Porn Punishment at APD

Four Austin Police officers are off the job and on suspension in connection with a finding that each violated city policy by looking at porn or other "inappropriate" material on Web or e-mail while at work

Four Austin Police officers are off the job and on suspension this week in connection with a finding by acting Chief Cathy Ellison that each had looked at porn or other "inappropriate" material on the Web or on e-mail while at work, in violation of city policy. While Ellison told reporters that the four officers – Sgt. Troy Officer, Sgt. Jeff Slater, and detectives Troy Brown and Robert Hawkins – "should have known better" and that they seemed very "remorseful" for bringing "discredit to the department," it's still hard to know if the four were disciplined May 11 primarily for their alleged wrongdoing or for political or face-saving reasons.

Back in March, the disciplinary axe fell on 10 EMS employees who were also looking at sexually explicit material on the Web while on duty; two commanders were demoted, and the rest were handed up to two weeks off the job. Following that embarrassing dustup, City Manager Toby Futrell penned a citywide e-mail, reiterating city policy regarding computer use; as an added reminder, Ellison sent a departmental e-mail parroting the policy, says attorney Tom Stribling, who represents the four officers disciplined last week.

So when police learned the four officers had been perusing questionable materials while on duty, an investigation was quickly initiated. The results came Friday during disciplinary review board hearings, where the officers were called before Ellison and the rest of their supervisors to answer for their dalliances. The punishments meted out were, undoubtedly, harsh: Sgt. Officer got 30 days off without pay, his name removed from the lieutenant promotional list (thus, ultimately, he was demoted); Sgt. Slater got 45 days suspension; Brown was suspended for 45 days and demoted one rank, to officer; and Hawkins was suspended for five days.

Were such harsh punishments warranted?

According to Stribling, there's cause to believe they were not. The punishments seem "motivated more by an overall response to EMS," Stribling says. Indeed, he notes, "historically" – notably, under the leadership of former Chief Stan Knee – "these types of offenses haven't been dealt with this harshly." Instead of maximum punishments, officers were handed written reprimands or a "few days off," he says. Slater, for example, was demoted and given time off for spending nine seconds looking at a personal ad on Craigslist. Whether the ad was racy or sexually explicit is in dispute, since it's no longer posted and the city was unable to come up with it, says Stribling.

The case against Hawkins is even more questionable. According to the disciplinary memo written by Ellison, Hawkins received a "sexually explicit e-mail" with "pornographic images" that were sent to his work e-mail, which Hawkins then forwarded to his personal, home e-mail. "Hawkins had no legitimate law enforcement duty related purpose in using his City issued computer to view and transmit sexually explicit material." That may be true, but it isn't the whole story, says Stribling: Hawkins received the e-mail at work, true, but he never looked at it at work. Rather, he opened it, realized what it was and immediately closed the e-mail, sent it to his home e-mail, and replied to the sender, saying that no e-mails like that should ever be sent to a city computer. In essence, Stribling says, Hawkins was punished for "violating policy by even using a department computer to forward" the e-mail. The underlying accusation, says Stribling, comes in the form of a question: "Why did he need to save that" at all?

The e-mail in question did not contain anything illegal. In fact, Hawkins is appealing his punishment – the only one of the four who is asking an independent arbitrator to decide whether the punishment fit the crime. Slater likely would have appealed also, says Stribling, if he'd had the opportunity. Because his punishment was more than 15 days, Slater had to agree in writing that he would not appeal; if he hadn't signed, he likely would have been placed on indefinite suspension – the civil service equivalent of terminated – until he could fight through arbitration to be reinstated. Although the harshest punishments have typically been saved for the most egregious crimes, betting on arbitration is a chance many officers simply can't afford to take.

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