Point Austin: The Monitor Comes Knocking

Frasier-Acevedo exchange confirms value of police oversight

Point Austin
I'm not sure what the fuss is about over Police Monitor Margo Frasier's review memorandum to Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo concerning an officer-involved shooting last fall, nor over Acevedo's response to Frasier's memo. Both documents came to light last week (maybe that's one oddity – it took six weeks for the chief to respond to the monitor's April 1 memo), and the Statesman gave the exchange a front-page banner headline in the print edition: "Monitor knocks police," and suggested it means a "new level of scrutiny" of APD by the Office of the Police Monitor.

Maybe so – but if this review constitutes "strong criticism" (or "second-guessing beyond reasonableness," as Austin Police Association President Wayne Vincent told the Statesman) from the mostly toothless OPM, it says more about Austin's low standards of police oversight than it does about either what happened in the shooting incident or Frasier's supposedly tough review. Reading both her memo and the chief's May 16 response, it appears instead that the review proceeded pretty much as such things should. Frasier commented on the overall incident, including the 911-call response, the police reaction, the chase, the apprehension, and the shooting; Acevedo responded with his own, somewhat less critical version of what happened, and everybody agreed, in Acevedo's words: "Any incident, even one that saved lives and resulted in no harm to innocent persons or police officers, can provide the basis for improvement of our response."

Indeed, the police officers who responded that night, Sept. 25, 2010, to a threatening-man-with-gun call performed professionally and well. Frasier puts it flatly that Cpl. Javier Bustos, who pursued, shot, and wounded Pat Faith (who then killed himself), "acted in compliance with APD policy." Acevedo (perhaps a little miffed that Frasier doesn't indulge in conventional superlatives) is more effusive, saying Bustos showed "remarkable judgment and courage" and that the actions of a "myriad" APD staff "saved one or more innocent lives." On Wednesday, Bustos received the APD Medal of Valor.

Okay, chief, bravo.

But that's not the point of Frasier's memo.

B-Movie Melodrama

Frasier's express task is to identify those things, as the chief acknowledges, that "can provide the basis for improvement." The chase-and-shooting was of the sort that is a magnet for TV news, one that young cops tend to relish but veterans treat with extreme caution. At their first knowledge of the situation (distraught ex-boyfriend brandishing and shooting a gun), responding officers learned that they might be encountering a potential "suicide by cop" – an impression quickly confirmed when they arrived at the house. Faith released his ex-girlfriend, but told cops they "would have to kill him" and began leading them on what became a 45-minute, high-speed chase. (Faith would turn back or slow down when he thought he was losing the pursuing officers.)

In the middle of a Friday night/Saturday morning, officers tracked Faith by vehicle and helicopter; they were eventually able to slow him by use of a "stinger" tire-deflating device; and only when he stopped (after going the wrong way on Ben White near River­side) and pointed his guns at another driver did Bustos shoot him, in the shoulder. Faith fell, and then shot himself to death.

Frasier recounts the episode in detail and questions whether the stinger could have been deployed sooner (Acevedo says no), whether too many cops were "shadowing" the chase (Acevedo disagrees), and whether too many (about 20) directly approached the shooting scene (since they had to be warned against cross fire, that seems quite likely). There are arguments on both sides of this divide, and Frasier's broad and reasonable recommendation is that all these things be reviewed by APD for future adjustment and training.

Nobody mentions it at all, but the entire episode rests on the dubious Texas premise that it's a good thing to have a handgun readily available at all times. Faith reportedly had two, which he repeatedly fired in the air, apparently hoping to provoke the officers into killing him.

Leave a Message

The most troublesome failure, in fact, was not directly a police-response issue – instead, it was the clumsy handling of the 911 phone calls, initially from the ex-girlfriend (who was first directed to EMS instead of APD) and then from Faith himself during the chase. He wanted to talk to the girlfriend (a potential negotiating chip) but instead kept getting directed to other operators repeating the same questions, or even to voice mail. Indeed, that section of Frasier's memo reads like an inadvertent draft of a Saturday Night Live sketch: "This was so even after Faith had called several times. ... [T]ime and time again, Faith was transferred from one person to another and asked the same questions." One can only hope one of the questions wasn't "Is this the person to whom I am speaking?" Frasier remarks drily, "Faith's tone [on the tape] ... reflected his increasing frustration." (On that one score, we've all been there.) There's an undeniable though unmeasurable possibility that if his ex-girlfriend or a police negotiator had managed to speak with him, Faith might have been talked down, and no one else's life would have been endangered. That 911 call-response process definitely needs fixing.

It seems clear, however, that Faith had decided to die, but either he could not work up the courage to do it himself, or else he wanted his death to be particularly melodramatic. He did everything he could to force the officers to shoot him, and they held their fire until Faith, by threatening others, left them no choice. Under the circumstances, Frasier's judgment – "The officers ... demonstrated great restraint" – seems flatly accurate, and Bustos deserves his medal. The police monitor's review appears to have been thorough, attentive to detail, and quite useful. In his response, Acevedo gets his back up a little, and perhaps spends more time posturing than necessary – but even he grudgingly acknowledges the need for improvement, especially in emergency communications: "a refresher on the importance of obtaining and relaying vital information to the parties who need it, in the most efficient manner possible."

Of course, that's what the entire police oversight process is all about – relaying vital information to the parties who need it, including the public. Congratulations to Cpl. Bustos, the APD, and Police Monitor Frasier.

Posted here is the correspondence between Police Monitor Margo Frasier and Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo concerning the "critical incident" that ended in the death of Pat Allen Faith, Sept. 25, 2011.

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Office of the Police Monitor, Margo Frasier, Art Acevedo, Austin Police Department, Wayne Vincent, Austin Police Association, Javier Bustos

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