Austin Police Consider Community Reforms
After a year spent making headlines APD prioritizes policing equity
Close observers of local police data won't be surprised by the findings of the brief published last month by the Center for Policing Equity titled "The Science of Policing Equity: Measuring Fairness in the Austin Police Department." Most of the findings already appeared in March's annual report published by the Office of the Police Monitor, and in OPM reports published in the few years before that. In sum, according to data provided by APD, officers in 2015 pulled over, searched the cars of, or arrested black drivers at a rate disproportionate to that race's demographical representation within the city. And in 2014, officers applied use of force (or its departmental classification, response to resistance) on black residents at a higher rate than they did other races.
Figures fluctuate a great deal month to month, but according to the CPE, blacks are involved in APD instances of use of force roughly three times as often as whites and Hispanics, despite blacks being the least represented of the three races inside the city.
The CPE's brief applies an advanced analysis to both data sets, creating an Officer Discretionary Index (an algebraic equation looking at the proportion of officer-initiated stops of individuals grouped by race compared to citizen-initiated stops of those same racial groups) and a Use-of-Force Severity Rate (a weighted analysis of use-of-force that places more "severity" value on, say, Taser use than weaponless use of hands or feet to pressure points) to show increasing disparities applied to each racial group. Check out the report in full (www.policingequity.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Austin_PDI_Report_2016_Release.pdf) to see those figures.
The brief's five authors – who hail from the Urban Institute, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and New York University – noted that several limitations can be applied to the study's findings. The group concurred with the opinion of Police Monitor Margo Frasier that APD's provided traffic data in particular is imperfect. While the department documents instances in which pedestrians and drivers were stopped but not cited or arrested, APD does not publish that data for public consumption. Both the CPE and OPM have urged APD to begin making that data public, a system APD plans to put in place no later than Jan. 1, according to the department's office of public information.
The group wrote that the use-of-force data revealed a "more consistent picture of disparity."
"Even when controlling for neighborhood levels of crime, education, homeownership, income, youth, and unemployment, racial disparities in both use and severity of force remained. ... While crime, poverty, and other factors contributed to these disparities, controlling for these factors did not eliminate disproportionate use of force in communities with higher percentages of Hispanics and blacks.
"Still, these discrepancies are not direct evidence of racial prejudice. Rather, they suggest that police-level and/or relationship-level explanations of use-of-force incidents are also implicated. In other words, we advise APD to focus on police-level and relationship-level concerns to reduce racially disparate use of force."
Those two levels of CPE's concerns seem to mirror concerns shared by Acevedo and his executive staff. APD received a number of commendations from the CPE, particularly with regard to efforts the department is already taking to improve interactions with detained drivers. Effective Jan. 2017, it notes, APD will begin issuing citations with instructions on how to file complaints on the back. CPE also praised the department for its efforts to get a body camera system in place (though that effort has been held up, in part because of a lawsuit filed by Utility Associates, the Atlanta-based company that lost out on the city's bid for a contract). The brief's authors wrote that APD's leadership on issues of data transparency "signals a willingness to receive criticism and reform in line with the shared values of police and communities," something Acevedo reiterated that week in a Q&A with The Guardian. "We're committed to the concept of procedural justice," Acevedo said. "We're also sophisticated enough to realize that as much as we are always pursuing excellence, that we are an imperfect organization, as is the human condition."
Acevedo also told The Guardian his cops "will not be surprised by the fact that we're participating in this." That's held true, both with union leaders and off-the-record conversations with the rank-and-file. Indeed, APD's partnership with the CPE could be seen as part of a larger departmental effort to face its certain failures.
Audits and Investigations
Six weeks ago, Austin's Office of the City Auditor published an audit of APD that looked at the way the department handles complaints, both internal (officer to officer) and external (from civilians, through the OPM). The audit was conducted as part of the office's FY 2016 strategic audit plan, but became a part of that plan in response to a request from Acevedo, "as well as [a] local and national focus on interactions between police officers and members of the public." There had been 1,200 complaints filed between Oct. 2013 and Dec. 31, 2015, 60% of which (roughly 720) were filed by members of the general public. The audit notes that "a majority of complaints from officers resulted in discipline" – including suspension, training, or written or oral reprimand – whereas "less than 5%" of the 720 citizen-logged complaints ever amounted to official discipline.
In sum, City Auditor Corrie Stokes and staff concluded five different findings with regard to the department's complaint process. The actual process is not easily accessible, the OCA determined; because of that, people may be discouraged from filing. There is not a public record of investigations into potential policy violations, thereby limiting the ability to monitor and report on policy investigations. APD policy makes it difficult to ensure that all complaints are handled with any consistency. Those same policies, auditors found, make it difficult for PM Frasier to provide effective oversight. Finally, the office found that "data reliability issues with the complaint database" make it difficult to analyze complaints of local officers. Stokes and her staff issued seven different recommendations to APD – most notably that Acevedo remind staff of requirements with regard to logging complaints, and that the department revise the complaint classification process "to better allow for analysis and reporting."
APD concurred in large part with the OCA's recommendations, responding in a letter from Manley dated Sept. 27 that it would comply with six of the seven recommendations – the only one the chief rejected concerned the audit's recommendations that he "implement a process to document justifications for discipline."
Two weeks ago, Acevedo went before City Council's Audit & Finance Committee to clarify his intent with regard to the suggestions. He said that the department has changed its policies with respect to complaint logging: "failure to handle a complaint the way that it's required by policy" will result in a suspension lasting at least 15 days on first offense; any second found violations will earn the officer an indefinite suspension. Acevedo also said that the department has changed its video retention standard from 45 days to 181 days, one day longer than the current duration for the statute of limitations for disciplining an officer for a specific incident. One seat to his right, Frasier added that her office will begin working more closely with Internal Affairs on external complaints: Whereas external complaints used to get passed from the OPM to IA for IA's investigators to conclude whether the complaint was founded or unfounded, those investigators will now be tasked with communicating with the OPM early in the investigatory process if they believe that they will find no violation of departmental policy in the allegation brought before them.
Acevedo's initial priority – the one about the need to "handle a complaint the way that it's required by policy" – saw its first case study in early October when the chief handed down suspensions to two supervisors of a Downtown officer, Cameron Caldwell, who was suspended over the summer for a March 17 incident in which he pepper-sprayed a 25-year-old black man who had already been arrested and was at the time detained in the back of a prisoner transport van, readying a trip to central booking. Caldwell's sergeant, Scott Stanfield, received a 30-day suspension and one-rank demotion to corporal/detective after an IA investigation concluded that he'd "failed to complete a thorough review" of Caldwell's use of force. His lieutenant, Allen Hicks, got docked 45 days and received a two-rank demotion (also to corporal/detective) after IA concluded that he, too, overlooked the initial review into Caldwell's pepper-spraying and in fact directed Stanfield not to complete a review of that incident. (Both Stanfield and Hicks were found to have improperly reviewed a number of other instances of use of force. IA found that Hicks often changed title codes on response to resistance incidents without "doing a thorough review of the information available to him," Acevedo wrote in his disciplinary memo.)
The city should see its second high-profile example soon, after IA concludes its investigation into the June 2015 arrest of Breaion King – the violent, widely derided (even by the union) traffic stop-turned-arrest of a black, 26-year-old elementary school teacher by seven-year veteran Bryan Richter. News of King's arrest didn't come to Acevedo's attention until this past July, when the Austin American-Statesman published a story based on the dashboard camera footage of King's unnecessary detainment. Despite the 180-day time frame having already passed, Acevedo opened an investigation into Richter's actions. (He also said he'd look at the police work of assisting officer Patrick Spradlin, who told King on her way to the Downtown jail that "so many people" are "afraid of" black people because of the race's "violent tendencies.") The results of Acevedo's investigation are as yet incomplete. One question that will likely get answered: How did news of Richter's use of force on King not make it to the attention of Acevedo and his executive staff until the incident went to the media? If all incidents of use of force get reviewed by the involved officer's chain of command, how come nobody thought to tell Acevedo or his top allies that something went wrong with Richter and King?
If there's one good thing to come out of the King incident, it's that it got the police union and activists talking with each other. The three-and-a-half hour meeting of department and union heads, church leaders, and young black activists after the Statesman's July release of video from King's arrest has since morphed into more of a regular, informal gathering, in which both sides of "community policing" have spent time explaining to the other why its representative bodies (cops and Austin's minorities) make certain decisions during detainments and interactions.
Those meetings should evolve into a more official city stakeholder roundtable sequence, still in development stages, the result of a directive Council Member Greg Casar attached to City Council's decision to authorize without funding 12 new sworn officer positions at the department. (That is, Council approved adding the 12 positions but did not allocate specific funding for the positions' salaries, benefits, or pensions. APD can fill the 12 positions, but must find the money to do so in its existing budget.) Casar wrote in a letter posted to the Council's online forum in September that he and his colleagues would like to see an earnest effort to incorporate "recommendations made" in two chapters of the community policing-conscious Matrix Report, released late this summer, and "community recommendations" relating to officer training, de-escalation, and principles of proportionate response made by the Austin Justice Coalition earlier this year. Those recommendations include efforts to modernize APD's policy manual, increase public participation in the union's meet-and-confer negotiations with the city, eliminate arrests for non-jailable traffic offenses, and move mental health first response out of APD, something activist groups, as well as the OPM's Citizen Review Panel, has championed in recent months.
The Austin Justice Coalition is fronted by Chas Moore, a charismatic young black activist who's gone from despising Acevedo to commending him as a city leader. The two met during a community forum following the July 2013 fatal shooting of Larry Jackson Jr., in which Moore says he told Acevedo that he could "burn in hell." (Acevedo's recollection is not too different.) The two later made amends, and have since met regularly to discuss race-related issues that pertain to local policing, particularly after the February officer-involved shooting of David Joseph.
"The policy talk started [then]," says Moore. "We looked at that incident as something that's problematic with [APD] training. It was a bad shooting, and that's on [the cop]. But we stepped back and looked at how it happened – started looking at APD training, their response to resistance training. There were some things they could change internally. There was David Joseph and then Breaion King. After that, they realized 'You know what, there are some things that we can change, so let's start working on that.'"
A full list of reforms the AJC are seeking runs in the sidebar to this story. Some read more concrete than others. Together, they serve as a community playbook for creating a more personable and accountable police force, with use-of-force edicts like "sanctity of all life should clearly guide APD's use of force" bumped up next to initiatives to improve force reporting data. The AJC has asked for public participation in meet-and-confer negotiations, a request the city and union have seen before and rebuked.
Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association, said he's appreciated the effort to get union representatives together in meetings with local activists, but has been hesitant to endorse many of the initiatives the AJC has brought forward. "My concern with [citizens having more say in policy-making at the department] is that police chiefs have been policing for several years. There are assistant chiefs. Together, they make policy," he said. "That's why we hire police chiefs. These citizens wanting to have more input have no experience in law enforcement. In my opinion, the more power they get, the more they tend to get in the way of police work."
Moore remains hopeful a few changes could spring loose: "I think the union sees there need to be some changes. I think they recognize the issues. I understand they need to protect their guys. It's an interesting thing: They know the Breaion King thing was bad. I think they think the David Joseph shooting was bad, but they've got to protect their guy. But I've been surprised by the union. Over the past few months [of meetings], I've never heard [Casaday] and Chief agree more." (Though we should reiterate that not all is well in Coplandia, where just last week, after news of Stanfield's and Hicks' suspensions went public, Casaday told the Statesman: "The sooner [Acevedo] finds another job, the better off the department will be.")
AJC's initiatives aren't only about thwarting the power of unions and police contracts, however. Moore speaks to one idea specifically as a method of raising community awareness for the policing profession: diversion programs where people who get speeding tickets and other minor offenses aren't required to pay a ticket. Instead, they can do a ride-along with a patrolling officer. "So they have a better insight of what a cop's 9-to-5 looks like," says Moore.
Acevedo has shown a remarkable interest of late in connecting with black activists, particularly Moore, his AJC co-founder Fatima Mann, and Measure Austin founder Meme Styles. He had rave reviews for the young AJC leader. "Chas Moore ... describes community policing better than anybody in my 30-plus years [in law enforcement]," he told the Chronicle. "He said at a town hall, 'To me, community policing is, if I need the police officers at my house at 3 o'clock in the morning in a stressful, dynamic situation, that [can't be] the first time I've met that police officer.' Community policing is about the police officers knowing the people they protect, and the people they protect knowing the officers on the beat. When you're as lean as we are – and we know we're lean, because we've had several reports now showing that we're hundreds of cops short – you cannot build the time or provide the time to our officers to help build the kind of relationship that Chas Moore described."
Acevedo has been busy pushing for reforms beyond those discussed before the Audit & Finance Committee last Wednesday. In early October, he went before the state Senate's Committee on Criminal Justice to argue for an increase to the statute of limitations for disciplining an officer, an issue brought into effect when Acevedo learned of Richter's forceful arrest of King. State law chapter 143 requires chiefs to discipline offending officers within 180 days of the incident. Acevedo thinks that's appropriate for critical incidents, as he's both immediately aware of them when they happen and would like to provide closure for the community and associated families.
"But what happens when we uncover something that wasn't in a critical incident?" he asked during a conversation in October. "I believe it's in the best interest of the vast majority of police officers who are honorable professionals to have a greater opportunity to weed out bad apples. Outside of a critical incident, we should have an opportunity to act, and it should be extended from 180 days to one year."
Acevedo also enacted a new policy shortly after news of King's arrest went public: The "peer review" practice now stipulates that two commanders – an officer's assigned commander and, now, a second commander from within the department – must review all cases involving use of force. Those reviews must be finalized within 60 days of the incident occurring.
Reforms like extending the disciplinary statute of limitations depend on change at the state Legislature. Most issues raised by AJC will require change at City Hall, where the Austin Police Association is slated to meet with city staff for meet-and-confer negotiations, the six-month collective bargaining period that should begin in January. The current collective bargaining agreement is set to expire Sept. 30, 2017.
Mayor Steve Adler has proposed that the city hold off on beginning collective bargaining with the three public safety unions (APA, the Austin Firefighters Association, and the Austin/Travis County EMS Employee Association) until a new city manager is hired. Says Jason Stanford, the mayor's spokesman: "The next city manager is going to need to live with the contract, so they should have a say in negotiations." Whether or not a one-year hold is placed on the active CBAs is something that should get settled soon. The city needs to meet with representatives from all three unions on a few pressing matters each body has brought up. For police, that in particular includes disciplining issues and the drawn-out saga over body-worn cameras.
Casaday told the Chronicle that he's surprised the city is asking to push meet-and-confer back. "I know that there are some things they want," he said. "There are a lot of things that we want. But I believe that if the pay raise is right for next year that we'll take a good hard look [at extending]. But if Fire, EMS, and Police don't agree to it, we're just going to bargaining. This is not an 'Everybody do your own thing' thing. We'll meet sometime later in the year to sit down and try to hammer it out. The city has its issues. We have ours."