Austin slowly expands police oversight powers voters passed in the spring
Months after Austinites overwhelmingly passed a sweeping measure calling for stronger police oversight, the City Council voted Thursday to set hard deadlines for staff to expand the Office of Police Oversight's power.
The resolution was approved 10 to 1, with Council Member Mackenzie Kelly voting against.
Proposition A, which was backed by the criminal justice nonprofit Equity Action, gives investigators with the civilian-led office greater access to police records, including body camera footage, and expands its role in fielding complaints and in disciplinary decision-making.
Opponents, who ran an unsuccessful campaign against the measure, say it violates state law. It’s also been slammed by the police union, which has been locked in a stalemate with the city over a labor contract for the better part of a year.
“The APA simply will not stand by while this city and anti-police activists operate with blatant disregard for state law and the rights and protections afforded to our hardworking men and women," the union said in May.
Council Member Zo Qadri, who authored the resolution, said some of Prop A can be implemented without the union's support.
“It’s important to have the trust and respect the will of the voters,” he said before the vote Thursday. “The fact that we are now in September and it hasn’t been fully implemented is a disservice. It's the right thing to do. I think we deserve a police department that is accountable and transparent.”
So, what can be implemented?
The city can implement several changes to its policies without approval from the police union.
Right now, an investigation can move forward only when a person identifies themselves and swears under oath. But Prop A requires that police oversight investigators accept and review all complaints against police and determine if a full investigation is necessary.
Qadri's resolution also called for the office to have direct and unrestricted access to information to review complaints and use-of-force incidents.
Chris Harris with Equity Action said the city was denying the civilian investigators access to information because they did not have a certain level of security awareness training and certification in the use of a federal database.
Qadri said the resolution requires staff from the Office of Police Oversight to be enrolled no later than Oct. 1 in the next available security certification course. Upon completion of that course, the city will immediately grant them unrestricted access to records.
It is unclear, however, whether the federal government will grant them access to the database because they are civilian non-sworn officers.
Harris applauded the city for moving forward, but expressed frustration with the slow rollout. He was not alone.
Daniela Silva, a resident who spoke during public comments Thursday, said the city owes it to the voters to ensure the police department is subject to strong oversight and is transparent with the community.
"Frankly, I'm frustrated that we even have to be here," she said. "I would expect the state lege not to represent me or make decisions in my best interest because that is kind of the status quo at this point, but I always thought that at least Austin would have my best interest in mind."
State law restrictions
Some parts of the ordinance that relate to police records — mainly access to an officer’s personnel files — may be prohibited by state rules and are unlikely to be agreed upon by the police union.
Qadri assured residents Thursday that the city's implementation of policies related to training, investigations and reporting by the Office of Police Oversight were legal.
Additionally, a new opinion from the Attorney General's Office that came out late Thursday could allow the city to implement more aspects of Prop A.
"There is some need for clarity and we will obtain that clarity, and soon," Mayor Kirk Watson said. "I believe the council will bring back another resolution once we have clarity on that [attorney general] opinion that allows the city to do more than was anticipated when we started today. ... We hope to be and want to be in compliance with Prop A as much as possible."
From April 1 to Aug. 31, the Office of Police Oversight received 275 complaints about the Austin Police Department. Fifty-six were recommended for a full investigation, 46 were of concern to the community but did not violate policy, and 86 rose to the level of notifying a supervisor, who would then call the complainant. The remaining complaints are either pending, about other law enforcement agencies or departments that are not applicable to the oversight office, or awaiting response from the complainant.