Hearing finds Austin’s Office of Police Oversight overstepped its authority

Austin

Austin Police Department’s 144th cadet academy will graduate Jan. 28, 2022. (Nexstar File Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A hearing between the Austin Police Association (APA) and the City of Austin concluded the city violated contract agreements by allowing the Office of Police Oversight (OPO) to investigate complaints against officers and interview witnesses without having the authority to do so.

The hearing was held over three days in late July 2021, overseen by arbitrator Lynne M. Gomez, a lawyer from Houston. Results from the hearing were released late December.

Hearing documents say the APA and the city entered an agreement in November 2018, which outlines the scope of the OPO’s authority.

The OPO provides civilian oversight of the Austin Police Department and ensures the department is following its policies. Staffing consists of about 10-12 people and OPO Director Farah Muscadin. Hearing documents say the OPO takes complaints about officers and can then choose to draft a “notice of formal complaint,” which internal affairs uses to launch an investigation into potential officer misconduct.

“The OPO shall not gather evidence, or interview witnesses (except the complainant as provided herein), or otherwise independently investigate a complaint or other information of police misconduct,” the November 2018 agreement reads.

The APA filed initial grievances about the OPO in 2020, saying the OPO reviewed body cam footage in regard to a complaint about an officer, which would qualify as gathering evidence.

However, hearing documents say the city argued the OPO answers to the city manager, which allows the OPO to access APD evidence to conduct “preliminary reviews” of complaints and doesn’t consider that an “investigation.”

“There is no limitation on the City Manager’s authority to delegate a city employee to oversee investigations into police officer misconduct, civilian or otherwise,” the city argued.

The city doesn’t deny the OPO participated in those activities but doesn’t think the actions are violations, according to the documents.

“We had been warning city leaders about the illegal activities of the [Office of Police Oversight] for quite some time, but they didn’t care and they wouldn’t listen,” said APA President Ken Casaday in a Dec. 30 press release. “So we had to file a grievance to force them to follow the law.”

Gomez also determined while the OPO is allowed to ask about the status of internal affairs investigations, the agreement doesn’t allow the entity to have a say in an investigation’s outcome. The hearing examiner says Muscadin overstepped when she criticized IA’s choice not to discipline an officer in an email. The city argued Muscadin acted within her duties and only made a recommendation that was in line with APD policy.

As a result of Gomez siding with the APA, the city is ordered to cease and desist any further agreement violations in regard to the OPO.

KXAN has reached out to the Office of Police Oversight for a statement about the hearing. We will update this story when we receive a response.

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