The panel of civilian volunteers tasked with holding Austin police accountable in situations such as this week’s fatal shooting of a teenager has become largely powerless as it is bound by strict secrecy rules, its critics and some panel members say.
The case of 17-year-old David Joseph, who was killed by officer Geoffrey Freeman on Monday in Northeast Austin, will eventually come under scrutiny by the Citizen Review Panel.
Faced with growing community pressure, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo on Thursday vowed to complete an internal investigation into Joseph’s death within 30 days. As in all police shootings, the Citizen Review Panel will have access to the secret details of the internal affairs investigations once they are completed.
After its review of an incident, the panel issues a recommendation on punishment, which sometimes can include firing an officer. It often contradicts how Austin police leadership decided to discipline the officer.
But the panel’s recommendations are never made in an open meeting, even though the panel meets before the public once a month. They are opinions that the city’s legal department considers as documents that should only come to light if someone files a Freedom of Information Request.
And it is up to Acevedo whether to heed the panel’s recommendations or ignore them.
“It’s a joke, a paper tiger,” said Adam Loewy, an attorney who has represented the family of Larry Eugene Jackson Jr. and others killed by Austin police.
Acevedo has called the city-funded panel’s opinions unreliable in federal court in 2013 during a hearing in a lawsuit Loewy filed against the Police Department over the 2011 fatal police shooting of Byron Carter.
The seven-member panel of Austin residents was entrusted to provide civilian oversight of Austin police when it was created more than a decade ago. But, from the outset, deals between city officials and the police union created barriers that keep its work out of the public eye and rendered it ineffective, according to people who worked closely with its creation.
The panel’s work is largely constrained by two factors, state civil service laws and the city’s “meet and confer” agreement with the Austin Police Association, the union that allowed the creation of the panel to go forward in 2001 amid a 22 percent pay increase.
Police union President Ken Casaday said he largely disagrees with the opinions issued by the panel.
“The people on that panel have no idea what it is like to be a police officer,” Casaday said. “They’re just not experienced investigators for one. A lot of them don’t have experience in the law. They seem to be happy having a say and giving opinions.”
Rebecca Webber, an Austin attorney who has served on the panel since 2011, defended the body.
“We have never pretended to be ‘experts’ in the legal definition of that term,” Webber told the American-Statesman. “What we are is a diverse group of Austin residents who bring our widely varying experiences and perspectives to the table when we deliberate regarding officer-involved shootings.”
Webber said it was discouraging to hear the chief testify disparagingly about the panel’s work. “I believe in public service, but I’ve personally struggled over my five years on the panel with whether it actually is a public service to be part of Austin’s imperfect citizen oversight process,” she said.
On Feb. 1, Julian Reyes spoke before the panel in the City Council Chambers.
The two speakers who signed up that night and the Austin police commander standing in the back of the room were outnumbered by the seven people on the dais. Reyes delivered a series of complaints stemming from interactions with police while shooting video of Austin police on Sixth Street. When finished, he asked the panel a question.
“What is it can you do?” he asked. “I’m not sure what can be done. I’m not sure what the powers and authority you have.”
After a brief exchange, Webber replied: “Our hands are tied.”
Monday’s meeting was unique in that two people addressed the panel. So much of the panel’s work has to be held outside of the public view that their monthly meetings sometimes last only a few minutes before adjourning into executive session, leaving little for the public to see.
“That’s by design,” said Ann del Llano, a local attorney deeply involved in the creation of the Citizens Review Panel and the Austin Police Monitor’s office in 2001. “It was misbranded as a citizen oversight panel that would have meaning.”
When the panel was created, the Austin Police Association included in its contract strict rules that made most of the panel’s work private.
Last month, the Statesman filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the panel’s recommendations and Acevedo’s responses. Police Monitor Margo Frasier said she believed most, if not all, of the documents were public documents.
The city of Austin missed the deadline to comply with the request. The city then denied the request and is seeking a ruling from the Texas attorney general.
“One of these days, maybe I will reach my limit and get too frustrated with the lack of transparency and other problems with the process,” Webber said. “But for the time being, I think about Byron Carter’s mother and John Schaefer’s son (Schaefer, 70, was killed by an officer in 2013) and others like them, and I just try to be as fair and respectful as I can and participate in the process we have in good faith.”