Austin police change discipline policy

AUSTIN — There has been a major shift in how Austin Police Department holds officers accountable after being accused of wrongdoing.

In the past, officers who broke the rules got unpaid suspensions. In many instances now, that won’t happen as part of this change, but even a frequent police critic says it is a win for the public.

A car crash led to an officer’s three-day unpaid suspension in 2013, his rule violations outlined in a publicly available disciplinary memo. But under a new policy that took effect Wednesday, that suspension would no longer happen. Instead, officers who commit low-level violations would now face special training to correct their behavior.

That shift affects only minor offenses like accidental gun discharges or some instances of neglect of duty that otherwise would have led to a five-day suspension or less. Officers will still face suspensions for more serious misconduct.

It’s a major shift in how Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo handles officer discipline, one he says the public should embrace.

“It’s a win because we get to take corrective action. It’s a win because the officers, the vast of whom never get in trouble, don’t have to pick up the slack and most importantly, it’s a win for the taxpayer who doesn’t lose productivity in terms of that officer being on patrol,” Acevedo said. “Rather than be suspended, they can go through the training, and if they keep their nose clean, eventually it will come off their record,” said Austin Police Chief Acevedo.

The change comes with a trade-off. In the past, when the chief suspended an officer, the media and thus the public learned about it from disciplinary memos that describe the officer’s conduct. Now, when an officer is routed for a training program, the department won’t release those documents, so the public won’t know the specifics of their infraction.

Margo Frasier, Austin’s police monitor, initially had concerns about transparency but believes the change will highlight cases when officers are found to have committed more serious violations.

“I think it will allow the actual suspensions for more egregious conduct, I think they’ll receive more attention,” Frasier said.

Police union president Ken Casaday said the union approached the chief about making the change months ago.

“Officers are not going to go home bitter after being suspended for minor violations, and the public should be interested because it’s going to be more training for officers,” Casaday said.

Officials say more training for officers is aimed at correcting behavior, not just punishing them for it.

Acevedo said several other big city departments across Texas have a similar practice, as do other departments nationally.

Acevedo said he doesn’t know how much this training would cost.

The training would also take an officer off the street, but for less time than serving a suspension.