APD to Collect More Data
Decision a result of Police Monitor's 2014 report
The Austin Police Department will begin tracking data on instances in which an officer pulls a driver over and conducts a vehicle search that doesn't result in an arrest or citation, as well as instances in which an officer stops a pedestrian and conducts a search for contraband, according to a presentation from Assistant Chief Brian Manley at the Monday meeting of the Public Safety Commission. Prior to this year, APD didn't collect that data, as it's not required by the State Code of Criminal Procedure's policy on racial profiling.
Manley mentioned the department's plans to change its policy during the commission's review of the Office of the Police Monitor's 2014 report, which was published last month. The revelation came as Manley discussed APD's perspective on the list of recommendations made by the Police Monitor Margo Frasier and her office (see "Disproportionate Force," March 11). Manley and Frasier both spoke to the recommendations as part of an action item introduced by Public Safety Commissioner Rebecca Webber.
Manley didn't provide much detail, saying only that the department agrees with the recommendation and has tasked its research and planning team to develop a process for future implementation. But it comes as a welcome development. Conversations about the release of the OPM report have centered on concerns about racial profiling during traffic stops and pedestrian stop-and-searches. Though comprising only 7.5% of the city's population, the report notes, blacks account for 12% of traffic stops and 24% of all stop-and-searches.
At Monday's meeting, as well as at the March 28 Public Safety Committee meeting, Manley argued that the racial disparities are due to the fact that policing tends to center on areas where crime clusters, and that crime tends to cluster in areas that are low-income – and often populated by minorities. He also noted that in 2015, APD found contraband in automobiles during traffic stops involving black drivers at a rate of 35% – much higher than the national average of 3%, which would indicate APD's searches are justifiable and not the result of racial profiling, he argued.
Elsewhere on the OPM's recommendation checklist, Manley contended that APD already has a program in place to routinely audit dashcam footage of traffic stops, and said the department is working to figure out a way to better avoid classifying formal complaints as "Ds," the designation used to denote that preliminary investigations into a complaint show the allegation to be untrue (thus preventing any chance of a more thorough investigation). Manley also contested the OPM's assertion that the number of external allegations against APD for officer deployment of response-to-resistance "seems low," saying that the department adheres to a liberal definition of response-to-resistance that in many cases does not involve a substantial application of physical force.
The commission originally intended to vote at the April 4 meeting on whether to submit a recommendation that City Council consider the policy changes, but ultimately decided to punt the vote to next month – May 2 – so that Webber and longtime Commissioner Mike Levy will have a chance to refine the language of the recommendation. Chief among Levy's concerns (for both this year's report and future versions) is the inclusion of certain recommendations for benchmarking the OPM's gathered data, reasonable advice considering how stat-heavy the 94-page report reads. Levy asked that the commission recommend that future reports provide benchmarking against other cities as well as Austin in years past, and add identity-specific context to officers involved in described complaints. He also recommended that Council commend APD for making improvements on racial profiling.
Speaking Monday, Webber acknowledged that APD has made improvements in that regard, yet stressed that there remains room for improvement. "The fact is that black people in Austin have a 1 in 6 chance [of being stop-and-searched] and Hispanics/Latinos have a 1 in 9 chance while white people in Austin have a 1 in 22 chance," she said. "My resolution was focused on ways APD can continue to improve transparency and trust from the community and I will work with Commissioner Levy to ensure that the resolution we present to the full commission next month also recognizes how far we have come."
Webber – who also serves on the OPM's Citizen Review Panel and at Monday's meeting was named the next chair of the commission (effective May 2) – acknowledged that she's looking forward to preparing a written recommendation proposal for her fellow commissioners. She said the commission – an 11-person board comprised of volunteering civilians – can sometimes lose sight of its objectives as commissioners try to fit the civic endeavor into their personal and professional lives. To that point, Webber said, she's hoping that a renewed focus on working groups meeting between scheduled hearing dates will help ensure that each commissioner's interests are heard – not just in the commission's monthly meetings, but also by City Council.
"On a few key issues, the commission has been really effective. Like the wildland fire issue is coming to mind, and the 9-1-1 call center. The infrequent times that the commission has taken an issue and gone to bat for that, they've really been effective. The issue is that there hasn't been enough of that. I'm hoping, moving forward, that we can work together to be more effective. Send more to Council, because we haven't sent a lot," she said. "One problem in the past is that we're trying to hash out the language of a recommendation to Council during the meeting. It would be way more productive if there was a working group that would draft language, bring it to the commission, get a comment, take it back and rewrite it, then bring it back at the next session and pass it. I'm hoping that's what Mike [Levy] and I will do with this draft regarding racial profiling."