Friday, April 10, 2020

New Austin PD complaint policies undermine police oversight to minimize complaints from the public

Grits has been catching up on all that's gone on while I've been under the weather and was dismayed to learn that, in February, Austin PD Chief Bryan Manley radically revised his department's complaint process explicitly to make police misconduct more opaque and to undermine both the new police contract and the Office of Police Oversight (OPO).

Honestly, this is just bad faith. The Austin City Council should act as soon as practicable to override this decision-by-fiat. None of this has been covered yet in the local press.

Here's the freshly revised APD General Orders. Section 902, which governs administrative investigations of officer misconduct, begins on p. 14 of the pdf (p. 548 of the General Orders).

On March 13, Austin Police Monitor Farah Muscadin wrote a letter to Chief Manley formally objecting to the changes, which he had sent her on January 21, giving her 24 hours to respond. Her office couldn't meet that (unreasonable) timeline, but they issued a formal response on January 24. However, Chief Manley "completely disregarded OPO feedback and the objectionable revisions were made to the General Orders on February 6, 2020."

Last year, Muscadin's office had jointly negotiated new Standard Operating Procedures with the department on these topics, but Chief Manley never signed the resulting document (which she appended at the end of her letter). She attributed the resistance to the "obstructionist tendencies of APD's Internal Affairs (IA)" department. As a result, she said, APD "continued to allow investigators in IA to obstruct oversight staff."

In particular, the new orders created "new obstacles designed to trivialize substantive complaints and disguise them under newly created categories that APD has created against OPO's recommendation." These changes will "limit the OPO's ability to share information with the public and contradict previous communications made to the public, thereby reducing the level of transparency."

The orders created a new category of complaints which are no longer called "complaints" but "external information." For "external information" incidents from the public, punishment will be limited to a written reprimand. If an "information incident" is "satisfactorily handled" by a supervisor (whatever that means), it may be closed and the public will never learn of it.

Muscadin correctly opined that "this new category is detrimental to the established process and attempts to minimize complaints from the public."

Without getting too deep into the weeds, the new orders also changed how complaints submitted to the OPO are classified by the department. Previously, there were three complaint categories at the OPO: formal complaints, supervisor referrals, and citizen concerns. Now, "citizen concerns" will be recorded as "external information," and may be closed by IA upon initial categorization with no investigation required.

Supervisor referrals, bizarrely, will now be categorized as "citizen concerns," while a new category called 'Minor Policy Violations' will now be labeled "supervisor referrals." Got that?

Finally, incoming complaints historically are categorized A, B, C, or D, depending on an initial assessment of their validity/severity by either IA or the officer's supervisor. Another big change is that only those classified A or B will now be considered "formal" complaints.

Notably, IA only classifies "administrative" complaints. Complaints of "serious or criminal nature" are categorized and initially investigated by a supervisor with the rank of sergeant or above.

Muscadin declared that these new categorizations "will mislead the public and continue to feed a false narrative that complaints filed with the OPO against APD are not rigorously assessed," as well as "leave complainants without any meaningful resolution or sense of procedural justice."

She could have gone further and pointed out that, for complaints NOT submitted through the OPO, it makes it more likely no one outside the department will ever learn of them, significantly undermining her office's oversight authority.

These changes should be seen in light of revisions to the contract between the City of Austin and the Austin Police Association implemented after a bitter, year-long fight in 2018. The most important changes increased transparency and made certain complainants will receive more information about how their complaints were handled and what happened to them. These alterations undermine those goals directly by redefining terms so that things which were previously transparent become opaque.

Like I said, bad faith.

The Austin City Council wasn't cc'd on Muscadin's letter - for that matter, neither was the city manager - so it's unclear whether they even know this has happened. If not, that's an even more egregious breach of trust.

The Austin City Council should move with haste to override these changes and find some way to punish the Chief for thumbing his nose at the city's oversight processes. Manley clearly thought he could bully Muscadin and sneak all this through without informing the council or the public. I'm proud of her for standing up to defend her office's authority. Now, we'll learn who on the City Council does or doesn't have her back ... just in time for the November elections.

Note: Austin PD uses the phrase "citizen" complaints, concerns, etc., but that's inaccurate. The OPO rightly takes complaints from citizens and non-citizens alike. Though I was tracking their language, I've removed the term from the headline.

UPDATE: Reacting to (but not acknowledging) this blog post, the Austin Statesman covered this story today.


Anonymous said...

The word "citizen" shouldn't be showing up anywhere in any of this.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Not my terminology, but I take your point.

Anonymous said...

Always remember that PDs are the locally hired guns, revenue generators/collectors, and report writers for the cities. They have nothing to do with protecting and serving the citizens, only their paymasters.

KK said...

Manley continues to show his true colors. Austin could do a lot better than his old style with a new face

P. Ghosh said...

sounds to me like they are taking note on how the TDCJ parole Division and TDCJ institutional division thumb their nose at their policies and procedures. furthermore the Houston Police department also has serious issues with its complaint process. It's good to know that someone can walk and chew gum at the same time and expose these very corrupt officials.