AUSTIN (KXAN) — The city of Austin is reworking its Office of the Police Monitor in hopes that more people will bring forward complaints, concerns and any other feedback regarding their interactions with Austin police.
The city will launch an education campaign as it makes changes after city strategists found too few people understand how to use the Office of the Police Monitor’s reporting system.
“The days of people not knowing about OPM and what we do, I’m hoping that those days will be behind us,” said Police Monitor Farah Muscadin as she addressed members of Austin’s Public Safety Commission Tuesday.
Muscadin says a number of changes are in the works to make her office more effective than it is right now.
“If you look at just the number of complaints that have come in over the years, it doesn’t reflect the attitudes that people have and the actual problems that people have with the police department,” said Austin Justice Coalition spokesman Chas Moore.
Moore serves as a member of the Office of the Police Monitor’s Working Advisory group. He says the very office set up to hold police accountable isn’t able to do that, because people are either scared or don’t know how to report their negative interactions with police.
“If nobody’s going to complain, then we activists, the city, advocates for criminal justice reform, we don’t really know what we’re fighting for,” Moore said.
City strategists say there are a number of issues, starting with the name. They would like to change it from “Office of the Police Monitor” to “Independent Office of Police Accountability,” so people don’t think it’s in any way connected to APD. Doing so would require approval from City Manager Spencer Cronk.
“We heard from residents that they think that it might be a part of the police department,” said Ben Guhin, who works for the city’s Office of Design and Delivery and submitted recommendations for the Office of the Police Monitor. “What we weren’t really communicating is that this is actually a neutral party that’s not within the police department ranks.”
Guhin and other city researchers found that people were worried about coming forward for fear police would find out.
“We definitely saw some people have a fear of retribution, a fear of providing their information,” Guhin said.
The city plans to work to inform the public that complaints are private. And, Guhin says, where a sergeant from APD’s Internal Affairs Division might have contacted a complainant in the past, moving forward, the Office of the Police Monitor will make initial contact and act as the mediator, so if someone isn’t comfortable talking to an officer, they won’t have to.
“We want more information from the public,” Guhin said. “We want to make the public feel closer to the city, and that includes to the police force, and to have this trusted relationship, that when something happens that shouldn’t have happened, you’re able to reach out to the city and let them know right away.”
The city is currently reworking its complaint form to make it easier to fill out online. City leaders also promise to be more transparent through the process, so complainants can track the progress of their complaints.
The Office of the Police Monitor will hold public meetings to educate about the process toward the end of the month.