The Austin Police Department investigated less than half as many complaints made against officers by community members in 2022 than in 2021, according to the Office of Police Oversight’s annual report – even though the department received three times as many investigatable complaints in 2022 compared to 2021.
Overall, out of nearly 700 complaints OPO flagged for investigation last year, only 2% resulted in disciplinary action.
The 28-page report, published Dec. 20, paints a clear picture of the shriveling power of OPO, the city agency charged with carrying out the independent investigation into alleged officer misconduct that the people of Austin have demonstrated support for over the past four years.
The report includes comparative data back to 2019, but 2021 is the most important year for data because it was the only year that OPO was operating as it was designed to. The agency began operating in 2018, following the historic clash between City Council and the Austin Police Association over a labor contract for APD officers. Ultimately, Council prevailed over the union in winning an oversight system demanded by the people of Austin.
OPO’s first year of operation was spent working out kinks in the newly designed oversight system, so complaint and investigation numbers were lower than would be seen in future years. The 2020 numbers are skewed because they contain complaints filed during the Black Lives Matter protests of that summer. In December 2021, the APA succeeded in their own campaign to weaken police oversight by filing grievances against their 2018 labor contract with the city. As a result, OPO was severely disempowered throughout all of 2022 – so, it is fair to consider 2021 as the benchmark year for effective civilian oversight in Austin.
In 2021, OPO received 2,239 “contacts” from the community, which generally consist of people complaining about perceived departmental policy violations committed by officers. When OPO staff are contacted, they read the content of a complaint and determine if it could constitute a violation of APD policy; if so, they refer it to APD’s Internal Affairs Division, which gets to decide if they want to investigate any of the referred complaints. Examples of community complaints include lack of help from APD, rudeness demonstrated by officers, and excessive use of force deployed by officers (in 2022, 33% of community complaints were characterized as “no assistance from APD,” 26% as “courtesy/impartial attitude” (rudeness), and 9% as “use of force”.)
In 2021, OPO referred 220 complaints to APD; Internal Affairs chose to investigate just 90 of them (17 of which resulted in some form of disciplinary action taken against the accused officer). In 2022, OPO referred 689 community complaints to IA for investigation (out of 1,876 contacts), but IA chose to only investigate 47 of them, and 16 resulted in discipline.
The huge disparity in referred complaints from 2021 to 2022 (a 213% increase) is due to the APA’s successful campaign to weaken OPO – the union’s victory barred OPO from conducting preliminary investigations into community complaints to screen out those unworthy of investigation. As a result, OPO forwarded over many more complaints. But the change in complaints investigated by APD (a 48% decrease) between the 2021 and 2022 is more difficult to explain. OPO data shows that in 2022, APD seemingly brushed off 65% of referred complaints. More than 200 were “administratively closed” and 208 were dismissed under the “supervisor referral” classification. The “administratively closed” designation can happen when IA detectives discover no misconduct during their investigation, when complaints were classified as very low level, or at the police chief’s discretion. “Supervisor referral” is another way of doing away with policy violations IA considers to be minor.
Critically, it has been APD, not OPO, deciding which complaints merit an investigation and which merit discipline. The Austin Police Oversight Act, approved overwhelmingly by voters in May, was written with the express purpose of restoring OPO to that 2021 year of gold standard operations. But, as we have reported in detail over the past six months, the city has refused to fully implement the APOA and OPO remains unable to perform its primary functions effectively.
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