Yet More King Wrangling

Lawyers for the city and the Austin Police Association were back in court Nov. 25 in the ongoing dispute over an independent investigation into the June 11 shooting death of Sophia King. Last week District Judge Suzanne Covington granted the APA's request for a temporary restraining order, halting the planned probe by Dallas lawyer Stephen DeWolf. Covington's order is set to expire at 4:30pm on Thanksgiving Day; District Judge Paul Davis is expected to rule today (Wednesday) whether to extend the order while the APA's contract dispute over the King inquiry wends its way through binding arbitration, as prescribed by the police union's "meet and confer" agreement with City Hall.

Davis provided the lawyers with some insight into the issues likely to impact his final decision. "The principal legal question is whether or not there is a legal obligation for the city and the association to agree on what the s.o.p. is," he said, referring to the "standard operating procedures" for conducting an outside probe of incidents such as the King shooting. Such rules were left "to be drafted" in the police contract, and the city has now drafted them without approval from the union's executive board. Hence the union's formal grievance and legal action; the city said the APA agreed when it signed the contract to let the city work out the details. "Something I don't understand from ... the argument on the table: What is the role of the independent investigator?" Davis continued. "What do they do?"

Davis isn't the only one who isn't quite sure. Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project and lawyer for Sophia King's mother Brenda Elendu in her suit against the city, has also entered the fray, arguing that the union's grievance is merely a way to derail the investigation. "It's clear that they really aren't looking at the public interest here," Harrington said outside the courtroom Monday. By stalling the probe, he argued, the union will make it impossible for the city to discipline the officers involved in the June 11 shooting. According to Texas civil service laws, discipline must be administered within 180 days of an incident (in the King case, that would be by Dec. 7).

Harrington acknowledges that the police contract -- which created the citizen-oversight process now getting a workout in the King case -- makes it unlikely that any new insights into the shooting from an independent probe could actually be shared with the public. "We're not happy with that either," Harrington said. "But it's like the difference between 4am and 5am. Either way we still have to get to noon."

APA lawyer Tom Stribling argues that the union's grievance is not an attempt to derail anything; the APA supports an investigation, he says, as long as it is conducted in accordance with the current contract. At issue, he said, is officer confidence in the city's promise to abide by the negotiated process. Citizen oversight, he said, "exists because of the APA and the police officers agreeing to it in the contract."

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