Since June, a working group has been meeting quietly to discuss what kind of public oversight is needed for the Austin Police Department.
The group is working to rebuild from the wreckage of the Citizen Review Panel, suspended after 17 years when the City Council in December rejected the police labor agreement that has always included the terms of the panel’s authority.
The Citizen Review Panel failed in its mission to “create substantive change within the Austin Police Department,” according to a report released last month by the City Auditor. The panel failed because the city and a succession of police chiefs paid little attention to the dozens of recommendations it made over the years to improve policing procedures, the report says.
The question of what citizen oversight of the police should look like, or even if it’s needed in Austin, comes at a time when police shootings are national stories that have stirred pubic demands for reform in places like Ferguson, Mo. and Oakland, Calif.
As in other major American cities, individual shootings of unarmed minority citizens in Austin, have been flashpoints for the public to demand greater outside monitoring of police.
The working group is studying programs in Denver, Minneapolis, New Orleans, San Jose, San Francisco and Seattle as part of its full review of citizen oversight.
At least some of the citizen activists on the committee are not sure the command staff or the rank and file in Austin are keen to adopt some of reforms in those other cities.
Newly appointed Police Chief Brian Manley is a member of the working group, but has no history of support for the Citizen Review Panel as interim chief. Kenneth Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association, has for years been critical of the motives, qualifications and recommendations made by the panel.
“These activists who have been loud and vocal about police oversight, when it comes down to it, are looking for a city job,” Casaday told The Texas Monitor. “They want to make it permanent and they want the city to fund it. I think it has become painfully obvious in the last six weeks.”
Chris Harris, a member of the working group and an organizer for Grassroots Leadership, a local prison reform non-profit, told The Texas Monitor the issue is whether or not the police department will concede to citizens a voice in how they are policed.
“If you look at the history of the Citizens Review Panel, I think you’ll find that multiple chiefs over the years have been very comfortable ignoring it,” Harris said.
The auditor made that point clear on the first page of his report. The panel over the years was unable to communicate directly with the chief. The chief, in turn, did not respond to recommendations made by the panel, the report concluded.
The Texas Monitor contacted a spokesperson for Chief Manley asking him to comment for this story, but he did not respond before publication.
The city didn’t help, providing no resources or training for panelists. Municipal red tape kept recommendations from getting to command staff in a timely way and records of those recommendations were incomplete, the report says.
As a result, the department acted on fewer than 10 of the 54 recommendations made by the panel between October 2013 and December 2017. Police Chief Art Acevedo responded in writing to 17 of those recommendations, the report says.
In 2016 alone, according to a separate study by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, the panel asked for 18 changes in police procedure based on separate cases. A year later, none of them had been acted on.
Casaday blamed the lack of action on Acevedo, now the chief of the Houston Police Department. “I think in Art Acevedo you had a police chief who didn’t like to be told what to do,” Casaday said. “I think with the new chief you have someone who is just more open and willing to listen.”
And yet in the same year Acevedo was ignoring recommendations, Casaday told the Austin American-Statesman he disagreed with most of them.
“The people on that panel have no idea what it is like to be a police officer,” Casaday said at the time. “They’re just not experienced investigators for one. A lot of them don’t have experience in the law. They seem to be happy having a say and giving opinions.”
The Texas Monitor contacted the ranking members of the panel, chairman Dominic Gonzales and Rebecca Webber, neither of whom responded with comments before this story was published.
When the working group had its first meeting on June 21, Casaday told KXAN-TV, “There’s a lot of requests already from community members that just quite simply can’t be done. Both sides are going to have to have a good understanding of what the law is before wasting time coming up with new and better ideas.”
Casaday told the Texas Monitor officers are “frustrated,” because recommendations from a citizens panel come across as criticisms. He estimated the department adopted 95 percent of the recommendations made on lesser police procedural matters, without a formal mandate from a police chief.
The rank and file are particularly nettled that negotiations on a new labor contract are being delayed by the oversight working group. The union completed everything in its latest proposal this week, except for pay and oversight, Casaday said. The working group may not present its recommendations for oversight to the City Council until Oct. 30.
The Citizen Review Panel was born out of a labor negotiation, which for oversight activists like Kathy Mitchell, a criminal justice reform lobbyist for Just Liberty, was a problem from the start.
APD’s heavy-handed response to a house party in a minority neighborhood in 1995, led to a lawsuit and an outcry in the African-American community for police oversight. It took six years for all parties involved to agree and for the City Council to approve establishing the citizen’s panel, along with a generous salary increase for officers.
After a string of shootings in 2002 and 2003 the Austin American-Statesman ran a controversial series based on police data, concluding that police were twice as likely to use force against blacks and 25 percent more against Hispanics than against whites.
In 2016, the Center for Policing Equity, a New York research center, issued a report that suggested not much had changed in the manner in which the police dealt with minority suspects in Austin.
In January, the department announced a policy to try to defuse violent situations before resorting to force. The policy was developed without outside input.
“The problems were baked into the structure of the agreement,” Mitchell said. “You had a panel set up with very limited authority and set up in a black box. None of what the panel discussed could be shared with the public.”
In December, when the old labor contract expired, so did the authority of the Review Panel and its city-funded counterpart Police Monitor. “In light of these factors, and pending future direction from the council concerning labor relations at APD, I am suspending all further operations of the CRP at this time,” Elaine Hart, interim city manager at the time, informed Mayor Steve Adler and member of the council.
Like Mitchell, Harris is pressing to separate any future citizen oversight group from labor negotiations. The auditor’s office, however, built its recommendations around the contract.
The auditor called for better communication between the panel and the police chief, and that City Manager Spencer Kronk help facilitate it. Recommendations should be made public immediately. And panel members need to be given “appropriate” resources, including training and city email addresses, according to the report.
Without an authority separate from the city’s labor negotiation with the police department, real oversight will be hard to achieve, Harris said.
“If you look at what happened in 1999, a police focus group ultimately wrote the recommendations,” Harris said. “Our charge is to not make the same mistake again.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].