An Analysis of the Circumstances Leading to Changes in the Civilian Review Process

Civilian oversight of law enforcement agencies has steadily gained traction in the United States over the past five decades. It is now commonplace to witness bodies formed by citizens with the sole purpose of reviewing the conduct of police officers and improving their professional behavior (Dunham & Alpert, 2015, p. 78). Thus, oversight becomes an integral part of the review process since it forces law enforcement officers to become transparent and accountable. Additionally, the civilian population is also accorded a unique opportunity to voice their concerns and provide constructive criticism that will, eventually, promote cordial relationships. The Austin Police Department (APD) has been in service since 1924 and, for the most part, successfully managed to protect the city’s inhabitants. All policing functions in the town were performed by law enforcement officers and their support personnel. Austin is a unique city since the state legislature accords police officers an allowance to converge and deliberate over grave matters without a referendum. 

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Nevertheless, an incident in February 1995 where officers from the Austin Police Department (APD) inflicted injuries on juveniles resulted in public outcry and a call for increased oversight within the city. The “Cedar Street Incident,” as it came to be known, was marred by claims of the use of racial soubriquets and excessive force to remove suspected gang members from a party. A resulting lawsuit finally ended in an out-of-court settlement between the teenagers and the City of Austin. It is, therefore, fundamental to analyze the circumstances leading to a change in the agreed upon and design of the consequential Civilian Review Process (C.R.P) as a way of understanding the various dynamics surrounding oversight in Austin, Texas.

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The Civilian Review Process (C.R.P)’s background and reasoning is one that was characterized by labor negotiations which were then influenced by political lobbying. The Cedar Street Incident dented the reputation of law enforcement officers in Austin. Furthermore, the City Council also lots a substantial amount of money since it was quite clear from the onset that the plaintiffs had a solid case against the Austin Police Department (APD).  The aftermath of this large settlement also saw the sanctioning of the Police Oversight Focus Group (POFG) which was tasked with assessing the practicality of police oversight in Austin. Moreover, the group also had to determine whether or not the residents thought this move appropriate and the political implications that it would have on the community. The first order of business for the Police Oversight Focus Group (POFG) was gathering pertinent data from community leaders and other key stakeholders. After months of political machinations and deliberations, the Police Oversight Focus Group (POFG) finally submitted its appraisal of the entire situation, unequivocally recommending oversight for all law enforcement agents in Austin. Thus, the Civilian Review Process (CRP) was birthed. However, the catch-22 lay in the fact oversight would only be implemented after contract negotiations which would ultimately include a skillfully crafted memorandum of understanding.  The lobbying of political leadership was prompted by an attempt to develop a functional language for the Civilian Review Process (CRP) without the inclusion of members from police management (DeLord & Sanders, 2006, p. 96). The development of this blueprint was shrouded in controversy especially since it did not contain police management insight.

The Austin Police Association (A.P.A), the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas (CLEAT) and the Mayor of Austin all played a significant role in making the Civilian Review Process (CRP) and ensuring that it becomes part of the negotiated contract.  The submission of the initial blueprint draft had been made as part of a broader scheme that would finally culminate in a meet-and-confer deliberation to redefine areas of concern. Firstly, The Austin Police Association (A.P.A) tasked its President with participating in all relevant discussions during the bargaining process. As a union member, President Mike Sheffield was well aware of the risk he was taking indirectly participating in talks that would eventually culminate in the adoption of a civilian review process but did so out of concern for fair participation. Together with the mayor, they agreed in advance on the most appropriate language to use in the final production. Secondly, it is also vital to acknowledge that The Austin Police Association (A.P.A), the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas (CLEAT) and the Mayor of Austin had a good working relationship (DeLord & Sanders, 2006, p. 97). They were mindful of the effects that the Civilian Review Process (CRP) would have on the City of Austin and recognized their duty to the 656,000 or so inhabitants. Additionally, they represented different spheres of life in Austin and an attempt to use this diversity as strength when seeking to come up with viable. Each team produced individuals that were uniquely qualified for the job, therefore making sure that the Civilian Review Process (CRP) becomes part of the negotiated contract.

The Austin City Council Members and Mayor received a certain degree of influence and support during their subsequent campaigns. In fact, one council member doubled up as a union member and an active Austin Police Department (APD) officer while running for office. The Austin Police Association (A.P.A) was instrumental in supporting one of their own. Financial backing was always available for such individuals to make sure that they had appropriate resources that would assure them of success in the coming elections. The Mayor, on the other hand, assured the police union of control over the language used in the Civilian Review Process (CRP) (DeLord & Sanders, 2006, p. 97). By so doing, the police union would have total control over its functioning and any future instance when collective bargaining would be required. Some of these efforts were pursued to protect individual officers from backlash in case an investigation is conducted. In my opinion, this appears unethical and corrupt.  The finances received by Austin City Council Members and Mayor would end up having a negative effect on the fidelity offices. Their financiers would now have an opportunity to wield undue influence that may affect their efficiency. Those with “special interests” would always strive to ensure that their welfare takes precedence over citizens in the State. Impact and support during their subsequent campaigns also result in corruption. Likewise, this type of assistance usually sets a lousy precedent since it can be used as a tactic by unscrupulous politicians to line their pockets and institute illegal acts.

In conclusion, civilian oversight is now part and parcel of law enforcement structure. Its main objective is to review police conduct and to ensure that their conduct is up to par. The Civilian Review Process (C.R.P) was established to conduct oversight on the Austin Police Department (APD) after the unfortunate events of February 1995. Nonetheless, its formation was characterized by labor negotiations influenced by political lobbying, the participation of the Austin Police Association (A.P.A), the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas (CLEAT) and the Mayor of Austin.  It is also important to note that the Austin City Council Members and Mayor received a certain degree of influence and support during their subsequent campaigns, which is not advisable.

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