Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Manley's Men: Austin police chief's defenders don't have many valid arguments

Apparently, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley is feeling the heat. His allies have created a sparsely populated Facebook group (in which dissenting views are banned) to support him, and the Greater Austin Crime Commission issued a letter, with a memo from Manley attached touting his ostensible accomplishments, attempting to defend his record.

The Facebook group is full of pablum, but I thought it worth examining the Greater Austin Crime Commission letter to evaluate their arguments. 

It starts off with facts that don't necessarily speak in Chief Manley's favor. "Violent and property crime ... increased significantly downtown and in the entertainment district. Response times were slower, and traffic fatalities increased." One could also have noted that property crimes went up last year as well.

Considering that Chief Manley, in his attached memo, claimed that "Austin has remained one of the safest cities in which to live, work, and travel," those trends seem to contradict him. In reality, both things can be true. Austin has long been and remains a very safe city. But it has become less safe on Manley's watch, if these metrics are to be believed.

My own sense is that Austin crime increases are, in fact, within normal ranges of fluctuation and that Austin's crime rate remains near generational lows. But since Chief Manley himself has touted violent crime increases, spuriously attempting to link them to changes in policies regarding Class C misdemeanor arrests, from a political perspective, he gets to own them. 

The GACC goes on to give the police department credit it doesn't deserve for revamping training at the academy: "the police department is undergoing a comprehensive training audit, responding to the issues raised in the recent independent inquiry into bias and racism, and investigating a fatal officer-involved shooting. Confronting these problems and making significant improvements is what the community expects and what the department is doing."

In fact, that overstates what the department is doing. In reality, Chief Manley had insisted on going forward with a new police academy in June without completing the audit mandated by the Austin City Council in December. City Manager Spencer Cronk overruled him, pushing the academy back until mid-July when the audit is scheduled to be completed. And even that is an unrealistic and overly optimistic timeline. Manley does not deserve credit for being forced to comply with City Council directives that he intended to ignore.

The GACC wants to absolve Chief Manley for his role in condoning and concealing racism allegations at the highest levels of departmental management, instead blaming the police-union president for his part in the mess. But more than one thing can be true. This blog has insisted the union boss was partly to blame. But Chief Manley was uniquely culpable, and the Tatum report singled him out for failing to act despite numerous opportunities to do so. In particular, the author concluded:
Tatum Law was able to establish that 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. The October 7, 2019, email received by Chief Manley alleging similar facts to those later alleged in the October 30, 2019 complaint about AC Newsom’s use of the derogatory term “nigger” in text messages to refer to African Americans provided sufficient information to suggest that AC Newsom was in violation of policy for review or investigation. Chief Manley did not send these allegations for review or investigation.
The GACC letter mentioned another development that hasn't yet been reported in the local press: The Austin Police Association is in the process of conducting a no-confidence vote among its members regarding Chief Manley. (The union and reform groups don't agree on much except that Chief Manley needs to go.) The letter accuses the union of issuing a biased survey intended to undermine the Chief - well, yes, a no-confidence vote from his employees would undermine him! OTOH, his employees don't have to vote for it. If they do, the City Manager should perhaps consider that a meaningful data point.

To be clear, the union vote shouldn't be definitive. No-confidence votes by police unions for a chief can be highly politicized and don't always reflect the best interests of the community. But combined with the wide array of community organizations, including many which aren't expressly justice-reform groups, who already have called for the Chief's ouster, it helps complete a picture of an administrator who has lost the faith of the community he serves.

The Greater Austin Crime Commission over the years has been an organization dedicated to promoting police as a solution to every social problem. Mainly, they just want ever-more cops hired and deployed downtown, even though arrests and jail bookings are way down and there's less for Austin patrol officers to do (particularly during the COVID era) than at any time in recent memory.

In this case, they've taking a different tack. They suggested "that Chief Manley be given a deadline of October 1, 2020 to demonstrate substantial progress in operational and policy changes," at which time the City Manager should make a formal recommendation about his future. In the meantime, GACC pledged "to meet with other criminal justice reform, neighborhood, and social justice groups to review and resolve concerns with the police department."

If they want to review the problem, they should start by reading the letter from community groups calling for Manley's ouster. It's quite detailed and specific. And here's a supplemental compendium of reasons he deserves to be fired. Only a group of powerful white guys embodying the downtown corporate establishment could step in at this late hour with such confidence that they can "resolve" discontent expressed across so many vectors. Nonetheless, acknowledging there could be any problem at all is a new message for these folks.

The GACC's statement defends Chief Manley, but in important ways it falls short of the whole-hearted endorsement Grits would normally expect from this stalwart, pro-cop crew. The difference between the GACC and everyone else , in the end, appears to be a matter of degree and emphasis. They suggest Manley be given until Oct. 1 to "demonstrate substantial progress in operational and policy changes" while community groups with more direct experience trying to enact that "progress" say new leadership is needed now. The GACC criticized community groups for giving short shrift to "the considerable work" listed by Manley in his memo, without commenting on whether that work has been productive. They called for better communication between management and the union; community groups have called for better communication with everyone. 

Chief Manley's attached memo added little to their argument. Mainly, it described out-of-context actions by the department that for the most part are unresponsive to the criticisms being levied against him. In several instances, he attempted to take credit for things he was forced to do and then did poorly. E.g., a program funded by the City Council to substitute a medical response instead of a police response to mental health calls has largely been a bust because APD routed very few calls differently. Of tens of thousands of mental health related calls, only about 200 have been diverted through a qualified mental health professional rather sending a standard police patrol.

Other examples elided specific criticisms being made: For example, the City Council directed an evaluation whether to make the crime lab independent after a series of scandalous failures at its DNA division. According to the Tatum report, Chief Manley, when he was chief of staff to Art Acevedo, intervened to stop more aggressive oversight of the DNA division, which soon thereafter was closed and essentially put into receivership. Manley includes a long list of reforms his agency was forced to do after the DNA division failed. But he doesn't identify a single step taken toward evaluating whether Austin should have an independent crime lab, which is what the City Council asked for and national best practices recommend.
In another instance, Manley suggested that, 'The Department worked with the Office of Police Oversight to create the policy and procedures for releasing critical incident videos and related information." But the OPO put out a formal objection to Manley's policy changes on bodycam enforcement, declaring, "These changes delegitimize the discipline process by trivializing conduct that has historically been treated as a significant policy violation." The Director of the OPO has also complained of"obstructionist tendencies of APD's Internal Affairs (IA)" department and alleged that APD administrators have "continued to allow investigators in IA to obstruct oversight staff."

Over and over throughout his memo we find similarly disingenuous claims. For example, Manley writes, "chaplains who perform same sex unions and relationship counseling have been made available" thanks to a new volunteer chaplain program, but he doesn't mention that was only necessary, according to the above-cited Tatum report, because of homophobic policies by the full-time chaplain against sanctioning such unions.

Another one: "The Department has partnered with community advocacy groups, such as MEASURE, to provide cadets with diversity and equity training facilitated by community members." MEASURE, it turns out, is one of the community groups which has called for Manley's ouster.

This memo was a smokescreen and any close reading of its details finds more reasons to oust the chief than to keep him. If these arguments are the best that Chief Manley and his supporters can come up with as to why he should keep his job, it looks to me like he's in a lot of trouble. And that trouble could come before October.


Anonymous said...

Where is the data about routing possible mental health calls? Thanks

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That's a number Joe Chacon at APD has told advocates who pushed for the change. I haven't seen it in writing.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. I was told something somewhat different by 911 supervisor, although that was early on. She said that once they started routinely asking the question Was there possibly a mental health issue, that much more frequently they got the information that there could be, even if there is a crime issue, too. So the mental health professional at the communications center would be on, too, not just police dispatch. Unless there were more than one of those calls at once.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@1:06, the advocate I was citing speaks here at the 37:08 mark: https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=1178835032452900&ref=watch_permalink

Her remarks are pretty detailed and specific, listen for yourself.