Who's Watching the Police?

Police Tout Poll

Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield said that the association had agreed to support the oversight commission (as long as its recommendations were subjected to the meet-and-confer collective bargaining process). However, he said that an Opinion Analysts poll recently determined that with "less than 450 complaints out of three quarters of a million citizen contacts, we're doing it right 99.99% of the time." (Actually, that figure is 99.94%, but ...) And Sheffield is right on board with Garcia and Slusher's concerns about the formation of a review commission. "Are we giving the chief enough of a chance before we move into this examination?" he asked, adding that the citizens oversight commission "could be considered an implied criticism."

Spelman agreed with Sheffield's positive assessment of police performance, based on the results of the poll commissioned by the police union. "By and large, the police department is doing a great job. But we are seeing a rise in citizen complaints," Spelman said. He attributed the rise to Knee's community policing initiative, which has brought the police department in contact with more Austinites than in the past. "It could be that people are more comfortable making complaints, or it could be we're buying ourselves a more proactive police department. I don't think that's happening, but we need to talk about it," said Spelman. "It may just be that people think it is happening, which is almost as bad."

Spelman lauded Knee for his recently announced reforms to the APD's Internal Affairs department, which, like the Police Oversight Focus Group, are designed to increase police accountability and public confidence in the department. "He's implementing Al Dean's report, which is absolutely the right thing to do," Spelman said. But he also said that while Knee's reforms may improve accountability in a number of ways, a few big police incidents like the Cedar Avenue Valentine's Day party incident a few years ago can continue to poison interactions between citizens and police. "We need to clear the air," said Spelman, adding that Austinites need to realize "how much more citizen oversight there is over animal control than there is over the police department."

As for Slusher, he prefers giving Knee a chance to address any necessary changes himself, and says that he has confidence in the chief's ability to do so. "That was one of my top reasons for my supporting his hiring, was how he had dealt with police misconduct" in his previous positions. "I know it can happen," he said, referring to the now-famous incident when Slusher, in his young activist days, was arrested for trying to stop police from beating a 16-year-old girl with billy clubs. "I'm not coming at it from a naïve perspective." Slusher, who as a council member has gained support from the police rank-and-file, said that during the chief's short, 18-month tenure, relations between the police and citizens have taken a turn for the better. He said establishing a citizens task force at this time would be premature, and could be interpreted as a slam on the chief. "If you go off and establish a citizens oversight committee, that doesn't really sound like a vote of confidence in the chief. You don't want to do that lightly."

Furthermore, Slusher said, if the tone of Thursday's discussion was any indication, it was a conversation the city could do without having. "That's exactly the kind of dialogue I don't want to set up," he said. "As soon as we made the motion to postpone, the first speaker up there saying, 'Why are y'all against this?' It was like presumed guilty. ... I'm concerned this oversight committee is not well thought out. [Let's] not just set up a thing for people to holler at each other."

Despite his reservations, however, Slusher said that he expected some council action to emerge from the discussion, though exactly what was not yet clear. "There hasn't been any breakthrough," he said. "Spelman's done some good work, but we're just not there yet." Garcia, meanwhile, issued a memo Tuesday reiterating his concerns about the proposal, and calling for alternatives to a citizens oversight group -- such as the use of civilians in key management posts of the community policing program -- before the council takes action. He also proposed changes to the Focus Group, including clarifying the group's purpose and charge, better defining its membership, and directing it to make a report -- not recommendations -- to the council and city manager. The memo said the council "should be cautious not to raise the level of expectations for participants, and that such recommendations could include actions too aggressive."

This Week in Council: The council will consider adopting the East César Chavez Neighborhood Plan, following a hearing on the issue at 6pm. Also scheduled for 6pm is a public hearing on the proposed SOS-area mitigation policy, and the SOS/RECA/GACC agreement.

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