Point Austin: The Healing of Wounded Knee

A tale of two city memos suggests that more than paper-shuffling is needed at APD

Point Austin
The other shoe has dropped in the city's conduct review of APD Chief Stan Knee, and it was not exactly a steel-toed work boot. City Manager Toby Futrell responded to City Attorney David Smith's perfunctory report by echoing Smith's bland description of "significant management issues" within APD, but concluded that no managerial discipline of Knee is necessary. The bureaucratic language implies some administrative clarification of standard procedures. That would help. But a casual observer might also suggest that there appear to be no standard procedures, and that the brass needs to be held to at least the same standards of honesty, judgment, and fairness reflexively (but inconsistently) expected of line officers.

To recap: In the course of disciplining two officers who had briefly concealed a domestic dispute involving one of them, Knee had (many weeks later) filed a false report with the attorney general's office – citing a nonexistent criminal investigation and pending termination – in order to request an extension of the already generous 180-day civil service time limit for disciplinary actions. Knee's conduct was compounded because he was charging the other of the two officers with "falsifying a government document" (the initial dispatch report) as grounds for termination. If that sounds to you both contradictory and unfair, you're not alone – the arbitrator of the officer's appeal reversed the termination, finding the punishment extreme, arbitrary, and inconsistent with previous discipline in similar cases.

Futrell decided that since the city attorney quickly determined that Knee had committed no crime, had apparently acted without malicious intent, and had "accepted full responsibility" for his mistakes, she would support Knee's efforts to work with the DA, the police monitor, and officers' union "to correct the problem by creating and communicating clear procedures moving forward."

What's Sauce for the Head Goose ...

There is little reason to object to Futrell's decision – as far as it goes. The immediate question is whether the disciplinary procedures and standards applied to the chief – swift review, independent investigation, consideration of (in Futrell's phrase) "intent and harm," and measured response – will henceforth be applied to the conduct of ordinary officers. Individual officers, their organizations, and outside observers complain that APD discipline appears uncertain, arbitrary, and excruciatingly slow. For immediate example, why did it take more than a week, let alone more than the statutory six months, to determine that the two officers had screwed up, immediately admitted their mistakes, and needed some short-term discipline and training to make certain it didn't happen again?

Moreover, the radically disparate discipline accorded the two officers for virtually identical, simultaneous infractions – nothing for one, termination for the other – simply makes no sense. Nor does the city's explanation of the false request to the AG – that it was in effect a "form letter" in which the all-purpose, dishonest language had allegedly become something like "there's a criminal investigation and we're terminating this guy"! If that is in fact true, then it was an institutional abuse of the civil service process, and the city attorney who drafted such an idiotic document needs to return to law school.

The Invisible Mob

Ideally, the outcome will be a fairer and more effective disciplinary process, and a chief who can understand personally why officers wonder exactly what's expected of them. It would also be helpful if the public sees that the department is developing disciplinary standards proportionate to momentary lapses in judgment as opposed to persistent misconduct – especially persistent use of excessive force by some officers.

That project is unlikely to receive much help over at the Statesman, where in order to defend Chief Knee (and by the way slander the police union) the editors fantasize a lynch mob demanding a "public whipping" of the chief. The editors first weighed in on Feb. 15, under the misleading headline "Police chief's critics can't be allowed to win," both misrepresenting the original incident and dismissing Knee's response (the "form letter" again) as trivial. Last Saturday, following Futrell's decision, editorial page editor Arnold Garcia chimed in again, this time under the utterly ludicrous headline "The chief escapes, despite mob's penchant for public whippings." Again, Garcia both exaggerates the initial incident between the two officers and trivializes Knee's disciplinary response.

Garcia's "mob," it turns out, is exactly one officer e-mail, in which the officer suggests that a fit response to Knee's infractions would be a "4 or 5 months" investigation followed by a 90-day suspension. "Why not?" asks the e-mail. "He makes his officers go through that." The complaint against inconsistent and therefore unfair treatment couldn't be clearer – but to Garcia, the notion that any officer, or indeed any citizen, should expect that the chief of police be held accountable equally with his officers is simply intolerable. He hallucinates, "[Knee's] discrepancy was a mistake, to be sure, but hardly justifies a screeching, hair-pulling, apparel-rending Austin-style temper tantrum, much less a public beating." Yet he then has the gall to suggest that it's the "community's political players" who have no "sense of proportion." Please.

To their mutual credit, Chief Knee, City Manager Futrell, and the Austin Police Association have responded together to the situation with far more maturity and insight than is available at the daily (admittedly, not much of a standard). Let's hope it's not a momentary rapprochement, but the beginning of a real change in direction. end story

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Austin Police DepartmentStan Knee, Stan Knee, Toby Futrell, David Smith, Austin American-Statesman, Arnold Garcia, Austin Police Association

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