Responding to what they call an insufficient review of the violent arrest of Breaion King, Austin police officials have begun a new level of oversight into use-of-force incidents in what officials said likely is the first step in a broader overhaul.
Under a new “peer review” practice, an officer’s assigned supervisory chain will continue evaluating the lowest level of force encounters, such as the use of hand-to-hand combat and pepper spray. But effective immediately, a separate commander must also sign off on what happened.
The Police Department also has set deadlines for the reviews, saying they must finalize them within 60 days to ensure department officials can impose possible discipline before a state-mandated 180-day deadline.
Bryan Richter, the officer who arrested King, is seen on video throwing her to the ground twice during a stop for speeding after he said she refused to comply with his commands — a case that received national attention after the American-Statesman obtained the video last month. Had the new policy been in place, the matter would have received additional scrutiny outside his supervisors.
As King was being driven to jail, a separate police video recorded a conversation between King and officer Patrick Spradlin in which he said whites might be concerned about interacting with blacks because they have “violent tendencies.”
Richter’s supervisors imposed the most minor discipline at the time — Spradlin’s comments had gone undetected — and officials have said they were disappointed the case wasn’t elevated to top department brass. The added peer review will help ensure that happens, said department officials, who only learned about the King incident after the Statesman’s inquiries last month.
“Not only are we building accountability in our organization, we are building transparency and trust in our community,” Assistant Police Chief Troy Gay said Wednesday. He said officials are still evaluating other possibilities to strengthen its review of use of force incidents, which happen in about 2,000 of the department’s 50,000 annual arrests.
The policy shift comes as officials are still conducting an internal review of Richter’s actions and how his supervisors reviewed the matter.
As part of that inquiry, they are looking into Richter’s previous force reports, including those from the time around his clash with King.
Documents obtained by the Statesman show that in June 2015 Richter was involved in at least three incidents in which he used force in response to resistance.
One of the incidents was a week before the King arrest and the other was two weeks after. The revelation of those incidents bolstered activists who have said Richter’s history of use of force should have merited earlier, more thorough scrutiny from his supervisors.
“When you’ve got officers that have repeated occurrences, that’s an early warning,” said Nelson Linder, president of the Austin NAACP.
In the first incident, on June 8, 2015, Richter used a takedown move on a man suspected of assaulting a woman on East Riverside Drive. In an email describing the report, Richter wrote that the suspect initially complied with a request to turn off his engine but then began walking at a fast pace toward him and didn’t comply with Richter’s command to turn around and place his hands behind his back.
During the takedown, the man’s left shoulder and right side of his face hit the pavement.
Two weeks after the King incident, Richter used a takedown on a homeless man who was threatening staff at a Church’s Chicken on East Riverside. The homeless man had been arrested and handcuffed without incident but began resisting when Richter tried to put him in the patrol car. As the man tried to pull away, Richter tackled him, resulting in the man’s chest and face hitting the ground.
A week and a half after the incident with the homeless man, Richter sent an email asking to be enrolled in an “Arrest and Control Class.”
A Police Department spokeswoman said that three incidents of response to resistance wouldn’t activate the department’s computerized system to alert for use of force or racial bias.
One of Richter’s former sergeants has come to Richter’s defense, according to documents obtained by the Statesman.
A day after the Statesman published the initial story about the King incident, a sergeant who supervised him wrote an email to the commander in charge of Richter’s patrol area, which included a 2013 analysis of Richter’s performance compared to five other officers who had graduated in the same police academy class and were assigned to the same patrol area.
That analysis showed that Richter’s use of force incidents per arrest were near the average for that peer group at 10 percent. The average for the group was 9.3 percent and one officer, who wasn’t Richter, had a rate of 17.5 percent.
The sergeant wrote that he wasn’t directed to write the email but felt there was a perception among the chain of command “that Richter had too many RTR’s (responses to resistance) and was perhaps a loose cannon.”
“I personally found, as I have previously indicated on his annual evaluations, that he was an excellent officer who had so many RTR’s, pursuits, etc., due simply to the volume of work he had,” the sergeant wrote.
In the 2013 analysis, the sergeant wrote that Richter was responding positively to the feedback and had said he “understood the danger of ‘burnout,’ and the statistical inevitability of the more he does, the more opportunities there are for negative issues to occur.”
What we reported
In July, American-Statesman investigative reporter Tony Plohetski obtained video of the violent arrest of elementary school teacher Breaion King — a case that had drawn little scrutiny at the Austin Police Department, but one that quickly became national news. The videos included an exchange between King and one of the arresting officers in which the officer said police sometimes are intimidated by black people because they have “violent tendencies.” Police Chief Art Acevedo has since launched multiple investigations into why nobody at the department raised alarms until the Statesman uncovered it.