County Attorney Delia Garza and District Attorney José Garza's letters, addressed to Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk, said constituents have reported a lack of response among some Austin Police Department officers in the wake of policy shifts at the attorneys' offices related to preliminary case reviews for those accused of crimes. Those changes, implemented at the county level this spring, are intended to free up resources by allowing prosecutors to identify earlier whether cases should be dismissed, or if they have enough evidence to proceed.
"Early case review saves time, needless days in jail for a wrongfully-accused [person], and ensures the office has the evidence needed to pursue justice on behalf of victims," a statement from José Garza's office said.
Since the updated policy's launch, Delia Garza and José Garza both said they have encountered "increasing" and "disturbing" instances of APD officers declining to follow up on criminal investigations including reports of vandalism, drug use and violation of camping ordinances, and asserting that the prosecutors' actions are to blame—an account the attorneys said could hinder local criminal investigations.
"Multiple reports of APD officers declining to investigate suspected criminal activity is particularly troubling because of the moment we are in. All across this country, and in our community, homicides are on the rise. If the public lacks trust that APD will investigate crime, it could chill the cooperation we need from the public to prosecute violent crime," José Garza said.
The attorneys said the early case review policy—while a potential source of disagreement between law enforcement and county prosecutors—was implemented with the aim of increasing efficiency and confidence in the local criminal justice system and is not uncommon in Texas. The pair also said they have not requested any changes in enforcement from APD this year.
"I am very aware that the false narrative of mischaracterizing the policies of this office aligns perfectly with attempts to obstruct reform efforts of our criminal justice system. I want to be clear that I am committed to an open dialogue with leaders in our community who truly care more about public safety over political ploys and pandering," Delia Garza said. "I know that the great majority of our police officers serve the community well, and I am grateful for their service. I hope they know that policies of this office are designed to ensure our system affords constitutional and community protections at every step of the process."
APD Interim Chief Joseph Chacon told Community Impact Newspaper Aug. 5 that he is aware of and investigating the accusations. Following a June meeting between Cronk, Delia Garza and José Garza on the topic, he said he has repeatedly spoken with officers about professional standards and encouraged them to avoid making statements such as those alleged by the county prosecutors.
“I followed up. Every time that I’m in front of officers ... this topic always comes up," Chacon said. "I’ve been discussing it and just explaining that, I think that we need to make sure that we’re taking care of what we can take care of—that’s public safety. Be professional, do a good job, follow your training and follow policy, and make sure that we don’t get personally invested. Make sure that we don’t offer personal opinions, just be professional and do your job well."
He also pushed back on Delia Garza's and José Garza's implication that APD has not acted in response to the claims.
“That has been my consistent message over the last, really, couple of months, and that has not changed. So I think it’s important for people to know that, because certainly those letters left the reader thinking, ‘Has the police department done anything?'" Chacon said.
Cronk told Community Impact Newspaper Aug. 4 that the city manager's office—which operates under his watch and includes a branch dedicated to safety—is "absolutely" looking into the claims while also seeking more information on the potential extent of APD officer actions alleged by Delia Garza and José Garza.
“Both in previous conversations and then as I read the letters yesterday, I continued to ask for specific examples of where this happened so we can take appropriate action. It is hard when it’s just generalities, and the more that I can understand where this isn't happening, then the chief and [Assistant City Manager Rey] Arellano and I can take the appropriate action," Cronk said.
Via Twitter Aug. 4, District 4 Council Member Greg Casar said he would be following up with Chacon and Cronk "to ensure that our community members can trust that they are receiving true information from law enforcement." He also said it was not the first instance of such behavior being reported in Austin.