Negotiations between the city and the Austin police union are underway to replace the current labor contract that expires in September. The talks include discussions about whether a citizen’s review panel’s disciplinary recommendations should be made public. The city says yes — a position we have long supported. Fortunately, the police union finally is showing signs of siding with transparency on this important matter.
Current rules, negotiated by the city and the Austin Police Association, limit how much information the Office of the Police Monitor, which currently is led by former Travis County Sheriff Margo Frasier, can release about the cases it and a panel of seven citizen volunteers review. The office, as its name implies, monitors police internal affairs investigations, and the review panel recommends to the police chief discipline of police officers in certain cases, including officer-involved shootings. With few exceptions, such as an officer’s suspension, the panel’s recommendations remain secret.
The city has proposed removing exceptions and releasing the review panel’s recommendations in officer-involved shootings and other “critical incident” cases, as the American-Statesman’s Ciara O’Rourke and Tony Plohetski reported last week. The panel’s recommendation would be released only after the police chief makes a decision.
Wayne Vincent, police union president, told O’Rourke and Plohetski that the Austin Police Association is willing to work with the city to establish rules that allow the release of the panel’s recommendations while protecting an officer’s privacy rights. We appreciate Vincent’s concerns, but as Tom Stribling, the city’s ombudsmen, told O’Rourke and Plohetski, the city wants to release the review panel’s recommendation, not the full investigation into an incident involving an officer. Before taking the ombudsman job, Stribling represented dozens of Austin police officers in discipline cases against the city. There are acceptable limits to public disclosure that would protect an officer’s privacy.
The May 2011 shooting death of Byron Carter Jr. is one case creating the desire and underscoring the need to change current rules governing the release of the review panel’s recommendations. Austin police officer Nathan Wagner fatally shot Carter, 20, on East Eighth Street after police officials said the car Carter was riding in sped toward Wagner’s partner, Jeffrey Rodriguez, and hit and injured him. A 16-year-old juvenile was driving the car and was wounded in the shooting.
Significantly, a Travis County grand jury declined to indict the juvenile, who had been charged with aggravated assault on a police officer and evading arrest. A grand jury also declined to indict Wagner.
Last year the American-Statesman reported that the citizen’s review panel had recommended to Police Chief Art Acevedo that Wagner be fired. Acevedo, who has said he favors releasing the review panel’s recommendations, said Wagner did not violate any department polices on use of deadly force. Wagner faced no departmental discipline.
A report broadcast last week by KXAN, citing court documents in a lawsuit filed by Carter’s family against the city and Wagner, raised questions about the police account of the shooting. Among them: the Achilles tendon injury Rodriguez is said to have suffered during the incident appears to have occurred weeks before the shooting.
The Carter case shows that failure to release the review panel’s recommendation fuels speculation and doubt that weakens trust in the police department. As City Councilmember Bill Spelman, who proposed creating the police monitor’s office and citizen panel, told O’Rourke and Plohetski, the more information people are given about the police, the better they will understand police work, and the better their relationship with police will be.
“By keeping this stuff secret, in a way, we’re doing more harm than good,” Spelman said.
The Austin Police Department is better because of citizen oversight. Preventing the review panel’s recommendations from being released does the police and the public no good.