AUSTIN, Texas -- As part of a sweeping overhaul of their use-of-force policies, Austin police officials will soon begin requiring officers to document more actions, including when they point their weapons at suspects, and making front-line supervisors do a more immediate, thorough investigation in nearly all cases when force is used.
The changes are scheduled to take effect June 1. They come after years of community criticism about how Austin officers use force and during an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, which is looking into whether the department routinely violates the rights of minorities.
Police officials said they will spend the next three weeks training officers and supervisors on the new "response to resistance" standards. They will no longer refer to the rules as their "use of force" policies and said the name change more accurately reflects why they take certain actions to subdue suspects.
"We want to bring in the very best practices for Austin," Police Chief Art Acevedo said last week. "Our officers deserve to have the best policies, procedures and practices, and the community deserves the same. Having that brings trust and a spirit of cooperation between the Austin Police Department and the community we are sworn to keep safe."
The new policies are already drawing community support from some longtime police critics and concern from Austin Police Association representatives, who say they worry that the added responsiblities could take supervisors off the street for extended periods to complete reports.
Police officials also will appoint a force review board that will meet several times a year to evaluate recent cases in which officers used force. The group will determine whether the incidents highlight a need for policy changes or different training or equipment, or whether the department practices are working.
"There are times when it is the duty and moral obligation of an officer to use force," said Assistant Police Chief David Carter.
Carter, the department's chief of staff, said the board will be made up of city attorneys and commanders of training, special operations and patrol units.
The modifications are the result of a nearly year-long effort by police leaders, who reviewed similar policies in other departments, including Oakland, Miami and Washington, D.C., which also revamped their standards amid Department of Justice inquiries.
Acevedo said officials have sent their new policies to the Justice Department, which opened its investigation in June. Results of the inquiry are pending.
The investigation came nearly three years after representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Texas Civil Rights project filed a federal complaint asking authorities to investigate how Austin officers use force.
They cited a series of American-Statesman articles in 2004 that 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.
During that time, all but one of the 11 people who were killed by police officers were minorities. Police have said the reports were based on inaccurate data and inconsistent reporting by officers about when they use force.
The groups added to their complaint in February 2005 after several officers and dispatchers exchanged computer messages that included "burn baby, burn" during a fire at the Midtown Live nightclub, which catered to African American patrons.
Former City Manager Toby Futrell and previous Police Chief Stan Knee co-signed a letter to the Justice Department a month later saying they welcomed an outside review.
Justice Department officials have declined to comment on the investigation, which they said in a letter to the city will seek to determine "whether APD is systemically violating the Constitution of the United States."
Acevedo, who was hired last summer after two decades with the California Highway Patrol, said he realized during interviews to become Austin's police chief that he wanted to immediately review how Austin officers use force. Since becoming chief, he has raised concerns about how supervisors in some instances reviewed force incidents, including a Thanksgiving 2006 traffic stop in which a corporal used his Taser stun gun on a motorist as the driver appeared to question what was happening. The corporal's immediate supervisor exonerated him of wrongfully using the weapon. Acevedo later used video from the traffic stop as a training tool for how not to handle such situations.
Acevedo said he has met with community leaders, including Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, to discuss the policies.
Harrington said the new rules address "exactly what we've been talking about for a long time that needs to be done. The proof will be in the implementation of it, but I think everybody is quite willing to give them a chance.
"It is remarkable that we are making this much progress," he said.
Last year, Austin police used force in 553 incidents, 83 instances of which involved Taser stun guns. In 2006, officers used force in 714 incidents.
Supervisors' new roles
As part of the new policies, which Acevedo said will be made public when they are finalized, each incident would be evaluated on the type of force officers used and whether it resulted in injuries to suspects. In most instances, supervisors would be required to respond to the scene, interview witnesses and officers and write a report that would be sent to higher-ranking officers.
Officials said supervisors will be evaluated on the quality of their reports.
Carter said in previous years, supervisors weren't required to respond to such scenes, although many of them did.
Officials said they also typically reviewed force reports that officers filed, but they weren't required to conduct or document a full review. They were responsible, however, for flagging such incidents for their superiors, or sending the cases to internal affairs detectives if they thought officers violated policies.
"Sergeants need to become leaders, and it is our job as ranking officers to empower these sergeants so they can better serve officers who work for them and hold them accountable," Carter said.
Ideally, supervisors will file their reports before the end of their shifts on the same day of the incident, he said, but some could take 24 to 48 hours.
Austin police Lt. George Vanderhule, president of the Austin Police Association, said he is worried that the new responsibilities could take sergeants, who generally supervise about 10 patrol officers for each shift, off the street for lengthy periods.
"We are getting to the point where sergeants are going to spend more time inside doing paperwork instead of outside supervising their troops," Vanderhule said. "That is a concern for me."
Carter said questions about sergeants' workload are legitimate, but said they will be able to file such reports from their patrol car computers without returning to the police station.
At any point, sergeants would be required to refer cases to internal affairs investigators if they think officers violated department policies, Carter said.
New investigative unit
Also under the new policies, a new unit would investigate the most serious force incidents, including those in which a suspect is killed or seriously or critically injured. The homicide unit previously performed that job.
The special investigations unit also will look into cases in which officers strike a person's head with weapons, such as their nightsticks, officials said.
Department officials announced the creation of the unit in February. The Los Angeles Police Department recently trained unit members on how to better interview officers and witnesses after such incidents, among other procedures.
The unit will send its findings to the Travis County district attorney's office for further review and also will share its work with internal affairs investigators, who will determine whether officers violated department policies.
Sergeants will still be required to show up at those incidents and write reports.
Those supervisors also must respond to scenes in which suspects are hurt and their injuries require them to be taken to the hospital, even if they are not admitted, according to the new policies. The rules also say that they must respond to scenes in which officers use their Taser stun guns.
Supervisors also generally will respond to all other scenes in which officers use force, especially if the suspect complains of pain. However, in cases where minor force was used and supervisors might be responding to other calls, they would not be required to go.
Incidents in which officers point their weapons at suspects or use pressure points to subdue them fall into that category, officials said.
"We are adding levels of review more than anything," said Sgt. Jim Beck, who was on the committee that helped create the new policies.
Nelson Linder, president of the local NAACP, said he also is pleased with the policy changes, especially the reporting requirements for sergeants.
"You want a bigger picture about what is happening in the department, and it gives you a lot more information about what's happening," he said. "More information leads to more accountability."
E-mail Tony Plohetski at email@example.com.