AUSTIN (KXAN) — In a letter to Austin Police Chief Brian Manley Friday, Farah Muscadin, who serves as director of Austin’s Office of Police Oversight, formally expressed her objection to Austin Police Department policy changes while also criticizing the department for not working with her office on reforms.

Muscadin spoke with KXAN Thursday, explaining that in light of complaints about officer rudeness or bias as being among the top complaints her office receives, OPO sent APD a list on Sept. 15 of recommended changes to officer conduct policies based on national best practices. She told KXAN she was disappointed to learn the department had changed the conduct policies on October 22 but left out key components of her office’s recommendations.

In the letter sent to Manley on Friday, Muscadin objected to the department’s changes and asked APD to work with her office to include OPO’s recommendations. Muscadin also described APD as showing “demonstrated reluctance to change.”

Often, letters and memos between Austin city leaders are very formal and may only obliquely hint at disappointment, if at all. Muscadin’s letter does not attempt to mask her frustration.

(KXAN File Image)

“If APD had questions about any of OPO’s recommendations, OPO would have been more than
willing to engage in a meaningful discussion,” Muscadin wrote in the letter to Manley. “Instead, APD received OPO’s recommendations and a month later sent OPO the amended policy language on a form bearing your signature. APD’s determined refusal to align with best practices speaks to the superficial attitude with which the Department approaches OPO recommendations, as well as its staunch resistance to change.”

KXAN asked APD which of the OPO recommendations it intends to implement and in what time frame. A spokesperson for the department responded, “next week we will be posting any changes from these recommendations on our website.”

The recommended changes

APD’s General Orders, the document that outline’s the department’s rules, already requires officers make every effort to be “courteous” and “respectful” but OPO recommended adding “kind” and “patient” to that list of adjectives. Muscadin said APD did not wind up adding “kind” and “patient” to this line in its final changes.

“I thought these honestly were kind of no-brainers, that it wouldn’t be a difference of opinion about,” Muscadin said of APD’s decision on this line.

Currently, APD’s general orders for personal conduct state employees, while on duty or on the premise of city facilities will not “use loud, indecent, profane, or harsh, derogatory language, or use belittling term[s] in any communications language.”

Austin’s Director of the Office of Police Oversight, Farah Muscadin, speaks with the Public Safety Commission about a new Austin Police Critical Incident release policy. March 2020. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

OPO’s recommendations moved those items to the “Impartial Attitude & Courtesy” section of the orders and added officers should not use indecent, profane, or harsh language or gestures “while interacting with, or in the vicinity of members of the community or other City employees.” In the letter, Muscadin said that APD included the recommendation, but struck the phrase “or other City employees.”

OPO also recommended that APD employees should not use indecent, profane, or harsh language or gestures “when communicating with the chain of command or fellow officers,” but Muscadin wrote in the letter that APD did not include that recommendation.

OPO also recommended violations of this policy should be reported by employees by the end of the shift in which the violation occurred and that supervisors should initiate investigations into this report within three days of being notified. Muscadin wrote in the letter that this recommendation was also not used by APD.

Policies at other departments

Muscadin said that many of the changes her office recommended to APD are similar to policies already in place at police departments in cities including Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Portland, and Seattle.

The Houston Police Department, for example, requires that “employees shall be courteous, civil, and respectful to all department employees and citizens and shall not use threatening or insulting language.”

The San Antonio Police Department, for example, requires that “members shall at all times be courteous, kind, patient, and respectful in dealing with the public, and shall strive to merit the esteem of all law-abiding citizens by an impartial discharge of their official duties.”

The concerns from the Office of Police Oversight

Muscadin wrote in her letter about how OPO continues to receive allegations of officer rudeness, lack of professionalism, bias, and use of derogatory or profane language.

“A look through the complaints and discipline documents on OPO’s website reveals that these are pervasive issues within all levels of APD, and that community members have not been the only ones at the receiving end of this kind of misconduct,” she wrote.

In her interview with KXAN on Thursday, Muscadin made clear that her office believes it is important to clarify the rules for officer conduct, not only to improve officer interactions with the public but also officer interactions with their coworkers.

Protests outside APD headquarters 5-30-20
Photo: Kaitlyn Karmout

In the letter Friday, Muscadin cites the Department’s preexisting Impartial Attitude/ Courtesy and Personal Conduct policies, describing them as having “relative ineffectiveness in practice both as a deterrent and a remedy.” She writes that her office has provided APD with recommendations on how to improve those policies, including an 18-page policy briefing on national best practices, but that APD “consistently watered down the language and associated discipline to the point that both the meaning and the intent are lost.”

After Michael Ramos was fatally shot during an incident by Austin Police earlier this year and George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis Police shortly thereafter, Austinites took to the streets and attended virtual city meetings by the hundreds, calling for police reform and racial justice. In response, the city council and city leadership at the highest levels committed to “Reimagining Public Safety” to rethink how Austin uses policing and how the city responds to both public safety and equity concerns.

Demonstrators gather at APD headquarters Wednesday night, June 3. (Andy Way/KXAN)

In her letter, Muscadin suggests that APD should be more proactive and open to change as the city works on this “colossal transformation.”

“Austin is demanding changes within APD, and that starts with ensuring that all officers
demonstrate professionalism and impartiality when dealing with the public and each other,” Muscadin wrote. “This is low-hanging fruit, and the Department’s failure to appropriately respond to even this baseline issue does not inspire confidence in the likelihood that the Department will make the more comprehensive changes that are necessary and forthcoming.”

This would not be the first time Muscadin hasn’t been able to collaborate with Austin Police in the ways she has hoped to. Back in June, the City of Austin delayed releasing the video of the deadly officer-involved shooting of Mike Ramos because APD had not consulted Muscadin and asked for feedback on the video, as is required by the department’s new critical incident release policy. Muscadin helped advocate for this new video release policy and said in March she expected that OPO would be a participant in the process of creating the videos released under the new policy.