Futrell Spares Knee: 'Moving Forward' at APD

Police chief scolded, not punished

According to City Manager Toby Futrell, Austin Police Chief Stan Knee did not harbor any ill intent when he misrepre-sented the department's reason for seeking an exemption to the state civil service law's officer disciplinary timeline, in order to "protect" an ongoing investigation into Officer Vernon Stevenson. Therefore, concluded Futrell, Knee will not be disciplined for the infraction. "There is no doubt that the circumstances preceding and surrounding the preparation and signing of the Stevenson letter clearly shows significant management issues with the [APD]," Futrell wrote on Feb. 17, in a two-page memo to Knee. "What I don't find in reviewing this situation are the elements of intent and harm that I would look for in considering a disciplinary action." Futrell wrote that when a management "problem is surfaced" she expects her managers to accept and clean up their own messes. "That's what I hold my team accountable for and that's what you are doing," she wrote. "From my perspective, our efforts should now be focused on moving forward."

Knee was in Futrell's sights for contradictory statements he made in connection with an officer's civil service disciplinary appeal arbitration last month. In an Aug. 11 letter to the Attorney General, Knee wrote that he needed to extend the 180-day window during which he may impose officer discipline, in order to "protect" an ongoing criminal inquiry into Stevenson, which had been prompted by a 911 hang-up call he made last March. In his letter, Knee also wrote that, based on the information he had at the time, it was likely that ultimately he would fire the officer. Unfortunately for Knee, at the time he signed off on the letter (prepared for him by Assistant City Attorney Mike Cronig), there was no ongoing investigation and, he testified in arbitration proceedings last month, he in fact had no intention of terminating Stevenson. "I believe that that's an incorrect statement," he testified in January regarding the letter. "I signed it because I wanted to extend the 180 days." (For more on Knee's inconsistent statements, see "City Attorney Report on Knee Calls for Changes at APD," Feb. 18.)

Knee's contradictions prompted an internal review by City Attorney David Smith, who concluded – after consulting First Assistant District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg – that Knee had not broken any law (specifically, tampering with a government record or perjury). Smith did report that the department has "significant management issues" related to investigating officer transgressions and imposing discipline. In her memo to Knee, Futrell echoed Smith's conclusion – APD "misinterpreted and misapplied" the civil service timeline extension exemption, she wrote, but Knee has "rightly accepted full responsibility for this problem" and is working with the DA, the Office of the Police Monitor and the Austin Police Association to remedy the situation and to create "clear procedures for moving forward." Indeed, although he has not spoken publicly about his transgressions, Knee has issued two apologetic public statements, and last week he pledged to reform the disciplinary process. "The [APD's] management staff has already begun analyzing the disciplinary process and is currently looking at a system that would increase departmental flexibility in dealing with lesser disciplinary issues," he wrote. "In addition, a department policy regarding the 180-day provision … will be formulated in order to prevent any further controversy." Indeed, according to Futrell's memo to Knee, the department has already begun tweaking its discipline process, including working on introducing "mediation into the Department as a way to resolve internal employee disputes and certain categories of citizen complaints outside the investigatory process," which should help to "improve" officer morale, she wrote.

Officers have long been critical of the department's process, which they say is capricious and often results in disparate suspensions for strikingly similar infractions – in that context, Futrell's decision not to suspend Knee (or even issue any real reprimand) came as little surprise. APA President Mike Sheffield said the union will closely monitor any Knee-imposed reforms. He said the situation brought to his mind a biblical passage that "Knee will have to think about as he disciplines officers in the future – 'You hypocrites, first take the plank out of your own eye, then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.'"

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Austin Police Department, APD, Stan Knee, Vernon Stevenson, civil service, officer discipline, Toby Futrell, Rosemary Lehmberg, David Smith, Austin Police Association, APA, Mike Sheffield, Office of the Police Monitor, OPM

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