Police Monitor: What Brown can do

The process is supposedly still open, but Travis Co. prosecutor Cliff Brown looks like a lock for the Police Monitor job

Travis County prosecutor Cliff Brown appears to be the leading candidate.
Travis County prosecutor Cliff Brown appears to be the leading candidate. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Although the final decision remains open, there appears to be one candidate for the job of Austin Police Monitor on whom everyone, from police accountability advocates to representatives of the Austin Police Association, agrees: Travis Co. prosecutor Cliff Brown. Indeed, during a public meet-and-greet session on Oct. 26 at the Palmer Events Center, Brown dazzled the modest crowd of lawyers, police, community activists, and City Hall-ers, with his vision of a police monitor who – if you're not already sitting down, you might want to do so – actually strives to bring people together.

The job of police monitor – a police oversight position that handles public complaints about police conduct, makes recommendations to the APD chief on training and disciplinary issues, and selects particular complaints to forward to the Citizen Review Panel – was created in 2001 as part of the employment contract between the city and its police, represented by the APA, during meet-and-confer bargaining sessions.

Since its inception, the office has often been in the crosshairs; accountability activists have argued that it's toothless, while police have argued that it's biased against officers. The city's first monitor, Iris Jones, a former city attorney, left in 2003 for a job in Washington, D.C.; the second, Ashton Cumberbatch, stayed in the position for a year before announcing last summer that he was leaving to take a job as vice-president for advocacy and community relations with the Seton Healthcare Network. Since then, assistant monitor Susan Hutson, a former Corpus Christi city attorney hired as assistant police monitor in 2004, has served as interim monitor. Now, Hutson, Brown, and former Laredo city attorney Jaime Flores are finalists to become the city's third monitor.

At last week's three 45-minute question-and-answer sessions with each candidate, Brown emerged as the clear crowd favorite. In fact, it seemed the session itself was designed to make him shine. Hutson is certainly qualified but must overcome the general dissatisfaction with the current state of the office – because of, for example, the continuing inability to produce timely reports. (The office is supposed to put out statistical reports every six months but has not done so since 2002 – office defenders blame a lack of database experience and the yearlong absence of a statistician.) Hutson has been placed on the defensive, trying to deflect the impression that she's been ineffective.

Flores spoke last. In addition to his city of Laredo stint, he is also a former assistant state attorney general, but his candidacy seems, frankly, a city manager's office afterthought. He's qualified on paper, but he hardly presented himself as a hearty candidate who could move the office forward and withstand the inevitable public scrutiny. "I'm the guy on the outside who brings 40 years of experience working with the kinds of public [policy] I believe this position calls for," he told the waning late-afternoon crowd.

Between the two bookends stood Brown, who seems made for the job – and perhaps that's the point. In 2002, City Manager Toby Futrell appeared to choose her finalists in order to highlight Iris Jones as the obvious choice. This time it appears that Futrell has repeated herself, choosing three qualified candidates but presenting them to the public so that the golden child is sandwiched between two in need of polish. Flanked with two comparatively dull alternatives, Brown dazzled.

His natural charisma was obvious – he displayed a persona undoubtedly honed while working as a prosecutor and defense attorney in New York City and, since 2000, as a Travis Co. prosecutor. He has spent two years as the "community prosecutor" working with police in the North Central Area Command as a liaison and the go-to guy for neighborhood-dispute resolution, and as a member of NCAC's successful Operation Restore Hope project. He deftly explained his position on the monitor's preferred role – specifically, as a proactive, involved, community educator.

Adroitly balancing officer and community interests, Brown suggested that police and public harbor certain misconceptions of one another, a problem that widens the community "schism [of] a disconnect between police and community." He proposed several proactive solutions – including that police could perhaps use more sensitivity training, possibly by taking closed citizen complaints to the police training academy for use in role-playing activities. On the other hand, he suggested that citizens, particularly teenagers, need a little attitude-adjustment education when interacting with authority figures, explaining, "So, some use-of-force issues are about educating, especially young people, about the behavior." At the same time, Brown said, it's important for officers to understand that baggy jeans and do-rags do not a criminal make – "that's just a style," he said.

In summary, Brown said the job of the police monitor is about "building trust," using that trust to make policy recommendations, and telling truths that people don't always want to hear. He says he wants to build the "kind of trust with the citizens of Austin" that assures people that, no matter the message, they'll know that "what Cliff Brown says is good."

Ultimately, Futrell will decide which candidate to present to the council as her own nominee. If last week's session was any indication, it looks like her decision has already been made.

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police oversight, police, police monitor, Cliff Brown, Jaime Flores, Susan Hutson

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