OPM Report: Probable Cause for Concern

Latest report on police complaints reflects a troubling increase

Police Monitor Margo Frasier
Police Monitor Margo Frasier (Photo by Jana Birchum)

If the current trend continues, the number of Austin police misconduct complaints filed in 2013 will rise for the first time in three years, according to a mid-year update released last week by the city's Office of the Police Monitor.

Between Jan. 1 and June 30, 315 total complaints concerning police misconduct were filed with the office, headed by former Travis County Sheriff Margo Frasier. Of those, 126 complaints – 40% of the total – were filed by other police officers; 189 were filed by members of the public. The complaints include 430 allegations of misconduct, reads the report posted to the OPM website.

As usual, the majority of allegations raised by members of the public involve "code of conduct" issues – including rudeness and complaints about "impartial attitude" – and, also more often the case than not, the highest number of complaints have been filed about officers working in the APD's Downtown Area Command. A total of 82 complaints involve DTAC officers; interestingly, the majority of those, 62%, were internal complaints filed by other officers. The second largest number of complaints comes out of Southeast Austin, where complaints filed by members of the public make up 76% of the 66 complaints filed so far, followed by Central East Austin, where 61% of the 56 complaints were lodged by civilians.

While the office did not file a mid-year 2012 report against which to compare directly the 2013 numbers, in all of 2012 just 586 complaints were filed, which was itself a 3% decrease from the number filed the year before.

Also posted last week was the office's year-end 2012 report, which reflects a continuation of questions about who police officers stop, who they search, and under what circumstances. While the total number of traffic stops conducted by police in 2012 decreased more than 17% – for a total of 149,000 stops last year – the number of vehicle searches actually increased, by 8%, for a total of 12,653 searches. And, as has become uncomfortably typical, African-American drivers are disproportionately more likely than other racial groups to be stopped or searched.

While the number of "consent searches," in which an officer simply requests permission to search a vehicle (a privilege that department critics have long asserted is too easily transformed into a tool for racial profiling) have decreased, Frasier said she is now concerned about statistics connected to "probable cause" searches. In those searches, officers are supposed to have information that would more likely than not result in the discovery of contraband or other evidence of criminal conduct. With APD, however, it appears that is not happening: While probable cause searches make up roughly 43% of all searches, the "hit rate" is quite low, with no contraband found in 66% of all probable cause searches.

The 2012 report therefore includes a recommendation that APD should retrain officers on "what constitutes probable cause," and that the department should determine if there are "regions, areas, shifts, assignments, and/or officers who are contributing disproportionately to the low hit rate," reads the report. "If so, additional training and supervision should be required."

Frasier says she'd like to know more about what's going on behind the numbers. "One possibility is that they don't understand the concept of probable cause, or that the basis for their [supposed] probable cause is made up," she said. "I would hope it's not the second one."

Download the 2013 interim report of the Office of the Police Monitor, and the 2012 year-end report.

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Austin Police Department, racial profiling, consent searches, Office of the Police Monitor, Margo Frasier

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