Oversight body says new Austin Police conduct rules ‘lower the bar’ for officers

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin’s Office of Police Oversight (OPO) says one of the top three types of complaints it receives are of “disrespectful or impolite behavior during interactions.” As a result, the office has been working with the Austin Police Department for more than a year to address that behavior.

OPO said it compiled and sent APD 18 pages of research on how police departments around Texas and the country handle this behavior. Based on those national best practices, OPO said it recommended changes for APD on Sept. 15. The goal of these recommendations was to address the “ongoing problem” and to make clear how officers should conduct themselves, both around the community and with fellow officers.

OPO director Farah Muscadin told KXAN Thursday that APD has decided to “leave out key points” of the recommendations her office made.

“What we wanted to do was put our expectations higher [for officers]” Muscadin said, adding she believes the changes APD ultimately settled on, “actually scaled back and lowered the bar, in my opinion.”

She intends to submit a letter to Austin Police Chief Brian Manley soon formally expressing her disappointment, though she notes Manley’s staff is aware of her concerns already.

An Austin Police vehicle reflected in a side mirror. (KXAN Photo).

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.”

OPO’s recommendations moved those items to the “Impartial Attitude & Courtesy” section of the orders and added officers should refrain from using indecent, profane, or harsh language or gestures “around other City employees” and “when communicating with the chain of command or fellow officers.” 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.

All of those recommendations, Muscadin said, were not included in the changes APD made.

Disappointment from the Office of Police Oversight

“I do not see increasing professionalism as a controversial topic,” she said, adding that she believes APD not including her office’s recommendations suggests the department “is ok with that being done by fellow officers.”

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).

Muscadin emphasized her office’s recommendations are not meant to criticize officers but rather to address ongoing concerns with officer conduct which she said predate the Office of Police Oversight’s existence which began in 2018.

“It is the responsibility of OPO to put out recommendations to address one of their top complaints,” Muscadin said.

She said recent allegations of racism and bigotry among APD leadership, including allegations that former Assistant Police Chief Justin Newsom used racist language, “absolutely” factored into the department’s decision to make these recommendations.” The city hired a third-party attorney in late 2019 to investigate allegations of racism among APD leaders, and while the attorney was unable to determine if the allegations in the complaint were true or untrue, though the attorney did note the department’s “failure to investigate or report these racial allegations.”

APD is presently investigating whether its officers, who posed in uniform for a group photo that appeared to include white supremacists, were in violation of policy. Muscadin said those officers’ actions are likely being examined for compliance with APD’s policy for political activities and may also be examined under the conduct and impartiality rules of the department as well. (She added that OPO received ten complaints about that group photo incident and her office has sent a related notice of formal complaint to APD’s internal affairs).

Muscadin emphasized that she thought the updates to APD’s impartiality and conduct guidelines would be a collaboration between OPO and APD.

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.

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