Point Austin: Read It and Weep
The suppressed KeyPoint report raises questions that still need answering
One young man is dead, another was severely wounded, and two Austin Police officers have apparently had their careers ruined, with a few more under a lingering cloud. And now, we find out, we're not supposed to talk about it, or to get to the bottom of what went wrong.
City legal thinks that would be a bad idea.
That's the most alarming reverberation of the latest Austin Police Department episode, in which the APD and the city have hunkered down behind their own legal maneuvers to prevent further discussion of the KeyPoint consultants' report on the May 2009 police shooting of Nathaniel Sanders II. The gist of the previously redacted report became public Friday, when Jordan Smith broke the story on the Chronicle's website, followed shortly by the Statesman's Tony Plohetski and then his Saturday front-page story. We've since posted online our full transcript of the available redacted sections, together with the previously released version and highlighted selections in this issue. We invite readers to review all this material and come to their own conclusions.
At that point, you'll likely be better informed than the City Council and city manager, who've been hiding behind their hands like children at a scary movie. City officials are claiming, absurdly, that they themselves can't read the full report because it's effectively a personnel file addressing confidential matters – even though they commissioned the report, at the sensible instigation of the police monitor and the Citizen Review Panel, to get an independent perspective on the shooting. That's in fact what they got – and they liked it so well that they've spent the last several months fighting to keep its substantive conclusions secret, soliciting opinions from the state attorney general, a state district court, and now federal Judge Sam Sparks that they aren't required to release the full report – a notion they have turned on its head by insisting they are forbidden to do so.
Perhaps the most hypocritical detail is that the APD memo attempting to refute portions of the KeyPoint report, authored by Assistant Chief David Carter last October, is publicly available – but we're not supposed to consider, or even know, the original KeyPoint arguments.
Nothing to See Here
You don't have to agree with the KeyPoint report's conclusions to know that the city's position is baloney, and thanks to an anonymous source or sources – we don't know who – you can read for yourself what the fuss is all about. While it's arguable that the city could have withheld the details of the officers' previous disciplinary files (where allegations were not sustained for discipline), withholding the report's general – and blistering – conclusions about the Sanders shooting incident itself is inexcusable and stretches the intentions of civil service law beyond all reason. An Internal Affairs commanding officer, the Citizen Review Panel, and the KeyPoint investigators (to different degrees) all disagreed with the minor discipline meted out to Officer Leonardo Quintana, and yet none of those disagreements are subject to public discussion. Chief Art Acevedo disposes, and both city officials and Austin citizens are expected to nod in agreement and move on.
Now that most of the report is effectively public, we don't have to agree or to let the matter drop – and city officials certainly should not.
An Event in Time
In reconsidering the shooting episode, most commenters understandably tend to focus on the very final moments, when Quintana spotted a gun in Sanders' waistband and, after a brief struggle, retreated and began firing, killing Sanders and then wounding Sir Smith. The most important perspective added by the availability of the full KeyPoint report is its detailed recounting of the entire episode in what it calls "three frames of analysis," or in brief: preparation, planning, and actual contact. Quintana and the other officers knew they had trapped and were approaching people who were likely armed and dangerous; yet they did little to prepare themselves with information or backup, they neglected to take even a few minutes to coordinate their approach (leaving all three officers in harm's way when the shooting started), and Quintana in particular accosted the potentially armed Sanders as though he were simply rousting a sleeping drunk. The shooting itself was a panicked reaction – which the report criticizes directly – but the shooting occurred, the report argues, because the officers' negligence created the conditions for it.
It is all these "frames" considered together that lead the KeyPoint investigators to come to the harshly critical conclusions they do, judging all three officers as failing to proceed tactically as they had been trained to do and specifically concluding that Quintana's actions were sufficiently reckless to approach criminal negligence. "The three frames of analysis of this incident that form the foundation of Officer Quintana's decision to use deadly force," reads the report, "reveals that Officer Quintana actually had a significant amount of time to know, understand and process the information prior to his decision to use deadly force. This is not a situation where an officer was suddenly confronted with a life and death decision, but rather an event that evolved over time."
The report's final conclusion is even more absolute. "Ultimately it is our finding that significant tactical errors that rose to the level of recklessness were made by the involved officers, and that but for this recklessness the use of deadly physical force might very well have been avoided. ... [I]t was ultimately the reckless tactics employed by Officer Quintana in the first place that directly led to his use of deadly force and ultimately the taking of the life of one individual and seriously wounding of another."
Reasonable people can certainly disagree about the report's findings – or about similar findings by IA Cmdr. Johnson or the Citizen Review Panel – but they should not do so in a vacuum, without actually knowing what the KeyPoint investigators concluded and why. Had the report's conclusions been made available last fall, we could have had this public discussion and Acevedo might have still come to the same decision. But he could not – and should not – have done so without first articulating precisely why he disagreed so completely with the careful and coherent analysis provided by the KeyPoint investigators, relying instead on a "split-second decision" analysis that fails to account for everything that led up to the unnecessary shooting of Nate Sanders and Sir Smith, and its tragic aftermath.