Police Oversight Office Ramps Up Community Complaints Investigations

APD has only suspended one officer over the past year

Interim Police Chief Robin Henderson (photo by Jana Birchum)

After a monthlong hiatus, the city resumed negotiations today, June 6, with the Austin Police Association over a long-term labor contract. The contract will decide how much Austin police officers are paid, and it will settle a few details around police oversight.

That the contract will only be where some oversight details are resolved, rather than where the entire framework is outlined, is a pretty big difference from how city and APA contract negotiations have gone down over the past 20 years. It used to be that the city’s entire system of oversight was established in the contract – a dynamic that placed great power over police accountability in the hands of the police union.

But passage of the Austin Police Oversight Act, the city ordinance outlining a system of civilian police oversight voters overwhelmingly approved one year ago, totally upended that dynamic. Much of the foundation of a robust, transparent police oversight system would be codified in local law and not subject to negotiation in a labor contract – meaning the police union has much less ability to negotiate away certain oversight provisions. The current bargaining period is the first since voters adopted the Oversight Act and, at this point, City Council, City Manager T.C. Broadnax, and his subordinates on the city’s labor relations team have all signaled they intend to honor the will of the voters by negotiating a labor contract that aligns with the Oversight Act.

While that process plays out, the Office of Police Oversight (OPO) – the city agency tasked with conducting police oversight – has recently made strides in establishing the kind of oversight system called for in the Oversight Act. In October, they began conducting “preliminary review” of complaints submitted to the office by community members alleging officer misconduct – something advocates for police oversight have pushed for since the APA successfully blocked OPO from doing them in 2022.

Earlier this year, OPO hired a supervisor to oversee the agency’s complaints division, two complaints investigators, and three complaints specialists. Since then, an OPO spokesperson said via email, the complaints team has established a process where they “independently review every complaint submitted to the office” for potential policy violations, and if one is discovered, they “initiate a preliminary investigation” of the complaint. That includes conducting detailed interviews with the complainant and witnesses about the allegation and collecting evidence to support the allegation.

“The gap in complaints to review still speaks to an OPO that is not following up on all complaints in accordance with the law.”  – Chris Harris, president of Equity Action

Evidence collection is possible because OPO has finally been granted “direct and unfettered access” to the APD databases where use-of-force data, body-worn and dash camera video footage, and various other investigative records are stored, the spokesperson said. OPO had been denied that access for years, and it’s a level of independent authority police oversight advocates have identified as key to establishing a robust, thorough system of civilian oversight.

Available data on how the recent policy changes at OPO have affected the agency’s work don’t paint a clear picture. Data shared at the February meeting of the Police Oversight Implementation Workgroup shows OPO was contacted by community members 208 times between October and December; 180 contacts were complaints against officers and 23 were commendations (praise).

OPO had not reviewed more than 30% of complaints filed over the three-month period, though in prior years, OPO would conduct preliminary investigations for all complaints. The spokesperson said this is because “complaints are preliminary reviewed on a rolling basis,” so the number of complaints OPO receives in one month may not match the number of complaints reviewed in the same month. City holidays also played a role, the spokesperson said.

Only six complaints were referred to the Austin Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division for full investigation over the three-month period the data covers. In 2021, civilian investigators referred 18 complaints per month to APD for investigation (that year, OPO also received about double the number of contacts from community members per month).

Ultimately, it’s APD that determines if complaints should be fully investigated; in the first three months of 2024, they investigated all complaints OPO forwarded to them. Since January, the spokesperson said, OPO has offered six recommendations on discipline to Robin Henderson, Austin’s interim police chief. It is unclear if Henderson has acted on any of them – since she was appointed interim chief on Aug. 31, Henderson has only suspended one officer (former APD Chief Joseph Chacon suspended 10 officers during the first eight months of his tenure as interim chief).

Chris Harris, president of Equity Action, the justice advocacy organization that wrote the Oversight Act, said the numbers appear to show the city is failing to ensure the system of robust police oversight voters demanded is in place. “The gap in complaints to review still speaks to an OPO that is not following up on all complaints in accordance with the law,” Harris said of the explanation for the disparity offered by OPO.

Bringing a “civilian’s eye” to every such complaint is vital to the core function of OPO, Harris said. For one, it ensures community members concerned about officer misconduct are heard and that actual policy violations are corrected – but thoroughly investigating all complaints can also better position OPO to recommend policy changes to APD aimed at improving how officers interact with the community.

OPO is expected to present new data on complaints and investigations at the next meeting of the Police Oversight Implementation Workgroup, scheduled for June 13.

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