APA, Futrell Turn Up the Heat

The city manager and police union continue slinging barbs over the withholding of the King investigation results.

Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield addressed the media on Friday.
Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield addressed the media on Friday. (Photo By John Anderson)

The war of words between City Hall and leaders of Austin's police union stepped up another notch last week. At a Dec. 12 press conference, Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield took issue with earlier comments by City Manager Toby Futrell blaming the union for blocking public release of the findings of an outside investigation into the June 2002 shooting death of Sophia King in East Austin -- a probe initiated by the Office of the Police Monitor's citizen review panel.

In comments apparently made to the Statesman editorial board, printed in a Dec. 8 editorial in the daily, Futrell said that she is "prepared to withhold" a proposed 2% pay raise for Austin police officers if the APA "doesn't agree to make public" a summary of findings from the independent investigation into the shooting of King by APD Officer John Coffey. Futrell told the Statesman she "also is pressing the police association for other concessions that would weaken the group's grip over the monitor's office and citizen [review] panel," the daily reported. In its editorial, the daily went on to herald Futrell's comments as the sort of "tough bargaining needed to deal with a well-heeled, savvy police association."

But Sheffield shot back on Tuesday that his group was "disappointed that Ms. Futrell has promoted the false belief that the APA is opposed to the release of independent investigation reports or that we have attempted to maintain any role in managing the monitor and citizen oversight operation. Statements such as these, by persons in positions of great authority ... do nothing but further undermine the trust between Austin's police and the community we serve."

With no real money on the table (aside from the 2% "public safety premium"), it has long been known that this year's "meet and confer" contract negotiations between city and police would turn on attempts to refine the civilian oversight system, which was created under the last contract. Still, while Futrell's comments may have been "tough," it isn't entirely clear just what she was actually talking tough about. (Sheffield told reporters that he had been assured by the Statesman's Arnold Garcia that Futrell actually said what the daily reported on Dec. 8, but Futrell did not return our call requesting comment.)

According to Sheffield, the APA has already offered the city several proposals to do what Futrell says she wants -- redefine the oversight system and provide a mechanism to release reports of independent investigations into alleged APD misconduct. (The King probe was the first such probe under the contract provisions that created the OPM and its citizens review panel.) The first of these proposals, Sheffield said, was presented to the city on Oct. 7 -- a full two months before Futrell's tough talk made it into print. At that time, the APA suggested that independent investigators' conclusions and recommendations be released to the public, along with a "summary" of the scope and methodology of the investigation -- though certain private information would remain sealed -- and that the policy be retroactive, to allow for public release of the King report upon ratification of a new meet-and-confer deal by the union's membership.

The union's proposal would also have separated civilian oversight from meet-and-confer itself, giving the city the ability to maintain the OPM and its civilian panel on their own, in perpetuity, in exchange for several stipulations regarding the so-called "protected rights of officers" -- such as granting any officers who are the subjects of either internal or independent investigations the right to see the evidence against them at least 48 hours before being interviewed.

In short, it appears that the union's previous proposals would've eliminated the need for Futrell's aggressiveness. But the city rejected the union's offer. Futrell "wanted the APA to be involved" in police monitor operations, Sheffield said, "because [Futrell] believed if the APA wasn't a partner in such determinations we might be critical of her decisions concerning its operation" -- contrary to what the Statesman printed on Dec. 8. In the wake of the Statesman editorial, Sheffield said, the union has reiterated and expanded its earlier offer, proposing to authorize the public release of any independent investigation report in its entirety. (It was the city, when drafting the procedures for the King probe, that left out any provision for releasing its report to the public, the APA says.)

Despite all of this hand-wringing over the release of the King report -- and presumably, any others like it -- there is already a mechanism in place for making public this kind of information, built into the state's civil service laws. In short, if an officer is found to have been guilty of wrongdoing and receives discipline -- ranging from a one-day suspension up to and including termination -- the contents of the police department's internal investigation are available for release to the public, subject to redaction for the purposes of personal privacy concerns (such as HIV status). Only "unsubstantiated" allegations, for which an officer receives no discipline other than a reprimand, are exempt from public disclosure.

And Austin's civilian oversight process offers the citizen review panel access to information even in cases where an officer has been exonerated, offering the panel a chance to review and recommend further actions -- as in the case of Sophia King. The panel has had the opportunity -- as the public's "eyes and ears" within the police department -- to review the King report and to make further inquiry or recommendation. According to Police Monitor Ashton Cumberbatch, the panel has not yet made any further recommendations on the King case, but that option remains open.

This isn't what City Hall has told the public is going on here, preferring to lay the blame for "secrecy" squarely at the APA's doorstep. Nonetheless, the union has now offered to have all such reports -- including those where the officer is exonerated, as in the King case -- subject to public release. Representatives of the city and the APA were back at the bargaining table on Dec. 15; at press time there was still no word on the union's most recent offer.

With all the readily available "openness," the question remains: Does the city really want reports on all independent investigations open to public scrutiny? Or just the reports they want to make public in order to satisfy City Hall's political needs? The King report certainly falls into the latter category. But if the city were to accept the APA's Oct. 7 offer, it would also be forced to release documents that may be less flattering to APD and City Hall -- like, say, the report of the probe into possible misconduct by APD Assistant Chief Jimmy Chapman that is being prepared, or has already been prepared, by outside investigator James McLaughlin.

McLaughlin was hired back in August to review allegations that Chapman committed perjury this summer in his deposition testimony in the whistle-blower lawsuit filed by APD Officer Jeff White, the latest chapter in the long-running Mala Sangre scandal. So far there has been no word from city officials on the status of that inquiry -- which theoretically should have been completed last month -- despite the Chronicle's repeated requests for information. The department has until Jan. 17 to discipline Chapman for any violations -- the 180-day deadline under state civil service law; otherwise, the assistant chief could get a virtual pass even if he lied under oath. He could still face criminal charges for perjury -- but again, despite repeated requests by the Chronicle, city officials have failed to say whether Chapman's alleged misconduct is even being reviewed as a potential criminal violation.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

police, Austin Police Department, Austin Police Association, APA, APD, Mike Sheffield, Toby Futrell, meet and confer, Office of the Police Monitor, OPM, citizen review panel, independent investigation, Sophia King, James McLaughlin, Jimmy Chapman, Mala Sangre, Jeff White

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