City auditors told the Austin City Council Wednesday that the office processing citizen complaints against officers of the Austin Police Department needs to do a better job. But the office also may need more power to improve.
The Office of the Police Monitor is independent of the police department and the police union, the Austin Police Association. It also oversees the process for filing complaints against APD officers. But an audit released Wednesday says the office doesn’t do a great job marketing itself to the public. And the one time it tried, the police union intervened. Katie Houston with the city auditor’s office presented her findings to council members at a committee meeting.
“Here you see a tweet from 2014 that essentially says, ‘If you have experienced a problem with an officer to contact the Police Monitor’ and there’s contact information there,” Houston said. “But, following that, the Austin Police Association criticized that tweet, and the city ended up apologizing for it and saying it was in poor tone.”
That tweet has since been deleted.
While citizen complaints against police can be kept anonymous, Houston also noted how the form citizens fill out can be misleading and the process can be arduous, and intimidating, for those who may have had a negative interaction with police.
“Complaint forms that indicate you must provide extensive identifying information, like your name and address, when you’re coming forward with this complaint,” she said. “And also that these complaints must be sworn and notarized.”
Once a complaint is filed, auditors found the Austin Police Monitor is only given access to Internal Affairs files on a case-by-case basis. Even though a contract stating the Police Monitor should get “unfettered” access to these files. Council members seemed especially concerned by how long APD holds onto evidence pertaining to complaints. Officers can be disciplined within 180 days of an incident, but, in one case, a recording of a police interaction that could have been used in a complaint investigation was deleted after 90 days. The Austin Police Department argues, in order to keep recordings for longer, it need funds for additional storage.
Council Member Leslie Pool didn’t like that answer.
“You can’t say that just because you don’t have room to store them is an affirmative defense to not holding onto the information,” Pool said.
While the Austin Police Department sent a representative to yesterday’s meeting, he was not prepared to answer many of the questions council members had. So, they’ll bring the audit back for discussion next month.
You can view a draft of the committee's report below.