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Is Austin's Police Monitor Keeping a Close Enough Eye on the Cops?

Nasha Lee for KUT News

Every time an Austin police officer shoots their weapon, it triggers a series of investigations.

This year there have been three fatal APD shootings. The latest, July 26, when Police Det. Charles Kleinert shot Larry Jackson Jr.

APD’s investigations of incidents like this are tightly guarded. There’s an independent set of eyes and ears monitoring them, the city’s Police Monitor. But it’s a job that faces many limitations.

“My job is to make sure it’s fair and it’s through and it’s unbiased,” says Austin Police Monitor Margo Frasier. “The fact that at the end I may have a disagreement with the findings of the chain of command – that’s a different issue.”

Frasier is the civilian who oversees APD’s internal investigations every step of the way – from the minutes after an officer’s weapon is discharged, until the investigation is wrapped up. 

Margo Frasier (second from the right) at a press conference this week. City Manager Marc Ott (second from the left) asked the Justice Department to assess APD use of force policies.

At that point, she makes recommendations to APD’s chief. She can recommend an officer be disciplined. She can recommend an officer be fired. But those are just recommendations. And more often than not, her recommendations are ignored. “Obviously the Chief of Police is still the chief of police,” Frasier says. “He doesn’t have to do what I say.”

APD Chief Art Acevedo doesn’t have to do what the monitor says, in part because he reports to the city manager and the city council – not to her. 
The Police Monitor’s powers are spelled out in state law and in city ordinance – but there are other restrictions spelled out in the contract between the city and the police union.

Jim Harrington is a veteran civil rights attorney in Austin. He says those boundaries are aimed at preventing the monitor from overreaching into APD.

“There are boundaries, of course, and this is part of the way that this has been negotiated. But she has a bully pulpit and she could do much more than what she’s doing.”

Harrington says Frasier could make better use of the media, publicizing every discrepancy she sees in an investigation – right when she sees it. Frasier does write a yearly report that highlights APD’s deficiencies. But it’s data driven, so it takes time to roll it out. The most recent report is from 2011.

Frasier knows the system – she’s the former Travis County Sheriff. She has managed to negotiate some small increases in her authority. This year for instance, for the first time, her recommendations will become public – even if they’re not adopted by APD. That part of the police union’s new contract goes into effect in October.

“Personally, do I sometimes go: ‘Gosh, I wish I could tell my side of the story,’” Frasier says about her job’s limitations. “Yeah, I feel that way some days. But, I knew that coming in, I came into this job with my eyes open. I knew what restrictions there were.”

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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