Austin: Police Ignored Oversight Board, Use-of-Force Complaints from May Uprisings

By Michael Nolan

On Monday, it was revealed that 202 unique external use-of-force complaints against Austin Police Department (APD) during the May Uprisings last year were largely dismissed without investigation. During the massive, combative protests that occurred on May 30-31, APD beat, teargassed, and shot rubber bullets indiscriminately at protesters. APD’s brutality sent at least 19 protesters to Dell Medical Center, and in the most severe cases, 20-year-old Justin Howell and 16-year-old Brad Ayala suffered permanent brain damage.

The news that APD obstructed the complaint investigations was released by the Office of Police Oversight (OPO), a city government agency, in a report presented to Austin City Council this past week. Over a year ago, on August 12 of 2020, OPO issued a memo to Police Chief Brian Manley strongly objecting to the same tactics of disqualifying complaints on the part of APD.

OPO, while meant to be an independent monitor, serves as little more than a means to give the appearance of accountability to the police. OPO is an agency of the state with zero authority over APD that isn’t granted by the police union’s contract with the city. Through negotiations in 2019, the police union allowed OPO to set up a webpage to receive anonymous complaints.

APD dismissed complaints without investigation if the complaint did not identify the officer, though officers are not required to wear identifying information while in protest gear. These complaints were dismissed even when the complaint contained enough information for APD to identify the officer through investigation.

Many complaints were dismissed after ‘internal reviews’ or ‘initial assessments’ that do not meet the level of thoroughness required by APD’s own policies. Another cause for disqualifying complaints was because the complainant was engaged in ‘riotous behavior’. Only 27 of the 202 unique complaints were investigated.

APD claims to have disciplined 11 officers for actions against protesters during the May Uprisings, but has not publicly disclosed what actions were taken or against whom. Farah Muscadin, director of OPO, told City Council she understood that 10 of the 11 disciplinary actions ranged from ‘education’ to a verbal reprimand.

One such disciplined officer is likely Nicholas Gebhart, who fired a ‘less lethal’ round into the skull of teenage bystander Brad Ayala. Gebhart, also involved in the 2018 murder of Thomas Alvarez, is one of five officers placed on paid administrative leave in June 2020 in response to their use of ‘less lethal’ rounds on protesters. None of these officers have been arrested, though they are listed as cases to be heard by a Grand Jury this fall.

While APD has done nearly nothing to address blatant and documented crimes of its own officers against protesters, APD filed hundreds of charges against protesters during the uprisings, the vast majority of which were dropped for lack of evidence and the clear fraudulence of the charges.

OPO is able to file complaints with APD, report on their status, and make recommendations to the City Council, but is ultimately toothless when it comes to imposing anything on the Austin Police that the police union objects to. The imperialist state and its machinery, whether OPO or City Council, will never fundamentally change the nature of its policing, which exists to preserve the system of private property and oppression against the people.

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