Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Top Ten Failures of Austin Police Chief Brian Manley: A Compendium

After more than two dozen community groups called for the firing of Austin police chief Brian Manley and assistant city manager Rey Arellano in the wake of the killing of Mike Ramos, some apologists for the department have portrayed this position as impulsive and hot-headed. Grits finds this rather insulting, given the long list of grievances to which advocates were reacting.

OTOH, I realize that local Austin media coverage of the police is so shoddy and one-sided, most folks likely have never seen the full case made. So let's do that now. The issues go much, much deeper than this one shooting.

Mike Ramos was an unarmed black man who video shows was standing next to his car with his hands up when he was first shot with a bean-bag round from a shotgun by a rookie cop named Mitchell Pieper, three months out of the academy (more on that in a moment). Ramos dove back into his car and tried to drive away from police, but a second officer - Christopher Taylor, who killed someone else under questionable circumstances less than a year before - fired three shots with a rifle. Ramos died from his wounds.

Ramos killed because of policy change by Manley
In 2012, reported the Austin Statesman, then-Chief Art Acevedo changed APD policy to forbid officers from shooting at fleeing vehicles unless they were part of a unit specifically trained to perform that function, or the person fleeing had allegedly inflicted serious injury or death (not the case here). After becoming chief, with little fanfare and zero public discussion, Brian Manley changed that policy to fully authorize such shootings by any officer, anytime. If he had not done so, Mike Ramos likely would be alive today.

Resistance to police-academy reforms
The fact that Officer Pieper, a rookie three months out of the academy was the first to fire on Ramos - even if using a bean bag round - instead of engaging deescalation tactics, speaks to another major departmental failure under Manley: Failure to reform the department's cadet training practices. Ten former cadets have sued the department alleging they were treated abusively and taught to use abusive tactics. After allegations of racism arose at the agency last fall, the city council passed a resolution directing the APD to hold off on launching a new training regimen until investigations were performed analyzing officers' internal communications and social media postings for evidence of racist bias, analyzing the basis for scores assessing cadets, a comprehensive assessment of recent use of force incidents, and an assessment of litigation against the department related to use of force incidents over the last ten years.

The resolution called a halt to the planned, June cadet academy until curriculum changes were made, with community participation in the new training reforms. But Chief Manley and the City Manager are insisting on moving forward with a police-academy class in July based on a fancifully optimistic timeline for finishing their analysis, developing a new curriculum and soliciting public participation in the process. Clearly Officer Pieper's training did not prepare him to manage situations like he found himself in with Mike Ramos using any method but violence. Regardless, APD leadership seems hell bent on plowing ahead with the next cadet class.

Finally, after state law in 2017 mandated police officers receive deescalation training, Austin PD chose to separate deescalation discussions from its "use of force" module in academy classes. Rather than teaching deescalation as a way to minimize harm from use-of-force tactics, which is how national experts view it, it's taught separately in a "communications module." Local advocates and the cadets suing the department have complained about this, but such criticisms have fallen on deaf ears.

Manley's disinterest in racism allegations led to abuse of system, feelings of betrayal among officers, public
After allegations emerged that high-ranking APD officers used racist language among themselves and via text messaging, the city hired an attorney to independently investigate the matter. This attorney discovered that, "By several accounts, [Assistant Chief Justin] Newsom's use of racist language was well known throughout the Department as was the use of such language by other officers who were known to be close friends with AC Newsom and used such language openly and often." In particular, Newsom had gone to Chief Manley to tell him he was afraid certain text messages from him might be revealed in ongoing litigation, and informed the chief that he would resign from the force if they were made public.

But Manley did not initiate an investigation, even after receiving written complaints making related allegations. Wrote the investigator, "Chief Manley had reason to inquire as to AC Newsom’s conduct based on a self-report of text messages that were troublesome, about which AC Newsom indicated he would leave the Department if they became public, and two separate allegations of racist text messages and comments occurring about one month apart." As a result, Newsom was able to resign and receive full benefits and the incident could not be investigated by Internal Affairs. Numerous officers told the investigator this caused a "feeling of betrayal" and they considered Newsom's resignation "an abuse of the system." But it happened because Manley failed to act.

Blaming rape victims when APD was caught fudging sex-assault stats
While Manley was chief of staff under Art Acevedo, the department removed the head of the Sex Crimes Unit because she refused to change case files to claim detectives had closed the cases when they had not. Later, after Manley was Chief, a national podcast reported on her ouster, revealing that Austin PD had improperly closed numerous rape cases as "exceptionally cleared." Manley responded by blaming the rape victims, saying the problem was they wouldn't cooperate with police. But when the Texas Department of Public Safety analyzed a sample of cases, they found a third of them had been improperly closed. What was improper about it? Results were miscategorized to say the victims chose not to cooperate when that wasn't true. As the political pressure mounted, consultants were hired to study the problem. Assistant city manager Rey Arellano announced their recommendations wouldn't be ready until 2022. There has been zero accountability for this embarrassing episode, aside from ousting the police sergeant who refused to fudge the numbers in the first place.

APD complaint process changed to undermine transparency, reforms from new police contract
Earlier this year, Manley revised the department's complaint process in ways that minimized significant transgressions and reduced transparency around police misconduct. Farah Muscadin, who leads the city's Office of Police Oversight, wrote in a letter that the changes created "new obstacles designed to trivialize substantive complaints and disguise them under newly created categories that APD has created against OPO's recommendation." She also complained of "obstructionist tendencies of APD's Internal Affairs (IA)" department and said APD administrators "continued to allow investigators in IA to obstruct oversight staff." The response to these allegations from APD and city management? Crickets. 

Downgrading bodycam violations and hiding them from the public
Also earlier this year, Chief Manley changed departmental policies to downgrade violations of the department's bodycam policy (basically obscuring or turning off cameras to avoid recording alleged misconduct) and made those violations much less transparent. Again, Muscadin issued a formal objection: "These changes delegitimize the discipline process by trivializing conduct that has historically been treated as a significant policy violation." The revisions made violations of the policy subject only to oral reprimands. Since the new police contract had for the first time made written, but still not oral, reprimands public records, this also amounted to a move to radically reduce transparency around these violations.

In addition, last year, at the behest of the city council, APD pledged to revamp its bodycam video-release policy, a process in which various community groups spent months providing input. Those changes then laid dormant for many months and were never finalized. Only in the last few days, after it became clear that the chief's job is now on the line, has Manley's chief of staff begun reaching out to say they may, still, finally implement a video-release policy after all. We shall see.

Snubbing the Office of Police Oversight
Not only did Chief Manley implement terrible policies on public complaints and bodycams, he did so in a way that intentionally avoided allowing the Office of Police Oversight to meaningfully comment on the policies before they were implemented. In the case of the complaint policy, according to the above-linked objection, Manley sent Muscadin a copy of the proposed policy on a Tuesday with no prior notice and gave her 24 hours to respond, a timeframe with which she could not reasonably comply. In the case of downgrading bodycam violations, the OPO was notified of the policy change on the same day it took effect.

In general, as mentioned above, Muscadin feels Manley has "continued to allow investigators in IA to obstruct oversight staff" from her office. Muscadin negotiated with APD leadership to formalize how the relationship between her office and IA should work under the terms of the new contract, developing proposed Standard Operating Procedures (SOP). Those SOPs have been sitting on Manley's desk, unsigned, for nearly a year.

When Manley was hired, City Manager Spencer Cronk issued a memo detailing how the chief would be evaluated in the future. One of the elements cited was that Manley should "[b]e supportive of ways to enhance police oversight and officer accountability opportunities within and outside of any meet and confer agreement." Cronk expressed his expectation that, "The Chief is supportive of the current Police Monitor's role and expanding that function in the future." Obviously, those expectations have since been dashed on the rocks. Now, we'll learn whether this was ever really something the city manager cared about, or if it was included in the memo just for show. Manley has done little but undermine and snub the OPO at every turn.

DNA lab screwups, no progress on independent crime lab
In fall 2016, in the wake of Austin's DNA lab being closed for incompetence, Manley hired a chief forensic officer, whom he personally interviewed, who it turned out was academically unqualified for the job. No one at APD had bothered to evaluate his academic record.

During the same period, the Austin Chronicle reported that the City Council directed the City Manager to assemble a "team of experts" to "assist Council in considering the benefits of an APD-run lab as opposed to one that would operate outside, independent of the department." This is a best practice which was a central recommendation of a 2009 report on forensic error from the National Academy of Sciences. Despite pledges by assistant city manager Rey Arellano, that analysis has never been produced. In addition, the City Council authorized funding for a consultant, the Quattrone Center, to make recommendations for future reforms and best practices related to the DNA lab. Arellano told the council in a memo the report would be ready by September 2019, but it was never released and prospects for reform have subsequently stalled.

Notably, the Tatum report revealed that Chief Manley, while chief of staff to then-Chief Art Acevedo, directly intervened to stop the commander over the DNA lab from looking into problems with that division, ordering him to "leave it alone." Manley acknowledged he had done this, portraying the incident as a conflict of personalities between the commander and the crime-lab director. But the fact that mere months later the DNA lab was closed in disgrace indicates that was at best a bad judgment call and at worst a cover up for serious crime-lab failures.

Austin PD to overdosed addicts: Just die
Austin has recently seen a spike in drug overdoses, with five overdose deaths in just two weeks in April, reported KXAN. (There were 323 overdose deaths in Travis County overall in 2019.) But Chief Manley this spring returned a donation of Narcan - a nasal spray that effectively, instantly counters the effects of an overdose - that was intended to give officers in the field tools to save these folks. Instead, he insisted only paramedics should administer it, although police around the country have employed it with no problems. The donation, worth a quarter of a million dollars, was enough for every officer on the force to be equipped with this life saving drug.

APD promoting harmful drug-war policies
Under Chief Manley, APD's scorn for drug addicts went beyond just not caring whether they lived or died. Recently, the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Grassroots Leadership, and the Civil Rights Clinic at the UT Law school backed out of participation in a city-county grant application aimed at promoting pre-arrest diversion in drug cases, claiming Austin PD was acting in bad faith. Here's a notable excerpt from their email:
In 2018, our organizations began a two-year project to better understand why Austin/Travis County produced a 66% increase in new felony drug possession cases within a five-year period despite no discernible increase in the drug prevalence rate. Our intention was to identify the locations and circumstances where pre-arrest deflection programming would have the greatest impact on reducing arrests and connecting people with meaningful harm reduction services. We remain committed to that goal, and we are grateful to have had the opportunity to work with city/county officials on a new vision for addressing substance use within our community.

What our study demonstrated, however, was that the increase in drug arrests was generated through police practices long believed to exacerbate racial disparities. Moreover, the arrests resulted in lengthy periods of detention, loss of income, increased homelessness, loss of immigration status, and collateral consequences that create lifelong barriers to employment and housing. In short, our study showed very clearly that the criminal legal system actors were doing harm.

Yet, the tone and content of the grant application shifts the responsibility entirely to the individual at risk of arrest for drug possession, not to the system actors who have done such harm to people suffering from substance use disorder. We provided lengthy comment on the current draft, but we simply do not see how these issues can be addressed satisfactorily before the grant application is due.

We believe that it is time to press reset. We urge the Austin City Council and City Manager to take decisive action to change the culture of law enforcement in this city.
Grits is limiting this to a top-ten list but could easily go on. Undermining the city council's homeless measures in public statements instead of implementing their directives. Continuing to arrest on low-level marijuana charges after the county attorney said he would not file charges in such cases. The fact that the department has not posted a use-of-force dataset online - a practice implemented by his predecessor - in more than two years. Declining clearance rates for property crimes, which have worsened on his watch. The continued de-prioritization of civilian staff in budgeting while pushing to hire more uniformed officers who end up doing clerical work because they have little support. The list could continue for quite a while. Perhaps in the future I'll come back to add a Part Two to this post.

To Grits, though, just the failures documented here justify the City Manager firing Brian Manley and seeking out a chief more in tune with the Council and community's values and priorities. As so many local organizations opined in their letter last week, it's time for this man to go.


Anonymous said...

Manley did a very good job as Acting Chief during the porch box explosion case. We have a tendency to elevate those we perceive as "heroes," without a greater vetting process. I remember the coverage at the time - city leaders said, "He did such a great job, he deserves to be Chief," and I'll confess, I agreed with that sentiment. I don't know what a complete and thorough vetting process would have revealed. Maybe nothing. But I think he was given the job because we were grateful and relieved rather than because he was the best candidate for the job. I'm so disappointed with his leadership and believe he should go.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

You're right that the porch box bomb episode explains his elevation. But even at the time, there were concerns. The memo from the city manager laying out expectations for him (linked in the post) described concerns that arose at community forums this way: "there were concerns raised by citizens who questioned whether or not he is able to bring about a cultural change in the department around areas of community policing, oversight and accountability. This concern was primarily due to his internal candidacy status and the uncertainty of whether or not an internal candidate can be an effective change agent."

I was at those public forums. While that comment captures the concerns raised vis a vis oversight, accountability, etc., it understates them and tries to pretend they stemmed just from a perception that an insider couldn't be a change agent. Really, it was broader than that. As Acevedo's chief of staff, he was party to an actual problematic record, but the city manager ignored that and hired him anyway.

Lone Woolph said...

I entirely agree with this piece, and applaud Grits for Breakfast for posting it.
I've lived in Central Texas for several years now, and – aside from disdain and mounting frustrations when dealing with APD (and other local systems) – I have few experiences to speak of since relocating here.
Despite the inquiry/request, APD has responded to me with apathy, ignorance, incompetence, bullying, and/or downright laziness – including when I've reached out to them for assistance with a hit and run report, vandalism, code violations, etc.
And although I'm an accomplished researcher, there's no easy way to find ANYTHING on that website. This, too, I believe is systemic.
Austin government, as a whole is, well, holistically unjust and biased!
And despite what "we" bring to the table (e.g., credibility, education, background, etc.or the established and provable facts of the case) – this "justice" system is rigged and stacked against people of color – with blacks/African Americans treading the hardest to stay afloat.
While everyone else – including the Austin city council, municipal government, and most media outlets – have the luxury of maintaining their eyes wide shut, "we" continue to be forced into the defensive roles the other Austinites have come to expect and define us by.
It's the same apathy and plausible deniability that proceeded Emmett Till's #OpenCasket – and every other brutality (micro- or macro- aggressions included) every since that time. As it turns out, not much has changed in 65 years.
People of color simply do not matter to APD until there is an unmet need or gap to fill – like a quota, blame, or pent-up frustrations.
As a measure to survive (this reality) while seeking solutions, I've simply come to expect the shortest end of the stick. And, as I am fully persuaded that my next encounter with APD might very well echo that of Sandra Bland's, I've also learned to avoid APD amaic.
It couldn't be clearer to me. Under Central Texas' oppressive and apathetic governance, there is a predefined trajectory (fueled by systemic/institutionalized bias and sustained by wanton ignorance) – and yet ZERO relief or recourse available – for people like me.
I know, this issue is so much bigger then me. And because I cannot help to improve a community or system that refuses to admit that it is broken, I've chosen to acknowledge the evidence around me and to #GetOut, so that I may live a while longer.

BTW, if you go forward with a series, I've archived my personal experiences, and I am ready and willing to be interviewed.
[#BeKind: This is a dictated post, so kindly excuse any autocorrect, typographical, and/or other grammatical oversights.]

Anonymous said...

Article is way too long, bud. Brevity is key. Nobody has time to read this.

Anonymous said...

Manley made several 'mis-steps' in the Bomber episode, including the usual, knee-jerk insults to the Black victims and Black community. As far as transparency, why does he continue to refuse to release a transcript of the bomber's tape, after all investigating agencies have closed their investigations?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@10:33, it's there for the people who need the information. If you don't have time to read it, apparently you're not one of them.