While the specific allegations of bigotry that rocked Austin Police Department leadership in late 2019 could not be corroborated, the 46-page report of investigator Lisa Tatum’s findings documents a pattern of racism and sexism that has permeated the department for years, and that APD staffers did not expect to change.
“We listened to many anecdotes illustrating inappropriate comments over the years through which APD personnel expressed concern about racist behavior, but also sexist behavior, and dissimilar treatment in the handling of officer discipline and those who may be served by APD chaplain services with the denial of marital services to same sex couples,” page 44 of the report reads. “There are some real cultural issues that are in need of attention.”
But Tatum, a former Bexar County prosecutor now in private practice, did not find evidence to support the specific charges made in anonymous complaints against Police Chief Brian Manley and former Assistant Chief Justin Newsom. “At this investigation’s conclusion, we can say we have gathered a great deal of information and have a significantly increased knowledge about the culture at APD,” the report reads, “but have not gleaned a large number of answers to the questions asked at the start of this investigation.”
Allegations that Newsom regularly used racist language about Black people were first surfaced during a civil service arbitration hearing for another former APD leader, Jason Dusterhoft, whom Manley demoted and then later fired in 2018. Those claims prompted Newsom to resign abruptly in November, and the report notes that some people interviewed for the investigation “indicated they were not surprised by the fact that these allegations were raised,” while others were.
Nor could Tatum’s investigation substantiate that Manley knew of Newsom’s alleged transgressions before the assistant chief retired with a generous benefits package. Sometime around Sept. 24, the report says, Newsom made Manley aware that “he was concerned about his text history becoming public” during the Dusterhoft hearing but did not specify why. Manley did not inquire further, referred Newsom to the city’s law department, and was on vacation when the specific complaints were filed with the Office of Police Oversight on Oct. 30. Newsom declined to be interviewed by Tatum for the investigation.
A separate complaint involving APD Chief of Staff Troy Gay, who was alleged to have sought “conversion therapy” for a family member with the support of Manley, likewise yielded no results; Tatum was unable to make contact with the original whistleblower. Tatum’s entire report highlights the difficulty she had in tracking down information due to mismanagement of records, fear of retaliation, and what she describes as “quiet resistance” from some interview subjects, in the form of “evasiveness, misdirection and deflection.”
Perhaps more troubling is the general lack of faith expressed to Tatum that City Council, APD leaders, or the City Manager's Office would actually do anything to change the culture within the department. The report describes as a “consistent subject of concern” the “extremely low degree of expectation, based upon past experience, that this independent investigation, or any investigation into the Department, will result in a substantive report, in the provision of any details learned or discovered or in disclosure of ‘the truth’.”
Criminal justice advocates homed in on that lack of faith in a statement issued Friday evening, reiterating that thorough reform within APD is needed. “This investigation didn’t prove Newsom sent specific texts,” Austin Justice Coalition Strategic Director Sukyi McMahon said in the statement. “But it did prove beyond doubt that APD’s system for handling complaints against officers is hardly a system at all.”
Chris Harris, another prominent justice advocate, said in the same statement that the report validated the lived experiences that people of color in Austin have attested to for years. “We know the police department has a problem because we are a part of communities that experience it every day,” adding that revelation of the allegations led to Newsom’s swift resignation and issuance of a public apology.
In a statement following the report’s release, Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, who has led Council’s response into the troubling culture at APD, acknowledged this lack of trust. “The report describes the existence in the Austin Police Department of a deep-seated fear of retaliation as well as a pervasive lack of trust among rank-and-file officers that City Council and the City Manager can fix our broken systems,” the statement reads. “We owe it to our women and men in uniform to earn that trust through decisive action.”Last December, Council adopted a resolution from Harper-Madison calling for a wider-ranging investigation into APD culture – to be completed after Tatum’s report concluded – with an audit of training materials and practices, how personnel are hired and promoted, and use of force incidents, among other subjects. City Manager Spencer Cronk was given a deadline of June 1, 2020, to complete the work outlined in the resolution, although it is unclear at this time how COVID-19 could delay that timeline.
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