Point Austin: Muffling the Monitor

Frasier's reviews send salutary ripples through the APD pond

Point Austin
As they say in paramilitary circles, Police Monitor Margo Frasier has certainly hit the ground running. Starting in January, she's already managed to ruffle feathers at City Hall, the Austin Police Department, and the Austin Police Association. When she was selected by City Manager Marc Ott, there was some grumbling that, as a former Travis County Sheriff, she might be perceived as too close to the police to be an objective observer.

So far, that ain't a problem.

Instead, with a series of no-nonsense reviews of recent APD actions, Frasier has gotten crossways with both APD Chief Art Acevedo and APA President Wayne Vincent; partly as a consequence, Acevedo and Vincent have exchanged harsh words, and in the bargain, Vincent and his Vice President Mike Bowen have had a falling-out over the most effective way to respond to what they see as Frasier's biting off more of the police union contract than they think she should be allowed to chew.

All in all, not a bad five months' work.

I've written earlier about one of Frasier's reviews – of the Pat Faith police chase and shooting – and Acevedo's somewhat argumentative response

(see "The Monitor Comes Knocking," May 27). Acevedo says now that was more a media-created controversy than a real one. "She gave an opinion," he told me, "and we responded on points we agree, and on points where we may have a different take." Indeed, it seems the process worked pretty much as it is designed to, and may well result in improved policy and training.

More recently, Frasier submitted to the chief recommendations for discipline in the notorious SWAT incident, when a drunken officer crashed his vehicle and it subsequently turned out he had come from a party with other on-call officers who were also drinking. Acevedo terminated the driver and suspended other officers, but Frasier – while expressly acknowledging that "discipline is solely within [the chief's] purview" – recommended harsher discipline for the officers involved, aiming to discourage what she saw as the APD's insufficient discouragement of a "culture ... that seemingly condones" drinking among on-call officers.

Drop That Finger

In the aftermath, the official dispute has become less about Frasier's specific recommendations than about whether she had the right to make any recommendations at all under the terms of the police union contract that created the Office of the Police Monitor and the Citizen Review Panel. Tangentially, Vin­cent and Acevedo have exchanged angry charges that each is meddling in the other's business, while Vincent told members that union VP Bowen was undermining the union by talking to Frasier (and the media) and preparing to file a contract grievance against the OPM without first getting approval from Vincent.

It's the union's position that the contract allows the monitor to make recommendations only concerning "critical incidents" (involving death or serious injury) and then only through the CRP – the SWAT incident apparently wouldn't qualify. But the contract isn't entirely explicit on the monitor's limitations, and Frasier (following advice from city attorneys) says she believes she's acting within the job's parameters. "I feel very confident," she told me, "that the monitor can make recommendations" in these circumstances.

The union disagrees, and Bowen has filed a grievance, now making its way through the process. But Vincent bristled that Bowen had apparently acted without his express approval, and (in a letter to members) blamed Acevedo, saying, "We certainly have enough on our plate without having to perform every political errand in the manner that is dictated by the Chief." Acevedo responded with a letter to all APD personnel, saying he had simply done his job by informing union officials (including Vincent) of Frasier's memo and subsequent media inquiries, adding, "Clearly, I do not need anybody to carry my or the Department's water at city hall or in any political arena and I am disappointed that an attempt to protect the rights of departmental employees would be characterized as such." Acevedo wrote that he does believe Frasier "may have exceeded the scope of [the OPM's] authority," but told me that he didn't solicit a grievance from anybody, and that the contract dispute is a matter to be settled between "the APA, the city manager, and the city."

Words to the Wise

Publicly at least, everybody says they're now on the same page, including Frasier, who told me that she's content to abide by whatever is finally decided on the contract – "We all need to know what are the rules that I should apply." Bowen says if the grievance is rejected, the next contract negotiations should clarify the matter, and as to any disputes within the union, he's taking "the high road" and following the defined process. Vincent concurred, adding that while he thought the initial dispute was handled "too quickly and too publicly" (his letter to members takes several shots at the media), the grievance process is now proceeding as it should.

It's no coincidence that we're entering union election season and that Bowen has been suggested as a potential challenger to Vincent. Bowen told me only he's happy with the job he already has. (I suspect we haven't heard the end of that part of the story.)

It's the union's position, as Vincent put it, that you can't have "two chiefs deciding policy," and that Frasier airing her thoughts on discipline risks not just violating the contract but also exposing the city to broader legal liabilities – one should only expect the union to defend its reading of the contract. It's also understandable that the chief finds it dismaying when somebody disagrees with him; most of us do.

But whatever else happens, it would be a loss to the city if the result determines that Frasier must pull in her horns and issue recommendations only indirectly, buffered by a citizens' panel whose opinions on these matters are important and substantive but finally untrained. Thus far her review memos have been attentive, thoroughly researched, and undoubtedly helpful to anybody in an APD policy position sufficiently willing to listen. Her opinions don't have the force of law, but they should certainly be allowed the force of persuasion.

It would be a shame to lose them.

Wayne Vincent's letter to APA members and Art Acevedo's letter to APD staff are posted here.

Follow Point Austin at twitter.com/PointAustin.

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police monitor, Margo Frasier, Austin Police, Art Acevedo

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