The City Manager Responds

RECEIVED Wed., Feb. 11, 2004

Dear Editor,
   The media appears trapped in a numerical vortex. The recent frenzy of articles on police use-of-force reports is polarizing our community and our police officers with an endless supply of statistics and questionable interpretations.
   What the data is and what it isn't. Force reports are not complaints of force, but self-generated reports by the officers involved in an incident where some level of force was used, usually during the course of an arrest and in response to some form of resistance. A force report is not an indication of excessive or inappropriate force. Almost two-thirds are reports of minor interactions. No law requires us to collect this information – we do so to improve training and thoroughly document our actions. Many officers overreport use of force well beyond our policy requirement to be scrupulous in their incident reporting.
   Whose statistics are right? This is our own data, and we understand its limitations. On one hand, the Statesman overstates the disparity in force reports by using police contacts as the base when 88% of all force reports are tied to arrests, a smaller subset of police contacts. And more importantly, they ultimately lose the context of the data leaving an impression of departmental racism and abuse with most readers. On the other hand the Chronicle mirrors the city's methodology, which understates the disparity in force reports by only using arrest numbers as the base. This method still shows disparity for African-Americans, while ignoring the 12% of force reports that occur outside of an arrest scenario.
   The Statesman inflames. The Chronicle diminishes. Neither statistical analysis is the beacon of truth because statistics never are. The city of Austin never accepted the context or slant of the Statesman articles, but we chose not to argue the data itself. Why? Because no matter how you manipulate the data, ultimately some level of disparity is shown in use of force and in four other areas: number of complaints, car stops, consent searches, and lethal force. At some point you are simply arguing the magnitude of the disparity.
   Assessing blame. Acknowledging the disparity in the data does not determine the causes for that disparity. And it is not an indictment of our police officers or our department. This type of disparity is true in police departments across the country and much less so in our department. The Austin Police Department is a diverse, professional organization whose record of force is far below the national average, using force in only 1% of all arrests. And more importantly, disparity such as this has many socioeconomic causes not attributable to or controllable by police officers that deal with disparity at the tail end of the problem. The whole community owns a piece of the disparity problem, not just APD.
   However as the city manager, I believe we have an obligation to acknowledge the concern raised by the data and to look at our operations to see what might contribute to or impact that disparity. There's no shame in that. It's called perfecting policing. We do that every day. We did that before the articles, and we will be doing it long after the articles are forgotten.
   Speaking of cowardice. Mike Clark-Madison's article ran with the incomprehensible header "A Cowardly City Hides Behind a Dishonest Daily's Tall Tales" ["Austin@Large," News, Feb. 6]. Our chief and our officers are gutsy enough to collect the data that few other major cities in the country collect as stringently as we do for self-assessment. We are not afraid of the data, and we are not afraid of accepting accountability for correcting any role we may play in contributing to the disparity the data reflects. These are the very characteristics that make APD an exceptional organization.
   Meanwhile everyone else is pointing fingers. Some want to blame officers, while others want to blame the chief and City Hall. Maybe the real cowardice is in those who are unwilling to examine their own role in contributing to the disparity behind the numbers.
   Where the community goes from here. We have a lot to be proud of. Today, Austin is the second safest major city in the country – an achievement largely attributable to the hard work of the men and women of APD. We are one of only four major police departments in the country to have achieved the rigorous standards of police accreditation. My job as your city manager is to provide our officers with the support they need to do their jobs while ensuring our organization is accountable to all segments of the community it serves. That requires the courage of self-assessment, not the cowardice of blame or denial.
Toby Futrell,
City Manager
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