You can now send complaints and thanks to the City of Austin’s Office of Police Oversight from your phone

Sarah Rigdon
Mar 27, 2019 · 7 min read

Working at the intersection of research, service design, transparency, and accessibility, the City of Austin has taken a big step toward a better relationship between its residents and the police department that serves them. A collaboration between the Office of Design Delivery and the Office of Police Oversight (formerly the Office of Police Monitor) has resulted in a new online form for resident feedback on interactions with the Austin Police Department. For the first time ever, residents can anonymously register complaints or express thanks regarding interactions with officers. Both forms are live on the Office of Police Oversight’s new website.

Image for post
Image for post
The Office of Police Oversight’s new homepage.

These digital forms are the result of extensive research, community outreach and forums, many content and design drafts, a lot of open source development, several rounds of user testing and bug squashing, and close collaboration between many stakeholders. We’ll follow up with more posts about the research and design process, so watch this space and follow us here or on Twitter.

For now, we want to share a brief overview of the research recommendations, talk about how we implemented a few of them, and of course, ask for your feedback.

The Police Oversight Advisory Working Group assembles

A year ago, Austin City Council passed Resolution 20180322–047 directing City Manager Spencer Cronk to collect police oversight best practices and report back with recommendations for improving the effectiveness, transparency, and efficiency of Austin’s police oversight system.

To achieve this goal, he created the Police Oversight Advisory Working Group and tasked the group with establishing a dialogue among stakeholders, analyzing data, conducting community outreach, evaluating best practices, and drafting recommendations. The Working Group convened 15 representatives from key City departments, the City’s Human Rights Commission, Public Safety Commission, the (former) Citizen Review Panel, the Austin Police Department, the Austin Police Association, the Austin Justice Coalition, the Greater Austin Crime Commission, ACLU, Grassroots Leadership, and other community organizations.

The work is ongoing, but the results of their initial research, along with research carried out by the Office of Design and Delivery’s Service Design Lab, formed the project’s foundation. Our team then began building accessible, easy-to-use, and safe digital forms for the public to provide feedback on their interactions with the police.

The Service Design Lab investigates

As of the summer of 2018, most complaints investigated by Internal Affairs and monitored by the Office of the Police Monitor were internal complaints. In fact, only about one-third of complaints came from the community. Why would that be? Were there barriers preventing people from initiating complaints? If there were, what were they? How could the barriers be removed to improve accountability? The Service Design Lab began a project with the Office of the Police Monitor (now the Office of Police Oversight) and the Austin Tech Alliance to understand the problem and generate possible solutions.

Image for post
Image for post
The Office of Design and Delivery Service Design Lab talks through their research.

As with all Service Design Lab projects, the team started by framing the issue with a user-focused question:

How might we help the Office of the Police Monitor make the complaint process more accessible and responsive to public needs?

In just two months, the research team created a user research plan, conducted interviews with many stakeholders, synthesized the research, identified key themes and barriers and recommended solutions to the identified barriers. (A more in-depth post about this research project is coming soon.)

Turning recommendations into improvements

As we built the complaint and thank-you forms, we focused on a few key recommendations from both the Working Group and the Service Design Lab:

  • Address the barriers to accessing the complaint process, from fear of retribution to logistical hurdles, that disproportionately affect the most vulnerable communities.
  • Maintain an accessible online intake form for complaints, compliments, and concerns, and ensure community members can interact with police oversight no matter what language they speak.
  • Ensure that individuals who wish to be informed of the status and outcome of their complaints, compliments, or concerns may receive this information.
  • Accept all complaints, compliments, and concerns whether they are sworn or anonymous (without a signed affidavit) including creating an online complaint form.

Address the barriers to accessing the complaint process, from fear of retribution to logistical hurdles, that disproportionately affect the most vulnerable communities.

A couple of our founding principles are to put residents first and prioritize equity when planning features and functionality. The main way we implemented this recommendation was to build an online form that’s easy to access on a mobile device and doesn’t overly burden residents’ data plans. We’re continuing to carry out usability tests with people who use adaptive technologies, such as screen readers, to ensure that these new forms are widely accessible.

Some of the features we were looking for had already been built with these priorities in mind at the federal level, so we called our counterparts at the United States Digital Service. Using open source code bases across government avoids duplicated effort and results in a better product. Plus, as we develop the forms and contribute to the U.S. Forms System, other governments that use the same features can benefit, too.

We also knew it would also be necessary to explain, in clear language, that the Office of Police Oversight is an independent department, separate from the police department. Toward that we spelled out how the complaint investigation process works.

Maintain an accessible online intake form for complaints, compliments, and concerns and ensure community members can interact with police oversight no matter what language they speak.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau Survey, 21.2% of the greater Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos area are Spanish speakers. The Working Group’s and our research shows that the Office of Police Oversight, and the City of Austin as a whole, could do a lot better in its communications with Austin’s Spanish speakers. Launching the form in English and Spanish at the same time was a top priority for the OPO. We relied on a local translation firm with expertise in the particular blend of Spanish most commonly used in Austin. Other languages are coming soon, including Arabic and Vietnamese. Also, when you submit a complaint to the OPO by phone or in person, interpreters are available. Just let them know which language you prefer when you call.

Ensure that individuals who wish to be informed of the status and outcome of their complaints, compliments, or concerns may receive this information.

Accept all complaints, compliments, and concerns whether they are sworn or anonymous (without a signed affidavit) including creating an online complaint form.

Implementing these recommendations meant creating a way for people to both submit a complaint anonymously and provide a way for them to check on the status of the complaint. Now, when you submit a complaint through the online form, you’ll see a confirmation number, and you can email or call the OPO with the confirmation number to ask about the status of your complaint in the investigation process. If you choose to provide an email address, you’ll receive an email confirmation the confirmation number and a copy of your complaint.

We also want to thank Communications and Technology Management’s Office of the Chief Information Security Officer, who collaborated with us to ensure the public’s information is secure when residents use the form.

Building toward shared goals

We see our ongoing collaboration with the Office of Police Oversight as a representative example of the power of iterative, human-centered design in helping the City of Austin achieve more high-priority goals.

The Office of Police Oversight has engaged in a year-long collaborative process with the local community, activists, the Austin Police Department, and the Austin Police Association. Using the resulting evidence, they have redesigned the process for complaints against and thanks to the Austin Police Department. The new process is designed to be safe, accessible, and easy for community members to provide feedback on their interaction with the police. For the first time, community members can submit anonymous complaints against the police in English and Spanish, with more languages on the way.

This is the first of many changes and policy recommendations the Office of Police Oversight is planning over the coming year to improve police accountability and to help build trust between Austin’s communities and the police.

In the online complaint form, you can drop a pin or type the address where the incident happened.

Feedback welcome

We built these forms to be an additional feedback loop between the community and the Austin Police Department, one that people can easily access, use, and trust.

Got feedback for the APD? You can now share your thanks or complaints online. (You can also share them by phone, mail, and in person at the Office of Police Oversight.) The Office of Design and Delivery welcomes your feedback, too.

We want to thank the following groups for making this possible:

  • Austin residents, especially everyone who tested the form
  • The Office of Police Oversight, directed by Farah Muscadin
  • The Police Oversight Advisory Working Group
  • City Council
  • City Manager Spencer Cronk
  • Communications and Technology Management
  • The US Digital Service Team at the VA
  • The Office of Design and Delivery: thank you, team!

civiqueso

Stories of Design, Technology, and Innovation in the civic…

Sarah Rigdon

Written by

Writer, editor, researcher, maker. https://www.sarahrigdon.com/

civiqueso

civiqueso

Stories of Design, Technology, and Innovation in the civic melting pot of Austin, Texas.

Sarah Rigdon

Written by

Writer, editor, researcher, maker. https://www.sarahrigdon.com/

civiqueso

civiqueso

Stories of Design, Technology, and Innovation in the civic melting pot of Austin, Texas.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store