The Lewis File

Park Police personnel record casts a harsh light on small law enforcement agencies

Austin Park Police Headquarters
Austin Park Police Headquarters (Photo By John Anderson)

On January 24, 2005, Warren Struss, director of the city's Parks and Recreation Department, wrote a three-paragraph memo to Darryl Lewis, then chief of the Austin Park Police, under the subject line, "Internal Affairs Complaint Investigation – Verbal Counseling." The previous spring, Park Police Sgt. James Hargett filed a formal complaint about Lewis, alleging a host of violations – from improper use of city property and of his city-owned vehicle, to an allegation that Lewis borrowed money from subordinates in violation of city policy.

After several months of investigation by APD Internal Affairs investigators – including lengthy interviews with Hargett and Lewis – Struss was apparently ready to close the book on Hargett's complaint. "After reviewing the [investigative] findings and discussing these with you, I have determined that an oral reprimand is the appropriate measure for the items found to be policy violations," Struss wrote. "Of most concern to me is the substantiated complaint associated with placing yourself under financial obligation to a subordinate. Be advised that, while there may be rational reasons for this conduct, your role in this agency is too critical for this type of distraction."

And that was that, at least until late June of this year, when the allegations against Lewis were made public again – albeit in a vague way – with the release of a report assessing the operations of the Airport Police, Park Police, and City Marshals, compiled by retired APD Assistant Chief Rick Coy. The majority of Coy's 12-page report focused on Park Police operations – and, specifically, on the auxiliary force's challenges in the areas of staffing, training, and leadership. This is understandable simply because the Park Police is the oldest and largest of the three auxiliary agencies, but it also appears to reflect ongoing administrative troubles, as well as specific leadership problems associated with the tenure of Darryl Lewis. "There were several serious allegations [made against Lewis in 2004] that, after investigation, appeared to have merit," Coy wrote. Nonetheless, Coy noted that it didn't appear that Struss had ever entered any official, "final disposition" of the case, and the fact that the allegations remained unresolved, Coy wrote, "has created some distrust and some morale issues" within the ranks of the park police.

While Struss' January memo ostensibly closed the investigation of Lewis, it's easy to see how officers in the department might've missed the news. The policies governing park police are far less comprehensive than those guiding the APD – a nationally accredited agency whose officers are covered by civil-service laws – and the park agency's structure, including officer supervision and oversight (including that of its own supervisors) are far less stringent than APD's. These factors were especially true prior to August 2005, when the city finally consolidated the park police, airport police, and marshals into the Public Safety and Emergency Management Department, overseen by retired APD Assistant Chief Bruce Mills.

But in another sense, Struss' memo – and the underlying investigation into Lewis, a 22-year veteran PARD employee, it was meant to address – highlights a far larger question about the park police, and about the two other municipal police agencies now housed under the PSEM. Specifically, the persistent question is whether it is best to run the auxiliary police forces as separate (and, in many ways, unequal) agencies outside APD or if it makes more sense to consolidate the agencies under the larger umbrella of the APD, gaining the structure, relative openness, and control that go with it. On June 22, shortly before the Coy Report was published by the Chronicle – although never formally released by the City Manager's office – the City Council asked staff to prepare a feasibility study on consolidating the PSEM agencies into the APD. That study is expected to be considered by the Council on Aug. 24.

In another twist, in the wake of the publication of the Coy Report, Lewis officially resigned his position as chief of Park Police. Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza says that, while the publication of the report affected the timing of the resignation, Lewis had in fact been wanting to step down for some time but agreed to stay on at Garza's urging. Lewis is now serving as PARD's "director of security," acting as a liason between PARD and the now-PSEM-housed Park Police, coordinating security needs, Lewis told me last week.

Considered together, the Coy Report and the IA Lewis file provide interesting background to the entire discussion of consolidation. In particular, the IA Lewis file offers a window into the everyday workings of the Park Police – one that makes the force appear to be driven more by whimsical popularity contests and personality conflicts common to high school cliques than by a set of consistent and neutral rules enforced by supervisors working within a clearly defined hierarchy. (Lewis declined to comment on the contents of the IA investigation or on the question of consolidation.)

"I expect that you will reflect on this feedback, make the necessary improvements, and continue leading your organization and your staff without compromising your role as Chief of Park Police," Struss wrote in closing his 2005 disciplinary memo to Lewis. "If you feel the need to discuss this matter further, do not hesitate to contact me."

X's and O's

On April 8, 2004, Park Police Sgt. James Hargett unloaded a laundry list of complaints about Chief Darryl Lewis during an intake interview with APD IA investigators. Among the seven specific complaints were allegations that Lewis misused his authority by allowing a former employee (who was also his longtime landlord) to park her personal horse trailer on city property, by using his city-issued car to run personal errands and to drive to off-duty employment, and by allegedly telling a subordinate he would only approve an off-duty contract for security work at the north location of Whole Foods Market if the officer included Lewis on the work roster. Additionally, Hargett charged Lewis with improperly accepting gifts from subordinates and improperly directing an officer to set aside his other work to conduct a background check on a friend of his who'd applied for a Park Police job. Finally, Hargett charged Lewis with violating general orders by borrowing money from his subordinates – at least five different officers, including Hargett, according to the IA file, for a total of at least $900, including $240 from Hargett.

In summarizing the case, APD IA investigators (tasked with the inquiry because Park Police does not have its own internal affairs unit) concluded that several of the allegations were substantiated – among them the incident involving the horse trailer, the improper use of the city-owned vehicle, and Lewis' improper financial dealings with his subordinates. However, the investigators also cautioned that the timing of Hargett's complaint could be retaliation for Lewis' initiating an IA investigation of Hargett, who had recently been pulled over by UT Police on suspicion of drunk driving. "The coincidence between Sgt. Hargett's specific timing of his allegation against Chief Lewis and the investigation ... for DWI ... cannot be overlooked and suggests retaliation on Sgt. Hargett's part for his investigation being initiated," IA Detective Louis Forte wrote in his September 2004 case summary. (Reportedly, Hargett was ultimately suspended for 10 days in connection with the incident.)

Whatever the specific results of the Lewis and Hargett investigations, and beyond Lewis' recent resignation, what is most striking about the Lewis file is the window it offers into Park Police culture. For example, when interviewed by detectives, Lewis admitted much of the questionable conduct Hargett alleged in his complaint. In the case of the trailer, for example, Lewis said that he wasn't aware that personal use of city property – that is, using the property in a manner not afforded to the general public – was against policy; the former officer he'd let park her horse trailer near police headquarters was a friend of his, and if he "could do it over again, I'd do the same" unless he was specifically told not to. And regarding the complaint about borrowing money from subordinates, Lewis said he didn't think that was against policy, in part, he said, "because that's what we do all the time at Park Police." (In each case, there were in fact policies in place banning the alleged behavior.)

The real problem, Lewis told investigators, was Hargett's attitude. Overall, Lewis characterized Hargett's complaints as baseless attitude-related problems, in large part linked to his being passed over for promotion to lieutenant. Reading through the investigative files, it's easy to see why apparent rejection might've disappointed Hargett (or any of the other officers, for that matter). In fact, Lewis explained, the department simply didn't have a structured promotional process – at one point he even corrects the investigators, telling them the correct term for advancement would be "appointment," not "promotion" – and at times, he said he wasn't even the one making hiring and/or promotional decisions.

"I've got bosses. OK?" Lewis tells investigators when questioned about two "recent" hires. "I just do what I'm told. That came from City Hall."

"OK. No reflection on you, but it came from above you to hire these folks?" Forte asks.

"Right," Lewis replied.

Indeed, Lewis' own rise to the top of the Park Police also tracks like an exercise in City Hall-driven appointments. Lewis joined the force in 1984 and worked as a patrol officer until he made sergeant in 1992; while on vacation in 2001, Lewis said, he received an unexpected call from then-outgoing Chief Warren Struss who said he and the incoming chief, Ruben Lopez, had "talked it over" and decided to ask Lewis to become the force's acting lieutenant. "And I'm thinking, 'Whoa,' you know, it completely caught me off guard. 'I don't even know if I'm ready for this,'" Lewis said he told Struss and Lopez, but he decided to take the job and, in February 2002, was officially appointed lieutenant. Just two months later, in April 2002, Lopez was arrested on charges that he'd molested several of his juvenile relatives, and the Park Police were suddenly without a chief. (Lopez was convicted on two counts in 2004 and sentenced to 120 days in jail and seven years probation.)

Former chief of Austin Park Police, Darryl Lewis (l); the 
Struss memo (r) offers insight into a department that could 
use the consistent standards that consolidation might 
Former chief of Austin Park Police, Darryl Lewis (l); the Struss memo (r) offers insight into a department that could use the consistent standards that consolidation might bring.

Then-PARD Director Jesus Olivares called a meeting and appointed Lewis acting chief. "So here again, I'm thrust into a position, I guess, and wasn't quite prepared I don't think," Lewis told investigators. "I knew how to treat people, but I wasn't trying to be Chief." Within months, he said, City Manager Toby Futrell officially offered him the job. He was appointed chief on July 9, 2002.

"I'm shocked, I'm like, 'Oh, no process, no interviews, nothing,'" Lewis said during his IA interview. "I mean, that's quite an accomplishment for me." Lewis said that when he was appointed he knew he didn't know exactly what the job entailed but that he had confidence he could figure it out. "You're not going to have all the answers; you're not going to know all the X's and O's and where they fit in," he said he told himself after his initial appointment. But, he said, he figured by "treating people right" everything else would fall into place.

Just Grew

In some respects, this philosophy of letting things fall into place was behind the original creation of the Park Police – as well as the subsequent creation of the smaller but similar forces, the Airport Police and City Marshals. According to PSEM Director Bruce Mills, the Park Police was created in the late 1960s in response to a growing need for comprehensive police services – everything from the basics, like making sure gates were locked to conducting regular patrols – in area parks and open spaces. The problem, Mills said, was that the APD was already stretched thin and simply didn't have the personnel to take on another specialized division. "So the APD, pushing back, says, 'Get in line, we don't have enough officers for the specialization you're looking for,'" Mills said. In response, the city created park rangers; they wore khaki uniforms, drove cars similar to APD's and carried firearms, but they "stayed around the parks."

Similarly, Austin's Airport Police were created in 1973, in response to federal law (prompted by the relatively new phenomenon of airliner hijackings) that required a police presence at all airports. And later in the Seventies, Mills said, as the APD's fugitive unit began focusing more on higher-level offenders, the City Marshals were created for the task of executing Class C misdemeanor warrants. Each agency took on a similar structure and "grew in the same way," Mills said.

While officers with each of the three auxiliary forces were originally vested only with the power to perform their specialized activities, changes in state law in the Eighties granted the officers full law-enforcement powers and jurisdiction, giving them as much responsibility for law enforcement as their metro APD counterparts. Nonetheless, while they were invested with equal privileges and responsibilities, they remained outsiders – notably, beyond the reach of civil-service law and its protections, and consequently, outside the union-led authority to engage in meet-and-confer bargaining.

In short, the three agencies were essentially stopgap measures, created to fill the spaces APD couldn't fill without a corresponding expansion of the ranks, and over time they became permanent installations. But because the auxiliary forces have been kept outside of APD and beyond civil service and instead have remained under the aegis of other city departments, they are also hostage to bureaucratic whims and vagaries, and subject to ever-changing budgetary constraints. In turn, the ad hoc structure has led to varying standards for supervision and discipline, training requirements, and, notably, to lower pay than their APD counterparts bearing the same legal responsibilities and charged with essentially the same law-enforcement work.

Cost Ineffective?

The 2005 consolidation of the three auxiliary forces into the Mills-led PSEM was designed to bring some consistency and clear oversight and has in fact brought about some broad and positive changes in the three specialized forces – including nearly doubling the amount of training given to Park Police and providing, for the first time, an actual promotional structure for park officers. But it has not ended city discussion about the future of the three departments, and whether further consolidation into APD might be the best way to ensure standardization – of pay, training, command, and discipline, among other factors.

There are, of course, arguments on either side of the consolidation issue. Early opposition came from the Statesman's editorial board, which opined that moving park police within APD would mean an end to a dedicated team of park patrollers. If, indeed, the Park Police – with fewer than 50 officers, including supervisors and chief – were in fact supercops and actually able to patrol all 205 public parks, 172 athletic facilities, 17 recreation centers, three lakes, and 50 miles of hike-and-bike trails spread over more than 16,000 acres citywide, that argument might make some sense. As it stands, however, APD officers answer more than half of all calls coming from Austin's parks. (Coy reported that between July 1 and Dec. 31, 2005, APD responded to 65% of calls for service, though Assistant City Manager Garza insists Park Police respond, on average, to about 50% of all park-related police calls. The difference may be due in part to overlapping responses.)

There has also been institutional resistance to consolidation from the city bureaucracy, which has dragged its heels on providing information on the auxiliary agencies to City Council. That opposition has reportedly diminished in recent weeks, and the current status of the internal discussion should be reflected in the pending feasibility report to council.

On the other hand, consolidation's earliest public ally is the Austin Police Association, whose president, Mike Sheffield, has been standing front and center in favor of a plan to move the three small agencies into the command structure of the APD and to pull the agencies' officers – just over 100 total – into the APA. It's immediately understandable why the APA would support such a move, since it means increasing the size and power of the union. While Sheffield doesn't deny that as a partial motivation, he insists it's not the primary reason he supports consolidation.

Consolidation, he argues, is the only logical way to ensure that all of Austin's law-enforcement officers are well-trained and properly equipped, coordinated, and paid. "I hear people say that somehow these officers are 'less,' that these officers don't perform the equivalent police function that [APD officers] do, and we disagree with that," says Sheffield. Every officer in the city, regardless of department, "has different, specialized tasks they're assigned to perform, and the city has fully vested all police officers with the same rights, privileges, and duties. The city wants that but wants to keep some officers at a 'lower' classification." The reason is clear, he says: money. "The city believes that this is a way to get around civil service, to have officers that you pay substantially less but that you still have as fully vested police officers," he said. "The problem with that is that [it] keeps them as 'less than' APD officers." And, ultimately, he says, you get what you pay for.

From his position, Garza says that it's simply unfair to the Park Police as a whole, and to Lewis in particular, to suggest that the agency is so plagued with problems that could only be fixed by moving the entire department into APD. Last summer's PSEM consolidation was meant to correct the agency's woes, Garza says, to "standardize training and procedures," and while it may have taken a year, he says "We're just now seeing the results" of the consolidation. For example, training for park officers has doubled since last August. And now, Garza continues, "We're getting to the point [we] imagined – a very professional department that can meet client needs" – that is, a police agency that can meet both PARD and citizen-security expectations.

All in all, Garza says that he finds the harangue over consolidation and over the contents of the Lewis file – as they relate to Park Police operations – "a little frustrating." Lewis may not have done everything right all the time, but what people forget, Garza says, are the things Lewis and the agency have done right. Indeed, in 2004 the city won the National Recreation and Park Association's Gold Medal Award for its park system, and "park safety [was] a big part" of the competition. "It's not just by accident" that Austin took the top prize among large cities. To be fair to Lewis and PARD, Garza says, you also have to give "props for the things that were working right." end story

Austin's Other Police Forces

These city of Austin law-enforcement agencies operate under the management of the Public Safety and Emergency Management Department.

Officers / Supervisors (chief, sgts., etc.)

Park Police: 37 / 10

Airport Police: 36 / 10

City Marshals: 10 / 3

Download the Coy Report here.

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police, Darryl Lewis, Austin Park Police, Austin Police Department, APD, Warren Struss, Bruce Mills, Airport Police, City Marshals, Public Safety and Emergency Management Department, PSEM, Ruben Lopez, Mike Sheffield, Rudy Garza, Rick Coy, police consolidation, James Hargett, Internal Affairs, IA, Toby Futrell

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