Monday, October 26, 2020

Police Monitor: Austin police commanders ignore misconduct when they disagree with department policy

In public, previously un-reported recommendations, Austin's Office of Police Oversight earlier this month found it necessary to remind APD commanders that, "When presented with incontrovertible evidence of a policy violation, an accused employee’s chain of command should sustain the allegation related to that policy violation." Further, they declared, "This is especially true for policies that are not open to interpretation, such as those related to report writing."

Although we don't know the specific referent (the OPO can see confidential investigative files the public cannot), to me, this implies that APD brass are ignoring demonstrable police misconduct. It's not the first time.

In this instance, the context was an alleged excessive force incident from Christmas Day 2019 resulting in an arrest for "Pedestrian in the Roadway" and sustained allegations against Officers Christopher Williams and Jeffrey Hutchison, for which they received an oral reprimand.

It sounds like commanders substituted their own personal judgments for policy in issuing such a light sentence: "Should an officer’s commander disagree with any section of [APD policy] ... In no scenario should anyone in an officer’s chain of command impart their opinions about policy through the disciplinary process," the OPO advised.

One wonders with what policy commanders disagreed so much that they felt compelled to "impart their opinions ... through the disciplinary process"? That says to me that there's some policy one or more commanders disagree with so they failed to punish violations seriously. How tantalizing! I wonder what it is?

The OPO also expressed concerns about how investigators treated civilian witnesses, finding it necessary to warn that Internal Affairs investigators "should use caution with both the tone and subject matter of their questions and avoid questions that could discourage civilians from participating in current or future investigations."

The OPO further warned against IAD using "leading questions" with civilian witnesses and said their use threatened the "integrity of investigations."

They also pinpointed a pattern of manipulative questioning: "Interviewees should not be asked whether they believe that certain conduct meets a word's definition, especially when that word has a particular meaning in APD policy, without first having the word defined for them."

I'd sure like to know the backstory behind that recommendation!

Taken as a whole, even without a full explication of the basis for each of them, these recommendations seem telling: IAD investigators appear to be pushing civilian witnesses with leading questions and manipulative language, while commanders ignore clear policy violations when they disagree with the department's written policies.

Thank heavens for the OPO! Without that agency (and the police-contract adjustments in 2018 allowing for greater transparency), the public, and for that matter the Austin City Council and city manager, couldn't know about such problems.

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