Four Austin Police officers in the news recently for improper use of Department computers received their punishment last Friday, ranging from 5 to 45 days leave without pay and in some cases a demotion.

The allegations involved looking at porn or “other inappropriate material” on the internet or through email, and that frankly sounds like something that should be punished, and harshly at that. But let’s delve a little further and take a look at the cases individually.

According to the Austin American Statesman article:

In the most serious case, Detective Troy Brown was suspended for 45 days and demoted to the rank of officer for accessing prohibited, sexually explicit Web sites and e-mail accounts with his city computer… Brown accessed the sites between November and March…

Sgt. Troy Officer received a 30-day suspension for viewing pornographic Web sites around Christmas, when Stribling said "nothing was going on at the office, he had a lot of downtime, and he ended up doing something wrong." Officer agreed to remove his name from a list of candidates to be promoted to lieutenant.

Assuming that the newspaper reports of the offenses were at least somewhat accurate, the punishment probably seems to fit the crime. But how about the other two officers?

According to Jordan Smith’s column in this week’s Austin Chronicle “Porn Punishment at APD”:

Slater… was demoted and given time off for spending nine seconds looking at a personal ad on Craigslist. Whether the ad was racy or sexually explicit is in dispute, since it’s no longer posted and the city was unable to come up with it…

The case against Hawkins is even more questionable. According to the disciplinary memo…Hawkins received a “sexually explicit email” with “pornographic images” that were sent to his work email, which Hawkins then forwarded to his personal, home email… he never looked at it at work. 

Rather, he opened it, realized what it was and immediately closed the email, sent it to his home email, and replied to the sender, saying that no emails like that should ever be sent to a city computer…The email in question did not contain anything illegal.

Slater was suspended without pay for 45 days… for 9 seconds worth of looking at an ad on Craigslist? And we don’t even know what kind of ad?

As for the last officer, I know I’ve clicked on emails and been surprised to find out what the content is. 

Yes, I use spam filtering, and yes, most of the time I can tell when an email is some form of spam, whether it’s porn, selling Viagra, hyping some bogus stock, or a letter from a former Nigerian prince who desperately needs my help to deposit $3.5 million in my bank account.

But, even spam filters and avoiding emails based on the subject line doesn’t make me immune to getting tricked. Part of the problem is that I have at times accidentally not opened legitimate emails, because my ‘personal’ spam filter overlooked it.

The overly harsh punishments meted out to the second two officers were most likely affected by the misdeeds of the first two. From a PR standpoint, APD didn’t want to look like it was allowing its employees to surf the internet for inappropriate or sexual content. So it punishes anyone and everyone who might have done ‘something wrong,’ to avoid looking like it coddles the serious offenders.

Unfortunately, this is also how our current criminal justice system works as well (this case not being criminal, of course). Legislators envision the worst possible scenario that any particular offense or crime could be, and then make that the minimum punishment…just to be sure.