Point Austin: Watching the Watchers

City nears a crucial choice for the next police monitor

Point Austin
Anybody want to monitor the police?

You might think such a thankless task – no matter what you do, you'll be wrong – would go begging, but 66 hopefuls applied to replace current Police Monitor Cliff Brown, who is about to ascend to a district judgeship. The list has been winnowed to four, and their joint public unveiling was held in two sessions at the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex Tuesday afternoon and evening. Jordan Smith examines the candidates' particular bona fides in more detail this week on the Newsdesk blog, allowing me to assume the view from 30,000 feet and discuss the issues that have traditionally dogged the Office of the Police Monitor, or that arose in Tuesday's discussions.

1) While the crowd wasn't enormous – perhaps 50 people attended the early afternoon session – it was an engaged group genuinely interested in the position and the office.

2) Questions generally encouraged the candidates to try to strengthen the OPM, perhaps in the direction of subpoena power – the ability to mandate officer testimony and Internal Affairs evidence. (Ann del Llano said she would push to get subpoena power; current Assistant Monitor Renita Sanders said that thus far the relationship with the police department has been cooperative, and a push for subpoena power might well create a more adversarial situation.)

3) There was some public sentiment that the OPM has been little more than a "toothless tiger" or public relations office – mainly from people who believe that the city doesn't come down hard enough on misbehaving cops. (A different audience, or even a different venue, might well have produced quite the opposite sentiment. The public is audibly polarized on police issues.)

4) There was a curious thread in the discussion holding that previous law enforcement experience would somehow create the perception of a monitor unfairly biased toward police (candidates Margo Frasier and Cristina Beamud have spent some time as officers). If the candidates' experiences were limited solely to time spent on the force, I might agree, but as that's not the case, I didn't follow this objection. Any candidate might be biased, and it's arguable that a monitor with police experience might well do better at establishing public credibility as well as necessary buy-in from officers. The wider the candidate's previous experience, the better.

5) A few people suggested that the OPM or the Citizen Review Panel might somehow be invested with direct disciplinary powers, presumably to remove the process from the APD itself, although the closest model anybody could think of was the Los Angeles Police Commission, a rather different beast that oversees the entire LAPD on policy matters (much like the Austin City Council's relation to the city manager). Whatever the advisability of a move in that direction, it would likely collide directly with Texas civil service law.

A Range of Experience

Those were some of the issues that came up repeatedly in the discussions, admittedly in fairly accelerated meet-and-greets that could then be supplemented by breakout discussions or mingling with the candidates. Some additional quick impressions:

1) All four candidates seem fully qualified and highly personable – a necessity in the job – and all have law degrees, although they bring very different strengths. Frasier and Sanders both have hands-on, related local experience, Frasier as Travis Co. sheriff, and Sanders as the current assistant monitor; del Llano has been working on police-related issues (city and state) from an activist perspective for many years; Beamud, the only out-of-towner, is currently the executive director of the Atlanta Citizen Review Board and previously established a police monitor's office in Eugene, Ore.

2) The list is unusual in that all four finalists are women – duly noted.

3) Unsurprisingly, Frasier and Beamud consider their previous police experience an advantage; del Llano said that while such experience shouldn't "disqualify" a candidate, she believes it creates a "conflict of interest" akin to a lawyer advocating for both sides in a legal dispute. That opinion, however, seems to presume that the monitor is representing the public against the police, which is not the job description.

4) Everybody agreed that "public outreach" is crucial to the effectiveness of the office, although there was disagreement over OPM's success at that task thus far. All four candidates say they are determined to expand the public presence of the OPM by whatever means possible.

What Next?

The perennially vexed question is how much power the monitor and the CRP should have – some police advocates still grumble that they exist at all, while others describe them as "toothless" and insist the process will work only if the OPM becomes an independent body with investigatory or even enforcement powers. Frankly, good cops welcome public oversight, not only because it's right, but because it invariably reinforces officers' community relationships. On the other hand, critics tend to overstate the weakness of the office, both in theory – it has definitely altered the dynamic of institutional police review – and in fact: If it did not exist, the independent, highly critical, and indispensable KeyPoint investigation of the Nathaniel Sanders shooting would never have happened at all.

Others blame the police union for blocking or overturning APD discipline (supposedly making the OPM irrelevant), but those instances have been as much a consequence of departmental bungling (e.g., in the Leonar­do Quintana case) or eventual conflicts with state civil service law. Some people who other­wise bristle at "law and order" politics suddenly become hanging juries when it comes to police officers. Cops are workers and public employees with due process rights, too; undermining those rights on flashpoint cases hardly helps the rest of us in the long run.

I would hope that whichever of these four candidates wins the appointment, she will retain (as Cliff Brown did) sufficient local political stroke to be able to sustain the office's credibility as well as to face down attacks over controversial cases. On that standard, Frasier likely ranks first, followed by Beamud, Sanders, and then del Llano (a long shot politically in any case, although it's a credit to City Manager Marc Ott that he included her among the finalists). The OPM has grown up under Brown's tenure; his successor needs to maintain the momentum and build upon it so that a strong public role in police oversight becomes uncontroversial business as usual.

For more, see Jordan Smith's "Choose Your Monitor: The Four Finalists" at austinchronicle.com/newsdesk.

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Office of the Police Monitor, Cliff Brown, Margo Frasier, Cristina Beamud, Ann del Llano, Renita Sanders

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