AUSTIN: Federal Probe Requested by NAACP and TCRP Results in Police Changes

Texas
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APD says it has complied with federal recommendations

Police chief says department has adopted all but a handful of suggestions from Justice Department.

Statesman.com

By Tony Plohetski
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo announced Monday that the department has made dozens of reforms in the past year to comply with federal recommendations for the agency, including how officials review use-of-force incidents.

Among the 165 suggestions police received in January, department officials have adopted — or will soon adopt — all but four, Acevedo said.

The recommendations from the U.S. Department of Justice address topics relating to officer training, internal affairs investigations and community outreach, among others.

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"We are really happy about this day," Acevedo said during a news conference. "We are not a perfect organization, and that is why we have to continue to be vigilant as an organization, vigilant as a society."

The announcement, which came after Acevedo sent a 50-page letter to federal officials explaining the changes, is a significant step in a far-reaching federal review of the department, officials said . Federal officials had said they would seek "to determine whether APD is systemically violating the Constitution of the United States." Their inquiry is ongoing.

It also comes nearly a year after police officials made public the list of federal recommendations, which included strengthening policies about how officers use force and how such incidents are reviewed.

Several community leaders, including one who had been partly responsible for seeking the federal review, attended Monday’s news conference.

However, Nelson Linder , president of the Austin chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he chose not to be there after he and Acevedo met in the morning about the reforms.

Linder said that he left the meeting "frustrated" and that he remains concerned about what he considers a lack of severe discipline of officers who use excessive force. "That is an issue of trust and respect across the board," Linder said. "If you don’t have accountability, that is going to raise questions. That is where we are."

The federal inquiry resulted from a complaint filed by the Austin NAACP chapter and the Texas Civil Rights Project, which was triggered, in part, by a 2004 American-Statesman series. Those articles revealed that from 1998 to 2003, police were twice as likely to use force against blacks as against whites and 25 percent more likely to use force against Hispanics than against whites.

In 2007, the most recent year for which statistics were available Monday, officers’ use of force dropped by 21.1 percent on white suspects, by 20.4 percent on African American suspects and by 20 percent on Hispanic suspects from the previous year.

But when comparing the use of force per 1,000 arrests, minorities still saw a higher rate than Anglos that year. The use of force rate in 2007 was 9.8 for whites, 14.8 for African Americans and 13.4 for Hispanics. All those rates were lower than in 2006.

The department could have faced more serious federal mandates as a result of the inquiry, which would have required officials to follow the recommendations or face a possible federal lawsuit.

Police officials have previously announced many of the major changes; the most recent includes assigning supervisors to the internal affairs division in an effort to make investigations more objective.

According to Acevedo’s letter to Department of Justice officials, Austin police have created a special board to review force incidents, which are now tracked through a database instead of paper records. The letter said the department also has changed how supervisors respond to certain force incidents. Now, supervisors must review incidents in which officers use Taser stun guns or pepper spray.

Acevedo said the department is improving officer training by buying a mobile firing range, allowing officers to more regularly practice scenarios in which they could use lethal force.

The letter also addressed recent concerns about bias in the internal affairs division. It said that the "selection of all personnel assigned to internal affairs will be vetted through the entire chain of command and the chief of police will personally approve all appointments."

Among the four recommendations that police officials aren’t adopting, two involve the department’s use of canine dogs.

One suggestion was that the department report the use of canines only in searches in which they would be taken off their leash. Austin police policy requires officers to almost always keep the leash on and to document all incidents in which the canine was used . The letter does not give reasons for either practice.

Federal officials also suggested that police supervisors routinely measure the weight of pepper spray cans to see how often the spray is used. Acevedo said that supervisors already track that information and that weighing cans would be burdensome.

After Acevedo’s remarks, Jim Harrington , director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said he was pleased with the outcome of the inquiry and reforms in the department.

He said cities have only certain flashes of time when they can make changes to soundly benefit residents’ quality of life.

"This is one of those moments," he said.

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