Margo Frasier

Beginning next month, stops and searches performed by the Austin Police Department will be pointedly different than they have been in the past.

APD will now be required to obtain additional means of consent when performing a consensual search. Beginning next month, during all traffic, cyclist and pedestrian stops, police officers will now be required to obtain audio, video and written consent for the search after explaining that the individual has the right to decline, Austin Police Monitor Margo Frasier said. The University of Texas Police Department will not be changing its search consent policy, which only requires verbal consent.

APD decided to amend its policy following the release of two separate reports by the Austin Office of the Police Monitor, which works to inform citizens about police policies and procedures. The report demonstrated significantly higher rates of consent searches during a traffic stop for minority groups.

Frasier said the change in policy comes after discussions with city officials about increasing public trust in APD. The 2011 Police Monitor Report for the APD shows Caucasians being searched at a rate of one in 28, Hispanics at a rate of one in 10 and African Americans at a rate of one in eight.

“It was a discussion between myself and the chief about the fact that there continues to be mistrust of the police department and a lot of people questioning whether searches for minority members are out of whack with those for Caucasians,” she said. “African Americans file 37 percent of all formal complaints when they only make up 7.5 percent of the population. The question becomes ‘why?’”

Similar 2010 UTPD statistics, however, show no statistically significant disparity between the rate of consent searches across various racial groups, UTPD Captain Don Verett said.

The 2010 UTPD Demographic Report shows Caucasians and Hispanics receiving consent searches during traffic stops at a rate of one in 20 and African Americans at a rate of one in 26.

Kelechi Ibezim, biochemistry senior and president of the UT Black Health Professions Organization, said the APD statistics did not surprise her at all.

Ibezim said she thinks minority groups are often unfairly targeted by the police, and the new requirement is fair and will have a positive effect on the number of searches being done.

“I feel like by getting their consent in these ways, it will improve the situation, and I feel that it will decrease the number of minorities being searched,” she said.

Frasier said if an individual believes they are being unjustly pressured by a police officer to allow for a consent search, they should respectfully say ‘no’ to the search and ask that a supervisor be immediately called.

“I believe most issues would end there,” she said.

If an individual feels an unjust search has been performed, Frasier said he or she has the right to file a complaint with the Office of the Police Monitor and pursue civil litigation.

“My message to people is, you have the right to not subject yourself,” Frasier said.

City police monitor’s annual report finds room for improvement

The city of Austin’s Office of the Police Monitor has completed its 2010 Annual Report, which found that less experienced police officers are more likely to receive complaint calls, and that African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to have their vehicles searched by Austin police than whites.

“Our job is to watch over the complaint process and also generally to monitor the Austin Police Department to see if there are any sort of areas in which improvements can be made, and better communication between the public and the police department,” said Police Monitor Margo Frasier.

After the compiling the report, the police monitor will submit recommendations to the chief of police, city manager and the city council.

The police monitor heard 1,497 complaints in 2010; a 9-percent decrease from 2009.

The report found a greater likelihood of a complaint being filed when a less-experienced officer makes the stop.

The report found that although all ethnic groups share an equal likelihood of being stopped by police, African-Americans and Hispanics are much more likely to be searched.

While Anglos face a 1-in-19 chance of having their vehicles searched, African-Americans face a 1-in-8 chance and Hispanics face a 1-in-7 chance. Frasier said the groups more likely to be searched are not more likely to have contraband found in their vehicles.

The four finalists in the running for the city’s next police monitor all seek to administer one change if selected for office: more public outreach.

The city created the position, along with a citizen review panel, in 2002 after a recommendation from the Police Oversight Focus Group. Since its inception, the Office of the Police Monitor, which is independent from the Austin Police Department, has handled public complaints against police officers, supervised the department’s Internal Affairs unit, has overseen practices and suggested policy changes within APD.

Sixty-six people applied for the position and four moved on as finalists. The four finalists are: Cristina Beamud, executive director of Atlanta’s Citizen Review Board; Margo Frasier, senior associate of MGT of America; Ann del Llano, family law attorney and owner of Capitol City Solutions; and Renita Sanders, Austin assistant police monitor.

Sanders said some complainants reached the police monitor’s office through friends’ advice or the city’s information hotline.

“They didn’t know we were there,” she said. “Social media would probably help, but we have to share with them who we are.”

Frasier said she believes the police monitor’s office should be more user-friendly, including having more accessible hours and locations for the public.

“I’ve looked at some of the statistics,” she said. “One of my concerns is that there is a tremendous amount of people that contact the monitor’s office and don’t get past that.”

The office needs to be completely transparent, and the public should voice their concerns about police officers and APD’s policies, said Frasier.

“We need to go back and have meetings to see what appears to be working and what doesn’t, and see if there are any changes that need to take place to see if the system is unjust,” Frasier said.

The police monitor’s office has looked at individual complaints, but also policy issues, del Llano said.

“If I’m monitor, I’m going to look at more policy issues, like racial profiling and others,” she said. “The monitor’s office’s staff can look at best practices nationwide, bring them forward and later make recommendations to the chief.”

Former police monitor Cliff Brown held the office for nearly four years. Brown will resign this month and replace Judge Wilford Flowers as the judge of the 147th district court in Travis County.

City manager Marc Ott is expected to select someone for the position later this month.