The Austin Chronicle

Police Officers Burned by Comments

By Jordan Smith, March 11, 2005, News

Six Austin Police officers and four police dispatchers have been disciplined in connection with a spate of inappropriate comments – beginning with the now infamous "burn baby, burn" – which were delivered via patrol car mobile data terminals during a fire at the Midtown Live nightclub on Feb. 18. According to Chief Stan Knee, the 10 employees received punishments ranging from a written reprimand to a 15-day unpaid suspension plus a year of probation, for a handful of policy violations – including "failure to maintain an impartial attitude," acts bringing discredit to the department, and inappropriate use of department computer equipment. In addition to the suspensions, the 10 employees will be required to complete additional "cultural sensitivity training," Knee said at a March 4 press conference.

The disciplinary actions come at the end of a two-week internal investigation that began almost immediately after several witnesses at the fire on Cameron Road happened to see the so-called burn message on a patrol car computer screen. (In addition, a television news camera caught the message on video.) As it turned out, the "burn baby, burn" comment – sent out just after 7pm by Officer John Lengefeld – was just the first in a string of thoughtless messages transmitted among the group of dispatchers and officers over the course of more than two hours on the night of the blaze that ultimately gutted the club and injured two Austin firefighters. "Hey … LOL [laughing out loud]," responded Officer Josue Martinez. "Those were my exact thoughts. Less call load."

"The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire," Officer Shane Duprey wrote 30 minutes later. "I got some extra gasoline if they need it," dispatcher Susan Negron opined just before 8pm. Negron continued, complaining that APD had recruited dispatchers at the club who were woefully unqualified for the job: "I hate that place. They hire from there … they can't read or write and it's [sad]," she wrote. "I thought that kind of thing only went on [in] Third World countries." For her comments, Negron received a 15-day suspension and was placed on probation for one year. Duprey got a five-day suspension; Martinez earned a three-day suspension; and Lengefeld was handed a 15-day suspension. In addition, Officer Steven Krippner was suspended for eight days, Officer William White was suspended for 15 days, and dispatchers Ashlye Bauerle and Robert Uribe each received three-day suspensions. Dispatcher Tammera Mojica and one other officer each got a written reprimand. (The identity of that officer is protected under civil service law.)

During their disciplinary review board hearings last week, each of the 10 employees admitted that what they'd done was wrong and insensitive, and "did not offer, or try to use any excuses" for their behavior, Knee said. He said they "regret what they did," and never meant to harm the department or the community. Knee said that he was "proud" of the employees for accepting responsibility for their actions, but noted sternly that he "cannot and will not tolerate that sort of unprofessional conduct."

He also said he does not believe that the comments were racially motivated. Indeed, the messages seem based on frustration rather than race. According to department records, over the last nine months police received a total of 129 calls for service at the Northeast Austin club. (That tally includes calls for service connected to last month's fire and calls for service at other businesses that share the same Cameron Road address, according to APD records.) In all, only four other Austin nightclubs had more calls for police service during the same time period. (Club Carnival on East Riverside tops the list with a total of 164 calls, followed by the Paradox nightclub on East Fifth with 156; Spiro's on Red River rounds out the top 10 with 45 calls for police service.) Still, Knee said, employee frustration is no excuse for the tacky remarks. "Clearly we have calls for service in the area; that's not an excuse," he said. "We're not allowed to be frustrated. We're supposed to be handling calls professionally, whether [there is] one call or 1,000 calls." A pair of written statements, one from the nightclub's owners and another from the city's police monitor, expressed desire to move past the incident.

A spokesperson for the Cash family, Midtown Live's owners, stated that, "While the remarks of certain officers were both insulting and offensive, we are sure that their actions are not representative of the entire Austin Police Department. In this case, the actions of a few should not reflect on the many. The officers involved have been punished for making inappropriate remarks. We hope that they learn from their mistakes, and that we all learn something from this episode."

Police monitor Ashton Cumberbatch wrote that Knee's "apology, coupled with the [disciplinary actions] are appropriate first steps for repairing the breach [of community trust] created by the six officers' actions." However, the public trust "will not be repaired unless the actions of the officers line up with their apology and oath to protect and serve with excellence, respect and courtesy," he wrote. "And while this case involved the transgressions of only six APD officers, it will be the future actions of all officers that will signal true repentance and pave the way for the building of mutually respectful relationships between the APD and the community."

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