Austin's Police Oversight Office slammed by officer union for abusing investigative authority

Ryan Autullo
Austin American-Statesman

A hearing examiner says Austin's Office of Police Oversight overstepped its authority by, among other things, improperly conducting investigations into officer misconduct and dictating the questions that could be asked of witnesses during interviews to assess whether an officer had acted inappropriately.

The ruling, announced this week after a three-day hearing in late July, ended a dispute the city and the Austin Police Association labor union could not resolve on their own about setting boundaries for the tax-funded oversight office.

The hearing was held at the city's Learning and Research Center and included testimony from nine witnesses. The arbitrator was Lynne M. Gomez, a lawyer from Houston who has been licensed to practice law in Texas since 1977.

"In the end, we can't blame all of this on the Office of Police Oversight because upper-level management at APD was allowing it," Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday said.

"We believe this is a landmark case that we've been waiting for over a year to get resolved," union President Ken Casady said. "In the end, we can't blame all of this on the Office of Police Oversight because upper-level management at APD was allowing it. However, we have a new chief and a new chief of staff that expect high standards from the officers and high standards for the Office of Police Oversight."

The city did not respond to a request to interview Police Oversight Director Farah Muscadin and City Manager Spencer Cronk.

Officials issued a statement that they have received the decision and are reviewing it.

"The city is committed to a strong system of civilian police oversight and is evaluating all options as it moves forward," the statement read.

City Manager Spencer Cronk

The ruling appears to weaken the oversight office and its director, Muscadin, raising questions about how much authority remains for the office to scrutinize officers for alleged misconduct. It might also affect discussions as the city prepares to negotiate a new contract with the police association in 2022.

The Office of Police Oversight, which was the Office of the Police Monitor before a 2018 name change, accepts complaints made against officers and reviews the complaints for possible referral to the Police Department's internal affairs division. The purpose of the office — which comprises Muscadin and roughly 12 other civilian employees — is to hold the Police Department accountable and protect the rights of officers by providing an independent review of the department's policies and procedures.

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The ruling directed the city to cease and desist from further violations.

In siding with the police union, Gomez noted several instances in which Muscadin and her office violated the terms of the agreement the city reached with the police union in 2018. They include going beyond an initial review of a complaint by collecting evidence and requiring internal affairs sergeants to forward prepared interview questions 72 hours in advance of an interview with an officer.

During testimony at the hearing, Lt. Sheldon Scott Askew accused the oversight office of improperly interviewing witnesses by demanding and requiring that certain questions be asked.

The labor union contract says the oversight office can recommend questions to be asked during a break in questioning but that investigators are under no obligation to ask them.

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For the most part, the city agreed the incidents alleged by the police association did occur, but contended through its lawyers that they were not beyond the limits of the agreement and were necessary to ensure transparency.

Muscadin also was found to have violated the agreement when she challenged a decision to not discipline a certain officer at the completion of an investigation. Muscadin, the hearing officer determined, can inquire about the status of an investigation, but went too far by objecting to the outcome.

Farah Muscadin is the director of the Austin Office of Police Oversight.

The ruling was critical not only of her but also of her boss, Cronk, who Gomez said ignored the contract by issuing a memo that gave the oversight office power beyond what had been agreed upon.

The memo was issued two weeks prior to the agreement's effective date on Nov. 15, 2018.

"The city manager knew, or should have known, that the subsequent agreement ... would control," or override the conflicting memo, Gomez wrote.