Police oversight office challenges APD handling of most 2020 protest complaints

Hundreds of complaints were logged against the Austin Police Department last year related to protests against police brutality and systemic racism. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
Hundreds of complaints were logged against the Austin Police Department last year related to protests against police brutality and systemic racism. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

Hundreds of complaints were logged against the Austin Police Department last year related to protests against police brutality and systemic racism. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

The city’s police accountability office found that the Austin Police Department did not investigate the majority of complaints against the department stemming from the large-scale protests of last year, and that their investigations rarely led to punishment.

Austin’s Office of Police Oversight sent just over 200 complaints from protests to the Austin Police Department for investigation. Of those, APD has investigated 27, with even fewer resulting in officer discipline, according to OPO Director Farah Muscadin.

Complaints included a wide range of allegations of excessive use of force, a lack of de-escalation, improper use of equipment or APD tactics, and neglect of duty, Muscadin told City Council members on the Public Safety Committee Sept. 20.

Muscadin also criticized several aspects of APD's response to the complaints that have yet to be resolved, stating the OPO objects to how APD handled aspects of 90% or more of the cases.

Muscadin presented City Council with several recommendations to mitigate future situations, including increased crowd control training and mandates that officers always turn on their body cameras and display their names and badges clearly when responding to protests.

APD Chief of Staff Troy Gay told council members he disagreed with some aspects of OPO’s review, although the police department is considering several adjustments along the lines of those Muscadin’s office recommends.

OPO objections

Muscadin's briefing on the 2020 protests came months after the OPO produced its first comprehensive report also identifying an overall uptick in complaints against APD officers, and a decrease in department discipline, through 2020.

Muscadin said OPO's latest review of protest complaints roughly covers the period of May 29, 2020—the start of demonstrations in Austin sparked in part by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police days earlier—through last November. She also noted the city had already experienced protests related to police reforms and racial injustice in the month prior to Floyd's murder, after an APD officer killed the unarmed Michael Ramos on April 24, 2020.

“This is clearly unprecedented for our city, and definitely unprecedented for the Office of Police Oversight," Muscadin said of the climate and complaint review after her office heard from hundreds of individuals in the months since the protests.

Muscadin said over 1,000 community submissions to the OPO regarding APD actions were filed within the first month after the protests that flooded downtown last May and June first erupted. OPO, which cannot take on investigations into officer conduct, identified more than 300 of those as potential complaints before narrowing the pool to 202; 106 were found to be duplicates.

Of those, 27 made it to internal investigation at APD.

Muscadin also noted that APD launched and investigated 21 separate protest complaints internally without OPO involvement

Muscadin said OPO ended up objecting to APD's handling of the majority of the cases for reasons including department favoritism and a lack of cooperation with the oversight office.

One of OPO's top problems with how police tackled the investigations included lenience for complaint classifications or punishments, with APD categorizing most reports of potential wrongdoing at an administrative level and "essentially saying that there’s no policy violation," Muscadin said.

Other concerns out of the OPO included "ongoing issues with cooperation” between the office and APD, "difficulty with getting access to the investigatory materials," and perceived bias in how investigations were conducted overall, she said.

Muscadin also referenced several specific issues, including an APD practice that saw large groups of cases closed out when complainants could not identify an individual officer they were reporting on. APD had also categorized the protests as "riotous,” meaning officers received less scrutiny over interactions with demonstrators at the time—a label OPO broadly objected to—and used a newly-created internal task force rather than standard internal investigations to review portions of complaints including bodycam footage, she said.

APD response

Gay appeared at the Sept. 20 session and pushed back on some of Muscadin’s characterizations of the police department’s processes following her briefing.

Gay said one aspect of the OPO's concern, the lower classification of potential violations, could have been partially offset by an internal system allowing for sped-up review and discipline without a formal categorization. He also said APD's new review team did not avoid labeling officers appearing to have acted improperly.

“I believe that our department did everything we could to identify officers involved with any complaint that was generated by the OPO," Gay said.

He also disagreed with the OPO's assessment that a large number of cases were closed due to a lack of identification, saying it was "a yes and a no, depending on the situation."

Muscadin pointed to that response and other differences between APD's reviews and OPO's assessments as a "fundamental disagreement" on practices, such as the use of force amid protests and related complaints.

Planning ahead

To bridge those gaps, the OPO presented council members with a list of 10 recommendations Muscadin said could improve APD interactions with Austinites in similar situations in the future.

Among those was a proposal that the police department formally look into all complaints equally, regardless of origin; Muscadin said one of OPO’s top concerns was the disparity between the hundreds of cases her office sent to APD for investigation and the less than two dozen investigations launched within the police department.

She also shared recommendations, such as requiring police to turn on their body cameras and display their names and badge numbers anytime they are responding to a demonstration, track the use of all "less-lethal" ammunition, and improve how officers report uses of force. She also said regular training for handling "crowd control" or protests should be added for all relevant APD officers, and that the department should report back to the community on how it will better adjust to handle future protests and similar events.

District 10 Council Member Alison Alter called the recommendations "no-brainers," and requested a written response from APD on how it plans to roll out the changes suggested through the OPO audit. Gay said he did not have an immediate reply on how APD may implement the 10 items, but that many are likely to be adopted by the department.

“I agree with you that most of those are things that we already have identified as areas that need to be improved upon, but we can provide a written response to those recommendations," he said.

District 4 Council Member Greg Casar went on to question Gay on specifics of APD's protest response, including the use of less-lethal ammunition, which he said were deployed improperly in some cases resulting in injuries to protestors. He also said aspects of the OPO's evaluation, as well as possible operational shifts, such as having civilians participate in investigations and extending the statute of limitations for filing complaints, should be incorporated into APD's own after-action report on last year's protest that is still underway.

Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison also said the review of protest-related complaints was "well past due" and that she anticipated further conversations on the topic going forward.

“Austin needs accountable policing,” Casar said in a statement. “Young people were maimed and nearly killed while exercising their right to peacefully demonstrate. If we don’t want this to happen again, we should be embracing police oversight, not ignoring it."
By Ben Thompson

Austin City Hall Reporter

Ben joined Community Impact Newspaper in January 2019 after graduating with a degree in journalism from Northeastern University in Boston. After spending more than two years covering in The Woodlands area, he moved to Austin in 2021 to cover City Hall and other news throughout the city.


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