What's Going On in APD's Organized Crime Division?
Something is happening inside the Austin Police Department's high-profile Organized Crime Division – what it is, exactly, depends on who you ask.
To hear the APD administration tell it, nothing out of the ordinary is happening in the department division that handles major narcotics and human trafficking investigations, among other cases. Instead, the division has merely been subject to a months-long review of operations, with an eye toward an eventual organization that would allow the department to better allocate its limited human resources. To hear the officers’ union tell it, OCD is currently in the crosshairs of a politically-motivated power struggle that has already "ruined" reputations and, if successful, would strip the division of the kind of vital institutional knowledge essential to making major cases.
According to Assistant Chief Troy Gay, there is nothing secret, or nefarious, happening in the division that, according to documents acquired last year by the Chronicle, houses nearly 100 sworn personnel – the majority of them detectives. Indeed, it's the heavy use of detective-rank personnel that has in part prompted department brass to consider some reorganization of the division. Out of a currently authorized strength of 1,740 personnel, the APD has just 377 at the rank of detective/corporal (the two are equal in rank and transfers can be made across the two classifications). The department has investigative needs outside OCD, and has been considering whether some of the OCD detective positions could be better utilized in other divisions – including in both property and violent crimes. At issue in part is whether a majority of the work being done by each of the detectives currently assigned to OCD is work that could be done by an officer (there are currently 1,092 officer positions in APD) instead of a detective. For example, there are two detectives currently working in OCD who serve as gang prevention educators with the Austin Independent School District, Gay said, even though the bulk of training and educating done by the department (the majority of it at the police academy) is done by personnel holding the rank of officer.
Those are the kinds of considerations currently under review on the Fifth Floor of the APD's Downtown HQ. No reorganization has yet taken place, Gay stressed, because no final plans for any changes have been drafted. He said he expects that a plan will be finalized within the next two months and at that time personnel may be moved around – though he said that, in the end, he doesn't expect that the makeup of OCD will really look all that much different than it does today.
That's not at all how the union sees things. Austin Police Association President Wayne Vincent says that a number of personnel working in OCD have either been told they're going to have to find a "new home" elsewhere in the department or have been served with a "28-day notice" that they will be moved out of the division. Six of nine sergeants have already been replaced, as have three lieutenants and the division's former commander – all these changes occurring, Vincent says, without adequate explanation. Vincent said that the administration has the right to make personnel changes, but in this case he charges that there's been a wholesale shredding of a very productive division in a very divisive manner.
Take, for example, the issue of the 28-day notices: That paperwork is generally provided to officers before a specific change is made to their working assignment, as a means of allowing affected personnel to attend to whatever issues may arise as a result of a significant change – working out child care, or moving from days to nights, among other possibilities. In the case of the OCD notices, he said, personnel were told that they'd be yanked from the division within a month and told to find somewhere to go – but with no direction about where that might be, or why the changes are being made. And that, he said, is not a proper use of a 28-day notice.
He cautions that the department has been down the OCD reorg path before, and that it ended in a lawsuit filed by the union. Back in the Nineties, OCD had a number of officers assigned to it who were actually doing the work of detectives – meaning the officers were doing work above their rank and pay grade. That, he says, can't happen again. Even if the work responsibility issues could be sorted out, he said, there is the fact that the department simply doesn't have enough officers available to take off the streets and to put into OCD.
Gay said the department won't recreate the staffing mistakes of the past. "Clearly, we're aware of the lawsuit and don't want somebody working outside of their pay scale," he said.
Gay said that three OCD lieutenants have been reassigned, but said that was part of a department-wide lieutenant shuffle. A handful of additional personnel in OCD have also been moved (possibly temporarily) in connection with an ongoing Internal Affairs investigation, on which he cannot comment. Other than that, he said, "there were some people who were told that some changes" are coming to OCD, but no one has been told they're being moved, or has been told to find a new place to work.
Aside from the more than decade-old personnel-related lawsuit, OCD has on occasion been subject to unflattering headlines – such as last year's move by several investigators to create so-called "lock boxes" (making chained-together protesters harder to disengage) that were then provided to protesters with Occupy Austin, which APD OCD investigators had infiltrated, who then used them during a protest in Houston. The use of the APD-provided devices meant a group of OA members were charged with felonies after being arrested at a Port of Houston action, during which they locked arms inside the devices to block an entrance to the port, instead of a misdemeanor charge of blocking the road that would've come from simply locking arms without attaching themselves to an opaque PVC device. In another story we reported last year, some members of OCD have demonstrated their more callous sides over the last several years by using city computers to send harassing emails to a colleague who suffers from narcolepsy. (All this is in addition to whatever pending IA investigation Gay was citing.)
Gay insists that considering a reorganization of the division is no more than a relatively mundane action. "People are trying to say the changes have been made because of an event or situation," he said. "No, this [reorganization] has been planned," he continued. "We're moving people all the time based on things that occur in the organization" and where needs arise.
Vincent isn't buying it: He says he has the stack of notices to prove the brass isn't playing it straight; one officer has decided to retire in the face of the uncertain future, and others have been labeled as "lazy." "If the administration says nobody's been moved other than three lieutenants and a couple other people in connection with an internal affairs investigation then I am definitely concerned about the communication methods of this administration," Vincent said. No one has seen any details about a reorganization and yet "we have documents to prove" that notices have been issued. Vincent says that in the absence of straightforward communication from the administration there's been rampant speculation about what's really going on. Vincent says he believes that what's really afoot is a power grab by high-ranking individuals who want to control OCD, home to the department's most sensitive operations and investigations. "Let me put it in a nutshell," he said. "This is an internal power struggle and there's no adult at the top to stop it."