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Austinites will decide the fate of the city's police oversight office

Police officers face a line of protesters holding signs outside police headquarters
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Protesters demand justice for George Floyd and Mike Ramos, outside Austin Police Department headquarters on May 30, 2020.

Austin voters will be asked in May whether the city's Office of Police Oversight should operate independently of the department it oversees.

Austin City Council's decision to pass the measure off to voters came after hours of debate over the petition-driven ballot measure. Council members could have just approved the move themselves.

The ordinance would remove Office of Police Oversight employees from the police department's benefit and salary system and establish it as an administrative office in the city's charter.

It would also greatly expand the investigative capacity of the office by allowing it to independently examine complaints against officers up to a year after they've been made. It would give the office greater access to internal discipline records and any footage captured by APD on bodycams or HALO cameras — a network of hundreds of high-definition cameras downtown.

The measure would set up an independent, citizen-led commission to review allegations of abuse or misconduct and suggest disciplinary action. The police chief would then either agree to the recommendation or provide an explanation as to why not.

The City Council will finalize ballot language at a later meeting.

The Office of Police Oversight has been a focus of advocates since the council voted in 2020 to retool its approach to policing. Supporters of making it independent got enough valid signatures for the ballot measure to move forward. It was up to council to decide whether to approve the measure outright or put it on the ballot.

Council nearly approved the item Thursday, but support evaporated as members suggested the move could be targeted by Republican lawmakers in the statehouse.

Ahead of the vote, District 4 Council Member Chito Vela pointed out that Gov. Greg Abbott and GOP lawmakers frequently attack Austin's progressive policies. The state passed a law banning Texas cities from reducing police budgets after Austin's decision to "reimagine" its police department in the wake of George Floyd's and Mike Ramos' deaths. Austin's decision to decriminalize sleeping outdoors was also a target of Texas lawmakers.

If City Council approved the office's restructuring, Vela said, it would likely draw scrutiny from the governor.

"We've passed things before only to see them undone," Vela said. "But the question is how do we pass things and make them endure in a situation where we are frequently locking horns with the state government over the policies that we try to implement in Austin?"

Council Member Alison Alter argued that council couldn't legally approve the petition, and that the city could well end up at the Texas Supreme Court if it did.

Shortly before the vote, Chas Moore of the Austin Justice Coalition made a final push for council to adopt the ordinance.

Moore and AJC have pushed for police accountability and reform over the past eight years. With the mayoral and five council seats up for grabs in November, Moore argued this was the "last dance" for these council members to approve a reform-minded measure. He noted they've been committed to holding APD accountable in the past.

APD has had a handful of controversies with these council members in office. Within the last two years, 19 officers were indicted for allegedly using excessive force during the 2020 protests and a top officer was accused of racism. The department's cadet training program is also being revamped following reports of a culture that embraced a "warrior" mentality.

Moore said the office's restructuring would help prevent similar scandals.

"How long will the incredibly bad guys and gals in uniform get to hide behind the good ones? At some point, we have to understand and realize we're not talking about the vast majority of good men and women that bear that uniform," he said. "That's what this has always been about."

Council voted 7-4 against the measure, with Council Members Paige Ellis, Vanessa Fuentes, Natasha Harper-Madison and Ann Kitchen voting in favor of its adoption.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at aweber@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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