AUSTIN, Texas — The Office of the Police Monitor said in most recent years, a majority of investigations conducted by the Austin Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division started because of complaints that came from within the department. Comparatively, external complaints were significantly lower.
“People either haven’t heard of the OPM, they think it’s part of the police department, or they don’t think that it’s effective, or that it does much of anything to actually hold police accountable and provide valid oversight,” said Chris Harris, data analyst and campaign coordinator for Grassroots Leadership. “Part of why we have this working group is to ensure that civilians have a place where they know they’re concerned, when they have bad interaction with police, that entity is actually going to do something about it.”
Harris is also a member of the Office of the Police Monitor oversight advisory working group. A study from OPM and the city’s Office of Design and Delivery found that are barriers to making complaints, a lack of transparency, and lack of formal guidelines when public safety departments are classifying cases.
The study features quotes from community, which state, in part: “I didn’t get a timeline or updates on the case. They just said to wait, and they would call back. I thought the Office of Police Monitor would do something to hold the officer accountable.”
Issues also include fear of retribution and logistical hurdles.
“That’s unacceptable,” Harris said. “We have to be able to complain about negative police interactions and police brutality and we have to know that that’s going to result in accountability for the officer and not retaliation for a member of our community.”
OPM is now reviewing several recommendations like changing its name to the “Independent Office of Police Accountability,” allowing people to track the status of their complaints, and streamlining the complaint process by making it available online and in person through community groups.
“Allowing it to be truly anonymous, as well as allowing people in the community to facilitate those complaints and to pass them along to the proper channels, I think are really going to ensure that one, people know that they can complain, that there are civilians that don’t work for the police, who are looking out for them, and that something will happen,” Harris said.
OPM said a research team is working on a prototype for an online complaint form and is testing it out with Austin residents to make sure it is effective. The oversight advisory working group is also developing its own recommendations and will present them at community forums later this month.