The Austin Chronicle

APD's Stan Knee Goes East – Way East

By Jordan Smith, May 26, 2006, News

Effective June 4, Austin Police Chief Stan Knee will resign his position as APD's chief administrator to accept a job as an adviser/mentor to the Afghani Minister of the Interior, training civilian police in Afghanistan. The thought of Knee dressed in desert camouflage, working a contract job in a war-torn country for private military contractor DynCorp, seems abrupt and unexpected, even a tad mysterious. (There are, for example, plenty of open, public questions about DynCorp, the mercenary muscle behind variously dubious U.S.-funded operations in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and the crop-spraying program, "Plan Colombia.") Yet in political terms, training Afghani cops may be no more treacherous than serving as the public face of the APD – a position that is inevitably a lightning rod for controversy.

During Knee's nearly nine-year tenure as chief, he's faced a persistent stream of criticisms from inside and outside the department – including sometimes contradictory allegations that he's been too lenient, too harsh, or too arbitrary in meting out officer discipline. He has also been accused of being too willing to ignore lingering allegations of internal departmental corruption – as in the lengthy series of whistle-blower lawsuits filed in connection with the defunct mid-Nineties Mala Sangre drug-trafficking investigation.

To his credit, Knee has been a diligent administrative reformer and was ultimately able to make a series of fundamental changes that have steered the department toward more efficient, professional, and responsive operations – including the implementation of generally effective community policing initiatives, the formation of a civilian oversight plan, and the crafting of policies to reduce incidents of racial profiling – in advance of state law requirements. "He's done some impressive things," said Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder. "For example, he's reduced significantly the number of consent searches" conducted by police – wherein police ask to search a motorist's car, without a legal basis (probable cause or even suspicion) to do so, a practice too-often implicated in racial profiling. "Racial profiling is one of the biggest problems for African-Americans across the country," Linder said. "So, he's done a lot."

Knee was hired in 1997 to follow former Chief Elizabeth Watson, when department morale was at an all-time low; an internal audit criticized the Watson administration as a do-little management that spent more time figuring out where to lay blame for departmental problems than solving them. Police-community relations were poor, and the infamous 1995 Valentine's Day police raid on a Cedar Avenue party in East Austin – which eventually resulted in a financial settlement from the city – remained a visible example of deep-seated distrust. Knee aggressively picked up Watson's half-hearted community policing efforts and made them effective. The department was decentralized into the Area Commands that now drive the APD service model, and for the first time, Austin's minority communities were given equal attention and ear at headquarters.

This initial community outreach was no small feat, and the restructuring made it possible to identify and implement further advances – increasing recruiting efforts, targeting training needs, and, most importantly, driving down the crime rate. Although it would be simplistic to give all the credit to Knee (or even to policing in general), during his tenure Austin has become the third-safest city in America (based on FBI violent-crime statistics).

But, to be blunt, it hasn't been all smooth sailing. Knee's tenure has also been marked by controversies: rank-and-file officers, who hoped for a cop's cop, have been disappointed by the chief's lack of visibility on the street. Many complain that he spent too much time in the rarified air of the administration's Fifth Floor offices, a perception reinforced by what many officers describe as lopsided or arbitrary discipline. A few high-profile examples:

In 2002, APD administration dramatically fired Officer Timothy Enlow for violating APD "racial profiling" policy long before such a policy existed – an evasion that concerned many officers, regardless of how they viewed the Enlow case in particular.

In 2004, Knee fired Officer Timothy Little for failing to report an officer-involved 911 call (an error Little readily admitted and then promptly sought to rectify). Knee argued that such an ethical lapse made an officer forever untrustworthy – although the punishment was far harsher than that meted out for similar infractions. (In the arbitration process, Little got his job back.)

By contrast, Knee has appeared largely indifferent to lingering allegations of serious corruption among the department's highest ranks – including against former Assistant Chief Jimmy Chapman, a Knee appointee. The charges, made in a series of whistle-blower lawsuits, include allegations that officers had aided and abetted, or, at a minimum, ignored past drug-trafficking activities. Knee remained adamant that none of the allegations were true even when documentary evidence suggested otherwise, and Chapman eventually resigned.

The lingering controversies made it hard for Knee to earn the wholehearted trust of the rank and file. But, as often happens at official farewells, even Knee's most frequent critics – such as Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield, who most recently called for the chief's resignation after Knee's termination of Officer Julie Schroeder (currently on appeal) for the shooting death of 18-year-old Daniel Rocha last summer – have mustered words of parting kindness. "Every leader, including myself, has good and bad qualities," Sheffield said. "I hope he looks back and can take pride in the things he's accomplished. … He's done a lot to modernize [the department], and his model of community policing is the way we should be doing it."

Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza said Knee has served the city well. "He's definitely turned the department around to be a very professional and top-notch organization. We have officers who are second to none," Garza said. "I attribute that to the officers and to the environment [Knee] has worked to cultivate within the department, and that professionalism spreads out to higher levels of accountability. He's held the officers to a higher standard, but, at the same time, he was their best and strongest advocate to get the best tools and training needed." Now, Garza said, the challenge is to find a new chief who will maintain the department's positive forward momentum. Assistant Chief Cathy Ellison has been appointed interim chief, but the city plans a nationwide search that may take several months. "It's not easy being the third-safest city in the country," Garza concluded.

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