that coverage if it doesn't show up somewhere on social media.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@Ray, it was ~50 retired and active duty police officers (many of whom do not live or vote in Austin) who signed up for the contract, plus a couple of civilians, and ~220 people against. Fewer on both sides actually spoke bc some people donated their time and others couldn't stay for the whole, many-hours-long hearing.