Leaders disagree over discipline policy for Austin police officers who don’t wear masks

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — We first met Roy Finklea after seeing him speak with a couple of Austin police officers.

Finklea is often downtown, offering to wash drivers’ windshields. He tells us he’s had a few encounters with police, adding most of time, officers are wearing protective equipment.

“They had their masks on and gloves,” he said after speaking with the officers. “They were like, ‘we have to be six feet apart.'”

Austin Police Department officers are tasked with educating and enforcing the mask mandate, but leaders disagree over enforcement when officers themselves don’t wear protective equipment.

Since June, 11 formal complaints have been filed with the Office of Police Oversight regarding officer mask violations.

“The officer stopped me, so I turned down my window,” said a woman in one complaint. “I noticed he didn’t have a mask, and he came very close to me.”

In another case, an Austin police officer complained about coworkers not following the mask orders.

“This battle is futile within the department, and with a few exceptions, supervisors are the worst violators (even indoors),” the officer wrote to OPO.

It’s a handful of complaints in a department with more than 1,300 officers, sergeants and lieutenants isn’t a lot. Office of Police Oversight Director Farah Muscadin says it’s the way the complaints are handled that is concerning to her.

Muscadin says APD added a new “minor policy violation” category earlier this year as part of its General Orders. These violations are referred to a supervisor. They’re documented, but there’s no disciplinary action taken.

Officer mask violations are categorized in this way.

“The OPO objects to handling the mask violation through the supervisory referral process,” said Muscadin. “As APD is responsible for enforcing this public health requirement, it is important that officers consistently follow it not only for their safety but for the safety of those they encounter.”

She added, “We do not believe mask violations are a minor issue during a pandemic, which is worsening locally, statewide and nationally.”

OPO takes complaints and sends the information to APD’s Internal Affairs Division. The office oversees IA’s investigation of each complaint. Each time, OPO has recommended mask violations by officers should be treated as a Class B complaint.

Class B complaints are cases where the potential discipline is 15 days or less.

“I think that’s ridiculous,” said Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday. “If an officer just says I’m not going to wear one, that’s one thing, but if there’s an accident or they forget to have it on, you need to be warned about that before you try and give someone days off.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for APD said its handling of officer mask violations are consistent with that of mask violations with citizens, with formal enforcement as a last resort.

“All complaints of employee face mask violations are reviewed on a case-by-case basis, as are any other policy violations,” said the spokesperson.

“Appropriate corrective action is then determined, following the Department’s progressive discipline policy. Depending on the specific facts, appropriate disciplinary action can range from supervisor counseling to formal administrative actions.”

In August, we reported APD had issued one citation for failure to comply with the mask ordinance. A police spokesperson told us Thursday there hadn’t been any mask violations since.

APD receives mask donation

Austin police received a donation of meals and 300 masks from the South Korean Consulate in Houston.

The donation was to thank Austin officers for working through the pandemic and is part of an ongoing effort by the Korean government to provide PPE to different U.S. cities.

The donations were delivered by the Korean-American Association of Greater Austin—a local nonprofit.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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