A recent city audit of the civilian bodies with oversight of the Austin Police Department paints a picture of an ineffective program incapable of creating substantive change.
The report, completed in June by the city auditor’s office, looked into the effectiveness of the Citizen Review Panel and the police monitor’s office.
The Citizen Review Panel was a volunteer board of community members charged with examining cases of police misconduct and complaints. It was established in 2001 under a labor contract between the city and the police labor union. After an updated version of that contract was nixed in late 2017, the panel was suspended by the former interim city manager.
Austin’s other civilian oversight body, the police monitor’s office, was able to continue operating because it is city-funded, but it also lost power when the labor agreement expired.
The panel had the authority to issue recommendations to police leaders after complaints or critical incidents, such as police shootings. Members could recommend discipline, further internal investigation, a review of or changes to department policies, or an independent probe.
Even before the panel lost those powers, however, the audit found that civilian oversight in Austin was substantially hindered by city and police policies.
From October 2013 to December 2017, the panel sent in at least 28 memos that included 54 recommendations to the police chief. The Police Department made some sort of policy change or acted to discipline officers in 15 percent of those cases, the audit found. Most of the actions were related to training.
“This rate of change indicates that APD and the CRP did not have a common understanding regarding APD’s practices,” the audit said.
The report notes that the Police Department disputes the tally. According to the audit, police officials said they have conformed to 54 percent of the recommendations.
The audit found five major problems that rendered the panel largely ineffective:
• City policy prevented the panel from communicating directly with the chief. Members instead relied on the police monitor or city legal staff as go-betweens.
• The city never established who was responsible for keeping records of panel recommendations. That led to the panel’s inability to identify trends or investigate older activities, the audit said.
• Large gaps between the date of an incident and the date the panel issued a recommendation rendered many disciplinary actions moot. State law gives police leaders 180 days after an incident to take disciplinary action against officers. Due to lags between the date of an incident and the date a case was presented to the panel, the “180-day rule” meant recommendations of discipline were possible in only 28 percent of eligible cases, the audit said. The average time from the date of an incident to the date of a recommendation was 386 days.
• Incomplete or unavailable information at panel meetings might have limited the panel’s understanding of incidents. The audit said several panelists told auditors that videos of incidents were often missing or unavailable for viewing due to technical errors. “In one of their issued memos, the CRP described a video as being ‘highly curated’ and implied that it did not present an accurate representation of the incident in question,” the audit found.
• The police chief was not required to formally respond to recommendations from the panel and usually didn’t. The audit said the chief issued written responses to 17 of 54 recommendations, or roughly 31 percent. All written responses to recommendations came from Police Chief Brian Manley’s predecessor, Art Acevedo. An Austin police spokeswoman said Manley received four recommendations from the oversight body and responded verbally to the Police Monitor. The last three recommendations arrived at the Police Department after the panel was suspended, so Manley could not provide a response to anyone, police said.
Rebecca Webber, who served on Citizen Review Panel, said Manley never met or corresponded with the panel after taking the helm of the department, and never verbally acknowledged receiving anything to the panel.
Since the police labor contract expired, the police monitor’s activities have also been hindered. The office continues to operate, the audit said, but staffers have stopped taking new complaints and creating records.
Police Monitor Farah Muscadin said her office is still involved in complaints and the investigation process and still has the ability to monitor investigations. However, instead of meeting with complainants and taking a statement, as was the norm under the old police contract, the office’s employees direct them to internal affairs investigators.
City and police union leaders are working on a new contract that could restore the Citizen Review Panel, but activists have long called for an oversight body with more teeth.
The audit recommended nailing down specifics for record retention, timelines for cases to be heard and requiring timely responses from the chief. It also recommended direct communication between the panel and the chief and releasing memos from the oversight body to the public.
Austin police union President Ken Casaday said some of those fixes were included in the contract that failed to gain approval last year, including giving the civilian oversight body more power to ask questions and recommend training and requiring the chief to respond to the panel’s recommendations.