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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Austin police shedding tainted culture

Austin police shedding tainted culture
Austin American-Statesman EDITORIAL - September 20, 2008

Chief Acevedo has established higher standards of conduct for officers and is closing loopholes that permit bad officers to exploit the appeals system

When an arbitrator returned a fired Austin police officer to his job, he knowingly reinstated someone who had used excessive force against a mentally ill man at a bus stop. The case involving officer Gary Griffin has raised questions about the extent to which an officer can violate policies, procedures and professional standards and remain on the force. Though this case is surfacing now because Griffin has returned to work and is suing the city, it harks back to an administration and culture that emboldened officers who used force inappropriately and routinely returned them to their jobs when they violated policies. That culture is rapidly changing under Police Chief Art Acevedo. Policies under former chief Stan Knee and acting chief Cathy Ellison that left discipline largely up to the discretion of the chief fueled allegations of favoritism and inequitable treatment. In one situation, an officer who made false statements on official reports might get a slap on the wrist, while someone else who acted similarly might be fired. Hence, uneven discipline became a defense for returning violating officers to the department — even when their misconduct warranted termination.

Acevedo has established higher standards of conduct for officers and is closing loopholes that permit bad officers to exploit the appeals system. He has put into place a discipline matrix that spells out consequences for violations. Officers are required to attend training to ensure that they have read and understand disciplinary standards. He still has discretion, but punishment is consistent. Ultimately, that approach should reduce or eliminate reinstatements based on favoritism. Another factor that emboldened offending officers was a resistance by Knee to fire officers who used force inappropriately. In Griffin's case, the arbitrator concluded that Griffin's encounter with Joseph Cruz in 2006 did "momentarily cross the line into the use of excessive force." There was a financial cost to the City of Austin, which paid Cruz's family $55,000 to settle the civil rights lawsuit against Griffin. Cruz, 24 at the time, suffered a broken nose and cuts and bruises in his encounter with Griffin. Somewhere along the line, Griffin should have accepted responsibility for his unprofessional conduct. Exposing the city to that kind of liability should have chastened him. Instead, he is suing the city, alleging that his termination by Ellison, who is black, was racially motivated. Griffin is white.

By contrast, Acevedo has not hesitated to terminate officers for a range of conduct, from lying and criminal misconduct to using force inappropriately. Since taking over as chief in July 2007, Acevedo has fired 12 officers and pressured others to resign. Just one has gotten his job back through arbitration. But no chief could reform a department without help from officers. "Our officers by and large support the direction in which we're headed," Acevedo said. "They are dedicated professionals who appreciate it when the department stands up to misconduct and corruption because they understand that is the way to protect the organization they love." There will be times when cases, such as Griffin's, surface. Those cases will trigger questions about whether certain officers are fit to serve. But the public should not judge the department by those hangovers from the past. There are good things happening as the police department transitions from the past to the present.

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