Shout Into the Wind

The Citizen Review Panel takes public testimony on David Joseph

Chas Moore had it right.

“I don’t see a purpose for this meeting,” said the young, black co-founder of the Austin Justice League before a specially called hearing of the Office of the Police Monitor’s Citizen Review Panel concerning the Feb. 8 shooting of 17-year-old David Joseph. “Beyond [it being] an outlet for venting … It sickens me that we have not learned that we’re all the same.”

Brothers of David Joseph, Mark (l) and Fally (r) attended the protest of his shooting Thursday, March 10. (photo by Jana Birchum)

By that point Wednesday night, the panel and overflow crowd had heard testimony from Joseph’s eldest brother, Fally, and a family mentor about the loved one they had lost. They heard a third speaker, a woman, speak to the public perception of police. “This is the image [Officer Geoffrey] Freeman creates for other officers,” the woman said of the officer who shot Joseph on Natures Bend in Northeast Austin. “He took more than a life.”

The panel – seven volunteering citizens and Police Monitor Margo Frasier – sat quietly throughout, speaking only when Chair Dominic Gonzales announced the next names in the queue.

Austin’s Citizen Review Panel has been a political punching bag as long as it’s been operating. The OPM’s representative arm of Austin’s citizens, the panelists trade in their undying adherence to secrecy about certain subjects in exchange to access to a whole bevy of findings from Internal Affairs investigations (and rejected complaints) conducted at APD. The CRP discusses those findings in a hyper-private executive session, then walks into a public room to take testimony from stakeholding citizens. If the issue relates to a non-critical incident – meaning it doesn’t involve an officer shooting or death in custody – the panel can recommend a review of certain trainings or departmental policies based on the particular complaint. If the incident does turn critical, and someone does get shot or dies, the panel may make non-binding disciplinary recommendations to the Chief.

The panel was founded in March 2001 after an agreement between the city, Austin Police Association, and APD, and enjoyed a brief period of mutual approval, falling off the rails in Oct. 2002, during its first critical review, when it recommended an independent inquiry into the shooting death of 23-year-old black woman Sophia King. The people rejoiced; both sides of police decried the civilian panelists as ill-equipped to determine rights and wrongs in critical incidents. The outside inquiry came back. The panel received a presentation. And the people found out that said presentation wouldn’t be made available as public record.

The public got pissed. Even then-City Manager Toby Futrell threw a fit. “How can you have an independent investigation, because of a citizen review panel’s concerns, and not release the findings?” She told the Statesman in Oct. 2003. “What would be the point of it? It’s very frustrating.”

Which made Moore’s mention of the panel’s inability to subpoena Internal Affairs findings for the public that much more appropriate on Thursday evening. Once again, the CRP was playing the role of punching bag for the city and police department. It was, in effect, the government-related entity tasked with sitting in a room for an indeterminate amount of time to listen to public grievances.

So even after Moore concluded, imploring Frasier and the seven panelists to “stick [their] necks on the line” for Joseph – who, we were reminded so often and so powerfully Thursday evening, was shot in broad daylight without clothes on or a weapon – it made sense that another 90 minutes went by with citizen speakers testifying to how much it pained them that one of their city’s police officers would shoot and kill someone in that condition.

Meme Styles called for a grand jury to issue an indictment on Ofc.Freeman and demanded citizen representation at the negotiation table when the APA’s contract is up in 2017. She attacked APA President Ken Casaday for his treatment of the Joseph shooting, and called for his removal. Juanita Spears, who spoke just after Styles, suggested that ATCIC (Austin-Travis County Integral Care) administer a review of the way that APD trains officers to police the mentally vulnerable. Nelson Linder, president of Austin’s NAACP, brought up Graham v. Connor, the Supreme Court’s precedent for use of force policing throughout the country, and said it was not being enforced.

A few speakers later, Mark Clements – a Chicago native who at 16 was beaten by a Chicago Police officer until he falsely confessed to setting fire to a building, killing four (he accepted a plea deal and was released Aug. 18, 2009, on time served, and now flies around the country assisting other victims of police brutality and miscarried criminal justice) – stood before the panel and accused each member of being spineless and cowardly. He said that the makeup of the board “reveals no accountability” whatsoever, and questioned its existence. He told the crowd to Google him then left the room in a quick fury.

I left, as well, one or two speakers after Clements – after one speaker invited his friend to the podium to talk about “APD issues with jail diversion programs.” Clements was outside with a cigarette, so I stopped to talk with him for a second. We spoke of Rodney Reed, whose case has often brought Clements to Central Texas, and then his own case, before I asked him if he might have misunderstood the purpose of the panel. The CRP’s public-facing intent is not to “reveal accountability,” I said, but rather communicate a public desire for accountability to APD.

He stopped me, said “I know exactly of its purpose,” then proceeded to explain the objectives that it had and the ways those objectives can fail. Then he reminded me he’s an activist; it’s his job to push his message on any one who’s tasked to listen. Which is why he stayed in Texas for four days after Monday’s rally in Bastrop for Rodney Reed. He had to speak because this panel was tasked to listen.

Statesman reporter Phil Jankowski posted to Twitter at 9:42pm Wednesday night – half-an-hour after I walked out to find Clements – that the hearing had ended. Frasier, he said, told the audience that the panel would issue its recommendation within the week. It’ll go to the Chief, who’s already met with Internal Affairs and presented those findings to certain parties. What he hears from the CRP he’ll either utilize or throw out. But the most interested people – the ones who drove out in the rain and waited 90 minutes to speak about this dead teenager for three minutes – won’t know which of the two routes he goes with their collective thoughts and testimony.

That, in turn, will only further strain the fray.

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David Joseph, Citizen Review Panel, Chas Moore, Mark Clement, Meme Styles, Juanita Spears, Nelson Linder, Margo Frasier

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