The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

City Gets New Police Monitor

By Jordan Smith, November 7, 2003, News

On Nov. 3, City Manager Toby Futrell announced the hiring of local attorney Ashton Cumberbatch as the city's new, second-ever police monitor. "Ashton stood out as a top candidate and had full support from the interview panel," Futrell wrote in a memo to the mayor and city council. "I'm confident his experience as a lawyer, his knowledge of the community and his mediation expertise will prove invaluable." Cumberbatch, who has been a member of the Office of the Police Monitor's Citizen Review Panel since its inception, is filling the spot vacated by Iris Jones, who resigned in August.

On Monday, Cumberbatch said he "has an interest in and passion for community justice," which prompted him to apply for the job vacated by Jones. One of the challenges and one of his main goals, he said, is to build trust, "between the community -- particularly the communities of color -- and the police department" -- although how he intends to bridge that divide is still elusive: "That's the $6 million question, isn't it?"

Cumberbatch takes office just as the high-profile Jessie Lee Owens shooting case is making its way through the APD's Internal Affairs and onto his desk. As a member of the OPM citizen review panel, Cumberbatch has already been through the "critical incident review" process before, and he has already weathered the storm caused by the divisive and racially charged case of an officer-involved shooting -- the death of Sophia King. (The CRP referred the King case to an outside investigator, but the report, received by the city last month, remains confidential.) Since it opened its doors in February 2002, the OPM has weathered criticism from advocates on both sides -- from backers of civilian police oversight (including the local chapters of the NAACP and ACLU), who continually complain that Austin's process lacks real teeth, and from the Austin Police Association, which waged a legal battle with the city over the union's role in determining how the King investigation, and all future independent probes initiated by the CRP, should be conducted.

Still, Cumberbatch -- whose manner is decidedly laid-back compared to Jones' more frenetic style -- seems up to the challenge of strengthening his office and forging better relations between the community and police. He spent a year with the County Attorney's Office in 1982, then six years as a prosecutor with the Travis Co. District Attorney's Office, before striking out into private practice where he works as a mediator and practices both criminal and employment law. He has served on a host of boards and committees for local civic organizations -- including the United Way, the YMCA, and the AISD health and safety committee. The combination of community commitment and a background with the District Attorney's Office makes Cumberbatch a good choice for the job, said APA President Mike Sheffield. "It's a really good mix for this job," he said. "There will be a benefit to both the officers and the larger community."

But while ACLU criminal justice liaison Ann del Llano, Sheffield's longtime sparring partner in the police oversight fight, agrees that Cumberbatch is right for the job, she still questions the city's commitment to having strong civilian oversight in Austin. The OPM and CRP were created as part of the city's meet-and-confer contract with the APA, which recently expired; the union and the city are currently in negotiations for a new contract -- and with no real money on the table to haggle over, tweaking civilian oversight is likely the biggest bargaining chip around. "I think Ashton is a fine choice and will do a fine job," she said. "The fact is that [the future of oversight] is not really resting on who is in that office, but on what authority they have. My concern, which is growing more and more strong, is that we're not going to give his office any power."

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