Concerns over police accountability rise amid Citizen Review Panel suspension

Investigators at the scene of an officer-involved shooting in the 4500 block of Avenue G in Austin, Texas at 45th Street on Jan. 26, 2018 (KXAN Photo)
Investigators at the scene of an officer-involved shooting in the 4500 block of Avenue G in Austin, Texas at 45th Street on Jan. 26, 2018 (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The investigation is underway into the first Austin officer-involved shooting of 2018. But without a police contract in place, it remains to be seen how officers at the Austin Police Department will be held accountable by members of the community.

The identity of the man shot and killed by an APD officer Friday morning has not yet been released.

Officers responded to the burglary call at around 3:40 a.m. in Central Austin’s Hyde Park neighborhood when residents called 911 saying someone was inside their home in the 4500 block of Avenue G at 45th Street. They hid in a closet and stayed on the call, telling police around 3:43 a.m. that they heard gunshots. According to the department, the suspect fired shots both inside and outside the home. APD said the suspect fired shots at them, so one of them fired back.

This is also the first officer-involved shooting since the department began working without a contract at the end of December.

“I don’t think not having a contract is going to have a bearing on the investigation as our department has and will continue to be very transparent and open with the community and will work side by side with the police monitor, as well as the DA, as well as our special investigations unit,” Assistant Chief Troy Gay said.

However, Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday told KXAN the lack of transparency will be from not having a Citizen Review Panel.

This week, the Austin city manager also suspended the Citizen Review Panel because there is no police contract. Without a meet and confer agreement between the city and the Austin Police Association, the panel can’t have access to confidential materials needed to make informed decisions regarding allegations of police officer misconduct.

“Until we have a contract, we’re at a point where the public doesn’t have a window into how the police department operates from a citizen and from a community perspective,” explained Dominic Gonzales, a member of the panel. “Obviously, Chief Manley is very knowledgeable. He is going to provide the public with information as he is able to, but every day citizens don’t have a way to see into cases that are critical.”

Gonzales says the panel knew and understood that without a contract, they wouldn’t have the tools available to fulfill the roles they were designed to fulfill.

“This is something that they’re disappointed by, this is something that they do feel strongly about,” Gonzales said. “I think members of the panel are still willing to work on this and still willing to find some way so that the public can have information about how their police department operates and so that they can have some form of accountability.”

As soon as an internal affairs file was available for a case or incident, Gonzales says the panel would spend eight hours with its contents, with the internal affairs report, and then have the opportunity to deliberate on it and to ask questions about the investigation. Gonzales says they’d have the opportunity to review what are called “critical incidents” — situations like Friday’s officer-involved shooting. Now that the panel has been suspended, that won’t happen.

Despite his concerns, Gonzales says he is cautiously optimistic about contract negotiations moving forward and the panel’s future.

“It’s a long journey to make sure that we have the best police department possible for this community,” he said.

The interim police monitor — who is designated to investigate any incidents — also said she would be investigating and that nothing has changed about her role since the contract ended.

Casaday says he believes the police monitor is allowed to come to the scene, but that she can’t ask questions, take notes or sit in on officer interviews.

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