Weak at the Knee?

After five years, APD Chief Stan Knee rules a house divided

Weak at the Knee?
Photo By Jana Birchum

When Stan Knee was sworn in as the new chief of the Austin Police Department on Oct. 16, 1997, he faced a daunting task. The APD was in very public disarray: A decade of sensational scandals and infighting had pitted officers against one another; a string of whistleblower lawsuits had shamed the department; and news headlines had broadcast community charges of racism and excessive use of force. By all accounts, officer morale was bleak. "What we needed was someone who could walk on water," says former City Manager Jesus Garza, who spearheaded the 1997 search for a new chief. "We had a very rocky relationship with the community; we had a relationship with management and rank and file that was rocky. The people we serve viewed us with suspicion and didn't think [the police were] fair. Then there were the officers that didn't think management was fair. We needed a healer."

Knee's assumption of the post vacated by Elizabeth Watson in January 1997 was greeted with tentative optimism -- especially among the department's rank and file. Unlike Watson, who had risen through the Houston Police Dept. ranks when women weren't allowed on patrol, Knee brought with him the reputation of "a cop's cop." Knee spent nearly three years in the Army, including a 12-month tour in Vietnam; he worked his way up through the ranks of the Garden Grove Police Dept. in Orange County, Calif., before becoming chief of the National City Police Dept. in nearby San Diego County in 1988. Four years later, he returned to Garden Grove as chief, a post he kept until accepting the job in Austin in mid-1997. On paper, he was an excellent example of a small-town boy made good -- a no-nonsense, successful cop from California.

Many officers say they expected Knee would be a by-the-book commander who would support his troops, streamline APD operations, and put to rest the endemic internal divisiveness. "There is a story that Chief Knee went to the [police academy shooting] range to fire his Colt when he first got here," says Austin Police Association board member T.J. Vineyard. "Someone on the range staff told him that his gun was not one of the models on the department's approved weapons list. Rumor is that [Knee] told them, 'It is now,' and went and fired his pistol. [The reaction was], 'Wow! Someone who cuts the BS and gets the job done.'"

Five years later, Knee is still considered -- at least in some quarters -- the guy who gets the job done. If you ask City Council members, the city manager, even prominent East Austin activists, he has indeed succeeded in walking on water. His supporters say he's strengthened community policing initiatives that never caught on under Watson; made significant outreach in East Austin, initiating among other things a "community phone tree" to spread information on critical incidents; and increased both APD's budget and number of officers. "I think we have the best police chief that you can have, [considering] all the idiosyncrasies of a police department," says City Manager Toby Futrell. She has been impressed by Knee's strong advocacy for the department on budget issues as well as his use of unconventional thinking to address problems.

Knee himself lists as his biggest successes since joining the department, "improved emphasis on training, decentralization of police services, better relations with neighborhoods, and progress in crime fighting."

As an example of the chief's "out-of-the-box" thinking, Futrell cites his organization of a Civil Defense Battalion. The group of about 200 community volunteers was organized after 9/11 to help with a host of ancillary departmental functions, thereby freeing officers for more direct police work. Those efforts are now being used as a national model, and have secured for the department a $500,000 federal grant to continue the project. Futrell also praises Knee's success in healing some of the wounds between the APD and East Austin. "I am confident in his abilities and I trust him and am pleased with the department," she said. "Every night and every weekend he is out in the community; he's not your stereotypical police chief."

Futrell's confidence in Knee reflects that of most city officials. But officials of the APA -- the organization that represents virtually all police officers -- and many members of the department's rank and file paint a very different picture. Many say their hopes -- that the chief would not only mend fractious community relations but also end internal sniping and low morale -- have been crushed. Within the department, many officers say, the great expectations of 1997 have been steadily replaced by fear and distrust. In their view, the chief is so focused on his community image that he isn't nearly as dedicated to supporting line officers or ensuring that his APD becomes a truly first-class organization. They believe Knee has insulated himself in the administration's fifth-floor offices and surrounded himself with hand-picked yes-men as assistant chiefs -- who may or may not provide him with accurate information on the direct management of the department. More specifically, they contend that Knee and his aides use the politically insulated Internal Affairs Division as a means of controlling rank-and-file officers through threats of discipline, while turning a blind eye to never-quite-resolved allegations of illegal past activities by certain officers -- several of whom have since risen to the department's upper ranks. Overall, they say that Knee and his administration -- instead of cleaning up the APD's messes once and for all -- respond to officers who try to report internal problems with retaliatory transfers as well as other, more subtle forms of punishment and blacklisting.

In short, a significant number of officers conclude that Stan Knee simply hasn't lived up to admittedly high expectations. "I suspect that a lot of officers will tell you that morale is lower than it ever was under Watson," says the APA's Vineyard. "At least with her, we knew what to expect. Both [Knee and Watson] 'insulated' themselves with their assistant chiefs. Both are viewed as having been very disconnected from patrol. I guess we expected it with Watson, so it didn't hurt as bad."

Family Matters

Many of APD's current internal problems did not originate with the administration of either Elizabeth Watson or Stan Knee. Watson's 1992-97 tenure exacerbated an already volatile situation, many veteran APD officers recall, because the roots of the lingering uneasiness within the department -- and the lingering mistrust of Knee -- go all the way back to January of 1989, when Byron "Bubba" Cates was promoted to head the department's vice detail. Senior Sgt. Cates, a 12-year APD veteran, ran the vice unit for 13 months before internal allegations raised against him in February 1990 led to his May termination by Chief Jim Everett. Several federal racketeering charges were subsequently filed against Cates, along with a handful of state misdemeanor charges, including official oppression.

The scandalous allegations against Cates included both profiting from and suborning prostitution, excessive force, and extortion. Meanwhile, Cates' friend Lt. Dell Shaw, formerly president of the APA, was slapped with federal financial conspiracy charges involving local businessman Charles Kallestad, who had been separately charged with sexual assault on a child and related offenses. The evidence against Kallestad included many videotapes and thousands of photos -- including photos of a handful of APD officers partying with Kallestad at a house secretly purchased by Shaw. Each officer vociferously denied the charges against him, to no avail. In November 1991, Cates was convicted on two federal charges and sentenced to 16 months in prison; in April 1992 he pled no contest to one state charge and received a one-year jail term. Shaw was convicted of banking-related fraud charges in August 1993, sentenced to 32 months in jail, and assessed a $10,000 fine.

At the height of the scandals in mid-1992, Chief Everett announced he was retiring to Arkansas and resigned. In his wake, veteran officers say, the Cates and Shaw scandals split the department in two. "There are many people who still say that the investigations into [Cates and Shaw] didn't go far enough," one veteran officer said. "And a line got drawn in the sand. It is a line that has become a brick wall." Veteran officers allege that Cates and Shaw were central members of a continuing group of officers informally referred to within the department as "the Family": officers who watch each other's backs, support each other in career advancement -- and protect each other from disciplinary charges or worse. Within the department the belief persists widely to this day that some officers -- including high-ranking administrators -- are members of the Family.

The case against Cates had been initiated largely by other vice officers who thought he was "out of control," and as a consequence, a social and organizational chasm developed between officers willing to report apparent misconduct within their ranks and suspected members of the Family. "It's a close-knit group of guys," says one officer who requested anonymity. "The seeds of the Family were planted when Everett came to the department. That's where they got more powerful."

Hopes that things would improve under new leadership were quickly dashed when, with little or no outside input, City Manager Camille Barnett announced in mid-1992 that she had chosen former Houston PD Deputy Chief Elizabeth Watson to succeed Everett. According to many veteran officers, Watson not only failed to do anything to heal the fractured department but also made matters worse by turning a blind eye to the ongoing turmoil. A city audit released on the heels of her 1997 departure confirmed that perception. The audit revealed that department morale was, at best, "low," and that instead of fixing problems, administrators spent an inordinate amount of time "determining who is at fault," and that resulting discipline was "arbitrary or inconsistent." "Too often officers are punished too severely for judgements, often made in good faith, made in seconds while performing their duties," one officer responded to the audit survey. "Serious, conscious wrongdoing is not punished severely enough" (see Shadows of the Past).

An Even Keel

Considering what had preceded him, it's no wonder city officials have seen Knee as a departmental savior. "Chief Knee has been so professional. If there's one word to describe him it's 'professional,'" says Mayor Gus Garcia. "Of the police chiefs we've had in the last 15 years, he's been the best. Like I said, he's professional and full of integrity." Garcia has been impressed by Knee's efforts to boost community policing, and his more recent initiative to better protect the city's immigrant community. Garcia's praise is echoed throughout City Hall. Council Member Daryl Slusher, for example, says he's particularly impressed with Knee's community involvement. "He has been grounded in the community and has been accessible," said Slusher. "He teaches a class at Huston-Tillotson, he marches every Jan. 15 in the Martin Luther King Day parade. He's got an event about every day and night." Council colleague Raul Alvarez agrees. "Generally, I've been pretty impressed with what he's accomplished in his five-year tenure," he said. "Really, what's important ... is the responsiveness to community input."
There are many people who still say that the investigations into Cates and Shaw didn't go far enough, And a line got drawn in the sand. It is a line that has become a brick wall.
"There are many people who still say that the investigations into Cates and Shaw didn't go far enough, And a line got drawn in the sand. It is a line that has become a brick wall." (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Even sometimes critical East Austin advocates think Knee's been more responsive to their community needs. "After the fiasco with Chief Watson there was a lot of disconnect -- community policing really looked like it was going to die on the vine," said Lori C-Renteria, a longtime East Cesar Chavez neighborhood activist. "I went to those community meetings [held by the city during the search for a new chief] when Chief Knee was a finalist, and I was very impressed with his commitment and understanding of community policing." And while the department still needs to do more to recruit minority officers, says Rev. Sterling Lands II of the Greater Calvary Baptist Church, Knee has eased some of the long-standing tension between the APD and the Eastside communities. "I think that he brings more of a neighborhood perspective to that office," Lands says. "He has probably done what he was hired to do: to bring a balance and put things on an even keel. I also believe that there are some communities where there'd been significant rifts, and although they are not healed, they are not as pervasive or amplified; they are not as visible and are less of an ongoing wound."

In part it might be Knee's relative success in reaching out to East Austin -- a feat either untried or unsuccessful in previous administrations -- that has given him something of a pass on other issues. Consider, for example, the central police responsibility: crime control. During the final August 1997 community forum with the chief candidate finalists, Knee pledged that, if he were chosen, in five years Austin would have a "substantially" reduced crime rate.

That pledge that hasn't quite been fulfilled -- although to what degree depends largely on how one looks at the numbers. According to statistics compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the overall crime rate in Austin (that is, the number of crimes per 100,000 residents) reached a 20-year high in 1990, with 11,714 crimes per 100,000 residents. Following a national trend, Austin's crime rate steadily dropped during the Nineties, with a slight spike in 1995 and again in 1999, when the rate of violent crimes -- like rape and murder -- increased. In 2000, the crime rate reached a 20-year low with a reported 6,338 crimes per 100,000 residents, again largely mirroring the rest of the country. But 2001 saw an increase to 6,618 crimes per 100,000 -- primarily due to an increase in property crimes, like burglary and auto theft. Judging from APD's 2002 press releases, it appears crime is on the rise again. In 2001 there were 26 murders in Austin; this month the city had already recorded 24 for this year. Motor vehicle deaths are up sharply. (Though this stat is not monitored by the FBI, officers say it's a bellwether for determining the effectiveness of police resources.) In 2001, Austin recorded 76 total traffic fatalities; this year the number is already at 63.

The department characteristically drags its feet in providing such statistics, reflecting an uneasy relationship with the media that seems to begin at the top with Knee. His press briefings are irregular, tightly scripted, and generally devoid of real news; he halted and then resumed them recently only after public criticism. Following repeated requests, he would agree to be interviewed for this article only via e-mail, because of what he described as the Chronicle's unfair coverage of the APD -- though he didn't cite a single instance of that unfairness (see "The Chief Answers His E-Mail," p.38).

Asked about Knee's 1997 pledge versus the 2002 reality, the council and city manager seem almost sanguine: Any increase in the crime rate, they say, is largely explained by Austin's quick growth over the past four years. "My hunch is that when he made that challenge five years ago, not many people were prepared for all the growth," says Will Wynn. "There were those changes, and traffic, and depending on how you interpret those crime stats and overlay with the growth included -- and don't underestimate the challenge of annexation, which has brought tens of thousands of acres. Those are some of the big challenges that most departments wouldn't have faced in five years." The argument doesn't exactly mirror reality, but in fact it's hard to judge whether population growth, Chief Knee, or his department have been the determining factors. If population growth was the primary determinant, Austin should've experienced a steady increase in crime rates throughout the past decade instead of incremental ups and downs.

Knee says that he hasn't had the success he had hoped for with an overall reduction of crime -- but "the future looks good." "I don't think we are where we should be with the rate of reported crime, especially those crimes committed against Hispanics and which occur in low-income areas of the city," he wrote. "Traffic remains a problem that we have not been as successful in dealing with. Although injury accidents are down, fatalities remain at unacceptable levels." In short, he concludes, the goals he emphasized in 1997 "remain the same."

City Manager Toby Futrell points out that funding for 60 new officers will be added in this year's budget cycle, raising police staffing to two officers per 1,000 residents -- a level the city did not anticipate reaching until 2005. Futrell credits Knee for that accomplishment. "He's been very successful with getting federal grants," she says. "We got $4.5 million at a time we didn't think we'd be getting anything, and we're taking officers to 2.0. ... We're going to be able to do it in two years because of the money that he's brought in." The increased staff will allow the creation of two new area commands -- a north-central and a south-central district -- expanding community policing initiatives and, at least in theory, helping reduce the crime rate.

"In evaluating the success [of community policing], you can see that smaller span of control has led to increased focus by officers, sergeants and command staff," wrote Knee. "This fits in with the reason for going to the area command concept in 1998. In other words, in a large and fast growing community, [the APD has] create[d] a number of small town police departments. The additional positions will help maintain that concept."

Lingering Wounds

Yet many officers argue that adding cops on the street won't make much difference if officer morale remains so low. "You can do more with less when you have high morale," says Mike Sheffield, president of the Austin Police Association. "It should be obvious to anyone that the higher the morale, the higher the work productivity can be."

Whatever the true crime stats, many rank-and-file cops say the intradepartmental perception is that the chief makes room for plenty of community face time, but little for his own officers. Knee, they complain, has become "Watson in pants," reverting to a management style based solely on control and blind loyalty to supervisors, while ignoring the fractious and still-simmering legacy of the Nineties. "Those who ignore the past," warn several officers, "are destined to repeat it." And in recent months, Knee has faced a series of problems that repeat a cycle he was expected to break. There remain, for example, lingering allegations that in the notorious 1995 Mala Sangre investigation, the department effectively ignored reports that cops -- among them now high-ranking officers -- were aiding and abetting a major drug trafficking operation.

By and large, city officials, like Knee himself, decline to address questions about the residue of Mala Sangre. Futrell suggested that it's unfair to persist in blaming Knee for events that preceded his tenure. "Most of what people complain about are things that he inherited," she said. "You always worry, is there some kernel of truth? And that's what keeps it alive. You ask, when do you own it? I would in turn ask, when do you let it go?"

That response disappoints officers who believe the department can't be unified -- nor Knee succeed as chief -- until these festering wounds are healed. "He can't have it both ways," says veteran officer Stan Farris. "You can't take credit for all of the good and none of the bad." Furthermore, they say that Knee's inability or refusal to fully address the department's sordid past reinforces the rank-and-file impression that the department's disciplinary style is arbitrary and capricious. The most current example is the headline case of officer Timothy Enlow -- whose August 2001 dismissal is now in arbitration.

Enlow himself directs the blame above the chief. "That's who I really hold responsible, the City Council," he said. "Chiefs come and go, but the City Council pulls the strings."

No Exceptions

Enlow was purportedly fired for what has become a laundry list of procedural violations, including dishonesty, insubordination, and "failure to maintain an impartial attitude" -- i.e., "racial profiling." Knee said Enlow had used racial profiling in March of last year, when detaining two African-American youths driving a new pickup -- adding that Enlow is the first APD officer fired for such an offense.
He can't have it both ways. You can't take credit for all of the good and none of the bad. -- Officer Stan Farris
"He can't have it both ways. You can't take credit for all of the good and none of the bad." -- Officer Stan Farris (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Unfortunately for Knee, the APD didn't even have a racial profiling policy at the time of Enlow's dismissal, and Enlow's September arbitration hearing (scheduled to resume in mid-November) has thus far raised more questions than it has resolved. Knee had supplied the Civil Service Commission with a disciplinary memo containing additional charges against Enlow -- including dishonesty -- unsupported by evidence. The chief told arbitrator Harold Moore that the dishonesty charge was a "mistake," but not a "lie." "When someone knowingly misrepresents [facts], it's untruthful," Knee testified. "When someone says something they believe to be true at the time, it's a mistake."

The irony may have been lost on Knee, but not on Enlow or other observers. "Many times they don't perceive what they do as the same things they are disciplining officers for doing," said Tom Stribling, general counsel for the APA. "But that's the perception of the officers too: 'I do what they do and I get in trouble for it.'" Officers say that Knee, especially in his approach to discipline, has failed to listen to the heart of the department, depending instead on the narrower perspective of a select group of supervisors -- including his assistant chiefs (see "The Top Brass," p.34). "When you're chief of police, the thing that can destroy you, or the thing that can make you, is information," said Enlow. "They've positioned themselves around him in a way that controls the flow of information."

An unlikely ally agrees. "I don't feel like Knee is on top of it; I don't think he's in control of much that's going on over there," says Ann del Llano, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer and longtime cop-watcher. "And I don't think that he has a handle on the department's corruption. Every officer that has said something [about problems within the department] has had a fucked-up career. There are no exceptions."

'What Did You Find and How Did You Find It?'

Enlow's case is not an isolated controversy. Last year the city settled a whistleblower lawsuit with officers David Gann, Dennis Clark, and Stan Farris, who had charged APD brass with making retaliatory transfers following the 1995 Mala Sangre investigation. According to documents filed in that lawsuit, in the course of Mala Sangre ("Bad Blood"), 27 Austin officers had been named as potential suspects in drug-related criminal activities. Among other allegations, Gann, Clark, and Farris charged that two supervisors -- Assistant Chief Jimmy Chapman and then-FBI agent John Maspero (now Williamson Co. sheriff) -- thwarted surveillance that might have confirmed or disproved police involvement, and that APD brass then transferred the officers from the case.

The allegations briefly resurfaced in connection with the settlement -- but at that point Knee told reporters that the charges were completely baseless "rumors" that had been thoroughly investigated and discredited. That assurance appears to have satisfied City Hall. "This has been reviewed multiple times," said Futrell. "It's close to 10 years old and many of the people are gone." Yet in fact the department will not or cannot provide public evidence of any investigation, thorough or not, and most of the officers subject to the Mala Sangre allegations remain on staff. Stribling says the official explanations are simply inadequate, and that's why departmental suspicions have never been laid to rest. "They've let this one issue persist and fester for a number of years," he said. "And maybe Chief Knee has cleared it in his mind, but how and who has he communicated it to? I don't know, as a lawyer for the union, or as a citizen. What did you find and how did you find it? Until that happens [it will continue to come up]."

Farris says it's readily apparent that a complete Internal Affairs investigation has never taken place. IA detectives or any other investigators, he points out, would have to be able to interview the confidential Mala Sangre informants -- some of them cops -- who provided information in the case. "I said I would talk and tell them who all the confidential informants were," Farris said. "But no one ever called me; no one has ever asked."

Despite the official dismissal, Mala Sangre just won't go away. Officer Jeff White -- assigned alone to replace Farris and his two colleagues in 1997 -- filed his own whistleblower lawsuit in May, charging that he also suffered retaliation, and for the same reasons. White's case is in the preliminary stages of discovery, and his attorney Jody Mask insists White does not intend to settle.

'Investigate and Discipline'

The department's internal strife might appear to be mere ax-grinding by a few disgruntled employees, but when considered together with the APD's rocky past, a pattern emerges. "It fits a clear pattern of abuse within the police administration," says Charley Wilkison, political and legislative director for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. "[Knee's] advice comes from control freaks: 'Got trouble? What do you do? Squash it; take control from the inside.'" For those that see the disciplinary process on a regular basis, the cumulative effects of Knee's tenure are troubling. Instead of addressing the complaints directly and openly, they say, he cracks down. "Chief Knee's approach is, everything is handled by Internal Affairs," Stribling says. "They don't manage employees any more -- they investigate and discipline."

Many basic police problems -- for example, citizen complaints of officer rudeness -- were once handled immediately by first-line supervisors: the sergeants. No more. "The supervisors are scared now," said one officer. "[It used to be that] they'd handle the situation and they'd be done with it. [Now] they do that and they get in trouble for it -- that's what's scaring the supervisors, now they're just another cop and not a supervisor." Stribling agrees. "There is no sitting down and talking and working out problems," he said. "Everything you can think of goes through Internal Affairs. Supervisors managing [their] people -- that's now an IA investigation. They want to say, well, when the sergeants did it, that [produced disparate punishments]. Well, but again, that's a management problem -- managing sergeants."

Furthermore, says Stribling, disciplinary outcomes have become increasingly arbitrary and unpredictable. "I still, every time, don't know what's going to happen. It depends on who the decision-makers are. Maybe it's, do we like this person? Boy, does that seem to skew the whole thing." He points directly to the Enlow case. "When you boil down the accusations in that case, there really isn't a whole lot there. You have to ask yourself, if they liked Tim Enlow, would we be where we are today?" he asks, adding that the brass rejects any suggestion that it plays favorites. "The problem I have is that this administration doesn't see and isn't willing to admit that it plays a role."

Knee says he's aware of the specific "rumor" that a Family exists within the APD's ranks, but that it only resurfaces "when individuals feel they are not being treated appropriately." Overall, Knee describes the department's disciplinary procedures as fair. "[T]he most often asked question is, 'Do employees with rank fare better in a discipline situation[?]'" he wrote. "My response is 'No.'"

Unhappy Days

APA President Mike Sheffield says the persistent perception of favoritism, of a popularity club -- or of the legendary "Family" -- is very troubling to the officers on the street. "Younger officers and the officers on the street, every time they turn around ... the perception is that for the most part it is impossible for them to do their jobs without violating some policy; that there are policies that are enforced on minutiae," concludes Sheffield. "It tells the officers that they are constantly at risk out here -- and not just from the 'bad guys.'" Consequently, says Sheffield, Knee "gets a low grade on interaction with the rank and file, and the perception of the break in communication between the top and bottom of the department."

Asked about Knee's front-line involvement, APD spokesman Paul Flaningan said the chief has attended at least 10 to 12 "show-ups" (initial shift briefings) over the past year (of about 2,500 held yearly), and that just over a year ago he met with representatives of each patrol squad to hear their "comments and concerns."

Those are not impressive figures, and Stribling argues they reflect a deeper problem."[Knee has] said that the happiest days in his whole career were when he was a sergeant -- he seems to have forgotten that. He needs to go back to being a sergeant for his department," he says. "The part he's not doing is putting on a uniform and acting like a sergeant. There is a difference between teaching and discipline, and all we're doing is discipline."

If Knee doesn't find a way to change that perception, officers and critics say, it may well become his lasting legacy, at least among the cops on the street. For older officers nearing retirement, the simmering internal problems may no longer matter quite so much. But according to APD statistics, 57.5% of current officers have less than 10 years experience. Austin "has a young department, being trained by people not that much older," sums up Stribling. Considering Chief Stan Knee and his administration, many of the more experienced officers increasingly wonder: What sort of police tradition is being passed down to the officers now rising through the ranks -- officers who will make up the bulk of the department for years to come?

At least one young officer who has experienced Knee's administration up close says he is thoroughly disillusioned. "There is no clear concept of what is going to happen. It makes you feel like you're tiptoeing through a mine field," says Timothy Enlow. "To me it comes back to, if there's smoke coming out of every window in the house, there's probably a fire." end story

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