There is little doubt that 2020 has brought about rapid and foundational change to the law enforcement profession. The events that have shaken the profession include horrific examples of police violence such as the murder of Freddie Gray in Minneapolis and questionable uses of deadly force across the country.
The City of Austin, TX has become one of the prime examples of the “defund the police” movement. Austin has joined cities such as Minneapolis, MN; Portland, OR; and New York City as cities that have cut significant funding from their police departments. Austin has also made the move to “civilianize” several functions formally handled by the police department. These functions include the communications center, crime lab, and internal affairs functions of the police department as well as eliminating 150 sworn positions that are currently unfilled (Venkataramanan, 2020).
There are many concerns with the shifting responsibilities enacted by the city council. Particularly, the internal affairs unit. Traditionally, internal affairs investigations involve non-criminal violations of policy and procedure, and at times criminal investigations involving police officers. The civilian administration of internal affairs is concerning to many officers for a variety of reasons. For years, Austin has had a civilian review board called “The Office of the Police Monitor” that advises the department on disciplinary matters. Under the new system, however, the entire office of Internal Affairs would shift to civilian employees. Concerns of officers include having inexperienced investigators looking into critical incidents and complaints, investigators having never been involved in critical incidents and understanding of the intricacies involved in them, and the potential for investigators to lose objectivity. Also, one of the current stated goals of the Internal Affairs Unit at the Austin Police Department is to “protect the department”. With the current political environment in Austin, it is unlikely this would remain the goal of an outside agency looking into officers. Statements made by city council members such as Gregario Cesar and Delia Garza stating they believe the Austin Police Department to be racist and ineffectively serve the citizens of Austin. This leads one to believe the new department may not have the best interest of the police department in mind when investigating incidents. This could lead to increased civil and criminal liability for the officers and the department.
Possible positives for the new department separate from the police department may include an increased likelihood of impartial investigations. This separation would ensure the potential for a “blue wall of silence” is torn down. This is a concern with residents of Austin regarding a history of police incidents such as the shooting of Michael Ramos, a Black male shot by a white police officer recently. An outside investigative unit may be less likely to maintain secrecy and more likely to keep the community involved and informed.
Austin has long been known as a progressive city with new ideas. The detachment of the internal affairs unit from the police department will undoubtedly be watched closely by other progressive cities. If successful, this type of department will likely become a trend in progressive cities nationwide. If unsuccessful, the unit would be held up by police unions and proponents as an example of over-reach by uninformed city councils. Either way, this decision will be watched and studied closely.
Vendataramanan, Meena, “Austin City Council Cuts Police Department by One-Third, Mainly Through Reorganizing Out From Law Enforcement Oversight” Texas Tribune, August 13th, 2020.
Information Obtained Online at: https://www.austintexas.gov/department/internal-affairs