Archive for the ‘Austin’ Category

Hookers and blow watch.

Saturday, May 13th, 2017

I swear that I wrote about the “resignation” of Don Pitts as the city of Austin’s “music manager” ($97,000 a year) back in February when it happened. But I can’t find that blog entry now, and even search engines don’t help.

Anyway, Mr. Pitts resigned after a city audit turned up the fact that one of his employees had submitted a fake invoice so she could get reimbursed for what was represented as a “zero-cost” “2014 work trip to Europe to promote Austin’s music scene”.

There’s a little more to the story than that, however. The employee claims that Mr. Pitts told her to submit the trip as “zero-cost” so the approval would go through, and told her to submit the fake invoice so she could get reimbursed. Mr. Pitts denies that he told her to submit the fake invoice, but he admitted that he didn’t tell anyone about the fake invoice when he found out about it: that’s what led to his forced resignation, apparently.

And meanwhile, the city filed an ethics complaint against the also now-ex employee.

That complaint was dismissed Wednesday evening.

A divided and half-present Ethics Review Commission cleared [the employee] of wrongdoing Wednesday night after failing to reach consensus on whether she or Pitts was primarily responsible for the scheme.

Because only six of the ethics board’s 11 members were present, they needed a unanimous vote to find that [the employee] abused her position and violated city policies. Four members were inclined to give her a pass in light of testimony that Pitts was at least aware, if not the architect, of the attempts to pay [the employee] under the table.

It seems odd that almost half of them didn’t even bother to show up.

Also worth noting: the employee in question made other complaints about Pitts.

…a Human Resources Department investigation into a dozen of [the employee]’s claims, which found three violations by Pitts of employee conduct policies. Records show he sent staff a copy of a resignation letter from a former job in an effort to motivate, but it came across as threatening, and he said he wouldn’t hire a temporary employee who complained that [the employee] was mistreated in the department.

Not sure how saying “I’m not going to hire a temp” is a violation of HR policy, but okay. Nut:

A third violation involved using the slang term “hookers and blow,” which Pitts said was common in the music industry when referring to excess, but human resources investigators deemed inappropriate. Investigators also found Pitts had called [the employee]’s mother to try to talk about her performance at work, though they didn’t consider that a violation of city policies.

So you can’t say “hookers and blow” at work. But you can call someone’s mother to talk about their work performance. Good. To. Know.

Remind me again: why does this office exist?

Bad cop! No paycheck!

Tuesday, May 9th, 2017

Officer Carlos Mayfield of the Austin Police Department was “indefinitely suspended” (read: fired) on Friday.

What did he do? He accessed a police report about a sexual assault case, one he wasn’t assigned to.

Then he shared the information in that report with his ex-girlfriend and her son: the son was the person accused in the case.

Detectives interviewed the suspect after he had gotten details of the report, the memo says. Investigators didn’t know he had this information at the time.
Mayfield acknowledged that this compromised the case, the memo says.
Travis County prosecutors ultimately decided not to prosecute “the compromised sexual assault case,” the memo says. However, they authorized the Sex Crimes Unit to file assault with injury charges against the suspect.

Not mentioned in the Statesman article: the ex-girlfriend was also a convicted felon, and “consorting” with convicted felons is a pretty serious violation of APD policy. (Sharing the report information wasn’t just a violation of policy: it was “misuse of official information”, a third-degree felony.) Former officer Mayfield also admitted that he had looked up other reports for the ex-girlfriend in the past.

Chief’s disciplinary memo here.

No word yet on whether former officer Mayfield will actually be prosecuted for the felony, but I have high hopes.

Memo from the DA’s office.

Wednesday, April 12th, 2017

For a long time now, the policy of the Travis County DA’s office has been to present all cases involving police shootings to a grand jury for review, no matter what the circumstances where.

That was the case, for instance, for Austin police officer Carlos Lopez, who a grand jury no-billed 11 months after he shot and killed a gunman who was randomly shooting inside the downtown Omni hotel. The gunman had already shot and killed taxi driver Conrado Contreras by the time Lopez arrived.
It also happened with Austin police Sgt. Adam Johnson, who a grand jury declined to indict in 2015 for shooting and killing a man in downtown Austin who was standing in the middle of Eighth Street firing a rifle at police headquarters, and had already sprayed several government buildings with gunfire.

Not any more. The new Travis County DA, Margaret Moore, has decided that her office is going to review officer-involved shootings, and only present the ones that they feel require review to a grand jury.

She will only take cases to grand jurors if she thinks the shooting was unlawful or if facts about what happened are in dispute.
Unlike predecessors, who have viewed grand juries as independent reviewers best equipped to determine whether to indict an officer, Moore said she also will issue an opinion, with help from the new Civil Rights Division she has established, and provide a recommendation “as to the legal sufficiency of a case.”

Bad idea, as I see it.

There are a lot of problems with the criminal justice system, including grand juries. Jurors sometimes aren’t much more than rubber stamps for the DA’s office. But at least they are independant. At least grand juries offer some kind of outside review, flawed though it may be. This is going to backfire badly on DA Moore the first time a shooting that didn’t get reviewed blows up.

I’m baffled by the NAACP’s support for this: you would think they’d want the additional scrutiny, but perhaps the DA was persuasive. The support of the police union makes a little more sense:

Moore said those cases often have taken months to present to a grand jury because of workload and a backlog of other cases, leaving officers in limbo and sometimes preventing police officials from closing administrative investigations.

The people who have spoken to our CPA classes and that have been involved in shootings have said that there is some stress involved in waiting on the grand jury verdict. But they downplayed that specific part of it. Yes, the aftermath is highly stressful (and the department has good programs in place to deal with it). But it seemed to me that they felt the grand jury verdict was just the end: by the time that came in, they’d already been cleared by Internal Affairs and the Special Investgaions Division, and had usually moved on to other assignments.

(I can’t recall a case in…well, ever, where APD ruled a shooting okay and a grand jury indicted. Maybe the Kleinert case mentioned in the article, but I’m not clear on what action APD took in that case. In the most recent case that I know of where there was any controversy – the naked 17-year-old – the grand jury no-billed but APD fired the officer anyway.)

Administrative note.

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

My birthday is coming up soon. As always, I do not expect any of my loyal readers to get me presents.

However, if someone felt inclined: please do not buy this book for me. Thank you.

(Seriously. I have nothing against Jesse Sublett: he seems like a pretty cool guy. But I don’t care much for the food at either Threadgill’s location. And one of the worst aspects of Austin culture is the incessant nostalgia: or, as Lawrence likes to put it, “the burned-out old hippies who constantly talk about how they went to the Armadillo, dropped acid, and saw Shiva’s Headband.” Said it before, I’ll say it again: if the Austin Chronicle and other people had their way, this town would be a 1970s music theme park.)

Bagatelle (#4).

Wednesday, March 29th, 2017

If you told me I could only take one Talking Heads album to the desert island with me…it would be Stop Making Sense.

If, however, you said that it had to be a studio album, Remain In Light would be a good choice.

The thing that sort of surprises me is: he was able to hit 92 on MoPac. Then again, I can’t really tell what time of day it was, and traffic does thin out a little around the Braker Lane exit…

Apropos of nothing in particular, this post from Tam, in particular the last paragraph.

Memo from the police beat.

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

The past few days have been busy ones for law enforcement in and around Austin, and not just because of South By So What. Here’s a quick survey of some things that I’ve found interesting.

There’s a new plan for the APD DNA lab: get Texas DPS to run it.

Under a proposed contract, the city of Austin will pay the Texas Department of Public Safety $800,000 a year to manage all aspects of the lab, including procedures for analyzing forensic evidence and the oversight of employees hired by the DPS to work there.
The newly named Department of Public Safety Capital Area Regional Lab will focus exclusively on Austin police cases, Assistant Police Chief Troy Gay said.

I suppose this is better than nothing, or the current state of affairs. And $800,000 sounds like a reasonable amount of money if the new management from DPS is going to fix all the problems and claw through the backlog. But I still think we’d be better off with an independent lab like Houston’s, or making the existing lab am arm of the courts.

Speaking of the DNA lab, here’s a story I haven’t seen reported anywhere else:

In the first legislation of its kind, the lawmaker, State Representative Victoria Neave, a Democrat from Dallas, introduced the bill in February to solicit donations of $1 or more from people when they renew or apply for driver’s licenses. The money would underwrite a grant for the Department of Public Safety to test what are commonly called “rape kits,” which consist of evidence samples including hair, semen, fabric fibers and skin cells.

(Note that the paper of record characterizes this as “crowdfunding”, which I find a bit misleading.)

If adopted, it could generate an estimated $1 million a year, based on similar donations collected for veterans from driver’s license applications, according to a legislative budget document. When administrative costs are deducted, that would leave more than $800,000 every fiscal year that local governments could tap to push through testing of evidence collected from the victims of sexual assault during a physical examination that can take four to six hours.

Where have I heard $800,000 recently? Oh, yeah.

The donations are intended to supplement rather than replace a budget for the testing, which can cost $1,000 to $1,500 for each kit. The Legislature, which is now in budget talks, is also considering allocating $4 million to fund the process, said Rebecca Acuna, Ms. Neave’s chief of staff.

You know what I’d really like to see? A breakdown of where that “$1,000 to $1,500 for each kit” goes. I’m not against rape kit testing – quite the opposite – but I’m curious why it costs that much. I’m also curious if this cost has increased or decreased over time, with improved technology. And are there possibly better, faster, and cheaper ways of testing rape kits without sacrificing accuracy?

Two people shot and killed last night, and a third airlifted with “critical, life-threatening” injuries.

If you look at the Stateman‘s handy Google map, you’ll see this took place not terribly far from the Lake Travis High School/Education Center complex. My mother and I were down there last night with a bunch of other people….attending the Lakeway Police Department’s Citzens Police Academy class. As a matter of fact, right around the time of the shooting, we were out in the parking lot looking at the Lakeway PD patrol cars (Chevy Tahoes. This led someone to ask, “Why the switch to SUVs?” I suspect most of my readers know the answer already, but in case you don’t: “Because Ford stopped making the Crown Vic, the greatest patrol car ever given to us by God.”) and the Lakeway PD police motorcycles (Harley Davidsons). I don’t recall hearing any shots or even the Starflight helicopter.

Even better, we had just finished listening to a presentation from one of the people who does the Lakeway PD statistical analysis about how safe Lakeway was, how many calls for service/stops/arrests there were year to year, and what the major categories were. “Homicide” didn’t even register. (Technically, it’s probably still true that Lakeway is relatively safe, even though the shooter is at large: I believe the shooting happened near, but outside of, the Lakeway city limits, so it would be chalked up as “unincorporated Travis County”.)

The first we knew about it was when we were breaking up for the night: the second in command of the department (who also runs the classes, and who usually jokes around a lot) came in and said “I want everyone to listen to me very closely. Two people have been shot near here and the shooter is still at large. We are going to walk everyone to the parking lot and make sure you all get into your cars safely. I need for you to leave the area as quickly as you possibly can.” That will put some spring in your step.

Reports are that this was “an isolated incident”, possibly a “disgruntled contractor” who shot these people because he didn’t get paid. Which is just stupid: if you shoot people, they can’t pay you.

And speaking of the Lakeway CPA, for reasons: a interesting and contrarian point of view from Grits For Breakfast in opposition to a statewide ban on “texting and driving”.

Memo from the police beat.

Thursday, February 23rd, 2017

A quick roundup of some police related news, mostly for RoadRich, but perhaps of interest to my regular readers.

APD’s latest officer-involved shooting. There don’t seem to be any updates since late last night, but so far this is sounding like just another sad story: police responded to a call in South Austin, a woman in her 20s fled, tried to run over offices, crashed, exited her vehicle and brandished a knife at one of the responding officers, and…

By way of Hognose over at Weaponsman: the chief of the Punta Gorda, Florida police department has been charged with “culpable negligence” and one of his officers has been charged with felony manslaughter. This is related to the citizen’s police academy shooting that I’ve discussed previously in this space.

(Interesting note: my mother and I started the Lakeway Citizen’s Police Academy last night. The officer who was teaching last night (also the second-in-command of the Lakeway PD) mentioned the Punta Gorda incident in the context of “things we won’t be doing in this class”.)

(I might discuss the Lakeway CPA in more detail at some point down the road. My initial impression is that there are a lot of differences between it and the Austin CPA; some of those are probably do to the relative size of the departments, the available resources, and the length of time the programs have been in operation. My class is the 14th for the Lakeway CPA: my Austin CPA class was the 87th, and I’m currently helping out with the 91st class.)

The city of Cleveland has agreed to pay more than $13.2 million to settle lawsuits involving police misconduct since the November 2014 death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, an officer-shooting death that came at a time when the public started scrutinizing police actions.

(Hattip: Tim Cushing.)

I wish there was more context in this article. $13.2 million over 26 months sounds like a lot of money, but how does this compare to other cities over the same time frame? How much have cities like Chicago, New York, and Austin paid out over the same period? How does this break down on a per capita or per officer basis?

(Wikipedia estimates the current population of Cleveland at just under 400,000. Let’s take that as a base number. That’s $33 per citizen. “More than 1,600” people are on the police force: just for grins, let’s round up to 1,700. That’s $7,764.70 per employee, which would include both sworn and non-sworn.)

(The population of Austin was about 931,000 in 2016, and there’s about 1,800 people on the APD staff, both sworn and non-sworn. It’s interesting that the Cleveland PD has somewhere between 100 and 200 fewer officers for a city with less than half the population and a third of the area. But I digress. Unfortunately, I don’t have a figure for settlements paid out by the city since November 2014. But I will note, since I haven’t previously: last week, the city agreed to pay $3.25 million to the family of the naked 17-year-old shot by an APD officer.)

You’re going down in flames, you tax-fattened hyena! (#35 in a series)

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

Lawrence beat me to it, but only because I have to wait until my lunch hour to blog.

According to “a person with knowledge of the case”, state representative Dawnna Dukes has been indicted by a grand jury.

Dukes, an Austin Democrat, faces two misdemeanor counts of abuse of official capacity and 13 felony counts of tampering with public records, said the person, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

She could get 28 years in prison, but we all know there’s no way in heck she’s going to get that much of a sentence if she is convicted. (I know, these are state, not federal, charges, but Ken’s principle still applies.)

You may remember Rep. Dukes was playing “Let’s Make a Deal” with DA Lehmburg late last year. Ms. Dukes decided she wasn’t going to resign after all because “the people” wanted her to stay (in spite of her poor attendance record).

Politics.

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

I’m working on getting the lists updated, but I’m a little frustrated.

If you go to the city’s list of council members, they’re all there.

But if you click on Alison Alter or Jimmy Flannigan, you still get the information for Ann Kitchen and Don Zimmerman. I’m doubtful the street addresses and PO boxes have changed, but I can’t be sure of that, so I’ve struck through those temporarily.

The “contact council member” pages for the two new members do look like they’ve sort of been updated, in that the links now show “Send Email to District (X)”. The pages for the other council members still show ‘Send Email to (Council Member Name Here) District (X) Council Member”.

So I’m not just being a lazy, shiftless blogger. I am working on these pages, but I’m in “waiting on the city council and the webmaster” mode right now.

(I probably need to work on the county commissioners and the legislators, too. I’m hopeful I can get that done this weekend.)

Not sure I agree 100% with your police work there, Lou.

Monday, January 9th, 2017

One thing the Citizen’s Police Academy “suggests” is that you should reserve judgement on incidents involving the police – if not until all the facts are in, at least until we’re past the initial reports stage.

With that said, this doesn’t look good.

Yesterday, the APD arrested a man at one of our local malls. He was charged with shoplifting, but APD couldn’t determine his identity and suspected he had open felony warrants. So they loaded him into the back of a squad car and headed downtown for fingerprints.

On the way, the handcuffed gentleman told the officer he was feeling suicidal. The officer asked him if he had the means to kill himself…

…whereupon the gentleman in question pulled a gun out of his waistband and, after a brief standoff, shot himself in the head.

The obvious question is: how did police not find the gun?

An Austin police officer did not conduct a thorough pat-down of a man who shot himself Sunday in the back of a police car because the man already had been handcuffed by mall security, a preliminary investigation of the incident has found.

Other than the obvious lesson about assumptions getting you killed, I’m also wondering: how big was the gun? If it was a full-sized 1911, that’s one thing: Ray Charles probably wouldn’t have missed that. Then again, if it was a full-size 1911, the guy would probably be dead, instead of critical. If it was something like a NAA .22, or possibly even a Ruger LCP, missing it is a little more understandable to me.

APD. DNA. FUBAR.

Friday, December 16th, 2016

The Austin Police Department has abandoned plans to reopen the DNA and forensic serology labs.

“We have failed in the area that is under question now with some of our DNA operations and some of the issues that came forward through the Forensic Science Commission audit,” [Police Chief Brian] Manley said. “For that I take responsibility and I am working with a team of leaders to push this forward so that our community has a system that works for them.”

Props to Chief Blast HardCheese for stepping up and taking responsibilty. But:

Since the DNA began operating in 2004, it has passed 17 audits and held national accreditation by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors.

Question number 1: how did the lab manage to pass 17 audits and get accreditation if it’s been badly run since the beginning?

Question number 1a: did the problems just start recently? If so, how and why?

Question numero dos: The lab opened in 2004. Chief HardCheese has been chief for about two weeks now: before that, he was an assistant chief, and I’m not sure how much day to day input he had into lab operations.

You know who did have a lot of input into lab operations? You know who was the HMFWIC when things went to hell in a handbasket? Yes, you do know, don’t you?

By the way, that’s not the only lab news today. The guy that was hired to run the lab? He’s no longer running the lab. And not just because the lab isn’t reopening:

Milne was hired to be Austin police’s chief forensic officer and earned $111,384 a year, police officials said. Manley said he has heard concerns from within the criminal justice community about Milne’s background and qualifications. Manley said he pulled Milne’s academic transcripts, which led him to conclude that Milne did not have adequate qualifications to run the functions of the lab.
“This individual has been removed from his role overseeing any functions at the lab and he is not associated with the lab at this time,” Manley said. “His future at this point is something we are working on determining how we will work through that.”

Perhaps I am a little biased here, but I’m starting to like Chief HardCheese more. I actually heard him speak last night, and he’s a pretty good speaker. He hasn’t done anything to irritate me yet. He hasn’t made any stupid public statements on guns. He’s a St. Ed’s graduate. (Hilltoppers represent!) And he actually seems to be making efforts to clean up this mess.

Lab watch.

Tuesday, December 13th, 2016

Lawrence forwarded a story from “Community Impact”, one of those free neighborhood papers, that I thought was worthy of note.

The gist of it is that the Capital Area Private Defender Service (CAPDS from this point forward because I don’t want to keep typing that) is willing to get involved with fixing the DNA testing issues in the APD forensics lab.

CAPDS is proposing a 5-year process to review the city’s DNA cases to determine how what happened with the lab will affect past and pending court cases, and to look forward at best practices for DNA testing, Strassburger said.

Well, that sounds great. But what do they need? Money. And what does Travis County not have a whole lot of? Money.

[county judge Sarah] Eckhardt said she has asked the city to take $1.4 million identified in the city’s budget process for additional personnel in the DNA lab and apply it toward these efforts.

Meanwhile, the Statesman is saying that fixing the DNA lab problems could cost…well…

According to records obtained by the Statesman, models for such reviews involve varying levels of expert input and use of appellate attorneys. The most expensive carries a $14.4 million estimated price tag while the least expensive is about $6 million.

More:

According to the organization, county officials could assign an attorney to each case that used DNA evidence analyzed by the lab to review it and “file appropriate motions” for a minimum cost of $13.2 million. Or it could choose a more expensive option in which attorneys would do a deeper review of cases using two attorneys from the outset to learn which might have potential issues — for $14.4 million.
The last option — at a cost of $6 million — would involve the county or city hiring new lawyers to handle the cases instead of using outside attorneys.

Oh, by the way, this doesn’t include the costs associated with actually getting the lab up and running again.

And, in an also related story: after the lab was closed, the APD asked the Texas DPS crime lab to do retraining of some of the DNA analysts.

But Monday, DPS officials told the department they had lost faith in most of the staffers they were working with — and wouldn’t be returning.
Instead, according to a one-page letter obtained by the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV, only a select two from a staff of six DNA analysts are invited to a state facility to continue training in a “supportive environment.”

More:

In a letter to the Travis County district attorney’s office, Brady Mills, deputy assistant director of the DPS crime lab, wrote that the last four months of working together have shown that “there are significant challenges that impact confidence in the work product” of some of the lab’s DNA analysts.
“This has been demonstrated through our personal interactions with the group as well as the practical work product that has been completed and reviewed thus far,” Mills wrote. “Coupled with the expressed belief by your office that those senior analysts may no longer be utilized for expert testimony, APD and DPS plan to move forward with a new course of action.”

The position of DNA analyst (which requires a bachelor’s degree) in the APD lab starts at $23.44 an hour. I believe when I started doing enterprise tech support at Dell, I was making $22 an hour and that was in 2006: I would expect that by now, Dell’s paying closer to $23.44, if not more, and I also suspect enterprise tech support is easier than DNA analysis.

I want to be very very careful with what I say here. I don’t want to seem like I’m sneering at anyone. I couldn’t do this work, and I believe the people who do are motivated by things other than pay. But when DPS says 2/3rds of the people sent over for retraining, can’t be retrained? Is the DPS training that much more demanding than APD’s? Is there something else going on here? Or is the simple explanation also the correct one: APD’s been hiring people who are wrong for the job, and it finally caught up with them?