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Sexist Comment by Austin Police Officer: Isolated Incident or Part of Broader Culture?

Nathan Bernier
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo says sexist comments from officers undermine a departmental goal of securing communities' trust.

Update (2:19 p.m.): Officer Andrew Pietrowski officially retired from the Austin Police Department on Friday, Dec. 12 after learning KUT would air his comments this week.

Original Story (9:07 a.m.): Police Chief Art Acevedo suspended two officers in November for making jokes about rape victims. The Austin Police Association said at the time that the respective three-day and five-day suspensions were "fair and appropriate." The incident took place after a local attorney had released a video in which the two Austin police officers are laughing and one of the officers comments: "Go ahead and call the cops. They can't un-rape you."

Recently, offensive comments were made to KUT's reporter Joy Diaz, while she was covering a police-related story. A quick warning: This story contains offensive remarks made about women. 

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo is convinced APD's culture is changing for the better. And says comments like "[cops]can't un-rape you" are examples of behavior that he calls "[the] extreme minority."

Statistically, when you consider the couple of thousand police officers in Austin, he’s right. However, there are still regrettable police shootings and some minorities still feel targeted by police. But Austin is no longer the ticking bomb some say it was before Acevedo took over the department in 2007. Questions still linger, however, about whether or not APD is clearly letting its officers know that inappropriate comments will not be tolerated.

Take for instance the recent comments of Officer Andrew Pietrowski.

Just to set the scene, this reporter was at the police union's building waiting to interview the head of the union. That’s when veteran officer Pietrowski approached me and started talking about the media fall-out over the video tape of NFL running back Ray Rice punching and knocking out his then-fiancé in a hotel elevator. Rice was suspended by the NFL and was released by his team.

Pietrowski says the event was blown out of proportion by the media. That's when he explained.

"Now, stop and think about this. I don't care who you are. You think about the women's movement today, [women say] 'Oh, we want to go [into] combat,' and then, 'We want equal pay, and we want this.' You want to go fight in combat and sit in a foxhole? You go right ahead, but a man can't hit you in public here? Bulls--t! You act like a whore, you get treated like one!"

I recently played Pietrowski's tape to APD Chief Acevedo.

"Somebody [who] has that mentality, has no business being a cop," he says.

Normally, that kind of behavior demands that a person place a formal complaint. The Office of the Police Monitor then investigates the complaint and so does APD's internal affairs. 

Activist Antonio Buehler with Peaceful Streets placed a formal complaint before the police monitor for the wayhe was treated by cops in 2012. Buehler says since his complaint was televised, many people have approached him with their own stories of inappropriate police behavior. Speaking at a public forum in front of the police monitor, Buehler says none of those people that have talked to him have made formal complaints "because [they believe] nothing will happen."

Civil rights attorney Jim Harrington disagrees. He says, under chief Acevedo, things do happen. He has been willing to discipline and even let go of police officers who have failed to follow the department's code, something that Harrington says rarely happened before. Harrington thinks that's progress.

"Unfortunately, the standard was pretty low in Austin with police chiefs [prior to Acevedo]," he says, adding that now that Acevedo has won the community's trust on that front, it's time he moves on and gets rid of the often hard to prove "old boys culture." Harrington has worked in close proximity with the police, he's developed relationships with people in the force and with people who support the department in one way or another.

"You know? This issue of how women are treated by the police has been bothering me for a long time," Harrington says. "I know women who do training [for the police], and they talk about the attitude of the officers sitting there in the classroom sort of snickering, rolling their eyes or making comments under their breath. So, I know this is an ongoing issue."

Perhaps, for some, it's not an alarming issue.

Chief Acevedo, however, says sexism in the police is alarming to him. He says that mentality does not help the department gain the community's trust, which is something he is committed to doing, he says, through "engagement, accountability, respect and absolutely [through an] on-going dialogue."

A dialogue that he says he will also have with his officers.

Correction: KUT changed the spelling of, now retired, APD Officer Andrew Pietrowski (adding the "i" between the "p" and the "e" because documentation KUT requested from the City of Austin has his name spelled both with and without the "i." However, the name associated with his former badge number does have the "i." We regret any confusion the misspelling of Andrew Pietrowski's name may have caused.

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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